Pioneer Chihuahuan Desert Filmmaker

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Harry interviewing a javelina at Panther Junction Park Headquarters.  Photo by Betty Alex

by Rick LoBello

Many of my Big Bend friends from the 70s and 80s will remember Harry Gordon and his Chihuahuan Desert Trilogy Film Series. I was very fortunate to meet Harry when I was a seasonal park naturalist at Big Bend National Park.   When I was working on my Master’s Degree in Biology at Sul Ross State University at the same time and living during off season at the new Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute headquarters in Alpine, Harry and I  worked with institute staff and board members including the Institute’s founders Dr. James F. Scudday and Dr. Michael Powell.

We first met at one of my evening programs in the Chisos Basin at the campground amphitheater.  Harry told me about his project and over the years we spent hours visiting good locations to film different animals in the park. I remember helping him film a Trans-Pecos rat snake crawling across Tornillo Flat and getting footage of a Couch’s spadefoot toad burrowing into the edge of an arroyo after a summer rain storm.

Part 1 of the trilogy was the award-winning film Land of Lost Borders. It was the first  documentary on the Chihuahuan Desert filmed largely in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Narrated by Burgess Meredith, Land of Lost Borders is a deeply personal, almost spiritual journey through the Chihuahuan Desert in the company of an unseen wise old man. Land of Lost Borders was completed in 1982 and won a Cine Golden Eagle Film and Video Competition award.

When I was on the board of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute I tried to convince others to professionally digitize the film and even gave the organization a clean 16 mm copy that I had purchased for a lecture series years ago.  Few people on the board saw the value of the proposal and to this day all of Harry’s work survives only on VHS tapes, original footage that his family has and what I was able to upload to YouTube at youtube.com/CDNatureCenter.

Other films in the series that you can see on YouTube include.

Where Rainbows Wait for Rain is the second documentary on the Chihuahuan Desert produced by Harry L Gordon and filmed largely in Big Bend National Park, Texas and at Cuatrociénegas in the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico. Cuatrociénegas (which means four marshes) is located on a valley floor studded with white gypsum sand dunes and ringed by mountains, hundreds of springs emerge from the ground filling blue-green pools, streams and rivers. Communities of microbes build rocky freshwater reefs in the warm, mineral rich water. Fish, turtles, shrimp, clams, snails, lizards and snakes found nowhere else in the desert, or the world for that matter, thrive here. With over 70 such endemic species, it is often compared to the Galapagos Islands. The World Wildlife Fund ranks it as one of the three most “biologically outstanding” desert freshwater ecoregions in the world.

Where Rainbows Wait for Rain features rarely seen underwater footage of the Coahuila box turtle, one of the 25 most endangered turtles in the world.  You can see them at the El Paso Zoo where they live in a pond by the Reptile House.  Most box turtles are land dwellers, but the Coahuila box turtle likes water.  A Chihuahuan Desert native, it is the only species of box turtle in North America that spends 90% of its day underwater.   It is known only from the Cuatro Ciénegas basin in Coahuila, Mexico where expanding agriculture is drying up its marshy habitat.

The Spiral Dance: Reflections on Big Bend National Park, also produced by Harry L Gordon for the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. This vintage film is a work of art and still beautifully evokes a sense of place that is the Big Bend. Narrated by Burl Ives, the Spiral Dance is the first documentary on Big Bend National Park.

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Harry standing by a century plant in Green Gulch.  Photo by Rick LoBello

Harry died suddenly of a heart attack at age 48 one August day in 1990.  We all said good bye on August 21 at a memorial service in the Panther Junction Park Headquarters Community Room in Big Bend National Park.  Later that morning, a small plane from Alpine scattered his ashes near Government Springs on the Grapevine Hills Road.

 

Special Thanks to Betty Alex for her help in finding the picture of Harry with the javelinas.

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