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On Losing and Winning

Cliffs above Mineral Creek, Gila National Forest. Photo: Leia Barnett.

In a recent phone conversation with a group of friends, we were asked to speak about loss as a sort of cathartic recognition of the feelings of the moment, induced by certain biological, viral, and political upheavals: what were we afraid of losing, what had we already lost, what does loss mean, and how do we cope with loss? In my work in landscape conservation, I think a lot about loss. I frame appeals around it, use it to drive action, construct science-based arguments from it, implement it in policy asks, use it as a metric to motivate advocacy. In my personal life, it has become, in no uncertain terms, the lens through which I view the world. Loss is life, it would seem.

This isn’t meant to be the doom and gloom opening to a lugubrious reflection on living through the Sixth Mass Extinction and anthropogenic climate crises. While it may be true that spending too much time mired in reports of species die-off events, catastrophic wildfires, and ever-increasing CO2 emissions doesn’t necessarily breed optimism nor hope, there are some important lessons to be learned and practices to be implemented from living as a loser. And the results of these lessons and practices seem to be, at least in my experience thus far, generative of tremendous gains. In some strange Zen-like twist, I am winning through losing.

I started losing the fall semester of my senior year at the University of New Mexico. I was finally on track to wrap up my undergraduate degree nearly 17 years after graduating high school. I had enrolled in an introductory class in the Art and Ecology Department on the Sixth Mass Extinction, which, for those not familiar, is currently unfolding before our very eyes, and for the first time in global history, humans are driving the extinction bus. Our end-of-year project was to create an artistically-inspired work about something locally related to the Sixth Mass Extinction. I ended up using story mapping software to develop a narrative about a geographic feature just west of where I grew up, called the Pajarito Plateau. Pajarito is the Spanish word for “little bird”, and the plateau, which lies at the foot of the Jemez Mountains, had long been known for its diverse and abundant bird populations.

That is, until anthropogenic climate change created megadrought conditions in the American Southwest, which led to increased vulnerabilities to certain fatal bark beetle infestations in trees, particularly the pinon pine in New Mexico. The pinon nut provides an important, calorie-dense food source for birds, and without it, numbers were dropping precipitously. So I learned about loss. And the more I learned about it, the more I longed to feel it. Not in the way reading a scientific paper full of facts and figures triggers an intellectual response that resembles a feeling. But in the way sitting on the land and noticing the gnarled corpses of pinon trees provokes an embodied, felt sense of something-that-was-that-is-no-longer.

I’ve always sought the out-of-doors as a place of renewal and rejuvenation. Growing up in the rural Nambe Valley north of Santa Fe, most of my earliest memories include the bright high desert sun warm on my face, the quiet thrill of discovering some small nook between the rocks or behind a tree that snuggly fit my little body, or simply watching the magic of the slow birth and dissolution of so many clouds over the mesa behind our house.

But somewhere along the road to “responsible” adulting, I forgot to notice. The writer and scholar Robert MacFarlane says, “Forgetting is an easy way to lose something.” And in forgetting to give my attention to the world, in that child-like way that inspires enchantment and adoration, I’d lost so much. Feeling the loss of los pajaritos brought it back. I began to notice the small details ever-present in the pinon-juniper woodland behind my home. I have come to recognize when a tree excretes sap in defense against a beetle infestation. I search for the hardened sap balls that are produced by the pitch tubes, near perfect spheres of golden amber. I spent the late summer months examining pine cones filled with pinon nuts, trying to determine what color shells reliably yield the meaty sweet fruit that I and so many other forest dwellers were seeking.

It was as if something had been returned to me: a sense of place, a knowing, a recognition. And though the weight of so much loss has not grown lighter on my shoulders or in my heart, the world has given me something to remedy my spirit. When you choose to attend to those others, to the feathered and four-legged and rooted ones, to notice the ways they engage with the world, the ways they create and give form to an inhabitable Earth, you can’t help but admire their resilience, their tenacity, their courage. This is all that I have won as I have lost. Forgetting is an easy way to lose something. We owe it to the great blue world to remember. We have a moral obligation to do as much.

When I first met the Mexican gray wolves of the Greater Gila, after researching their extirpation from the American West and then following their slow, tenuous reintroduction, I realized this obligatory remembering was not mine alone to carry. So many others, often guided by Indigenous allies who have not forgotten, and inspired by their Traditional Ecological Knowledge, are committing and recommitting to remembering, restoring, reclaiming and restructuring in service of a broader, more diverse, more cared for sense of community.

At this historical, political, social, ecological moment, so much is framed in terms of wins and losses. I think it’s safe to say no one victory is ever only triumph, and no forfeiture only ever deprivation. The world is far too complex to exist in such polarized binaries. Perhaps it is time we inhabit the space between, the interstices where life and lessons foment and bubble over, connecting us to ourselves, to each other, to the vast web of this existence, where no one is really ever keeping score.

Leia Barnett is a Greater Gila Campaigner at WildEarth Guardians.

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