Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Picky, Picky, Picky


The Merriam-Webster online dictionary tells us that a cryptid is “an animal (such as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster) that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist.” 
This Christmas our daughter-in-law and son gifted us “Connecticut Cryptids - A Field Guide to the Weird & Wonderful Creatures of the Nutmeg State” by Patrick Scalisi. The author says he has a certificate in "Cryptic Field Observation Studies" from Nutmeg State University – an institute of higher learning with a plane of existence similar to that of the subjects of his area of study. 
Despite living for over 70 years in CT we had heard of only three of the 42 documented critters.  However we were not believers, so we never really sought them out.  But we do enjoy a good story.  And some these tales are pretty entertaining.  They also can tell the reader interesting things about the culture and history of creatures’ home territories.  Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves as – prompted by this new knowledge – we now begin our search for the cryptids of our present home state, New Mexico.
But first a few words about those discussed in the book.
Unfortunately none of the towns in which we have lived –  Hartford, New Britain, Rocky Hill or Wethersfield (our most recent one) – can lay claim to any.   There are however “unsubstantiated rumors” that the Connecticut River Serpent (“Connie”) listed as living in Cromwell, Middletown, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Portland may also spend time in Hartford’s Park River.  A portion of that CT River tributary was buried under the city in the 1940s, which may explain why Marsha was unaware of of the large snake’s visits when she was living in that part of town.

The closest to us geographically would have been in Glastonbury, immediately across the Connecticut River from Wethersfield.  The Glawackus was a mysterious creature that terrorized Glastonbury in 1939, attacking livestock and pets, “variously described as part-dog, part-bear and part-cat, but all terror!” (  And the Glastonbury Pterodactyl was a prehistoric flying dinosaur that took to soaring over that town in 1958.  We were never aware of them during our 40 years in Wethersfield, even though we frequently visited their home territory.  However no one else seems to have seen them since their original appearances, so that could explain our ignorance of them.
The cryptid we were most familiar with was the “Nauga” – an ancient race of knee-high, rotund, short-limbed creatures that willingly shed their skins providing U.S. Rubber in Naugatuck with the raw material for their many “Naugahide” faux-leather fabrics.   Until “unfortunately Naugas became a favorite target of hunters and poachers” forcing the company to establish a ranch in an undisclosed part of Wisconsin and several other secret preserves throughout the country to allow the small, docile creatures to live in peace.  All financed by the Nauga Defense Fund (NDF.)   At least according to the book.

Now some may scoff at our earlier comment about cryptids teaching interesting things about the culture and history of their home territories.  But that idea actually does have support from some for whom studying the past is a profession.  Connecticut friend P – published baseball historian, former Naugatuckian and a recipient of this missive – reports that his former home town’s historical society proudly displays the Nauga’s image on some of its official communications.  Therefore it must be … somehow historic. 
So with that for cover we go in search of some New Mexico’s beloved cryptids.  The first two of which – Chupacabra and Thunderbird-Teratorn – may seem a bit similar to the pair that inhabited the town across the Connecticut River from us.   But on steroids.  We begin with the Chupacabra. 

In New Mexico hummingbirds are known variously as quindes, tucusitos, picaflores or chuparosas – the last translating as “sucks roses.”  An adorable image of the hardworking hoverers.   But not all “chupas” are cute.   Submitted for your approval is the considerably less appealing chupacabra or “goat sucker.”   But cabras are not the vampirish creature’s only victims.  Apparently any livestock or domestic animal can fall prey to this sometimes large, lizard-like, spiny-backed hybrid sometimes hairless canine (depending on the source).  First reported in 1995 in Puerto Rico the legendary creature now ranges throughout Latin America – and New Mexico.  Including Santa Fe.

The Thunderbird-Teratorn is kind of a composite cryptid.  The Thunderbird is a supernatural being found in most in Native American mythology – so named because the flapping of its powerful wings sounded like thunder, and lightning shot out of its eyes.  It protected humans from evil spirits and brought rain and storms, which could be good or bad.  Teratorns were prehistoric birds that were the ancestors of today’s vultures and lived in New Mexico during the during the Late Oligocene and Late Pleistocene eras.  They likely coexisted with early humans, at which time their identity and that of the Thunderbird became one in some cultures.  Their skeletal remains indicate wingspans of as much as 20 feet or and weights of more than 100 pounds. It was assumed to be extinct.  However, witnesses reported seeing the birds flying over New Mexico until the 1800s with a report of one being shot down in tombstone, AZ in 1890. Some claim the extraordinarily large birds can still be seen in the Doña Ana Mountains, outside Las Cruces, NM. 
Out next creature – the “cotton cryptid” as we refer to it – is distinctly New Mexico.  We looked for others with Google search.  But all that we got was natural fabric clothing adorned with cutesy images of imaginary beings.   La Malogra on the other hand is the real deal – “a monster formed out of cottonwood fluff, which smothers children until they can’t breathe.” (  

