Finding Healing in Protecting National Conservation Lands

Text of speech from Friends Grassroots Network Rendezvous – Conservation Lands Foundation –  Las Vegas, Nevada – October 2016 – photo by Nunatak Design

As a young(ish) gay man in this moment in history, I think a lot about freedom. In just about every way, my husband Pete and I enjoy all the rights, freedoms, and privileges that come with being white men in this society. We can vote. We can own a home. We can walk down the street alone without being afraid for our safety. We can speak, and people will listen. Now, even as out gay men, it’s easy to take for granted the rights we enjoy every day. We are married, for one, no matter which state line we cross. We can adopt. In Colorado, at least, we can live openly as a married couple without fear of being fired.  

But we aren’t fully free, not yet. We may be married, but we still can’t hold hands while walking down the street in our hometown. At least not without wondering who’s watching — and who might hurt us because of it.

The sad part, the angering part, is that this is nothing special. So many of us in this country still aren’t free to walk down the street in safety. Whether it’s because of our skin color, the language we speak, our religion, gender, or sexuality. And even more angering, this is, of course, just the plainest example of the ways in which so many of us are still not free.

And so there are so many of us that need places of refuge. And there are so many of us who have healing we need to do. All of us, in fact, whether we are the victims or perpetrators of injustice, need healing. And as so many people have already said so eloquently at this conference, we each can find refuge and freedom in the wild and open spaces of our public lands.

For me, just about the time I was realizing I was gay, I also realized that I feel most free when I am running on a trail all alone with the wild world. I can strap on shoes and shorts and just go, letting my feet do the thinking and letting my heart open up with the expanding horizon.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Pete and I moved to the small town of Paonia on the western slope of Colorado, I took to the juniper and sage. Pete was spending summers working as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns and then Yosemite, and so every evening, and most weekends, I’d just go running out the door.

I ranged all over the BLM lands of the Western Slope. First Jumbo Mountain, on the trails that leave right from town, then I explored further, to the BLM lands on the shoulders of the West Elks. I ran in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, and Dominguez-Escalante. I ran and ran and learned the landscape. I was as free as I’ve ever been in my life. And I found my home.

Pete ran too, and we learned to run together, way out in the ‘dobes and canyons and mountains of our BLM lands. One of our favorite runs is in the Gunnison Gorge NCA, which begins by fording the North Fork and then running up the fisherman’s trail into the heart of the gorge. We find peace there. And acceptance. Together. We can hold hands.

We are doing what people have done for so many hundreds and thousands of years: loving these lands as our home. Even more than that, loving them as we would our family and dearest friends. But these lands that are all of our refuge, our places of freedom, are themselves at risk.

For us, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of BLM lands in our valley currently open to oil and gas drilling, with several large lease sales having been proposed over the last few years surrounding our communities, our drinking wells, and our farms. Some of them have been deferred over the last few years thanks to a groundswell of local advocacy. But other lease sales have gone forward, and the land, water, air, and wildlife of our home is being permanently impacted by these very temporary extractive activities and for very temporary economic gains.

It’s relatively easy to articulate the impacts to air and water quality from oil and gas. The traffic impacts. The economic booms and busts. The negative impact to our small but burgeoning tourism economy.

But it’s nearly impossible to articulate the personal and collective loss — if we were to allow our last wild and open places to be roaded and cut and drilled for oil and gas. We would lose our sacred places to heal and be free. Each of us in this country – and all of those people who will follow us in the future – would be less free.

That’s why I’ve devoted my life to this movement, and why I’ll continue working toward expanding and strengthening our National Conservation Lands. These places are our refuge. They are where we can find peace and wisdom and reconciliation in an often ugly and violent world. They make us better humans. They are our home. They are where we can be truly free.

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After you’ve broken

If I am learning anything from my long journey toward becoming a writer, it has something to do with kindness.

Oh, sure, there’s courage and honesty and creative word-smithing. Those seem important. Discipline, scalpel-sharp critical thinking, dogged commitment. Yup. Lucky breaks, too, and putting in your time and learning how to get by with less. But really, at the very bottom of it, I find it’s kindness that is the most essential to continuing forward.

I’m not talking about empty kindness, easy kindness, the stuff of courtesy and politeness. Real kindness. The undeserved, the unbidden, the unworthy, the unending. And I’m talking about being kind to yourself.

