November 26, 2018

wilderness of human desires

wilderness of human desires
Gila National Forest, New Mexico

I wanted the Gila to be a place of reflection and quiet. Instead, it was full of humans. Humans, including us, all wanting something from the place. A club of backpackers heading upriver for an overnight, couples and families driving up the bumpy road to get to the hot springs, folks on four wheelers tearing up the dirt tracks, trucks full of hunters looking for mule deer and a good time, and a couple of flat white institutional vans full of dirty college students looking for some kind of wisdom.


The Gila river was unusually high because of unexpected post-monsoon rains (thank you, rains!). To hike upriver you had to cross the rushing water several times, which left every hiker with the option of (a) wearing shorts (b) getting their pants soaking wet with cold river water or (c) just hiking in their underwear. On our last day in the Gila, while wearing shorts (we try to learn quickly), Erin and I ran into a group of men - hunters - carrying one bow, one muzzle-loading shotgun, and a lot of sheepish looks on their faces to be caught crossing the river in their underwear by a couple of fully dressed girls. They asked if we’d seen any wildlife, and we lied and said no. Well, did our group want to party with them that night anyway? Not particularly. 

This was the tenor of a lot of encounters I had with other humans in the Gila that week - an awkward crossing of paths between people who didn’t really understand each other. Several people assumed that our group was a science class, and I talked to them about how we’re interested in both art and science, and that we come here to learn from the place and make artwork about it. “Oh, so you draw then?” was a common response, people understandably trying to place what I was talking about into a frame of reference that they were familiar with, paintings or drawings on a wall. “Well, some of us do - we’re more interested in ecology overall and using whatever mediums fit what we’re talking about,” I said, not really clarifying anything for them. I surprised several people by popping out from inside the streambed I was filming and then attempted to allay their suspicions by saying, “oh, it’s ok, I’m an artist!” This chipper statement did not diminish the confusion on their faces. But, it was good practice for me in trying to be active as someone not fitting into any particular known categories of activity (hiker, hunter, partier) and also trying to explain why.

I know it seems strange for me to be writing about humans when we in Land Arts are usually concerned with the landscape itself, that mystery of overlapping non-human lives that we humans usually either ignore, destroy, or romanticize. But it bothered me that at this remote site in the Gila, several bumpy hours from food or potable, from-a-faucet water, the valley we camped in was full of humans. What was drawing us all there? Everybody seemed to be looking for something, even if sometimes we didn’t know what it was ourselves - some to get away from the eye of society to party, some to hunt, some to relax, some to inhabit “the mystery of nature.” All of us looking to either get away from something or get to something else, all of us unsettled, reaching, unsatisfied.

After everything we’ve done to this earth, what does it mean that we still go back to it in search of something different, in search of a way out? Doesn’t the land itself deserve a wilderness, one without any human presence, a place to be itself without our ubiquitous neediness constantly butting in? As much as I personally feel a need to go to these somewhat away-from-other-humans places, to feel and learn from different kinds of life - I still want there to be places where humans can’t go, where I can’t go, at least a few lands left for all of the others. Can’t a wilderness be a wilderness on it’s own?

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