Archive for the ‘Homesteading’ Category

Clean Water for Health: Filtration & Herbs

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

Aysgarth Close Up Waterfall

Clean Water For Health:


by Sam Coffman

As healers, herbalists have a responsibility to address all causes of illness including diet, lifestyle, and environment… and to recommend treatments and remedies besides herbs when appropriate. Access to clean water is one such problem that Plant Healer’s can’t ignore, as brought to light by recent events such as the contamination in Flint, Michigan pipes and the pollution of sources by the annually increasing number of floods worldwide. The following article is an excerpt from the Summer issue of Plant Healer Magazine, offering important information and materia medica for those of you not yet subscribed to our quarterly. Its author, Sam Coffman of the Human Path School, brings a wealth of practical info and beaucoup  experience to this and other vital topics.


Water is vital to life, as we all know.  Often, for those of us living primarily in a first-world environment, we take water completely for granted.  Turn on a faucet and water appears as though it were magic.  Flush the toilet and it just disappears.  Where it comes from, where it goes to and what happens to it in the meantime are all processes that are – most of the time and for most of us – completely disconnected from our daily lives.  Between our disposal of wastewater and what we pull from the tap, water in our first world, urban environment goes through filtering processes, destruction of all biological, living material, accumulation of numerous pharmacological and chemical toxins that aren’t filtered out, deposition into ground water and eventually back into our kitchen sink.  This is a far cry from the wild water coming out of a spring in the ground (which may have its own set of organisms that could overwhelm our body), and there are many humans –particularly in our country – who have never consumed any kind of water except the kind that comes out of a tap somewhere after being on the aforementioned journey through a public water system.

Flint Water Protestors

Whether wild water or tap water however, there are several important points to ponder on the topic of water and health:  What is the state of our water (i.e. quality and quantity) both in this country (USA) and around the world?  What can we do on a personal level to enable better water quality and quantity? How can we deal with water-borne illness? The World Health Organization estimates over 800,000 deaths per year due to water-borne diarrhea alone.  

When I first started doing medical work in developing nations it struck me as odd that a medical  mission would involve treating diseases that were obviously related to the quality of the water (e.g. parasites, kidney and urinary tract diseases, liver issues) without even so much as considering the need to address ways to change the source of the problem.  I saw so much of this that I realized any realistic health care effort in any community (anywhere on the planet) has to include water quality.  To take it to the next level, if you want to set up any kind of clinic and provide any kind of meaningful health care as an herbalist, you absolutely must have clean water at your disposal.

Sam Coffman Water Purifying Project

As herbalists in the USA this may not seem that this is an issue for you.  You can buy distilled or filtered water and have exactly what it is you need (whether to drink or use for medicine making) right at your fingertips.  However, herbalists have the extra responsibility of understanding health from the most organic and basic fundamentals.  This starts literally with at least knowing something about the source of healthy food and water.  Water quality (and quantity) plays a central role to any clinic you set up – whether in the middle of an urban area or in remote wilderness.

This article will focus on water purification methods and herbal strategies for water-borne diseases. The means to purify water are numerous, and depending on what kind of technology is available to you, can vary from primitive to advanced. Purification methods can be chemical (manufactured or even phytochemical), heat-based, radiation (UV) based and particulate filtration. One of the most reliable methods is heat.  Roughly speaking, if you can heat water to over 160 degrees F for at least 30 minutes, or above 185 degrees F for 5 minutes, or bring water to a rolling boil at all, you have created enough heat to purify water.  However there is at least one caveat to this.  You still should clean the particulate matter (turbidity) out of the water as much as possible before heating.  The clean the water looks, the better the results will be that you achieve by heating.   Another note about heating is that this will probably not remove chemical contamination.  The purpose of heat is to kill pathogens.Water borne Bacteria magnified

Aside from heat there are many other methods of water purification:   These include reverse osmosis, ultraviolet, ozone, ceramic, ion exchange, copper-zinc systems, distillation and more.  Many of these systems rely upon technology in order to be effective to any scale and are outside the scope of this article.

However, I would like to briefly cover one of the simplest and most effective water purification methods I know of that can be implemented even in a completely off-grid environment.  This method is called slow sand filtration and is a way to filter water very sustainably for a home, a clinic or a small community.

Slow sand water filtration is the type of system that the non-profit organization we work with and support (Herbal Medics) has built in villages and urban and rural clinics in Central America.  These systems are bulky and take a bit of labor, but they can be easily constructed using local materials just about anywhere in the world.   Building one together with a community is an excellent way to teach others how to set up their own sustainable water filtration system, because anyone helping will know how to do it for themselves by the time you are finished setting up the first system. The most difficult part of building slow sand filters is finding clean (food grade) water barrels and some kind of piping such as PVC.  We have set up prototype systems using tubing that consisted of bamboo connected by bicycle inner tubes, but PVC makes a much longer lasting and robust system of course.

There are a few critical concepts involved in the construction of a slow sand filtration system.  First, the most active part of this filter (within about 3 weeks after running water through it) is the biolayer of the filter.  Once this layer has formed, you do not want to starve it or dry it out.  Second, the vertical column length of sand is important.  Skimping on this distance will greatly diminish the quality of your filtration.  Finally, the flow rate (drip rate) of water through your filtration system is critical.  If water percolates too quickly through the filter, the amount of filtration that occurs will be greatly diminished.

So what are the details of these critical concepts and how can we make a slow sand filtration system?

At its most basic level, the slow sand filter consists of a single container (a 55 gallon, food-grade barrel is perfect) that has enough height to allow for at least 30” of sand.  From top to bottom, the filter has sand for at least 30” and then gravel (pea gravel size) for the bottom several inches.  The gravel at the bottom is primarily to keep the plumbing from becoming clogged with sand.

Sand Filter poste

At the bottom, we have to have some type of outlet for the water to come out.  The best way to do this is by using PVC pipe and drilling holes in it.  Making a “U” shaped PVC collector at the bottom using ½” or ¾” PVC works well. This then merges to a single pipe that exits the barrel (along the side) an inch or two above the bottom.  From here, the drain pipe needs to make a 90 degree turn back up to the top of the barrel on the outside.  This allows for a pipe (1” – 2” diameter) that we can fill with small chunks of charcoal.  A screen on either end of the pipe fittings keeps the charcoal from coming out into the water.

The important idea here is that the drain pipe final level (back near the top of the filter) is between the top of the water and the top of the sand.  In this manner, the top layer of sand should always be under water.  This allows our biolayer to form.  The term “Schmutzdecke” (also called “filter cake” in English) is a living layer of organisms that form within about 21 days after running dirty water through the filter.  This living layer of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms, eat the pathogens that are in the dirty water coming into the filter.  I would note however, that even without waiting 21 days for the filter cake to form, I (and my teammates) have drunk absolutely noxious water (prior to filtration) that has been filtered through the sand filter, and have never suffered any ill effects whatsoever.  This has been necessary from a liaison perspective.  When we set up a slow sand filtration system for a community somewhere, it’s not very effective (socially) to tell them that in 21 days everything will be fine, while waving goodbye.  I have to demonstrate the effectiveness of the filter before we leave if we are to have any credibility as an organization.  Once we have run about 100 gallons through the filter and the water is clear coming out, it’s time for me (and whoever is in charge of the primitive engineering team, at a minimum) to do a “bottom’s up” raising of the glasses and drink away!  This is usually followed by a lot of laughing and joking and everyone else drinking water from the new filters.  I am never worried about the locals, as they’re getting far better filtration even without any biolayer formation, than they were getting prior to us setting up the filter in the first place.

