The Last Grassland (Part 2 of 4)

Overlooking last intact grassland of chihuahuan desert in Southern New Mexico. Photo by Zoe Krasney.

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

One of us spots something on the road, screaming “turtle”. As we discuss whether or not it is possible for a turtle to live in the desert, a truck roars by, then halts.

Two ranchers eye us, curious at three women in a Honda Civic, incongruous on this remote road. Their big cowboy hats touch as they lean towards us. They say there are a bunch of people already there, waiting. They will check on us later, make sure we are all right, they say in Texas slow, while their eyes flick over our camping gear. All right, we laugh, and look out over the land without traffic, houses, crime, misfortune, newspapers, politicians, noise, or any sign of human frenzy.

We are greeted with hellos by a group with lawn chairs and open pick-ups in the parking lot next to Alamo Mountain. A young man spreads his hand. He has a boy’s face on a man’s body, tilted, as if listening to the earth as well as the inhabitants of it. Nathan organized this gathering for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, one of many over the 8 years of his life he has dedicated to Otero Mesa. I hear later that others in his organization tease him, that Nathan doesn’t like trees. I look out over the land of shimmering grasses, the mountains rubbed down. Our housing development of jaunty tents is dwarfed by the immensity of open space. I keep stretching my arms, and they do not reach the ends.

We make a fire, though the rain starts and the immigrant wood smokes before it flames. Other people trickle in throughout the evening, cars arriving through the dark landscape announced by headlights like shooting stars. By morning there are 11 of us, a range of ages and backgrounds, all of us drawn by this mysterious landscape on the bed-edge of New Mexico and Texas.

Personalities emerge, bursting to the surface, outlined in relief. Maybe it’s the vast plain, the almost emptiness, the myth-breathing air: here are the joker, the detective, the hermit, the judge, the scholar, the warrior, the scribe, the weary, the hurt, healing, curious, mystical. There is an engineer, a lawyer, a few salespeople, a fireman, a nurse, a geologist, a retired couple who delight in the scrap-ends of nature. On the dashboard of their van is Devil’s Claw and Horse Crippler; around his red cap is a coiled rope made from agave. They notice everything.

The grass is high this year, Nathan says, the rain plentiful. Though cattle are allowed to wander Otero, which is stippled with federal, state and private lands, we only hear them in the distance, an occasional bellow, not enough to chew the tall tuffs down to stones. There are 13 species of grasses that thrive here; leggy tobosa and burro grass favoring the deep swales cut by sudden downpours; gramas and three-awns and dropseed are sifted over the plains.