Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Desert Can Do That To You

Marsha and I have always been most comfortable either in dry, barren areas of land, or on sandy beaches.  And when I read this line of poetry –

“The desert holds the memory of ocean tides”

– it immediately brought back memories of our first visit to the Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend National Park as part of an Elderhostel educational vacation in 1998

One of our instructors was a self-trained paleontologist named Ken. He was a surveyor by vocation who had come to the area a decade earlier on a job assignment. It was his maiden voyage to that part of the world and he just never left. He had been, I believe, married at the time.  But Ken simply became obsessed with the paleontological possibilities of, what he would say is, “one of the most complete pictures of a prehistoric ecosystem known anywhere on earth.” – and with the solitariness to pursue that fixation. The desert can do that to you.

We went out on a dig for fossils with Ken who, like the avaricious gold seekers in the movie Treasure of Sierra Madre, was unwilling to let us rank amateurs actually lay hands on any of the prehistoric leftovers that we came across. (The desert can do that to you also.)   Later on we visited the retired yellow school bus jam-packed with osteo-relics that was his museum for a hands-off tour.

The fossil record at Big Bend includes relics from the Age of Reptiles to the Age of Mammals, beginning about 100 million years ago when a huge sea covered most of what is today the Midwestern part of the United States.  Many of these marine fossils can be found in the remaining sea layers of limestone known as the Boquillas Formation, including a 30-foot long sea-dwelling reptile known as Mosasaurus.

The incongruity of standing on totally dry, almost barren land in unremitting 100 degree heat – and looking at the petrified remains of underwater creatures in the sun-blinding limestone at my feet muddled my ability to understand what I was actually seeing right in front of me.

This all might have made more sense to me if I had been standing in an ocean.  For the past twenty years Marsha and I spent part of September/October at the beach on Emerald Isle, North Carolina – definitely not as desolate as the Chihuahuan Desert, but at that time of year down to about two percent of its summer population.  Standing at the edge of the water with our backs to the empty, brightly-colored mega-cottages and high rise condos we could look out on an endless stretch of water with no signs of life other than an occasional fleet of pelicans gliding close to the waves, or a pod of dolphins arcing one at a time above the surface.

Somehow it is easier for me to picture future desert-like seascapes under this undulating water, than to grasp the actual after-effects while standing in the midst of them.

So now I wondered if the same geological saga was true of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the high desert land in which Marsha and I now live.

Some quick Googling revealed that during what is called the Pennsylvanian Period (323 to 299 million years ago) almost sixty percent of New Mexico was covered with shallow seas – including Santa Fe.

The ocean left behind the deepest basin, and the thickest rock strata in in a trough that subsequent mountain-building activity pushed up to form what we now call the Sangre de Cristo Mountains ­ – about fifteen miles to the northeast as the raven flies, and clearly visible from the walking trail at the end of our street.  On the Santa Fe side of the “Sangres” you can discern at least one cycle of sea level change, starting with beds of marine limestone deposited in a clear, well-aerated, sub-tidal environment, as well as interbedded limestone, and mudstone – plus ripple marks on sandstone that document the shifting tides of the sea.  Small numbers of Pennsylvanian Trilobites (a fossil group of extinct marine arthropods) have been found in the Santa Fe area.

Even before we moved to the Southwest Marsha and I knew we would deeply miss the sights and sounds of the white sands and crashing waves of what Carolinians like to call the Crystal Coast – and the sense of calm and belonging that we got from wading in the waters of the Atlantic, and feeling the sea salt drying on our tan sunbaked skin.

So it is comforting now to know that we don’t really have to fly 1,800 miles east to recapture that feeling.  Instead, all that we have to do is dig down about 300 million geological years beneath our feet.

The desert can do that to you.

