Su Libro

point of view

A guide to all things green, plus several books about this diverse life
in New Mexico.

This article first appeared in Spring 2008 Su Casa

National Green Pages, Co-op America, paperback, free with membership to Co-op America.

As we compiled this annual green issue of Su Casa, we were once again struck by the difficulty of finding a comprehensive source of information about things green. Partly that’s because the term trades breadth for clarity: what’s green and what isn’t? No one can conclusively and authoritatively answer that question, which only makes finding green stuff all the harder. In the absence of a widely accepted industry standard for green products and services—think Good Housekeeping Seal of approval from an independent certification agency—we have to rely on a distressingly high level of self-proclamation by green manufacturers and others. (That’s one reason we’re so excited about the Build Green New Mexico guidelines for builders—they enforce accountability to a standard.)

In the areas of food and clothing, standards for organic, sweatshop free, and fair trade help consumers navigate a socially responsible purchase. At Co-op America, which publishes the annual National Green Pages sourcebook/directory, “‘Green’ always means people and the planet, social and economic justice, community and environmental health.” All those things, the editors write in the Green Pages, contribute to sustainability. To that end, Co-op America appoints a screening team to investigate—using independent information wherever possible—each company that applies for a listing in the Green Pages. Among the criteria are environmental responsibility in sourcing, manufacturing, and marketing their products.

Informational articles and case studies make up the opening pages of the book. Then come the listings for nearly 3,000 green businesses and more than 10,000 green products and services. The Green Pages are organized by a huge range of categories, from accessories, advertising, and air purification to wet cleaning, wine/beer, and women’s products/services. You’ll find extensive listings for building-related products and services: builders, construction materials, interior design, flooring, lumber and wood products, energy products, paints, and so on. The financial services section will point you toward socially responsible investment firms, the food section steers you toward organic, bulk, and vegetarian foods, and various professional services sections include some surprising categories, like lawyers.

While it’s gratifying to find various New Mexico businesses in the listings, keep in mind that many of our leading green companies remain absent from the Green Pages. Whatever the reason, and considering that the publication grows more thorough every year, the listings are far from exhaustive at the local or state level. But they’ll sure get you started.

Just browsing the Green Pages will stimulate your thinking in surprising ways about how to apply sustainability to nearly every aspect of your life. It might also prompt you to seek—and demand—green products from your neighborhood store, your builder, or your favorite eatery. And that’s the point: green is a comprehensive topic that someday will permeate the economy. Let the National Green Pages help you navigate this new sustainable world.

Pools and Spas: Everything You Need to Know to Design and Landscape a Pool, Sunset Publishing Corporation, paperback, $21.95.

If you’re thinking about getting wet in the backyard, here’s a comprehensive guide to siting, designing, building, landscaping around, and maintaining a pool or spa. It even includes a very brief mention of the European trend of natural pools, which eschew chemicals in favor of plants to keep the water fresh and clean; saunas also get a chapter.

So after you’ve squeezed the issue of water use through the filter of your conscience and decided to build a pool or spa in the thirsty Southwest, this book from the folks at Sunset magazine will give you so many ideas that if you can’t find a design you like that fits your budget, well, you’re just not hot enough yet. Pools and Spas provides plenty of detail, explaining how all that busy equipment and tricky plumbing works, giving advice on what to ask your contractor, and sorting through options—above ground or below? Vinyl or concrete? Coping or edgeless? Cabana or . . . you get the idea. And the photos are almost guaranteed to provoke a craving for a pool—or at least a vacation!

River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life, by William deBuys and Alex Harris, Trinity University Press, paperback, $24.95.

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Originally published in 1990 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize a year later, River of Traps takes its place alongside titles like Bless Me, Ultima and The Milagro Beanfield War on the short list of must-read books that dig down to the cultural roots of New Mexico, finding essence rather than mere manifestation or derivative expression. Written by William deBuys and photographed by Alex Harris, the book explores two highly particular but broadly representative life experiences that make up a wide swath in the high-bandwidth spectrum of New Mexico.

DeBuys and Harris came to know Jacobo Romero, the book’s central figure, in the late winter of his life. The younger men arrived at El Valle, New Mexico, in the early 1970s, typical examples of that period’s Anglo immigration as waves of college-educated, to some degree counterculture twentysomethings approached New Mexico as an off-the-charts alternative America. In their idealism, the traditional farming and stock-raising way of life in the remote mountain villages seemed a fresh chance to rediscover the original American opportunity for freedom and independence while living close to the land. And these insular villages also maintained an intertwined sense of community quite opposite the perceived alienation inherent in suburban and urban America.

