The Last Grassland (Part 1 of 4)

Otero Mesa, New Mexico is threatened by oil and gas development. Photo by Zoe Krasney.

This is the first installment of a four-part series on the beautiful, threatened Otero Mesa from New Mexico writer and Southwest Regional Office Administrative Assistant Zoe Krasney.

The three of us lean out of the car windows as we bounce along the dirt road through Otero Mesa, this remote and hidden grassland in Southern New Mexico. The road is blanched by mineral deposits leaching to the surface, a pale line starkly bisecting the wash of green and brown and the metallic spray of seedheads for miles all around us.

There are no fences, and a few cattle with moon faces nod sleepily. A calf struggles up on shaky legs. We take turns spotting antelope, the fluted wings of spiraling raptors making dark cuts through the sky, while the late afternoon light breaks like shattered glass. The air is cool. It is the end of summer.

Otero Mesa sits like a flattened bowl, rimmed with mountain ranges in all directions, tapering in the west onto the Fort Bliss Military Reservation. I’ve read that to visit its 1.2 million acres is to step back in time, walk the land the way it was centuries ago, before overgrazing and settlement turned these grassy plains into the sparse scrub vistas that fill much of the Southwest. It is the last intact grassland of the Chihuahuan desert. My trip here is a coda to a year of endings — to a rare landscape, that is also facing an end.

The memory of the past year recedes like a fading watercolor, but I glimpse the 3 deaths of loved ones, the way I walked behind my father, trying to grab the pieces of him that fell away, as he succumbed further into dementia; the accident that tore into my spine like a shotgun blast, leaving me with months of horrific pain and recuperation. I had backpacked some of the most astonishing wildernesses in the US, summitted 14,000-ft peaks and slid over icefields while I watched grizzlies do the same. That may be lost to me forever. This is a different kind of journey, where I learn that the beauty of the grassland is subtle as the crags are stunning, pure as a living haiku.

But two idle oil and natural gas drill pads mar the surface of the Mesa, and a recent decision by the BLM will permit further energy exploration in the area. I see one of them in the distance, the abrupt height of the drilling scaffold looking like a bare skeleton, or the stapling along a surgical scar. It doesn’t belong here, where each turn of our tires takes me further into a land so open my mind empties, and the line blurs between earth and sky. Unruly Black Grama grass and Stipa are whispered to by rainclouds, the desert made soft. I know this is where the gods lay down.