My walkabout with Michael

Following in the footsteps of a Western photographer

  • Brioso Flat, image 002

    Michael Berman
  • Brioso Flat, image 018

    Michael Berman
  • Brioso Flat, image 039

    Michael Berman
  • Michael Berman, photographer

    Pat Toomay
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.