Harris and deBuys were lucky to move into El Valle next to Jacobo. Tiny communities anywhere tend to be leery of outsiders, yet Jacobo seemed to enjoy these greenhorn Anglo neighbors; certainly he had found a willing pair of pupils to receive his deep knowledge about life in the mountains. Over the years, Jacobo taught them—particularly deBuys and his wife, Anne, who became year-round residents of El Valle while Harris left for months at a time—the fundamental skills of irrigating, haying, livestock husbandry, woodcutting . . . all the seasonal tasks that lend shape, texture, and color to country life.

DeBuys injects himself into this story, willingly playing the awkward neophyte informally apprenticed to the wise viejo. As a narrative stance, it serves the reader well, enabling him to pass along Jacobo’s knowledge in the context of stories: here’s what happened when it rained so hard the river flooded; here’s the tragedy of the old horse trapped in the irrigation ditch, the viga-cutting expedition, the political rally with Senator Joe Montoya in Peñasco. Always deBuys fastens on the telling incident, the visual image, the terse dialogue that capsulizes not just the scene but its entire context; the particular stands for the general. And he never flinches from revealing his own shortcomings, which only enhances his credibility as a reporter. If the writer scripts himself into the documentary, he’d better commit to honesty. DeBuys does.

Harris’ photos take a light touch. Their impact is cumulative rather than instantaneous. The images build on each other, as if no single photo could summarize the complexities of Jacobo and his life in the mountains. Instead, they assemble a kind of flip-book narrative that spans years, seasons, and the quotidian instances of a fleeting way of life—indeed a fleeting life, like all others. Harris’ tone offers a stabilizing counterweight to deBuys’ lyrical style and dramatic storytelling. Of the two, deBuys seems the romantic, Harris the realist. Though Jacobo deliberately posed for some of the portraits under Harris’ direction, and the viewer senses the old man’s active participation, even manipulation of the image, they nonetheless convey the documentarian’s assumption—real or not—of objectivity. And while they compose an overarching narrative, many of the pictures stand on their own with a tightly focused, summative finality, the last word on this or that detail. Among my favorites are two about haying. In one, a few workers are tossing hay on a pickup truck, one bale caught in mid-flight. In the other photo, at the opposite end of this familiar rural job, a hay bale flies into the shady barn as Jacobo looks from the side door. Anyone with rural roots anywhere in America knows this scene, can feel the scratch of hay on the forearms and smell the hay dust clogging up the sinuses, but the New Mexico particulars of landscape, architecture, and gente ground the shot in a unique place and time. That’s potent photography.

To some immeasurable degree I love this book because Jacobo reminds me so strongly of a key mentor figure in my adolescence, Leo Martinez, a horseman and norteño from Dixon, New Mexico, who shared many broad aspects of his early life with Jacobo, though Leo went on to a career in computers at Sandia National Laboratories. Leo farmed his South Valley spread, his Arabian horses and the occasional cow, much like Jacobo farmed his mountain lands. I’ve often wanted to write a book about Leo; River of Traps makes the case that maybe I don’t have to.

New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory, photographs by Cary Herz, University of New Mexico Press, hardcover, $39.95. Reviewed by Sarah Friedland

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Cary Herz’s black-and-white photography book is a modern exploration into one of the many histories of mankind that includes conversion by the sword. The photographer has spent more than 20 years photographing, interviewing, and researching evidence about New Mexicans, tracing family secrets across centuries. The people we meet in this book believe they are descendants of early Spanish settlers who were Jews forced to convert to Catholicism.

The crypto-Jews of New Mexico trace their heritage back to 1492, when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain issued the Edict of Expulsion, declaring that Jews must convert, leave Spain, or risk being burned at the stake. Some of these conversos eventually settled in New Mexico. Faithful Catholics to the outside world, these early settlers risked their lives by secretly keeping their Jewish faith alive.

