(l. to r.) Sweet Medicine Sanctuary’s Kiva Rose, Loba, Jesse Wolf Hardin, and Rhiannon
A walk on the wild side
—Barb and Ty Belknap
If you look on a map, you’ll see that most of the lower left portion of New Mexico, bordered by the Rio Grande Valley to the east and extending west into Arizona, is one huge mountainous forest, encompassing the Black Range and the Mogollon, Tularosa, and San Francisco Mountains. At its center is the roadless Gila Wilderness, the first national lands intentionally preserved in a native, wild state. This was largely due to the proddings of the visionary conservationist Aldo Leopold, a full forty years before the passage of the U. S. Wilderness Act. [Catron] County is one of the largest at approximately 7,000 square miles, most of which is national forest and state lands ... and with only about two percent of the surface area being private property. —Jesse Wolf Hardin
Reserve (population 387), Catron County seat of government, is about four hours away from Albuquerque. Go to Socorro and turn west, then drive to Datil and turn south. People in Catron County are known for their distrust of the federal government, especially when it comes to environmentalism. There was a local ordinance proposed several years ago that would have required all residents to carry a gun. Sitting on the rock wall in front of the Black Gold Gas Station and General Store, it was obvious that life was different here. People looked kind of rough, but everybody waved.
We had come to visit the Sweet Medicine Sanctuary at the suggestion of our friend Dr. Blue. He had intrigued us with stories about Jesse Wolf Hardin and his wife, Loba, who live on an eighty-acre inholding surrounded by the national forest, accessible only by a monster truck that forded the San Francisco River seven times on its way to a remote canyon. We contacted Wolf through his Web site (www.earthenspirituality.org), and he told us to come on down.
Two beautiful women in flowing skirts climbed out of a pickup truck right on schedule and introduced themselves as Loba and Kiva. They had come to get some supplies and guide us into the canyon by way of a hiking trail that enters the woods eight miles downstream of town. Heavy precipitation had swollen the river and washed out the road, so we had to walk about a mile and a half down the side of the canyon to the sanctuary. Along the way, our guides pointed out different trees—most notably the alligator juniper—and wildflowers unique to the area. They told us that their home is also a wildlife sanctuary shared by bears, lions, coatimundi, bobcats, snakes, elk, deer, and other seldom-seen animals. The trail skirted an outcropping of rocks where Geronimo is said to have hidden out in a cave.
At the river, we took note of a stretch of cottonwoods and willows along with a conspicuous absence of salt cedar and Russian olive. Loba said that the cottonwood took root about twenty years ago when Wolf arrived and chased off the cows as the first step in returning the riparian area to its pre-bovine condition. The canyon is said to have been home to up to thirty families of prehistoric native Americans known as Mogollons. It features the ruins of pit houses and the largest kiva site for many miles in either direction.
We walked across the knee-deep river and approached a house built around an old white school bus that stands atop a cliff. Our guides showed us to a separate house, a rustic two-story with a fine view down the canyon. Then they showed us around the rest of the complex and introduced us to an intern named Robin who was finishing the trim carpentry on another cabin in spite of a possibly broken toe. We also met Kiva’s delightful four-year-old daughter, Rhiannon, who after saying, “I’m shy,” became our guide to all of her special places in the forest.
This was among other things the Sweet Medicine Women’s Center. The industrious and down-to-earth women here harvest and cook wild foods, build cabinets, host retreats, and have plans for other projects, including composting toilets and a suspension bridge. They will be hosting the Wild Women’s Gathering from June 16 to 21 (see article in this Signpost).
Wolf was nowhere to be seen. He was busy writing, which is what he does most of the time. Loba relayed his welcome and promise to meet with us after dinner, adding to the intrigue. We then learned how to pick stinging nettles (they really do sting) for the dinner soup and retired to our lodge for a nap. Dinner was a delicious array of wild foods combined with some delicacies that we had lugged in from Costco.
Wolf wasn’t nearly as intimidating as we had expected, having been described as a renowned author and teacher, veteran Earth Firster, and comrade of Abbey and Foreman. He did look a little wild, sitting there at his desk with his pet rat, the only domestic animal in the refuge, rummaging through his long red beard. He still mourned his long-lost wolf that was shot nearby by a chicken rancher. We could tell right off that Wolf was an extraordinary man.
The interview went very well, with a easy interchange of stories and ideas over coffee and a delicious homemade prickly-pear torte. He told us about how he came to find a sense of place in the canyon after many good years spent as a biker gypsy, Taos art gallery owner, and social activist. For the first ten years after buying the property he struggled with loneliness, destructive cattle, and finding approaches to the local culture. He said, “Sanctimoniousness got me nowhere.”