Slow_sand_filter diagram 1

In order for the filter to work correctly, the flow rate needs to be kept between 3 and 5 gallons per hour.  This limits the amount of water that a community can draw from a filter.  The maximum that a filter like this is good for, is about 120 gallons per 24 hour period, and in order for there to be 120 gallons per day, it is necessary to add a couple of pieces to this filter setup.  

First, a raw-water (pre-filter) container is necessary.  This is where the dirty water is pumped or scooped into, and can be any size.  The larger the better, and in a typical gravity fed system of course its outflow will have to be positioned slightly higher than the filter’s in flow.  The manner in which the water flows into the top of the filter needs to be controlled so as not to disturb the top of the sand too much.  This is normally done using baffles (PVC pipes with holes drilled in them something like drip irrigation systems).  We usually take a few $8.00 float valves with us when we’re setting these up, as it is the easiest way to control the flow between the raw water container and the filter.  There are certainly other ways, but the float valve makes everyone’s life easier and is so simple to install as a valve that opens and closes based on the level of water in the filter tank itself.

Slow-Sand-Filter diagram

Next, a final collection tank is necessary if you want a 24/7 water filter functionality.  The collection tank is fed directly from the filter.  This means that the full filter setup is a 3-container system:  A container for the raw water, the filter itself and a collection container for the water that has been filtered.  To use the system, a person first takes the water they need from the third container in the system – the collection container with clean water in it.  If there’s not an automatic system that fills the raw-water container, that same person can get the same amount of water they just used and put it into the raw-water container.  For instance, pulling it from a well and refilling the raw water container after taking the clean water from the filtered water container.  This ensures a 120-gallon per day maximum capacity of the water filter.  Calculating 1 gallon per person per day drinking water only, this system can serve over 100 people in a community.  However, we usually set up one filter for every 20-30 people, which allows for a minimum of 4 gallons of filtered water per person per day.


This approach gives me, as an herbalist, an entirely new approach to working with a community where a hugely disproportionate percentage of the population has the same health issues that are obviously related to poor water quality.  Between fracking, coal mining, corporate agriculture and political corruption (i.e. Flynt, MI), water quality is not something that is limited as a problem to only developing nations.  So if you are researching the health issues of a given community and are facing some type of water-borne epidemiological syndrome, then following along the same logic that a clinical herbalist should be using (work with the core problem whenever possible rather than just palliating the symptoms), this may give you another tool in your toolbox to consider using.

Let us address water-borne disease now, and some of the herbal approaches to resolving these disease states.

First, what are the common water-borne pathogens?  We can become ill from water that contains viruses (for example: hepatitis A and E), bacteria (for example: cholera, shigellosis), protozoans (for example:  giardiasis, cryptosporidium) and helminths (for example:  roundworm, tapeworm).

While it is possible to run down a list of specific pathogens and cite studies (whether valid studies is a whole different question) as to the effectiveness of a particular herb used for a specific pathogen, I think it is more effective to start the discussion with some of the general approaches we can take in the case of exposure to water-borne illness.  

First, the ubiquitous, acute onset of gastroenteritis that probably comes to everyone’s mind when discussing water-borne illness.  Narrowing down a set of options is a lot easier to do once we have gathered some information using even as simple of a mnemonic as SAMPLE:  Signs and symptoms, Allergies, Medications, Last known intake (food and water) and last known menstrual period if appropriate, Events leading up to the illness.  In addition to SAMPLE we can also use OPQRST to narrow down specifics on pain or discomfort:  Onset, Palliate/Provoke (“what makes it better or worse?”), Quality (“throbbing,” “sharp,” “burning”), Radiate (“does the pain radiate to other parts of the body?”), Severity (“on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your life…”), Time (“how has the pain changed with any of the previous questions, since it started?”).

Bear in mind that beyond just working with one individual, you may be watching for patterns in a clinical environment.  After the third or fourth person comes in with the exact same symptoms, you have to start addressing community health questions.  How you go about doing that can range from quarantining (in the case of something like cholera) and helping set up water-treatment & hygiene plans in a remote or post-disaster community, to contacting local (e.g. county) health officials in a more first world setting.


In acute presentation of gastroenteritis, the herbal protocols are often going to be symptom-based.  Is there nausea and vomiting?  If so, can they keep anything down at all?  Dry heaves?  Blood? Diarrhea?  Color and consistency of the diarrhea if so (e.g. “rice water,” bloody, mucous, etc.), cramping?

Our primary concerns in the case of an acute onset of severe gastroenteritis (assuming that the herbal approach is the only option for whatever reason) are to prevent the patient from dehydration and support the recovery of the gut mucosa.  The latter is simple in theory but not always in practice.  Some of the most effective approaches involve helping clear the gut of what is causing the problem and reducing the inflammatory responses.  

Activated charcoal is a very useful substance in the initial clearing of the gut.  Whether toxins (e.g. food poisoning), bacteria or even protozoan infections, charcoal adsorbs and also helps to slow diarrhea.  As an initial protocol before giving any herbs, charcoal can often be very helpful.  The dosage can range as between one and two grams of charcoal per kilogram of body weight, every 4 – 8 hours.  Be aware that the person’s feces will likely come out black, and it should slow diarrhea somewhat.  Normally (in the absence of diarrhea), it is important to note that charcoal can cause constipation.  Note that we would not want to ingest charcoal at the same time as any herbs we were taking.  Much of the herb would bind with the charcoal, rendering both the charcoal and the herb ineffective.

Moving into herbs, what are some of the primary considerations?  We want to reduce gut inflammation.  We want to help restore normal gut mucosa function.  We want to overwhelm or kill off causative pathogens.  We want to support liver and kidney function (detoxification and elimination).  We want to palliate symptoms like cramping and nausea.  We also want to prevent dehydration, which involves both a rehydration solution as well as helping the gut absorb the fluids.  

“Gut inflammation” is a sort of generic term given to the physiological set of responses by the gut to a disruption in healthy function.  Pathogens have many various methods of fulfilling their own life cycles in their own quest to survive, colonize, feed, reproduce and find more hosts.  During that process that may be happening in our own gut, there is inevitably going to be an inflammatory response by damaged tissue of the gut.  Anything that reduces the pathogenic potency, increases our own tissue healing curve or both is going to reduce gut inflammation.  

Most berberine-containing herbs kill handle many of these aspects of dealing with gut inflammation.  They provide an astringency that helps reduce water loss.  They tend to have a directly anti-inflammatory effect on the gut.  They are usually anti-microbial.  They are also usually stimulate and support liver function.  Herbs that fit into this category are the Berberis and Mahonia species.  Other herbs include Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and Chinese Goldthread (Coptis chinensis).  My favorite herb to use for acute gastroenteritis is Algerita (Berberis trifoliolata).  The root of this plant is intensely bitter and yellow with berberine, while the leaf is somewhat sweet, a little sour, and an excellent anti-nauseal.