The Malogra | sofarfromgod

Now that may sound like not a bad way to go.  But in spite of its outward appearance the smothering cloak is apparently not entirely soft and fluffy but rather a “thing that might be described as made of sharp metal and splintered wood, of limestone, gold, and brittle parchment.”  (ibid)  Not such a cuddly way to croak.  La Malogra is said to haunt the crossroads at night in search of those traveling by themselves – especially children.  According to Spanish Folklore Scholar Aurelio Espinosa it “looks like a large lock of wool, or even an entire fleece, that expands and contracts in size.”  With deadly consequences for those who wander alone in the dark.  A unique-in-all-the-world, 100% natural fabric cryptid.
And now for something really scary.   Movie producer George Lucas introduced the world to the Skywalkers who played a significant role in galactic history of Star Wars.  New Mexican novelists Tony and Anne Hillerman brought the Skinwalkers of Navajo folklore to the attention of their readers.  The former – mostly good guys.  The latter – not so much.
Harmful human witches who shape-shift into lethal animals at night, skinwalkers initially attain their evil powers by murdering a close relative.   When the transformation is complete, the human witch inherits the speed, strength, or cunning of the animal – owl, coyote, fox, crow, or wolf.   Witchcraft is an integral part of the Navajo conception of the world and their daily behavior is patterned to avoid it, prevent it, and cure it. “The general view is that skinwalkers do all sorts of terrible things --- they make people sick, they commit murders,” says Dan Benyshek, anthropologist at UNLV.  But the Navajo are unwilling to share much about their evil witches because doing so might attract attention from one of them.  Or even worse the interviewee themselves just might be one, looking for their next victim.  So, that’s enough research for now.   Perhaps forever.
The last New Mexican cryptid we will talk about today is our favorite and one whose image we see enjoy everyday at our house – the jackalope.   A cross between a now extinct pygmy-deer and a species of killer-rabbit it has the short-tailed, hare’s body and spiky antlers growing out from its head.   This creature has long been a part of the American West dating back to the trappers who first settled in the region in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  The jackalope also appears to have a German cousin, known as the wolpertinger and a Swedish one called the skvader.
In the U.S. “jackalopes are said to be so dangerous that hunters are advised to wear stovepipes on their legs to keep from being gored.”  ( The creature also can imitate the human voice.  “During the days of the Old West, when cowboys gathered by the campfires singing at night, jackalopes could be heard mimicking their voices or singing along, usually as a tenor.” (ibid)  In spite of the rabbit’s well-documented reputation for fertility, jackalopes breed only during lightning flashes.  
Some way-too-serious scientists do not believe in the mythology of the jackalope, averring instead that the creature’s horns are the result of a virus called papillomatosis, which causes certain growths to harden on the top of a rabbit’s head, resembling antlers.  And they have the physical evidence to prove it.   So?  As comedian, former faux Presidential candidate and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour “editorialist” Pat Paulsen would say when confronted with seemingly irrefutable facts – “picky, picky, picky.” 

The jackalope image that we see each day hangs on the wall overlooking our kitchen.  We purchased it several years ago from the artist, Amy Ringholz, who was delivering some of her works to a Canyon Road gallery when we happened to be there.  We both liked it immediately and bought it on the spot.  But we had to wait to take possession because the paint was not dry.  Amy explained, perhaps with a wink, that she had created it that morning when she saw the subject posing alongside the road on her way into Santa Fe.  We gladly waited for delivery having been assured of the authenticity of our purchase by its creator.  (In the world of art, provenance is everything.)
Which somehow brings us back to the Naugas.  As we remember it, in the 1970s UniRoyal was giving out stuffed toy Nauga dolls with purchases of their Naugahyde products – which we never did.  Unfortunate.  Knowing what we know now about the (crypto)historic significance of the alleged animals, we might perhaps have displayed it with the Native American sculptures above our Kiva fireplace.  
But today, looking at the factual jackalope image staring undemonstratively into at our kitchen, we’re thinking that a painted portrait of one of the actual little CT cryptids would be even a better thing to have.  Only the real deal though – wet paint preferred.
Text us immediately if you come across one.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Three types of churches and some flour


This is a story about three types of churches – and some flour.
We recently had lunch at a local restaurant with D and C, friends and fellow El Rancho de las Golondrinas volunteer-interpreters.  Among other roles at the living history museum C is one of the bakers – making breads in the same type of outdoor, beehive-shaped, adobe horno ovens that were used in 17th and 18th century Spanish colonial New Mexico.  And still today in rural villages and on Native American Pueblo villages.
As we savored pasta, salad nicoise and crab cakes C excitedly shared that he had located a source for White Sonora Wheat flour – the oldest wheat in the Americas, brought to the Arizona Sonoran desert by Jesuit Missionary, Padre Eusebio Kino around 1685.  

