Atherton Phleger
Rio Grande, Albuquerque NM
2022

Story Info

Story & Experience

I have seen the immediate aftermath of wildfires, as well as landscapes that are a few years into their recovery, but I hadn’t ever seen a landscape in mid-term recovery. I went anticipating absolute devastation, but what I saw was something pretty different. It had rained for several days before we visited, and as we walked to the burned area we went through the typical Bosque jungle-like maze of single-track trails, with wet branches hanging in our faces and the smell of wet desert earth everywhere. It was divine. Eventually we arrived at the burned acreage. It was a sharp transition between the lush jungle atmosphere and the burned landscape, there were trees half-burned with one side participating in the the forest and the other in the burn scar. This thing was scabbing up something mighty, though.  While there were skeletons of the mature cottonwoods, mulberry, elm and ash trees that form the Bosque’s canopy, in the newly sunny ground hundreds of herbaceous plants and shrubs were sprouting, including legions of Yerba Mansa, penstemons, and coyote willow. Many of the fire-adapted invasives were returning as well, including tamarisks growing from burned stumps and Russian olives sprouting everywhere. The landscape didn’t look injured in the way I was anticipating: More like it was making the most of an unexpected transition. I have a love-hate relationship with many of the plants that seemed like they would be dominating the new landscape, such as the tamarisks, an “invasive” species that has dramatically changed the Rio Grande. It thrives in disturbed or stressed systems such as the Bosque, and this visit helped facilitate a begrudging respect. Some of the plants, like Yerba Mansa, are beautiful native plants that are much less common elsewhere in the Bosque, and the fire produced a brand new opportunity for them to grow and flourish. As my colleagues did their work I briefly stepped away to do my ceremony. 

Why this Place?

Rio Grande, Albuquerque NM

The Rio Grande is one of the most heavily taxed rivers in the world. It’s the focal point of cultural and religious life for the Indigenous communities I work for and the source of most of the water supplying Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I live. A few months ago, during the worst stretch of the worst fire season we’ve had on record, a fire erupted along the banks and burned 80 acres on either side of the river, just a few miles from where I live. It brought home the fact that almost a million acres were on fire elsewhere in the state, which felt somewhat remote given that most of the smoke stayed out of the Albuquerque metro area. I decided to do my geX during a planned visit to the burn site we were doing as part of my work, where my colleagues and I were assessing the damage and making plans for rehabilitation of the area.

Act of Beauty

Say more about your actions and activity

I am very interested in organic matter, the role it plays in building fertility, and the difficulty in creating it in desert soils. I brought a small bag of high-carbon mulch from native plants in my garden that I planned on providing for some of the plants that I knew would enjoy it.  While my colleagues were working I placed small piles around particular plants. The act of tending for plants is something I have always thought is a hallmark of being human, and I love the visual trail that it leaves- I think the visible results of pruning, mulching, harvest, or other kinds of care are beautiful and say something beautiful about both the tend-er and the tend-ee. I mulched several plants and carried on working alongside my colleagues. We plan to come back in a few months, so I’ll see how everything has grown and changed over that time. 

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