I nearly broke myself last winter when I was kicking my own ass in a brightly lit apartment thousands of miles and an ocean away from home. I was working on my first book-length manuscript, demanding myself to write at least 1000 words a day and a chapter a week for twelve weeks. I was demanding myself to write the best book ever written, the best adventure story, the best gay marriage story. I was demanding myself to write a story that could change the world, that would subvert and surprise and give and give. I was writing a story that could save my relationship with my siblings and could teach my parents. It was a story that was true and right. I was demanding perfection.

Meanwhile, I was physically ill. I was depressed. I was pretty sure I was an egocentric hack. I went spiraling down a vortex of doubt feeding fear feeding frustration feeding doubt. I survived the vortex.

Some folks don’t.

Six months later, thanks to a friend’s suggestion and an editor’s selection, I found myself sitting in a circle of writers seeking our stories together at the incomparable Summer Fishtrap workshop in eastern Oregon. Across the circle sat Luis Alberto Urrea, who told of his own doubt-fear-frustration-doubt vortex that led him to the edge of everything. He survived. And returned to the world of the living with the gorgeous epic The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

If you survive the vortex does not mean you will produce a gorgeous epic. Nor am I saying you must go through the vortex in order to produce brilliance. But I do believe that to tell a great story you must be willing to face the truth of things, and you very well may balk in the face of that truth. And if you balk, it very well may be kindness which allows you to escape with your life and your story.

Later that same week of Fishtrap, the poet Kim Stafford explained to us how his father, the poet William Stafford, wrote. I find it the daily expression of writerly-kindness-to-self:

1) Write the date.
2) Write boring prose.
3) Write into an aphorism or koan – a self-contained observation or idea
4) write the thing.

Kim made us practice his father’s technique. This is what I wrote that day:

7/9/14

Today is Wednesday. I had a harder time waking this morning than yesterday. I didn’t hear as many birds and I am not sure if there actually were fewer birds or if I just couldn’t or didn’t hear them today. No hummingbirds yet today. Or dippers.

I’m wondering as always about the good that will come out of this. This is writing church, but I distrust all churches. I like to believe that this mistrust is not because I believe I do not deserve the sanctuary, but because I doubt the truth of sanctuary in the first place. Or if not truth, then usefulness. Though the use is obvious to be kind to oneself. To be kind to yourself means being kind to everything you know about yourself. Being kind to the ugliness. To be kind to the fear, to be kind to the doubts, the anger, the endless river of voices. These are my voices and every other voice I have ever heard.

Give me the strength to survive this, the going out, the falling. And give me the strength to still be kind, long after I’ve broken against the bedrock.

And then I wrote the thing:

To the Writer

Never tell the names
of the smallest gods whirring
behind your ears, but do not
swat them either, cursing

be kind to everything you know
about yourself, even your doubt
even your hate
even your own death

be kind long after you have
leaped, after you have
fallen, after you have broken against bedrock


Applications are open until December 15th for 2015 Summer Fishtrap Fellowships and Scholarships.

Write Your Manifesto

A week ago, a friend of mine asked me to speak to her class. Lauren was teaching her juniors and seniors how to write a personal manifesto. After hearing that I had written and published my own manifesto a few years ago, Lauren thought I’d be the perfect guest lecturer.

Here’s the thing: my manifesto is all about how to queer ecology. It challenges assumptions of sexuality and gender and naturalness. Lauren and I live in a rural town in western Colorado. People here ranch and hunt elk and wear cowboy boots.  I try not to stereotype people based on their appearance. I mean, I wear flannel and have a big beard and wear cowboy boots too. But I do know this community. There are very religious, very conservative families here. There’s a spray-painted sign as you enter town that says “Frack Obama.”  I was reasonably concerned that the high schoolers might not be too excited to hear about queering, not to mention ecology.

I wore cowboy boots to class. And good thing, because when I entered I found that the class consisted of six stone-faced teenage boys, some in camouflage, others cross-armed behind hoodies. Lauren handed over the reigns, and I stood at the board, a copy of my essay in hand, and acted as macho and confident as I could.

