The Animá School and Sanctuary is surrounded and informed by one of the wildest and most magical mountain ecosystems in the continental U.S.: New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. The San Francisco (Saint Francis) River runs through the very center of the property, past giant, fiery purple and orange cliffs, featuring the rock-art spirals of the “Old Ones” (the Sweet Medicine or Mogollon Indians) who once called that special canyon their home. It’s as far removed from the noise, schedule and haste of the modern world as one can get, though only a 4 hour drive from the Albuquerque airport, or 5 hours from Tucson. The Sanctuary serves several complementary roles, as: The source of the Animá Teachings and Practice including the Animá Tradition of Herbalism; the site for the authoring of Animá related writings and the development of Correspondence Course curricula; the grounds for a Lifeways & Herbal School teaching nature awareness, healing & rewilding skills; a Healing Arts Health & Herbal Clinic to provide accessable healing through nutrition, counseling and botanical medicine; a Retreat Center for guests seeking a special place for solitude, healing or study; a Wildlife Refuge and Botanical Sanctuary, a US Fish & Wildlife Service Cooperator with already over three decades of riparian restoration… focused on maximizing plant and animal diversity, reintroducing native plants including wildlife forage and medicinal herbs. And as an Archaeological Preserve, protecting the physical sites and artifacts as the legacy of the Native Americans who first lived there.
Geography & Climate
The American Southwest is famous for its ambiance and energy as well as its scenery, often described as spiritual, otherworldly or magical in nature. The state of New Mexico in particular has a reputation as the Land of Enchantment, attracting spiritual leaders and communities from the Benedictines to Sufis and the Dalai Lama, as well as being host to its own still vibrant indigenous religious traditions. This is on top of its appeal as a place of beautiful mountains and stunning deserts, of colorful cultures and relatively low human density.
If you look at a map you’ll see that most of the lower left portion of New Mexico, bordered by the Rio Grande valley to the East and extending West into Arizona is one huge mountainous forest, encompassing the Black Range and the Mogollon, Tularosa and San Francisco mountains. At its center is the roadless Gila Wilderness (pronounced hee-la), the first national lands intentionally preserved in a native, wild state. This was largely due to the prodding of the visionary conservationist Aldo Leopold a full forty years before the passage of the U.S. Wilderness Act. Catron County is one of the largest in the state at approximately 7,000 square miles, most of which is national forest and state lands… and with only about two percent of the surface area being private property. The area is filled with a combination of history and legend, beauty and romance, the quiet space necessary for reflection, and the busyness of myriad active species each living out their own rendition of life, adventure and home. Thousands of elk, the most unobstructed view of the stars imaginable, and acres and acres of unmolested old growth forests. And it is defined not only by what it has, but what it has not: no stoplights or rush hour traffic, no polluting industries or midnight sirens, no gangs and scant crime. Thousands of miles from the intrigue of our nation’s capital. 300 miles from any nuclear reactor. 240 miles from the nearest “real” city or targetable military base. 100 miles from the closest crowded discount store. And no cloud cover throughout most of the year.
Given the amount of sunshine it receives, it may come as a surprise to learn that temperatures in the Gila bioregion seldom exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The hottest months are July and August, but even then the chill nights tend to ensure pleasant mornings, and just around the time the heat is getting uncomfortable along comes the relief of afternoon storms. The end of Summer is the monsoon season after all, when each day the wind dramatically picks up around two o’clock or so and thick black clouds rush in to dump their precious load. Thunder echoes as lightning cracks against rock outcroppings and treetop spires, and drops of rain the size of marbles gather into sheets blown nearly sidewise in their rampant race to the thirsting ground. Winters are mild with few nights that dip below the zero mark, and snows that melt fairly quickly from all but the highest of North facing slopes.
Mountains in the area rise up from primeval inland sea beds to around 12,000 feet in height, laced with streams and spotted with a handful of especially enticing hot springs. Created by the most recent and violent volcanic activity on this continent, the fire colored cliffs climb above pines and oaks where Geronimo and Victorio once undertook their own quests for vision, meaning and assignment. Beneath the crests flow the region’s precious streams and rivers, a magnet for plant and animal species especially in the arid Southwest, where other sources of moisture are seasonal at best. No lover is unmarked by love, and everywhere the flowing water touches there is a meander carved deep like memory. And where raging love or insistent waters cut deepest, the result is a canyon – bone deep, the bedrock of human or earthen soul exposed and stirred by passion’s churning currents. It is from the very bottom of this glad wound, this sculpted gifting, that art and magic rise, lifted forever into a cliff-framed sky.
Its Archaeology & Spirit
Animá Sanctuary encompasses a valuable archaeological site, the primary ceremonial and ritual center for the ancient Mogollon (pronounced mo-go-yone) Indians of that region. While surveyed and authenticated by a University of Texas team in the 1980’s, it remains unexcavated and intact to this day. The Sanctuary’s protective land covenants include a prohibition on disturbing the ruins, once a village of up to thirty families, and including the largest kiva site for many miles.
