Not so long ago, as children growing up in rural northern New Mexico, instead of going online or tuning into the radio or television for news of the world—particularly for our news and information about the natural world that engulfed us—we listened attentively and with great interest to our Spanish-speaking elders. Aside from the big picture that they possessed of how things were and had been, they also knew about all sorts of intriguing phenomena. Back then, even a pause in their speech seemed ponderous, and one eagerly awaited their next utterance.
Don Vidal, our next-door neighbor, would sometimes visit us in our kitchen in the mornings while my dad hoed in the chile field. He would report on what he had seen in the heavens the night before. Because my mother, responsible for several children, did not stay up late, she only dedicated her reading of the evening skies to assessing, with great accuracy, whether there would be rain or snow. Concerning snow, she would say “Cuando yo estaba chiquita en Las Truchas caiban (caían) unos nevales que ni abrir las puertas podía uno. (When I was a little girl growing up in Las Truchas it would snow so much that you couldn’t even open the doors.)” Forty years later, growing up in the valley of the Río Grande at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (the 1950s), it still snowed so much (10-18 inches was common) that we were mandated by our father to shovel tunnel-like paths from our house to the corrals, through which we traveled to go feed and water the farm animals.
In the summer it would rain so much that the normally dry arroyos would turn into raging rivers that dragged boulders and tree trunks, together with tons of murky sediment, in scenes reminiscent of Hollywood disaster movies. Stalled in our car at the edge of an arroyo after having gone to visit our relatives in Chimayó, we would wait, sometimes for hours, for the current to subside, wondering if God might not be angry at us as our local priest had suggested, referencing the great deluge in the times of Noah. Fifty years later (now), with but meager yearly snowfalls, soaring summer temperatures and barren Afghani-like landscapes in the Española Valley, devoid even of the toughest of weeds, I have no doubt but that Mother Earth is upset, and with good cause.
Even in my once-sleepy village of Santa Cruz, where until recently houses were hidden behind orchards and cornfields, and animals grazed contentedly in the fields, the spiritual disquietude of modern humans is evident everywhere. In the last few years the surrounding foothills have been severely scarred and even leveled for housing and landfills and by all-terrain vehicles. The acequias have been lined with cement, the old cottonwoods and apple orchards uprooted, and parcels of agricultural land have been “developed” with expensive cheap tract housing and rows of dilapidated trailers. The once-quiet road, on which as many people used to walk as drive, has turned into a congested racetrack filled, yes, by cars, but just as often by heavy machinery on the way to perform their next job of eviscerating the earth. By the time the daily sirens begin to blare for the evening in the early afternoon, low-flying planes and helicopters have for hours already been producing their own brand of noise pollution, invading what little privacy remains—for reasons totally unknown to the inhabitants below.
Gone are the native cherry trees, the native apples, peaches and plums, the wild asparagus, the wild spinach, the wild purslane and mint. Pervasive upon the land is the ubiquitous Siberian elm, the Russian thistle, ragweed and a multitude of other invasive, non-native species of water-thirsty plants. Gone are the ecologically important jackrabbits, the lizards, toads and frogs, the lightning bugs, butterflies, ladybugs, praying mantis, blue jays, magpies and pheasants. Present everywhere are stray dogs and cats and the ubiquitous, unsightly road kill.
Everywhere are fallow fields, decaying cement-plastered adobe buildings, fallen fences, litter, and broken-down cars. Everywhere are phantoms of human beings connected to counterfeit forms of life support—the gambling machines at the casinos, the intoxicating beverages from the liquor store and the polished bloated fruits and vegetables from the grocery store. Add to this, the pseudo-power of fast cars with tinted windows, the driver talking on his cell phone while cruising through town tossing wrappers from his latest fast-food meal out the window, and you have the most recent version of the American dream gone awry. Omnipresent in my community in northern New Mexico and others too, are invisible rivers of prescription- and hard drugs which, far from being medication, are a sure ticket out of what has become an increasingly barren, tormented and insane world.
In a few weeks, the Quivira Coalition Conference will be held in Albuquerque. Featured will be regional and national experts on climate change, species adaptation, food security, the future of water and the role that human beings play in the maintenance or destruction of their ecosystems. Ought we not listen to their prophetic voices, voices which do not always spell out a world of increasing ruin, but which do emphatically sound warning notes to the effect that we need to set out on a radically different course than the one we have been on? Many of the speakers maintain that, like Roger Montoya and his La Tierra Montessori School in Alcalde, we need to cultivate in future generations a new consciousness of benevolence toward the Earth and of kindness and cooperation with one other.
Alejandro López, a professional photographer and writer from northern New Mexico, will be providing English to Spanish interpretation services for the Quivira Coalition Conference in Albuquerque, Nov. 13-15.