We waited for a night when the moon was obscured by clouds. It sounded like a silly plan here in the heart of the Arizona desert, where Oregonians stream each year to worship the unrelenting sun.
But the wait was only two days. Then the sky clouded up, just as the Apaches predicted. These weren’t rain clouds, just a smoke-blue skein, thin as morning fog, but dense enough to dull the moonlight and shield our passage across forbidden ground.
We were going to see the scopes. The mountain was under lockdown. Armed guards, rented by the University of Arizona, blocked passage up the new road and patrolled the alpine forest on the crest of Mount Graham. Only certified astronomers and construction workers were permitted entry. And university donors. And Vatican priests.
But not environmentalists. And not Apaches. Not at night, anyway. Not any more.
Yet, here we were, skulking through strange moss-draped stands of fir and spruce, displaced relics from a boreal world, our eyes peeled for white domes and trigger-happy cops.
It says something about the new nature of this mountain, this sky island, that we heard the telescopes before we saw them, a steady buzz like the whine of a table saw down the block.
The tail-lights of SUVs streamed through the trees, packing astronomers and their cohorts towards the giant machine eyes, on a road plastered over the secret middens of the mountain’s most famous native: the Mount Graham red squirrel.
The tiny squirrel was once thought be extinct. In 1966, federal biologists said that they had found no evidence of the squirrel in the Pinaleno Range (the strange mountains of which Mount Graham forms the largest peak) since 1958. Then five years later a biologist working in the shaggy forests at the tip of the mountain found evidence of at least four squirrels. A wider survey showed an isolated population on the mountain’s peak. In 1987, the squirrel was finally listed as a endangered species.
Still, the squirrel population fluctuates wildly from year to year, in cycles largely tied to the annual pine cone crop. But these days the population spikes rarely top 500 animals on the entire planet-which for them constitutes the upper flanks of Mount Graham, the same swath of forest claimed by the astronomers. But the trendlines for the squirrels all point down: down and out. And the astronomers just keep coming. And so do the clearcuts. The new campsites. The unnatural fires. Extinction looms.
We edged along the road, under the cover of a beauty-strip of fir trees, until we came to a fence, tipped with razored wire, and beyond it a clearing slashed into the forest. And there before us crouched one of the mechanical space-eyes, set within a white cube, sterile as a hospital. The structure is so cold and lifeless that it could have sprung from the pen of Richard Meier, the corporate architect responsible for the dreadful Getty Museum blasted onto the crest of the Santa Monica mountains outside LA.
My guide calls himself Vittorio. “That’s Vittorio with a ‘t’,” he says. “Like the Italian director.” But he calls himself Vittorio in honor of the great Apache leader Victorio. He was 19 when I met him in the mid-90s, hip deep in snow, at a place called Enola Hill in the Cascade Mountains fifty miles or so from Portland. Enola Hill is a sacred site for many of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest-a bulge of basalt covered with Douglas-fir, where from a narrow thrust of rock you can look up a fog-draped canyon to Spirit Horse Falls and beyond to the white pyramid of Mount Hood.
Enola Hill has been a vision quest site for centuries. But the Forest Service, despite brittle platitudes from Bill Clinton about his sensitivities to native peoples, schemed to blast a road through the heart of the hill and clearcut it to the bone.
Vittorio haunted the forests of Enola Hill for weeks, along with a few dozen other Indian activists and environmentalists, bracing themselves in front of dozers, cops and chainsaws. Some were hauled off to jail; others, like Vittorio, faded into the forest, to fight another day. But eventually, the Forest Service had its way. The logging roads went in and the trees came down. But the experience brought us together. It is a friendship sealed in sorrow and anger. And humor, too. Vittorio, who studied art at UCLA on what he calls “a guilt and pity scholarship”, is not a grim person. He has a wicked sense of humor and an unerring eye for beauty.
Vittorio mainly grew up in east LA. His mother died young in a car crash with a drunk driver outside Safford, Arizona when he was five. Vittorio was in the car and he still bares a scar, a purple semi-colon hanging above his left eye. He was taken in by his grandmother, a Mexican-American. For a time she cleaned the house of Jeff Chandler, the cross-dressing actor who once played Cochise.