At the same time as the Tevere of Roma and the Euphrates of Asia supported the growth of civilizations, rivers like the San Francisco watered the palettes, the crops, the imagination and spirit of its earth-honoring residents. Climb up from the river to almost any flat spot above the flood plain, and one will likely find their self atop the erosion-filled pit houses of those who loved and revered these canyons long before the first Hispanics or Anglos arrived. The Mogollon left, migrating in mass down the Rio Grande Valley approximately a thousand years ago in response to raids by hostile tribes, a particularly long drought or a well received vision of some messianic shaman…. and at around the same time as the first boatloads of Norse Vikings were making landfall in Greenland.
The Mogollon (or Sweet Medicine) people lived in underground “D” shaped structures, hunted, cultivated maize, and seem to have practiced a spiritual tradition that emphasized connection, reciprocity, interdependence and the necessity of honoring life through ritual and caretakership, song and dance, story and craft, intention and act. The painted pottery shards scattered about on the ground (please don’t remove!) are reminders of this lineage of celebration, responsibility and prayer. And many of the rock ledges feature obvious trails burnished smooth by the touch of countless sandal soles, the villagers making twice daily trips from their dwellings to tend their irrigation ditches and carry back to the houses pitch-lined juniper baskets filled with sweet river water.
A journey into any canyon is a journey into history – and not only due to a deepening of intimacy with an indigenous past, nor simply for the way in which the traveler is cast into a mental/emotional state that seems somehow outside the constraints of linear time – but also, a descent from above traces an actual regression through the various geologic eras, down to the time and place of life’s beginnings. And there, one may yet discover the beginnings of their own sacred/sensate story… and thereby the root of their personal truths.
A Botanical Sanctuary
When the Sanctuary property was first purchased in January 1981, what already appeared to be a beautiful canyon was nonetheless seriously damaged. Over the course of the previous 109 years, grazing had eliminated 95% of the vegetation. In dry country such as this, it was only natural for the cattle to seek out the rich grass adjacent to the area’s few rivers, but the result of such concentration was that even plants that weren’t eaten were trampled and crushed. Literally nothing grew among the volcanic outcroppings other than brilliant cacti, stately alders and ponderosa pines, a few large old cottonwoods, and increasingly invasive piñon and juniper. With no money for fencing, a young Jesse Wolf Hardin and his children began herding cattle off the property daily, sometimes hourly. At the same time, he started collecting and then sprouting the seeds of any native plants he could find, trimming willows from protected areas and planting their branches next to the river where they could grow into whole new, bank stabilizing trees. Impressed with the resulting growth, in 1995 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made the Sanctuary an associated “Cooperator,” awarding a grant for the purchase and installation of a cattle-proof fence all the way around the 80 acre inholding. In 2002 the U.S. Forest Service moved to exclude most of the San Francisco River from grazing pressures, and a forest of willow and cottonwoods have since spread from the sanctuary and onto miles of the National Forest land. In 2004, herbalist and Medicine Woman Kiva Rose assumed responsibility for furthering the diversity, health and wholeness of the Sanctuary ecosystem, including instigation of a comprehensive biological survey now in progress.
Visitors to the Center today, some thirty years after its purchase and protection, are amazed at what is now a forest of Cottonwoods over sixty feet high, towering above a thick tangle of twenty-foot willows. Wild grapes hang from many of the trees, and the meadows and shoreline are filled with a colorful profusion of wild flowers with names like sacred datura, western spiderwort, wood sorrel, pink penstemon, flax, cliff and woods’ rose, desert paintbrush, blue eyed grass, fire wheel, mata, four o’clock, globe mallow, morning glory and mountain lover. Resident interns assist with seed gathering and plantings, as well as erosion control and other soil conservation measures, and there are periodic Riparian (River Ecosystem) Restoration workshops (inquire or volunteer).
As a Botanical Sanctuary, future plantings will focus on continuing to increase variety, introduce indigenous species, encourage rare and threatened plants, reduce the percentage of non-native plants, arrest erosion, induce meanders, and eliminate destructive invasives like Tamarisk (salt cedar), horehound and Russian thistle. Additional emphasis will be on planting or increasing native edible plants (edible for humans as well as wildlife forage) like cattail, prickly pear, blackberry, nettle and watercress. On medicinal herbs such as skullcap, vervain, bugle weed, rocky mt. beeplant, Mexican manzanita, butterfly weed, geranium, pennyroyal, goldenrod and brook mint, in cooperation with important groups like the New Mexico Native Plants Society and the United Plant Savers. And on increased forage for native wildlife.
A Wildlife Sanctuary
The surge in vegetation since 1981 has meant not only more for wildlife to eat, but also more habitat and protective cover. More plants meant more insects, which resulted in more birds. Seeds sustained rodents, which brought in foxes, several species of hawks, both bald and golden eagles, spotted owls, secretive ringtail cats and masked coatamundi. Dozens of species of ducks and other waterfowl nest along the water, screened by the rows of shoreline willows. Blue heron have moved in, along with thriving colonies of beaver and muskrat.