Padre Eusebio Kino – flour importer and best hair in Nuevo España

Wheat was at the heart of the 17th century Spanish diet, and since the crop did not exist in New Spain colonists were desperately seeking a variety that would grow in the unique southwest climate.  White Sonora thrived – eventually turning the area near Las Vegas, NM (the real one) into “the bread basket of New Mexico.”  So C is eager to try put this new, old flour to the test – at home and in the hornos at El Rancho.  One of the things that makes many of the people we’ve met out here so interesting is their willingness to delve further into the new things they get exposed to.  And to share the results of their explorations.  In this instance not just conversationally but also piping hot from the horno.
Mention of  “Jesuits” reminded Jim of a retired historian from California with an interest in that state’s Spanish Catholic mission system who visited the museum last summer.  First time in New Mexico and astounded by the differences between the mission churches of the two states.  Especially the art work.  Without specifics he attributed the dissimilarities to the presence of Jesuit priests in California.  NM had Franciscans.  Both are “orders” of Catholic priests. “Jesuits are celebrated for their complexity; Franciscans are admired for their simplicity.” (Washington Post)  But he and his wife had more of Las Golondrinas to see plus dinner and opera plans – so the conversation ended there.  
We were unaware of the Jesuit presence in the Golden State.  Now C is telling us about their role in Arizona.  Jesuit conspiracies are a recurring theme in history, e.g. the attempted assassinations of King Louis XV of France (1757) and King Joseph of Portugal (1758) – and the successful political executions of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy.  Plus the aliens who crashed at Roswell, NM supposedly were creatures made by Jesuits in their “deep underground military bases.”  Is this wheat-mission dyad part of yet another one?  We will investigate.  Even though we are not sure if our west coast visitor was comparing California’s mission churches to New Mexico’s mission churches (e.g. San Geronimo at Taos Pueblo) or to New Mexico’s more modest “village chapels” (those built by the already-very-Catholic early Spanish settlers.)  The Chapel at las Golondrinas, which he was in when our conversation began, is a museum replication of an early 18th village church.
First some definitions and data.  “Spanish missions were religious and economic institutions constructed to convert and instruct native peoples in Spanish religion and culture.” (  New Mexico had 30 of them (aka “Pueblo Churches”) – all set up by Franciscan priests, 29 during the 1600s, one in 1815.  Most were destroyed, damaged or abandoned during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that drove the Spanish from New Mexico.  Then rebuilt after the Spanish Reconquest of the colony in 1692.  And reconstructed several more times since.  In general today’s Mission churches are at least the third or fourth version of the original.
Google says there were 11 “Spanish Arizona Missions” – three established in 1629 by Franciscans, all destroyed during the 1680 rebellion;  five by Jesuits (1691 to 1757) and three more by Franciscans (1767, 1780 & 1781.)  California had 21 – as will be discussed below.  But first let’s talk about houses of worship in our new home state.

Initially both New Mexico’s village chapels and mission churches were simple adobe buildings.  “There were no pews, only a confessional and perhaps a bench or two along one wall [that] might carry decorations in water-soluble paints. Above the main altar, if the painted wall itself did not serve, stood the carved and painted wooden reredos [screen] or retablo...”  (  Both would go on to become much more decorated – in very different ways.
 Altar at Chapel el Rancho de las Golondrinas 

Although the village chapels were established by the early Franciscan Friars, most of those clerics’ time was spent proselytizing the Indians – with at best intermittent visits to their Spanish flock.  Additionally España looked upon Nuevo México as a place to extract from.  As such they did not supply much in the line of the religious art the settlers had been used to back home – statues, crucifixes, crosses, etc.  Especially important in explaining church teachings to an audience not able to read.  So in the early 1700s, with Franciscan encouragement, the lay colonists began creating their own iconography – crosses of tin; wood crosses inlaid with straw; embroidered altar cloths using colcha stitching; paintings on wood (retablos) and wooden statues (bultos) using colorants created from local herbs and soils.  At a glance the crosses were almost indistinguishable from the solid silver or gold appliqué ones of the colonist’s homeland.  Likewise the embroidery.  The retablos and bultos (known collectively as “santos”) – not so much.  
They were however perfect for the evolving worshipping practices of the settlers.  The santeros who created them were not academically trained – though they did have some knowledge of techniques, pigments and surface preparation.  Spain’s art-style of choice at the time was Renaissance Realism, which celebrated the glory of God by portraying human anatomy and settings with life-like accuracy.  The local santero’s method was two-dimensional.  Perfect for “the [non-literate,] non-historically-aware culture” of colonial New Mexico.   And “by pure accident [anticipating] cubism and other forms of modern art.”  (Thomas J. Steele, S.J.)  Golondrinas Chapel guests use adjectives like “welcoming,” “friendly” and “calming.”  