Another herb that is highly anti-microbial, astringent and wound-healing on the gut is Walnut (Juglans spp.).  I use the Juglans microcarpa here in central TX but the most commonly used medicinal species is the Juglans nigra.  I like to mix the unripe (but just starting to soften) hull with the leaf of this tree, about 50/50.

Juglans nigra Eastern Black Walnut

Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) is not a North American plant, but can be grown here in the most southern climates, or grown in pots and wintered indoors.  It has been referred to as the “king of bitters,” and for good reason.  Aside from its overwhelming bitter qualities, it is another herb that is highly antimicrobial and has an astringing, anti-inflammatory effect on the gut.

I like to use Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) as well as its milder cousin, Western Mugwort (Artemisia ludoviciana) for acute gastroenteritis as well. Both are antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory to the gut tissue, bitters and cholegogues. Both are also decent anti-nauseals, even when a person is already vomiting.  

Another antimicrobial that is also a superlative smooth muscle relaxant for cramping is Silktassel (Garrya spp.).  I know of herbalists who have used the leaves of this plant to mix with water as a form of water purification.  While I have not used it this way, I do use it quite often as an anti-spasmotic for smooth muscle throughout the body, to include the gut.  I use the leaf and bark of this plant, tinctured fresh.  I usually harvest it by pruning a bush and taking all the leaves and bark off of what I prune.  This usually comes out to being about 70% leaf and 30% bark.

Any mucosal vulnerary is going to have a soothing, anti-inflammatory effect on the gut.  This can include Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) root and leaf, Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.) cactus flower, Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis) leaf (if you don’t have a problem with the pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which another topic), Plantain (Plantago spp.), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp.) root and many others.  These are best prepared as a cold infusion, which also helps with hydration.  If you are preparing a rehydration solution anyway (1 teaspoon salt, 6 teaspoons sugar per quart of water is one of the most basic formulas), you can put it all together in a mucosal vulnerary rehydration drink.  

As a side note, Prickly Pear cactus can be used to filter water as well.  Fillet the pad and chop it into small pieces so that lots of surface area is exposed of the demulcent, gooey inside of the pad.  Put those pieces into a container with the water you wish to clean (pre-strain to clear as much turbidity as possible).  Shake, let it sit about 30 minutes, shake again and strain.  It is not anywhere near the filtration of a slow-sand filter, but the Prickly Pear pad is a flocculant and will stimulate aggregation of small particulates (fomites – homes for pathogens to live on) into larger particulates while adsorbing the same.

In a pinch, the Prickly Pear cactus pad can even be used to boil water!  Take a large pad, cut off the pointier end, fillet down the center very carefully to within about an inch of the edge (from the inside).  You can prop the sides open at the top using a small stick and pour water into the pad.  Water can be heated to easily 160 degrees for about 30 minutes in coals, without burning through the pad

All of the antimicrobial herbs mentioned above are going to give relief and help the body cope with a protozoal infection such as giardiasis or cryptosporidium.  Another strong antiprotozoan for those two infections particularly, is Chaparro Amargosa (Castela spp.).  



Black Pepper (Piper nigrum) is another anti-protozoal and one of the primary ingredients in formulas I have used to work successfully with cutaneous leishmaniasis infections, which are protozoal.

With any case of infectious gastroenteritis, it is imperative that the liver and kidneys be supported as well.  Support of the liver should be gentle to help it detoxify waste products that make it into the hepatic portal system.  Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) seed is of great use here.  Also helping to support liver function gently are Chicory (Cichoreum intybus) root and Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) leaf.  I like to use Burdock (Arctium lappa) root and Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) root a lot as both gentle liver support as well as gentle diuretics whenever helping the body deal with toxins, pathogens, infection, lymph stagnation or other disease processes that increase the body’s need to deal with and excrete waste products. 

Parasites (helminths) are another topic that is a discussion on its own.  There is generally not going to be a singular herb or even a set of herbs that are anti-parasitic for all parasites across the board.  However as a rule, some of the general anti-parasitic herbs that work in formulas either directly, or supportively, are: Any of the aforementioned berberine-containing herbs, Elecampane (Inula helenium), Horse Radish (Armoracia rusticana), Black Pepper (Piper nigrum), Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum spp.), Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) Garlic (Allium sativum) and Cayenne (Capsicum annuum).

The importance of clean water cannot be overstated in the full spectrum of holistic understanding of our health.  In the case of infectious disease, it is paramount that we have a clear understanding of both the epidemiology of the area as well as the tools we can implement to create better preventative health for a community.  Once we have helped create sustainable, clean water, we can continue even better than before as herbalists and health care providers.


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The Care-Taking Mission & The Search For Home

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

The Care-Taking Mission & The Search For Home

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

It has been a busy Spring here in the wilds, connected as we are to the larger world through the magic of internet and at the behest of a calling – in the past month putting together another free Herbaria Newsletter plus the next 280 pages-long Plant Healer Magazine, producing a new color book on the history of herbalism and medicine called The Traveling Medicine Show, working on the upcoming Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, and writing posts for several blogs.  The advantage of affecting culture and human kind from the “comforts” of a remote wilderness sanctuary, is tempered by the awareness that the walls of these crudely built cabins are in need of caulk and waterproofing or paint, that Elka could use help keeping the firewood split that heats our homes and food,  and that I have not been able to break away long enough to run the water pump to move precious water from our rain barrels to our storage tanks before this coming weekend’s expected storm.  I have missed the raw experience of daily close contact with the elements and fundamentals of real existence, the ritual chores of connection, the scent and heft of wood and water.  This led me to pondering again in the middle of the night, as to what kinds of folks might work best to share our incredible land and necessary responsibilities with.  It’s intensely wonderful here in such a wildly natural place, but most would say it has too many drawbacks being remote, in a county with a few hundred libertarian country folk, hard to make money, and anything but hipster. Anima Sanctuary Cliffs in Mist by Jesse Wolf Hardin 72dpi The result of such midnight thoughts was my writing my latest post for the Mother Earth News blog.  While most often we post about herbs and healing, this time I cover the subject of “Caretaking in Paradise” – not an appeal for assistance and involvement at Anima Sanctuary so much as encouragement and a primer for folks who cannot afford to buy remote property but wish for a way to live out in nature somewhere nonetheless.  I include in the post a list of practical tips for finding and arranging for caretaker positions in the rural and wilderness parts of this country. It brought to mind the times before I arrived in our river canyon, when this impoverished young dreamer was searching out places where I might be useful, healthful, and welcome: “For nearly 15 years, I learned to reinhabit the mountains of the rural West by caretaking a number of places:  A wild turkey refuge on a creek 23 miles of dirt road into the forest from the small village of Pecos, New Mexico, planting oats for the birds and keeping the pipes thawed between the spring box and the log cabin provided.  A ramshackle cattle ranch west the ghost town of Chloride.  An A-frame near the art colony of Taos, that I repaired and painted instead of paying rent.”

