Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Where We Are -- El Llano(Alto), Sort Of

 Mountain View Telegraph Explore! Visitors Guide 2012-13

I've been meaning to do a post on our location in the high desert of New Mexico for some time, but I'm still a bit leery of getting too specific about it. I am too ignorant for one thing.

This area is called the East Mountains, and it is indeed east of the Sandias and Manzanos, the central mountain chain of New Mexico. Although our elevation is quite high (6,200-6,300 feet), we don't feel like we're actually in the mountains. That's because we're not. We're in the Estancia Valley, which is a high plain (El Llano [Alto])  It was at one time the bed of a large lake which has since dried up. Its remnants are found east of the village of Estancia itself where there are a number of small salt lakes, Lagunas del Perros, that have been utilized for centuries for salt and other resources.

The Estancia Valley runs approximately north to south, 40 miles or so long and about 25 wide. So this was a pretty large lake when time was -- estimated to have been about 10,000 years ago, though it may have been more recent than that. The valley is underlain by an rather alkaline aquifer which provides water for agriculture as well as households, but there is not a whole lot of either in this area, nor has there ever been.

The whole East Mountain region, running from Galisteo on the north to Mountainair on the south has a population estimated at about 13,000 -- interestingly, that's about the number of Pueblo peoples who were estimated to be living in the region at the height of Pueblo settlement (until about the 1650's). The Indians left the region during the extended drought of the 1670's, and only a few returned after the Pueblo Revolt. They in turn left by the 1740's when hardships, Plains Indian raids, and population decline made settlement impossible to continue.

There was no Spanish settlement here until the 1800's when small parties of Spanish settlers arrived in the Galisteo area and established a village near the ruins of the Galisteo Indian Pueblos. Somewhat later, tiny Spanish settlements were started on the eastern slopes of the Sandias and the Manzanos, settlements which, like Galisteo, still exist, though they are still tiny.

Apart from a few scattered ranches, there was no other permanent settlement in the area. The Estancia Valley was a kind of No Man's Land. Pueblo ruins were found on the east side of the valley, all abandoned in the 1670's during the drought, but there were no other settlements in the valley itself until the land title was settled (somewhat dramatically, it is said) and the area was opened to homesteaders around 1900.

Our house was built about that time; it is considered to be one of the oldest -- if not the oldest -- ranch houses in the area.  It's built primarily of adobe, but stylistically, it's late-Victorian, not at all like the flat-roofed and cubical Pueblo and Spanish dwellings that are characteristic of New Mexico and particularly "Santa Fe Style."

I'm reading a fascinating report prepared for the Rural Electrification Administration c. 1937. It is a remarkable document on a number of levels, among them its overt prejudice against the Spanish residents of the East Mountains and its description of pretty appalling conditions faced by the bean farmers in the region.

This was a Dust Bowl. It was separate from the major Dust Bowls to the east, but still, the farming practices in the Estancia Valley were no different than those on the Great Plains, and the destructive environmental results were essentially identical. It's not that the area should never have been farmed -- it can be farmed successfully as irrigated land provided some reasonable care is taken to preserve the soil -- but the initial farmer-settlers were convinced that they could get by as dry-land farmers, planting beans, relying on summer rains, without irrigation or soil conservation, and the results were tragic.

Disaster compounded by foolishness.

Here are a couple of pictures from the report:

And here is a picture of the typical farming/plowing methods of the time that led directly to these dust bowl conditions:

What were they thinking?

Well, it's obvious.

Even in the pre-Dust Bowl era, farmers knew quite well what would happen if they attempted typical dry land farming on the Plains. If the summer rains didn't come -- which they often didn't -- the soil exposed by deep plowing would dry up and blow away in the wind and it would not be recovered. Crops would fail, farm economies would collapse. Disaster and ruin would ensue.

The farmers seemed not to care.  They knew what would happen. And yet they kept on as if possessed.

In a sense, they were.

I grew up in California where dry land farming is impossible (though it was tried anyway) because there are no summer rains -- at least that used to be the case; climate change has meant that there is now some rain in the summer time. Irrigation is essential for there to be traditional crops of any kind on a regular basis, and irrigation of California farmland is universal. Of course that has consequences which aren't always beneficial. This is seen particularly in the Westlands of the Central Valley where over irrigation has caused the ruin of many acres through the precipitation of selenium and other toxic salts. Oh well... Yes, they knew what would happen...

Yet they behaved as if possessed...

Living as long as I did in the Gold Country of California, I often wondered why Americans still flocked to California once it was clear they weren't going to get any gold. What kept them coming? In a sense, it was "possession," as in a kind of madness.

Acquiring land was a big part of it. It was much the same on the Plains -- and in the Estancia Valley of New Mexico as well. Land was easy enough to acquire in those days. It was cheap in most of California, free in the Great Plains -- as long as you homesteaded and worked it. That's where the problem lay.

