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Landscape and the Pino Trail

April 23rd, 2020

Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque
Landscape view of the Sandia Mountains

We set off for the Pino Trail on March 1st, not knowing what the coming days, weeks, and months (and potentially years) would bring. The coronavirus pandemic was fast approaching. But unaware of what it would mean for us and therefore unencumbered by it, Stacia, I, and the two dogs enjoyed exploring one of the more beautiful--and congested--trails within the Albuquerque foothills.


The Pino Trail begins in the Elena Gallegos Open Space, high desert hills dotted mostly by juniper and sagebrush, and then quickly stretches into the Cibola National Forest. The trail begins wide, with some breathtaking views of the Sandia Mountains closeby, the sprawling city below, and Mount Taylor far off in the distant west. Crossing into National Forest land, the trail begins to narrow and necessitate single-file travel as it ascends into the shade of the pines.


If ambitious, one could travel the hard 9 miles and 2,736 feet of elevation gain before intercepting the South Crest Trail at just around 9,200 feet above sea level. I am not so ambitious, mostly because of the limits on my joints from my Ankylosing Spondylitis, but partially because I’m in no physical shape to make that climb! Instead, Stacia and I hiked 3 miles of the Pino Trail, with an elevation gain of 596 feet--a starting elevation of 6,437 feet and a max elevation of 7,042 feet.


Once the trail crosses into the forest, the 360-degree landscape views disappear. Instead of the constant luxury of a view, in the forest you have to become more creative, find the openings between trees, or climb a boulder to rise above the treeline. I don’t know that searching for a view makes it any more rewarding, though it does make me wonder what’s so alluring about a landscape view in the first place?


It’s often in the realm of art that the natural world (as if 'natural' makes it’s separate from a somehow unnatural world--but more on that later) is represented, critiqued, or otherwise commented on. Theories about the significance of a landscape--and the way it’s represented in poetry, painting, and photography--have evolved or radically changed over the centuries, one being just as valid and refutable as the next, and all contemporary.


As we hike along the Pino Trail in the forest, we stop at a small clearing and move off the trail to let other hikers (and hiker dogs) pass by. There’s an opening in the trees where the forest floor slopes downward, and looking north is a view of part of the north crest of the Sandia Mountains and some of its unique features, such as “Dragon’s Tooth” and “The Thumb.” I don’t see myself ever climbing to these distant rock formations, but even if I could, I’m not sure I’d find them any more awe-inspiring up close than from a distance, viewed as part of a larger mountain scene.


Sandia Mountains from Cibola National Forest

As Emerson points out, no one actually “owns the landscape” as someone might own a physical plot of land, and so the idea of a landscape implies seeing but not owning. But it’s not about witnessing either, since there’s no action that requires an audience. Similarly, I’m not sure of John Ruskin’s claim that “the interest of a landscape consists wholly in its relation either to figures present--or to figures past--or to human powers conceived.” Ruskin is talking more specifically about how a landscape should be represented in painting, but through that lens he’s still saying the most appealing landscape view is one that relates to people.


I prefer not to see too many people on the trail, and I also prefer not to see too many man-made structures in my mountain views. Still ascending into the mountains, a glimpse of the granite and limestone ridges appears here and there along the trail, like puzzle pieces for my imagination to assemble. I knew what this ridge looked like a bit further down on the trail, but each new angle reveals new physical features.


Sandia Mountains from Elena Gallegos Open Space

Maybe I should be thinking more about “how objects exist and interact” rather than my experience viewing the object itself. Maybe that’s part of the appeal--that this 5-10 million year old mountain range formed, and still rises, as part of a larger geologic hyperobject (the planet, or plate tectonics, or climate change) that has little to do with human experience or interaction.


But then this current manifestation of climate change has everything to do with human interaction. This landscape that I see, framed by limbs and pine needles, may look radically different in years to come--not the geology of it, but the life that resides on and within it. This means urgency, responsibility, and even a little sense of helplessness is part of the value of a beautiful landscape.


Timothy Morton says the fact of “hyperobjects end the possibility of transcendental leaps ‘outside’ physical reality.” Things like global warming and pollution make it impossible for someone to access Emerson’s or Thoreau’s ‘sublime’ by physically experiencing nature in the wild.


Not to mention that it’s becoming harder and harder to find truly wild places. On the Pino Trail, which, by the way, does begin in an Open Space attached to the largest metropolitan area in the state of New Mexico, we passed dozens of fellow hikers. Since the coronavirus pandemic has become a lived reality, even more people have flooded the trails within close proximity to the city. Of course the pandemic is another hyperobject, like climate change.


Hiking the Pino Trail
Aspen and I on the Pino Trail in Albuquerque

We hiked about 3 miles on March 1st, not long before we were mandated by our governor to stay at home. Since some of these trails are still in my neighborhood, I have not been deprived of a landscape view, which I think has helped me cope with the current situation, in a particular way.


But looking back on this final hike before COVID-19 altered the course of our lives in 2020, I see how interconnected we are with things gigantic and microscopic. A natural landscape is not a thing, not simply a tool or a doorway, and certainly not something that can be made more valuable by a human presence. It’s more complex than that. To reverse the idiom it’s not hard to see the forest for the trees; instead, it’s hard to see the landscape for climate change.


-Jessica

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