The search of course, led me here, and probably could have led me nowhere else.  This enchanted land, its shining examples and difficult challenges, have in combination informed my thinking and teaching, and largely shaped the person that I am.  It inspired my lifelong commitments to its care and restoration, though that ended up meaning being along here for over a decade.  The folks who at one time or another were pledged to live here or who helped pay for the sanctuary all drifted away, except for one who fortunately helps ensure its legal protection from afar, and my family who tend its needs are few indeed, but it nonetheless remains true that a primitive homestead lifestyle and our important duties are meant to be the work of a clan if not village, community, tribe.  To thrive, rural, farm, and wilderness land needs to be free from the crowds and concrete of so-called “civilization,” and yet if can benefit from small groups who guard, restore, and celebrate it.  Finally, as I wrote for the M.E.N. blog:

“…remember that caretaking means literally “taking care” – tending, maintaining, nurturing, and ultimately benefitting a home and ecosystem that you deeply care about!  It works best not as an experiment but as commitment, committing as fully to a place and purpose as we would to a spouse, a child, or a cause.  …Whether we end up a lifetime caretaker or making years of payments, we each have the option and opportunity to live our wildest dreams – including a dream of living close to the land and the elements, inspired by its beauty, fulfilled by our earthen role and worthy tasks.”


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To write us, email: mail(at)AnimaCenter(dot)org      –     And to read the entire Mother Earth News blog post, click on:  Caretaking in Paradise


Blooms at The Edge

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

We woke up to a flash flood warning, never a surprise during the Southwest’s monsoon season, but perhaps a bit of wishful thinking given how dry things have been.  The burned areas upriver from us are subject to erosion when we get the pinpoint microbursts this area is so famous for, but with the mountains no where’s near saturated, if they hit even a single ridge over it means the river will remain low enough to cross in a 4×4.  We nonetheless took out much of what we need for putting on this week’s HerbFolk Gathering, so that if by chance we do have to hike and wade out, this time it will only be with a few things wrapped in plastic and held high above our heads.  And if so, we will be ecstatic as always, at the exhilarating feel of the water, the veil of mists that hang like clinging children to the sacred Kachina cliffs towering above the river.  And whether in a vehicle or on foot, we will look wistfully to the cottonwoods whose leaves have already begun to lighten in color, knowing that we may have already missed the falling of at least some of their leaves by the time we get back home.  We will nod in the direction of the beaver dams, wondering where they might build next.  And wistfully pass through the narrowing of the canyon that feels to nearly everyone like the opening or gate to the magic that is this place: the Anima Sanctuary.  It is the edge, between the wild and the domestic, an edge we cross in one direction in order to affect our species and our world, and then cross again to return to our troth, our home, our venue of enchantment.  There are other edges we all face, always the stage surprise and change, sometimes terrifying, often incredibly beautiful, a site for startlingly different blossoms… ever the chance for creative disruption and surprise.

Talk to you on the other side.

–Jesse Wolf Hardin

Wild Edges by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Interview with Jesse Wolf Hardin – New Mexico Author

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Intro: For the release of my partner Wolf Hardin’s newest book, Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle, I asked our friend Becca if she would interview him about it and its creation.  The following first appeared in the locally loved Glenwood Gazette, and is excerpted  for you here.  Both this book and others of interest to rural folks, history lovers, outdoorsmen and women, can be found on the new website I made for him.  –Kiva Rose

Wolf with Sombrero-72dpi

with Catron County Author
Jesse Wolf Hardin

Interviewed by Becca McTrauchle


Q) You write about events in this area in your book about the people and the firearms of the historic West, called Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts.  Your novel The Medicine Bear takes place in Arizona’s White Mountains, the Gila forest, and Columbus, New Mexico in the early 1900s.  Now we have your collection of short stories set in this area, Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle.  You may be the most prolific writer hanging a hat in this area since Zane Grey.  What inspires this obsession?

A) The region of Southwest New Mexico and Southeast Arizona has a unique flavor all of its own.  When a person is likeably odd, standing out from the generic crowds of the day, and interesting in an exaggerated way, we might call them a “character”… well, this land here is not just the stage and backdrop to our mortal play, it is itself a character in a very similar way.  It may look like other parts of the planet, but it feels different… with a rough edged authenticity, an almost magical or spiritual ambiance, and enough hardships and inconveniences to attract only the hard headed and self-reliant.  It’s mix of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo cowboy culture provides an increasingly rare example of the libertarian thinking, community spirit, and backwoods values that once characterized all the so-called Wild West.  On the other hand, this area is emblematic of rural America in general, from the love of nature and wide open spaces to the determination to do things one’s own way.  In Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle, I write about a countrified sensibility that family farmers in Maine and swamp-rooted Cajuns in Louisiana can relate to.  And for my many city dwelling readers, the Western ethos in this book can be inspiration to live a more authentic, adventurous, enjoyable, honorable, purpose-driven, and even heroic life.


Q) What caused you to settle here, and how long ago?

A) I moved here from Taos in 1979.  It’s been nearly 4 decades now, since I was vehicle-less and having to walk the 10 miles to Jakes’s Grocery for supplies.  That’s over two-thirds of my life, enough time to be tempered, and tested, and time for the place to help sculpt me into what I am today.  I arrived with a passionate love for the land, and over the decades I came to find many of the same qualities in its people.  Whenever I celebrate wild animals, un-dammed rivers or western history, I am also celebrating every man or woman today who dares to be different, refuses to be bottled up and controlled, and stands up for what they believe is right.

Nothing I Can Do-72dpi

Q) You write for a lot of different audiences it seems.

A) I want to reach and affect as many kinds of people as possible, and one does that by relating to folks through the ways that we share in common, and in the ways that each best understands.  Important concepts like awareness, critical thinking, healthy wildness, our liberty, and taking personal responsibility can all be expressed in the language of gardening or in terms of balanced ecosystems, in the metaphors of attentive down-home cooking or using the example of riding a rodeo bull, good parenting or resisting a government’s injustices.  For another thing, I am a complex person, and I’m not fairly represented unless I express my loving father, sensitive cook, and inner wrangler sides… as well as my commitments to land conservation, and my determined resistance to onerous government regulations and invasion of our privacy in the name of security

Of everything I’ve ever written, Pancho’s comes closest to me talking off the cuff, showing all sides of myself and all sides of the issues, uncensored, unguarded, and unrestrained.  This is the “Straight Shot,” to quote the title of my first Catron County newspaper column.  It hopefully features enough focus on sentiment, beauty and enchantment to make some crusty ol’ boys squirm, while equally discomforting any “politically correct” readers by my making fun of a trippy New Age visitor and extolling the logic of the .50 caliber rifle.  Many of my friends and fellow residents consider this a simple case of telling it like it is, while my detractors at least have to concede that I am an equal opportunity offender!

Agree or not, we always look each other in the eye and speak our minds out here in the country.

Agree or not, we always look each other in the eye and speak our minds out here in the country.

Q) There’s 107 stories in Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle, about everything from the democratic system to Elfego Baca’s shootout, the wisdom of onetime local character Sammy Giron, and heirloom treadle sewing machines and the important mending of our lives and our communities.  That’s quite a range of topics.  So tell us how you decided on the title you did.  Pancho really had a motorcycle?

