Nonfiction | January 01, 1988
THREE YEARS BEFORE my husband and I bought land on the Mimbres River, an unusual amount of winter snow and spring rain prompted what locals authoritatively called a “hundred-year flood.” That left us ninety-seven years. We were also reassured by the large dikes built by the Army Corps of Engineers between our agricultural field and the river-bed. These dense gray mounds of gravel, contained improbably with heavy mesh wire, were ten feet high, twelve feet at the base, and ugly. They efficiently blocked our view of the river which, at that time, was not much of a loss. Although things were to change quickly, when we came to southwestern New Mexico the price of copper stood high, unemployment was low, and–on our land–the Mimbres River stretched bone-dry.
Like many country-dwellers not born in the country, we find it hard to believe we were once so naive. We actually sought out river-bottom land. We didn’t think in terms of rusted wheel bearings, smashed foot bridges, soil erosion, or property damage. We didn’t think of rivers at all in terms of property: rivers were above real estate. They were gifts in the desert. They were frail blue lines that disappeared on the map. In the arid Southwest, rivers–even intermittent rivers–were to be coveted.
In the coming years, we came to know the Mimbres River better. On my part, it was not an idyllic relationship. The only road to our house is a rough and rutted trail of packed dirt that goes over the stream bed. When the river does run, about seven months of the year, water seeps into our car bearings and the brakes freeze at night. When the river runs too high, we stall in midstream and must be hauled out by a friend’s four-wheel drive. Those of us on the wrong side of the river, a neighborhood of some seven families, tried to deal with the situation. We built an elegant wood and rope “swinging bridge” for pedestrians and at the gravelly bottom of the stream installed cement culverts–only to have both swept away by spring run-off and heavy rains. On the occasion of such rains, the Mimbres became impassable by any vehicle. Whenever this seemed imminent, my husband and I parked our car on the side of the river that led to town: fifty miles to Deming, New Mexico for his teaching job and thirty miles to Silver City for mine. The next day, we would get up early, walk a half mile to the crossing, and wade.
The cold water didn’t bother my husband: the problems of this part-time river only intrigued him. In the early 1970s, New Mexico’s Soil and Conservation Service had experimented with our section of the Mimbres by cutting down all the cottonwoods. At that time, they believed that eliminating these great trees, some more than a hundred years old, would mean more grass for cattle. Today, it seems an inspired act similar to putting cans on a cat’s tail. Without the cottonwoods to hold the soil with their roots and slow the impact of water, subsequent small floods swept over the six miles of newly denuded ground like an efficient mowing machine. When the channel was dry again, the eroded result could only charitably be called a river. My husband’s dream was to bring the old Mimbres back. To this end, he planted branch after branch of cottonwood in the hopes they would miraculously grow. Miraculously, they did. He charted the revegetation of willows, chamisa, walnut, and mullein; and he personally scattered the fluff of cattails. In a meditative silence, he walked the gray dikes built by the Army Corps of Engineers and saw a greener future.
On the morning of the second hundred-year flood, we woke to a triumphant roar and strangely clear view. Below our house, what had last night been a field of winter rye was a mass of brown water lapping at the goat’s pen. Something important seemed to be missing. It took us longer than seems reasonable to realize what that was. The ugly gravel dikes were gone. A strange, dark, churning river had taken their place, a river that also included part of our land, much of our topsoil, and our car.
We didn’t learn the fate of the Volkswagen until later that morning. Excited and impressed, my husband dressed and went down to inspect the situation. I stayed in the house with our three-month-old daughter. Everyone in the neighborhood was out inspecting, and those who had gotten up early had the chance to see our car–parked on the “town” side of the river, one hundred feet from the crossing–slowly lifted up and then more quickly carried off by the flood. The little Bug was in good company with giant cottonwoods torn from their roots and the debris of upstream bridges and irrigation pipe. The neighbor who related this wore the guilty, half-pleased expression of someone imparting bad news. When my husband returned to confirm the destruction of our single and uninsured vehicle, his face too showed a kind of pleasure. The loss could not compete against the drama of the moment. Looking out over the changed, aquatic world, his eyes gleamed. The neighbor talked loudly. We all laughed. This was a big flood. This was bigger than the last hundred-year flood. This was a river.
