First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100 Edited by Elizabeth Hightower Allen Torrey House Press | 2022 | 175 pages
Part celebration, part clarion call, Elizabeth Hightower Allen’s anthology First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100 for New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness—the first ever designated “wilderness”—explores 100 years of leaving a place be. In 1921, Aldo Leopold’s seemingly innocuous report Wilderness and its Place in Forest Recreational Policy laid the groundwork for what at the time seemed land management’s most revolutionary idea: preserving a place rather than developing it. “By wilderness,” Leopold writes, “I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” Three years later, the U.S. Forest Service adopted Leopold’s suggestion. The Gila Wilderness became America’s first wilderness.
If you’ve never heard of the Gila, you’re not alone. Its 560,000 rugged acres in southwestern New Mexico are no Yosemite, no Yellowstone, no Glacier. You’ll find few parking lots in the Gila, and far fewer popsicle stands. What you’ll find are piñon junipers, ponderosa pines, spruce firs, and aspens—depending on your elevation. You’ll also find bobcats, cougars, bears, and, perhaps, the ever-fading Mexican gray wolf and three-toed woodpecker.
In First & Wildest, you’ll find contributions on such flora and fauna from over two dozen writers, the convergence of which sounds more like a chorus than a cacophony. The essays hit complimentary notes without repeating notes, granting readers a kaleidoscopic view of a place many of us have never seen. In her introduction, Allen writes that the book “seeks not only to celebrate the Gila, but to explore the looming threat of extinction and climate change altering this landscape.” She dispatches the charge to professional writers, naturalists, politicians, professors, archeologists, and fire lookouts, among others. In doing so, she provides readers with fresh voices and perspectives, steering clear of the romanticization of the landscape in favor of more complex ideas. Including the obvious but oft-unstated cultural critique on land management itself: “How very brash, how American, to roll up on a landscape that has been traveled by Indigenous people for more than 20,000 years and proclaim that its use has been redefined.”
The land is defined anew thanks to a contribution from Joe Saenz of the Warm Springs Band of the Chiricahua Apache. “As Indigenous people, we know what this land was like before it was colonized by settlers,” Saenz remarks. “There were no roads or electric lines. It was a complete wilderness.” Echoing Saenz, archeologist Jakob W. Sedig writes, “Thus, the way the Gila Wilderness is presented to the public—a pristine place, devoid of human disturbance—is not reflective of its composition prior to European arrival, nor of how Native American ancestors used and appreciated it.” Priscilla Solis Ybarra, professor of Latinx literature, also reminds readers of the wilderness’s Mexican-American roots. No matter where you choose to start the story of the Gila—with its Indigenous inhabitants or its Mexican-American inhabitants—Ybarra reminds readers of conservation’s “insidious cover story… that white Americans are the purveyors of this generosity.” In making their case, white America is confronted with a stark, if inconvenient, truth: Who are we to gift anything to anyone when we have stolen the gift?
Beyond the necessary grappling with the land’s history, the book makes space, too, for more memoir-inspired work. In a standout essay adapted from his book A Song for the River, fire tower observer Philip Connors describes a forest fire witnessed from the field. Connor’s more meditative moments (“My attachment to the landscape surrounding that mountain had arisen from an ongoing intimacy with all its moods and weathers and creatures…”) are offset by his deep poeticism (“Ash fell like flakes of snow on the hood of my pickup truck and the growl of the fire could be heard more than a mile away…”). His writing allows readers to peer through his field glasses—to see from our armchairs what he sees from the top of the tower.
Sharman Apt Russell, too, covers the topic of fire—describing the aftermath of the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Fire, the largest in New Mexico history. As the climate crisis worsens, such fires have become less the exception than the rule, fundamentally altering the region’s ecosystem for many of its inhabitants; including the coati, a rare, raccoon-like creature of which Russell is fortunate enough to catch a glimpse. Such intimate encounters reaffirm her commitment to preservation, while also providing her further reflection on who best to guide us forward. “As a nature writer, I’ve promised myself again and again not to bring up the hoary figures of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir,” Russell writes. “Enough with those guys.” Indeed, Allen’s anthology turns the page on the more canonical 19th-century nature writers, offering a new generation their turn. It is less a torch passing than the commandeering of the torch. And it’s long overdue.
Allen’s carefully curated contributions provide new urgency to an old story. Yes, our planet’s bill of health grows bleaker, but we are not without a cure—sound policies, shared sacrifice, and arguably, elevating voices like these.
Following the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Aldo Leopold famously wrote, “We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that man is only a fellow-voyager with other creatures in the Odyssey of evolution, and that his captaincy of the adventuring ship conveys the power, but not necessarily the right, to discard at will among the crew.”