The Timeless Moment

With a handheld, integrated-lens digital camera, renowned landscape photographer David Muench explores the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

Famed nature photographer David Muench had some time in March 2014 to tour the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, an area of 500,000 acres set aside as a proposed preserve in southwestern New Mexico. From expansive deserts to towering peaks, the region is home to several climates and, hence, a versatile selection of desert and grassland fauna. The many highlights of the natural landscapes include portions of the Organ, Doña Ana, Potrillo, Robledo and Uvas Mountain chains, as well as the Chihuahuan Desert.

We were stopped at the pass on Highway 70 for a missile test. The missile, scheduled to come down over White Sands a few miles down the highway, was already 20 minutes late. Government vehicles and trailers lined the middle of the highway. Every vehicle coming from the west, as we had, waited in the parking area at the top of the pass. Below the pass, the highway was empty.

We didn’t turn into the parking area. “We’re just going to Aguirre Springs,” David told the police officer stopping us. The road to our trailhead was visible a short way ahead, not far enough to interfere with any U.S. weapons systems. The officer directed us onward. Ours was the only vehicle allowed to pass.

The Pine Tree Trail from the Aguirre Springs Campground provides an extraordinary way into the east side of the Organ Mountains, core of the proposed new national monument David and I had driven south from Albuquerque to explore. The monument will protect 500,000 acres of ecologically and culturally rich land in southwestern New Mexico, including the spectacular jagged granite Organ Mountains, plus land stretching across the Doña Ana, Potrillo, Robledo and Uvas Mountains, a vast expanse of Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, historic ruins and countless archaeological sites.

Winding upward from 5,533 feet toward the north-south ridge of spires, cones, domes, horns and needles, the Pine Tree Trail traverses three climate zones, leveling out in the ponderosas at about 6,500 feet. It remains below the 8,000- to 9,000-foot rocky peaks, which entail technical climbing.

We were both eager for our hike, but traveling with David means you don’t rush. All roads take time. It’s the journey—the photographs along the way—that matters. Along the Aguirre Springs Road on this mid-March morning, with air still crisp from the end of winter, soft from the beginning of spring, slightly overcast so the lighting was even, David couldn’t resist the country through which we drove. A landscape of grassland and yucca, of agaves, sotol, creosote, ocotillo, mesquite—the raw forms of plants not yet in bloom—provides a rich foreground to the rugged mountains in the distance.

Formed about 32 million years ago, the Organ Mountains display themselves as wild, sharp-peaked, formidable on both their east and west sides. Wherever you are, there’s something magnificent in front of you.

David first came here in the 1960s, carrying his 4×5 Linhof. Now, using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 and a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS system, both handheld, everything is more spontaneous, although neither his seeing, nor his excitement about the area, has changed.

“I want to get involved in the mountains, not just look at them,” David says. “I’m fascinated by the spires and pinnacles, by the wildness.”

Until this trip, my only views of the range were drive-bys between Albuquerque and Big Bend. Surrounded by Chihuahuan Desert, these mountains give drama to a sere, hot borderland. Unaware that the spires and horns thrusting grandly into the sky were named for their resemblance to church organ pipes, I found their name awkward. While I often refer to the Sierras or the Rockies, it didn’t seem quite right to talk about the Organs.

But when New Mexico’s senators introduced the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Conservation Act to the Senate in November 2013, I became curious. Once I arrived there, I was mesmerized. The Pine Tree Trail is gorgeous. Only four miles round-trip, it climbs up from desert beginning in the Lower Sonoran Life Zone into a world of magnificent old alligator juniper, pinyon pine and mountain mahogany in the Upper Sonoran Life Zone, then higher into the stately environment of ponderosas in the Transition Zone. Higher still, in the Canadian Zone, are scattered Doug fir and white fir.

“What most intrigues me is that this is an island in the sky that brings the Chihuahuan Desert lapping up into the 9,000-foot range,” David says. What intrigues me is the spectacular granite—the whole of the range above us and the giant glacial erratics through which we made our way. Glades formed by junipers and oaks and huge boulders offered perfect stops, places to wait for David—who stops about every few feet to photograph—to catch up.

