Essays

                     Rini’s Place: La Tierra es Nuestra Madre

 

Rini Templeton (born Lucille Corinne Templeton in Buffalo, New York, in 1935) lived and worked in Taos and Northern New Mexico during the ‘60s and ‘70s, a time of great national social upheaval. We know her largely through a score of graphic works and drawings she produced in the United States and Central America in support of an array of workers’ and women’s struggles for social justice.

One June afternoon in 2007, I stumbled upon her work at Cemanahuac Spanish School in Cuernavaca, Mexico. At the time, I was boarding with a Mexican family and enrolled in a Spanish immersion program. That afternoon, I was drawn like a magnet to a series of bold, expressive artworks hanging in one of the larger salas off a stone patio. A crowd had gathered there, too, listening to a teacher from Oaxaca speaking about the struggle for teachers’ rights. I listened for a while and then started reading from a book about Templeton and her art. To my surprise, the essayI was reading was written by Taos author John Nichols. And as I read, I learned Templeton lived for a time with then-husband, Taos artist John DePuy, in a small house on an expanse of sagebrush atop Pilar Hill. There in 1970, with the help of Nichols, she published The New Mexican Review, described by Nichols as “a liberal, muckraking journal.” One of Templeton’s images was included in Nichols’ book, “The Milagro Beanfield War.” I learned, too, that following her death in Mexico in 1986, her ashes were scattered in Pilar, four years after I’d moved there.

from Rini’s Place: La Tierra es Nuestra Madre, The Taos News, 2017 Read more

 

 

 

 

 

Talkeetna Cabin

 

 

 

Wilderness Through a Window

 

In Anchorage, Alaska, in my daughter’s house in a cul de sac five miles from Cook Inlet, it’s January, 7:15 a.m. My daughter and her husband were up with the baby last night, so there’s no chance they’ll be stumbling toward the coffee maker any time soon. I slide out of bed, draw open the curtains, sit down in a swivel chair. Outside, all is quiet and inky black. Through the woods, a lone stoplight on Diamond Drive dispenses a slow pulse of red, then green, then red again.

Next door, in the yellow-half light of his kitchen, Jeff lifts a tea kettle. I close the curtain part way to shield my view of the electrified world, but also to hide its view of me. I want to sit for a few minutes and experience dawn. You’ll have to wait more than three hours, I remind myself. Okay, I’ll wait then.

 

I scoot the swivel chair far to the right, press my forehead against the cold glass, stare into the dark rectangle of this limited view, peering as a prisoner in a jail cell might, straining to make out a tree branch, a shred of cloud. Any natural form. Where does wilderness begin?

Across a shelf of snow, tangles of shadows from the limbs of a tamarack tree entwine with the scraggly shadows cast by spruce. They make an interesting counterpoint, and without thinking, I’m teasing one from the other, traveling the byways of meandering shadows, puzzling something out. A moose once wandered out of the bog here and occupied fully the space now thicketed with shadow.

From the night stand, I pick up my iPhone. It’s 8 a.m. Hint of pearly sky. A distant airplane traverses the horizon like a bright star. I imagine the people safely buckled inside. They are sleepy, but know they are arriving at some place real and solid. Or, possibly not. Maybe they are peering out as I am, hoping for a glimpse of the Alaskan wilderness.

Wilderness is often associated with mountains. Although I can’t see it, I know that beyond the line of spruce is Flattop Mountain. Tourists who have a limited amount of time often hike to the top, a relatively easy climb to 3,500 feet, and during the summer months from the parking lot at the Glen Alps trailhead you can follow a string of hiker-pilgrims making their way along the switchbacks. Their colorful tee shirts stand out against the buff background of the alpine landscape. They’ll be able to tell their friends they came to Alaska and climbed a mountain.

Northward from Flattop along the front of the Chugach Mountains is Wolverine Peak. In a clearing along the trail, my daughter and bridesmaids celebrated her bachelorette party three years ago. It was a rainy August afternoon and the wind tore through the steep divide. To mark the path, the ladies tied their best bras and fancy underwear to tree limbs, where they flapped like unholy prayer flags. We sat on Styrofoam igloos that they’d hefted up the trail and then stuffed with bottles of cold beer, gin, and vodka. Big dogs—giddy, tails wagging—jumped on us and muddied our Carhartts and Capri shorts with their great paws. Nobody seemed overly concerned about the horrible weather.

North from there is the Eagle River, along which runs a portion of the historic Iditarod trail. In Arctic Valley, you can hike high enough to view its confluence with Knik Arm. One morning in July, I watched golden-crowned sparrows hawk for insects along a rivulet running from snow melt on Rendezvous Peak. On a higher slope of fragile tundra, a golden plover hen scurried with her two chicks among rocky outcroppings. Along a ridge is the old Nike missile site, festooned with military communication towers and No Trespassing signs that demark the boundaries of Elmendorf Air Force base. I’d say it’s impossible to get beyond human outcroppings because, as they say, wherever you go, there you are. With all your stuff.

By 9:10 a.m., the Chugach are black shards against a pinking sky. The range encompasses 495,000 acres of Chugach State Park, then spills across the extensive Chugach National Forest, which embraces massive glaciers, lakes, and ice fields—about one third of all glaciated Alaska. To experience wilderness, how far must you travel and for how long? A 50-mile trek from the nearest trailhead? A 120-mile trek by llama? How about by bicycle along the Coastal Trail, stopping now and again to scan for godwits on the mudflats?