A) The cover photograph shows Villa admiring a bike that he was being shown for the first time.  While most comfortable astride a spirited horse, this famous revolutionary and ex-bandit was quick to accept the offer to take it for a spin.  History does not tell us if he dumped it or not, though he certainly fell hard when he was ambushed and assassinated in his touring car not very many years later.  Curiously enough, it was an Indian brand motorcycle, an interesting fact given Pancho’s Native American ancestry, and his raiders use of bows and arrows against the machine guns of the U.S. army when, in 1916, he ordered the first military invasion of this country since the War of 1812.

Pancho Villa's Motorcycle Front Cover-72dpi

I think that this iconic cover photo evokes the twists in this region’s poignant history, the clash between technology and land-based lifestyles, between modernity and the old ways, between the fear and lies of our age and an ageless, honest, free, courageous, and plumb-enjoyable way of being.

As a personal aside, I can tell you that I owned some kind of motorcycle from the time I was 12 and riding a Tote-Gote mini-bike, including Harleys and a 1946 Indian Chief during my biker outlaw phase… symbols and tools of my independence.  And yet I gladly sold my final motorcycle, a classic Triumph Bonneville 650, to my friend Tuffy Jones who co-managed Uncle Bill’s Bar in the village of Reserve… anything in order to make the semi-annual payments and hold on to my treasured home.

Q) What else is on the plate for you?

A) I have two more books coming out in the next year, first The Healing Terrain about sense of place, the importance of home, connecting to the land, gardening medicinal herbs, gathering wild foods and so on.  And the second being Lawmen of The Old West Unmasked, exposing the real lives of some famous badge wearers like Billy The Kid’s murderer Pat Garrett, and Wyatt Earp, the con artist known in his day as the “fighting pimp.”… while bringing to light the deeds of some lesser known but truly admirable and heroic lawdogs including local characters Arizona’s Bucky O’Neil and Ranger Burt Mossman, and Reserve’s own icon of oversized huevos, Elfego Baca.  Then maybe a book on the traveling Medicine Shows that provided health care and entertainment to the rural people of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  And I’ll continue coediting Plant Healer Magazine, providing information on healthy herbs of all kinds and breaking our dependence on federal health care and often harmful pharmaceuticals.  Herbalists have a few things in common with the finest of frontier men and women, in keeping tradition alive, and in taking risks to do good.

Q) Last question: I see that the illustrations for Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle include some of your drawings, photographs of old time Western movie actors, images of the region’s varied landscapes, and even a photo of the Men’s Room door of Uncle Bill’s Bar with its wonderful painting of a cowboy and his horse stopping to relieve themselves at the edge of the trail.  Is there maybe some consistent theme that you planned?

A) You gotta be kidding! (smiles)

Q) OK, good enough! Thank you much!

Pancho Villa's Motorcycle by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle by Jesse Wolf Hardin


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Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle:  Wild West Sentiment, Backwoods Humor, & Outlaw Wisdom For a World Gone Astray

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A Taste of Snow

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

A Taste of Snow

…has kissed the cliffs and trees of the Sweet Medicine Canyon, in the wild Gila of the American Southwest.  In these years of less and less precipitation, we are especially excited to see, feel, and taste the gently falling flakes.  The view out the window is almost mesmerizing, or at least, makes a perfect excuse for ignoring the laptop and the writing for a few minutes.

I spent the last two days laying out nearly 250 pages of the Spring issue of Plant Healer, creating many more art posters for you all, and catching up on emails while Kiva drove 60 miles to the nearest town with faster internet.  Her mission was to upload the files for the new book of interviews, “21st Century Herbalists.”  We plan to start selling the EBook and taking advance orders on March 4th, the day of the magazine’s release.  By early April we will start shipping special limited edition Hard-Cover copies.

Sleep has been hard for me lately, but it gives me a chance to hear our resident Ringtail Cat (in the raccoon family, not related to cats) as she fools around in the next she made in the ceiling.  It’s mighty strange that we never had one den in the house until Kiva accepted them as her medicine animals, and now one likes to sleep directly above her head where we sleep in the loft.

She doesn’t go outside much in the snow, we’ve noticed, likely displeased with the wetness and not wanting to be easily seen against the covering of white.



As you can see from this picture, our other wild house guest prefers to stay dry as well.  If you look closely, you can see Miss Rebecca Cottontail taking refuge in the “Oasis” under the patio chairs.



Miss Cottontail still lets us come within a few feet of her with no nervousness, and it seems she feels safe and comforted under the house and in earshot of its soundtrack of old time Americana and Alternative Latin music.

Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny again, so I wanted to get a few pics of the weather to you before it changes back to the normal dry and warm… and before the final 50 pages of the magazine call me back to its creation.

Stay warm yourselves, and enjoy what looks to be an early Spring most places.

Letter From A Helper

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Letter From A Helper

Intro: Today we welcomed the arrival of our newest on-site helpers, Hannah and Fritz, costume maker and circus master, students of self sufficiency, interesting and darn nice folks.  And last night, we sadly said our farewells to helper Avraham.  No one coming to assist has yet been more diligent or dependable, focused or grateful, and it was emotional to bid him adieu… as goes on to gather new skills as an EMT, following his heart and calling, taking responsibility for making the choices that will define his destiny.  Below is the text of one of two hand-written letters he left with us upon departure, a blessing shared in the hopes you will find it as moving and hopeful as we did.  We are thankful not just for his assistance on important projects, but for the opportunity to help clarify and affirm – even in smallest measure – what will be his insights into, and gifts to the world.

Dear Wolf

Your home and the people here are some of the greatest things I’ve experienced.  Being here has given me nourishment, contentment, insight and fulfillment.  Coming from a society where a true purpose is hard to find – and opportunities to be appreciated for who you really are, are hard to come by – I feel the greatest love and honor working here doing my daily tasks and knowing that I am a part of something, something great.

Hearing yours and Loba’s stories, seeing Dan’l and Don’s devotion to this place despite their own responsibilities, and listening to Kiva speak for hour to the most minute details of the herbal world, have all been inspiration to me and my calling.

And the land… As dry, rocky, and strange as it may seem to someone who has lived near lush, green wetlands and woodlands his whole life, it has taught me something too. A deeper lesson in who I am for sure, but the experience to go along with it is fortunately unforgettable.

Walking the trails, river-banks and mountainsides has left me feeling the most content, natural and “in place” I’ve ever felt. The law of impermanence has never seemed so real and my attitude towards change has never been so accepting.

There have always been ups and downs for me here as moods tend to sway, especially in circumstances of solitude and introspection. But throughout these moments, whether I was aware of it or not, there has always been harmony for me. Harmony with Anima, harmony with love, harmony with the land, and harmony with you.

And even though we saw very little of each other during my time here, I feel extremely bonded by all that has happened, and have felt deeply the joy of working with you.

When I leave here, I will walk strongly on my path and always remember my brother Wolf.

And to the future I look forward, working with you, and all the others out there trying to make a difference.

May our strength prevail through the darkest of days.  May our work continue to nourish us, and may our gifts and treasures spread like wildfire.

