The Wild Keeper
©2010 Kim Antieau
What if we each pledged to care for a plot of land? It could be a square foot, the footprint of the place where we live, a piece of property we own, or a park we love. We would care for these pieces, these plots, these Earthly parcels, like we would care for our fingers or our arms or our legs: We would recognize that it is all a part of us, and as the land is cared for, so are we…
Years ago, I heard that jaguars were coming back into the American Southwest. Two of them had been photographed. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck at this news. My heartbeat quickened. I began to dream of jaguars. They were always powerful, frightening, and alluring. I felt as though this cat was speaking to me, as though these jaguars meant something to me, personally, as well as to the world. I wanted to write about them. I began talking to people about jaguars. I wanted to find people who understood about the wild.
And so I found Sergio Avila, a biologist who was working for Sky Island Alliance. One year we talked about how to protect and conserve the jaguars in the United States. One year we talked about the death of one of the jaguars after it was captured and collared. Sergio and I spoke a common language about nature. I found other people who lived on the land and understood the ways of the wild. I talked to ranchers and hunters and biologists and conservationists. Many of them were trying to save and protect their lands and their livelihoods. All of them wanted to make certain the land was viable for the wild creatures, in one way of another. They didn’t all agree with one another. Some felt sad, angry, and betrayed by what happened after the collared jaguar died…
One day when Sergio and I talked about the wild world, he told me about Carlos Robles Elías, a rancher in Sonora, Mexico. He had 10,000 acres and he was dedicating it to wildlife conservation. A wild jaguar and several ocelots had been photographed on the ranch. You must speak with him, Sergio suggested; he could be the hero of the book you are writing. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck again, just as it had when I first learned about the jaguar.
And so one day, I was in a truck with Carlos and my husband Mario, and we were driving down windy Sonoran roads. The truck shook from a bad tire, but we drove toward El Aribabi Conservation Ranch and we talked about conservation. I scribbled in my notebook while Carlos talked, and I looked up occasionally at the landscape around us. It looked familiar. Had I been here before? Carlos spoke passionately about conservation. He wasn’t certain how he had come to his views, but he thought it had a great deal to do with his older brother who would talk to him about nature. Carlos had moved the cattle off his ranch. He wanted to do make his ranch a paradise for wildlife and show his neighbors how it worked. They were waiting to see if he would be successful at it. Could it be economically feasible?
I told Carlos in my country if someone owned 10,000 they were rich. He said he was not rich. He was struggling. He wanted to make enough money to have a normal life with his wife Martha and their three children. “I don’t want a Hummer,” he said. “Or anything like that. I want a normal life.” And on his piece of land, his parcel of Earth, he wanted to make a home for the Wild. He wanted to make his conservation ranch viable so that “wildlife would have a home forever.” He believed the most important thing was a massive education program, about trash, about conservation, about wildlife. Now people throw trash on the ground and don’t even think about it, he said. When someone sees a snake, they think they have to kill it.
“If we educate the children about the snake,” he said. “Then they won’t feel they have to kill it and they will keep it alive.”
He has school children come out to the ranch and play in the stream. He wants them to know what it is like to be in nature.
I nodded and wrote as he talked. It always surprises me that people need to be taught about nature, that they don’t feel an innate connection with the environment. It was, I supposed, like teaching people they had a heart. They couldn’t see it, but it kept them alive.
As we drove, Carlos spoke about his ranch. He had over thirty protected, threatened, and endangered species on the land, including a jaguar and several ocelots. He had over 180 bird species. He told me the jaguar came up to his land to live because it was a quiet place, a protected place.
Carlos pointed out places along the route where the land had been overgrazed. It wasn’t just that too many cattle were bad for nature, he said; it was that the cowboys would kill anything. They saw something wild, and they’d shoot it, especially mountain lions.
Soon we arrived at the ranch. We went through the gate and passed by huge old cottonwood trees. They looked like old naked dancers, reaching up to the sky or off to the side to stretch. They looked like guardians, too, and I waved. I’d like to talk with them. What had they seen over the years?
Below the ranch house a stream wove its way through a copse of cottonwood trees. Or maybe it was the other way around. The cottonwood were drawn to the water. Something profound and glorious about water in the desert, always. Carlos took us out onto the ranch. He drove slowly through a mesquite forest. Several of the mesquite trees were huge and hundreds of years old. Mesquite roots go very deep — they know how many secrets are buried in the dirt — and I wondered how far down the roots of these ancient trees went. Some of the trees were much younger and had several small trunks instead of one large one. They had come up after his grandfather had bulldozed the area 40 years earlier and planted grass for the cattle.
We drove on the ridge tops, following the line of the hills, looking down at the grasslands. I thought for certain we would see mountain lion in these blond grasses. I could feel them all around us. This place was more wild than any African savannah. More desolate. And beautiful.
Eventually we stopped on one of the ridges to wait for Sergio, who had just arrived at the ranch house. Below us were the hilly grasslands, dotted with yucca. Around us in all directions were the ancient mountains, slouching into the earth, their jaggedness rounded off from age or experience. On many of the nearby slopes, we could see wildlife tracks going through the tall grass. Carlos pointed to a peak just beyond, where they had photographed the jaguar.
We were in jaguar country.
I loved listening to Carlos. He knew every inch of these wild lands. And they were wild lands, make no mistake about that. It was a harsh landscape filled with wild life: rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bears, bobcats, foxes, ocelots, and a least one jaguar. This wasn’t the prairie where you’d take a snooze on the soft grass. This wasn’t a temperate forest fairy land. This was harsh dry country. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It made my soles sweat. It was so silent and majestic; I felt my soul settle into my body and relax.