Vittorio’s father is a San Carlos Apache from Tucson. He went off to Vietnam, came back shattered in his head, and addicted to smack. It wasn’t long before he ran into trouble. He is now parked in the bowels of Pelican Bay, the bleak panopticon-like prison in northern California, another victim of the state’s merciless three-strikes law.
“My old man was born with two strikes,” Vittorio said. “Just like the rest of us. But after Vietnam, he couldn’t run and hide anymore.”
That’s been the fate of too many Apaches since whites invaded their lands: chased, hunted, tortured, killed, starved and confined. And then blamed for the misery that had been done to them. The Apaches have been relentlessly demonized, perhaps more viciously than any other tribe. Here’s how General John Pope described them in 1880: “a miserable, brutal race, cruel, deceitful and wholly irreclaimable.” This description, of course, bears little relation to the Apache, but is a fairly apt portrait of their tormentors.
But that’s how they were treated, as irreclaimable subhumans, even after they agreed to submit to life on the reservations. Young Apache men were forced to wear numbered badges, just like the Jews of Nazi Germany. Minor violations of arbitrary rules, such as the ban on drinking Tizwin, an Apache homebrew, meant exile to Leavenworth, often a death sentence. Apaches weren’t recognized as citizens until 1924. They were prohibited from worshipping their religion until 1934 and couldn’t vote until 1948.
But still they resist and their resistance earns them even more rebukes from authorities and locals yahoos. Until the 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon to see signs outside stores, diners and bars throughout southern Arizona saying: “No dogs or Apaches Allowed.” Now, ain’t that America?
In the hip-deep snow on Enola hill, Vittorio told me this story about his namesake, the great Chihenne chief, Victorio. “Victorio was revered by his band and by most other Apaches,” Vittorio said. “When he was gravely wounded by federal troops during a raid on his camp in the Black Range, the soldiers called on the Chihenne women to surrender, probably so they could be raped and then sent to their deaths. The women shouted back their refusal and vowed to eat Victorio’s corpse should he die, so that no white man would see his body or abuse it.”
At the time, the Mexican government had put out a $50 bounty for each Apache scalp and offered the then grand sum of $2,500 for the head of Victorio. The Apache leader survived the battle of the Black Range, but was eventually tracked down, ambushed and killed in the mountains of Chihuahua.
* * *
In the spring of 2002, Vittorio invited me to Arizona to tour the San Carlos Reservation and make a covert visit to the Mount Graham telescopes. At the time, the University of Arizona was in the midst of constructing the $87 million Large Binocular Telescope, billed as the largest optical telescope on Earth.
That’s right $87 million. Put this outlandish figure in perspective. That’s double the entire annual income of all Apaches in Arizona. The astronomers and priests have never experienced anything approaching life on the San Carlos Reservation, where grinding poverty is the daily fare. And it’s been that way since the beginning in 1872, when this bleak patch of land along the Gila River was established as a reservation/prison by the grim Indian killer Gen. George Crook.
The non-treaty Apaches have always hated the place for its brackish waters, infertile soils and robust population of rattlesnakes. The site was a malarial barrens where many Apaches died of what the Army called “quotidian intermittent fever.” Here’s how Daklugie, the son of the great Chiricahua leader Juh, recalled the early days of life on the reservation:
“San Carlos! That was the worst place in all the great territory stolen from the Apaches. If anybody ever lived there permanently, no Apache knew of it. Where there is no grass there is no game. Nearly all of the vegetation was cacti; and though in season a little cactus fruit was produced, the rest of the year food was lacking. The heat was terrible. The insects were terrible. The water was terrible. What there was in the sluggish river was brackish and warm. At San Carlos, for the first time within memory of any of my people, the Apaches experienced the shaking sickness.”
Of course, that was the point. The Army and the Interior Department weren’t on a humanitarian mission. The reservations, especially for the Apaches, were always more like concentration camps carved out of the most desolate terrain in a barren landscape. American death camps. Black holes on Earth.
And so 140 years later, San Carlos remains one of the poorest places in the nation. The per capita income is less than $3,000. More than 50 percent of the people who live there are homeless. More than 60 percent are unemployed. Less than half the Apaches have a high school diploma and only one in a hundred Apache kids percent go on to college. The University of Arizona, so anxious to defile a sacred Apache mountain in the pursuit of science, has done almost nothing to help the dire situation at San Carlos, except to raid the reservation for cultural artifacts and to submit the people there to remorseless interrogations by university anthropologists.
