By Meredith Davidson
As June progresses, the heat of summer begins to mix with dry air and evokes a level of angst that New Mexicans have come to know well in recent years; it’s a feeling that wildfires could erupt in our mountains at any moment. William deBuys, an author and conservationist, originally explored the natural and cultural history of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountain range in his 1985 publication, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range. This landscape, as he illustrates in the book, has seen more than a few great fires through time. DeBuys revised his text and expanded the original version. The newest edition, published in 2015, will be the focus of his conversation-style presentation at the School for Advanced Research on July 18. SAR’s new initiative, the Creative Thought Forum, is in its second year of public lectures and smaller gatherings that feature exciting and inventive thinkers. Climate change topics have been one focus of the series this season. Speakers over the spring and summer included Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, among others. The 2017-2018 Creative Thought Forum culminates this summer with two salons with deBuys and author Dan Flores.
Michael F. Brown, SAR president notes, “The salons of SAR’s Creative Thought Forum are an effort to promote lively face-to-face discussions with important writers and scholars. Many of these events address issues of broad public concern, a goal consistent with SAR’s 111-year-old commitment to offering Santa Fe access to the best in contemporary social thought and artistic creativity.” Limited to 25 people, each salon invites participants to take part in a meaningful conversation with the speaker and provides an opportunity for deeper discussion on existing assumptions and evolving perspectives.
In deBuys’ expanded edition of Enchantment and Exploitation, he suggests that, like canaries in a coal mine, we southwesterners are already feeling what can be seen as climate change impacts as we witness the rise of wildfires and other ecological changes. His expanded chapters cite results of recent studies that read more like primetime news updates than a list of potential futures. “The region will get drier. Winter precipitation is considered likely to decrease as storm tracks move farther north… Extreme weather events, including downpours, floods and violent winds, will probably become more extreme and more frequent.” When asked about these factors and what individuals can do to combat this current state, deBuys suggests that environmental questions need to be addressed at the policy level rather than an individual one. “We are at a point where lifestyle changes really don’t matter—if you go out and buy a Prius or ride your bike, it’s not enough. The economy and political system have to adapt to the changes needed.” This change, he believes, will require a whole shift in the greater cultural mindset and will demand voters who put environmental policy high enough in their political priorities to make a difference.
For deBuys’ July salon, he plans to frame for participants how the lands around us have changed and how these changes could impact our region in the foreseeable future. But this won’t be a traditional lecture. The goal of the salons is to get into deeper conversations. “I would like to learn from the participants,” he explains. “And, I hope that with a group of this scale that there could be real opportunity for creative energy and the chance to kick around some ideas that help us get to issues in these under-discussed elements related to landscape change and the recent era of unhappiness we are currently entering.” When news coverage seems to give more time to ill-informed talking heads than to established scholars, these salon conversations introduce a refreshing opportunity for community members to explore relevant contemporary issues together.
On June 27, SAR will host author Dan Flores for a similar salon. The talk, based on research for Flores’ 2016 publication, Coyote America: A Natural & Supernatural History, will invite attendees to explore the history of coyotes, their cultural symbolism, their cunning evolutionary tactics, and our own complex relationship with them.
Flores is originally from Louisiana and as a young man saw his first coyote in his home state. The early sighting sparked a life-long interest in the animal. After a road trip through the Southwest he, like so many others, felt the draw of the open skies and complex cultural history of New Mexico. Now he lives in the Galisteo area and knows the recognizable howl of coyotes well as they frequently pass through his neighborhood, calling out what he has deemed North America’s original national anthem as they go. It is a familiar yip, a signal announcing the proximity of this playful and often misunderstood animal. Some may cherish that sound, but as Flores notes in his book, “Coyotes may now have more fans in the United States (and, as an iconic American animal, around the world) than ever before, but in contemporary America, coyotes still do one thing more than anything else: die, at a rate unmatched by any other large animal. Other than a federal poison ban riddled with loopholes and a handful of state restrictions against leghold traps and coyote-hunting contests, coyotes enjoy no governmental protection against being killed. The best guess is that altogether we kill about 500,000 of them a year.”
Flores will guide the salon participants through a journey of sharing coyote stories. “Everyone has one,” he explains, and as he concludes in Coyote America, “We ought to value the coyotes trotting through our yards for the avatar stand-in role they play for us. Humanity faces what from all best indications looks to be a noir future, a daunting challenge, environmentally and ecologically. Coyotes have already experienced at least two similarly epic climate swings; one the demise of deep cold and wet, the other a peak of hot and dry. Many, many other creatures did not survive those. Coyotes did, and they originally attracted our attention because of it. They have also survived our own attempt to wipe them off the planet, and we were pretty dedicated to that. As our future unreels, I for one am going to be watching coyotes very closely to see just what they do.”
Both scholars in this summer’s salon series at the School for Advanced Research ask how cultures, animals and our terrain have evolved over many millennia and what role policy has played in shaping our views of these topics across the most recent century. With this perspective each provides a framework that can be used to ask what it means to be an engaged citizen today and how our own history can inform how we imagine the future.
To RSVP for these SAR events, call 505.954.7231 or email email@example.com
Meredith Davidson is director of Public Programs and Communications at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. Prior to joining SAR, she served as curator of 19th- and 20th–century Southwest collections at the New Mexico History Museum.