(The opening line of poetry is from “Once There Was an Ocean Here” by Liz Paterson. Marsha and we came upon it the at the exhibit "Santa Fe Book Arts"
in the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe.)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Backyard Ballet

The good thing about the floor-to-ceiling viewing sites onto our patio bird-feeding venue is the continuous awareness of avian activity.  The bad thing is the continuous awareness by the birds that they are being watched.
Frequently this results in what might be called the “Observer (or Hawthorne) Effect Ballet.”…a form of reactivity in which subjects modify an aspect of their behavior, in response to their knowing that they are being studied.”
Each day’s performance begins when Marsha pulls back the curtain on our bedroom window to let the sunrise in.
Entrée – the Corps de ballet takes the stage. One by one, or two by two, birds descend into our placita.  We become aware of their arrival either by seeing shadows on the stucco wall of the garage, or catching a sideways glance of flurrying feathers out of the corner of our eyes.  An indeterminate number of visitors arrive and settle into their various positions on the patio.
Act I – either Marsha or I slowly move into a position from which to view the activity.  One or more of the birds senses our arrival and abruptly leaves – setting off a frenzy of rapid departures until the performance area is once again devoid of performers.
Marsha and I realize what is happening and remain frozen in our viewing posture.
Act II – having taken a deep breath off stage and unruffled their feathers – and, being bird brains, completely forgotten about the dire threat that drove them from the area in the first place, the Corps de ballet takes the stage again.  Marsha and I avoid making any large-scale movements – hand gestures, e.g., seem not to freak out the dancers.  We watch the performance for a short period of time.  Occasionally the basic eating is interrupted by a brief variation for the principal danseuse or danseur – but mostly its just basic seed and millet gobbling.
Coda – either (a) the Corps de ballet either has it fill or becomes aware of some perceived overhead threat and exits right, left, center, whatever – or (b) Marsha’s and my attention span for watching pretty much static feeding (“My Dinner with Andre” without any talking) reaches its tipping point and we make a large scale move to leave which triggers (a) above.
There are multiple performances per day ending at sundown.          

Monday, December 04, 2017

Mud Homes on Dirt Roads

I feel at rest when I am moving – striding through wide-open land; winding my way through rocks and trees; or even weaving through a gallery of statues at a museum.  On the go I enjoy equally the awareness of emptiness, and the feeling of proximity as I proceed through either open or closed spaces.

Back in Wethersfield Connecticut the houses were too far back to be aware of when you walked by.  Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico on the other hand, a stroll in the neighborhood can be like weaving your way through a high-desert sculpture garden. 

“The traditional pattern of residential development consisted of adobe buildings lining narrow streets that were built with little or no setback.  Residences were often built around a central patio, or placita.  In the often harsh desert climate, the placita offered privacy and refuge from the dust and noise of the streets and formed the nucleus of activity.  New rooms or separate structures were built around the placita to keep pace with the growing needs of the extended families.  Because of the pivotal role played by the placita in family and social activities, landscaping and architectural details were reserved for the area.  Thus, facades of the residences along the streets often provided a deceptive impression of what lay inside.  With this style, housing units could be built close to each other without sacrificing privacy.  Remnants of this development pattern can be found in areas settled during the Colonial Period, such as the Canyon Road neighborhood and the area surrounding the Plaza.”  (1999 Santa Fe General Plan)

Our new home in Santa Fe, built in 2001, has that same little setback and that same deceptive impression of what lay inside, and (best of all) has one of those placitas.  As I look out our office window our north side neighbor’s stucco wall is almost within arm’s reach. And the house on the other side provides the southern privacy barrier for our central patio. 

Marsha and I came to New Mexico in May and during our four months of house hunting in we had the opportunity to experience some of the other ways that this residential tradition plays out in New Mexico’s capitol.

Like many cities Santa Fe’s first development began along its main source of water, the eponymous River, and along the acequias (or irrigation ditches) that fed from it.  The pattern of this development was an incremental reaction to the growth of an extended family settlement – not a predesigned plan.  The streets are small and winding, not uniform – the adobe-constructed houses are close to each other and built right up to the road.  These are the classic Santa Fe neighborhoods.  And Marsha and I were able to wander through some of them – such as Acequia Madre – during our Apodaca Hill Airbnb stay on Upper Canyon Road.

“The very phrase Acequia Madre – Mother Ditch – suggests something rough and elemental: a primordial slash in the earth from which life springs.  Yet Acequia Madre is one of the priciest streets in Santa Fe. That’s Santa Fe, where mud homes on dirt roads are prime real estate. A few minutes’ stroll will convince you of the neighborhood’s charm. Softly curved walls, aged Mexican doors with weathered paint, cascades of wisteria and drowsy willows: this road that runs along the eponymous waterway – and parallels famed Canyon Road– is iconic Eastside Santa Fe.  Romantic and time bound.” (


This vernacular adobe motif – along with a smattering of Victorian, Pueblo Revival and Craftsman Bungalow buildings  – appears in what is now called the South Capitol area where Marsha and I spent our first three-and-one-half months when first we moved out here.  Built at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries – and at that time the Jewish section of town according to our Airbnb property manager – this locality consists mostly of narrow streets arranged in a right angle grid pattern.  Yet, just to keep you on your toes, some roadways wind randomly and others abruptly become dirt alleyways with the front portals of small casitas set up against them. 

