Watersheds Chautauqua set at Farmington Museum
FARMINGTON — One of Jack Loeffler’s first visits here wasn’t a particularly pleasant one. But it was memorable.
In 1966, fresh off a months-long assignment as a fire lookout in a nearby national forest, Loeffler was still making the adjustment to being back in civilization. To his delight, he encountered a friend of his as he strolled down a Farmington street, and the two greeted each other warmly.
Loeffler was surprised when their animated interaction drew the interest of local police, who apparently took exception to what they were witnessing. It wasn’t the scruffy-looking and, presumably, somewhat-fragrant Loeffler who caught their eye — it was his friend, who happened to be African-American.
“The police escorted me out of town and told me never to come back,” Loeffler said, laughing ruefully at the memory of that encounter from a half century ago. “So I guess this is my chance to thumb my nose at them 50 years later.”
Loeffler didn’t take that warning to stay out of Farmington seriously. Not only has he returned to the area many times to enjoy its outdoors offerings, he’ll be back in town this weekend to deliver a Chautauqua on “Thinking Like a Watershed” at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.
The Four Corners holds a special place in Loeffler’s heart. Every year for several decades, he said, he and longtime friend Edward Abbey — the author, environmental advocate and iconoclast who died in 1989 — made a point of journeying to Muley Point in southwest Utah to camp and, as Loeffler said, “watch the skies darken.”
That latter expression had multiple meanings, no doubt. Loeffler was Abbey’s best friend. And when Abbey died at a relatively youthful 62 in 1989, leaving behind a canon of work that included such classics as “Desert Solitaire,” “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” “The Brave Cowboy” and “Fire on the Mountain” — each of which chronicled, to varying degrees, Abbey’s increasing disenchantment with modern civilization and its encroachments on the Southwest landscapes he held so dear — it was his pal Loeffler who, abiding by the cranky deceased writer’s stated wishes, buried him in the Arizona desert in a sleeping bag.
No coffin, no service, no embalming, no formal speeches — just a little music, a little gunfire and some beer, according to Abbey’s authorized website, abbeyweb.net. To hear Loeffler tell it, that kind of minimalist send-off was the perfect reflection of his friend’s nature.
“He was a real clear thinker,” Loeffler said by telephone last week from his home in Santa Fe. “His thinking was much more complex than what was reflected in any of his books. … He had a huge mind. We were lucky to have him.”
Many years later, in 2002, Loeffler would share his perspectives on his friend in the book “Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey.” That’s just one of five books the 80-year-old Loeffler has authored in a career that also includes decades of work as a radio producer, sound collage artist and what he calls being an “aural historian,” someone who records the relationship that people of indigenous cultures maintain with their land.
Most of all, he’s an outspoken advocate for the special nature of the Southwest, his adopted home for more than half a century.
“To me, the Southwest is a symbol of the best life has to offer on all fronts,” he said. “We want to keep it together as best we can, but, boy, it’s taken a big hit over the last 75 years.”
Of course, some of those hits are chronicled in Loeffler’s Chautauqua, which stresses the importance of perceiving watersheds as complete ecosystems. Through his own words, and through recorded conversations with the likes of Abbey, writers Gary Snyder and Wallace Stegner, and physicist Fritjof Capra, among others, Loeffler addresses the effects of damming wild rivers and the setting of geopolitical boundaries that ignore the natural features of the landscape.
“We’re geopolitically oriented the wrong way,” he said. “We have state boundaries that don’t have much to do with the lay of the land itself.”
He also takes to task those who see water simply as a commodity that needs to be turned into money. Loeffler argues that many of the people who live in the Southwest need to become more aware of their environmental settings and the way they interact with their habitat.
“We have a proclivity for ignoring that because we’re so involved in human affairs,” he said.
One of the ways Loeffler illustrates his points is by distributing free posters of famed Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell’s rendition of the watersheds of the American West. Loeffler described the poster as “a lovely work of art,” but said it also serves as a rumination on how we’ve lost our way as a society.
Loeffler advocates the adoption of a different perspective, one he calls “the indigenous mind.” He defines that as learning to think like “the people who have lived here successfully for thousands of years without trashing the place.”
The presentation is more than a traditional lecture, Loeffler said. In addition to playing his recordings of interviews with the aforementioned figures and representatives of the Southwest’s indigenous cultures, Loeffler breaks tradition with the standard Chautauqua and encourages feedback and questions from audience members at any point in the presentation, not just at the end.
He insisted the presentation is apolitical in nature and said he wouldn’t dare to dive into the swamp of this year’s presidential election.
“That’s a dead end,” he said.
But he acknowledged that he is an environmentalist and said he proceeds from that starting point. He said his presentation emphasizes positivity and, especially, working together to solve problems, a concept he borrows from the writings of Russian philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin.
“I believe we can achieve an awful lot of good through mutual cooperation rather than mutual antagonism,” he said.
Even so, his presentations sometimes draw dissenting perspectives from audience members.
“I’m not trying to raise hackles, but I do,” he said, laughing.
But those instances are actually few and far between, Loeffler said. He said one of the best audiences he ever spoke to was a group of approximately 5,000 people, mostly ranch families, in Albuquerque in 2013 with Snyder. Those people had a first-hand perspective on many of the issues Loeffler addresses in his presentation, he said.
“They really got into it,” he said. “The people who live on the land are really closer to the land than those of us who live in urban areas.”
Loeffler was enthused last week about making the trip here, partly because he’s very curious about the state of the Animas and San Juan rivers more than a year after the Gold King Mine spill.
“I’ve run the San Juan many times,” he said. “The EPA had its head up its butt on that one. They really blew it.”
Loeffler said the episode is a perfect example of the dangers of “fiddling around” with abandoned mines, an issue throughout many areas of the West.
“If people are going to extract natural resources, (the waste has) to be dealt with then and there,” he said. “And if it’s too expensive (to do that), don’t (extract them).”
Despite the unpleasant nature of his long-ago set-to with local authorities, Loeffler said he bears the city no ill will.
“I’ve actually had a lot of fun in Farmington,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it. I like Farmington. I like Aztec. I love the rivers.”
It’s the latter that he’ll be focusing on this weekend in an attempt to promote some hard thinking by local residents in a place where economic growth is often pitted against environmental concerns. Loeffler maintains that our devotion to an economic system predicated on constant growth has brought us to a point of no return.
“We have very little time right now to turn it around,” he said. “When I look at my 21-month-old grandson, I realize the world he will die in will be a very different world from what I will die in.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: “Thinking Like a Watershed” Chautauqua by Jack Loeffler
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27
Where: The Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.
For more information: Call 505-599-1174