New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews includes lovely, compassionate photographic portraits accompanied by the individuals’ tales of how they learned of their crypto-Jewish heritage—anecdotes of practices in supposedly Catholic families that were clearly Jewish in origin, like stories of Shabbat candles lit in a secret room that the neighbors couldn’t see. There are recollections of people speaking Ladino, a language that combines Castilian and Hebrew. Herz also includes several photographs of artifacts such as a trompito, a small top with Spanish (instead of Hebrew) letters used to play a game called
pon y saca that is identical to the dreidel game played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

As part of this project, Herz traveled to more than 350 Catholic or Protestant camposantos all over New Mexico and neighboring states. The volume includes photographs of many gravestones with crosses that also have Stars of David, menorahs, and Hebrew letters. Another curious photograph features the altar at the church of San Felipe de Neri in Old Town, Albuquerque, which includes Star of David carvings.

Does any of this prove anything? Maybe, but Herz does not claim her evidence is scholarly. She is interested in the puzzle, the artifacts, the history, and the people on the journey tracing their roots. Herz states her intention in the introduction: “The images in this book honor the descendants of the hidden Jews, those related to the original immigrants who secretly held on to Jewish religious beliefs, customs, and language in some fashion over five hundred years.” And honor them she does.

Man vs. Fish: The Fly Fisherman’s Eternal Struggle, by Taylor Streit, foreword by John Nichols, University of New Mexico Press, hardcover, $29.95.

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Taos guide Taylor Streit tells a wicked fish story. Good books happen when a writer with skill passionately engages his favorite topic—and Man vs. Fish is a good book. I’m no angler, and I hardly know fly-fishing from fish frying, but Streit hooked me early in the first chapter and played me deftly for 191 pages. Man vs. Fish admittedly wanders among its chapters. Its loose structure betrays its cobbled-together nature, as it anthologizes previous writings from a variety of periodicals. But Streit’s self-deprecating, mildly ironic voice and his knack for landing on the dramatic pivot point of a tale make for entertaining reading. And he’s spent enough time in the wild to amass a catalog of tales, tall or otherwise, that say a lot about nature and a lot about people, too.

Streit also has the skill and courage to turn himself into a character with enough irony and humility to forge a sympathetic bond with the reader. Traipsing the woods in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Taos, stumbling along the rapids of the Rio Grande Gorge, plying the remote seas of the Bahamas, or casting a line in Argentina, Streit emerges as a contemporary practitioner carrying on the long line of Western adventurer authors, from Louis Garrard and James Ohio Pattie to Edward Abbey and Streit’s friend John Nichols. In fact, Man vs. Fish can be read as a memoir of a life dedicated to the outdoors, to a close kinship with nature and to the backwater, unconventional, unplugged lifestyle that Taos still promises to refugees from the modern world.

The chapter “The Legend of Super Fly” tells the story of the old Taos Fly Shop, with a wink and a nudge and an undisclosed inside joke. It’s the kind of tall tale that Taos has thrived on for more than 150 years, going back to the days of the mountain men and fur trappers. Read it and the subsequent “Super Fly Sighting” chapter, guest-authored by Warren Dean McClenagan, and try to persuade me this old Taos has disappeared under McMansions and golf tourism! As Streit quotes his buddy Nichols on a hike out the steep trail from the gorge: “It’s all about the process.”

King of the Road: Adventures Along New Mexico’s Friendly Byways, text and photographs by Lesley S. King, New Mexico Magazine, hardcover, $19.95.

Drawn from author Lesley S. King’s monthly travel column in New Mexico Magazine, the cutely named King of the Road invites readers along on a couple dozen excursions across the state. Often accompanied by her mother, King travels to a wide variety of nonobvious points of interest while it seems deliberately avoiding Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, and most of the other big towns or well-celebrated tourist attractions. Instead she seeks a sublime enchilada at El Farolito Restaurant in El Rito (many of my friends and even family will drive an hour for its green chile), the galleries and shops in Arroyo Seco, Tomé Hill during a Good Friday procession of pilgrims, and the Two Grey Hills region north of Gallup on the Navajo Nation, to name just a few. She salts the text with a bit of history and the usual guidebook guidance on which shops, cafés, galleries, and so on deserve a lingering stop.

King seems most interested in meeting the people who live in these places. A New Mexico native born to a ranching family, she’s well equipped to meet her subjects on their own terms. While the chapters are too brief to provide more than a sketch of the place, King’s easy tone and breezy pace will undoubtedly encourage readers to retrace her paths across a state still crossed by more byways than major highways.