Again here, as in the traditional pattern, space between structures is minimal and the buildings butt against the streets or narrow sidewalks.  And, as it was in the beginning, residences can be quit small.  Our rental, e.g., was a one bed, one bath, 600 square foot adobe casita, which is part of a compound of four other like-sized sun-dried brick residences.  ($225K for the casita, not the compound, per, if you care – remember, “mud houses on mud roads”.)  A metal nameplate reading “E. Whitman & Co, 1928” on the concrete base of one of the badly-in-need-of-tarring roads seemed to be telling me that in Santa Fe pretty much everything is attached to a certain past moment in time.            

 After World War II returning veterans, and increasing government and other jobs locally necessitated significant amounts of affordable housing – and led to the first real “suburban” look in the City Different, the Casa Solana development where our daughter-in-law and son now live.  Located in a moderately hilly area northwest of downtown, partially on the former site of a Japanese Internment Camp, it was built by now legendary developer Alan Stamm and follows the traditional pueblo style housing, but with prominent garages and larger yards and setbacks than found elsewhere in town.   But there is still that feeling of architectural closeness.

As Marsha and I walked with our son and grand-dog through their neighborhood Thanksgiving afternoon we were noticing that although Casa Solana has more of a suburban look, due to the street layout, and larger lots with usable yards it still had the feel of  “Santa Fe Style”.  Marsha mentioned that, in our former New England Colonial house in Connecticut after Bram grew up and no longer used our yard as a play area for he and his friends the lawn became more of a ongoing project rather than a piece of usable space – land for the sake of having land, maintained to show that you can afford to have and expend your time and money on frivolous things.

In the late 1990s Santa Fe again felt the need to strategically look at future development with a plan that emphasized items such as affordable housing, quality of life, sustainable growth, water conservation, and most importantly character:

“Maintain and respect Santa Fe’s unique personality, sense of place and character…Residents have unequivocally stated that new growth should not erode the qualities that contribute to Santa Fe’s unique character and ambience.”

Unique features such as placitas so that even out here in the largely unspoiled rural high desert housing units could be built close to each other without sacrificing privacy.  Which in turn allowed the designer of our community to preserve fifty percent of the land as “natural open space and parks, separating and defining a unique collection of villages.”

The homes are stucco, not mud.  The roads (and some of the hiking trails) are paved, not dirt.  And there are spaces for kids to play, streets and alleys to weave through, and open fields to explore – not mow. 

You know – Marsha and I kind of like this time-bound Santa Fe tradition thing. 


