CARSON, NEW MEXICO — When the wind comes up the mesa, which it often does, there is a particular rusted-out old car nearby that whispers the same eerie, long-toned question every time: “Whoooooo?”
I sometimes think: “Us.”
Out in this remote part of the American Southwest lies the closest thing I have seen to an answer to how to actually live sustainably on the planet.
With groundwater too deep for wells, we harvest rain off tin roofs and collect it in cisterns for sparse use all year. With no plumbing, outhouses and even composting toilets or living-machine-style waste recycling systems are the standard. A landscape with a complete absence of power lines means small solar setups, use of solar gain in building design, or just going without. Heat is wood. This year everyone is burning the dead-standing pinyon pine that got hit by a bark beetle infestation.
Many people out here live on what the rest of the country would call literally nothing — some on less than a few hundred dollars a month. At the tiny local store you can buy small bags of the most beautiful tricolored popping corn grown by a woman down the way, or the local furniture maker Robert’s dry-farmed beans. There’s nothing lavish about this life, except the vast beauty of the sky, the fine tracks of kangaroo rats traced in arroyo sand on morning walks, and a secret knowledge that you live the good life. I have often met some of the roughest-looking folks who end up confessing: “Yeah, I’ve been out here twenty-five years, I used to be a CEO, now I haul water and use an outhouse and I couldn’t be happier! If you trade your whole life for money, what do you really have?”
Yesterday, while a neighbor and I spent two hours digging her truck out of the mud, she stopped and commented, “Did you see the sunset last night? The geese should be migrating soon, I can feel it!” The next morning, by god, I heard the first of the honking calls of the geese moving north.
What I mean to say here is: sure, join organizations, shop more consciously at sustainable businesses, use all the right organic body-care products, but none of this is hitting the mark if we want to talk about the real changes Americans need to make in order to continue to exist in the delicate balance of our now threadbare ecosystems. I fear I see a trend that is urging people who care about the fate of life on the planet to transfer their same over-consumptive habits and over-dependence on comfort merely to a “greener” version of the same unsustainable thing.
If the system as we know it collapsed tomorrow, some of us would still be out here, running on wind and sun — rugged, near-moneyless, land- and sky-loving desert dwellers in whose lives I see the possibility of human survival.