Gila Wilderness - Elephant Butte - Valle de Oro (there and back)
By Amanda Stuart
After topping up on city comforts for a week, we recommenced our journeys in the Gila State Forest, New Mexico. Much had I heard of this major American southwest wilderness, though most of which I confess was cross-pollinated with childhood imaginariums of terrifying geila monsters. I hadn’t figured that these reptiles actually DO exist, though perhaps not with the same godzilla-esque mythological status.
Looking south from a rise above Turkey Springs, Gila Wilderness
The brooding late afternoon Gila (pronounced heeler) we rolled into was warm and unusually wet. It had a strong psychic impact that demanded absolute respect. In addition, for the first time in my life I was confronted with the prospect of animals that might want to eat me, or at least want to know what business I had in their patch.
It makes you acutely aware of your position in the food chain.
Black bear print, Turkey springs confluence
The Gila is physically characterized by complex geology and high country aridity, which supports a plethora of diverse flora including deciduous trees, cottonwoods, spiky ground herbs, succulents and the mysterious datura plant.
A swollen Gila River
The fertile Gila River swelled over the 5 wet days we spent there, refusing us access to its high reach hot springs, but providing ample opportunity for explorations of its fascinating lower reaches. Fuelled by more superlative camp food, the crew busied themselves with a variety of research and art actions, centered round soggy river walks, canyon forays, river floats and of course the increasingly mandatory art of rattlesnake dodging. Generally rattlers will do anything to avoid human conflict, giving intruders a warning shake of their percussive tails. They must have been on the peyote that week, as they seemed a bit slack in adhering to this polite convention. I literally came face to face with a mute one that had cleverly embedded itself under the rocks of the lower hot springs – and consequently found myself inventing an innovative style of moonwalking.
what lies beneath….
The Gila is also home to many wondrous birds and animals including black bears, puma, coyotes, deer, habaneros and even wolves (!) – some of which were evidenced by the copious tracks spotted.
However the most frequent visitor to the camp was a persistent skunk (Pepe) that hovered around camp threatening any interfering humans with a belligerently raised tail. I must have good skunk karma, as the one that broke into my tent one night looking for licorice, whilst I was innit, mercifully spared me its skanky skunk juices.
Whilst exploring the Gila’s stunning striated rock stratigraphy, I came upon a most curious and unique cactus, with no less than 5 heart shaped leaves.
There was only one gesture to honor this aberrant succulent.
a bit of harmless cacti affection
Our second work site was the picturesque Elephant Butte, a massive reservoir in in southern New Mexico, west of an enormous region earmarked for military procedures by the good ol’ U.S. Air force.
Astounding in scale and stark in beauty, the crew quickly established creative inroads into its rugged topography and the go-pro was a smoking hot item, for many of these.
I used my time here marveling at and attempting to respond to aspects of the reservoirs exquisite light and topography, whilst attempting to make psychic contact with the plentiful fish and avian populations.
I also made an affectionate nods to the astonishing Australian land arts crew (Amelia, Heike, John and Marzena and co) in a few interventions that echoed the spirit of their respective inquiries.
Elephant Butte is close to the Bosque del Apache wetland – an area crucial to the many hundred thousands of migratory birds that travel along the central American migratory route. To visit here is to meditate on the wonders of safe trajectories and the need for shelter and replenishment along the path.
Our final evening at Elephant Butte brought a catatonic thunderstorm that resulted in an extremely sculptural manipulation of our camp by the forces of nature.
a munted camp – but a cracking good installation!
Valle de Oro
The second trip concluded with the consideration of the urbanized Rio Grande at Valle de Oro, and the crew developing strategies into collaborative and systemic thinking that were harnessed into an alternative presence and interaction with visitors to the Valle de Oro Nature Reserve Field Day.
Though a challenging time and place, I feel strongly that the repercussions of the work undertaken here will strengthen reflective thinking for all involved and illuminate the crucial role that creative thought plays at personal, community and global levels.
And so dear companieros, the final ramblings from your devoted Aussie land arts sheila monster, are officially bagged.
(still from the rockumentary) America is big…and Australians know how to rock it (for Hartmann, Henel, Gilbert and crew) -photo Cedra Wood
It is with a heavy heart I leave the crew to take up their final field trip, and return to the Antipodes…but it is time to connect with my own country and kin.
It has been an utter privilege to learn, laugh, explore and reflect creatively upon your incredible patch and to contemplate the wonders of the world within which we fumbling humans intertwine. Safe travels to you all, and thank you so much for your generosity and acceptance of me into the land arts family.
Aloha for now.
Heartfelt thanks to Jen, Ryan, Bill and Cedra for all of your ‘all’.
And to Amelia, Heike, John and all of my beloved kin and crew from home, who made this dream a reality.