Monday, November 20, 2017

AZ But Still NM

Some of you have asked if we are still in an Avian Free Zone.  In a word, no – we have moved from an AFZ to an AZ.
But, first a little bit about our viewing area – the patio.  The courtyard is completely surrounded by stucco walls – south by our neighbor’s house wall, west our garage, east our “Great Room”, and north our bedroom and a lower outside wall with a wooden gate.  At the intersection of the Great Room and our bedroom is a round dining room – and all three of these rooms have basically floor to ceiling window views of the patio.          
The ground portion of the paved outdoor area is covered with large stone slabs on the walking/sitting area, and small gravel stones in the section where our three trees (one Maple, two side-by-side Aspen) bury their roots.   The Maple, at the bedroom end of the patio, holds our three bird feeders – (1) a pottery fish which hangs horizontal to the ground allowing the birds to enter and eat in solitude and currently filled with a blend of sunflower chips, hulled white millet, and shelled peanuts; (2) a “stackable” feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited with (at the moment) food disks of Cranberry, Naturally Nuts Suet, and Peanut and Tree Nuts; and (3) a square wire cage suet feeder.
All of which is to say that we have pretty much non-stop visual access to the AZ from the time we pull back our bedroom curtains, during our meals, and through our reading/TV watching.
This is what we have been seeing.
It began with one extremely cautious chickadee’s stop-explore-and-go visit inside our fish diner.  Then, a few days later one more…then two…then several of the small black-capped birds.  According to Marsha’s research in our “Birds of New Mexico” Field Guide all of these guys are Mountain Chickadees.
We also now are getting on a daily basis small flocks of House Finches and plain old sparrows.  And, after we saw them arrive and leave looking frustrated, we now get small gatherings of Dark-eyed Juncos who prefer to dine from the ground, and whose needs we now are meeting with three small piles of the sunflower/millet/peanut mix on the patio stones.  The little gray ground-eaters also seem to enjoy doing their strange little Junco Two Step ground-scratching maneuver in the gravel bed.
And these food mounds are now attracting a Pinon Jay, a species that according to our local newspaper (Santa Fe New Mexican) has a special hankering for peanuts in the shell, which he apparently flies away with and cracks open in the privacy of whatever area provides him privacy.  Our nuts are shelled.  So the first few visits he pecked, looked disgusted, and left without taking anything.  Now, apparently deciding that he was after all still getting his legume fix, he has been showing up pretty much one or two times every day.
And twice we have spotted a Spotted Towhee – by far the most striking of our visitors, and like the Pinon Jay a completely new sighting to our east coast bird watcher eyes.
There is a flock of pigeons in the area but they haven't found us yet.   And the ravens/crows don't know about the feeders – or perhaps these types of birdseed don’t attract them.  Or it could be that the two-foot tall plastic Owl on the roof that came with the house is doing its job. There is a small hawk in the neighborhood, so far unidentified, and not in our yard.  Either the birds we feed aren’t to his taste, or maybe he is waiting for them to fatten up a bit more.
A quick bird count from our bedroom window just showed a dozen eager ground eaters.  And, even when we are not watching, we can still see the shadows of descending diners on our stucco walls and window curtains.  So Marsha and I have now cast aside our fears of having to live in an Avian Free Zone, and are eagerly looking forward to more new southwestern birds and new foods to keep them coming back.
Unfortunately, now that we are officially in an AZ it gives people one more reason to confuse what southwestern state it is that we actually live in.

