As I write this, I am sipping a cup of warm atole, prepared as I was shown by my older brother, Joe, when I was but a child of 10 and needed to begin taking responsibility for my own hunger. The blue corn for this morning’s meal was lovingly grown and hand-processed by organic farmers, my friends Dora and Lorenzo, from the South Valley of Albuquerque. Preparing and consuming this hot cereal on a cool fall morning of contracting greenery and advancing parched ochre leaves and stalks satisfies not only my palate and my body’s need for energy, maintenance and repairs; it also thoroughly enlivens my senses, memory and consciousness with thoughts and sensations of the inevitable passage of time, the nature of relationships and, above all, of the unique texture and constitution of the living New Mexican earth, capable of feeding us still.
I say “still” because she once did and could do so again in the event, say, of California staggering in its recovery from drought, or if we tire of the high prices and tasteless food brought in from elsewhere. The earth of New Mexico could actually feed us if we were to convert from the “religion” of petroleum, chemical fertilizers and GMOs to more homegrown and respectful ways of providing for our collective nutritional needs.
Prior to the 1950s, most everyone in northern New Mexico grew food from field or farm and traded with neighbors for the products they lacked. This time of year saw a virtual tidal wave of individuals, families and communities harvesting and processing food. They gathered, schucked, butchered, pitted, dried, ground and canned huge amounts of food, oftentimes enough to feed families of 10 or 12 for months at a time. It was certainly a sight to behold and motivation for community engagement.It was the drama of human survival that has been playing itself out since the appearance of human beings.
In growing one’s own food on the scale of a small farm or garden, one is invariably forced to partner with nature—the elements, seasons, weather and other species of plants and animals—as well as with other people, because rarely can a single person sustain the load this labor-intensive way of life requires.
Farming, the growing of food, is worth practicing, if for no other reason than the numerous biology lessons it provides and the countless moments of pleasure and insight derived from wondrous natural phenomena—the germination of seeds, the stunning daily growth of plants and the budding, formation and maturation of fruit.
On any scale, farming makes sense when we consider that nature tends to be prolific in its outpouring, unlike our sometimes-limited budgets. Three plants can bring in a near-endless amount of tomatoes or cucumbers throughout the late growing season, with the surplus going to friends and family in a gesture mirroring the generosity of the land itself. When one is at a loss for finding fruit inside the house, and another trip to the store is not possible, a final visit to the grape vine or apple tree, together with a more careful search through the foliage, will usually net a few more bunches of grapes or apples—scrawny, perhaps, but tasty nevertheless.
Fifty years ago, when most people in the area lived off the foodstuffs produced here, national agribusinesses and supermarket chains were undermining the market for locally produced food until, eventually, they got what they wanted—a population totally dependent on their denatured products and processes. Fortunately, more recently, a growing consciousness around healthy food has developed among many people, so there is an increased demand for locally raised organic foods, to such a degree that families wishing to make their livelihood in that way can do so. Technologies such as hoop houses and drip irrigation have aided this trend.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to growing our own produce may yet be realized in the way that healthy, wholesome food and the vigorous exercise required to produce it function as medicine for our entire being—mentally, physically, spiritually and even aesthetically. A plethora of stories circulates among northern New Mexicans about elders who spent their lives growing and eating the simple foods that they produced and of how they lived to a ripe old age without ever having set foot in a hospital. What so many of us would now give to live such lives! The fact is, each spring we are given the opportunity to hitch our being to the larger cosmic forces that drive our universe—the sun, the earth and the snowmelt—and plant a few seeds in the ground.
By tending to the living plants, we indirectly tend to ourselves. Our world and all of its life forms constitute a single, thoroughly interdependent organism. It stands to reason that the care and interest we give plants, we ultimately give to ourselves and to others. When all of the hoopla of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day have come and gone, may we remember the seeds we have stored in our cupboards, basements or clay pots, for they could be the key to our health, wealth and a long and interesting vida.
Writer and photographer Alejandro López was raised on a small farm in northern New Mexico, where he still plants crops.