After a brief introduction, during which I did not mention queering nor ecology, I got them writing by asking them this:

Why are you angry? All the reasons big and small, why are you angry? Make a list or not. Offer explanation or not. Why are you angry?

After five minutes, during which they wrote furiously, I told them this:

If you had total power, god-like super-hero power, choose one of these things that you are mad about and then explain what you would change, and why.

After another five minutes of them writing, I stopped them and said:

This is a super-frustrating task, I know. You and I know that we don’t live in a world where we have total power. We never will. So what’s the point of thinking about the “IF”? It seems pointless to even contemplate.

BUT! Even though we will never be super heroes, I said, we still do have power to change the world. 

You can transform your anger into something that can convince people to make the change you wish to see. Convincing isn’t enough, though. You must also inspire people, too.

That is the manifesto.

We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about two manifestos that have shaped the world, my life, and my writing. The first one, to be fair, wasn’t a single manifesto but instead the collective works of Subcomandante Marcos, the public voice for the Zapatista indigenous rights movement of southern Mexico. For the last 20 years, Marcos has been informing the larger global audience about the struggles of the Zapatistas and the reasons why they continue to declare autonomy from the Mexican federal government. The Zapatistas offer many lessons for largely-peaceful social change movements, but Marcos in particular offers an example of someone writing from the place of immense pain and anger in an elegant and even entertaining way. Marcos convinces and inspires people within the Zapatista movement as well as millions of global citizens outside the movement. He has changed the shape of the world through his words.

The second manifesto I offered as example was Larry Kramer’s “1,112 and Counting.” Kramer was a gay man in New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic–I told the six high school boys–and he was very angry and very scared. He was watching his friends and family die all around him, and he was watching the city, state, and nation do nothing to stem the deaths. He transformed his anger into a biting critique that he published in the New York Native on March 14, 1983. The manifesto presented Kramer’s anger, but it also offered hope in the form of action. It focused the gay community to fight back against the disease and the institutional injustices that allowed the disease to cut down an entire segment of the US population without so much as an official announcement by the President of the United States. Kramer convinced and inspired.

With a few minutes left of class, I finally told the high school boys why I was mad. As an out gay man, I was very angry that people claimed gay people were unnatural. And so I had written into that anger, and I had tried to transform that anger into a story that could inspire, convince, and entertain.

I stood at the center of the room and read “How to Queer Ecology” to the class. I read about same-sex pair-bonded geese and the fluid sexual behavior of dolphins and how natural it feels for me to be held in the arms of the man I love.

When I finished, I thanked them for letting me join them for the day. That’s when Lauren and the boys began clapping. They clapped! Of all the best possible responses I had imagined that morning, I had not dared to hope that these six rural high school boys would clap for me.

And so, here’s one more thing about a manifesto: if you can muster the courage to look into the face of your own anger and own it, and then if you can transform that anger into a story that can move people, that can empower people, that can convince and inspire and entertain, then you can change the world. Because you will have empowered yourself. You will have found your voice. You will know what you need to do.

Here’s the really crazy thing: others will see how you have empowered yourself, will hear your voice, and they will want to speak up too. After class, as I was signing out at the front desk, the boy in camouflage stopped halfway out the door, turned to me, and said:

“Thank you for sharing what you did today in class.”

My heart shook with gladness and hope, cowboy boots and all.

That Music

I’d meant to read this poem at the Fab Planet summit but ran out of time. Fortunately, there’s always time for a good poem here at andtheuniverse:


“That Music”
W.S. Merwin

By the time I came to hear about it
I was assured that there was no such thing
no it was one more in the long trailing
troupe of figures that had been believed but
had never existed no it had not
resounded in the dark at the beginning
no among the stars there was no singing
then or later no ringing single note
threaded the great absences no echoing
of space in space no there was no calling
along the lights anywhere no it was not
in the choiring of water in the saying
of a name it was not living or warning
through the thrush of dusk or the wren of morning


This is resistance: hearing that which we are told to deny. This is hope: that the thrush and the wren will sing their own songs (regardless of the script thrust upon them). This is joy: to fill the darkness and light alike with song.

This poem can be found in Merwin’s gorgeous Migration: New & Selected Poems.

Also: I’m still searching for photo credit. If you recognize this image, please help me out!

