Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Power of Three

Well it seems that in addition to being the “Land of Enchantment,” and “The Sunshine State” (before Florida appropriated it) – New Mexico could also be known as “the State of Being Three,” as in our iMac dictionary’s third definition for the word “trinity."

Perhaps the most well known piece of evidence for this, is the eponymous test site for the world's first nuclear explosive device, located near White Sands, NM. The project’s code name "Trinity" was selected by its director J. Robert Oppenheimer  from the poetry of John Donne, “batter my heart, three person'd God.”

But there are enough other famous “threes” in New Mexican history that could just as well have put that particular number in the mind of the father of the atomic bomb.

Among them.

The lives of NM’s original inhabitants, the indigenous natives, revolved around their diet of squash, corn and beans – aka the “Three Sisters.” The Spanish who colonized our state in the 16th and 17th centuries brought with them the linchpins of their European lifestyle, the “Three Ws” – wheat, wool and wine. And growing population and increasing tourism in Santa Fe led to the creation of the city’s own “Traffic Troika” of speed humps, roundabouts and driver-beware walk lights.  (Okay, maybe one of these is not totally historic.)

Let's start with the first of these named triplets.

“A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister [squash] was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister [beans] wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third [corn] was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

“There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong. One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters—a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals—this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad. 

Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water's edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister—the one in the yellow dress—disappeared as well. Now the Elder Sister was the only one left. She continued to stand tall in her field. When the Mohawk boy saw that she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together and they became stronger together, again.” (“Indian Legends of Eastern Canada.”)

The trio were planted in the same hole – one seed per crop. And each sibling then helped the others grow. Corn stalks supported the climbing beans, and provided shade for the squash vines. Beans provided nitrogen for the corn and squash. And large squash leaves became a living mulch that reduced weeds and preserved moisture, while their prickly leaves deterred pests.

This technique (known as intercropping) originated with the Northeastern Woodland Indians. (The name “Three Sisters” comes from an Iroquois legend.)  But it is also found among other tribes around North America.  In New Mexico it was found e.g. among the Tewa tribe (where they added a fourth sister, the Rocky Mountain bee plant); and among the Anasazi in the four corners area (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico) where it was adapted specifically for an arid environment.

Wheat however was the grain of choice for the Spanish Colonials – which along with wine and olives made up the main staples of their food regimen. Their clothing was mostly made from wool.  So it was that Juan de Oñate y Salazar’s 1598 colonizing expedition to New Mexico carried with it “wheat, wool and wine,” – along with the hard-pitted oval fruit.

All three “Ws” thrived in the New Mexico climate: wheat in the northeastern part of the colony near Las Vegas, NM; grapes around Albuquerque and south; and the Churro sheep pretty much anywhere.

The olives, which could not tolerate New Mexico’s winters did not fare so well.  But each “W” became an economic driver for the expanding territory.

 (W1) At El Rancho de las Golondrinas we have both a community-sized small grist mill from Truchas, NM (Oñate brought grinding stones to construct the initial ones.) And a former commercial one, which operated in the town of Sapello (near Fort Union  from the 1880s into the 1920s. This privately owned business, whose grain came mostly from small farms in the area, supplied flour to the military forts in Oklahoma, Arizona and NM until the army posts were shut down prior to World War I.

(W2) In 1629, Franciscan friar García de Zúñiga and a Capuchín monk named Antonio de Arteaga planted the first vinous grapes in what would become the Middle Rio Grande Valley. By 1880 the clustered fruit was grown on over 3,000 acres in the territory (twice the grapevine area of New York, a more developed state.) And NM wineries produced over 1,000,000 gallons of wine – fifth in the nation.

(W3) The Navajo (now Diné) had been weaving rugs and blankets from their own home-grown cotton on standing looms long before the Spaniards arrival. As part of the so-called “forced conversion” of the natives to Catholicism, the colonists also “converted” the Indians to making wool fabrics on the horizontal European treadles. 

Soon working on the vertical loom with cotton came pretty much to an end among the Indians. In 1638, Spanish businessmen established a textile workshop business in Santa Fe using both Hispano and Native labor to produce hand-spun, woven woolen goods for export to Mexico City. Over time the Natives adopted the Churro sheep (now also known as “Navajo Sheep”) as their sole source of fiber. And ultimately, separately from the Spanish, made their own woolen blankets and rugs, which they themselves sold to local tourists – as well as new residents.