Mountain Chickadee

House Finch

Dark-eyed Junco

Pinon Jay


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Living in an AFZ

For a while Marsha and I were worried that we had inadvertently moved into an Avian Free Zone.
Not New Mexico, which according to the Field Guide “Birds of New Mexico” given to us by the realtor through whom we bought our new house, has “over 300 kinds of birds recorded over the years.”
 Certainly not the city of Santa Fe which the National Audubon Society highlights as one of the “birding hotspots” in the Land of Enchantment – as well as being the location of the Randall Davey Audubon Center whose website outdoes the book by touting 542 species of birds in the state.
Definitely not our Rancho Viejo Community from whose walking trails the two of us have observed avian sightings rarely if ever seen in Connecticut, our former home state: such as bluebirds (lots of special houses to attract them back in the northeast – with few results); soaring ravens (or maybe they’re just crows – we’ll know we are truly south westerners when we can tell the difference at a glance); and (what we were really hoping for) roadrunners.
It’s not the state, or the town, or the neighborhood  – it is our open patio that we became worried might turn out to be an AFZ.  Surrounded by the high stucco walls of our house and our neighbors’ on three and three-quarter sides, with a waist-high barrier secluded by a Pinon Pine for the other twenty-five percent the area provides enough privacy for even the most timid of feathered visitors.  And the branches of our twin Aspen and lone Maple tree you would think supply ample pleasant resting areas. 
But in one and one-half months of living here we had had no feathered landings in what we had hoped would be our sheltered wildlife viewing area.
Back in CT we ran several feeders that provided sustenance to a wide variety of (admittedly) not that exotic, but nonetheless entertaining feathery creatures – as well as an endless parade of plundering tree squirrels.  All in all it was pretty much a non-stop feeding frenzy outside our family room.  Now we have no intention of trying to replicate that environment at our new home.  For one thing we have seen only two squirrels since we moved to New Mexico in May, and they lived in the ground and apparently do not climb.   But we would like some feathery fauna activity outside our window, particularly during the winter months.
Even though the “City Different” is so much more laid-back than the “Nutmeg State” – seclusion and ambiance apparently is not enough to attract these flighty yard-guests. We also need some culinary enticements.  We had brought with us from Wethersfield a long-loved hanging pottery feeder shaped like a fish within which birds such as chickadees like to take their meals.  And our daughter-in-law Monica gave us a suet holder.  So off we went to the local branch of “Wild Birds Unlimited” to stock up on prepackaged squares of white fat, fill the fin-clad feeder, and to find out what we else needed, and how to best display our wares.  (We are finding that Santa Fe is a very restaurant-centric city and food presentation is a competitive sport within the industry.  Very likely the regional avian population has picked up on that vibe also.)
For our piscean food-holder the very helpful WBU sales staff sent us away with a twenty-pound bag of No-Mess Blend (sunflower chips, hulled white millet and shelled peanuts).  The bag has a “NM” prominently displayed on the side, which we at first thought was a special recipe for New Mexico.  It isn’t.
Following their advice we also purchased a wrought-iron device that hooks over the tree branch and has a round base with a center rod onto which you place one or more “stackables” – mixtures of various nuts, fruits, seeds, melded together with peanut butter and/or fat into a donut shape whose hole slips onto the holder.  We began with a “Stackables Combo” – one disk each of Cranberry, Naturally Nuts Suet, and Peanut and Tree Nuts.  Our instructions were to observe which birds came and which menu selection they preferred and then expand our offerings accordingly.
When we got home we put the NM mix into the fish, loaded and hung our suet feeder, setup the wrought-iron hanger stacked with its tripartite assortment, created a tracking spreadsheet, and waited to do our bird count.
Day one – zero.  Day two – the same.  Days three through six – zip, zilch, zippo, and (being in New Mexico) nada.
Around day seven we saw movement at the maple tree that wasn’t a leaf falling.  A lone chickadee disappeared into the tail of the fish and emerged from its mouth.  Then, after a brief touch-and-go landing on a maple branch alit onto the topmost saucer – gave it a sniff – and flew away.  An event not worth scribing into the rows and columns of our tracking table – but nonetheless an event.
Later that morning the chickadee returned.  And then again – this time with a friend.  Now they are here several times a day, along with a small number of other varieties that we recognize from CT, such as sparrows and purple finches.  Two or three unfamiliar faces also came by.  But they left before we could find them in our Birds of New Mexico.  The chickadees favor the food in the fish, and all of our guests go for whatever seed disk is on top.  (We rotated them to see to see if their choice making was flavor-driven or positional.  It is definitely the latter.)   
All in all things are going well in what we first feared was going to be an AFZ.  Marsha and I moved out here to experience something new.  But we like still having our old friends in our lives.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sometime It Just Hits You

I had gone for a walk on part our community’s hiking trails, and was vacuuming up the fallen maple leaves that I had blown into a sort-of-pile on our patio when I looked out through the door window into our open garage and saw a framed image of the high-desert landscape with the Jemez, Ortiz and Sandia mountains on the horizon and realized – we’re f***ing living in New Mexico.

And Don't Forget This Type of Arroyo

In response to my earlier essay on “Canales, Arroyos andAcequias”, PH (a friend, baseball writer, and member of The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)) replied:
“And don't forget this type of arroyo...
The link brought me to a SABR article on Luis Arroyo, “a chunky little Puerto Rican southpaw [pitcher] whose out pitch was the screwball…. He spent just four full seasons in the majors, plus parts of four others, from 1955 through 1963. He enjoyed modest success overall as a big-leaguer, but he had one outstanding season. That was 1961, when he helped the New York Yankees win their 19th World Series title by posting a 15-5 record out of the bullpen with 29 saves.”
In Arroyo’s words, “I keep the hitters guessing and I can usually get my stuff over the plate. There’s not much more to pitching than that.”

