Updated: Aug 18, 2020
by Lucy Lippard
New Mexico's light is famous, even now, when its clarity is blurred by urban pollution (and forest fires) and the glow of Albuquerque and Santa Fe by night. The yellow-tan of winter and drought is most common. But in a wet spring or during a healthy monsoon season, the land bursts into downright lushness, overlaid with a green scrim, tiny wildflowers everywhere underfoot. Descent into shallow canyons reveals natural and cultural oases. The basin's gently rolling landscape, an ancient seabed, harbors arroyos and gullies, precarious wetlands, springs and seeps that sustain delicate ecosystems and invisible wildlife, hardy piñons and junipers, cholla, yucca, prickly pear, and other resilient cacti. Draining the precious water in the Galisteo creek are the insidious imported salt cedar (tamarisk) and Russian olive. As hardy as coyotes, these trees suck up and even poison water, depriving the native cottonwoods, while tougher willows tend to survive.
Beneath the Galisteo Basin's tumbled rocks, impermeable clay, and hardy vegetation lie traces of the botanical lives once lived here and harbingers of losses to come. In June 1993 I found thirteen different wildflowers in my field between the two roads. In June 2000 I found none. In the summer of 2007 I counted perhaps five. In June 2016 there was a healthy greenish vetch and some other bedraggled drought survivors (globe mallow, verbena, thistle, goatsbeard, perky sue, he pretty but prickly wild potato or horse nettle, Mexican hats, varieties of wild sunflowers, and white primroses that look like discarded Kleenexes). In June 2018, only the vetch was surviving. Some blooms wait, above the river-laid clay, to emerge when the rains come. But how many are gone forever? The soil around my house is dusty and depleted, and a few inches down it turns rock/clay hard, deterring deep roots and water infiltration. I can barely coax hardy locusts and chamisa to survive in the yard. In addition, pocket gophers, rarely seen but all to present, burrow under the soil to chew on roots, ending up telltale piles of dirt. When the droughts are particularly insidious, the ground squirrels get so desperate that they eat the blossoms off my potted flowers.
Birders love the Galisteo Creek and birds should love Galisteo, since so many of us feed them. I have striking spotted towhees, colorful finches, and migratory exotics that visit my feeders, daily raided by two kinds of doves. Hawks hover on the fence hoping to lure the little birds from their hideouts in the four-wing saltbush. Ravens and crows perch on fence posts to converse with passerby, competing with their sculpted brethren on local gates. Waves of red-winged blackbirds sail through in late winter, consuming everything in sight. Persistent hummingbirds arrive each year in mid April, demanding sugar water until mid-September. Meadowlarks nest perilously in ground cover, betraying their presence with haunting song. I rarely see piñon jays, which are common a quarter-mile higher. The occasional roadrunner (the state bird) and ferruginous hawks are exciting to see even for those, like me, who are more into seeing than identifying. The advent of the vultures (zopolotes, or turkey buzzards) in mid March and their departure in mid October are local events; one year some neighbors with young children held a one-truck parade to welcome them. Classically ugly up close, vultures are sheer elegance overhead as they ride the thermal currents with wide, white-undercoated wings shining. They roost in the bosque and in the mornings are often found perched on a dead tree nearby, wings spread to dry and warm.
The insects that feed the birds are changing with the climate. (When I first moved here, I was told that the increasingly maddening mosquitos were imported from Africa by a long-time resident's trade in art objects.) Horseflies invade from the stable next door. Once, and only once in twenty-six years, I saw a pale scorpion in my front yard. More recently a fuzzy tarantula invaded a friend's patio. I have never seen one, though they are common in nearby areas.
Several years ago I was pleased to see my cat jump backwards from a large bull/gopher snake - beneficent scourge of rodents - that was disappearing into a hole in my yard. Occasional sightings and ghostly, transparent skins attest to reptilian omnipresence. Given the thriving rodent population and occasional cases of the plague, West Nile virus, and hantavirus, snakes are decidedly beneficial in this environment. I have caught glimpses of brilliant red races, or coachwhips - lithe, long, and lightning fast, streaking through the high grasses. (They also hang from trees, but I've been spared.) For all the tramping around the countryside I've done, I've seen few rattlesnakes, though I try to keep in mind the stories of those who have almost stepped on one, reached over a ledge to find one coiled, or found one in their closet. Curious dogs are particularly vulnerable. In the bosque where I walk almost daily, I have seen one rattler in all these years, and it was being killed by a local man. But in the spring, still groggy, they get run over on the roads. They are supposed to hibernate in the winter, but a veteran Westerner said the biggest one she ever saw was in February. Once, in May, she yelled a warning as I was running toward an ancient petroglyph on the northern creston. I stopped short to see a yellow and black diamondback majestically reared up against the black basalt. I was mesmerized, not by fear, but by beauty. It ruled its place and I paid homage, as had those who made the petroglyphs, so many of which depict snakes - coiled snakes as springs, running snakes as lighting, snakes as symbolic connectors between earth and sky, bringers of water.
On October 4, 2014, the whole village and many former residents from old families (as well as some spectators from Santa Fe) gathered to celebrate Galisteo's bicentennial, headed up by Anna Cárdenas. La Sala displayed documents, letters, art, photographs, and artifacts contributed by local families. El Puente press published two booklets - a historical timeline from 1814 to 2014 and Wayne King's Speculation on the Economy and Roads at Galisteo. Locals and relatives brought mementoes and scrapbooks of family photographs to exhibit. The celebration boasted a parade, a car show organized by David Montoya, and burgers courtesy of the GVFR. The parade was led by two men on horseback, followed by two pickups with waving children, family crests, and a guitar player, the Galisteo Morning Walkers carrying a banner, a candidate for the state legislature pushing his baby in a carriage, and GVFR vehicles. Bringing up the rear was Denise Lynch perched precariously on a bicycle, leading a skittish horse in one hand and a nervous saluki in the other. Then the crowd, including many elders, climbed The Hill to an old church mound, where Terry Anaya Vásquez, with her grandson Seth Griego, descendants of the original settlers, looked out over the old suertes and spoke movingly about the courage of her forbears. At the end of the day, after most spectators had departed, a dance was held in La Sala to the strains of a youthful rock-and-roll band from Pecos. Cousins danced with cousins, neighbors danced with neighbors, grandmothers danced with grandchildren. Cakes in the form of La Sala, made by sisters Priscilla Montoya and Lisa Griego, were admired and consumed. A good time was had by all. The village founders would have been confounded, and proud.
The story of Galisteo's vortex of land and lives is full of unheeded warnings. "History... happens while you're doing the dishes," wrote Grace Paley. It is everyday life, and in Galisteo, as in so many other pueblos chicos in the southwest, the land or memories of the land are still where everyday life takes place. The next years of the Galisteo story will be no less fraught with conflict and struggle than the past two centuries. The land-and-lives lens through which I am gazing at these histories belongs to individuals and groups - friendly, hostile, and neutral. History is a living and changing narrative, written, it is said, by the victors but often revised and challenged by newly powerful voices. It will always be fluid and unsettling. Its tentacles reach into the present, which is where I work and where I look at history - as a great tangle of stories from different points of view.
¡Qué viva Galisteo!
Photo credit: Judy Tuwaletstiwa