Wolf used to leave the canyon for extended periods of time to speak and perform with an eco-theater group, but now he is glad to spend most of his time at home, except for occasional lecture tours. He offers counsel to people seeking a deeper connection with the earth.
Wolf writes a column full of observations and subtle ministry for the local newspaper. The columns will soon be compiled and published as The Town that Waves.
The next morning we explored the refuge, enjoyed a late breakfast, said our good-byes, and hiked back out of the canyon. We managed to find Geronimo’s cave along the way and sat there for a while to think things over. Stepping out onto the breezy stretch of paved highway at the top, we knew we had been someplace wild.
A “Wild Women's” gathering in the Gila Wildlands
Every June solstice, a dozen or two women from all over the country temporarily set aside their normal schedules and plans in order to join in an exploration and celebration of the natural world, and our own aware inner natures. Gals of all ages and backgrounds are invited to attend the sixth annual Wild Women’s Gathering in the Gila wildlands from June 16 through 21. A reforested wildlife sanctuary and ancient ceremonial site, the Sweet Medicine Canyon makes the perfect setting for our encounters with enchantment, insight, and delight.
We don’t mean wild as in wanton or undisciplined, but self-willed like Mother Nature herself ... uncompromisingly authentic, with heightened senses, following our instincts, and continuing to learn and grow. By giving time like this to ourselves, we often find we’re able to give even more to our families and communities, carrying back home with us an enlivened sense of self, purpose, and place.
The focus this year will be on getting in touch with our “medicine woman” qualities and abilities and making our effect on the people in our lives even more intentional. We’ll camp in tents in a majestic pine grove, with cabins for indoor activities. Planned are mindful nature walks, awareness exercises and sharing councils, wild-food collecting and wonderful feasts, intense workshops and ecstatic riverside dancing—all intended to help us connect more deeply and lovingly with the Earth, our intuitive bodies, and our sensual, playful, still-dreaming selves.
This is the season when the canyon is filled with leafy willows and blooming flowers, with deer, elk, heron, eagle, songbirds, and mountain lions all calling it home. Wolves that were nearly extinct have been released nearby, and occasionally wander through.
But while the sanctuary was always wild, that doesn’t mean it was unpopulated. Ceremonial painted pottery sherds on the ground bear witness to a special relationship between women and the natural world dating back thousands of years. When we use stones to grind our wild oregano pesto, we feel our hands making the same motions as the women who were here before. We feel ourselves listening to the same birdsongs, and harboring the same kinds of worries and hopes. With this in mind, we do our best to honor the place where we are, and make every song and dance a prayer.
There is usually a tear or two as we say our goodbyes to one other and everyone packs their stuff the mile back out to the cars. Homes, jobs, spouses, and lovers await, but in some ways the women who come will never be the same. We’re somehow more intensely ourselves, as though we’ve turned up the very volume of our lives. Like those reintroduced wolves, we may find ourselves noticing every sight and sound as never before, and yearning for longer hours outdoors. We return a bit wilder, more insistent on meeting our needs and following our visions, perhaps just a little more playful and quicker to howl.
Loba and Kiva Rose codirect the Earthen Spirituality Project and Sweet Medicine Women’s Center, hosting men and women for retreats, quests, workshops, and the Wild Women’s Gathering. For more information, write to Box 820, Reserve, NM 87830, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.earthenspirituality.org.
The Silent Procession, commemorating the Crucifixion,
moves through the streets of Oaxaca on Good Friday evening.
A hooded member of the Brotherhood of the Rosary
drags a wooden cross during the Silent Procession.
The stone temples and pyramids of Monte Albán
dwarf tourists gathering in the central plaza.
Semana Santa en Oaxaca
Faith and tradition merged into one as the Silent Procession swept up the cobbled street in a cloud of incense and footfalls echoing off the stuccoed walls of Oaxaca.
Silent it was not, though, as the procession returned to El Templo de la Sangre de Cristo led by a white-robed priest with a drum, followed by another calling with a bullhorn to the faithful, who responded with enthusiasm. Behind them were banners, flowers, crosses, and the stations of the cross, a crucified Christ held aloft on a bier, and the Virgin Mother with a black robe over her white garment.
Penitents of religious societies soon joined from side streets—boys and young women bearing icons from their churches, men in red hoods hoisting banners, others in red hoods with more icons, and ten men in violet hoods, barefoot and stripped to the waist, dragging crosses taller than themselves.
