Fall 2019Non-Fiction

The Wild Tithe – Wendy Johnson

“I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It’s already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we’re animals, that we need the Earth.”
—Mary Oliver

A few years ago, I bought a house in a traditional agricultural village of crumbling adobe homes, on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The half-wild valley is tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a spot called “Chupadero,” which literally means the sucking place. Most nights, you can hear the coyotes’ howls echo down the arroyos. It seemed the perfect place for me, as a family practice physician who would rather be planting seedlings and pulling weeds than treating illness or stitching wounds.

The home came with an acre and a half of orchard–peach and apple trees, a few drought-starved pears and plums; and a faded white-washed fence surrounding an overgrown vegetable garden. The house was built in 1993 on an old bean field cultivated for about a hundred years by descendants of Hispanic colonists. Before the Europeans arrived, it was winter grazing for elk and deer and a fertile hunting ground for nearby indigenous people. The valley, with its seasonal river and mix of traditional families and newcomers, is nestled between the Santa Fe National Forest and two Native American communities, the Nambe and Tesuque Tewa pueblos. 

When the first homesteads were established in the high desert in the mid-1800s, the settlers wasted no time building an irrigation system to give life to fields and pastures. Upon moving into the neighborhood, I became part of this centuries old communal water sharing system, a so-called “parciante,” with rights and responsibilities to the land and the community. As a parciante, I have the right to take three acre-feet from the acequia, the small irrigation ditch bisecting my back acre of the land, demarcating the orchard from the garden and meadow below. It’s a subjective measure, theoretically equal to the volume of water needed to flood my acreage three feet deep, which is only possible in a plentiful year. In drought years, like this past one, there was no water in the ditch and the gophers and grasses took advantage to claim it back as their own. The Mayordomo and the Commissioners of Las Acequias de Chupadero, chosen by all the parciantes, regulate the system. They are responsible for apportioning water fairly among the 60 or so parcels, irrigating approximately 100 acres of gardens and fields. 

My responsibilities as a parciante include contributing to the upkeep of the network, as well as caretaking my portion. In spring, we come together with our shovels and rakes and pruners for the spring lower ditch cleaning, “la limpieza.” The limpieza is the great equalizer. All neighbors, rich and poor, are required to participate, all of us equally scratched and dirty after a day of battling the overgrown elms, Russian olives, and wild roses, and raking the winter’s detritus from the acequia floor. In fall, we all drive 10 miles of steep, rutted roads, traveling together up into the mountains to maintain the origin of our Rio Chupadero, to the splitting box where it’s cleaved from the more robust Rio en Medio. The diversion itself is an engineering marvel, a hand-excavated mountain-top channel, travelling nearly a mile from the stronger flow of the Rio en Medio to the smaller Chupadero tributary through rough terrain strewn with granite boulders.

In the 1870s, the two communities of Rio en Medio and Chupadero came together to build the diversion in a magnanimous display of cooperation and willingness to share a scarce resource, an early recognition of one of New Mexico’s unofficial mottos: Water is Life. 

At least twice a year when we rake and dig and pull the worst of the weeds, we also share and connect and build relationships with each other. I inquire about Jack’s wife, who recently had a stroke, and we talk about organizing a meal train for them. David points out the best places to find the mountain porcini mushrooms, a delicacy called boletes, which emerge just hours after the heavy fall monsoon rains. I learn from Frank the story of the road-side shrine a mile from the turn-off to our valley, the “descanso.” It is lovingly maintained and updated every season in memory of his daughter.

“Somehow, I knew there was something wrong when she didn’t come home that night so I went out looking for her,” he said. “I was the first to find her. She’d fallen asleep at the wheel and I found her there, almost home. There was nothing I could do.”

Even after 10 years, we both tear up at the telling of the story. 

Photo courtesy of the author. The “descanso” or road-side shrine.
The “descanso” or road-side shrine in honor of Frank’s daughter, decorated for Valentine’s Day.

Northern New Mexican acequia communities are distinctive for their lack of fences. Folks might have a coyote fence around a private patio or a part of their land partitioned off for animals or pets, but it’s rare to see a whole property fenced. The reasons are practical. We all are required to give access to the ditch for the Mayordomo and the water commissioners to control flows and fix problems, like collections of debris that can create dams after storms. The result is an open environment where we interact often with our neighbors, human and non-human alike. My dog-walk circuit climbs to hill-top views and descends through neighbors’ yards where we greet my pup’s neighborhood friends. The coyotes have their well-worn paths that wind around the river, through back yards, down arroyos; and the bears have their routes, clearly remembering every fall where the best fruit trees and neighborhood beekeepers live. We see and hear the physical evidence every day of our interlacing lives: the nocturnal yelps and yowls, the tracks, the scat, the scattered compost, the piles of feathers or fur. 

We don’t often think about it, but our community is a throwback to earlier days when the idea of the commons was commonplace. Every community had shared space and activities that required everyone to cooperate for the common good, often for survival.

Gary Snyder writes in his essay The Place, The Region, and The Commons, “The commons is a curious and elegant social institution within which human beings once lived free political lives while weaving through natural systems. The commons is a level of organization that includes the nonhuman.”

At one time, locally controlled common land was used for grazing, foraging and hunting as well as irrigation. A few old Spanish land grants and tribal lands continue to be organized this way, as well as the many Northern New Mexico villages that still maintain their acequia systems.

From the first days living here, my connection to this history, this ecosystem, this community felt familiar, like an old flannel shirt I had forgotten in the back of the closet. The awareness of my reliance on nature and my responsibility to contribute something in return sharpened. I wanted to become useful to the land, and hoped that we (the land and I) could develop a symbiotic relationship, along with the creatures that inhabited the space when I arrived, and whom I hope will be here long after I am gone. I went about restoring the vegetable garden, re-establishing the compost pile, lovingly watering and pruning the fruit trees, shoring up the small pond, and setting out my bee hives in a sunny meadow. Despite the century or so of cultivation, perhaps because of the proximity to the national forest, the wildness of the land was never completely subdued. An abundance of wildlife quickly returned, much of it captured on trail cameras set out along the coyote highway that wends through the lower part of the yard, near the river, passing by my neighbor’s chicken coop and my compost pile. The different markings and personalities among the pack showed clearly on the videos and photos. There were the shy young ones, the bushy-tailed playful pair, and the big bold rust colored one with the notched ear. 

Although I welcomed the wild creatures and wanted to coexist, I was dismayed when I helplessly watched as the magpies greedily gobbled up ripe cherries on the upper-most branches that only they could reach, or when I discovered the bee hives destroyed with mounds of tiny bee corpses strewn across the yard after a midnight massacre-by-bear, or when I pulled up a carrot the size of my wrist, only to find it was just a nub, ragged with teeth-marks on the underside. A gopher had been using it as a midnight snack conveniently protruding from the ceiling of his living room. I felt a tinge of possessiveness the first settlers on this land must’ve felt, or ranchers must feel today when they find a calf has been taken by a predator. These are my cherries—after all, what right does the magpie have? I have worked so hard to nurture the bee hives, all destroyed in an instant. In years such as this last one where the drought threatens the fruit trees and makes me reconsider the size of my vegetable garden, I get a small taste of the panic that must have visited those early settlers who relied much more heavily on the acequia when drought years could mean starvation and death. 

This land, I remember, is not mine. I am no more the center of it than the bear or the magpie. It was here for eons before I was born and will be here after I am gone. I belong to the land more than it belongs to me. The people native to this place have long understood this principle and made offerings whenever taking something for their use, a wild tithe, the small gift ceded to our co-inhabitants. This small portion of cherries or carrots or honey is a tiny price to pay for living in a vibrant ecosystem. Besides, everyone does their part: the magpies eat the insects that otherwise devour the crops, the gophers aerate the land, and I’m sure the bears are important somehow too, even if I can’t see it, and I can still mourn the dead bees. 

I employ a few non-violent conflict resolution methods on my small patchwork of wildness and cultivation; an electric fence surrounding the hives, some buried chicken wire encircling the garden, a little netting over the berry bushes. Still, the coyotes peruse the compost pile buffet almost nightly, the gophers run roughshod under the wildflower meadow, leaving the odd mound of dirt in their wake, the salamanders and bull snakes and pack rats and owls play out their dance of predator and prey, but now I offer my contribution to the other animals that share this space more freely than before. I think of the cherries on the uppermost branches, or the honey from the hive, or the few nibbled carrots, as my wild tithe. I understand our mutually beneficial unspoken agreement, and I no longer curse the pecked peach. Although I may startle when the earwigs scuttle from the pit.  

This dance of reciprocity with my wild neighbors has led to relationships that benefit us both. Earlier this summer, I noticed on the wildlife cameras that one of the coyote compost pile regulars was startlingly threadbare. I had seen him before, walking through my back yard undaunted in the midmorning sun, or sauntering down the dirt road at dusk. He stood out, bigger than the rest, with a distinctive red-brown coat the color of rusty barbed-wire and a notched right ear, the remnant of a battle with a neighbor’s pet Chow-mix rescue. But now, he looked like an exotic hairless dog with the few remaining tufts of fur jutting out at odd angles. As a physician, my mind jumped into diagnosis and treatment mode. Surely, he had mange. Can coyotes get mange? Can they get better on their own? How could I help him? Google and a call to a veterinarian friend taught me that coyotes do indeed get mange and that it can be fatal if it weakens their immune system enough, or lasts into winter when their thick coat is essential for survival. The treatment is simple—an anti-parasitic drug called ivermectin. My ingenious delivery method: smear small amounts on stale bread and bury it in the compost. The wildlife camera tracked the treatment progress, and Red, as I had taken to calling him, was easy to spot with his distinctive markings. By November, he was a new coyote with a thick luxurious coat just like his brethren.

Photo courtesy of the author. Stills captured from the backyard wildlife camera showing the progression of Red’s recovery from mange.
Stills captured from the backyard wildlife camera showing the progression of Red’s recovery from mange.

Not everyone has to become a coyote-healer. But how might our relationship with the natural world shift if each of us asked, “How can I be useful to the land?” rather than, “How can the land (or my yard, or my garden) be useful to me?” Many of us feel a special connection to a piece of land—a childhood home, a park where we go for a walk every day, a farm or a wild place or a small patch of garden. Michelle Nijhius wrote in a New Yorker article about the threats to public lands that one could be connected to such places “by history, by heritage, by livelihood, by love.” I would add to that list, “by intention.” The core of our wellbeing is inextricably related to the health of the land, from the soil and the microbes to the grasses and the insects to the trees and the birds and the air. If we cultivate a desire to become native to the land, and curb our   arrogant assumptions that we can engineer nature, we might allow wild systems to rebalance, our own bodies included.

The indigenous people who were here before the Europeans arrived had a starkly different relationship to the natural world. They understood that humans were part of nature. Using keen empirical observations, honed and passed down meticulously for generations, Native peoples innately understood more about the ways of nature than our western scientific tools have taught us. The belief that humans were co-equal and co-dependent on all other living creatures was ingrained in myths and stories. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and plant ecologist, retells the creation story of her people when Skywoman came down to earth from the stars as the first human being. She found a world filled with strange creatures and was only able to survive and flourish because the animals adopted this foreigner, nurtured her and showered her with gifts. She returned the favor with gifts of her own from the Skyworld, the plants and flowers and trees that nourished the animals on earth. Kimmerer writes, “children hearing Skywoman’s story from birth know in their bones the responsibility that flows between humans and earth.”

Since intentionally choosing this particular patch of earth, I have begun to feel Skywoman’s story in my bones. I choose to be in communion with this valley and the other inhabitants who share it with me, human and animal.

The places where one can practice the Skywoman ethos are rapidly disappearing. Our federally-designated public lands may appear to be another kind of commons, but they are not controlled and managed by the local people who have the deepest connection to them. The habit of domination over the land, more often than not, dictates uses. Those who would exploit or extract are given priority for logging or grazing or mining, with decisions made by authorities who may never set foot in the place. Although there are some areas protected for wild things, even those are increasingly threatened. The boundaries to these places are recognized only by humans, not by the coyotes or bears or mountain lions who know only their ancient territorial bioregions and can’t read the signs. While ambling along one of the roads that enters the Ute Mountain in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, I spotted a cleverly worded sign on a private ranch bordering the protected public lands.

The warning, from the “United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Animal Damage Control,” advises pet owners that traps and snares are present in the area to “capture harmful animals,” so best to keep your dog on a short leash. The agency, better known by its Orwellian nickname, “Wildlife Services,” is charged with ensuring that your hamburger ends up on your plate and not in the mouth of a hungry wolf. The “service” is provided to ranchers, who avail themselves of the bounty of the wilderness while being protected from its uncertainties and dangers. The traps are intended for predators that may harm livestock allowed to graze on public lands, but disrupting the balance of predator and prey in the ecosystem can have unintended consequences. The systematic elimination of wolves and cougars in the last century was a major contributor to the coyote population explosion in the first place. What is true for the gophers and magpies in my backyard is also true for the cougars and coyotes and wolves on public lands. They may take a few heads of livestock, but in the end, they make the land itself much more productive and alive in return. 

We imagine that we can create a world divorced from nature, protecting ourselves from its harms, but still able to dip our toes in its pleasures and when we desire. We vastly overestimate our own cleverness. Nature is not so simple, easily dominated or forgiving as we assume. We have yet to realize that each environment’s animal, plant and even microbial species are part of an intricate choreography, much of it hidden from us humans. When a few of the dancers are removed, others overpopulate, and chaos and disequilibrium ensues. We are not so wise to understand the ways all these moving parts fit together, and most often, we don’t realize how essential one part is to the well-being of the whole until it has been eliminated.

Here in Northern New Mexico, despite being surrounded by so much natural beauty, our communities suffer from profound disconnection from their roots in the land. Several waves of colonization, gentrification and historical violence in the form of dispossession from the land, poverty and destruction of communities have left their mark. We suffer from one of the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the country, and in my work as a family physician, I treat many patients struggling with addiction. In their eyes, I see yearning for some lost connection they cannot name. They tell me their stories of trauma and how the drugs, mostly heroin, numb the pain of loss. But there are stories of hope, like the young woman who was able to walk away from her addiction and rekindle the relationship with her parents. She found healing in the patch of earth her family has farmed for generations. She now lives with her young son in the house her grandfather built and is supported and cared for by her people. The most successful patients in overcoming their dependence on drugs are those able to reestablish their roots to culture, place, family, and community. 

It is late winter now in my valley, the coyotes are celebrating the spring with nightly choruses of high-pitched howls and excited barks. Although some of my neighbors are wondering if this long and snowy winter will ever end, the signs of rebirth are already there for the sharp-eyed. The flickers have begun advertising for a mate, drumming on the loudest things they can find, a hollow tree or more frequently, my metal gutters. Soon, the pond will thaw and the salamanders will start their mysterious migration from underground winter hollows to the frigid underwater mud. The leaf buds are beginning to swell and the elms are blooming, offering the first taste of pollen to hungry awakening bees. When the ground thaws, I can harvest some of the sweet, over-wintered carrots that the gophers may have overlooked. One can faintly detect the change in the air from the cold sterility of winter to the fecund and floral scents of spring.

Photo courtesy of author. Overwintered overlooked carrots.
Overwintered overlooked carrots.

Until we can learn to recognize these subtle signs, the nuanced offerings of nature in all its messy, intricate interconnectedness; until we see that the health of our ecosystem is inextricably connected to our own individual and collective health; until we recognize that that our place in nature is not above but within—we are destined to continue the path of destruction we’ve been following now for hundreds of years. Imagine if we prioritized restoring well-being to our environment as much as we prioritize our individual wellness, if we saw the two things as one and the same. It means learning that we are not more important than the coyote or the gopher or even the lowly microbe, that the world was not created solely for our comfort and exploitation. It means accepting that something we might see as a nuisance today could have benefits beyond our knowing. We are nature. We owe our very existence to the natural world. If it is not healthy, we cannot be healthy. Our future, and the future of the Earth as we know it, depends on learning this lesson profoundly and quickly.

Note: A different version of the essay will appear in Chautauqua: Boundaries in 2020.

Dr. Wendy Johnson is a family physician, amateur naturalist, writer, photographer, and longtime community activist. She currently serves as Medical Director of La Familia Medical Center, a community clinic in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She spends most of her spare time cultivating and rewilding her acre-and-a-half homestead, and finishing her first book, The Ecology Cure: A Road Map to Wellness for Humans and the Earth. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @Artivizm.

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