Our neighborhood was once a ranch now subdivided into various-sized parcels with a restriction on each that no one can further subdivide. This restriction was part of our reason for buying the land, plus the fact that we liked the people who were already here. As the limited number of parcels sold, a strong sense of community emerged which even resulted in a name: El Otro Lado (The Other Side). For our private street sign, Jack and Roberta Greene, one of the first to buy, painted this in informal and cock-eyed calligraphy on a wooden board they posted at the highway. Divorced, in his early fifties, Jack had posted a want-ad for a companion in the Mother Earth News and through this means he met the also divorced, forty-eight year old Roberta. This slightly comic, slightly suspicious background proved misleading, for the Greenes became our role models, the sanest couple we knew. Neighbors in a rural community, we were all bound by mutual needs. We borrowed hand saws and drill bits from each other’s tool box. If a neighbor went out of town, we fed their horses, goats, chickens, dogs, or cats. We offered unsolicited advice (inevitably, all seven households were building passive-solar adobe homes) and compared notes on greenhouses and R values. Despite ages that ranged from thirty to sixty, we were close and comfortable and gathered almost every Sunday night to watch movies on Jack and Roberta’s VCR.
Now, with the flood, we were not alarmed at being cut off and isolated together. Phone lines had been washed away, and the power pole rocked precariously in the middle of the rushing brown water. Huddled in sweaters, we converged as a group to note its sway. Uppermost in our minds was the fear that without electricity we could not use the VCR to watch Roberta’s copy of a Lina Wertmuller film. The pole held, and a potluck was arranged where over four different salads we discussed the river, the weather, and our fields–three words for the same thing. That easily, the flood became another community event, another bond, another movie.
Upstream, a friend almost lost his life when he tried to cross the water in his jeep. All night, his pregnant wife walked the bank that was still crumbling and called his name. In the morning he was found barely alive, much chastened, clinging to a log. His was not the only four-wheeler to go down the river. A small family-owned logging operation contributed some equipment; another rancher lost his prize tractor. The best news, according to everyone, was the loss of the dikes. As it turned out, they had channeled the Mimbres in such a way as to increase its force and power. Some property-owners threated to shoot any engineer who tried to re-erect the dikes. This did not prove necessary since the state belatedly labeled the entire area a floodplain–a nod to nature that prevented anyone from interfering again with the river’s inclinations.
On our property, the flood literally scoured the river bed as the channel shifted to carve out chunks of irrigated field. When the water subsided–a matter of days–it left a muddy battleground strewn with logs, misshapen debris, and two huge rubber tires ten feet in diameter and three feet thick. The small laboriously-planted cottonwoods did not survive. In fact, not a blade of grass remained. Elsewhere on the Mimbres, where the ground had been protected by trees, the torrent overflowed the banks and took down a few of the older cottonwoods but did relatively little damage. In less than a month, that part of the river was green again.
In southwestern New Mexico, the Mimbres River winds from the pine-covered Gila National Forest, down to the scrub oak and juniper of our land, on south to the high plains of the Chihuahuan Desert. In its sixty mile length, the river drops some 4500 feet and covers four Life Zones. Narrow, intimate, made lush with irrigation, this area has a long history. I found my first pottery sherd while digging a squash bed in the garden. Since then I have found many such bits of clay, their edges irregular like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered in the dirt. As sometimes happens, the first one was the best: a palm-sized sherd of black-on-white ware, its painted lines very straight and elegantly thin. Such lines mean that the original pot was made between 1000 and 1100 A.D., the “Classical Period” of the Mimbreno Indians. A branch of the prehistoric Mogollon culture, these Mimbrenos farmed, hunted, gathered, and painted designs that are world-famous today. The designs are often fantastical: southwestern versions of the griffon and the unicorn. Most are natural depictions of animals and insects. Some are quite bawdy–penises as long as your arm! Some resemble Escher paintings with their mirrored images and field reversals. Many are humorous. In all, they present an extraordinarily talented and peaceful culture. Over six thousand Mimbres pots are stored across the world in various major museums; you can also find Mimbres ware for sale, advertised discreetly in the back pages of such magazines as The New Yorker. Apparently, in the time period that the Mimbrenos lived here–from 750 A.D. to 1250 A. D.–they made a lot of pots. Most of these have been found in the burial sites beneath the homes and villages which the Indians abandoned around the thirteenth century. Most have a “kill hole” at the bottom of the bowl, which archeologists believe allowed the spirit of the dead to escape. Some scientists theorize that the pots were made exclusively by women, and that certain artists or prehistoric “celebrities” produced pots on a regular basis.