Take a deep breath. This is the Wild. This is where you are most at home.
And this man Carlos was protecting this wild place. He was restoring the land so that it was a good home — so that wildlife and people could thrive. People need wild places. Children need to play in wild streams. Men and women need to hear wolves howl and coyotes yip. People need to be connected to the wild. The soul’s true nature is unleashed when it hears, senses, sees, dances the song of the wild.
I’m sure of it.
I knew Carlos only a few hours and I knew this: He felt the beat of the land in his heart. In his soul. Later, Carlos would say of Sergio (or Sergio would say of Carlos) that they understood each other because their common language was nature.
That is my language too.
Later Mario told me we had been on the windy road to the ranch before. That was why it had seemed familiar to me. Several years earlier, I had felt the need to go to Mexico, to go out into the countryside, into the desert. I knew something awaited me there. I thought it was a home, a parcel of land that was calling to me. I wasn’t sure. We drove down the road for a long while. We stopped the car and I stood in the middle of the road and listened to the silence. I breathed deeply and wondered what had drawn me to this place. Now all these years later I was back; only this time, I had someone who opened the gate for me, who invited me in.
Invited me to this wild place.
When Sergio arrived, we continued on the road, this time going down into the canyon. We saw a huge buck running up one ridge. The buck stopped and watched us for a time and then continued on his journey and we continued on ours. We drove to the canyon floor and stopped by two buildings in progress, one made from adobe, the other from local rocks. Carlos planned on using four energy sources for these buildings once they were completed: solar, wind, hydropower, and pedal power.
We walked past the houses, through the tall grass, and into the empty stream bed. Small leaves crunched beneath our feet. This was a dry place. The scouts had been out last summer doing restoration work in the stream. They put large rocks at various places in the stream to slow down the water that came cascading down the canyon during the rainy season. This would help prevent erosion, plus it would slow down the water long enough to help it soak into the ground and raise the water table. As we stood in the peaceful stream bed, we could feel the difference in temperature even though the creek was empty now. It was noticeably cooler. Since the scouts had done this work, the level of the water in Carlos’ well had risen.
Carlos wanted to show everyone that many of these kinds of changes could be made quite simply. The scouts had done this restoration work in one day. Actions = results. We talked about many things. Sometimes Carlos spoke in Spanish and Sergio translated. I often understood the gist of what he was saying, and always I understood the passion. He wanted his ranch to be a working model for sustainability. He wanted scientific research done here. He wanted a conservation school to be built here.
But right now, it was difficult for him to make a living off the ranch. Something had to change. They needed to get some kind of income so they could keep the land wild, and so they could keep doing research and restoration work.
I understood this dilemma. How to live in this world and do the right work.
Why did keeping the wild wild always come down to economics? Why was so much of life like that? Some old European towns used to keep a portion of their towns and communities wild. No one owned this land. Everyone cared for this land. It was where the ancient trees grew and the wild animals lived. When the conquerors came, they always decimated these commons and cut down the ancestor trees in an effort to destroy what the community held most dear.
Who are the conquerors now? We are decimating our own commons. Is it because we can’t feel the wild beating in our own hearts?
The four of us drove back to the ranch and had lunch under the portico along with several researchers from a Sonoran university. As I sat at the table eating, I wondered how Carlos could keep this land wild. I imagined desert gardens all around the ranch house — permaculture gardens. I imagined tables and chairs under the portico and people visiting from all over and paying for the privilege of being there. I imagined trails leading from the ranch house to other places in the ranch. If gardens and trails were created near the ranch house, all kinds of workshops could happen here. Writers and artists would want to stay at the ranch house or go further out to be alone. Or people could come who wanted to research or explore. Archaeological teams did that all the time: They charged volunteers to come and work for them. Couldn’t something like that happen at the ranch?
It seemed like this place could become a sanctuary for people as well as other wildlife. A place to connect with the outer wildlife and one’s own inner wild life.
Carlos was trying to keep the Wild wild. Sergio was doing that too.
That was what I tried to do, in my way. With my wild words?
Not long ago, Carlos told us, someone caught an ocelot on their land and brought it to him to put on his land. He said no. When he told us this story, I said, “That’s because you don’t want this to be a zoo. You want this ranch to be a kind of template so that others can do that same thing on their own land.” He wasn’t a zookeeper. He was a wild keeper. He wanted to make his land wild and demonstrate how others could do that same.
Later, Mario and I wandered around the house and then went down to the stream while Carlos and Jose changed a bulging tire on the truck. I liked being on the land. I liked my soles against this earth. Mario and I watched the sunlight hit the tops of the cottonwoods as the sun began to set. It was so quiet here. I felt peace in this wild place.
Still later, Carlos drove us back to the border. We talked of many things on the drive. When he stopped to drop us off, I shook his hand and thanked him for a wonderful day. Then Mario and I got out of the truck and walked across the border to our car. We drove for an hour or so to Tucson and stopped into a restaurant for a late dinner. We ordered too much food. I ate too much. I missed the land already. I missed the easy wild day. I had to remember that the wild was always in me. I didn’t have a parcel of land to care for. I had me. I had my words. Maybe in some way, that was a help to the world. I hoped Carlos could keep his land wild, for his sake but also for the sake of the world. We will always need wild places and wild keepers. – This article first appeared February 3, 2011, on Kim Antieau’s blog — www.kimantieau.com — and is excerpted here with the kind permission of the author.