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.