Modern Mimbrenos are proud of their heritage and exploit it ruthlessly. Designs crafted a thousand years ago can be seen on locally-made earrings, T-shirts, stationery, calendars, aprons, T-towels, and coffee cups. An ancient picture of a bighorn sheep, now extinct in the area, might pop up on an advertisement for farm equipment or a recruiting poster for the nearby university. While such theft is harmless, the commercial value of the pots themselves is more controversial. A Mimbres pot can be worth as much as $25,000, and pot-hunters have been known to bulldoze sites that an archeologist might take years to uncover. Pot-hunting, of course, is illegal on state or federal land–which most of the valley is not. Although the archeologists wax indignant, they are considered by more than a few natives to be just another breed of pot-hunters, ones who take their loot to be stored in far-off museums.
In truth, we are all pot-hunters here. How could it be otherwise, when the glamor of the past combines with profit? We perk up our ears when we hear that someone down the valley found seventy-two pots in her front yard. Seventy-two! Closer to home–a quarter mile from my doorstep–a doctor and his wife inadvertantly destroyed a Mimbres pot when they bulldozed a building pad for their new house. Meanwhile, on the hill directly above us, an ancient burial site is found complete with human body and turquoise beads.
Such stories only confirm that the qualities of a good home site have not changed much in a thousand years. In digging the foundations for our adobe house, my husband found a large grinding stone or metateburied three feet deep. After that, we watched each shovelful, but no pot emerged that would pay off the mortgage on our land. Mimbres pots may still be under our kitchen floor or bed of yellow forsythia, but it offends our aesthetics to run about with a backhoe digging arbitrary holes. We remain pleased with the metate and, rather conventionally, keep it outside our doorstep with an associated collection of the smooth hand-held grinders known as manos. Like most people who live in the valley, we count continuum an intangible return on our money.
Mimbres pottery is glamorous for its age and beauty. But it is only part of a small museum scattered over our twelve acres. The Tci-he-nde or Red Paint people left their arrowheads, as well as one four-inch spearpoint now on a shelf of knick-knacks. This band of Apaches, named for the stripe of paint across the warrior’s face, probably entered this area long after the Mimbrenos’s exit. Un-Apachelike, they continued the tradition of farming. At least, they tended their crops between times on the warpath with the Spanish (from 1780 to 1784, Spanish conquistadores made four major forays through the valley), the Mexicans, and the American “God-damnies.” In the nineteenth century, chiefs like Mangas Coloraclas and Victorio found it increasingly hard to hold off a growing horde of gold-hungry, silver-hungry, copper-hungry, even meerschaum-hungry miners. Where miners went, forts and soldiers soon followed and by the 1860s Mexican and Anglo farmers had also settled the valley and would eventually supply the nearby boom town of Silver City with bumper crops of potatoes. Such early entrepreneurs dry-farmed pinto beans where my front yard presently yields grama grass and tall spiky yucca. In 1869, someone established the irrigation system that waters my garden. Over the years, these men and women regularly dropped mementos of baling wire, lavendar glass, and bone-white china. Most recently, I found in our field a perfect 61/2 ounce Coke bottle. Its thick shape, patterned with raised letters, dated from the 1940s–seemingly an emblem of the modern world, until we compared the heavy, diminutive bottle with an aluminum can red-flagged NutraSweet.
The Mimbrenos, the Apaches, the dry-farmers are all gone–and not just because they died. The sudden disappearance of the Mimbreno Indians is still a mystery; a sense of calm pervades their ruins which precludes war or pestilence. These dead are properly buried and their kitchen utensils neatly stored. In contrast, the Apaches were clearly driven out. At one point, an Indian agent promised them a reservation on their homeland, but the citizens of Silver City naturally objected, and nothing came of it. By 1886–when the famed Geronimo was caught and shipped to Florida–the entire Red Paint people had long been scattered to the San Carlos Reservation in southern Arizona or the Mescalero Reservation in central New Mexico. For the dry-farmers, the weather simply changed. It began to rain less, and wells became harder to dig. The river itself was no longer that “rapid, dashing stream, about fifteen feet wide and three feet deep” described in 1846 by an American soldier.
