Exercises in Self-Sufficiency

Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú. Both places were made famous by artist Georgia O'Keefe.

Abiquiú, NM – One of the most admirable qualities of Rio Arribans is their self-sufficiency, necessitated in many cases by extreme poverty and a climate and topography that are both inhospitable. Self-sufficiency has always been part of the cultural fabric of Rio Arriba.

The area has slogged along the fringe of American society since 1848, just as it had as a backwater of the Spanish Empire from 1540 until 1821, the year Mexico won its independence. In many ways, northern New Mexico continues to be pioneered by frontiersman who’ve never fully embraced – or been embraced by – America’s capitalist system.

Less than 70 years ago, many farmers still hauled their harvests to Santa Fe markets in horse drawn carriages. Cattle are still herded by cowboyhat-wearing men on horseback. Some have remained all these years unconnected to Rio Arriba’s electric grid.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed in 1848, America’s boundaries expanded and a bona fide foreign country complete with its own customs, language, ideas around governance, and a history far different from the one most learn about in school, was absorbed by a country with an inherent dislike of brown people.

How strange it must’ve been to one day be a citizen of one country, only to have an entire new order – codified in a language you don’t understand – imposed on the next. Although the wild west days that followed belong to America’s romanticized past, the government has never fully tamed this area.

Fast forward to 2012, modernity still struggles to slacken the unrelenting pull of tradition. Some still gather wild herbs and vegetables to sell at the markets. Others eke out a living selling hay or firewood they’ve hauled down from the mountains. Sweet peas and Bing cherries are currently in season and often sold at roadsides stands abutting the land on which the crops were grown. Local governments tend not to enforce local laws if doing so will impose a hardship on residents.

Unlike in Wisconsin, where I’m from, you rarely will see a farmer employ a machine in his fields more sophisticated than an old tractor. No big plows or silos. No big conveyor belts or fancy packaging facilities. No regional distribution network or food co-ops. Here, local foods still go from field-to-market using little more than a family’s worth of bare hands.

It’s easy to become envious of the knowledge Rio Arribans are born into. If my car breaks down I’m unable to fix it on my own. I could never build my own home. No matter how hard I try I can’t seem to muster an interest cultivating something as minimal as an herb garden. But out of necessity I’ll have to chop firewood this summer to heat my little casita throughout the winter. The propane heating system is woefully inadequate (and expensive) for an unweatherized adobe home with a brick foundation.

As a child I’d sometimes help my grandfather chop the wood he’d use to heat his home during winter. So I like the idea of putting this primitive, but unused, know-how to work. Unfortunately I’m also city-bred, which induces many internal deterrents to the ways of the super rural life.

Lucky for me there are guys who’ve been chopping wood their whole lives who sell it on the roadsides by the cord. Regardless, I’m determined to get my permit and a hatchet and go chop at least some of the wood I’ll need this winter. That’s something you can’t do in any city.

Along the Chimney Rock Trail at Ghost Ranch.

A Rio Arriban I met last week lives on land that’s been passed down through his family since at least 1735, not long after the Spanish re-conquered the area following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which drove the Spanish back into what is now Mexico.

George Washington was this tall, the man said, holding his hand just above the ground. (Washington turned two in 1735.)

The property, in Abiquiú, is lush green and dotted with fruit-bearing trees – peaches, apricots, bing cherries. A community ditch – or acequia – runs through it, which he’s allowed to draw water from for irrigation on Fridays. The acequias, of which there are more than 600 within the County, are an Arab technology brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the North African Moors. The Moors ruled the Peninsula for nearly 800 years until a successful Reconquista by the Christian kingdoms in northern Spain was undertaken about 20 years before Columbus set sail.

When the Spanish arrived in northern New Mexico 100 years later, they were likely struck by the geographic similarities between it and the motherland.  They dug ditches to capture the mountain snowmelt in what over time became a labyrinth of ditches carved into the landscape just as the Moors had done upon conquering Spain. Farmers to this day rely on these acequias to irrigate their fields.

The man had lived in a mobile home for nearly 40 years as he painstakingly built a house in the time between his day job and the needs of his field.  It’s a beautiful passive-solar home with floors that generate radiant heat. As with most homes here, it’s a hybrid of Native adobe and Spanish stucco styles.

Exposed log cross beams, roughly three feet apart, span the width of each room. Between them pieces of Aspen trunks, all chopped to size, were set lengthwise across the beams in a herringbone pattern.  Its several turreted rooms give it the appearance of miniature Spanish castle. Although habitable, the house is unfinished.

But he didn’t merely build the house himself over the last 40 years; he also harvested and sculpted many of materials himself. Armed with a $20 permit from the U.S. Forest Service and a chainsaw scoured the high-altitude forests for trees perfect for logging as cross beams. Occasionally he had help, but when he didn’t he jury-rigged a hoist in his pick-up to used to raise and situate the felled trees. Similar effort was required to harvest and shape the many Aspens needed to complete the ceiling.

When a person gives you a tour of their home what they’re really showing you is their possessions and how they’ve organized them within the limitations of a space because the space itself, likely designed and built by strangers, could be anybody’s space.

For this guy, every square inch of his home has a story. And not just the story of the house, of his life over the last 40 years. Every high or low he experienced in that time is built into memories of the setbacks and milestones in building what really is a massive art project.

Some guys here spend 25 years piecing together a lowrider. This one spent four decades building a house from scratch and probably has at least another 10 before it resembles finished.

It is his life’s work and nothing short of a masterpiece.

How do you put a price on that?

Chimney Rock, the end point of a rugged two-mile trek up the side of a mesa.

An artist’s wife last week took me back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when Anglo hippies began moving into Taos County in a bid to fulfill their Utopian fantasies of living off the land and living off the grid. Around this time, the area’s farmers had begun connecting to the electric grid in increasing numbers. Upon their arrival, the hippies began encouraging the farmers to resist this modern temptation, warning of becoming dependent on the system.

As the hippies talked up the virtues of foregoing modern amenities like electricity and encouraged farmers to fight against contemporary encroachments, their crops ironically failed because the city-bred dropouts didn’t know a thing about farming, let alone farming in an inhospitable land. The hippies, she said, largely survived those winters in Taos County due to the generosity of local farmers who kept them warm and fed.

1 Comment

  1. Megan Jones says:

    What a great story.  I have always lived in the Pacific Northwest and I really don’t know anything about New Mexico or its history.  It sounds like everyone is very independent but still have collectivist values.  Everyone should provide for themselves, but if for some reason they can’t they should be helped.  I think those values are very similar to my own.  Maybe I should make an excursion down to New Mexico!

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