Alla en el Rancho Grande

Holding Fast to el Árbol de Vida and Sense of Lugar

Lopez sisters Lydia Maestas and Martina Ellington picking chile on their family ranch in Santa Cruz, NM - Photo Alejandro Lopez
Lopez sisters Lydia Maestas and Martina Ellington picking chile on their family ranch in Santa Cruz, NM – Photo Alejandro Lopez

By Alejandro López

Only through profoundly local living can we curtail our profligate consumption, end our contribution to global warming and restore balance and sanity to our planet.  – Michael Brownlee, author of The Local Food Revolution.

A human being is part of the whole called by us the “universe,” limited in time and space… Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty. – Albert Einstein

From the once robust apple orchard that my late father José I. López planted many years ago, there remain only four aging but still flowering and productive trees in El Rancho Grande. The place where I was born and grew up alongside these stately specimens was named more in irony and jest, given its modest size.

Situated in the midst of the sweeping Valle de la Santa Cruz in the heart of northern New Mexico, facing the imposing Chicoma Peak (Tsi Kemu Pín), an extinct volcano that is one of the four sacred peaks of the Tewa Indian people, El Rancho Grande, particularly when viewed in relation to the tiny yards that most of the valley’s residents possess, gives the illusion of being almost illimitable. Its dimensions are amplified by its soil, air, water and sunlight, from which endless expressions of life are forever arising.

With a bit of work, a progressively rich ecology that connects plants, animals, people, culture and agriculture has again begun to take root here over the past several years, since I returned from the concrete and asphalt cities of the East Coast. Much to my delight, in recent months I have once again been able to pick wild asparagus and have been met by the surprise visits of hares, roadrunners and a variety of other birds, as well as a harmless snake. Our capacity to grow food has been revived, thanks in part to my tireless Mexicano neighbors and friends who recognized this region’s potential for food-crop production. It is a joy to see water put to good use and fields lush with peas and other vegetables.

One of four remaining apple trees from the once large orchard-Photo by Alejandro Lopez
One of four remaining apple trees from the once large orchard-Photo by Alejandro Lopez

Those few severely bent, gnarled árboles de manzana clinging to precious life, together with the water-filled acequia that runs the length of the ranchito, were enough to compel me to fully embrace, nurture and protect the remaining vestiges of the paradise I had known as a child. I did so as if, given the rate of the extinction we are currently witnessing on Earth (the Sixth Great Extinction), all of life one day might have to get its jump-start from these few cherished life forms.

In my newly awakened state of consciousness that admitted the “sacred in nature” as the energy that pulses through all phenomena and makes life holy and deserving of our utmost appreciation, reverence and respect (to paraphrase author Martín Prechtel), these trees became nothing less than the archetypal Tree of Life from which all living beings since the beginning of time had sprung forth. Their fine, hair-like roots have threaded themselves through hidden interstices of the soil within their reach; their branches arch elegantly up into the sky and give us fruit. They are indeed this land’s true sovereigns, guardians and protectors. They, not I, will inherit the Earth.

For many years I paid lip service to El Rancho Grande, this special lugar (place) where no one had been able to marshal enough time or energy to prime its fountains so that life might again gush forth. Those wellsprings had once caused it to be “all green lace and ripening fruit,” as stated in a poem I wrote long ago. It was here that I had been born into a family of 10 older siblings. Our wise parents’ job had been to care for us as well as for this land and make it bountiful. They did not fail in those two interconnected resolves.

With the catalytic power of the sun, soil, seeds, water, manure, a few tools, willing hands and a single homely plow-horse, we managed year after year to coax from the soil apples, pears, peaches, cherries, plums, grapes, melons, corn, squash, chile, asparagus, cabbage, green beans, peas, faba beans, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers.  

We harvested, dried and canned mountains of fruit and vegetables, supplying half the world, or so it seemed, with food on our selling forays into nearby towns and villages. Our harvests had been so prolific that my mother, whose name, fittingly, was Eva (Hebrew for life), used to say, “There’s enough to toss up to the sky,” presumably to honor and delight the gods who had bestowed such bounty.

Without knowing it though, perhaps our most important crop may have been ourselves, for from this soil and the labor and discipline required to sustain El Rancho Grande there sprung forth 11 highly resourceful people with deep taproots into life. All grew up to become self-sufficient, productive individuals ingrained with the spirit of generosity, cooperation and hard work.

Like the trees in our orchard, we responded with resilience and verve to life’s unceasing challenges, not the least of which was to build lives that incorporated core elements of our native, land-based culture while accepting and adapting to the more aggressive Euro-American culture that had overtaken our once-hidden world. The process of assimilation into an unfamiliar, highly industrialized society and economy imposed on Nuevo Mexicanos began in 1848 with the U.S. military takeover of the northern half of Mexico and picked up speed during our lifetimes. When Washington or Hollywood said “jump” and demanded that we become Americans overnight in every aspect of our lives, we did our best to conform, guided in part by Polish-American Dominican nuns who had come to our village school from the Midwest to teach us English and update our brand of Spanish-Mexican Catholicism.

We suffered considerable awkwardness and humiliation in the process because it involved leaving behind who we were and becoming who we were not. I am still not clear if as a result of this we are a stronger people or a people who now walk around with hollowed-out souls. After many years of schooling and exposure to mass media, we were directed toward careers, the armed forces and American cities. Even though the old people from our communities had cautioned us to never stop planting, as it was fundamental to our way of life, the new set of circumstances in which we found ourselves nearly dictated that we abdicate our roles as seed keepers, custodians of water and alchemists who turned seeds, soil, air, water and sunlight into nourishment. Almost overnight we went from being capable producers to faceless consumers. It was not long after that that El Rancho Grande fell into a state of abandonment and disrepair and remained so for nearly 40 years.

One of the first things my father did after returning from Colorado in 1943, where he worked in the mines, was to buy the four acres on which El Rancho Grande sits and begin farming and keeping animals. It was a smart move, for here he could produce cash crops while raising children in the ways of self-sufficiency steeped in the natural world. He planted a hundred apple trees below the acequia.

I lavish attention on the four remaining trees each day with the knowledge that they and I are part of a single living organism we call the Earth, an organism that includes all of the cosmos. If they go, I go too. Perhaps after I am gone these trees will continue to bear witness to a future characterized by severe climate change, peak oil, the Sixth Great Extinction, doubling of the global population, mass migration of peoples from the southern hemisphere to the more prosperous, industrialized North, a dramatic increase in the price of food, and God knows what else.

As old as these trees may become, if they continue to be loved and cared for, it is not inconceivable that they or others like them may one day actually or metaphorically provide us with the seeds and impetus needed to replenish the Earth with the greenery and teeming life forms that we, as a modern civilization standing at the apex of world power, have so foolhardy and wantonly despoiled. Our survival may depend on the restoration of this world of sacred relations and lugares. 

Alejandro López is a storyteller from northern New Mexico, as well as a muralist and photographer.

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