The farm we moved into was run down and overworked. Cows milled about the abandoned house until I got the previous owner to haul them away. There had been barns, corrals, cross fencing, an orchard, sheds and equipment, but before he sold his land the farmer carted everything away and cut the orchard for firewood.
We repaired the house with adobe bricks made from mud and straw, dug holes for a dozen baby fruit trees, put out two rows of strawberries and began to plan the summer garden. We did not have a water well and hauled our washing water from the acequia in two buckets — about 8 to 10 loads a day. Acequia is the Spanish word for irrigation ditch. Ours was part of a complicated system of hand-dug ditches from the 18th Century that brought fresh water from Jicarita to farms and villages in Penasco and Chamisal. We carried our drinking water in five gallon cans from a neighbor up the road. I dug an out house across the acequia with such a breath-taking view across my fields to Mt Picuris that I never put a door on it.
We heated three small rooms and cooked with wood. I made frequent wood runs to the national forest, seeking dead piñon and cedar trees. I’d cut the dead wood to fit in the bed of the pickup, a couple of chords worth at a time, haul it home and cut the logs into stove length pieces, then split them with an ax or a sledge hammer and wedge on the more gnarly pieces. It took 10 to 12 chords a year to heat and cook.
We were poor and did not use experts to solve our problems. We repaired, patched and mended as best we could. It took a lot of work because something was always broken. Equipment took a terrible beating. The back roads ate up pickup trucks, barbed wire fences ate shirts and jackets and the daemon wind played havoc with doors and windows. I became handy with all sorts of tools. Under the inspiration of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, published in 1974, I took a Chevy 235 engine apart, even down to a spring loaded bearing the manual called a “striking dog” that almost took my eye out.
Even though spring came late that first year, we were barely able to get a garden ready for planting. The growing season is short at 7,500 feet, so we hustled to turn over the heavy clay soil and work in truck loads of manure and rotted sawdust (just like the books said!). We got the manure and sawdust free for cleaning out of our Spanish neighbors’ barns. They all used chemicals. A close friend and I would shovel cow shit and discuss philosophy. He was a physicist who had dropped out after working for a defense contractor. I’d majored in philosophy in college. So we were shoveling real shit while shoveling the shit of philosophical discourse. I thought Plato would have been pleased.
At the last possible moment to plant and still harvest a crop, the garden was half the size we wanted and a tenth of size we needed. We thought we were working hard, but everyone around us was working dawn to dusk and sometime by truck headlight at night.
Once the season started, anyone working the land was ruled by a logic beyond their own volition. You irrigate, weed and harvest when nature dictates and spend time trying to be in harmony with nature’s rhythms.
We wanted to have milk and eggs, so that summer we bought goats and chickens. They complicated things. I built a barn out of the cheapest left over lumber from out local saw mill. The barn faced east where it caught the morning sun and offered protection from the prevailing Western winds, which could drive you mad, the kind of wind you have to lean against to do your chores and winter or summer it was a cold wind.
I covered the barn roof with fiberglass panels and took the time to embellish the front wall with an intricate herringbone pattern. We added a chicken coop and a corral for the goats. Animals of any kind are an enormous escalation, which is one reason vegetarians like the Nearings did without them. By the following Spring the goats would have babies and we’d let the hens hatch their eggs to replenish the flock. There would be roosters and billies as well as hens and does. We were vegetarians. What would we do with the males?
In October I delivered our second child at home. Only one friend, Anna Mañama, was there. She took care of our first boy while I carried out the delivery. My then wife was completely confident. She wanted to have her baby at home. I was not so sure. We visited a doctor in Taos who told us everything would probably go okay. If it looked like a breech birth, I could probably make it into Taos (a forty minute drive) in time to deal with the breech in a hospital. Worst-case scenario, my then wife would begin to hemorrhage in which case she’d be dead before I got her to the hospital and the baby would be unlikely to survive. “Good luck and call if you need anything,” he added, but we didn’t have a phone of course.
I was terrified, but when the time drew near I boiled up some sterile water, kept a fire burning in the cook stove, and prepared a big tapioca pudding, which was sweet and rich and full of protein. My then wife announced that she was taking a walk in the backfield. When she returned she said she thought it was time. I put the water on to heat and took the pudding out of the pantry. Once the birth actually started, my nervousness disappeared entirely, and I was caught up in the moment. Our second son popped out a few hours later with no unexpected difficulties. I cut the umbilical cord and tied it off as instructed and buried the placenta. We all ate tapioca pudding. The next morning, like the pioneers of the past, we were all back hard at work.
Most days we worked from dawn to dusk, but we made it through the first winter and by the spring had several high quality milking goats, a flock of good laying hens and all the blind enthusiasm we’d brought with us.