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“Fascinating from beginning to end.” —New Mexico Magazine

Winner of the 1986 Southwest Book Award, This unusual book is a complete account of the closely linked natural and human histories of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, a region unique in its rich combination of ecological and cultural diversity. First published in 1985, ENCHANTMENT AND EXPLOITATION has become recognized as a seminal work in the field of environmental history. In September 2015, the original edition, now in its tenth printing, will give way to a thirtieth-anniversary revised edition incorporating new material, including a new preface by the author and a completely new concluding chapter that examines the region and its prospects through the prism of climate change. ENCHANTMENT AND EXPLOITATION has introduced a generation of New Mexicans and aficionados of the Southwest to the glories and griefs of what is arguably the nation’s most complex region. Now, a revised edition promises to do the same for the generation to come.

  • From the Preface to the 1985 edition

    On foot and alone, I set out for the high country, and after a long day of climbing I spent a twenty-degree night beside the East Fork of the Santa Barbara, a clear and ice-hung stream that drains some of the most remote and least visited land in the range. In the morning, climbing again, I found occasional signs of animal life in the early-season snow that lay in the forest. Here a coyote had trotted beside the river. There an elk had browsed a shrub. I was surprised to find the track of a snowshoe hare that had dashed through the trees, very erratically, and then simply stopped. I looked closer and found a splash of red in the snow, and beside it, the trident-shaped clawprint of a goshawk or a great horned owl.

    I walked on and, not much farther, suddenly caught sight of a pyramid of crumpled metal a short distance off the trail. It was the wreckage of an airplane. I was not immediately alarmed because downed aircraft are not uncommon in the mountains. But I had never heard of a wreck on the East Fork. I began to feel an adrenal rush as I approached the plane, noticing first a torn seat cushion with its stuffing still unmolested by wood rats. Behind the wreckage I saw a broken tree with fresh sap flowing from the wound, and closer, a litter of tissues, a cowboy hat, a glove.

    I found four bodies in the plane, all quite frozen, and I was relieved to see no sign of scavengers or even of struggle or suffering. Apparently death had been instantaneous. I had no idea how long ago it had occurred, and I stayed near the wreckage only long enough to copy down the identification number of the plane and to be sure that its occupants were indeed dead and that there was nothing I could do.

    Clearly there was nothing, but it seemed that the groaning of the wind grew steadily louder in the time I remained near the wreck. I struggled to think clearly whether there was not some duty I should perform, and I began to doubt whether I could be of any service to the dead, even as a messenger carrying word of their misfortune back to civilization. Frozen in their aluminum tomb and shrouded by drifts of snow, they seemed well buried. I remember wishing I had an offering of cornmeal or pollen or holy water with which to sanctify the place, not because of what had befallen them, but because my anxious presence had profaned their place of rest and ultimate quiet. The mountains often inspire feelings of personal insignificance but I had never felt them so intensely before. Here were mortality and finality, and I was a nervous intruder.

    The official investigation of the crash eventually revealed that the four individuals who lost their lives in the canyon of the East Fork had come to the mountains with too little understanding of the mountain environment and too little respect for the perils their ignorance posed for them. They had come as sightseers, fascinated by the awesomely glaciated landscape, but unaware that the rubble-sided peaks rose more steeply than their frail plane had the power to climb. Perhaps they looked down on a band of elk in one of the grassy parks. Perhaps they flew wing to wing with a golden eagle or a migrating rough-legged hawk. Too late, the pilot realized how sharply the headwall of the canyon rose to the sky. At the last instant he banked his plane into a tight turn. The lower wing struck the top of a spruce and pitched the craft into the ground. A day later came the first snow of the year, and the white plane, its emergency transmitter broken, was absorbed into a white and frozen world.

    The point of this story is deceptively simple. It has nothing to do with fake profundities about technology or wilderness, and still less with advice on air travel. It is simply this: in an unforgiving environment, small errors yield large consequences.

    This minor yet muscular truth characterizes every pioneer experience, and it is one of history's themes in New Mexico. Centuries of human experience afford abundant examples of small miscalculations leading to large-scale misfortune. One hundred years ago, for instance, a great many relatively small decisions by stockmen to increase the size of their herds resulted in a debacle of overgrazing that seriously undermined the pastoral economy of the mountain villages.

