Valer and I head back across the border to El Coronado. "We cannot continue to take forever," she says. "There's a point at which we are going to kill ourselves, and in many ways we've already reached that point. But we can turn it around. That's what we're showing—we can turn it around."
While she and Josiah have sunk millions of their own money into their work, that well isn't bottomless. As the Earth grows hotter, what the Austins would like to see happen is governments worldwide investing in this low-tech solution. Given all they've managed to accomplish, this doesn't seem like such a far-fetched idea.
"Part of what motivates Valer is someone telling her she can't do it," says her friend the ecologist Ron Pulliam. "To look at a place like San Bernardino and imagine a lush riparian forest, streams flowing year-round, a major stopover point for wildlife, it takes some imagination, it takes some gall to think that you can do something like that."
Of course, you don't have to spend too much time with Valer before you realize that imagination is in itself a kind of energy. It thrusts ever forward, drinking from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hope.
When the Horseshoe Two fire swept the Chiricahuas in the spring and early summer of last year, burning 223,000 acres, the animals made their way down the mountain flanks to El Coronado. "It was like Noah's ark here!" Valer exclaims. She rode the ranch on horseback, leaving bags of dog food for the bears. An injured bobcat slunk into their doghouse to die. Valer put water and mounds of cat food outside. Eventually, the big cat healed and took off.
"The animals came down because we had water," Valer says. "We had places where there were ponds. The only green that didn't burn was right along the river. I'll take you up there and show you that spot. We'll walk around here. How much do you walk? We can go up into the hills...."
Kathy Dobie, a writer living in New York, profiled factory farm activist Lynn Henning in the November 2011 issue of O.
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