Forgotten Dreams

From the second row of the upper balcony, Pete and I were not afforded a view of the stage unless we stood up.  Fortunately, everyone was standing or leaning in close to the low rail beyond which opened the grand space of Peon Contreras.

The concert hall is one of the oldest in the Americas, built near the heart of the ancient city center of Merida.  The Mayas lived in this city long before the Spanish came and forced them to tear down their white limestone temples and reassemble the stones into cathedrals and palaces and theaters.

We first began attending the Merida Symphony thanks to our new expat-friend Deborah, who plays the violin with them.  We bought the cheap seats because we’re cheap, but as we kept climbing up the circling stone steps, my wonder rose in my chest.  How big was this place?  How grand?  When we opened the doors to our balcony chamber, I went dizzy.   The flying dome.  The floating crystal chandelier.  The heads of the audience on the floor like carefully-arranged pebbles. The space!

Deborah brought us in.  We joined her and the other musicians at the side-alley Italian cafe after the concert.  We went on dates for drinks and dancing.  One of the best was the night she met us after we saw Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the outdoor art cine and cafe, La68.  Our heads swirled with the revelations of the cave artists speaking to us from 30,000 years in the past.  We snuck in late to a government-sponsored free concert in Peon Contreras of the visiting Guanajuato Symphony culminating in the heart-skipping performance of an operatic soprano soloist.  Then we took the long warm walk to Blue Namu, the gay bar where we witnessed the most spectacular especatulo of our young lives.  We gather together and watch shadows dance.

Tonight we are here for Verdí.  The Symphony has assembled 150 people to string and blow and sing.  We can barely see the feet of the bass singers hiding in the back rafters of the stage.

I’ve always loved the moment of the tuning, when the prinicipal plays the A.  It’s when we can’t judge, we can’t weigh our expectations against reality.  It’s just this anticipation and sense of purpose.

What is that purpose?  Isn’t it strange that people gather together like we do to share our music?  We all want the waves to wash over us together.   This is what it seemed to me, as I stood behind the line of people crowding against the rail of the upper balcony, as the Symphony crescendoed and wailed.  I swore I felt the whole place shaking.  And I watched the faces watching the stage.  The light of the stage lights glowed upon them.  The curve of their bodies matched the scallop of the balcony.  I felt as though all we ever want is to be closer to the light and the sound of this thing we share.  I loved us, the symphony, the audience, the curved line that did not bother with formality, that did not stay rigidly in our seats.  We bent toward the center of it as though we were gathering around a fire surrounded by night.

A letter to my parents in regards to their upcoming arrival to Merida

Dear Mom and Dad,

The streets smell here.  They are living smells of raw meat and oil and salt.  Panaderias with their sweet breads and baguettes, and the street vendors with their sizzling pile of roasting Al Pastor, and their fried hot dogs and their tacos and marquesitas.  As a warning, all the bread’s a little bland, but good with coffee.  Get churros from the couple who set up their stand next to the Cathedral on Sundays.  The couple doesn’t also cook french fries with the oil, just the one thing, the churros.

Watch where you walk.  There are holes, curbs, and rushing buses at any given moment.  No one turns right on reds, but they will run the last few seconds of a red light if nobody is coming.  Pedestrians don’t push their luck.  Most people seem to avoid drinking the tap water if they can, which is why we buy the garafon of water from the corner store.  Put your used toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet, folded, please.  Really, it makes more sense than our system, which leaves the job to the water treatment plant.

Everybody says the police are corrupt, so try to avoid them as best you can.  But the cops don’t bother the gueros, gringos, extranjeros (all of those are us) because cops work for the government, and the government wants tourists.  Expect to see men in front of banks and consulates and other governmental buildings with semi-automatics.  It’s safe here, not because of the guns, but because people are out on the streets most day and night.  Because locals pride themselves on this city being tranquilo, calm, safe, friendly, familiar.  You are not as strange as you feel.

Locals tend not to refer to this place as Mexico.  Instead, this place is Mérida, in the state of Yucatan, what still is el mundo Maya.  Cancun is not in Yucatan, it is in Quintana Roo, an entirely different state.  When people ask you where you are from, de donde eres, you can reply, Soy de Chicago, and then ask them where they are from, too.