18th Century retablo

The relatable appearance of the icons supported the one-to-one personal relationship the colonists felt with their saints.   The Catholic church views saints as mediators with God.  Possibly because of the absence of priests in their daily lives, New Mexico settlers came to believe the saints had their own powers, which they could use at their own discretion.  Santos were the vehicles for communicating these needs and hopes, not just aesthetic objects. 
Not all clergy agreed.  “These objects are deformed and indecent, never to be exposed to public veneration,” per one Franciscan priest.   Later they would be largely displaced by traditional European and American iconography.  As were the settlers’ “folk beliefs.”   Retablos, bultos, tinwork, straw applique and colcha embroidery continue to be produced in the same traditional ways today – now appearing as “folk art” in museums and galleries. And are still employed in the old devotional ways to some extent as well.  

The major change to mission church decorations came after the 1692 reconquest.  “The friars were willing to accept a syncretic, or blended, form of religious practice from indigenous people. Their hope was that with time their pupils would let go of their former beliefs in favor of Christianity.”  (  They did not.  The churches were Catholic but the ornamentation began to “acknowledge and pay tribute to their Native American traditions.”  (   

San Geronimo Church – Taos (NM) Pueblo

At Taos Pueblo, “if you look closely at the photo of the inside of the San Geronimo Church, you will notice the statue over the altar is not Jesus Christ but the Corn Maiden, to some, or the Virgin Mary whom the Puebloans equate with Mother Earth … The Corn maiden/Virgin Mary takes central stage and you will find Jesus Christ over to the side.” (    Probably not coincidentally the focal point of the altar in the Las Golondrinas “village chapel” is a statue of San Isidro, the main saint to whom this farming community would have directed their invocations.
Icons with a one-to-one personal relationship with their Hispano believers.  “Pagan” effigies as the centerpiece of Native American Mission churches.  “Not your father’s Catholicism,” so to speak.  But village chapels became much more conventionally Catholic after the U.S. takeover of the territory in 1847 and subsequent 1851 arrival of Fr. Jean-Baptiste Lamy as Archbishop of New Mexico.  More on that in a future CMinNM.
So, what about the California missions?  Well, compared to New Mexico, the campaign in that coastal Spanish territory seemed much more systematic.   
“The first Jesuits arrived in Mexico in 1572 and soon established a college in Mexico City … followed by five more in other cities [as well as] colleges exclusively for Indians … The fathers championed the cause of the natives and protested against their inhumane treatment.”  (  Jesuits then moved into present day northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona where from 1687 to 1704 they established 23 missions and Father Kino introduced the holy grain of crops allowing the colonizers to subdue the southwest while maintaining their usual diet.
In response to a 1697 Jesuit plan King Charles II “turned over [the California] missionary field to the Jesuits … Spain expected the Jesuits to be self supporting.  [A ‘Pious Fund’] was raised from the gifts of devoted Christians in both Old and New Spain.  The fathers were given complete authority; even the military must bow to their decisions.” (   Between 1684 and 1767 the Jesuits established a chain of 15 missions on the Baja California Peninsula.  
Then in 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from all of New Spain by the Spanish government – in part because of their perceived political power and their defense of the indigenous Natives against abuses by Spanish settlers.  The Franciscans took over the missions and established six more completing the chain from modern day San Diego to Sonoma. 
Santa Inés Virgen y Martír, Solvang CA – the 19th California Mission

Jesuits and Franciscans both recognized the importance of artwork in explaining Christianity.  “Paintings and sculpture, chiefly from Mexico, were sent to the missions … [to decorate] and for the purpose of edifying not only the newly converted and often bewildered Indian, but the motley soldiers and the lonely populace … Acquired piecemeal over a period of years … there was, and remains, neither a homogeneity of style or type, nor a constant level of artistic value in the collections in the missions.” (  What was consistent throughout however was Renaissance realism.
New Mexico village, New Mexico Pueblo and California Mission – three ways to decorate a church.  And to focus attention on your beliefs.   Undoubtably there are hundreds more.  
But now it is time for a break.  This whole research “mission”  has been fun, however it also made us really hungry.  Hungry for another season at El Rancho de las Golondrinas and its fabulous folk art, fascinating history, interesting guests and fun-to-be-with volunteer-interpreters.   And especially hungry for our first taste of horno-baked, Jesuit flour bread – perhaps flavored with a hint of conspiracy to add a little spice.
20th century retablo – perhaps honoring the “Jesuit Roswell experiment”