White Sands dune by Kai Staats

Here I lay. My feet, ankles and shins were buried in the cool, moist gypsum, my head was covered in a light hood, the wind blown sand collecting down wind from my nose and eyes. I fell to sleep on the side of a sand dune.

It was one of those deep naps that rejuvenate in a way that feels more important than a full night’s rest. I woke to my water bottle half buried, additional particles of sand collecting as I watched. Roughly one millimeter per minute, it seemed. At this rate, six centimeters in an hour. My rudimentary calculation suggests that one meter of sand could shift in a day, but this seems too high. Even at one tenth that rate, the movement of these dunes is rapid in geological time frames.

A waitress at a restaurant in Alamogordo stated stated that in her twenty years of living here, the dunes have crossed roads that were not even in close proximity before. Blowing, shifting, burying and revealing again. I wonderer how long I would need lie there before like the road, I became something people once recalled but could no longer find.

Somewhere, over there (pointing with one hand outstretched, the other shading the eyes) … there was a Kai. They say he fell to sleep and, well, the dunes just went right over him. Guess he’s still in there, somewhere. I hear it’s cool inside a dune, so maybe he’s alright.

This is my third week in a row spent in and out of National Parks and Monuments of the American Southwest. I am feel privileged to have these opportunities: Chaco Canyon National Monument and Canyon Lands National Park with Colleen, now White Sands National Monument. Here I am shooting footage for a series of promotional and educational films for Mission Control Space Services, a Canadian company testing their software on two rovers in this park for three weeks.

Inside these parks is a sense of endless space, horizon to horizon vistas and room for all who enter. Yet, in reality, these parks are minute in comparison to the land once occupied by the Natives to these regions. I can’t help but feel a simultaneous desire to explore from end to end and an urge to shed tears, knowing there are ranches, oil rigs, mining operations, interstates, and cities nearby. I feel a sense of longing for something that is not entirely gone. Not yet.

In a dinner conversation with the software developers of Mission Control I raised a discussion about preservation of wilderness. I have opened this discussion a number of times in the past, often in mixed social settings knowing that some or all of the participants might not feel as I do about this subject.

The conversation was stimulating, each of us providing a different point of view. Kevin stated clearly that he was born, raised, and now lives in a city. “I go camping every summer. I hate it. Mosquitoes in my ears! Bugs! I just want to get back to Ontario.”

I responded, “I understand that if you didn’t grow up in the out-of-doors, if you were not given that sense of comfort at an early age, it might be difficult to make that connection.” I then countered my own statement by sharing how people who float the Colorado river sometimes find it impossible to go back again. There are a number of stories of individuals, some whom I have met, who quit their East coast job, sell their house, and move west simply because something inside of them was given a sense of home.

Kaizad responded that our detachment to the wilderness and overt displacement of the natural areas as lead to what very well may be irreversible collapse of parts of the ecosystem. I mentioned the loss of some 80% of honey bees in less than two decades.

Kevin retorted, “Who cares! We can build drones that will pollinate the flowers or just 3D print our food!” Everyone laughed, but me. “That is the very approach that got us in this mess to begin with, to believe that the entire world is our domain to control. We are an integral part of a system, not an outsider reaching in,” I suggested.

I thought I’d try a new approach and mentioned research that shows a strong connection between attention deficit disorders and lack of time outdoors. “In my recent backpacking trip with Colleen we spent three days in Canyon Lands. As the trails are well marked and frequently signed, it was easy to gage distances from junction to junction. I could not help but recognize the stark contrast between walking a half mile in a city and a half mile out there. In a city, very little would engage me. Very little would draw me in. Concrete. Bricks. Glass. The roar of traffic, sirens, traffic lights. None of it helps me to feel welcomed. I can’t wait to get inside and away from it all.

Yet on the trail, one could easily spend an entire day exploring that same distance, measured not in city blocks but in the aromas of creosote, mesquite, and sage, the tracks left by mice, hare, fox, coyote, and mountain lion. Juniper twist as they rise while pinion slump to the canyon floor. Several edible plants provide a snack for those who know, and pockets of water refill bottles if you carry a filter or make a still.

In response Ewan listed all the activities available to those who live in Toronto, in town or an hour outside. True, Toronto provides a plethora of activities, but I could not help but note that each he listed was something you did to the environment, a kind of traverse for speed or distance: running, skiing, ice skating, horse back riding. What I was speaking of was letting the environment do something to you.

Inside, I started to feel trapped. Not by this conversation, but by the reminder that the preservation of wilderness is a loosing battle. Developers have ultimate power in their deep pockets and promise of jobs and increased tax revenues for a town or city.

Clearly, our acting president sees the preservation of land, open space, and natural corridors as a resource lost, not a resource gained. And as Edward Abbey lived, we must fight in defense of the land because it cannot defend itself from the chainsaw, bulldozer, and selfish politician.

I read in a recent New Scientist that the year 2017 marked the first time in recorded history that more open land was gained than lost. Climate change has forced many farmers to abandon their land. Advances in yield has afforded higher profit from smaller farms. And some willingly designated their land as open space, donating or selling part or all to nature conservancies for future generations.

Maybe there is hope. Maybe we will learn from our mistakes. Not a lot of examples of humans doing so, but perhaps the land will in fact fight back, in its own, subtle way–no longer providing for us as we see fit.