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Archive for the ‘New Mexico’ Category

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This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

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Recently we picked up the 2000 book Something in the Soil by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick is leading historian of the “New West Movement”, a group who, in the 1990s, broke away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 paradigm that the frontier was closed (and so in essence, the West’s unique history had ended) to a much broader and more inclusive, as well as continuing, story. The New Western History presents a more nuanced vision based on different historical “truths”. Here are four.

275534The West, in fact, continued to be settled long after 1890. Western history was hardly complete if defined by white male pioneers from “back east” but needed to include the women and children who accompanied them as well as people moving north, west, and east—Mexicans, African Americans,  and Asians. [Author’s aside: as well as “back easterners” arriving by ships coming up the Pacific Coast as they did to my coastal Oregon town] And don’t forget the continued present of Native Americans. Western history should re-focus away from the romance evoked by the word “frontier” and its underlying implication of US exceptionalism and onto the global reality that taking over Western lands was no more than another example of conquest. Finally it’s necessary to abandon the myth of black hat/white hat style of clear-cut morality which permeates western lore to acknowledge that the West is populated by folks as human as everybody else. As Limerick suggests we’re really all “gray hats.”

Although this new Western history may sound fairly “old hat” in 2014 (ignoring race, ethnicity, environmental issues and that the “end of the frontier” hardly ended the conflicts that continue to play out in the West? Seriously?) it was received by many as cutting edge, unorthodox, and to some historians borderline heretical when it broke into the old “frontier” paradigm.

I have to admit as someone who grew up back east knowing the West only through John Ford movies like Stagecoach, and TV series like Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro (at least it’s a nod to Old Hispanic California) it rattles my mythos. And still living here, choosing to live here for most of my adult life, it can’t be denied there is something unique “out here.” While all the “out heres” seem so different—New Mexico, Montana, SoCal and the Oregon Coast hardly feel exactly alike to me—they are definitely more related  geographically and culturally to each other than they are to the backeast regions of New England, the South or the Midwest.

I was drawn to the title Something in the Soil. It felt, even vaguely smelled, somehow exactly descriptive of the West. As she explains, in fact, it was a (very negative) reaction of a Bostonian to Limerick’s new history paradigm. As she concludes: “Of course, the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material and substantial—’something in the soil,’a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.”

WHERE MY WEST CAME FROM

 

 

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Llano Estacado: An Island in the Sky edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Texas Tech Press, Lubbock, TX. 2011.

No matter where we go, one of our very first stops is the local library. Here at the Joyner-Green Valley branch of Arizona’s Pima County library system, I picked up a very slick publication called southwest BOOKS of the year 2011, an annual culling and “best of” list—22 in 2011—chosen by a distinguished panel of regional writers and readers and awarded by the Pima County Library. One of the award books, Llano Estacado, from Lubbock’s Texas Tech, had this description: “ this stunning coffee table book is a compendium of photography commissioned to record the Llano, with complementary essays by authors knowledgeable about the region.”

As a New Mexico llano lover I was anxious to take a look.

It certainly is a coffee table book: large format, black and white photos accompanied by appropriately long essays. The library’s award description points out that neither the photographers nor the essayists were given much direction. True enough. Some of the essayists tried to link to the photos; others used only one. For others just the thought of the llano served as a launch pad to say whatever he or she wanted to say about: Lubbock, conservative cowboy culture, old friends, childhood memories, or aquifer depletion in an arid area where cotton and cattle join oil as extractive industries.

New Mexico is rarely mentioned; the Llano seems a West Texas phenomenon. Interestingly, of the fifty-plus photos only two show the Llano as it intrigues me—without humanity and our desolating impacts, glorying in its sheer raw nature. Both are from eastern New Mexico.

Many of the essays hit literary high notes and maybe that’s what the nature part of nature writing inspires. Still, I often was left wondering “huh?” or “why?”

The final essay which takes the book’s second title “An Island in the Sky” is a great introduction to the history of the llano.  I wonder if it might have served better as the first essay to set the stage. And I really could have used a clear simple map. The book’s map which spreads across the cover, front inner to back outer, is overly detailed and very difficult to read, especially for anyone who sees it library-style, with its dust jacket tightly taped down.

I have included an extended excerpt from the Rick Bass’ essay “Waiting.” For me it crystallizes being human on the llano. And as a life-long wanderer, I really resonated with this idea from Sandra Scofield’s essay “Readings”: “Home…isn’t where I live. Home is what feels familiar even if I’m out of place.”

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From Rick Bass, Waiting, an essay in Llano Estacado. An Island in the Sky, edited by Stephen Bogener and William Tydeman. Volume 6 in the series, Voices in the American West published by Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas. 2011:

“Again and again (maybe we don’t always see what we want to see; maybe we can be instructed, or re-instructed, yet, to see things differently), I witness in these photos not the scrappy pride of yore nor the calm content of relative (or perceived) self-sufficiency in the subjects, but instead the outer edges of despair. I do not want to see despair or confusion, nor passivity or waiting, but there it is, again and again….

Doubt is a bitter, weakening thing, as debilitating, I think, as regret. I want to believe I am not seeing what I think I am seeing….

About those landscape photos: they strip away my childhood memories of a more spacious and vibrant and resilient relationship—the town and communities of the Llano, at the healthy edge of further, farther, less-managed landscapes—and reveal, like a surprising glance in the mirror for the first time at a lined face and graybeard stubble—how can this be?—a land stretched very very thin. And upon that living canvas, that fabric, our species has made mistakes; unremarkable, uncomplicated mistakes, generally involving overreaching, often but not always tinged with greed, or at the very least a lack of respect for anything beyond ourselves, and then, fairly quickly, as things sagged or went away, a lack of respect even for ourselves. Simple mistakes and assumptions made on a large canvas repeatedly across time, out in the wide-open, in a land not of bounty but, more often than not, relative paucity. Mistakes made not in the remote backcountry of the West, nor paved and chromed over by the glitter of urban dreams and desires, nor masked by the vegetative uproar and foliated disguise and clamor of either the Northeast or the deep South, but instead mistakes made out in the clear wide-open, illuminated by a brilliant aridity that is, in the end, less forgiving than other landscapes, and I fear, less resilient….

I am not judging. Maybe there wasn’t time. I am not suggesting any of us would have done any differently. I am just looking at the evidence, or what seems like evidence, in these photos….

I am not by nature a pessimist, but the further and farther we go on this journey, the more irritated I become with false or reflexive hope, as opposed to the more difficult brand of earned hope. I hope that someone, somewhere, somehow, will rescue us from this jackpot we seem to have suddenly gotten into. But it seems disrespectful, as well as foolish, to bank on it, and to simply wait. If my heart knows anything, it is that the road does not necessarily go on forever, and that some parties do finally end.”

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The structure, the form is the thing. The genius of the arch? I’m still in awe how engineering of the soaring arcs, meeting at the keystone, holds up the mass of Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals, or even more humbly, rough hewn, adobe brick Spanish mission porticos. Even more remarkable, this elemental architectural and engineering form, going back to Roman times and before, has a symmetry of restful gracefulness, yet in cases—like in bridges—also power and boldness.

The architectural arch has been copied and recopied, oftentimes as a decoration, aka fake. It flourished especially in the California mission style of the first half the last century, only to remerge in subdivision McMansions, east and west, in an odd pastiche of styles. But if one is not a purist, even modern decorative arches I think can present  photographic possibilities of formal power.

Below are photo interpretations of mostly developer-designed modern mission style architectural arches from southern Arizona, some used for structural support, some as mere decoration. Also included are two bridges of very different design from coastal Oregon, and arch forms from historic, much photographed Mission San Xavier de Bac, south of Tucson, and crumbling arch ruins from Tumacacori Mission near Nogales. Here is authentic architecture straight from the Spanish-Mexican period.

I though about, but buried immediately, the idea of including a shot of the golden arches at the nearest McDonalds.The sacred and the profane so to speak. It could have been open to a lot of pseudo-philosophical interpretations, maybe even landing in a museum exhibit.  SRE

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Our world can be overwhelmingly complicated. Despite the seeming simplicity of binary systems, this digital age is, except for the initiated, of mind-boggling obtuseness and sometimes depressing frustration.

Then there is deep science. No matter how moving it is to hear great physicists talk about the “elegance” or the “simplicity” of this or that set of equations, the rest of us know it’s beyond our poor faculties to even understand their weird notational language. And certainly we are all sinking into a labyrinth of informational, high tech and media overload, a world in which Google trumps sleep.

Art of the early 20th century brought a vision of basics, at least to the visual arts and architecture. Ironically, the industrial age stimulated a sparer vision. Clean lines, obvious geometry, apparently (but not really) simple composition. Color might be riotous or disturbing, but the external world was stripped of what the artist saw as superfluous. Photography followed, sort of.  Abstract pictures, by say Man Ray, were curiosities, but Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston etc. in the U.S. gave photography the aura of fine art. And the essence, as I understand it, was fidelity to the medium—sharp, accurate, clean but expressive.  All in all a tall order.

So here goes with what I often see in my viewfinder as non-complex, maybe even a bit simple.  A visual respite from complication. Most of these pictures are from the natural world, hopefully teasing the visually basic from the ecologically complex. A few shots are from the designed-built environment. Nothing manipulated by Photoshop. It is true I’m using the very digital tools I critique. But then consistency isn’t the thing it used to be.  SRE

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A few days ago, Oregon coast folks skidded on slippery roads and snapped lots of pictures. A once-in-five-years snow storm blew in from the Pacific.  A couple of inches, on that boundary between slush and real snow.  A few years ago, in Albuquerque, beautiful clouds foretold a winter storm. A few inches of drier snow covered our neighborhood, the thermometer was lower, enough to cover an agave for a day or so.  Midwesterners and Northeasterners will find all this amusing, I’m sure. SRE

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