Expect parades at any moment.  Or a protest with tents set up in Plaza Grande.  Or most likely, in the evenings, there will be dancing, in Parque Santiago, or Santa Lucia, or Plaza Grande.  The government pays for free outdoor concerts daily, salsa and cumbia and more traditional music from elsewhere, like marimba or mariachi, and old couples dance in the closed off street or in the park. The couples stand and chat between songs and don’t begin dancing right at the first beat of the new song, but wait a few breaths, as if needing to learn the beat all over again.  Fireworks are probable too. Not the big showy ones like on the 4th of July, but just the quick and loud ones.  Sunday morning? Fireworks!  Tuesday night? Fireworks!  A soccer match? Fireworks.  And lots of cheering.  We know when there’s a match on television when, in any given location in the city, we hear shouts and squeals every three minutes.  There could be singing too, loud, balladeer singing, coming from around one corner or another.

There are the ubiquitous making-out couples in any given plaza.  That’s okay.  It’s okay to sit on a bench and stare at everyone walking by too.  Pete called the early evening in Plaza Grande a meat market, and I think it’s mostly just us creatures allowing ourselves to be fascinated by each others’ presence.  Kids stay up late, and they are allowed to chase pigeons or walk up to a performer during a public concert as she’s singing and dancing.  Lots of people are allowed to stay up late, and most indoor concerts or shows start at 9PM.

You will not shiver here, unless you get the flu or dengue.  It’s warm, by my standards, all of the time, so people leave their doors and windows open most of the time too. Movie theaters still perform the function of being an air-conditioned relief from the heat. The city really is quite green, it’s just that except for the plazas, most of the life is inside the high walls of the city blocks.  The walls offer protection from the sun, too, so mid-day, like the locals, walk on the shady side of the street so you don’t sweat as much.

Men don’t wear shorts in the city.  Younger men wear well-fitting jeans or bright-colored denim, the older men wear jeans or slacks.  Lots of women are currently killing it in those high heels that are just one, thick, fluted sole, though flats are fine if you don’t want to show off.  People aren’t afraid of being bright here.  Men can wear pink or purple or anything.  And of course women do.  Some locals own sweaters, hoodies, and even puff jackets, which they pull out the second it drops below 74.  Pete saw mittens the other day.

We live in an apartment building that is also a hotel.  We have front-desk staff who seem to be all 20-year-old nephews and sons of the owners, a couple that lives in the attached building next door.  They close the gate every night, and in the morning when Pete and I go to the gym, which is a whole other story, in order to get out, we have to wake the unlucky guy who has to spend the night (every night?) in the front office.  Harmless little ants are always on the rove in our kitchen, especially when it is warm, so every crumb must be caught.  We have a gecko, too.  And the lizards in the courtyard are quick to hide beneath the large waxy leaves of the vines.

Gracias is thank you, but when you are turning someone down who is asking something of you in the street, which will happen often, you can say disculpa or perdon. Excuse me, or pardon.  Same thing if you do something awkward, and want to apologize.  No one says lo siento on the street, it is a deeper, more significant apology.  If you need to pass by, you can say con permiso, a request, with permission.  Here people more often than not say hasta luego, until later, which is friendly, a hope and a wish.

The trash in the streets and the flaky-paint walls and the rebar and cinder blocks might make the streets look dirty and poor to you, but look past those things, like the people here do.  The surface of things here don’t seem as important as the heart of them.  The spectacular concert hall and symphony, the Pacheco murals, the new exhibitions, the music, the dance, the fresh joy of creating and being and loving, the quiet courtyards, the conversations.

This is just the beginning.  The briefest sketches of life here in Mérida.  Living is always so much more than explaining.  I will say that I do love it here, which might be the continuation of a running joke between the two of you.  Oh, Alex, loving yet another home.  And it’s true, I have loved every place, sooner or later.  Some places at first appear easy, but then become quite difficult to love.  Other places have shut me out at first, but then let me eke in, day by day.  This place is one of those.  Everyday, I am dumbfounded and tossed back.  And everyday, if I choose to go out, I am rewarded by the smallest secret.  Like the lone couple framed by the doorway, laughing and dancing to no music last night.  Or the moth fluttering around the chandelier in the concert hall during Tchaikovsky.  Or the lone ukulele player in Plaza Grande, finishing his haunting song and walking off.  Or a new word.

Hasta luego,

Alex