Our way up Mount Graham seemed simple enough when tracing the route on the map. We traveled logging roads, traversed deer and bear trails and made a steady bearing up a crumpled ridgeline toward the forests of Emerald Peak. Naturally, I was lost within an hour.
Perhaps, it had to do with the otherworldliness of the ascent, moving out of searing desert through chaparral, scrublands and finally into ever deeper forest. As the astronomers trained their lenses deep into the past toward the light of dead stars, we walked through a living relic; the journey up the slopes of the mountain was a trip back into ecological time.
Mount Graham is a sky island, a 10,700-foot-tall extrusion from the floor of the Sonoran desert, which has traveled its own evolutionary course since the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago. The mountain is a kind of continental Galapagos, featuring seven different biomes, stacked on top each other like an ecological flow chart.
At the very top of the pyramid (and the mountain) is a cloud forest of fir and spruce, the southernmost manifestation of this biome. This is an ancient forest, as stout and mossy as the fabled forests of Oregon. That’s where the squirrels hang out. Of course, the forests has been gnawed at over the years by loggers and the like, but there was still more than 600-acres of it left when the astronomers laid claimed to the area, with the ironclad brutality of a mining company.
From an ecological point of view, the astronomers couldn’t have picked a worse site in Arizona-partly because the only rival to Mount Graham, the densely forested San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, holy ground for the Hopi, has already been defiled by ski slopes and powerlines. There are more than 18 plants and animals that are endemic to Mount Graham. There are nine trout streams tumbling off its slopes. Numerous cienegas, those strange desert marshes. Rare northern goshawks and Mexican spotted owls. And more apex predators, cougars and black bears, than in any other place in the desert Southwest. When you’ve got the big predators, it usually a sign the ecosystem is humming along in a functioning state-an all-to-rare condition in the American West these days.
But there’s a problem. And it’s a big one. It is the curse of ecological islands to suffer from high extinction rates, even in a relative natural state. But when outside forces, such as clearcuts, powerlines, roads, and telescopes, rudely penetrate the environment these rates soar uncontrollably.
The reason is fairly straightforward: the species that live in these isolated habitats have evolved in a kind of vacuum and aren’t equipped to handle the shock of such drastic changes to their living quarters. And there’s another complicating factor. When endemic animals and plants are wiped out by chainsaws and bulldozer, there’s no nearby population to fill the void: a sea of hostile desert separates Mount Graham from the archipelago of sky islands arcing through northern Mexico and southern Arizona.
In a way then, the plants and animals of Mount Graham share this striking vulnerability with the Apache people, who, although masters of desert life and highly skilled warriors, had no ultimate defense against the waves of disease and alien technology marshaled into their realm by whites.
* * *
Mount Graham attracted astronomers for the some of the same reasons it harbors unique wildlife and is revered by the Apache: it is wild, remote, tall and steep. Indeed, although it’s not the tallest mountain in Arizona, Mount Graham is the steepest, rising more than 8,000 feet off the desert floor.
The University of Arizona fixed its attentions on Mount Graham in the early 1980s. It had gotten into the astronomy game in the 1920s and had put observatories on several of the peaks in the Santa Catalina Mountains outside Tucson, including Mount Lemmon, Mount Hopkins and Kitt Peak.
The University’s Seward Observatory touts itself as one of the top astronomy centers in the world. It not only mans observatories, but also has its hands in the lucrative business of building and polishing the giant mirrors used by modern telescopes.
But the star-gazing business is akin to the expanding universe: staying on top means constantly building new scopes, claiming new, higher peaks, extending your empire.
The University’s Seward Observatory had run into another problem. The observatories closest to Tucson had become increasingly less efficient over the years, the image quality marred by smog and light pollution. So they went looking for a new peak and quickly settled on Mount Graham, a 100 miles northeast of Tucson. Of course, they told the Apaches nothing about their intentions.
It turns out that Mount Graham isn’t a very good place to probe the secrets of the heavens. There are updrafts of warm air pushing off the desert that distort the images, making them as jittery as the first snaps that came back from the Hubbell space telescope. Plus, Mount Graham is a sky island and though it rises out of one of the driest stretches of land on the continent it is often cloudy on the peak.
