A fluty wildness swelled the tremolo that floated down Christie Creek into our campsite near Black Mountain in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. Shuddering, I rolled over in my sleeping bag. Was it coyotes? Wolves? The sound was like nothing I’d ever heard –– neither howl nor cry. Tender yet otherworldly. Startling in its beautiful complexity. Yet way too close: Fifty yards of creek-bed was all that separated us from them.
I shot a glance across the clearing, where my host, photographer and environmentalist Michael Berman, was bedded down in his pickup truck. A compact, meticulous man, Berman hours ago had slipped out of his boots, pulled up his tailgate and closed the hatch of his hardcover, sealing himself safely inside. I would get no help from him tonight.
The next morning, when I crawled out of my tent, Berman was already up, wrapping muffins in foil, setting them in last night’s embers. I asked if he’d heard the sound last night. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Just as I was drifting off. It was like a beautiful lullaby.” Then he gestured at the morning sunlight filtering in through the trees. “It’s getting late. We oughta go.”
I was adjusting my hiking poles when, from our left, there arose a clatter. Hustling down a hill into the gulch came five elk, all female, all pregnant. Their coats glistened. Berman beamed: “We got good game karma.”
And we did. Throughout our three days wandering the Gila, we encountered game at every turn. Pronghorns. The canines whose calls had swelled the creek. And everywhere, elk. At one point, a group of females vaulted the fence directly in front of us. Berman braked to a halt, shut off his engine. Then, as the elk scrambled off, he gave a call. The last one in line stopped, turned. Then another one did the same and then another. We sat there, taking them in.
“I know the word’s over-used. But look at this.” Berman gestured at the elk, the vista. “If this isn’t magic, I’d like to know what is.”
Then he said: “There’s too many of them.”
Berman was worried that there weren’t enough predators in the Gila to control the size of the herds. A program to reintroduce the endangered Mexican gray wolf here was failing, he said, a victim of fear and cultural intolerance. Officials had hoped to have 100 wolves re-established by now, but only 42 were roaming their 4.4 million acre preserve.
We followed the elk up the gulch, until they disappeared into the brush at the top of the ridge.
“The Forest Service trail is over there,” Berman said, pointing. “But let’s go this way.”
This was Berman’s style: He avoided trails at all costs, preferring to bushwhack, and he rarely ventured into public areas. More than anything, he sought the solitude of the wilds.
That predilection was obvious the first time I saw Berman’s photographs in two books he produced with writer Charles Bowden. Inferno and Trinity were published to great acclaim by the University of Texas Press in 2006 and 2009 respectively. They helped Berman win a Guggenheim fellowship, which he is now using for a third book with Bowden, this one on the Gila Wilderness.
It was through Bowden’s books that I first encountered Berman’s work. But after hearing Berman lecture in Santa Fe last year, I realized that he was more than merely a gifted photographer. Berman moves through the landscape with an almost indigenous sensitivity, and then returns to share his experience with us urbanities in his haunting, disarmingly unsentimental photographs. And so, despite being a wilderness novice with two bum knees from a career in the National Football League, I jumped when Berman asked if I would explore the Gila with him.