(Unlike the displacement of cotton, today in New Mexico corn tacos passed down from the Aztecs as well as those made with wheat introduced by the Spanish are both readily available.)

The Three Ws traveled here in slow-moving wagons on dirt roads with few turnoffs. Not so in 20th century Santa Fe. Thus came the "Traffic Troika" of speed humps, roundabouts and driver-beware walk lights.

The first two Troika members are the result of something called “traffic calming” – “a term that has emerged in Europe to describe a full range of methods to slow cars….as they move through commercial and residential neighborhoods.” ( Its relaxed sounding name is particularly well suited to the laid-back, new-age, Zen facets of City Different’s personality.

After years of motoring in CT, MA and NY, we have to say that the traffic out here is actually pretty serene. Drivers rarely run red, or even yellow lights. Or tailgate. Local and highway speed limits are not strictly observed – but most overages are within ten mph. And weaving in and out of lanes is a really uncommon occurrence. But then again there are also less vehicles. And the freeway max is 75 mph.

Still some calming is necessary.

(T1) Our only previous experience with speed bumps was an occasional one in an east coast shopping mall parking lot.  We have never driven in Mexico where (according to “if you do not slow down to a snail's can expect to launch your vehicle into flight, potentially damage your suspension, and possibly bite half-way through your tongue.”   

Fortunately that idea did not make it north to Santa Fe.  Ours are far less exciting – a mere three inches high and designed to be driven over at 18 to 23 mph.  We also have speed “tables," which are the same height but wide enough to allow people to walk across – and intended to encourage speeds of 25 to 30 mph.

None of the three communities in Rancho Viejo have these traffic calming bumps in the road. But they are common throughout our daughter-in-law and son’s neighborhood, and our four mile trip to the public library requires us to cross nine of them. Along with circling around a quartet of roundabouts, which according to the Santa Fe Traffic Calming Program can “be placed intermittently at intersections as speed control measures.”

(T2) As with speed humps we had not much prior experience with roundabouts. We vaguely remember the Bourne and Buzzards Bay Circles on the way to Cape Cod, and the Cape Cod Rail Trail bicycle rotary in Harwich, MA (Thank you Google.) Plus a frighteningly frenetic one in the country of Malta, which we rode around on a bus to the accompaniment of much horn-blowing, and obscenities shouted in the unique Siculo/Arabic language of that Mediterranean island.

This Mexican roundabout is not what we mean by that term here in our home town, or in New Mexico at large.  The city government of Rio Rancho, NM provides a good definition. “A roundabout is a one-way, [one lane] circular intersection in which traffic flows around a center island with yield control. All vehicles are required to travel in a counterclockwise direction, to the right of the central island.”
Roundabout Graphic_storylead.jpg

The traffic circles are in lieu of what would be four-way stop signs – and our experience is that the former is a much more expeditious system.

Something however that may not lead to the same sense of tranquillity are the walk lights.

(T3) In Connecticut at four-way intersections, all four ways have a red light when the walk light is on. Santa Fe shows red only for the street you are walking across, leaving the other direction with a green setting. This means that, when a driver is making a right turn on green, they have to be aware that a walk light may be on – and pedestrians could be crossing, expecting that you'll be stopping for them. Killing the tourists – or particularly the residents – is definitely not a Zen thing to do.

Screen Shot 2020-01-17 at 1.27.07 PM.png
In addition to the concept of traffic calming we also learned about the “power of three” while putting this essay together.

We first heard the term at a pop-up cafe at the retail space in our HOA community. The owner of the ad hoc bistro recently purchased the building, and is planning on moving his well-established catering business there.  As well as opening a bakery and coffee shop – and also staging fixed-price dinners once or twice a week on the premises. 

We asked if he had concerns about starting an eating establishment here with two other successful competitors in the immediate area. “Not at all,” he said.  “I believe in the power of three.” Which it turns out “suggests that things that come in threes are funnier, more satisfying, more effective, and/or more memorable, than other numbers of things.” (

A gourmet (or even semi-epicurean) eatery within walking distance would be a good thing. And, as civic-minded consumers, we will do what we can to help him succeed.

But now, as a result of working on this article, we have faith that his planned eatery will be a success, even if we aren’t faithfully recurring customers. After all, the third placeholder in the Arabic number system does have a pretty solid track record out here.

BTW: So which is real the “Sunshine State?” (

State % Sun Total HoursClear Days
New Mexico 763415167
Florida 662927101

(Based on the cities of Albuquerque and Tampa.)

No comments: