A number of years ago I visited northern New Mexico and I have been eager to return ever since. For any nature lover, this topography is paradise, and for me personally there is something universal about the American Southwest—perhaps it’s the notion that one is able to, with just a hike across the terrain, travel back into time so easily. There is also a comfortable ease about the surrounds and a beauty that is unlike any other place on earth. I understand what Georgia O’Keeffe meant when she said she had found her home there. And sometimes it is nice to just travel across canyons and the faraway without having to lift your feet. In John Grabowska’s latest documentary, Sky Island offers just that.
This is Grabowska’s fourth documentary and if you know anything about his films you will know that they are not your usual nature documentaries, but more like visual meditations that are shaped by stunning photography, music and excellent writing. This is not to diminish the science that is present throughout his films, but the purpose of them is not merely didacticism but education and reflection. In fact, as noted in Sky Island, one “never comes away entirely” when witnessing the northern New Mexico topography.
My first experience with Grabowska followed a lousy day at work and so to cheer myself I switched on PBS and saw that a documentary about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was about to come on. It was called Crown of the Continent. I’m not sure what I expected, but clocking in at just under 30 minutes, it became one of the most memorable pieces of film I’d ever experienced. In it, the narrator speaks about having visited the park with his father for the first time at the age of six, and so the film ties the Alaskan wild with his childhood memory, peering into the inward while we are simultaneously given glimpses of the outward. Each of his films shares the same meditative quality that gives it the Grabowska Stamp.
Sky Island focuses on the Jemez Mountains located in northern New Mexico, and the plateau that resulted from a volcanic explosion. Throughout the millions of years, canyons have formed and with that differences in elevations. It is these different elevation levels and temperatures that spawned variations in the life forms that inhabit this terrain. We’re also given glimpses of Bandelier National Monument, where we see the history of the Pueblo People and the artifacts they left behind.
I am inclined to say that Sky Island is Grabowska’s best since Crown of the Continent. Watching it allows one to become the transcending observer of place and time and serves to remind us that we’re only visitors. As for the land itself—that is something else and something entire, and it serves only to exist independently of us, for were we not around, it would thrive just fine.
PBS’s website notes Sky Island premieres Sunday, July 10, 2011. The PBS website offers more information: “This exploration of identity, place and perception features breathtaking cinematography, narration by acclaimed actress Meryl Streep, readings by Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday and a sweeping orchestral score by Academy Award winner Todd Boekelheide.”
Austin locals should check www.klru.org for more details.