I remember a day in late May gazing across a racing, quarter-mile wide Susitna River toward the frozen bulk of Denali. At the end of the Talkeetna road, this is the classic view-spot, and on that day I’d walked from my cabin past a make-shift taco stand and a couple of lean-tos selling trinkets to get there. I have to say, it was a worshipful few moments. I stood on the edge of a gravel bar, which was as near as I could get without plunging into the river. There were only about four people along the shore. I stood next to a man cradling in his palm the heavy lens extending from his DSLR. We exchanged a silent recognition, lowered our cameras, and without any intervening device, bore witness to the Great One.

Earlier that day, I roamed through the Talkeetna cemetery where many a renowned climber who’d met his fate on Denali was buried. The cemetery is not far from the airport. Sitting down on a bench to contemplate the story of a famous climber, I could hear plane after plane taking off, ferrying, no doubt, groups of flightseers to the mountain. Most guides offer a variety of flight trips, so you have a choice of skirting the flanks or circling the highest peaks. I wondered what a mountaineer might feel, hanging on for dear life at the edge of some crag, as a plane of hopeful seekers zoomed by, waving and taking photographs? What does it mean to know a mountain?

I open my lap top and type these quick thoughts. When I glance out the window again, it’s day. Drifts of coastal clouds absorb dawn’s muted hues, though the sky above them is the color of glacial silt. Just outside my window on a barren twig of lilac bush, a northern shrike, its eyes banded in a thin black mask, suddenly lands. Both the twig and bird bob up and down. I watch the shrike balancing there for a few moments. Only the pane of glass separates us.

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050

The (Not-So) Wishing Well

      I made sandwiches (thick slices of ham, summer sausage, and jack cheese), then scissored open a bag of barbecue potato chips and untabbed two Pepsi’s. Would this constitute a decent lunch for the two well-drillers splattered in mud and jerking pieces of pipe off the drilling rig parked in my driveway? I’d have served prime rib if I had any.

Thirty years ago when my husband and I bought this land overlooking the Rio Grande, we tied into a well with our neighbor. In 2010, we drilled a well of our own, and it delivered five gallons per minute into a cistern, easily meeting our needs until July 20, 2014, when the pump seized. We learned it was impacted with dense, wet “sugar sand,” sand so fine that when it’s dry you can blow it from your open palm with a whistle. After spending several thousand dollars on an unsuccessful attempt to replace the pump, we decided we had to drill a new well. Fortunately, we didn’t have to haul water because our neighbor graciously allowed us to re-connect to the shared well.

After delivering the sandwiches, I went back inside, pulled from the bookshelf Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner’s environmental classic about the story of water in the American West, and started reading. I’d read it before. How Los Angeles appropriated the Owens Valley water is a tale transformed from Reisner’s painstaking amalgam of fact to the status of myth today. It’s become a touchstone of our times, the Era of Limits, and I needed to get back in touch with that ethos.

I was stupefied to read that John Wesley Powell had concluded 150 years ago that “if you evenly distributed all the surface water flowing between the Columbia River and the Gulf of Mexico, you would still have a desert almost indistinguishable from the one that is there today.”

In my village, the centuries-old Spanish acequias divert enough water to keep small orchards and gardens alive. But everybody has a well. Each taps into probable Pleistocene water, underground aquifers filled with melt from the Ice Age. How could I criticize ranchers on the Plains for wastefully draining the Ogallala Aquifer when I was doing the same thing—using up irreplaceable water?

Chapter Two was aptly titled, A Country of Illusion: “Before the dams were built…the Colorado’s rapids were really big. At Lava Falls, where huge chunks of basalt dumped in the main river create a thirty-foot drop, waves at flood stage were as high as three-story houses.” Three stories was nearly the height of the drilling rig, its thumping machinery pounding into my consciousness, its fumes seeping into my house. Up and down, the drill’s motion was a wagging finger, “You’re as guilty as the rest.” Was I? There used to be one house with one well on these fifteen acres; now there are seven houses and six wells. I got up, closed all the windows, sat back down in my comfortable leather chair, and opened my iPad to an on-line article. Around the globe, I learned, 800 million people do not have access to clean water.

All the surface water in New Mexico is appropriated, so people continue to fight over it. In northern New Mexico, the Aamodt case, filed in 1966, is still contended. This past April, cattle ranchers in southern New Mexico railed against the USFS because the agency had installed metal fences to keep cattle out of a small spring-fed stream. An old story. Everybody wants what (they regard) is theirs.

The law allows me to drill my own well. I walked into the Office of the State Engineer in Santa Fe and automatically got a permit. Those days may be numbered. A 2006 court case argued that domestic well permits are unconstitutional because they violate prior appropriation. In 2011, the NM Supreme Court ruled on the case: there’s nothing unconstitutional about giving folks a permit to drill for water because—and here’s the kicker—that doesn’t mean they’ll be allowed to pump it. Last year, Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, sponsored two bills to regulate domestic wells.

In Powell’s time, no one wanted to hear there was too little water, either. People believed that “rain follows the plow,” that once they settled past the 100th meridian, increased precipitation would result. In our time, we’ve got climate change deniers. And up until now, I didn’t acknowledge that my well diverts water from a thirsty desert river, one that, along my stretch of it, can no longer support the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and newly-listed Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. By mid-century, the Rio Grande median streamflow is expected to decrease by 13 percent.

I closed Cadillac Desert, opened the front door, stepped out to face my own music. As my husband walked toward me, the left side of his mouth was cinched up about a quarter of an inch, a smile of sorts.

“We’ve got water,” he said. The essential luxury, I thought.

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