Blessings to you,


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Courage & Stupidity: It’s A Fine Line, They Say

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Courage & Stupidity:
It’s A Fine Line, They Say

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

Wise risks and stupid choices…

gambling on an overloaded raft in a roaring flood… chancing to live our dreams.

In the course of my life, I’ve had to be comfortable conversing in the clipped sentences of martial jargon, thanks to early years in military school, and with the limited but loaded vernacular of the outlaw bikers I hung with after I ran away.  Thanks to my diverse and checkered past, I can speak fluent “poet” and “revolutionary”, and can carry on in the language of “hard-bit logger” as well as “sentimental tree hugger”, talk a bit of “barrio” and make out more than a few words of “academia”.  My history and firearms vocabularies are extensive, making interesting conversation possible with both college professors and self described gun nuts.  I utilize terms and expressions particular to veterinarians and veterans, aesthetic focused artists and mumbly Latin-mouthed botanists, evoking the inflections of hell defying preachers as much as pissed off protestors.  In every case, there are trademark aphorisms that denote each group’s values and attitudes, prejudices and priorities, in the course of teaching broadly helpful truisms to anyone able and willing to hear.

One of the passed around here in the still rural West, is that “there’s a fine line between courage and stupidity.”

It could be considered courageous, for example, to gallop your horse to the front of a stampeding cattle herd in a bid to slow and turn them, before they dash to their deaths off the nearby cliffs like panicky investors in some failed banker’s securities scheme.  Courageous, to risk a whiskey bottle to the head in the course of defending the honor of a woman.  Or to face off against the New Mexico State Police and U.S. Air Force with nothing but an antiquated Winchester rifle and copy of the Bill of Rights, when the government tells you they are taking your lifelong ranch away… to expand their White Sands missile testing range.

One might think it purely stupid, however, to get drunk and ride a bull through the window of an eastern New Mexico bar, or to break bottles over your own head just to show some gal how tough you really are.  Stupid, to tell a Texas sheriff that no “tin-star hick-ass agent of oppression” has the right to goad, pulling you over just because you looked out of place on that lonely stretch of desert road.

Such expressions can be applied to anyone’s life.  Quitting a job that you feel wastes your life or deadens your spirit, especially in financially difficult times: pretty doggone brave.  Getting fired for telling the boss off, a month before retirement: potentially short on smarts.  Sticking with a difficult relationship, because of real love, a desire to help, and signs of progress: courageous without question.  A wife staying with a man who berates and belittles her, “for the sake of the kids”: simply dumb, dumb, dumb.

When it comes to the herbalists we know, it’s brave for them to defy the cultural bias against natural healing and in favor of biased research and pharmaceuticals, to risk being ridiculed over either the primitivity of their craft or occasional habit of talking to plants, to spend money on books and schools with no assurance they are devoting themselves to a career that will pay them back.  But what’s less than smart, is whenever a few practitioners go so far as to discount all scientific research, or don’t readily utilize modern conventional medicine even when clearly advisable, or nurse an emotional attachment to having either mass appeal or official acceptance.

So often though, it’s not really clear which we are until after the fact, the test, the crux, the close or finish line.  If I’d been killed while living with criminals and crazies on the street, it would have seemed far more dumb than courageous.  Or if was never able to make an income or have an affect on the world, due to a stupid stunt like turning my back on formal education, certificates and degrees.  Or if I’d ended up penniless and back to sleeping under bridges, after selling the engine out of my only vehicle and school-bus home for the down payment on some wild and remote land.  Or if no one had attended our herbal conference or read our new herbal magazine, after launching them in the middle of an economic recession.

If such things seem brave in retrospect, it is because I both survived as a teen runaway, and learned on the mean streets much of what I needed later to thrive.  It’s only due to the evidence of hundreds of articles and dozens of books that I’ve written, the nature awareness school I founded and the many people who say I and my partners have helped them, that dropping out of school, living without medical insurance or a consistent income, and following a dream at such great risk and cost can be seen as anything but ignorant and disastrous.  Thanks to a few successes at raising awareness of endangered wildlands, my Don Quixote efforts aren’t as laughable. It seems brave how I bought this property I’m on, because I somehow or other managed to struggle and make each of the 15 years worth of payments, restoring this micro ecosystem to health as it restored me myself.  And our magazine and conference could be dismissed as ignorant and foolhardy gambles, if not for the volume of enthused subscribers and the first year’s event selling out.

Watching and measuring me throughout all these tests of relative stupidity or courage, have been not only my various audiences and constituencies, the sportsmen, conservationists and scholars, readers and supporters, detractors and denigrators, but also the few locals inhabiting my isolated county.  It is they, of all people perhaps, with no investment in the outcome, who have been the most objective witnesses of all.  The majority didn’t care if I managed to make the land payments, walking the 17 miles round trip to the nearest village for supplies, or if I would keep from being thrown and killed after buying a proud-cut Arabian with no experience in cinching a saddle… but they’ve certainly been entertained at all my efforts and contortions, and at time seem to have greatly enjoyed betting on the results.

Never was this made more clear than during one of our normally small river’s periodic floods, with us unable to get out to the road except by scrambling and sloshing up miles of soggy mountainside or swimming with one hand while holding the outgoing mail aloft.  The nearby town’s wonderment regarding when and how we might brave the 20’ high rushing waters again was finally eased when a few fellow visitors to the Reserve post office noticed me carrying out a very large package, and unpacking it in the parking lot, and carrying what looked like rolled up plastic over to the gas station and its air hose.   By the time I had filled the raft’s three chambers, a half dozen of my neighbors (loosely defined, of course, since our cabin is situated miles from the next nearest domicile) had cued up to find out what I planned, fascinated by the site of a water craft in a Southwestern landscape known for its dryness.  All proved glad to help me get the inflated vestibule lashed down in the back of old Sammy Giron’s  Toyota pickup, and determined to follow us to what was now a highly anticipated launching.

Sammy drove slow as always, with me perched in the back so I could try to hold down the raft’s nose in the wrestling winds.  Every mile or two, it seemed, somebody else would jump into their truck or jeep as we passed by, then follow the growing line of vehicles that was appearing more and more like an underfunded and under-decorated parade.  Nearly 30 people pulled up behind us at the edge of the river where it snaked virilely into the our narrowing canyon, the floating tree trunks and white froth rushing by at a remarkable speed as the first of wagers were made.  A bet in rural America is not always a simple matter, though this day money was laid done over nothing more complex than whether I and my baggage would possibly stay afloat past the first sharp turn and until I was out of their sight.

It was the matter of my baggage, as it turns out, that determined the arithmetic of the bets, with the odds against me going up with each heavy item that I loaded up.  Containers of kerosene for the lamps, groceries, books and mail, judiciously wrapped in garbage bags to guard them against the paddle’s sure spray.  So heavy were they in total, that the last half had to be hoisted in after the boat had already been slid into the water, held against the shore only by the efforts of a so many folks holding its tethering ropes.  With all the available floor space thus taken, I had no choice but to sit high astride the plastic covered boxes as ropes were released and the current had its way.