“Any Apache could have told the astronomers that,” says Vittorio. “It is a stormbringer mountain, summoning up all the moisture from the desert below, pooling it at the peak in a nimbus of clouds.”
In fact, the University of Arizona knew that Mount Graham was a poor choice for the deep space telescopes from the beginning. In 1986, a team from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory conducted a two-year investigation comparing Mount Graham and Mauna Kea, Hawai’i as possible telescope sites. The Arizona peak fell far short. “There was no comparison,” concluded Mike Merrill, an astronomer at the NOAO. Indeed, the study advised that there were 37 other sites ranking better than Mount Graham for observing stars-even the smog-shrouded Mount Hopkins topped Mount Graham.
This troublesome bit of news didn’t deter the University of Arizona. In 1988, it announced plans to turn Mount Graham into a kind of astronomical strip mall, featuring seven telescopes at a cost of more than $250 million. They rounded up a bevy of partners, including the Vatican, several universities in the US and Europe and the odious Max Planck Institute, which in an earlier incarnation as the Max Planck Society gave assistance to the murderous experiments of Dr. Mengele.
This peculiar consortium ran into immediate legal hurdles, the biggest being the small Mount Graham red squirrel. It was a now federally protected endangered species and its last refuge was the very cloud forest the astronomer’s claimed for their avenue of telescopes. Federal biologists announced that the project would jeopardize the squirrel’s very existence. It’s not hard to figure out why they reached this conclusion. The observatory scheme would destroy nearly 30 percent of the squirrel’s best remaining habitat.
But the University wasn’t going to let extinction stand in the way of science. It took an aggressive and belligerent approach. Officials badgered and intimidated federal biologists and when they wouldn’t back down the University and its lawyers went over their heads. For example, in May of 1988, the University summoned Michael Spear, then regional head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, to a closed door meeting at the Tucson airport, for a session of backroom arm-twisting. Spear emerged a few hours later having agreed to order agency biologists to conclude that the telescopes could go forward regardless of the effect on the squirrels. Which is, in fact, what they did.
“Procedurally, it was incorrect,” Lesley Fitzpatrick, a US Fish and Wildlife biologist, later testified. “And it was in violation of the law, and therefore it is incorrect regardless of whether its procedural or substantive.”
In other words, the Fish and Wildlife Service had committed a fraud and everyone there knew it while they were doing it. And they got caught and even then it didn’t matter. Why? Well, a diminutive squirrel doesn’t pull at the heartstrings of most Arizonas, who seemed unruffled at the fact that the state’s rarest species was slated to become political roadkill.
More tellingly, the University got its way because it has powerful politicians in its pocket, ranging from Bruce Babbitt to John McCain, and they used them relentlessly, especially the vile McCain.
The university tapped McCain to push through congress the so-called Idaho and Arizona Conservation Act of 1988. This deceptively-titled law was actually a double-barrel blast at the environment: it gave the green light to illegal logging in the wildlands of Idaho and for the construction of the Mount Graham telescopes, shielding them from any kind of litigation by environmentalists or Apaches. To help sneak this malign measure through congress, the University shelled out more than a half-million dollars for the services of the powerhouse DC lobbying firm Patton, Boggs and Blow.
The bill passed in the dead of night and, in the words of one University of Arizona lawyer, it gave the astronomers the right to move forward “even if it killed every squirrel”.
It also exempted the project from the National Historic Preservation Act and other laws that might have made it possible for the Apaches to assert their claims to the mountain, giving the University of Arizona the dubious honor of becoming the first academic institution to seek the right to trample on the religious freedoms of Native Americans.
In the spring of 1989 with the squirrel population in freefall, the Forest Service, which oversees Mount Graham as part of the Coronado National Forest, began to raise questions about the project. Worried that the astronomers’ road might spell the squirrel’s demise, Jim Abbott, the supervisor of the Coronado forest, ordered a halt construction at the site. The delay infuriated McCain.
On May 17, 1989, Abbott got a call from Mike Jimenez, McCain’s chief of staff. Jimenez informed Abbot that McCain was angry and wanted to meet with him the next day. He told Abbott to expect “some ass-chewing”. At the meeting, McCain raged, threatening Abbott that “if you do not cooperate on this project [bypassing the Endangered Species Act], you’ll be the shortest tenured forest supervisor in the history of the Forest Service.”