When I was growing up my father and I were devoted Yankees fans.  He unexpectedly passed away in 1960 during my senior year of high school.  And although my enthusiasm for the Bronx Bombers was waning because of that and other teen-age reasons, I still fondly remember Luis Arroyo. 
As a young follower of what was at that time truly then “The National Pastime” I had for some reason a particular affinity for Hispanic and Latino players.  I think part of it was just the rhythm of their names – lyrical and somewhat exotic to the ear of a working class white kid, growing up in a working class white town. 
This was not true in all cases though.  Roberto Clemente yes – as well as Chico Carrasquel and Orestes “Minnie” Minoso.  Cuban shortstop Willie Miranda not so much.  But – the exception that proves the rule  – Guillermo Miranda Perez, his full name, became one of my favorite Yankees and remained so even after he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in the biggest (seventeen players) swap between two teams in major-league history.  The deal did however give the Yankees pitcher Don Larsen, whose “perfect game” in the 1956 World Series I was fortunate to be able to witness from the center field bleachers in Yankee Stadium with my father.
And this affection for euphonious Spanish names continues today – but now extends beyond the playing field.   Maybe even that consonance of sound is part of what attracted me to New Mexico. 
So I began to wonder about the etymology of the surname Arroyo – and discovered that Arroyo is what is termed a “habitation (or toponymic or location) name” –  meaning one that is derived from the inhabited location associated with the person given that name.   Sometimes the name is directly taken from the proper name of a town like Rivera, Manuel, or Miranda.  Other times it describes the type of place, such as a waterway – an arroyo.
Or a canal, which spawned the family name of Michele Giuseppe Canale (1808−1890), Italian historian, Gianna Maria Canale (b. 1927), Italian Actress, Gonzalo Canale, Italian rugby player, and Giuseppe Canale (1725−1802), Italian painter and engraver.
This unfortunately however is not the case with acequia, which seems to have no representatives in the toponymic surname category.  There are however, according to, 2,399 Birth, Marriage, and Death records with the “occupational” hereditary name Mayordomo – descendants of former overseers of the community owned irrigation systems.
My own patronymic is Irish.  I know nothing of my grandparents (who died before I was born), or their forebears.  According to, Meehan derives “from the Gaelic O' Miadhachain, meaning the male descendant of the son of the honourable one!”  (Better than the alternative, but not that informative.)
However, according to Irish origin legends, the offspring of Milesius of Spain, King of Braganza, Father of the Irish Race, represent the majority of Gaels from the Emerald Isle.
Maybe my interest in Spanish nomenclature is really just an etymological search for my family roots.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Canales, Arroyos and Acequias

Although water is scarce in the high desert southwest – contrivances for diverting the precious liquid such as canales, arroyos and acequias are pretty ubiquitous.
In her book “Southwest Style” Linda Mason Hunter writes,  “Canales are roof drains or spouts that carry rain and melting snow off flat roofs to the ground, often onto a splash stone. They are important functional elements to adobe houses and Indian Pueblos as poorly designed or badly located canales could result in rapid deterioration of the fragile walls, which were, after all, made of sunbaked earth. Settlers made the earliest examples from split logs hollowed out and lined with galvanized tin. Some are decorated with curved or zigzag designs cut along their edges ... . Most are undecorated ..”

Based upon our brief experience with canales, I would reword the phrase “CARRY rain and melting snow off flat roofs to the ground” to read “SPEW rain and melting snow off flat roofs to the ground” – hence the need for a “splash stone”.
Even though very few of today’s Pueblo Style houses are built with adobe, the spouts are still an integral part of the architecture.  Our home in Santa Fe has six of them – all made of undecorated, paint-covered wood.  And Marsha and I are finding them much more entertaining than the downspouts that  shunted the much more frequent precipitation from the slanted roof of our former colonial style Connecticut house.  Really, which would be more fun to watch Niagara Falls or Niagara Pipe?
Doing a rough calculation using the website I am estimating that a one inch rainfall generates about 1,500 gallons of water on our flat roof – or around 250 gallons of run-off per canale.  Late last week that happened in about thirty minutes.
Watching our sextet of cascading cataracts makes me totally understand the purpose of arroyos – which the Drainage Ordinance of the southern New Mexico county of Doña Ana defines as "a watercourse that conducts an intermittent or ephemeral flow, providing primary drainage for an area of land of 40 acres (160,000 m2) or larger; or a watercourse which would be expected to flow in excess of one hundred cubic feet per second as the result of a 100 year storm event."
Or put non-bureaucratically, an arroyo “is a small steep-sided watercourse or gulch with a nearly flat floor: usually dry except after heavy rains.” (
Some arroyos are created naturally when overflowing rivers carve into surrounding rock and create ravines.  Others are man-made – sometimes out of large stones or concrete.
Our community, Rancho Viejo, has large numbers of each kind – several at the base of “Arroyo Canyon Road – one of our walking routes to the hiking trails – and none of which we have yet seen in operation because they do most of their hard work when it is pouring rain.  There is however a dirt arroyo under a section of Rodeo Road, one of the main driving routes to our house – and yes there is a permanent venue for the cowboy competition on the thoroughfare.  Every time we have crossed that overpass the gully below has been absolutely bone dry.  Then the day after our aforementioned one-inch deluge there was a light-brown onrush of water strong enough to support white-water rafting (if the turbulence was clearer).  Now I understand why the signs at the spots where arroyos cross over roads tell drivers, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”
Why you ask, in the high desert with so little water available do they devote some much energy to getting rid of it?  Well, northern New Mexicans actually work just as hard to transport snow and rain runoff, or river water to distant fields using a community operated system of canals called acequias.  The word acequia is used to describe both the ditch itself and the cooperative organization that constructs, manages and maintains it.  .  An association headed up by a “Mayordomo” and at least three commissioners governs water usage in an acequia.  Its rules and regulations are based largely on local precedent and tradition.
3,000 years ago the Pueblo Indians of northern New Mexico began diverting water for their crops (mainly the so-called “Three Sisters” – blue corn, beans and squash.)  And for more than 400 years New Mexicans have redirected water from rivers and springs to hydrate their orchards, gardens and crops.  The word acequia itself derives from Classical Arabic "as-sāqiya", meaning "one that bears water" – and also a "barmaid".  The Arabs brought the technology to Iberia during their takeover there, and the Spanish took it with them in turn to the lands that they conquered – including what is now New Mexico
Our new property is watered by a drip irrigation system and is part of a Home Owner’s Association rather an Acequia Cooperative.  This a deep disappointment to those of us interested in learning about and, if possible, re-experiencing true stories about the past.
We have however become members of, and plan to volunteer at, El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a living museum in Santa Fe, which interprets the heritage and culture of 18th and 19th century New Mexico.  The museum does belong to a local acequia whose water it uses for growing crops using traditional furrowing techniques and for powering their two gristmills.  Perhaps at las Golondrinas we will begin to literally immerse ourselves into what is now our local history.