It was not free to homestead and work the land; it was in fact relatively expensive which meant that most of the farmers who went out to California or the Frontier of Settlement on the Great Plains or in New Mexico were deep in debt from the get-go. They had to put in crops and harvest them as fast and as much as they could in order to service the debt load they were under. For a brief period during WWI and into the 1920's, it seemed as if it would finally be possible for marginal farmers on the Plains to clear their debts and even make a reasonable profit if they plowed and harvested more and ever more because crop prices were high, weather was good, and opportunity seemed promising.

So they did what they thought would do the trick. It was a disaster of Biblical proportions.

It was a smaller-scale disaster in the Estancia Valley, but a disaster nonetheless.

Once the soil was plowed up and the rains didn't come, the soil blew away in vast clouds of dust that blocked the sun and filled every heart with horror and despair. I've read that there were two episodes of Dust in the Estancia Valley, the Big One in the 1930's, and then again in the 1950's. Apparently the lessons were not learned... or more likely were learned well enough, but they were simply ignored.

Nowadays, it isn't so bad. There are a limited number of farms in the valley, and they all irrigate. The practice of dry land farming simply isn't done here any more. (Of course, someone more knowledgeable than me will tell me I'm wrong about that, but that's all right.)  Beans are still a significant crop to be sure, but the scale of bean farming is much smaller and the growing is more intense -- which it can be with irrigation. Cattle ranching is extensive, but the ranchers are well aware of the delicacy of the grazing land and take precautions to ensure that grazing is kept within reasonable limits.

Since the 1950's and later, the East Mountains have become a bedroom community for Albuquerque, but the Estancia Valley has resisted absorption. This is still very much a rural area, which is part of what we like about it. It's 50 miles to Santa Fe and 35 to Albuquerque, which means that we're close enough to the city if we need or want to be there, but we're not so close that we're overwhelmed or subsumed in the urban swirl.

There are some wonderful Wild West stories about how this area came to be opened for settlement when it was, and I'll try to get into some of that in another installment...


  1. I'm going to be in Santa Fe from Dec 15-19th. It's always a treat but this trip is because my Mom was just diagnosed with lung cancer. She's a healthy 80 year old but this will kill her and she doesn't quite understand that yet. As you may have gathered from my user name I'm a pathologist. I know of what I speak. Anyway, I'm mostly looking forward to my visit.

  2. Sorry to hear about your mother's diagnosis. That's no fun at all.

    But it is good that you'll be visiting her -- and Santa Fe. They say the weather will change by next weekend, but no one I know is holding their breath. It is still sunny and warm as heck.

    We'll be taking some day trips to Santa Fe for the Posadas (Dec 9) and the Canyon Rd Christmas (Dec 24) but mostly we're still unpacking and preparing for the delayed winter (there are some holes I need to plug in the attic, etc...)

    Here's hoping you enjoy your trip and that you can make the most of your time with your mother.

  3. Ché, did you happen to watch Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl on PBS a few weeks ago? I watched it on-line, but it's not available that way now. It was good to watch it, as I hadn't realized the dust storms raged for a decade, and yet many people stayed on the farms. Many had no where to go, and no way to go anywhere. A lot of them did know who and what was responsible for the catastrophe, and said so in interviews, or stated such in letters/diaries. Even admitting the plague of rabbits, "Well, farmers killed off the coyotes. The rabbits took off." Farmers around here still do that, and put out poison to kill all the rodents over-running the orchards and wheat fields. Gack. Some of the photos and film Burns rooted out were jaw-dropping.... And yes, the maps shown included parts of New Mexico as northwestern outliers of the storms. One of the people interviewed was a New Mexican native.

  4. You know it's funny, I did see the Ken Burns opus on The Dust Bowl, and it was quite moving. Because so many of the refugees from Texas and Oklahoma wound up as neighbors in California, I'd been exposed to the stories from the time I was old enough to comprehend. It's only recently that I realized some of the refugees were from NM, too. I knew they were from New Mexico, but not why they left...

    The northeast corner of NM is generally the area that is officially included in Dust Bowl lore and legend, up around Clayton. But we're in the center of the state, and the effects were the same here. Thankfully agricultural practices have changed, and what happened before is not likely to happen again, but the scars are still apparent.

    In the report I refer to, it is pointed out that the population of the area declined substantially from its early peak because of the numerous crop failures. People left. Just as they have done during this endless recession. Then the report says they started coming back in 1936, not because conditions had improved but because conditions were no better elsewhere. If they were going to be poor and miserable, they may as well be at home...

    Yes, the farmers did know what had caused the catastrophes. The children often didn't, but the grown ups did, and yet there was seemingly nothing they could do to stop it. Not until there was an intervention from the Farm Administration, and even then, it was tough to change bad habits and to curb the rapacity of the lenders.

    I've been impressed at how careful -- really careful -- the farmers near us are. They are some of the most conservation-minded people I've so far encountered.