Mountain Time, A Field Guide to Astonishment, by Renata Golden

Columbus State University Press, March 2024

Mountain Time, A Field Guide to Astonishment is a sharp and moving collection of essays about author Renata Golden’s time in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeast Arizona. Hard on the New Mexico and Mexico borders, the area is isolated, but not desolate. For those who pay attention, the desert is teeming with life, past and present. Golden maintains her sense of astonishment as she observes this terrain and the role humans have in shaping, harming, and, on occasion, repairing the damage to the landscape. “It is too late to let nature take its course; humans long ago bent the environment to our liking.” And then she goes on to write, “If we caused the problem, are we responsible for its solution?”

This is no abstract conundrum for Golden. Consider the bullfrog, one of the worst invasive species in the country, which is displacing the native Chiricahua leopard frog, a species already challenged by drought, a parasitic fungus, and pollutants. But in order to repatriate the Chiricahua, the bullfrog must go. The two cannot occupy the same ecosystem. After painful deliberation, Golden decides she wants the leopard frog to “carry the banner for success at a time of extirpation of many species.” And so she joins a biologist on bullfrog hunt. She squeezes the trigger of the .22 and “the pond spit out something that looked like a rubber toy… I had killed my first bullfrog.”

She tracks the efforts to save other natives, such as the Gunnison’s prairie dog, which has declined 98% in the last century, wiped out by ranchers who believe their burrows trip up livestock. These are the same burrows that serve to channel rainwater back into the water table, prevent erosion, and aerate the soil. Prairie dogs have the largest vocabulary in the animal kingdom, but their words have not saved them. Survival has never been easy in the desert, and now the warming world has made life tenuous at best. Even the grass under Golden’s feet is threatened. Non-native Lehman lovegrass, which can be heavily grazed and doesn’t need rest, is taking over where native prairie grass once stood. When Golden mentions its invasiveness to a farmer who is extolling its virtues, he claims it’s not pushing out the natives, it’s just more successful, as if that weren’t the very definition of an invasive species. And then they tussle over the very meaning of “native,” which brings us to our own species. Under the U.S. government policy of “Indian removal,” European arrivals pushed Native Americans out of their territory with guns and colonized the land. Even within our own solitary species, we seem unable to occupy the same ecosystems.

Chiricahua creates the frame for these essays, but they are not geographically contained. As Golden ponders bats, deer mice, ant wars, undocumented migrants, rattlesnakes, a terrifying wild cave adventure, and the transformation of border security, her writing wanders far afield. She travels in time and place, including to her ancestral home in County Kerry. “Before the paganism of the ancient Irish was subsumed by Christianity, nature was the language of the gods.” Literally, each letter of the ogham alphabet represents a different tree. From the past perspective of her childhood home in Chicago, she delves into the history of New Mexico land fraud, particularly that of the Deming Ranchettes, one of many 1960s real estate schemes of undeveloped desert. Her father, a Chicago policeman, had bought two lots, and she inherited them, nearly worthless from start to finish.

There is a joy in discovering new words, and Golden provides lists of terms particular to the desert, including snake words, such as ecdysis, the process of shedding skin in one continuous layer, and brilles, the transparent scales over a snake’s eyes. Hibernaculum is the name of their communal den. There are lovely words such as gegenschein, which is the sunlight bouncing off dust outside the atmosphere, appearing as a smudge in the surrounding dark sky. Then there’s haboob, a dangerous wind creating a wall of dust, and malpai, the hard pavement left on the desert floor when the dirt is gone. Extirpation is a word I needed to be reminded of, meaning that a species no longer exists at a local level. It is hard not to grieve for what we’ve lost when a US Forest Service District Ranger tells Golden, “I don’t strive for a perfect future, just a possible one.” Golden is here to remind us that where there is beauty and wonder, there is still hope.

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