Similar observances were taking place all over Mexico, but we had chosen Oaxaca not for Easter but as a cultural pilgrimage to the beginnings of Mesoamerican society. Here the past is present.
We knew from experience that travel during Semana Santa, Holy Week, offers challenges, as all of Mexico—or at least all that can afford it—goes on vacation. Already a tourist center, Oaxaca teemed with extra cars and people, although we always found a seat in a restaurant.
With reservations secured over the Internet and an early morning departure from Albuquerque, we were settled into our room on the courtyard at La Posada Catarina before 5:00 p.m. Travelers appearing without reservations at our hotel four blocks from El Zócalo, the central plaza, were turned away.
While Oaxaca is a state capital and commercial center 250 miles southeast of Mexico City, the zócalo area remains firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, despite the cacophony of car horns and the overlay of bus fumes. We walked to churches, museums, and restaurants on crowded sidewalks, learned to spot the traffic lights all but hidden on the venerable buildings, and frequently bought bottled water chilled against the near-one-hundred-degree heat.
If the city seemed old, a short bus ride on Good Friday morning took us up twelve hundred feet and back twenty-five hundred years to Monte Albán, perhaps the least known of the ancient cities of the Americas. Here the Zapotecs leveled a mountaintop and erected temples, pyramids, plazas and a ball court. Their culture and wealth spread throughout the region.
Now restored to something approaching its former glory, Monte Albán retains a small collection of artifacts on display at its museum. The larger collection of gold, ceramics, and the jade-covered skull most identified with the site resides in Oaxaca at the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo.
Vendors from nearby Arrazola trek up Monte Albán every day to offer the unsuspecting tourist artifactos originales allegedly gathered from the mountainside. Forewarned by guidebooks, and knowing that selling real artifacts is a crime, we negotiated downward for a ceramic figure, a modern copy of a Zapotec ballplayer.
A visit to Arrazola, however, proves that the craftspeople do more than create so-called artifacts. The village has built its justifiable reputation on alebrijes, fanciful wood carvings of animals large and small painted in brilliant colors and intricate designs.
Returning to Oaxaca from Monte Albán, we encountered modern Mexico at El Naranjo, a restaurant where the chef has turned traditional spicy chocolate mole sauces into a culinary adventure worthy of a high-end Santa Fe eatery.
Although we toured Oaxaca and the countryside for a week, Good Friday compressed the ages into fifteen hours: pre-Columbian in the morning, post-Conquest in the evening, and Tomorrowland for lunch.
Heard in the West
If anything represents the arid West, it’s the peripatetic tumbleweed, even though it piggybacked its way here on flaxseed from the Ukraine. Orion magazine says this "nondescript, prickly weed has worked its way into the hearts of people," and now, an enterprising Kansan, Linda Katz, sells tumbleweeds all over the world. Katz started her Prairie Tumbleweed Farm Web site in 1994 as a joke, but to her surprise, people started placing orders. A museum in Sweden told her it plans to drop tumbleweeds into a "a boiling caldron of bronze, and thereby secure the free-ranging shrubs to the premises." This belies Katz’s motto: "If they don’t tumble, we don’t sell them."
Two university students from England plan to cheerfully break as many American laws as possible this summer, beginning in California, where they will illegally ride bikes in a swimming pool. The Guardian Unlimited says the men will also attempt to flout the law by whale hunting in Utah and napping in a South Dakota cheese factory. Inspiration for their upcoming crime spree comes from an Internet site, dumblaws.com.
When Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, wants to make a point, he’s apt to spout a pithy Westernism, such as, "If they don’t know where you tie your goat, they can’t get your goat," reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide. The seventh of eight children, Freudenthal grew up on a farm near Thermopolis, Wyoming, and went on to become a U.S. attorney. These days, Freudenthal has become as well known for his smart politics as for his folksy expressions, which helps explain how he won election in a predominantly Republican state. Freudenthal is considered a maverick, rather than a party man, says Republican state legislator Monte Olsen: "He’s probably offended just about everybody, [and] if you do that, people know who you are and where you stand, and that’s acceptable." The governor says Democrats everywhere tend to do best when they pay attention to "kitchen-table issues," which he defines as jobs, child care, recreation, and wildlife. His aphorisms help, too, and they’ve become so numerous that reporters and staff are compiling a list. It includes "He is the north end of a southbound horse" and "You don’t buy a dog and do your own barking."
Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado.