Monday, April 18, 2011

The Journal of a Mud House, a continuation

[Illustration from "The Journal of a Mud House" by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Harper's, April 1922]

Yes, well. Mrs. O'Bryan's porch in Tesuque represents a vision as well as an actual house, c. 1922. One can tell by the somewhat inexpertly handled proportions and details -- particularly the itty-bitty vigas poking through the walls -- that this is not an "authentic" New Mexican adobe house in the then newly fashionable Pueblo Style which would within a decade morph into the still-fashionable Santa Fe Style.

The vision, of course is represented by the scrubby hillside against which Mrs O'Bryan has had her adobe built and by the yard full of flowers in front. In fact, it is still one of the hallmarks of Santa Fe Style housing that there be an abundance of flowers bursting out of yards and spilling out of hanging planters.

It's a vision of Paradise.

Up to a point.

New Mexico is no easy Paradise to be sure. The locals, of course, have known the facts of the matter for as long as there have been locals here -- which could be many tens of thousands of years.

Water is the most problematic supply need in the region. New Mexico is mostly desert after all, some of it -- like the White Sands region -- spectacular sand desert, but most of it is the kind of scrub desert that draws you in. But be careful.

Tesuque has a "river" flowing through it, so it is not quite as dry as many other areas. Santa Fe, too, has a "river". These "rivers" would be classified as creeks or intermittent streams anywhere else, but in New Mexico, any flowing water at all is something of a miracle.

These "rivers" are often diverted by canals called acequias. Through means of these acequias, water is brought to many who otherwise might not have access to it. Control of the acequia water is in the hands of a mayordomo who determines how much water each user can take from the canal and what kind of service and maintenance the acequia requires. The acequias at one time were essential to crops in the region, and you can still see land use patterns based on the locations of the acequias throughout New Mexico, but especially in the Rio Grande Valley.

These days, access to water is considered critical, but reliance on the acequia system is much less as wells and civic and commercial diversions from the Rio Grande itself have made water somewhat easier to get -- and have made a much larger population possible.

The population is mostly concentrated in Albuquerque, though. The city has a population of something over 500,000 with as many as 750,000 or more in the metro area -- which is enormous in New Mexico -- and it is striking to see how the city has been shaped by the landscape and by the Indians.

Albuquerque was founded over 300 years ago near the banks of the Rio Grande at the base of the Sandia Mountains in the vicinity of an occupied -- or was it abandoned? I forget -- Indian pueblo. The Sandias are an astonishing geological formation, basically a section of crust that has been forced up from below. The effect is to present a west face of the mountains that is practically a sheer cliff more than a mile high; the eastern side of the Sandias is a relatively gentle slope. The formation runs about 30 miles north to south, as does the spread of the city.

From the West Mesa of the Rio Grande, you can see the abrupt cut off of the city's spread both to the north -- where the Sandia Pueblo lands are a sharp barrier -- and to the south -- where the Isleta Pueblo lands perform the same function.

Albuquerque has spread as far up the Sandias as it reasonably can; it is a very steep climb up from Tramway. So the only direction Albuquerque has been able to grow of late is to the west, and sure enough, Albuquerque has metastasized onto the high plains and volcanic ridges west of the city.

There is something of Los Angeles in it, but with a very distinctive style. Albuquerque is both older and newer than LA, and it is forthrightly Anglo, Spanish, and Indian, adopting this tricultural image of New Mexico as its own identity, but rejecting the Santa Fe tendency toward kitsch on the one hand and its somewhat irritating historicism on the other. Albuquerque shows a very distinctive and polished contemporary style that may -- or may not -- evoke the past, but which seems to fit the place remarkably well.

Santa Fe, on the other hand, though the capital of the state, is a small town with only about 75,000 people. That's still considered large and quite fancy by local standards, because you can go out to Tesuque where Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant did back in her day, and find a few hundred at best. In Sergeant's day the number was probably no more than dozens, and I'm sure Sergeant knew every one of them.

Or think of Taos, where Ms Sergeant also apparently had a domicile. In those days, it was becoming a prominent artist's colony. Somewhat like Tesuque, it consisted of a scattering of ranches, mostly in Anglo hands, a "Mexican" village (Rancho de Taos) and the famous Indian Pueblo, partially rebuilt after the US Army destroyed most of it during its conquest of the region. (There had been a rebellion by the locals during which the appointed US Territorial Governor Charles Bent was killed along with a number of others, so "punishment" was mandatory. Something like 250 Taoseños and others were slaughtered and much of the pueblo was destroyed in 1847. Captured rebels -- mostly Indians -- were then hanged by the dozen. It's the way things were done in those days.)

Today, there are perhaps 30,000 people in the Taos area, but in the 1920's there may have been no more than 1,500 or 2,000.

Many other towns in New Mexico still have a few hundred or perhaps a thousand or so people living in them. Albuquerque's bloat is practically unique.

Like other adventurous souls looking for Paradise, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant came out to New Mexico from Back East -- in her case, Massachusetts, about as far East as you can get in this country.

A colony of artists and literary lights had formed in Taos and had spread to Santa Fe, beguiled by the history and seduced by the Light -- the incredible Light of this region.

Just as a sidenote, I'm used to arising just before dawn, and yet this morning I decided to sleep in a bit and let the sunrise Light illuminate my bedroom before I got up. Oh. My. What a moment. The curtains in the bedroom don't block all the light, but they do cut the glare signifcantly. There are lace glass curtains and overcurtains of a fairly light weight but dark red cotton. The room filled with both white and red light as the sun rose, really quite joyous appearing against the yellow painted adobe walls. It was beautiful and inspiring. What the Light does around here seems unlike that of any other region, and it is because of what the Light does that so many romantics and artists are attracted to New Mexico.

As Ms. Sergeant so rightly put it:

Indeed. "Mere vision." Seeing. Exploring. Abiding.

To Be Continued


  1. Dear Che,

    I'm enjoying your posts on New Mexico. I didn't comment at the time, but I enjoyed the series you did some time ago on tenements too.

    By the way, how are you feeling? I hope all is well.

  2. Hey Gwen,

    Thanks for the kind words. I was really struck by Sergeant's take on her travails up in Tesuque way back when. It's not all that different now. Many things have changed, to be sure, but much of the spirit and the challenge remains the same. I say that in a good way, too.

    Oh, and the last time I saw the doctor (an East Indian gentleman, BTW, which tangentially relates to the availability of East Indian antiquities and building materials in New Mexico today) we mostly chatted about New Mexico -- where his wife wants him to take her, but he is afraid to come because of his fear of Valley Fever. I told him the altitude would take care of that. He'd just have to watch out for plague. Oh, he's not afraid of that he says!

    Anyway, tests are OK; still have lesions in my lung -- but that's probably permanent scarring from previous as well as recent bouts with pneumonia. I'm still recovering, but it seems to be going much faster than before. Thanks be.