Big birds in New Mexico, what we can do about climate change, and rereading Portnoy’s Complaint

by Rob Tiller

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache

Last week I flew out to New Mexico for a photography workshop at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  I stayed in the Econolodge at Socorro, NM, which was a 25 minute drive from the refuge. My primary objective was to spend time with and photograph the big flocks of sandhill cranes and snow geese that stay there for the winter.  The pictures here are a few of the ones I got.  

At the Econolodge, my room smelled a little strange, but it seemed clean and had the essentials:  towels, toilet paper, and a comfortable bed. The magnetic key cards quit working, so I had to make extra visits to the desk clerk to get remagnetized, but she was friendly.  Also, they had those anti-theft coat hangers, with hooks that won’t come off the rod. It’s a little depressing to think that your innkeeper is worried that a meaningful segment of the clientele is apt to steal coat hangers.

Sandhill cranes getting an early flight


Our group was led by three experienced and supportive pros:  Mark Buckler, Keith Bauer, and Don Toothaker. When we were out in the field, they solved problems and gave tips.  Once the sun was well up, we had classroom sessions at the Bosque (prevailing local pronunciation: Boss-key) visitors’ center.  I picked up a lot of helpful ideas from Mark, Keith, and Don, and also from my fellow shutterbugs.  


In addition to trying for sharp shots of the birds in flight, I experimented with using slow shutter speeds while panning to show some motion in the birds’ wings.  I also used some new-to-me settings to get bird silhouettes at sunrise and sunset.  


I tried to get something of the strange beauty of the place, with distant mountains, desert, and the streams and ponds of Bosque.  There’s a warm, glowing quality to the light there.  

After the workshop ended on Sunday afternoon, I drove a couple of hours north to visit Santa Fe.  I stayed at the Inn of the Governors, a charming hotel right downtown. The decor was affectionately southwestern (mostly Native American themes), and it had various amenities not found at the Econolodge, like a cucumber-flavored drinking water, bathrobes, and ordinary wood coat hangers.  

On Monday I walked around central Santa Fe.  There are many luxury goods shops, art galleries, and restaurants.  I visited the San Miguel Chapel, which claims to be the oldest church in the continental US (begun in 1610).  

A friendly docent told me how the church was partially destroyed when the Pueblo Indians rose up against the Spanish and drove them out in 1680.  As I told her, this was not a chapter of history that got taught in my student days.  

I also went to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.  O’Keefe spent a fair bit of time in New Mexico and in her later years lived north of Santa Fe.  I’ve never been crazy about her paintings, but I liked her affection for nature and her story: a strong, bold, creative woman.


In the afternoon, I drove north to Nambe, with the idea of learning a little more about Pueblo culture.  Relying on Google navigation, I sped along US-84 through desert landscape, passing by some casinos.  The Navigator directed me off the highway and after several turns, she said I’d arrived in Nambe. It seemed to be just ordinary houses of rural working people.   I guess I learned something.  

Also, the land is mostly brown, with low, scrubby plants.  It looks dry, and it is. New Mexico does not have much water.  It reminded me of parts of Australia. And that reminded me of the horrific fires that have been burning for weeks in Australia.  So far the fatalities to birds, mammals, and reptiles are estimated at more than 1 billion.  



If what’s happening to Australia doesn’t get you thinking about climate change, what will?  Maybe nothing. As Paul Krugman pointed out last week, climate change denialists seem unmoved by this and other massive disasters.    

On a more hopeful note, Emma Marris had an op ed last week titled How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change.    Her basic idea is, quit feeling guilty about needing a car or heating your home and get to work with others on pushing for economic and political change — better laws, regulations, and treaties.  And remember to think about what is still possible: a greener world, with healthier humans and other life regrouping and recovering.  

Mule deer

On my last morning in Santa Fe, either my alarm didn’t go off or I turned it off without actually waking up.  Anyhow, I missed my 6:24 flight by 10 minutes. American declined to give me another ticket, which was disappointing — airlines used to at least try to be helpful.  In any case they didn’t have another flight that day. The only realistic option was a United flight out of Albuquerque through Chicago that afternoon.  

It was a little painful to have to shell out for another plane ticket and an Uber ride to Albuquerque, but I enjoyed talking to my driver.  He’d grown up in Kathmandu, Nepal, and thought I should definitely visit there. He told me about hiking in the Himalayas, doing a safari in Chitwan National Park (Bengal tigers!), and the happiest people on earth.  And hotels and food are cheap! I’m putting it on the list.

Snow geese with blackbirds

On the trip back to Raleigh I started re-reading Portnoy’s Complaint.  The novel is in the form of a monologue therapy session of a youngish man about growing up in a very Jewish, middle class family in Newark, New Jersey.  When it came out in 1969, the book was considered quite scandalous for its episodes on masturbation and other bodily functions.  

From my reading of some forty years ago, I remembered it as very funny and outrageous.  On re-reading, I still enjoyed the sex scenes, and still found the deep shame both sad and cringingly hilarious.  But this time I was more struck by Roth’s insight into the complexities of family love.  

Roth’s Alex Portnoy is a hyper-verbal, self-obsessed jerk, but he slowly recognizes that the family he finds so limited and embarrassing is part of him, and profoundly loving.  The book is far from fully enlightened in matters of race and gender. But it does what great novels do: reveal human truths that can’t be reached any other way.

Snow geese taking off at sunrise