When our son was selecting a college, he was planning to major in archaeology and was happy to head off to a school well recognized in that field. By the time he graduated from the University of New Mexico, we had deduced that people in much of the U.S. have not quite locked on to the concept of New Mexico!
More often than not, people who had an inkling of his progress would say, “And how’s your son doing in – Arizona, isn’t it?” This week my husband and I have been vacationing in the lesser known state, the under-appreciated Land of Enchantment, and are pleased to report that the state is getting along just fine, with or without acknowledgement from the rest of the country.
This year is New Mexico’s centennial as a part of the United States. Though it has been in the union only 100 years, it boasts the country’s oldest state capital city. Santa Fe has been a seat of provincial government since 1610, twenty years longer than Boston has ruled Massachusetts. Those years have seen various flags flying over the capitol (Spain, New Spain, Mexico, and variations of the US flag) but even before that there were centuries of Native American cultures thriving in the area we now call New Mexico. This is very old country.
Red or green? New Mexico has evolved its own proud cuisine. Like the menus of nearby regions, dishes here feature every conceivable use of certain kinds of corn (tamales, tortillas, hominy, corn flour). But it is the use of chiles that sets New Mexico’s food apart. When you order a local dish, the waiter asks “Red or green?” meaning
“Which kind of chile salsa do you want with that?” Generally red is considered hotter than green, but green has a lingering after-effect worth recognizing. Some menus offer red, green or Christmas – meaning both red and green. People like me who do not know which they prefer are probably considered total novices. It’s like not knowing whether you want cream in your coffee!
The landscape of New Mexico is varied across the state, with each place looking the way it does due to how much water passes through that spot. In a region where abundant water is not a “given,” travelers can see that each passing drop is appreciated and used by the local plants. Any river valley (known locally by its Spanish name, bosque) is a haven of green plants and many animals.
But plant life becomes more occasional away from a constant supply of water. In a way, this habitat celebrates water even more than lush greenery we see elsewhere. Like minimalist art, each green leaf seems to say, “Look, here is water!” This is not to say that New Mexico is a barren waste. Much of the state is green, and agriculture and landscaping adapt to what is possibile. What I notice with less green everywhere is the variety of rock formations in each region, the endless sky above, and the way that you can see rain coming from far away.
New Mexico has been called a land of “head butting contrasts.” On one hand, there are the ancient pueblo cultures of Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and the much earlier Anasazi, “the Ancient Ones.” On the other hand you have the labs at Los Alamos where the first atomic bombs were developed and the Trinity site where the first bomb was tested. Albuquerque’s minor league baseball team is called the Isotopes. One of the world’s premier radio telescopes, the V.L.A. (for Very Large Array) is spread miles across the desert floor here.
Tony Hillerman wrote many mysteries set among the tribes of New Mexico. One of his characters, Jim Chee, strove to be both an effective and fair officer for the Navajo tribal police and to be a traditional healer in the Navajo way. At times he thought it was impossible to hold the combination in one mind and life; at other times he was successful in both callings because he could re-interpret the precise meaning of justice for the people he encountered.
Like Jim Chee, New Mexico has room for it all!
Trivia – Joining the union on January 6, 1912, New Mexico was the 47th state to join. Which state was the 48th, joining just five weeks later? Send me a note if you know, or watch for the answer next week.
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
23 August 2012