Hope in the San Luis Valley: Defeating Climate Change through Connecting with Nature

By Emily Stamper

A reporter in my class, Johnna Geick, burst out into tears as Christine Canaly discussed her feelings on climate change and the environment. 

We had been traveling around the San Luis Valley for four days interviewing people on how climate change has affected their lives. The outlooks we had been hearing on climate change had been so bleak and steps taken to help the environment had been so little. It was very emotional for Geick to finally hear from someone who is passionate about making change and who has hope for our future. 

Canaly is an environmental activist and retired journalist who has spent 31 years in the San Luis Valley. She is in her 60’s now and has seen the valley change drastically over the years. 

Canaly said she used to dance with the farmers in the valley. Although her views may have differed from the farmers, the farmers usually being very conservative, they would kick off their shoes and celebrate together. She said the sons of those farmers, now running the San Luis Valley farms, would never do something like that. The new generation is much more uptight and stuck in their ways, making it difficult for the valley to change. 

“The more water we get, the more water we have to deliver over the state line,” Canaly said, addressing the water crisis in the valley and Colorado’s water obligations to New Mexico and Mexico. 

The Closed Basin Project extracts ground water from the San Luis Valley with a series of wells. The wells are taking water that is vital to the wellbeing of the valley. 

“People observing the landscape for a long time say there’s absolutely been a change in the vegetation because of the pumping,” Canaly said. 

Such a large amount of water is being delivered to New Mexico and used for farming in the valley that the heavy rains this past year didn’t noticeably help the dry valley, Canaly said.

Potato farming in the San Luis Valley carries the economy: the valley is the 2nd largest producer of potatoes in the country and 1st largest producer of table potatoes. The problem with farming potatoes is that it requires an enormous amount of water. 

“I’m very supportive of agriculture here, it’s just got to change,” Canaly said. 

There are many other crops that Canaly believes farmers in the valley should consider growing. Hemp, for example, requires a quarter of the water potatoes do. However, she knows it is difficult for people to change.

“The thing farmers and ranchers need more than anything is consistency,” Canaly said, “When it starts affecting people’s pocket book…”

Canaly is disappointed in the way humans are currently treating environmental issues, in and outside of the San Luis Valley. She is outraged by the fact that currently zero federal dollars are going toward research on climate change. 

She is an advocate for wildlife, “When does wildlife get a break?” And says that, “As humans we have no concept. We feel like we can go wherever we want, when we want.”

When Canaly talks about the environment there is an energy and excitement that spills out of her and you can’t help but listen with ears and heart wide open. Despite her disappointment in the action currently being taken toward environmental change, she has hope for the future. 

She sleeps well at night knowing we gave it the best we could. We have made some bad decisions, but we’ve also made a lot of good ones. 

To Geick’s emotional response to people in the San Luis Valley who have lost hope, Canaly says that a loss of hope for the environment and not having the motivation to make change is “just adults” and their false sense of security. 

She believes that meditation and “slowing down” is a solution for our time. Clearing our minds and making a connection to nature can help our planet and the people on it.

“I think there is a reason why we are all here right now…8 billion people…we love to be alive and on this planet,” Canaly said. 

Canaly isn’t the only one in the San Luis Valley who has hope for the future and believes creating a spiritual connection to our earth is beneficial. 

Bryan Vigil and Lorene Willis, a tribal elder and tribal representative from the Jicarilla Apache Nation Tribe, and their ancestors have seen climate change coming for a long time.

When Willis was 20 years old, about 45 years ago, Native elders would tell her prophecies about our earth. One of the prophecies they told her was that “water was going to be so precious that you bring it in bottles and pay a lot of money for it. In the 70’s water was so abundant, you could drink it from the springs, it was everywhere. And it just seemed ridiculous that water would be so precious that you’d have to pay for it,” Willis said. Now, in the San Luis Valley, no water is free.

The prophecies she heard were not promising for the future of our planet, but she was always told there was more than one path. The prophecies were just one way it could happen, “it doesn’t have to be that way, the doomy gloom, there’s a way we can get around it,” she said. 

Willis was also told told that at one point in the future all the people in the world would come together and there would be peace on this earth. 

“On the day we make peace with all the people even the grass is going to push itself up from the earth to be part of that day…Those peace times are coming, we just don’t know how we are going to get there,” Willis said.

Vigil’s Grandma also told him prophecies. She told him that they were going to see four types of trees dry up. First was the pinon, which dried up 15 years ago. Then the aspens dried up. Now the spruce is drying up, and next will be the white cedar. “When the white cedars dry up as far as you can see, you’re gonna carry your belongings on your back,” Vigil was told. 

The Apache tribe says to go back to old ways and connect with the earth. “We learn the plants, medicine plants, edible plants, we learn how to camp, different shelters, but first of all we learn how to make fire again. Learn how to make shelter again. Learn how to cook on a fire again. Learn all those things. You might not have to do it, but at least learn how,” Vigil said. 

Another way Vigil says to be closer to the earth is through our feet. He says to wear moccasins or be barefoot and not to wear shoes with rubber soles because they insulate you from the earth. With rubber soles “You don’t have no connection,” Vigil said. 

Vigil has hope for our future. He said he sees people recycling “cans, plastic, cardboard. We all start to realize that we ain’t going no place.” We only have one earth. 

Vigil’s father told him many years ago that “one of these days in the future all people with 5 fingers will come together to save this planet.”

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