I recently spent a couple nights camping at one of my favorite spots in New Mexico- the Gila. If New Mexico has a heart chakra- it’s the Gila.
I stayed at a small campground on the west branch of the Gila River. The Gila is a national forest of over 3 million acres of wild land that spans from western New Mexico into Arizona. The Gila River is one of the last wild and free rivers in the American Southwest, meaning that it is not diverted or dammed. It is a living river that moves gradually (and sometimes suddenly) over time, like all healthy rivers should, and creates an environment that is ever-changing, dynamic, and teeming with biodiverse life.
While I was there, I met a man named Bo. He was the first person that I saw as I was driving into the campground, lazily riding his bike along the dusty road. Later as I was walking my dog along the same dusty roads that surround the campground, I spotted Bo again. I asked him if he lived there.
“I live in my body” he said, “..most of the time,” with a twinkle in his eye.
I chatted him up because I could tell he had good stories behind those eyes, and a kind heart on his sleeve, and he proceeded to tell me about the life of the river- how it was changing (and eating away at the little parcel of land he lived on).
“I guess I own part of the river now since it’s on my land!” he chucked, “but how can you own magic?”
He had been living there for 26 years- having fallen in love with the place in the middle of a road trip so many decades ago. After buying a few acres by the river (next to a little outfitting business) he lived in a tent on the land for over a year. Next came what he jokingly called a “white trash shanty” and then, over time, gradually developed into one of the most beautiful handcrafted dwellings I have ever seen. Nestled into the woods, surrounded by flowers and trees of all varieties, and cornered on one side by the clear running water of an old irrigation channel, his home looked to me like something out of a fairy tale. He built a workshop under the tree canopy for his projects and a guest house, which rivaled his dwelling for beauty and efficiency. There was not much more there than the essentials. The simplicity and care put into every little touch made this dwelling feel like a poem.
I caught him the next day as I was walking Luna down along the river. He was driving a big work truck and was on his way to help a neighbor clear brush from around their house. A wildfire was blazing in the forest about 15 miles away (the smoke had settled into the river valley in the morning as Bo had told me it would the day before) and he was in the rhythm of looking out for his neighbors like this.
“They’re trying to let the fires burn themselves out,” he told me, explaining that the forest service had finally come to the conclusion (after much convincing from naturalists) that it was in the best interest of the forest to let some fires burn themselves out. Years of fire suppression had “backfired” by creating land that was so full of tinder, it created the potential for superfires that could get out of control very easily. It struck me as very progressive that the forest service was taking this approach, and respecting the natural cycles of fire that actually help support this forest and the life that thrives there. As we were talking, a huge bird flew over our heads.
“That’s a black hawk!” Bo exclaimed. “They’ll say it’s the ‘common’ black hawk, but they’re not common.”
That evening, my last night by the river, I said a prayer of thanks to the place. To all the life that I had met there. To the spirit and ancestors of the land whose presence I felt like the watchful eyes of a grandparent. As I finished my prayer, a black hawk flew over head, and looked back at me. A quiet voice inside whispered “remember who you are…” and left me filled with grateful tears.
On my drive home, the only road that leads out of the Gila to the east and back towards Albuquerque was closed due to the wildfire. It added some time to my drive, but by the time I got back on 25 and headed north- I looked out my window to the west and saw the smoke rising from the soft curves of the Gila. The view stayed with me for about an hour as I rode north, and I found myself comforted by the thought that this wild place was allowed to just be wild. To be free. To have its cycles of wild fire, and of wild water.
Genius is wild. Innovation, inspiration, creativity- all wild things that exist in between and outside of thought and logic and control. Wildness demands trust, flexibility, and cooperation. I was reminded of this during my short time away from the city. And I hope to bring some of this beautiful wildness back into my life. Because really, trying to control the events of the world- or even of our lives- is like damming up a river. It may create some temporary stability- but ultimately we will pay the price by the loss of the magic of wildness.
I left Bo a little thank you present for his time and insight. A ripe avocado and few bananas- a small book and a pretty rock. And a little note, thanking him for being a steward of the river, and a good brother to man. He reminded me that spotting a rare type of human can be just as interesting as a rare bird, and that we can still be in the modern world (somewhat), and maintain our wildness as we let the fires burn themselves out.