Unfortunately for McCain, there was a witness to this encounter, a ranking Forest Service employee named Richard Flannelly, who recorded the encounter in his notebook. This notebook was later turned over to investigators at the General Accounting Office.
A few days later, McCain called Abbott to apologize. But the call sounded more like an attempt to bribe the Forest Supervisor to go along with the project. According to a 1990 GAO report on the affair, McCain “held out a carrot that with better cooperation, he would see about getting funding for Mr. Abbott’s desired recreation projects”.
Environmentalists lodged an ethics complaint against McCain, citing a federal law that prohibits anyone (including members of Congress) from browbeating federal personnel. The Senate ethics committee never pursued the matter. When the GAO report, condemning McCain, surfaced publicly, McCain lied about the encounter, calling the allegations “groundless” and “silly”
In 1992, environmentalists Robin Silver and Bob Witzeman went to meet with McCain at his office in Phoenix to discuss Mount Graham. Silver and Witzeman are both physicians. The doctors say that at the mention of the words Mount Graham McCain erupted into a violent fit. “He slammed his fists on his desk, scattering papers across the room”, said Silver. “He jumped up and down, screaming obscenities at us for about 10 minutes. He shook his fists as if he was going to slug us. It was as violent as almost any domestic abuse altercation.”
Witzeman left the meeting stunned: “I’m a lifelong environmentalist, but what really scares me about McCain is not his environmental policies, which are horrid, but his violent, irrational temper. I wouldn’t want to see this guy with his finger on the button.”
* * *
Despite lawsuits and fierce protests, including a daring attempt to block the access road to by a young Apache mother named Diane Valenzuela, who suspended herself from a tripod, the Vatican and Max Planck scopes went up.
Then the opponents began another tact: a global campaign against universities seeking to invest in the Mount Graham Observatory. It was brilliantly executed and wildly successful. More than 80 universities announced they would have nothing to do with the observatory and 50 prominent European astronomers signed a letter requesting that the project be halted “so that the unique environment and sacred mountain of Mount Graham can be saved.” Even the Max Planck Institute scaled back its investment.
All of this began to wear on the head of the Mount Graham project, Peter Strittmatter, the chief astronomer at the University’s Seward Observatory. He lashed out repeatedly at the Apaches and greens, referring to them as “essentially terrorists.” That’s an old slur for the Apaches, going back to the conquistadors, and an increasingly common one for environmentalists. (By the way, Strittmatter’s special focus is the all important subject of “Speckle Interferometry.”)
But the University pressed on, deploying tactics that seemed cribbed right out of the Dow Chemical Company’s playbook: they brought in former FBI agents, including veterans of the bureau’s noxious COINTELPRO operation, to train campus police; they tried to infiltrate and disrupt opposition groups; and they hired a pr firm to write phony letters, supposedly drafted by Arizona students, to local papers attacking the Apaches and the enviros.
Then in 1993 the astronomers finally confronted the technical problem that had loomed for so long. The original site for the Large Binocular Telescope was simply untenable. It was too windy and too cloudy. So the astronomers announced they were going to move it to a new site on the mountain, even deeper into the forest.
The enviros and Apaches argued that this sudden change in plans would reactivate environmental laws that had been neutered by the 1988 legislation. But in the pre-dawn hours of December 3, the University unleashed a pre-emptive strike: they clearcut 250 old-growth trees on the new site before the environmentalist could get before a judge. They didn’t even tell their own biologist, charged with monitoring the project’s impacts on the red squirrel. He found out about it on the evening news.
When the environmentalists finally got into a federal court, the judge agreed with them and halted the construction of the big scope, ruling that the project needed to undergo a formal environmental review. The university appealed and lost.
Then in 1996 they turned to President Clinton. Despite Clinton’s pledges to protect the environment and honor the religious practices and sacred sites of Native Americans, he bowed to the demands of the University and signed another piece of legislation overturning the court injunctions and shielding the new site from environmental review and litigation. So even when you play by the rules and win, you can still lose through political connivance and trickery. It’s a lesson the Apaches learned long ago.
So work on the big scope resumed, followed by the construction of a 23-mile long powerline corridor up the flank of the mountain. By 2003, he sacred mountain of the Apache had been fully electrified.