Oddly–or perhaps not–such disappearances continue today. They are a part of the valley’s heritage. In the six years we have lived here, we have seen most of our friends and many of our acquaintances leave. Most obviously, the lack of jobs is to blame. The Mimbres Valley is in Grant County, one of New Mexico’s richest mineralized areas. Twelve miles to the east, the Santa Rita Mines began producing copper as early as 1804, and for most of the twentieth century that yellow metal–not quite so yellow as gold but more abundant–was excavated from a hole that eventually swallowed the entire town of Santa Rita, complete with hospital and schoolhouse. Mining is an extractive industry. In the 1980s, the Kennicott Mining Company declared that only forty more years worth of low-grade ore existed at the strip mine they advertised as “the world’s prettiest copper pit.” Many smaller operations in nearby Hanover and Pinos Altos had already played out, and the other major company in the area, Phelps Dodge, also began to count the years. No one employed by the mines paid much attention. No one even mentioned it to newcomers like us, and we didn’t ask. As it turned out, forty was not the magic and seemingly far-off number it seemed. For it wasn’t the amount of copper left that caught Grant County by surprise, but the price per pound. By the time that price fell to under fifty-eight cents in 1982, the lay-offs had already begun; in 1983, unemployment in Grant County reached forty percent.
Still, that is only part of the story. Most of our friends did not leave the Mimbres Valley because they couldn’t find a job but because they couldn’t find the job they expected of life. They and we came to this area for the small-town ambiance and rural lifestyle. Not surprisingly, neither the small town nor the surrounding rural area required many editors, landscape architects, graphic designers, professors of literature, psychologists, or political lobbyists. More surprisingly, many of us discovered that we needed to be these things. We had learned in the infamous sixties to self-actualize, a process we associated with escape from the contaminated and stressful cities. For love of land–for love of beauty, for love of the valley–we could adjust to a lower standard of living. We could not adjust to being high school teachers or car mechanics.
Our neighbor is the car mechanic. His real interest is solar engineering, and he wonders fairly often why his back hurts and why he spends so much time under the hoods of cars as old as himself. Another friend would like to build houses but the economy here is too depressed and he lives, instead, on odd carpentry jobs. Yet another friend is a linguist; at night, she teaches English as a Second Language to the Spanish-speaking populace of Silver City.
For five years, my husband was the high school teacher. Because of the long drive, he left for work at six in the morning and returned from work at seven in the night. He was angered by conditions in his job which prevented him from teaching well. He was angered by the blatant cultural contempt for public school teachers, even as he recognized in himself the echo of that contempt. As one upper-middle-class mother once told him, public school teaching is a “deviant career choice.” Unfortunately, in the day to day working world, a number of public school administrators seem to agree. My husband’s home-room (through which over 150 students passed in a day) was constantly monitored by an intercom system. Small one-way mirrors had been installed in the door so that vice-principals could peek in without being seen. Professional leave to attend conferences or workshops was rarely granted, while the punishing pile of paperwork and extra-curricular activities made the actual work of teaching a side issue. In this stringent and well-maintained hierarchy, neither students nor instructors appeared to be on top.
Thus for a number of reasons, none of which had to do with “low salary” or “discipline problems,” last year was my husband’s last at Deming High. It hardly needs to be said that he does not want to leave the Mimbres Valley, although we are not sure what else he can do here. For now he pursues a variety of part-time work which includes teaching night courses, free-lance photography, and growing asparagus as a money-crop. None of these jobs are what you might call stable, and together they do not add up to the annual salary the average college-educated man my husband’s age is making.
But money is not really the problem. It is more possible than one thinks to live frugally, and frugality mixed with imagination has its attraction. It is true that self-sufficiency–a too big garden, library books instead of theatre tickets, plumbing that one regrets putting in oneself–can pall. So can consumerism at Radio Shack. If one is willing to pick and choose conveniences, a frugal life can even be at home in the modern world. We have an outhouse; we also have a word-processor (which, I admit, must not be used when the washing machine is on). We indulge frequently in good food from recipes, not restaurants, and our Oaxacan stew of pork, pineapples, chilies, and bananas has become locally famous. With a stern enough sense of priorities, frugality can even be stretched to include such middle-class comforts as major medical insurance or an IRA.
No, the real dilemma is not one of economics but social identity. What is a person who has a patchwork of jobs as insecure as our river? When the tax forms ask occupation, is the part-timer content with the ambiguity of his signature? Will my husband and I be happy at the age of fifty-five?