More Santa Fe Anomalies

Marsha and I knew before we moved from central Connecticut to northern New Mexico that the rules of gardening would be quite different.  Less available water begets plants that can survive drought.  Those that can’t...don’t.  But it wasn’t until we bought our house with its modest amount of southwest landscaping that we began to realize just how far apart the horticulture of the “Land of Steady Habits” and “The City Different” really was.

Although we are still not totally certain what we have, we believe that the planted portion of our property contains: several lavender plants; a Wisteria vine; two rose bushes (one dead, one on life support); a Russian Olive bush; a small bed of Daisies with dried up heads so we don’t know what kind; a Chuparosa (or so I have convinced myself based upon a photo and write-up in a house-warming gift-book – and by the persistent appearance of hummingbirds at the red flowers as the book describes); several randomly placed hollyhocks; a maple tree; two aspens; and one locust tree whose multiple sucker offspring we have had a local arborist remove (“hunt and kill” per their bill); plus several varieties of what we choose to call (for lack of a more knowledgeable term) small desert flowers, aka :”sdfs” (some purple, some yellow).

But here is where the yin and yang polarity of northeast and southwest comes into the picture.  At our new residence – excluding the hapless roses, which we will probably remove, and perhaps the daisies, which may turn out to be a high desert variety – the native plants that we have apparently do not want to be watered.  In some cases it is actually bad for them.   And, in an unfamiliar environment, I am not one to mess with Mother Nature!

The trees on the other hand are practically hydro-holics.

“You should be watering the maple and aspens, long and deep, once a month,” J the arborist told us while he was writing the death warrant estimate for our unwanted locust forest.

“Place the hose here” – he pointed to the outer edge of the roots as he laid the nozzle down at the three o’clock position – “set it for the slowest possible trickle.  And leave it there for an hour or so.” Furthermore we were told we should water the thirty-minute spot the same way next month – thirty days later at 9:00 – and so forth around the base – etc., for ever and ever.

Back where we came from, other than newly planted ones, trees were basically left on their own to hydrate as they saw fit.  In northern New Mexico they are evidently as desperate for a drink as a drunk trapped in a dry town.

In an earlier essay I explained how I now was removing blades of grass from our natural desert backyard with the same gusto that I “hunted and killed” any invasive dandelions and other weeds back in Connecticut.

Now I am watering trees.

And so it goes.

Friday, September 29, 2017

And We thought That We Moved to the Desert

2.5 inches
 of water in our rain gauge.
 Did we bring it here?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Fifty Shades of Clay

Several years ago – during a Christmas visit with our daughter-in-law and son in Santa Fe, NM – Marsha and I met B, the mother of one of their good friends, who had recently moved to Santa Fe from (as she would say) “Noo Yawk” City.