The time-sculpted skeletons of these ancient trees speak to him. Where bare, smooth limbs frame the Rabbit Ears—a horn formation symbolic of this range, visible on both the east and west sides—he takes time composing. Nature’s forms, dead or alive, are equally compelling.

Oak trees not yet leafed out and the skeletons of oak trees that will never leaf out climb up along the trails. The air is completely still, a vital manifestation of silence. “It’s so quiet here, I can hear the image stabilizer in the camera,” David says. “I’ve never heard that before.”

The song of birds whose names we don’t know, the distant cooing of Aztec doves, the buzzing of flies, the absence of wind, of voices, of anything but us, are all magnified. Can a photograph portray silence? Can it present the eternity to which we are present?

Not far beyond the trail’s halfway point, we arrive at a small spring trickling down rock bordering the trail, pooling in a tiny pond at the rock’s base, feeding moss along the way, a little quasi-vertical oasis. Late in the day, the sun above the horns and peaks seems about to move behind the ridge. “Not long,” David says. We watch the sun slide along the peaks, moving sideways, as if reluctant to sink, as if, loving the peaks, it wants to stay with them. “It’s very slow,” David says as he watches, poised with his camera.

Perched as he is on the rocks, the sun highlights his hair. I can’t help but notice it’s the kind of backlighting he loves. “This is a really nice shot,” he says. “It’s glowing. That’s why I’m spending so much time up there.”

He thinks I’m impatient to go. Since getting a fortune in a fortune cookie that said, “Patience may be a factor in maintaining your vitality,” I’m rarely impatient. Even without the fortune, I would not be eager to leave this spot.

When we finally move on, heading downhill on a trail bound by massive rock forms the whole way, it’s like walking through a sculpture garden of undulating forms and the skeletal arms of winter’s oaks. An occasional cholla reminds me I’m in the desert.

There’s an excitement about wandering through an area worthy of protection that goes beyond the wonder and delight of entering into its wild magnificence, becoming, instead, a connection with the whole of America’s wildness. Wild places have often been protected because of photographers’ work. In the 1860s, Carleton Watkins’ photographs garnered state protection for Yosemite Valley. In 1872, William Henry Jackson’s photographs were part of what convinced Congress to designate Yellowstone as our first national park. In the 20th century, Ansel Adams’ images helped gain protection for Kings Canyon National Park.

Photography has a singular ability to present both the grandeur and the subtle nuances of nature’s power in a way that transmits this moment for all time. David calls this the “timeless moment,” the moment between past and future stopped—in the moment—by the camera.

Spending the next day on the west side of the range, we watched clouds forming farther west, beyond the Rio Grande. David, excited by the storm light the clouds portend, says, “This draws me, especially in early morning, looking east to get the silhouette.”

The following morning, we leave before sunrise to get into position to photograph the mountains against a gray sky. The New Mexico drought is severe, yet, this morning there’s rain along the road to the Bureau of Land Management A.B. Cox Visitor Center. Clouds veil the faces of mountains; mist wraps itself about the peaks, sliding through gaps, wraith-like. Rain sprinkles the windshield as we drive the Dripping Springs Road. It pours down on David as he walks across the desert flat below the rhyolite outcropping, which forms a rock echo, a shadow, a shield for the mountains on this west side. The overcast day brings soft, even lighting, revealing the desert’s textures.

“Sun and shade are rough on a photographer’s intentions on a wild landscape,” he says later. “What speaks to me in this light are the forms and textures of a very scratchy environment. Today—in this subdued light—is about form and texture rather than contrasty light and shadow.”

Watching rain fall in the Chihuahuan Desert, I understand that the way in which we see wildland is our own. But in the ability of the camera to replicate our vision, it ceases to be personal, becoming, instead, a universal statement of both nature and art.

You can see more of David Muench‘s work on his website at