Fact was, that I’d never actually boated before, only watched videos of white water rafters jauntily navigating between jagged river rocks.  What such films failed to indicate, needless to say, was the fact that an overloaded vessel is absolutely impossible to steer, with one’s paddle being of no use other than to push off of any rock eddies where you might get stuck.   “Get the camera, George,“ and “God help him” some woman was heard to say, just as the muscular current got its way.  And then was the first time I ever heard that old expression, about what a fine line there can be between courage and stupidity, or considered that it could prove an important lesson.

Kindly exclamations of concern now gave way to shouts of excitement from the shoreline crowd, as I bounced violently off of the cliff at the first bend.  Not to be outdone, one boisterous cowboy was shouting “I’ll give you eight to one” at the top of his lungs.  By this time, my new raft was spinning precariously in a circle, water spilling over its sides in what must have briefly looked a lot like a water rodeo.  Briefly, I say, with no time to consider who among them might have been right, before careening crazily out of the crowd’s site.

For a short while, I could still discern the sounds of truck horns honking back at the crossing, and the occasional distant thunder of revolvers fired in celebration into the air.  In less than ten minutes I was swept, bounced and jolted all the way to our property, jumping into the cold, neck deep water in order to slow and then finally beach my bloated craft.  Except for a couple of the packages that I’d gotten, most of the boxes remained dry, I’m happy to say, with only a few folks making money on me that fine Fall day: those willing to bet on a long shot.

Many years later, our rancher and retiree “neighbors” still have little admiration for our growing a riparian forest where there’d been none, and our successful magazine and conference are only curiosities, but they nonetheless like to cite such things as examples of a person accomplishing the unlikely.  They reason that if I can get done what I have, with the odds consistently stacked against me, then anything may be possible.  They imagine it means they they could win the New Mexico Lottery jackpot, by spending only a buck or a two on tickets at Jake’s Grocery.  That one might be able to get that special gal or guy that the heart longs for, no matter what his or her friends or parents might say.  That the too brightly lit and over managed monoculture that is the 21st Century can be kept at bay a while longer, helping ensure that rural landscapes, country skills and personal freedoms continue to exist.

In this, there’s something for all of us, it seems… learning to not let the chances for failure – nor even the possibility of looking stupid – prevent us taking the necessary risks to live out our dreams.

(From an upcoming book of mind stretching thoughts and heart opening anecdotes from a wildly rural perspective… by Jesse Wolf Hardin, possibly to be titled “The Town That Waves”)

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Snow: Catching Life In Our Mouths

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Snow: Catching Life In Our Mouths

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

We’re getting only the second storm all Winter, just as are 2/3 of our students and readers.  No matter what inconveniences it might bring, it is a noteworthy gift to this thirsty mountain land.

It began as usual, with winds shifting direction or even whirling in great circles, a darkening of the ever so bright Southwestern sun, and then a not so usual progression of small, gentle and ever so silent flakes, followed by the first scattered snare-drum rattles of hardened hail, a roar of larger hail rising to a crescendo, quickly replaced by the softest of tiny light flakes again.

It is not only the land that laps up the moisture, with wild-eyed Rhiannon rushing out in her wool fairy tale coat to catch the drops in her mouth.  She is proof that kids don’t need to be shown such behavior, nor to even read about it, to just naturally take up habits that children for thousands of years have most certainly enjoyed.

I next see Loba, supposedly tending to things outside, but clearly circling and rejoicing, her and Rhiannon both perfect examples of excitedly embracing the whitening world.  And I, too cannot resist an ancient pull, to strike out into the gathering fluff, to stack fuel close to our wood heated cabin, scan for the tracks that have so long signaled winter food and survival, rejoice in the nettles that glow bright green against the blue tinted snow.

Concerns about personal health, finances and family loss, the world’s despots and conflicts, even the ongoing destruction of nature or the shortage of water in the West, cannot and should not dampen our enthusiasm and hope, our activism and other efforts to make things better, nor the daily joy of wondrous existence… taking a moment to catch a flake or two of snow – of life – in opened skyward mouths.

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Not A Drop To Spare: Water In The West – By Jesse Wolf Hardin

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Not A Drop To Spare: Water In The West

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

Anima Lifeways & Herbal School

As you might imagine, our voluntary backwoods lifestyle is a major source of curiosity for many of the urban folk we happen to meet, and one of the first questions out of their mouths is “Do you guys have running water?”  I usually just tell them “No” and leave it at that, preferring to let them think we’re miserable grubbing cave dwellers, rather than to go to the effort of explaining and describing what I consider to be a historically correct and personally ennobling way for a fellow to live his life.  And it’s not like we don’t have “running water” either…  I mean, whenever it rains it runs off our metal roof, and then runs down the gutter to the proverbial rain barrel.  When it really storms we run around with sloshing buckets of it, madly transferring from one barrel to another.  When the house jug is empty, we run to the barrels to fill it.  And when we run out, we run down to the river in the truck to fill up, or sometimes to a favorite neighbor’s house about four miles away for a barrel or two of theirs.

Our neighbor’s deep well is undoubtedly a more steady source to rely on than the sporadic cloud cover, but it, too, is dependent on the mercy of the rain and snowfall to restore the aquifers faster than we pump it out.  In a serious drought such as our region periodically suffers, even the best of wells can one day go dry.  And in the case of a power failure or collapse of the grid, civil unrest or the eventual degradation or implosion of our vaulted modern civilization, it may no longer be possible to transport the liquid gold in gasoline powered vehicles or bring it to the surface with electric pumps.  Argument for and against the selling of county water rights to out-of-county agencies and industries, is only among the first indications of what will be increasing contention over the finite supplies of water around here.

The political wrangling over the Southwest’s diminishing watercourses has been in the making for a long time and, contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not as simple as endangered fish versus farmers.  Special interests have been impacting our rivers for a long time now, diverting water from the traditional acequia systems that the rural population depends on, while allowing the native trees decline.  Needless to say, the wider a river gets, the more shallow it will run, and the faster the rate of evaporation.  Native willows and cottonwoods contribute to water retention by binding the banks and directing the river into meandering channels.  And to the delight of the trout, they slow down evaporation by shading and cooling the water surface.

Financial interests with the big money (the “corporados,” as some call them) want us to think that the recent disputes are between the valley’s food, alfalfa and cattle producers, and a decidedly homely little minnow that never grows large enough to eat.  Tain’t so!  Truth is, on one side of the equation what we’ve got are high-tech factories with high water demands, a thirsting as well as thriving tourist industry in the northern half of the state, and herds of dollar-driven developers racing to convert old family ranches into ever more fragmented subdivisions.  On the other side are the area’s beleaguered rural residents, family gardeners and a small but healthy-flowing river that the endangered minnows merely symbolize, allies in this battle whether they know it or not.  Unfortunately, no matter what either the ecologists, ranchers or bureaucrats prefer, I’m afraid the lion’s share of this state’s vital water resources will continue to be reserved for the major high-technology industries that the legislature promotes, and find its way down the shower drains of the proliferate Albuquerque and Santa Fe hotels.