As we crept through the lush montane forest to the crest of the mountain, Vittorio pulled a small pouch from his pocket. He said it was a medicine bundle that he wanted to bury at the telescope site.
“What’s in there?” I asked. “Sage and sweetgrass?”
“Hell, no,” he chuckled. “Squirrel shit.”
“Uh,” I asked nervously. “Do squirrels carry Hanta virus?”
“One can always hope.”
He dug a small trench beneath the fence, slid the pouch under, buried in it fir needles and said something in Apache that I couldn’t begin to transcribe, though it sounded more like a curse than a prayer.
“The priest said if they spotted aliens in those scopes, it would be their mission to convert them,” Vittorio said, speaking of Father George V. Coyne, the head Vatican astronomer. “But they are the aliens here and they’re too fucking self-righteous realize it.”
Here’s a taste of Father Coyne’s cosmic eschatology: “The Church would be obliged to address the question of whether extraterrestrials might be brought into the fold and baptized. One would want to put some questions to him, such as: have you ever experienced something similar to Adam and Eve, in other words, original sin? Do you people also know a Jesus who has redeemed you?” And this spaced-out priest has the nerve to denounce the Apache religion as primitive?
The Apache know Mount Graham as Dzil nchaa sian, Big Seated Mountain. The mountain is an anchor point of the Apache cosmology, as vital to their tradition as Chartres, the Wailing Wall or the temples of Angkor Wat. It orients the world, presages the weather, nurtures healing plants and serves as a sanctuary from bands of killers, so often riding under the auspices of the Church. What more do we require of holy places? That they be handmade? Commissioned?
Ironically, that’s the position of the Catholic Church. Coyne himself has sneered that unless there are physical relics on the site it can’t really be considered sacred, except as a kind of paganistic nature worship which the church finds anathema.
“Nature and Earth are just there, blah!” the cosmic priest wrote. “And there will be a time when they are not there [The Apaches and militant greens] subscribe to an environmentalism and religiosity to which I cannot subscribe and which must be suppressed with all the force we can muster.”
Of course, over the past four hundred years the Church has done it’s damnedest to eradicate any remnant of Apache culture: villages, clothing, language, ceremonies and the Apache themselves.
“On this mountain is a great life-giving force,” declared Franklin Stanley, a San Carlos medicine man, in a 1992 as the bulldozers prepared to dig the footings for the scopes. “You have no knowledge of the place you are about to destroy.”
But the priests manning the $3 million Vatican Advanced Technology telescope dismissed Franklin and the other Apaches. They prevented Apache leaders from meeting with the Pope and even went so far as to suggest that were being used as part of a Jewish conspiracy. “The opposition to the telescopes and the use of Native American people to oppose the project are part of a Jewish conspiracy that comes out of the Jewish lawyers of the ACLU to undermine and destroy and undermine the Catholic church,” the Rev. Charles Polzer told Indian activist Guy Lopez in 1992. Polzer, a Jesuit priest, was the curator of ethnohistory at the Arizona State Museum. “Two Phoenix doctors, Robert Witzeman and Robin Silver, are examples of this conspiracy,” Polzer told Lopez.
Polzer was as wrong about Witzeman and Silver as was about the sacred nature of Mount Graham. Witzeman is a Lutheran; Silver is a Mormon. Silver has been a friend of mine for many years. He’s also the busiest man I know. He’s a gifted tennis player, an emergency room physician, a father and the most prolific environmentalist in the Southwest. “Apaches, Jews and greens we’re all the same to the Church and the University of Arizona,” says Silver.
The astronomers even made it illegal for the Apaches to conduct prayer ceremonies on the summit without a permit and arrested Wendsler Nosie, a member of Apaches for Cultural Preservation, when he exercised his constitutional right to pray there without one.
“These space priests have the same old prejudices that the inquisitors did back when they went after Galileo,” says Vittorio. “What’s bizarre is that the tables have turned. Now the Church is being used by the scientists to legitimize their rampages. They even have the gall to name their sacrilege the Columbus Project.”
Several universities, including the University of Minnesota and Virginia, offered to buy off opposition from the Apaches. It didn’t work. “They’re asking us to sell our spirit,” said Wendsler Nosie. “The answer is ‘no, we don’t want anything they’re offering to us financially.’”
