Working with the Earth

Nakotah LaRance, World Hoop Dance Champion

Nakotah LaRance, World Hoop Dance Champion

It’s a rare joy to spend an afternoon with people so at home in their skins, who connect so easily and who, despite being extraordinarily accomplished, are so down-to-earth. As soon as I clear the door, we are laughing. According to Hopi philosophy, says Marian Denipah, “You do your best with what little you have.” For Marian and her husband, Steve LaRance, this refrain runs in their blood. What they have, they gladly share.

“I first saw Steve at a powwow in Ft. Lewis,” Marian says, “but I approached him in Denver, at another powwow—this was a social dance—and I grabbed him! I knew other girls were trying to claim him, Pueblos and Navajo, Sioux girls, too. All along, I wanted to marry a Native guy, and my mom said she respected the Hopi, which is what Steve is, so I thought, ‘Even better!’” They dated for 10 years and then married.

Raised on Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, Marian and her brothers and sisters were in and out of the house their grandfather built on his farm. “My grandfather was governor of the Pueblo many times,” she says. “He would take us fishing. My dad and the Navajo side of the family were hunters. When I was young, my mom always had a garden. Because we lived off the land, we all grew up knowing how.”

As soon as they were ready to start a family, the couple knew that, because of all the partying, the heroin and alcoholism, Española was not where they wanted to raise kids. So they moved to Flagstaff, close by Hopiland and Steve’s home village of Munquapi. “Our kids all got Hopi names,” Steve says. “They were able to participate in some of the social dances there; they became familiar with the language, the culture, the ceremonies. They especially thought the women’s basket dance was really exciting,” he explains. “I look at Hopi culture as being a little more untouched,” Marian adds admiringly. “And they got to try some of our foods,” Steve continues, “like our piki bread and other blue-corn dishes. Our daughter Nizhoni learned basketweaving from her Hopi grandmother. They know their Hopi cousins and other relatives.”

“Because we’re both artists,” Marian says, “working at home, we could be more available to our kids growing up.” Steve continues, “Our studio in Arizona was just 20 steps from the house, so we could watch them jump on the trampoline while we worked.” The family continued traveling back to New Mexico to visit Tewa relatives and to compete in Indian Market every year. Once Cree, their youngest, graduated from high school four years ago, Marian was ready to leave Flagstaff. “I couldn’t make anything grow there—it’s too cold.” They were deliberating between the Big Island in Hawaii and Tucson, Marian says, “when my mom got wind we were moving. She said, ‘No, no, no, I’ll give you my house and the land—I can’t do this anymore!’” Steve adds, “Marian’s mom was already getting elderly. She hadn’t planted in five years, the house was in disarray—so we moved back.”    Continue reading

Hispano Homesteaders of Las Golondrinas

2015 Golondrinas Spring Festival

2015 Golondrinas Spring Festival

Welcome to El Rancho de las Golondrinas, where a journey through time takes you back to New Mexico’s Spanish Colonial and Territorial eras, revealing what life was like during the 18th and 19th centuries for Hispano homesteaders. You’ll meet farmers and millers, bakers and blacksmiths, along with spinners, sheep shearers, weavers, carpinteros and candle makers, all happy to demonstrate their work and wares as you stroll past and through historic buildings.

Learn how to string chiles for ristras, craft candles from bees wax, and card, spin and dye wool for weaving. Watch a blacksmith demonstrate the art of making nails, and a miller grind grain. Explore a farm filled with corn, beans and squash—or the “The Three Sisters,” as the Puebloans call them, because they help each other grow. You can also learn to grind corn and how to make tortillas and calabicitas, a dish that would have been on many kitchen tables back in the days.

