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for people who care about the West

My walkabout with Michael

Following in the footsteps of a Western photographer

 

Web extra: View an audio slideshow of Michael Berman's images, accompanied by an interview with the photographer. Hear an extended interview with Berman on our podcast, High Country Views.

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.

It wasn’t until late that first afternoon, as we stumbled into a burn area below the crest of Black Mountain, that Berman finally unpacked his camera. It wasn’t digital; he was shooting film, large format.

Berman focused on the few surviving ponderosas. “Ponderosas feed on fire,” he remarked. “They need it. So a lot of good is going on here.”

The sun was getting low when we headed back to camp. Suddenly, I was more than tired. “Michael, how many ridges have we crossed since leaving Christie Creek?”

“Just keep the drainage in mind, the way the water flows.” He pointed west. “If we walk north, we’ll eventually get where we need to be.”

We plowed on. Finally, the landscape looked familiar. We reached our campsite and  ate. If there was a canine lullaby that night, I didn’t hear it.

The next morning we were both up before dawn. Brewing coffee, Berman said: “We should strike camp.”

“What? But I was just getting comfortable here!”

“Me, too. But there’s an obscure canyon I stumbled into 30 years ago, northwest of Quentin Hulse’s spread. I’m getting a pull to it.”

Quentin Hulse was a Gila legend. Rancher, outfitter, guide, he’d lived in a small house at the bottom of a canyon, without electricity, plumbing or running water, for 50 years. Berman knew him well. Before Hulse died in 2002, they would get together to debate environmental issues. Berman came to understand the wants and needs of the ranchers. It gave him a unique point of view, far from the polemics of the enviro-wars. Nowadays, Berman’s input is routinely sought by locals to resolve disputes.

“When old ranchers die, there’s an opportunity for change,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to shift the paradigm.”

He explained the complexities of public-land grazing allotments, and management plans, noting the more common abuses: unrepaired fences, watersheds “cowed-out” by overgrazing. When old ranchers died, new management plans could be drawn up, protecting the land from overgrazing.

“Of course, the new plans have to be enforced,” Berman said. “That’s always the hard part.”

He spotted a spring that trickled off down a deep draw. “We should follow the water,” he said. The gravel descent was steep –- huge boulders, thickets of brush, treacherous footing. At the  bottom, a stream flowed under a canopy of mature cottonwoods. On either side of it, rock formations rose. I kicked off my shoes, slipped my feet into the cool water. Berman scrambled across the streambed, lit up with a new kind of energy. He returned, grinning: “Cows haven’t been in here for a while. The willows are back.”

We started off down the stream, but almost immediately he stopped. “Look,” he said, pointing up at the cliff face. There, in a corner of a long, horizontal hollow, sat a small structure with curved adobe walls and a single square window.

“Cliff dwellers?”

“Probably,” Berman said.

“It’s amazing, really,” I said. “The way your instincts took us directly to this spot.”

He gave me a look.

“I mean, this morning you got a pull, we followed it, and here we are confronted by thousand-year-old ruins that were probably built by the last people who cared about this place as intensely as you do. You’ve got the gift,” I said. “It’s in your photos.”

Berman just shrugged.

He’s uncomfortable with compliments and dislikes dwelling on his past. When he was 3, his parents flew into Montego Bay for a Jamaican vacation. Foul weather forced a hard landing, and the plane disintegrated on impact. Berman barely remembers his parents. He was raised by his Irish grandmother in New York City.

He graduated in 1979 from Colorado College, with a B.A. in biology. His interest in photography was piqued by a course in his final year at school. After graduating, he worked for five years studying peregrine falcons, all the while experimenting artistically, taking pictures, painting, often combining the two in collages on canvas.

Later, while taking post-graduate art courses at the University of Colorado, Berman realized that landscape photography could fuse his ecological interests with his artistic inclinations. So he secured an MFA in photography at Arizona State. After that, he lived the life of an aspiring ecological photographer, moving here and there, educating himself on environmental issues, mounting exhibitions, scrambling for funding. In the early ’90s, wanting to sharpen his focus, he settled in the wilderness area around the Gila River, near the New Mexico-Mexico border. There he proposed and completed the New Mexico BLM Wilderness Photography Survey. He also became a founding board member of the Gila Resource Information Project, a local environmental group.

Berman’s repeated forays into the desert regions eventually led to a three-year fellowship from the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center to photograph the Gran Desierto, on the southwestern border of Arizona and Sonora. That project led to his first publications: Sunshot, in 2006, with text by Bill Broyles. The books with Bowden followed.

Commercial success hasn’t changed Berman’s drive or method of working. After two days of hiking I was dead tired, but he was still revved up. “I wanna go further down, to see what’s going on there,” he said. I flopped down under a tree.

It was getting toward dusk when he returned. Backtracking, we found a game trail that led us up a rise into a vast expanse of grama grass. “See that white speck out there?” Berman said, pointing. “That’s my truck.”

I squinted. “We’re miles from where we went in.”

“I know,” he said. “If you’re really tired, just head on back. I wanna make a bigger circle.”

This was another of his wilderness predilections, making big circles. As we headed off in our respective directions, I thought of the Tibetans circling Mount Kailash and the walkabouts of the Australian aborigines. Circumambulation has been an act of human reverence for millennia. Something like that was also informing our wanderings here. Just doing it, I was beginning to think, was the most important thing. My exhaustion made me feel permeable to the world.

The next morning, Berman wanted to move again. We headed back to Beaverhead. At the trailhead he wandered over to a Forest Service bulletin board. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to a map. “It shows where the Mexican gray wolves have been congregating.”

I leaned in to study it.

“When the wolves were released, they were tagged with transponders, so their locations could be pinpointed. They still track ’em, but they don’t publish the information anymore, probably because too many people were using it to find ’em and kill ’em. The map shows where they were gathering before they stopped doing that.”

On the map, the transponders were represented by black boxes scattered throughout the areas we’d been traversing. Most were located at Black Mountain in the vicinity of Christie Creek. A chill ran down my spine.

“That beautiful lullaby,” I said.

He nodded.

“We were right in the middle of ’em.”

“Yeah.”

“If you’re telling me that people used this information to find and kill the wolves, I’m sick.”

“They’re still killing ’em,” Berman said. “That’s what they do.”

He was right. Illegal shootings are the single greatest source of wolf mortality in the reintroduced population. Between the program’s inception in 1998 and June 2009, 31 of 68 deaths were attributed to guns.

“So I guess it’s naïve to expect that all the publicity about wolves being vital to the ecology here would have a dampening effect on them.”

Berman shrugged. “At the deepest level, it’s fear run amuck. Like the shark slaughter that’s been going on since Jaws.” He gestured at the surrounding woods. Fear of that was what he meant –– its wildness, its unpredictable danger. Its mystery. That terror magnified out of all proportion. Leading to a need for obliteration.

As we approached the Gila’s East Fork, our brush with contemporary wilderness reality took another disturbing turn. After leaving the main road, we came to a place where a sign said “No Turnaround Beyond This Point.”

“That sign is new,” Berman said. “And it doesn’t make sense, because there’s a place to park below. Probably, the guy who lives down there complained about visitors so much that the Forest Service finally put it up just to quiet him down.”

He told me how this stretch of river was contested during the Diamond Bar Ranch grazing brouhaha of the 1990s. The main ranch is only 400 acres, but it gets the use of a 145,000-acre federal grazing allotment, the largest in the state. To keep the cattle out on the range, owner Kit Laney wanted to bulldoze stock tanks all across the allotment. Environmentalists sued, and finally stopped the plan in 2004. Laney threatened a rancher revolt. “Essentially, they feel that privileging habitat over resource use is insane,” Berman said.

“Even though it’s public land,” I said.

“It’s a hell realm, for sure,” he said. “Those same ranchers are the ones who are furious about the wolf release program.”

Of course they are, I thought –– because they had to work so hard to exterminate them in the first place.

At the road’s end, we pulled up next to a third vehicle that was already there. A stretch of barbed wire fence marked the end of public land and the beginning of someone’s ranch. “KEEP OUT!!! said a sign with awkward scrawl straight out of Lil’ Abner.

At the fence’s edge, I peered down, expecting to see some sort of hardscrabble ranchette. But the scene was idyllic. At a dramatic bend in the river, an elegant main house sat amid several smaller dwellings beneath towering willows. Manicured lawns covered the grounds between them.

“For a long time, this property belonged to a private school that used it for retreats,” Berman said. “That ‘Keep Out’ sign wasn’t there when the school owned the place. It went up after the property changed hands.”

A pickup truck braked to a halt beside us. The driver, perhaps 65 years old, wore an NRA gimme hat and a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt. A little terrier sat perched on his lap.

“So whattya y’all boys up to this morning?” the driver asked.

“We’re just going down to take a look at the river,” Berman replied.

The driver waited, wanting more information, but we didn’t give it to him. An edge came into his voice.

“Didn’t ya’ll see that sign up top?” he demanded. “You people are tearing up the area down here. That’s why that sign’s up there. Y’all need to park up there.”

I knew that in his truck Berman carried county maps that showed precisely where public roads ended and private roads began. Indisputably, we were on public land.

“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Berman said, and abruptly wheeled around and walked back to his truck.

The driver had expected an argument. At length, he shrugged and pulled away.

“One of those old ranchers you were talking about, I guess,” I said.

“No,” he said. A kind of gloom had settled over him. “He’s just a grumpy old Anglo who bought a fantasy.” Berman sighed. “They’re coming in droves, you know. I so prefer the company of old ranchers like Quentin Hulse. And their compadres, the wolves.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the East Fork watershed. The river meandered south, so at many points we had to wade through it to get where we wanted to go. The number of minnows swirling in the shallows encouraged Berman, but the deep cuts in the banks didn’t. The streambed had been grazed, the new willows nipped as they’d sprouted. And in one section there were too many groves of dead cottonwoods. In stark contrast to the ranch’s lushness, this landscape felt denuded. Bleak.

That night, Berman was thoughtful.

“It’s more and more obvious,” he said, “that in the wild places — the places with the greatest ecological integrity —dominated by predators other than humans — these places are at their end. Humans want a place they can enter and be oblivious. They want a place without consequence.”

Thirty years ago, when Berman first came to the Gila, he’d ended up at a cottonwood a mile or so above the Middle Fork Visitor Center. The tree had fallen and wrapped large branches around the ground. There was just enough room amid the branches to snuggle in a campsite — a tent and a fire ring. The hot spring nearby was beautiful; it was always clean, rarely used. This place was the reason Berman and his wife, Jennifer, had decided to settle here.

“For the last 10 years I avoided the Middle Fork,” he said. “But last week, when I walked it again. …” He shook his head. Wherever people had camped, invasive cheatgrass had taken over.

“And that beautiful cottonwood? It was a giant skeleton, burned by a campfire, with only one small branch left alive.”

“There’s still a little bit of wild left in the Gila,” he continued. “It only needs to be left alone. But that would be a conscious act on our part, and we’re oblivious. So when I photograph this place, I wonder: Do I do damage or is there something important in the work?

“I guess in the end it’s learning to let the land guide you.”

The next morning, we were loaded and ready to go by first light. “Let’s do it again soon,” Berman said, smiling. “How are you going back?”

“Well, I guess the way I came in. Back to Truth or Consequences, then north up the freeway.”

“There’s another route that you might find more interesting.” He unrolled a map. “At Beaverhead, there’s a stop sign. Turning right takes you to the freeway while turning left takes you north through some incredible terrain.”

“But the roads—”

“Yes, the roads are bad. But only for a while. They get better as you go along.” He clapped my shoulder, climbed into his cab and drove away.

Thirty minutes later, I rolled up to the Beaverhead stop sign, still not sure what to do. Part of me wanted the freeway. But Berman held the key to the mysteries of these places. I didn’t want to ignore him, but everything I wanted was at home.

I turned up the volume of my iPod for a song called “Stolen Horses” by Americana artist Ray Wylie Hubbard. The third verse floored me.

“Now, there’s little demons,” Ray sang. “On the Hindu Temple. Above the door. And all around. What that says is. We get past what scares us. We can stand. On sacred ground.”

I made the turn.

Patrick Toomay writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

More information:

Michael Berman's website

Article about a Berman monograph, Trinity