In October of 1992, I attended a Columbus Day rally against Mount Graham at the University of Arizona’s Seward Observatory outside Tucson. As an Apache leader was giving a speech, a goon squad of University police charged into the crowd, tackled and tried to drag away one of the Native American student leaders. Robin Silver, who among his other pursuits is a first-rate photographer, began clicking shots of the assault. Then the cops turned their attention on him. He was arrested and his camera seized.
Silver wasn’t there to protest, but to document. Still, the University cops recognized him immediately as a chief nemesis. Since 1988, there’s been more than a dozen lawsuits filed against the telescope project. Silver has had his hand in crafting most of them. Unlike many environmentalists, Silver also deals honestly and respectfully with Native Americans.
For the university, this is a dangerous mix. And they’ve repeatedly tried to discredit Silver in the press and with politicians. When that didn’t work they sent their cops out to intimidate him. But emergency room physicians don’t scare easily and the arrest blew up in the face of the University-Silver also knows how to work the press.
But the university (surely one of the sleaziest institutions in the US) didn’t relent. In 1993, it hired the Snell & Winter law firm to dig in to the possibility of filing racketeering charges against environmentalist and Apache opponents of the telescopes. And on and on it goes.
Why would the university go to these extreme lengths? Well, the Mount Graham telescope complex isn’t just about the pursuit of “pure science”-as if any science could ever be pure-or, as one astronomer put it, “peering through the dark avenues of time to witness the creative spark of the Big Bang.”
Astronomy isn’t a benign science. Indeed, it’s impossible to separate the discipline from its unseemly ties to military applications. Galileo’s first telescopes were designed for the war lords of Venice, who used them to spot enemy ships and troops. The giant mirrors that power the Mount Graham scopes have also been touted for their dual use nature: both as stargazers and as a potential component in the Star Wars scheme, wherein the mirrors would reflect laser-beam weapons on satellites and incoming missiles.
Of course, it’s also about money. Lots of money. And we’re not just talking about the enormous cost of the project. Telescopes are big business. The investment partners for the Mount Graham Observatory are selling viewing time for $30,000 a night. And this figure will climb when the Large Binocular scope goes online-if it does. Then there’s the stream of federal research grants, guided to them by political patrons such as McCain, which the University hopes will tally in the tens of millions a year.
“These guys don’t just have stars in their eyes,” quips Vittorio. “They’ve also got dollar signs.”
Robin Silver calls them simply “the Star Whores.”
All in all, the maligned art of astrology does rather less harm and provides a good deal more human solace.
* * *
“Hey, you, assholes!” We’d been discovered. “Freeze, dammit!”
A green tunnel of light swept towards us, like a dragnet scene in a bad James Cagney movie. A corpulent cop rumbled toward the fence, dragging a bum leg and carrying what looked to be an assault rifle.
“This way,” Vittorio whispered and took off running. I jogged after him as he bounded through the forest like a bear harassed by hornets. He descended a rough deer trail, then cut cross country, topping a razor-thin ridge and down into a cove of moss-bearded spruce. I stayed within sight of him for a few minutes, but soon lost him in the darkness, as my lungs began to seize. I’m a lowlander and the 10,000-foot altitude took its toll with a vengeance.
Exhausted and disoriented, I tripped over a downed tree and plunged headfirst into a snow bank. Suddenly, I felt overcome with doom. I laid there in the snow, gasping for air that wasn’t there, waiting for the fat cop with the club foot and the rubber bullets to come haul me away to some shithole in Tucsonor worse.
“Psst. Down here.” Vittorio to the rescue once again.
He was crouching in a narrow gorge, about 20 feet below me. I pulled myself out of the snowbank and worked my way down into the ravine. We walked a few hundred yards in silence, absorbing the intoxicating vanilla-like scent of the forest, until the gorge came to an abrupt end at a cliff, towering a few hundred feet above a broad flank of the mountain below us.
We sat down on the ledge, our feet dangling in a kind of space. A rush of air from below warmed our faces. The sky had cleared of clouds. To the west, the desert rolled on in the darkness beneath us toward the Galiuro and Santa Catalina Mountains and the distant flickering tumor of Tucson.
“Look!” Vittorio whispered, pointing to the midnight sky, suddenly streaming with stars. “How much closer do we really need to be?”
This essay is excerpted from Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.