B told us her first reaction to her new southwest home was,  “Everything is so beige!”  And this is from someone who lived all of her life in the concrete canyons of America’s largest metropolis.  So how should it look to a pair of lifelong New Englanders where we, with little difficulty, intentionally surrounded ourselves with green lawns, green trees, green bushes, green golf fairways and, even greener greens.

But beige is actually the way we like it. And beige is the way Santa Fe was meant to be.  (“Santa Fe has a distinctive architectural style all its own. No other city in the country has so many low-slung, earth-colored buildings made of adobe bricks, which consist of a mixture of sun-dried earth and straw.” According to the Santa Fe Tourism website.)

This style was created by the Pueblo Indians living in the Rio Grande Valley, admired and emulated by the Spanish who arrived in the 16th century, and codified in the early 1900s as “The Santa Fe Style” as a means of turning the entire community into an exotic tourist destination.

Nowadays Pueblo-style houses in Santa Fe are constructed on wooden frames and covered with concrete, mortar or stucco – but still feature the requisite rounded corners, irregular parapets and thick, sloping (“battered) walls and, most importantly, the earth-tone exteriors.  Our son and daughter-in-law’s house built in the 1940s, and our newly acquired Santa Fe home built in 2000 are of the wood and stucco model.

The perpetual beige of the architecture, and the surrounding high desert, mesmerized Marsha and me on our first trip to Santa Fe in 1992 – to the extent that in subsequent years when we chose to vacation in spots other than northern New Mexico we seemed to have opted for similarly oatmeal-colored venues such as the Big Bend region of West Texas or the limestone-land, limestone building island of Malta in the Mediterranean.  Even when we spent time in more conventionally urban locales such as Barcelona, Spain we gravitated to the Sagrada Famiglia church - the possibly never-to-be-finished attempt by the architect Antonio Gaudi to transubstantiate the organic shape, and earthly color of the world into a manmade monument to his God. The texture and shape of that edifice has been described as looking similar to melting wax or sculpted sand – or to Marsha and me like the “hoodoo” stones of Tent Rocks (south of our new home town) – the towering organically offbeat shapes that somehow manage to be both unsettling in their harshly atypical structure and at the same time comforting in their soft lines and colorless color.

And of we course would always return to Santa Fe.

But beige, it turns out, isn’t all there is to be.  There is in fact, believe it or not, actual living color here in northern New Mexico.

Marsha and I sold our house in CT and moved to Santa Fe to begin our house-hunt in the first week of May.  It was, as hard as it was for us to realize, the first time we had been here during the spring season.  We rented a beige Airbnb casita in the beige, residential South Capitol section of town.

In order to combat the calories we were ingesting via Trader Joe’s Chips and Salsa and TJ’s tubs of small cookies we walked the streets and alleys of the neighborhood on a daily basis.  We started each morning with a thirty-or-so minute trip (depending upon the route) to purchase the local morning newspaper from the vendor who set himself up in the road at the area’s main commuting intersection.  (Santa Fe is, in our experience, unique in using this method of getting the news out.)

On our first day we turned the corner from our temporary home to see (of course) a beige stucco wall over-draped (to our surprise) with a blanket of small red bush roses and Russian sage – and footnoted by a phalanx of self-sown Hollyhocks of various hues along each side of the sidewalk.  And along each of the various routes the colors of these and other Santa Fe spring flora such as Spanish Broom (a tall shrub with a riot of fragrant yellow pea-like flowers that you can smell well before they can be seen), bright orange and yellow daisy-like plants, yellow columbine, and more and more Hollyhocks and purple sage.

Our own newly purchased abode came equipped with more subtly colored lavender, primrose and multiple as yet unidentified local desert flowers.

And many of the homes feature brightly colored doors – both the gates guarding the beige courtyards and the entrances to the beige casitas are frequently painted in aggressively vivid reds and blues – some left to weather and peel in a nod to “Santa Fe charm.”

It turns out that the omnipresent beige backdrop provides the perfect blank slate onto which each of us can add our own unique set of colors.  And for those of us with a less-flamboyant nature this is probably just the kind of environment that we need.

Pueblo-style housing
decrees earth-tone outer walls –
fifty shades of clay.