As I write this, a fine felting of snow covers the ground around our cabins, is melting from the metal roofs, dancing down our earth-toned enameled gutters, filling our modest number of barrels and overspilling into carefully cemented channels that divert the eroding streams away from our buildings’ foundations.  At such times, concerns about water conservation can seem either distant or exaggerated.  But this year, we had almost no rain from September until January, and not until now are we getting the season’s first snowfall.  The relatively few inches of fluffy white succor will only temporarily swell our river, with most of the new moisture quickly absorbed into our parched Southwestern soils.  Tellingly, little will penetrate down into its subterranean folds to replenish the coveted aquifer.  Folks without a river to draw from, have long depended on wells to tap the water essential to families and the production of food, and human residency in many parts of our county long deemed unsustainable due to the impractical depths one would have to drill in order to reach any.  And it’s only getting worse.

It might be wise not to take what we have for granted, and never take a drink… unless we first think: about where our water comes from, and how difficult to obtain it can be.  About how badly we need it, and the impracticality and even impossibility of life without it.  In the long run, it’s no different in the arid mountains of New Mexico than elsewhere: while sometimes there may seem to be enough, there’s never really a drop to spare.

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Southwest Monsoons: The Gifting of Storms and Value of Extremes – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

The Southwest Monsoons:
The Gifting of Storms and Value of Extremes

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Anima School & Sanctuary

Introduction: I find myself writing about the gift and lessons of our local monsoons, at the same time as villagers in Pakistan are dying by the hundreds in monsoon swollen floods.  All the more reason, to measure not only the ferocity and cost of these patterns, but the depth of their lessons, the value of their example, and the blessings of their life giving side.

The latter part of every Summer, the Southwest United States is host to what even the weather forecasters call the “Monsoons,” a series of thunderous daily showers that have more in common with the weather patterns of flood and drought ravaged Bangladesh than the remaining three quadrants of this country we belong to.  And sorry, friends, there are no monsoons in Oregon or east of Texas, no matter how strong your storms might ever be.  This particular weather dynamic often involves a seasonal speeding up and reversing of predominate wind direction, and on the North American continent always involves powerful winds blowing Northeastwards, powered by the extreme disparity between the Summer heating of land and ocean.  The resulting lower air pressure above the land acts as a siphon, drawing immense volumes of evaporated seawater high into the atmosphere and then releasing it in heavy concentrations on specific if seemingly random targets along its path.

They announce their start with the faint scent of salty ocean swells in deserts and mountains lying hundreds of Mexican desert miles from the Pacific coastline, and are characterized by dramatic dumps rather than slow and steady soakers.  Whereas the Winter monsoon patterns are dispersive and often contribute to drought, their Summer counterparts can result in flash floods in otherwise dry arroyos, and rivers swollen beyond their bed’s capacity.

It is perhaps that which I relate to most, the consistent embrace of wild extremes instead, the roaring and quaking over the calm and quiet storm, full sun followed by darkest imaginable clouds, the chance to thirst as well as to gorge and stretch.  There’s none of the uncertainty or equivocation of softer systems here, delivered on ever so gentle of winds.  And none of the kinder if monotonous storms that subtly inundate other places, settling in over the land and mind like great gray sheets.  Unlike with so many things in life from people’s characters to personal decisions, there are essentially no “gray areas” when it comes to the monsoons of the Southwest.  The boundaries between dense cloud and clarified sky are stark and easily referenced, and natural shape and fanciful form result from the delineation and contrast.  Sudden and severe fluctuations make boredom and desensitization nearly impossible, and contrasts and choices all the more obvious.  Indeed, if storms had minds, these would no doubt come with strongly formed opinions, forcefully argued in thunder’s rumble, and with pointed lightning bolts for impossible to ignore exclamation marks.  As a writer ultimately dealing with complexities and twists, I get relief from their certitude, feel gratefully affirmed by their make-no-bones-about-it honesty.  I find inspiration in their example of not hinging their act on audience response, “doing their thing” regardless of whether the human throngs either dread or adore it.  I only wish I could say as few lines as these storms, and understood as clearly.

I can intimately relate… to the monsoons’ immense energy, dedicated to what is in the end a life saving mission of bringing water to animals, people and plants that would otherwise perish without. To what feels to me like the freedom of the winds, of a great but guileless power answering to no authority other than its own true nature.  To the myth-worthy act of rushing in, accomplishing a goal and literally “making a big splash”, then slipping out before the applause like the Lone Ranger, while the gringo’s scratch their head and ask “Who was that masked man – masked writer, masked activist, masked healer?”

What I can’t relate to, and seem to have resistance to emulating, is the monsoon’s often absurdly consistent schedule, punching in like clockwork and almost always checking out on time.  Like a dinner date, these storms can usually be expected to arrive no later than 2 PM in the afternoon, and to pack up and leave that same night at a reasonable hour.  In the Northwestern sections of the country, folks often wake up to find a laid-back storm still asleep on their couch.  Not so in good ol’ New Mexico, where the Summer fronts storm in, perform a raucous rock n’ roll set for all assembled creation, and then get back on the road before before either their groupies or their detractors know they are gone.

Our monsoons begin after the July temps get up into the 80s.  And in the same way, their clouds seem to wait each day until the the afternoon’s heat is nearly unbearable before rushing in to darken, dampen and delightfully cool the Southwest’s fabled air.  It’s as if it were set up that way, so that we’d first have to really crave – and thus learn to better appreciate – the gift and relief of cooling moisture, before being subjected to what is often a discomforting deluge.

The clouds don’t roll in around here, they’re sucked in, on winds set to send fierce torrents splashing in great waves against the cliffs, bending over the tops of trees an hour before the first rain drop.  The thunder calls from a distance at first, then tumbles closer and louder, causing birds to launch and flutter, and leading a number of insects to take shelter on the protective undersides of leaves.  Magnificent white thunderheads suddenly rise up from behind the mountains like proudly unbeatable warriors, poised to overwhelm our bastion of relative tranquility and peace, a moment that arrests the prattle of the mind and bares the quaking heart.   The lightning arcs just overhead, illuminating both our inescapable mortality and the immanence of resilient life.  And with each thunderclap’s mighty roar, come the rains that pour, and pour, and pour.

Even with the lightning cause fires and the storms’ eroding of precious soils, the monsoons are still a sweep of the arm that bestows blessings.  The land is not just watered but graced.  The dusty greens of area trees and grass instantly brighten as if lit up from inside.  Normally dull pastel rocks shine like polished gemstones.  The seeps flow in serpentine patterns more beautiful than any artist’s design.  And everywhere a rejoicing!  Every person, plant and creature and even the soils themselves seem to give a glad shout!  A resounding “Yes!” to the rains that spur growth, the winds that test, exercise and thus make us strong, to the thunder that awakens and the water and spirit that sates our thirst.

As the monsoons pass over our cabins and Sanctuary, we do our best to gather every drop that pours off the metal roofs, transferring the life-giving liquid from barrel to barrel in what must look to an observer like a ballet of buckets.  We strive to make the most of these seasonal storms when they’re happening, to have our vessel emptied and waiting… and to be gladly willing to do the work of taking it all in.

As quickly as it starts, each monsoon storm stops.  The pummeling wind quickly dissipates, no doubt.  And what looks like a whole new set of stars soon pop back out.


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