November 22, 2011
By Edmund McWilliams/Vietnam veteran
While I only moved to New Mexico in 2004, my love affair with the Southwest began many years ago.
In 1970 I volunteered for the Army and was assigned to Biggs Field outside Fort Bliss for a year of Vietnamese language training. For nearly a year, before leaving for Vietnam, some buddies and I spent most of our weekends exploring the extraordinary desert, grasslands and mountains that spread east and north of the base. The pristine beauty of the amazing west Texas and southern New Mexico landscape stayed with me through the ensuing decades and after retirement led me back to the Southwest.
The heart of that extraordinary landscape is Otero Mesa, a nearly untouched expanse of grasslands bounded on the east by the majestic Guadalupe Mountains and on the north by the magnificent Lincoln National Forest.
Known to many as the Serengeti of the Southwest, Otero Mesa is home to large herds of pronghorn, mule deer and rare bird species. A century ago it was the domain of the Mescalero who trekked across it from their encampments in the Sacramento Mountains. They and their predecessors from centuries before left a stunning record of their lives in rock art that embellishes Alamo and Wind mountains at the southern edge of Otero Mesa. Since returning to New Mexico I have worked with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance in its effort to preserve this unique land against development that continues to threaten the area.
Those who have encountered the raw beauty of Otero Mesa, experienced the massive monsoon thunder storms that sweep across it in summer or marveled at the unmatched beauty of the wildflowers that color the whole mesa in spring are determined to protect this land against oil and gas development and the emerging threat of open pit rare earth mining that continues to menace this precious place. In an all-too rare alliance, hunters, ranchers, and people who simply love nature and the history of this special place, have come together to defend Otero Mesa.
Also since coming to New Mexico I have worked with other veterans in the area on a personal basis. Many of the veterans I have met with have shared their experiences, especially in service. Vietnam and Korea were for many hellish places with memories of combat and suffering that continue to be open wounds that limit their careers and work, their family life and of course their health.
Sadly, the current generation of veterans now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are even more heavily burdened, after multiple extended tours, having endured the same hellish conditions of war Vietnam or Korea era veterans faced for only one or at most two tours of duty.
Many of these veterans have told me that they have been able to find in the Southwest, and particularly in New Mexico, the kind of inner peace and solace they could not find elsewhere in America.They have found in the incredible vistas of New Mexico’s mountain-framed horizons and the silence of its deserts, grasslands and forests a kind of harmony and order that has given them the time and space to rebuild their lives.
This is the very specialness about New Mexico that left so strong an impression on me four decades ago.
Too often when we consider New Mexico’s natural resources, our minds turn to the physical exploitation of that wealth. We value the land for that which lies beneath it, the oil, the gas the minerals. Or for some, it is the grassland itself whose value lies in the potential for cattle grazing or for hunting the pronghorn and mule deer herds. Even those of us fighting to preserve Otero Mesa have tended to think in such terms, arguing as we do that Otero Mesa must be preserved so as to protect the vast water aquifer that lies below it, or to attract tourist dollars to the state.
We tend to overlook the more intrinsic value of Otero Mesa and other places of wonder that comprise our state.
There is real value too in the simple, pristine beauty of this land, unadorned by oil rigs, open pit mining operations, or for that matter, tourist-oriented billboards. People in need of and in search for harmony in lives fractured by war, or personal tragedy, and even those for whom the pace of life at times gets to be overwhelming, understand this intrinsic value better than most. The veterans, the physically and mentally wounded or those simply seeking to re-order their lives, have a deeper insight regarding the value of this land.
Their insight and understanding is along the lines of that offered by Henry D. Thoreau over 170 years ago. In his essay “Walking,” he wrote: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in wildness is the preservation of the world.”
As a veteran and newly minted New Mexican, whose love for New Mexico was inspired by Otero Mesa and who drew on memories of it for solace and strength during a tour in Vietnam and through ensuing decades, I am determined that this priceless treasure be preserved for future generations.
Read another veteran’s perspective.