As climate change continues to accelerate and manifest in the form of hotter summers, drier monsoons and ever more extreme weather, New Mexico’s complex ecosystem has borne witness to a hellfire of havoc disproportionate to that of other states in the union.
But what grim reality should New Mexicans be prepared to accept concerning their beloved environment? According to one of the most esteemed climate writers in the state, it’s not that the climate crisis is some dark specter of gloom on the horizon: It’s that irreversible damage has already passed us by.
Climate change is here, it is now and we have been watching it unfold with both hands tied behind our metaphorical backs — and some environmental treasures have already been lost.
With investigative journalistic precision and rhetorical verve, Laura Paskus’ debut novel "At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate" traverses with clarity the past decade of environmental stewardship — or more accurately, the lack thereof — in the Southwest. From ill-advised water diversions and obtuse fire management practices to corrupt Trump administration officials and the devastation wrought by former Gov. Susana Martinez, Paskus presents a concentrated dose of the history of environmental degradation.
The transition from the rapid-fire pace of print and digital media to the more measured confines of novelry was — for “At the Precipice” — a seamless one. While Paskus has spent nearly two decades cementing her environmental journalistic credentials for outlets like New Mexico In Depth, High Country News and Santa Fe Reporter, her prose translates elegantly to the world of longform. Paskus’ passion for mesquite and creosote, limestone and sand, piñon and juniper flows through her words as a roadrunner cuts through arroyos. Exacting and with clear intent, the story of the previous decade of state mismanagement is laid bare.
With “At the Precipice,” Paskus continues and hones the fine tradition of Southwest writers with a keen understanding and emotional relationship with the land. Of particular poignancy is the chapter on water: the giver of life and a coveted commodity in the high desert in the era of climate catastrophe.
Indeed, the most visceral excerpt from the book is in reference to that precious substance, and it comes amidst an anecdotal account of a stroll down what once was a mighty river.
“I could smell the mounds of dead fish before seeing them,” Paskus writes, describing the historical flow of the Rio Grande and unprecedented periods of drought. “Walking through the cottonwoods and Russian olives, when we spotted the dry channel, (my friend) asked, ‘That is the Rio Grande?’”
“That, I said, is the Rio Grande,” Paskus says, an aura of sad resignation giving a halo around the black ink fresh from the UNM Press. “And we hopped down into the channel, sand filling our shoes.”
Paskus writes about the arid Southwest with a loving, reverential tone that imparts her spiritualistic relationship with the land and humble deference to the Indigenous caretakers who came before the U.S. was a glimmer in the eye of settler colonialists. Her bleak descriptions of not enough snow, too little water and walking in the sun-baked sand of a dry Rio Grande channel somewhere around Socorro brought tears of rage and righteous fury to my eyes.
The unenviable task of any environmental writer in the nonfiction sphere is to glean some measure of hope from a seemingly hopeless situation, and this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength.
Despite the doomsday scenarios permeating much of the prose with an air of despondency — and make no mistake, many of the predictions of climate scientists of dead forests, dry rivers and unprecedented heat waves have already come to pass and are sure to escalate in severity should society do nothing to prevent them — Paskus reminds us that we all need hope to avoid nihilism in the face of climate despair.
Simply put, Paskus’ account is a tour de force and comprehensive overview of the unfolding climate crisis in the Southwest and should be required reading for introductory environmental studies classes at UNM. The book stands alongside, not underneath, the classical environmental canon and exceeds Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” in its meticulous political analysis and outstrips the sometimes meandering, oft-misogynistic writings of UNM graduate Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” in its concise prose.
“At the Precipice” will be available to order from fine online booksellers near you on Sept. 20, with physical copies appearing in the UNM bookstore on the same date. For those with even a cursory interest in environmental affairs and how large the climate crisis looms, you would do well to place this book on your quarantine checklist.
Andrew Gunn is the copy editor and a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites