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A Child of Drought: On Climate Resilience, Community, and Love

Panamint Valley. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It feels strange to say it, but I am a child of drought. Not drought in any kind of metaphorical sense. Drought in the literal description, as defined by Merriam-Webster: a period of dryness, especially when prolonged. Perhaps this is the price of reveling in the beauty of the desert southwest.

We are gifted daily with singular cloud patterns strewn across rugged skylines hued in incomprehensible shades of apricot and lavender as the sun dips below the horizon. We gaze across vast distances of hills flecked with juniper and pinyon, seceding to the erosive force of our wild Gila River, everything bathed in that kind of light that holds the eye as if a screen had suddenly been lifted or a filter removed. Sudden clarity of vision subtly stealing the breath, inspiring the mind, filling the heart.

And yes, there is the dryness. Especially prolonged dryness. These days it’s often referred to as megadrought. Climate crisis-induced megadrought.

“Unprecedented stress on limited water resources,” says one scholarly article.

“The worst in 500 years,” warns Scientific American.

A raven streaks across the sky above the Silver Fire scar in the Gila National Forest. Aspen saplings and New Mexican locust bring a relieving green to the charred, blackened hills. This is a landscape that has been “progressively” managed for fire. But how climate resilient is it? I wonder as we gaze north across the Black Range from the top of Hillsboro Peak. How resistant to the depredations of an unprecedented megadrought?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released their long-term weather forecast for the southwest. They predict 70-80% above normal temperatures and 40-50% below average precipitation for September, October, and November of 2020 in the American southwest.

A group of three Mexican gray wolves lope through the matchstick remains of a ponderosa pine forest in the Whitewater-Baldy burn scar in the Gila National Forest. The rusty yearling sits back on her haunches to howl at the setting sun. I wonder if they’re parched, the nearby stock tank a cracked maze of bone-dry mud and withered grass. The wild ones are masters of survival. And water is life. Agua es vida. This is a mantra for all desert dwellers, no matter what language you speak.

And what we ask for, as Guardians’ Greater Gila team, as children of drought, as lovers of Iron Creek, and Bearwallow Peak, and black hawks, and Gila trout, and Gooding’s onion, and the Gila thistle, is that managing for megadrought and climate resilience become the new mandate for land management agencies, conservation organizations, communities, and individuals alike. We all know the fractious forces of political allegiances are successfully sowing doubt and driving schisms at a time when we must care for each other and the planet more deeply than ever before.

In a recently published article in LitHub, Barry Lopez asks us if,

“…in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?”

Despite my own skepticism and misanthropy, even in the face of megadroughts and megafires and some wild thirst parching our rivers and sucking our water tables dry, I say yes.

It’s an affirmation based not on the latest science or administrative predictions. It’s driven by the connections and conversations I’ve had over the past six months working on behalf of the Gila. By the love and commitment I hear in the voices of Forest Service staff, professors, archaeologists, other conservationists, community members, politicians. It inspires belief, and dare I say, hope even.

Yes, Barry. It is possible.

Leia Barnett is a Greater Gila Campaigner at WildEarth Guardians.

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