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Northern New Mexico Mountains


  • Published: 2010-07-01 : Author: Aggie Villanueva
  • Synopsis: The Gallina mountain valley is a unique pocket of fertility amid the semi-desert terrain of most of New Mexico.

The Gallina mountain valley is a unique pocket of fertility amid the semi-desert terrain of most of New Mexico.

When I discovered this realm it was as if I'd been called; as if everything about it was a dream dreamed but only subconsciously remembered. I longed to live and learn and grow here, and just plain absorb the wisdom that emanates from every cliff and crag.

The Gallina mountain valley is a unique pocket of fertility amid the semi-desert terrain of most of New Mexico. It's a haven that used to supply its people their every need, and still does to a degree - to a greater degree if the Forest Rangers don't catch you.

There are rich, beautiful National Forests and BLM lands everywhere, as throughout the state. Yet rural residents of New Mexico usually exist at below poverty level, when just a few generations ago, every need was supplied by the land, and hard work.

Still, the Gallina valley is blessed with several precious river waters that sluice the village in flowing acequias (a-say-kias), sustaining the verdant rolling hills and fields of the village.

Our niche in the Gallina mountain valley of northern New Mexico is a life apart, literally. The closest Wal-Mart's is an hour and a half drive one-way. That's also our closest pharmacy. A two-hour drive will get you to the closest decent hospital or doctor, or Sears or furniture store, or photo developer or movie theatre. One bank serves a circumference of 200 miles.

There are no phone companies, Hobby Lobby's or drive through fast-food restaurants in Gallina and the surrounding villages. In fact, there are only two places of business in these villages. But there is no lack of churches and liquor stores.

Many of us women make our own barbecue and spaghetti sauce and the like, and can it along with wild orchard fruits and our veggies. I've never tasted a sweeter fruit than the cherry-sized wild plums and apples in the village, or the local choke cherry jelly. The wild asparagus fields are a closely guarded treasure.

Residents don't run down to the store or drive-through to grab something for supper. Almost daily the beans are pressure-cooking and the red or green chili already on the table beside the fresh, steaming tortillas.

Most cooking is done from scratch. One day I ran out of the breadcrumbs I had dried to make stuffing for a wild turkey dinner and a friend sent me a sack she had on hand. Not only had she dried them herself, but began with homemade rolls she makes every week. Her dried homemade breadcrumbs made the most flavorful and the best texture of any dressing I've ever made.

Fresh goat milk is abundant, from which many still make cheese and butter. Most of us kill and pluck our own fowl, our arms bloodied helping our families butcher goats, hogs, cow, deer, and elk. We slice the fat layer from the outside of the hogs for chicharrone, rendering our own lard when we fry it. We treasure the heart and liver, some even saving the hides for tanning.

We use everything possible. If you see a deer or elk antler hat rack in someone's home, they didn't order it from a Cabalas catalog, they salvaged it from their source of meat. We build adobe hornos and harvest corn for drying in them to make chicos, along with vegetables to preserve for winter, and bake the most delicious bread. And the blood from hog butchering makes the traditional morcilla, which means black (blood) sausage.

Hidden in these mountains are the toughest, tenderest, most generous and knowledgeable women I've ever known, though economically depressed. Life is hard for everyone. The unemployment rate is close to ninety percent.

The highest paying jobs are logging, which is dangerous, seasonal and only for the very healthy and young. Even married men must travel far and wide to find logging jobs. Some are lucky enough to be ranchers, having family land passed down for generations. And even for them life is full of hard work to meet daily needs that city folk take for granted.

As in day's of old, the spring, summer and autumn is made up of scurrying to prepare for winter. Not only is the income level depressed, there are none of the conveniences that 95% of Americans take for granted. Some of us get snowed in for weeks at a time. Even if you can get to the highways, they are too iced over to get to the cities.

Flagstone and gravel, provided by Mother Earth, is harvested for use. People like us can replace the rotted wood skirting of our cabins and floors with enduring flagstone without cash, but at the price of sweat and know-how. Gravel to tame mud, and moss-rock flagstone for durability and beauty, are for the taking, if you know where to find it.

Because of low-income and high unemployment rates, everyone is a jack-of-all-trades. Most can't afford to pay for services. We freely help each other with everything from building a home, plumbing, masonry work, roofing, auto mechanic-ing, errands, gardening, butchering and packaging, and gathering firewood, because for most that is the only source of heat.

