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‘Sky Island': Climate Change and an Alpine Oasis

• July 08, 2011 • 3:45 PM

A documentary film airing on PBS looks at New Mexico’s Jemez range, and gently and sparely shows how changing climate affects these unique “sky islands.”

The first casualties as the Earth heats are islands. Rising seas chew away their edges and, in a few cases, swallow them whole.

But not all islands are surrounded by water. Nature writer Weldon Heald coined the term “sky island” in 1967 as a poetic expression for the disconnected mountains of the American Southwest, mountains whose cooler, wetter habitats were severed from their peers by vast seas of desert or grassland.

A half-hour documentary by nature filmmaker John Grabowska making its broadcast debut this Sunday on PBS shows how one particular inland island is as much a casualty of climate change as any sand speck in the Maldives or Kiribati.

Grabowska’s film, Sky Island, quietly examines the Jemez range of northern New Mexico, a collection of peaks as high as 11,000 feet centering on the giant Valles Caldera. Now a verdant valley, the caldera is the quiescent remnant of a volcano that last erupted 50 or so millennia ago. The Jemez hugs the western bank of the still adolescent Rio Grande, peering to the east and south at Santa Fe 30 miles or so away.

The film is structured somewhat like a day hike, walking us up from the river, and its cottonwoods and willows, through the maze-like Pajarito Plateau and up to the caldera and its alpine meadows.

“Sky Island” is a reticent documentary, spare and sparse and lovely as the surrounding high desert, never using a word where a picture, or a sound, will serve. This is the land of painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s Faraway Nearby, the stuff of Ben Wittick’s photographs and Willa Cather’s novels, as well as the home of a people whose pueblos, petroglyphs and cliff dwellings range back at least 10,000 years.

Grabowska explained that he wanted the film to serve as an inspiration not so much to budding climate activists but to ordinary people who could appreciate or even visit the Jemez. “But,” he added, “climate change couldn’t be ignored.”

So he let the landscape do the talking, and, as a result, the impact of climate shouts much louder than anything the co-narrators, actress Meryl Streep and poet M. Scott Momaday, could have preached. The message is so understated in the narration that it almost comes as a pleasure deep in the documentary when Streep utters the phrase “Anthropocene Epoch,” reminding us of the eco-speak made prominent by its absence here. As the old perfume ad tells us, sometimes if you want someone’s attention, whisper.

Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who grew up, in part, at the Jemez Pueblo takes the emotional and intuitive role in the narration, while Streep provides the facts.

Grabowska is a dab hand at making natural history films. His credits include 2003’s Crown of the Continent about Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, 2008’s Ribbon of Sand on North Carolina’s disappearing Outer Banks, and Yellowstone: Land to Life from two years ago. His approach, not Disney and not Al Gore, is his own “particular concoction,” as the director put it, “art film cum natural history film.” Superb aerial and time-lapse cinematography, set to a score by Todd Boekekheide, confirms that description in this work. [class name=”dont_print_this”]

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“I tend to step back and take in and take in the bigger picture, and then ask the questions, What is the significance of all this? And why should we care? What is our place in this landscape?” That might sound overwrought — Grabowska immediately says he thinks it does — but Sky Island definitely delivers on those Big Thoughts without hammering the viewer with big words and bigger egos.

“I realized after making that film in Alaska that I would never be able to make another film without addressing climate change effects, because they are literally everywhere. In this particular film it is more easily seen and a more apparent.”

Much of the credit for science being in such plain view belongs to Craig D. Allen of the U.S. Geological Survey, science adviser on Sky Island. Allen, a desert ecologist, has spent his entire scientific career in northern New Mexico, and his personal longitudinal knowledge plus his grasp of the historical record infuses what appears on screen — even those Allen himself never does. Nope, no obligatory scientist shot as he explains the fix we’ve put ourselves in; in fact, at no point does anyone appear on camera and speak.

“There is so much information inherent in an image — and in the viewer, in the audience,” Grabowska said. “Let them draw their own conclusions, make their own connections. I want them to do that rather than just sitting and absorbing whatever I decide to feed them.”

When someone does address the audience, the message is nuanced, bittersweet for losses yet hopeful for the good choices people can still make.

“Climate change presents no threat to the continuation of life on Earth,” Streep tells us, “but it will determine which lives survive, and how.” Among those likely losers are endemic species like the Jemez Mountain salamander and the American pika. Pushed ever higher toward the sky, they are already at the limit of their range — “they have nowhere to go.”

Climate change in a “high desert intolerant of environmental error” has already claimed some victims: the region’s iconic piñon pines. Some 90 percent of the mature specimens of these slow-growing trees died from the heat in a two-year period.

Those trees, whose nuts provide sustenance for many woodland creatures and a wild harvest cash crop for the local people, were part of the landscape immortalized in many of O’Keeffe’s paintings. But the iconic in this case was also the ironic, Grabowska noted. Overgrazing and fire suppression allowed the woody plants like the piñons to invade areas that had been historic grasslands; climate change is returning these former forests to savannahs, grasslands that can probably better roll with the climate’s punches and likely drier future.

Nonetheless, Grabowska admits, “seeing the change is just jaw-dropping.”

That the piñons’ advance was a case of people-powered change reflects another unexpected point — for a natural history film — made explicit in Sky Island: the “human presence engrained into landscape.” This is obvious in the scenes of archaeological sites that dot the picture, and by one of the few extended scenes of human activity, a dance by the A:shiwi A:tsana A:dehya Dance Group. It’s less obvious in the suppression of fire, a natural force that Streep refers to as an “ally” of the forest and that must be reintroduced after years having been kept at bay by well-meaning people.

Of course, extreme drought in league with years of suppression has made fire a fickle ally. New Mexico’s current catastrophic wildfires have lapped at the Jemez, and due to their unnatural ferocity, they come as an enemy.

As Grabowska told PBS, “Some of the effects of anthropogenic climate change may be unpredictable, but the reality of it is not.”

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Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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