myths, memories, reflections

This article first appeared in Autumn 02 Su Casa

I lived away from northern New Mexico for many years. After returning to Pojoaque, the small village where I grew up, I realize there were many things about home that I missed. Now that I’m back, I experience glimpses of the place home used to be, a place that is nearly a myth today. Memories take me back almost a half-century, before the progress wrought by casinos, supermarkets, and highway interchanges, before television made us citizens of the world and began to dominate our lives. I remember best those things and events that I experienced with the senses.

Like water. For me it was the simple, quiet network of acequias, cool and fast moving, the lifeblood of the village. My favorite spot was an intersection where a tall, overgrown weeping willow cradled the running water with its roots. Oh, how my friends and I loved to play in that water! It was our private recreation area. We would flee our chores and race to the ditch, pulling up our skirts and rolling up our pants legs as we waded in.

We held fierce competitions over minnows and tadpoles; we spent hours on our knees and bellies, perched over the water’s edge attempting to catch a coveted salamander. We talked, our conversation peppered with the superstitions of youth: Not one of us doubted that a long horsehair in a jar of ditch water left in the crotch of the willow would become a water snake! The adults kept an eye on us, often appearing just in time to pluck a playmate from the brink by a belt loop before he toppled headfirst into the water.

A recent visit to my neighbor’s place got me thinking about the old practice of digging an acequia. I was not prepared to see how the process had been transformed. A backhoe was trenching-out the ditch; it contained an 8-inch-diameter blue pipe that carries the water underground and out of sight. This ditch was nothing like the traditional hand-dug acequia from which water flowed through crude gates to meander all over gardens and orchards. Now it was a system of valves and faucets, of order and control. The water would no longer be the subject of feuds among family members and neighbors. No need anymore for an alert landowner experienced in open irrigation to stem the flow into the neighbor’s yard or to head off a stream that would “waste” the water by flooding the vega instead of the fruit trees.

In the old days, I would have pitched in to help dig the ditch and pass the time talking. Instead, my thoughts detached from the scene as I contemplated these changes. Once in the trench, the pipe will be buried and the land leveled to look like it did before. In time, only the idea of an acequia will remain. Gone will be the smell of wet earth, the patches of fragrant yerba buena, the deep green mats of spicy watercress growing on the edge of the glassy water.

Like the acequias, the dirt roads and worn paths in the village connected us. People were always going somewhere on foot. Children, accompanied by the family dog, stopped on their way to pick up coins or pretty stones and stuff them into their pockets. The adults all knew each other and addressed each other as compadre or comadre, a combination of formality and affection. They shared goods—a warm loaf of freshly baked bread, a jar of apricot jam, a handmade baby blanket, a shovel to repair the ditch, a whetstone to sharpen a pocket knife, a few logs to heat the kitchen stove. Women were always cleaning or doing laundry. It was not uncommon for them to sweep their yards when expecting company, great puffs of dust billowing up as they defined the path to the house.

I can see the place my great-grandparents called home as clearly as if I’d just walked through their front door. (If you were visiting, you came to the front door. If you were borrowing or bartering, you came to the kitchen door around the corner.) The house was dim, illuminated by a single bulb in the center of the room and by a shaft of light from the west that faded as the sun sank. The heavy-looking ceilings were low with peeled-log vigas and latillas sealed and darkened through the years by layers of shellac. The floor plan was simple, lacking hallways. Each room simply opened onto the next. You learned your manners quickly when you came upon a relative in conversation not intended for your ears. The mud floors were packed solid and worn uneven by traffic. Sweeping produced a sense of accomplishment; no matter how clean, the floors always yielded small mounds of dirt that could be swept outside.

The temperature in that house was always comfortable thanks to the thickness of those adobe walls, frequently 18 inches. They gave the place a solid, anchored feeling, as though the house had grown out of the earth rather than been built on top of it. Two nichos were carved into those thick walls. In one my great-grandmother kept a small Nativity crèche year-round. In the other she kept a rosary, a memorial card with the image of Jesus on the front, strips of palm leaves tied in a loop, and a lace handkerchief.

Nothing today smells like those old houses. My memory lingers on the scent of hardened adobe mud and calcimine white wash on the walls, the woolly smell of blankets and rugs, the sooty scent of wood-burning stoves evaporating water in a cast iron pot to humidify the room. I’m drawn to my great-grandmother’s kitchen by the aroma of coffee boiling or the sweet smell of the fresh atole she’d poured into a cup, thinned with milk and sweetened with white sugar. She would offer me a tortilla or a fragment of beef jerky she had dried outside and pounded into ragged shreds. Her house smelled faintly of tobacco and medicinal herbs and ointments like osha and trementina. She always had cut flowers in a jelly glass on the kitchen table. I remember fragrant roses from the double-bloom climber on the south wall.

Our family houses are fancier now, more embellished. Their designs and materials speak of wanting to be something better than the humble beginnings of my great-grandparents. Yet even as our ever more sophisticated homes become marvels of technological complexity, they also attempt to capture the nuances of tradition. Our homes are cultural contradictions. Among the metal and glass angles that capture light, amid the colors and textures that declare an attitude, we place a stark, smoothly plastered white wall that features a nicho with a gracefully curved edge. It has been built tall and narrow to hold that very expensive religious icon representing El Santo Nino, or a rough wooden crucifix draped with rosary beads created by a famous santero, or a micaceous pot purchased at Indian Market in Santa Fe.

We’re trying to get back to something simple. We’re trying to capture the individual simple things, the glimpses, and put them in one place where they can be experienced all at once. These views are touchstones that conjure memories to nourish our spirits with the beauty of form and placement.

Events, passages, places, and views create a sense of place that is deeply rooted in early experiences. The particular sense of place here is the genesis of the northern New Mexico aesthetic, which is simultaneously relational and solitary, like those old houses without hallways, each room touching another but singular in its purpose. That’s the sense of place I have and strive to recreate, the same sense that many people who moved here from somewhere else grasp intuitively and try to capture in extraordinary ways. Their sense of place is slowly transformed by other people, objets d’art, and events. It might be captured in perfect composition through a camera lens, in a painting, or on a well-lighted shelf. But more often it begins with a direct experience of the senses: with the smell and feeling in the air of rain coming, the aroma of green chile roasting, the taste and texture of a homegrown melon, or the contemplative view through a kitchen window.