We don’t know the answers to these questions, and in the willful charting of our lives, we wonder what invisible turns we are taking and what roads we pass irrevocably. We wonder why we feel out of the mainstream and if we will ever regret that choice. Perhaps we should wonder even more why we feel that it is a choice, as though our position in society was completely self-determined. Although this sense of control is one we would never give up, we still find the authority to be a little frightening.
In the theme of departure, there are variations. Look at Jack and Roberta Greene. They retired here to build a home, to garden, and to make pots. With a cement mixer, Roberta churned the mud which Jack wheelbarrowed away to pour into a mold for adobe bricks. That first year they made enough forty-pound adobes for a small, liveable studio. They would need another two thousand for their one bedroom house. Meanwhile they planted an orchard of peaches, plums, apples, cherries, and walnuts. A master gardener, Roberta grew lavish rows of asparagus, strawberries, grapes, chilies, tomatoes, lettuce, peas, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, leeks, radishes, potatoes, and corn. Their raspberry crops were famous. It was far more food than they could eat, and in the summer they took their surplus to Silver City’s Farmer’s Market. In their second year, the two thousand bricks lay neatly stacked in rows that spilled over into the garden. Enthusiastically, they began to lay up the walls. Jack studied wiring. They did most of the work themselves. They put in an outside compost toilet and a solar hot-water system. By the time they had been in the valley for five years, they had a beautiful, hand-made Santa Fe-style home, an established orchard, a shed of useful tools, and the acceptable identity of a retired couple. As part of the grand plan, Jack began a kiln for their pottery-work.
We profited greatly from the Greenes’ knowledge, as well as from their tool shed. But by the time we began to lay up our own walls, Jack and Roberta were already showing signs of restlessness. Before his “radicalization” and divorce, Jack had owned a chain of liquor stores in California. Twenty years later, with a beard and a wife from Mother Earth News, he was still the businessman, still a driver. The adobe dream house was built. Now he couldn’t quite see truck gardening for minimum wage or churning out pots for less than that. One day he and Roberta bought a video store in Silver City. At that time, it was the only video store in town and contained perhaps fifty movies to rent. With Jack’s retailing expertise and the labor that Roberta once spent on her garden, the business grew quickly. In fact, it seemed to be one of the few stores to thrive in Grant County. For awhile, the Greenes tried to straddle two worlds, but inevitably the “simple life,” with its unpredictable demands, proved too burdensome. Some time after the second hundred-year flood, they bought a furnished house in Silver City–a jacuzzi in the master bedroom, a microwave in the kitchen–and put the Mimbres adobe up for sale.
In the nineteenth century, the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “An American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are bearing; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest; he will take up a profession and leave it, settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere with his changing desires.”
My husband used to quote this in wonderment. Now we see how easily it could apply to us. With Jack and Roberta gone, along with our Sunday night movies, the disintegration of our community began. The car mechanic plans to open up a bicycle shop in Silver City. The wife of one couple is in law school in Albuquerque; another neighbor job-seeks in Santa Fe. As we count the number of friends who have left the valley, if not El Otro Lado, we are surprised at their number. Suddenly, we are no longer new-comers. We are the ones left.
On the river bank, my husband has planted more cottonwoods. With the dikes gone, he thinks this batch will survive the next flood. Many cottonwoods have already started up on their own, for this, after all, is the work of floods–to tear down dying trees and carry seeds to new parts of the river. Mullein is returning too and small patches of willow. It has only been a few years, but the flood seems to have happened long ago, to much younger people. These days, my husband broods over the increase of trailers in the valley: tiny aluminum dots that blot his view of rolling hills and the fang of Cooke’s Peak. Insistent against the backdrop of mesa, they represent a different vision of the country, a vision we had not foreseen. Overnight they pop up on the half-acre treeless tracts of land that a son is carving from his father’s pasture. Like the river, they follow their own inclinations.
In the marital urge for balance, we switch sides often now. This week it is I who grow depressed at the thought of leaving the Mimbres Valley. It is not only the green fields that hold me, but the loss of my naivete. I am not sure I want to spend another six years learning new lessons. Here, at least, we know our enemies. In this mood, I tell my husband that mobile homes are built to leave and, who knows, if we wait long enough, perhaps they will go away like everything else. Perhaps new friends will come. Perhaps he will find the right job, or find that he doesn’t need to. Perhaps the next flood will be a hundred years away and, in the meantime, his cottonwoods will grow tall. Let’s stay, I say this week. Let’s stay.
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