    The trick of living in the mountains begins with understanding the power of the landscape and the limits it imposes. By extension, the region's history begins with the story of how people have learned that lesson — and at times forgotten it.

  • From the new closing chapter added to the 2015 revised edition

    While we can confidently predict that the future will be hotter and drier, it is much harder to forecast how these changes will affect living biological communities. One of the more useful tools toward that end is a measurement called the Forest Drought-Stress Index, or FDSI. Park Williams, a statistically adept ecologist, developed it with the help of many collaborators while working at Los Alamos National Laboratories. (Since then he has joined Seager at Lamont-Doherty). The index synthesizes winter precipitation and moisture stress levels deduced from a one-thousand-year tree-ring record. Its highs and lows track forest productivity, tree mortality, and bark-beetle and wildfire outbreaks with high accuracy, making it the best indicator yet devised for determining how trees at a given site have fared in the past or can be expected to fare in the future. Projecting the FDSI forward in concert with prevailing climate change models offers a way to peer into the future of the Southwest's forest ecosystems and gain some idea of what their fate is likely to be. Unfortunately, the vision thus afforded is not a happy one.

    If the climate models are roughly correct, then by mid-century (a mere moment away in the life-span of a ponderosa) the by-then "normal" stresses of heat and moisture loss on southwestern forests will exceed the most severe levels the forests have experienced in the last thousand years. Saying that is a mouthful, so it bears repeating: Williams's FDSI indicates that in the 2050s, only a few decades from now, life for a ponderosa pine, a Douglas fir, or any other southwestern tree on average will be worse than it was during the driest, fiercest megadroughts of the past, going back to the days of Chacoan civilization and beyond....

    In the literature of nature writing, the majesty of high mountain country is often evoked as a symbol of permanence, constancy, and long duration. The mountains of the future will continue to warrant such depictions, at least in a geological sense. The permanence of their ecosystems will be another matter. Their forests, constituted as people of recent centuries have known them, may eventually metamorphose into something quite different — new ecosystems consisting of assemblages of plants never until then brought together, at least not across large areas, and covering thousands of acres whose previous principal constituents have become few or strangely absent. The possibility exists that the mountains of the future will be a whole new world, launched on a novel evolutionary trajectory.

  • "Treating the Sangre de Cristo mountain range...from geologic, historic, ethnographic, and ecological points of view, William deBuys has written an eloquent, elegant and continuously informative book." —Robert Adams, New York Review of Books

    "This book is fascinating form beginning to end." —New Mexico Magazine

    "Best introduction to Northern New Mexico" —Santa Fe Reporter

    [ENCHANTMENT AND EXPLOITATION] "presents an essential understanding of northern New Mexico, past and present. This book is required reading for newcomers and natives alike." —Santa Fe New Mexican

    "As of late, environmental historians have shown increasing preference for the "case study" approach to the relationship between human culture and the environment.... In this growing body of literature New Mexico can now boast a prominent place." —New Mexico Historical Review

    "ENCHANTMENT AND EXPLOITATION makes a valuable contribution to the new environmental history presently revitalizing the study of colonization and development.... No one is going to call William deBuys 'an armchair traveler' or, worse, `a bloodless scholar.' He knows the mountains and their residents as intimately as he knows his primary and secondary sources. This personal experience, along with numerous maps and pictures, brings the place to life." —Environmental Review

    "A balanced position at once ecological and dispassionate." —Journal of Forest History

    "The book will give valuable insights to anyone living or working in New Mexico. It should be required reading for those coming into the state, whether they come to make a quick buck, save the environment or help the natives." —Taos News

    "My choice as the best bioregional history anyone has written to date is William deBuys's ENCHANTMENT AND EXPLOITATION: THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF A NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN RANGE (1985). It is place specific (the Sangre de Cristo Range), temporally deep, examines environmental change across sequential cultures, and deals with values and adaptation with an effortless style." —Dan Flores, Environmental History Review