01/19/2012 07:21 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Chasing Fire And Water Through The Southwest (PHOTOS)

William deBuys is the author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, newly released by Oxford University Press.

A woman from Zuni, the largest of New Mexico's Indian pueblos, said to a friend of mine, "Your culture values curiosity; ours values wonder."

Her judgment seems fair to me. As a non-Indian researching A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, I was pretty much guilty as charged. The book prompted me to visit dozens of intriguing places, to learn about those places from the people who knew them best, and to indulge my curiosity with abandon.

As a longtime Southwesterner, I wasn't new to the riddles of the region, but the book gave me reason to probe them as far as energy and interest would allow, maybe not to out-and-out answers, but at least to a deepened understanding. In the company of a range ecologist, I went to the drought-stricken plains of Janos, Chihuahua, to study the dynamics of desert grasslands. Later I journeyed to the ruins of Sand Canyon Pueblo, near Cortez, Colorado, for a tutorial from a top archaeologist. A team of humanitarian activists guided me on migrant trails along the border, and in the bowels of Grand Canyon, with the Colorado River pounding by, I had opportunity to ponder the mysteries of western water in the company of experts. There were many other such journeys and quests, and each abounded in opportunities for curious inquiry.

But if curiosity was one of the horses pulling my wagon, wonder was the other. I never stopped wondering at the immensity of the sky and the chromatic beauty of the land. For me, the Southwest is the embodiment of a love affair between space and color. Every shimmering basin is rimmed by chipped-tooth mountains, blued with distance. The stars shine at night with the intensity of a shout. The sheer drama of the vistas can reduce an otherwise hard-nosed reporter to romantic babbling, but--let's be honest--a person would have to travel with his head in a sack not to marvel at the evening light on the summit of Mount Graham or the orgiastic fury of frogs when rains finally return to the desert.

Living in the Southwest also offers plenty of occasion to wonder at abstract things. The pretzled development of western water law, for instance, is at least as bizarre as the evolutionary history of the platypus. It's a case of cumulative cultural insanity and, in a twisted way, it is oddly wonderful.

Wonder has a dark side too. One day last June, at home in northern New Mexico, I received several e-mail messages about a fire that had just broken out near Los Alamos, about sixty miles across the great valley of the Rio Grande from where I live.

One message warned: "This could get ugly."

I grabbed binoculars, camera, and a spotting scope and drove to a highway turnout affording a view of the valley and the burning mountains beyond. I backed my truck to the overlook, let down the tailgate, and settled in to watch the show.

What I saw was horrific and inspiring at the same time. Volcano-like, a dirty brown plume surged up from the Jemez Mountains for tens of thousands of feet, past where jetliners fly, literally into the stratosphere. It blotted out the sun and filled the sky. I watched successive puffs of white smoke erupt downwind from the main burn--these were spot fires ignited by wind-borne brands. In less than a minute their smoke turned black (with volatilized unburned solids) as they exploded in heat and flame, eventually to merge with the ever-expanding main conflagration. Later analyses would say that in those early hours the Las Conchas fire consumed a patch of forest the size of a football field every second. In its first fourteen hours it burned 43,000 acres. Eventually it would grow larger than any fire in New Mexico's recorded history.

Awe is an extreme form of wonder, and the Las Conchas fire was an awesome sight. It showed the Oxygen Planet in the act of strutting its stuff, flexing its muscles, as only an oxygen planet can do. The fire engendered many tragedies, and many marvels as well. In one canyon it killed all the ponderosa pines (along with everything else) but didn't burn them. Not even the needles of the trees were consumed. Strangely, however, the needles were bent horizontally and all in the same direction, as though by a ferocious wind. No one really knows how those trees died, but one explanation holds that they were flash-blazed by a superheated wind, perhaps a collapsing column of fire, and that the wind had already burned up its supply of oxygen, so that it welded the trees, by heat alone, into their final posture of death.

An experienced forest ecologist who visited the canyon told me he had never seen this form of destruction before. Such evidence suggests that a new Southwest is currently being birthed from our changing climate, from levels of heat and dryness previously unknown, even here in the continent's hottest and driest region.

I think of the Southwest today as a Desdemona of the land. American society is her Othello, a headstrong fellow who has been deluded by tens of thousands of Iagos in the employ of Big Coal, Big Oil, and the ideological Right. This Othello does violence to his Desdemona through the strangle-grip of climate change, even as he loves her. It is a tragedy of classical dimension, heartbreaking at multiple levels and rooted in the moral blindness of its protagonist. Mere curiosity cannot explain it. As the woman from Zuni might say, you have to wonder.

The Las Conchas Fire