During monsoon season, when weather is its dampest, we go mushrooming. I've picked the most delicious field mushrooms, not to mention the golden and white chantrels, which are gourmet ingredients in fine restaurants. With these fleshy field fungi I've sauteed bagfuls in butter and garlic, composed simmering symphonies of mushroom onion soup unsurpassed anywhere, and dried them for winter use

Many lost skills are in constant use here, like doctoring the ill. Each year I go digging Osha root with friends to get us through the flu season with all its infections and respiratory problems. And we harvest many other wild herbs for medicinal reasons. I've learned of onion tea, vinegar and alum rinses for healing strep throat and innumerable other cures.

We harvest wild asparagus and raspberry patches. We hunt and butcher (you'll never taste more tender meat, because the fathers have taught the sons how to skin, clean, and cut the grain, removing the tendons.) It's time consuming, but work & time is how we survive. Time isn't money here; it's survival.

Yet, with all the poverty, I've never lived among such a richness of spirit, love and reaching out. I've learned that lack of money leads to a wealth of possibilities.

Most families have been here for generations. We gather at harvest and butchering time to share the workload and the bounty. And the families are closer than most, not only when help is needed, but when it's time to relax or celebrate. Families are in daily contact from the youngest to the oldest. Community life literally revolves around the family unit.

The ground and the forest feed us and supply many of our needs. You may never see cash change hands. This is a country where beer and firewood is the legal tender. And you will never see anyone, not a stranger hitchhiking through or the poorest homeless, go hungry or without a roof over their heads.

People work hard for day-to-day needs such as heat and food and shelter, but when our labor isn't enough, the heart of a neighbor is. When tragedy strikes a local family, you'll see those who sometimes have even less than the victims, rise up and organize benefits to raise funds.

This is a land where people never take off their boots, except to retire to bed at night, because the outdoors is their workplace. A land where people respect the elderly, instead of firing them a year before they are eligible for full retirement. The young and healthy are preoccupied with securing a good life for their families and rely heavily on, and go often to our elders for the earthy wisdom that is the only means of survival in these parts.

There might not be much time or energy left over for formal education. Many don't have the luxury of plumbing or electricity, much less computers, television or radio. Life being such, I have never met, even in metropolises, as many well-read people. We discuss everything from quantum physics to religion to pop-psychology to the works of Shakespeare or John Steinbeck; or debate who is a better novelist, Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey, or which comic book hero has the worst vulnerability.

Knowledge and wisdom are not so much sought after as it is obtained through daily life. As anywhere, you may obtain an education if you keep your mouth shut and your ears and mind open. A friend took me to the forest one day. He wanted to scout out some new hunting areas. I accompanied him as we drove through the dusk and watched him closely. Whenever he tensed or became alert I noticed a pungent, musky odor. After awhile I told him what I smelled. I learned that this is the odor of male elk.

I had already discovered that, wherever I found wild mushrooms, an earthy dankness wafted in the air. I hunt mushrooms through my olfactory senses more than by sight. Wisdom in the wilderness penetrates not just the logical mind, but every sense God gifted us with. There is a reason that when the locals want you to really hear what they're saying, they will tell you, "Watch this," instead of "Listen to this."

Wisdom resides everywhere here, though in unexpected forms. Wisdom comes in overalls and cowboy boots, be it male or female. You may find it in the trail of the mule deer, or the height and density of the clouds. No Doppler radar is needed to predict what to expect from the heavens today, tomorrow, or even next winter.

The beauty of the mountains that surround us in all their richness and harshness also shapes the attitude of the people, who may at first appear hard-bitten by the ruthless bounty of our surroundings.

Though day-to-day survival takes most of our time and energy, life throws its curves here as elsewhere. We face debilitating disease, chronic illness, death, taxes, and severe losses too. Yet, unlike the millions relying on medications for depression, and the frightening rate of suicide, and the rising frustration leading to crime, we face every twist of life and fate with unfaltering hope.

Living so close to the brutal cycle of nature teaches even the stupid or unwilling to be thankful just to be alive. But the wise among us gather so much more from our daily brushes with the Almighty. And that strength of character and resilience is evident, from the smallness of daily life to the horrors of loss, in our ability to rise each day, and smile, and learn, and love those around us, and thank God for it.

Life may be harsh here but there's nowhere else we'd rather be. And when life takes some of us away to wars or the cities to provide for our families, many can't help returning here to the purity of simplicity and the sweat of the brow. The rest of us just stay put and thank God for another day in paradise.

Photographic artist, Aggie Villanueva dubbed the Grandma Moses of the American Southwest, uses photo manipulation to allow others to see life as she sees it, if they care to. Her photo art is represented at several galleries, and she is the founder/publisher/editor of the Aperture Aside Web Hub which includes huge photography-related web archives, blog and bi-monthly photography journal - Link down

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