Occupying 200 acres in a fertile farming valley, El Rancho de Las Golondrinas, or “Ranch of the Swallows,” preserves the heritage of Hispano homesteaders as a living historical farm, providing a bridge that links the past with the present. The site itself  dates to the early 1700s, when it served as a pajarete, or “resting place,” for weary travelers on El Camino Real, The Royal Road, connecting Mexico to Santa Fe. With its tall grasses and water, this oasis was the final stop before Santa Fe, and a welcome site for all, including New Mexico Governor Juan Bautista de Anza, who camped here with a military expedition of 150 men searching for a route into in Mexico in 1778. Today, descendants of the original Spanish settlers still live in the area. Continue reading

The Joy of Urban Homesteading

LL_19 - Robins NaturalsThe conventional interpretation of this fable is premised on the basic assumption that we can either be city mice or we can be country mice, but we can’t be both. Even the great agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that we can either live an industrial lifestyle in the city or an agrarian lifestyle in the country and writes at great length about why we should choose the latter. I love Berry, but taken at face value, even I must admit that the moral of his story, though inspirational and compelling is, like Aesop’s fable, a little too either/or, not quite both/and enough to revolutionize (or devolutionize) the industrial lifestyles of most modern city dwellers. If forced to choose, the majority would probably continue being city mice.

 Urban homesteading, however, offers a dynamic counterpoint to this basic assumption by demonstrating that city life in the 21st century can be essentially agrarian in character, while country life has, in many cases, become increasingly industrialized. I was recently invited to visit the city home of two quiet country mice, Robin and Tom Day. When I arrive, Robin pours me a little glass of golden homemade ginger beer––packed full of good microbes, she explains. Tom slides several old black-and-white photographs of the house (standing alone on a chamisa-and-cactus-speckled plain) across the kitchen table, and they begin telling a story about passion, bliss and geeking out. Continue reading

A Life Home Grown

Photo by Gabriella Marks

Photo by Gabriella Marks

I’ve been having the best time recently, scrolling through Erin O’Neill’s blog, Seeds & Stones, A Life Home Grown, which chronicles her family’s homesteading experiences in Nambé. Erin and her husband, Joel Glanzberg, make living sustainably look not only feasible for some of us not-so-green-thumbed DIY illiterates, but even doable—and fun! Because the real bottom line to homesteading, it turns out, is not memorizing permaculture techniques or teaching yourself construction and engineering basics. It’s gleaning! Which is just a more polite way of saying scavenging. And not only for materials—wood, appliances, tools, mulching—but ideas. Other people’s ideas. Things they’ve already tried out themselves, so they know they work and they can warn you of how to avoid their own mistakes.

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Get Your Hands in the Dirt

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.45 AMThe degree to which we’re willing to care for something is based in the value we see in it. So it seems that solutions to the environmental troubles we face lie partly in reevaluating our relationship with nature. There is perhaps no better way of experiencing our place in this remarkable web of life called Earth than tending a small piece of it, in planting a garden. Get your hands in the dirt, have some successes, some failures, some surprises. Figure out what works. Experience directly what nature is up to, both that which is around us and in us. Continue reading

All Local All the Time

CSA egg, cabbage, carrotOn a bright Thursday morning, a group of six people have set up a temporary camp of sorts at the Hillside Market in Santa Fe, packing produce into boxes and reusable grocery bags. It’s member pickup day for Beneficial Farms CSA, Steve and Colleen Warshawer’s family business. The couple is joined by three volunteers (as well as some of the volunteers’ tiny, adorable children) and Colleen’s son Thomas Swendson, who moved to Albuquerque from Denver three years ago to work for MoGro, a nonprofit mobile grocery store that supports sustainable local food distribution. “I’ve been doing more of the technical side parttime for Beneficial Farms,” he says, “but in the past month, it’s been more handson.” Despite everyone working to a tight deadline, the collective vibe is laidback and friendly. But laidback does not mean slack, as any conversation with Steve quickly demonstrates.

Though not from a farming family himself, Steve knew he wanted to go into agriculture after spending time as a teenager working on a co-op farm located in Georgia. He came to New Mexico in the late 1970s as a junior at St. John’s College; when he finished up that academic year, his path took a different turn. “The land that we live on was purchased with my senior year tuition savings, and I didn’t return to school after,” he says. Thus began the long road to creating a working farm, which didn’t come into full existence until 1993. Initially the land, about 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, was vacant unmanaged ranch land, and all infrastructure had to be put in place. There was, says Steve, “no water, fences, roads, anything.” Continue reading