“Splendid Isolation, the Big Bend…” is how the National Parks Services introduces Big Bend National Park on its website. My partner and I recently took a several day trip to Big Bend and, I have to say, it was truly splendid. Many of the sights and experiences I had were unlike anything I had experienced before and it was a lovely escape from the chaos of a global pandemic.
We spent much of our time exploring and looking for native inhabitants of the park and saw: coyote, ruby-crowned kinglets, peccaries, golden eagles, black hawks, caracaras, and even had a close call with a herd of wild boar. We visited an archaeological site where Indigenous inhabitants of area once created pictographs and petroglyphs.
I am primarily interested in the ways that constructed landscapes mediate relations and interactions between humans and other-than-human and so it was a treat to have the opportunity to pay attention to the ways that humans and animals experience one another in the context of the national park.
Back to the National Parks Services’ introduction to Big Bend: “Splendid Isolation”. This is a particular narrative that is being presented but begs the question: who is being isolated from what? Big Bend is one of the least visited national parks in the United States of America and so in that sense, the park is isolated from much of the rest of the country and its citizens. I don’t believe that this is the kind of isolation that is being referenced here. Instead, I think that it is isolation from “civilization” that is really at the crux of this statement.
However, while Big Bend is very far away from an urban sprawl, it is not devoid of evidence of human life. Apart from the myriad of tourists and presumably locals using the space, the space is highly constructed by human activity. Human-made trails snake throughout the park, there are paved and unpaved roads, 100-year-old irrigation trenches, parking lots, and buildings. This is evidence of more recent activity but there is evidence of use dating back at least 10,000 years. Long story short, this is a space that has been constructed by humans for millennia.
Humans are not the only architects in the park. Evidence of beaver activity is clear along the Rio Grande, bird nests can be easily spotted in the cottonwood stands, game trails can be seen across the beautiful vistas.
Spaces within the park mean different things to different beings. For instance, on our last night in the park, we drove out to Rio Bravo Village to both see the stars and to see nocturnal animal activity near the river. While there we saw a coyote crossing a dead end road, headed towards the camp site at that end of the park. To the people there, the camp site represents a space of recreation, family bonding, and/or escape. To the coyote, it is a space of opportunity and humans are a means to food. To humans, the coyote is a pest or is frightening. In this context, coyotes are unwelcome to the humans but the humans are a boon to the coyote.
This campground allows for a particular kind of relationship between the humans seeking solace and the coyote seeking an easy meal. The lines blur between anthropogenic space and “natural” space. I put quotes around the term “natural” because this is an idea that comes into being through notions of human exceptionalism and distinctness from the rest of the world.
Apart from the narrative of “isolation”, moving through the park tells its own story. The trails blazed by hikers and the rangers offer particular perceptions and tell a story. The hiker is given a particular view of the landscape that could be different if the trail was simply moved a little bit. These trails offer certain kinds of interactions with the local other-than-human inhabitants and due to the locations of the trails, certain interactions are privileged over others.
The roads also tell their own stories and facilitate certain kinds of interactions. We saw dead skunks and rabbits on the road as well as live rabbits and a fox at night and many species of birds during the day. The view of the park is particular to the snaking of the roads. The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive takes the visitor down mountains, through valleys, back up, and down to the Rio Grande on the west side of the park. One can see the damage done by a wildfire in 2019 that came from across the Rio Grande.
The moral of the story is that what we think of as nature is highly constructed. The park is not a a visit to “isolation”, pristine nature, or a land devoid of humans. This is a space co-constructed by humans and animals across thousands of years. What one experiences when visiting Big Bend is a deep history of multispecies relations. Relations between people and game animals, predators and prey, animals and cottonwood trees, grazers and the grasses; histories of life and death, decay, rebirth, and resilience. A history that is embodied in the landscape and can be seen in the windmills, dug out wells, cottonwood stands, irrigation ditches, burrows, nests, roads, trails, rocks, and anything else that one casts their gaze upon.