Tuesday, October 18, 2011



Dana Prom Smith

A narrow, well-worn graveled lane leads to Casa Escondida, the “hidden house.” Finding the lane means meandering through three county roads, several ambivalent junctions, and some missteps. Several miles from the village of Chimayó in northern New Mexico, it is off the beaten path. While no one can completely get away from it all, Casa Escondida comes close: no telephones, no television, no radios, peace and quiet in what is a “rustic elegance.” Sadly, there was a wireless internet to check the stock market, a disquieting experience.

The quiet is the quiet of nature. A couple of crickets near the patio carried on an undecipherable dialogue. Soon, a whole chorus of several hundred chirping voices joined in the conversation. While sipping a glass of cooled chardonnay to smooth out the kinks from sitting on a long drive, my ears begin to hear the silences of nature: the winds rustling the leaves of the cottonwoods and whistling through the junipers. The birds were still singing as the sun began its descent.
Although dusk had settled around the patio, the sun was still shining on the tops of a couple of giant cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) in the distance. Bright with seemingly small red and golden Christmas tree lights, they glittered against the backdrop of the deepening blue of a New Mexico sky. It is the kind of scene which evokes a tension-releasing sigh.

A dinner at Rancho de Chimayó was an authentic taste of northern New Mexico. Nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, the people of the villages are largely descendants of the Conquistadores, some identifying their lineage to the seventh and eighth generation. Flavored by the people of the region, the cuisine is often more Spanish than Mexican.
After dinner, the chirping of the crickets slowed while the yipping of the coyotes took over in a bloodthirsty ferocity euphemistically called the balance of nature. I was grateful for not being born a field mouse.

While asleep later that I night, we were awakened by the piercing screams and coughing barks of a bobcat, similarly engaged in the balance of nature. It was not more than ten yards from our patio in a thicket of trees and bushes. Sometimes, the wilderness comes too close.
At dawn, I heard a rooster. I realized I hadn’t been awakened by the crow of a cock since I was a boy. My job was to feed the chickens and gather the eggs, sometimes fleeing an irate hen. It was a very pleasant homecoming. I lay abed relishing the moment and the memories.
While sitting on the patio enjoying a pot of hot tea, fresh fruit, sausage, and a green chili omelet, I caught a flash of fire out of the corner of my left eye. Steeled by the drought that had plagued northern New Mexico, I turned to check to see whether or not a disaster was in the offing, but, no, it was the rays of the rising sun striking the tops of the cottonwoods in the distance. They glowed for one glorious moment and then no more.

Looking straight out from the patio lay a small cultivated garden fit for a dry climate, then a lawn of mown weeds and grasses, and finally a wild thicket of Siberian elm saplings, junipers, piñon pines, a maple emblazoned in red, and finally in the background those giant cottonwoods. It was a panoply of colors, sizes, and shapes. A truth dawned on me. A southwest garden is as much about the wild as it is about order and pattern. What doth it profit to study a world we know when the mystery of the unknown is before our eyes?
In the small strip of a cultivated garden were honeycomb butterfly bushes, two small yuccas, and a couple of stonecrop bushes with their burgundy flowers in full bloom.

To the right of the patio was the center piece of the garden. Like a time-worn obelisk, an ancient juniper abided, its age-roughened bark, hacked and pruned, a few tuffs of new life emerging here and there. I had found a compadre.

Copyright 2011 © Dana Prom Smith

Dana Prom Smith, editor of GARDENING ETCETERA for the Arizona Daily Sun, emails at stpauls@npgcable.com.

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