Animals living on or passing through the Sanctuary now include herds of elk, clusters of mule deer, rabbits, raccoon, javelina (peccary), ringtail cats and coatamundi. Bull, patchnose, garter, coral, blacktail and water snakes, plus dozens of kinds of lizards. Quail, dove, wild turkey, spotted flickers, hummingbirds and hundreds of different types of migrating songbirds, ducks and other waterfowl. Bald eagles nest on the overlooking cliffs, black bear live close by, and a pinnacle species, mountain lions, have several times birthed and raised their cubs there. It is for the sake of the wildlife that land covenants also restrict the human population in the canyon, the number of cabins and vehicle use, as well as why pets and companion animals are respectfully prohibited.
The vision for the future includes the possible reintroduction of the indigenous river otter to the Sanctuary or adjacent forest service lands. It’s also the hope of the Center to be able to inspire and support the efforts of other individuals and groups, to likewise purchase and restore fragile, significant wild land for the sake of both wildlife/plantlife/creation and the people who seek such places for their perspective, strengthening, healing and reconnection.
All donations to the Center go first to the maintenance and furtherance of the Sanctuary land, and then to the development and proliferation of what this special place has taught.
Gorgeous tent camping spots are located both along the river and in the pine forest. There are also two simple but charming and heartful cabins available for retreat guests:
THE GIFTING LODGE is a two story structure, provided through the goodness of supporter Ron Sutcliffe. It is built right next to the river, near an active beaver dam where you are likely to hear the slaps of beaver tails on your nighttime walks. The bottom floor contains a wood stove and antique propane cookstove, as well as dining table and kitchen with sink. The top floor features one huge bed, and one single, plus floor space and sleeping mats, and a picture window overlooking the cottonwoods and cliffs.
THE GAIA LODGE is a wonderful little cabin set back in the woods, on a game trail used by javelina, deer and many other wild neighbors. It features a kitchen and sink, sitting area, sleeping loft with double futon, wood stove, and a covered porch ideal for sitting and enjoying a sunny canyon morning. In the Spring, the otherwise dry wash is often running with sweet snowmelt, making a sound like tinkling bells. Owls nest only yards away, and the giant hundred foot ponderosa pines glint in the day’s last light.
Both feature LED lights, with limited available solar power.
The Center is located in the center of Catron County, a community of cowboys and country women, all of whom are willful individualists. Portrayed in the national media as unreasonable and reactionary, they have in fact proven to be almost without exception kind and honest people quick to help a neighbor in need. The idea of a wildlife refuge is certainly difficult for some of them because of the ways it conflicts with cattle grazing. On the other hand, they are supportive of anyone doing whatever they want with their own private property, including an unconventional Learning Center like this one. The county’s sometimes anti-environmentalist attitudes can be largely traced to a history of heavy handed government intervention, rather than any lack of appreciation for the vastness, diversity and wildness of their surroundings. For over 10 years Jesse shared his opinions and hopes with them through a bridge-building column in the local Catron County newspaper, and we’re touched to have earned their respect.
Because area residents value liberty and integrity above all, they recognize the right of others to express their opinions and live their beliefs. We ask our guests to afford them the same courtesy when passing through nearby towns on the way here.
Before You Come
Registration & Location, Transportation & Lodging, Food & Pets
Please read carefully before visiting…
All retreats, quests, internships and group events require the completion of Application or Registration forms, available on the appropriate pages of the website. If you have any trouble downloading, we can also send them as email attachments.
Events, retreats and quests all take place at the Animá Center & Sanctuary, 8 miles SE of the little town of Reserve. Reserve lies 250 miles SW of Albuquerque, 300 miles NE of Tucson, 100 miles north of Silver City, in the Gila Mountains of New Mexico.
Most guests arrive in their own vehicles. For those flying in, the options are to land in Albuquerque, El Paso or Tucson (Albuquerque is quickest) and then rent a car for the remaining 230 to 300 mile drive. Student Resident Interns committing to a long stay can fly into El Paso and then take the Las Cruces Shuttle (800-288-1784, www.lascrucesshuttle.com) to Silver City, where we may be able to arrange to pick you up.
Detailed directions will be provided before you embark for the Sanctuary. Please be careful of rocks in the dirt road, near where we ask you to leave your car.
Visitor vehicles are prohibited by binding covenants. We ask that you leave anything you can’t carry in your vehicle, leave your vehicle unlocked and we’ll drive out to shuttle into the site anything that you can’t carry. If you’re unable to walk, we’ll meet you at a prearranged time to drive you in.
A lovely, riverside primitive cabin is available on request. Otherwise we recommend bringing a tent, for camping in a designated area of the Sanctuary.
Wonderful dinners may be provided for Retreat guests and event participants, and there are kitchen facilities for preparing your own. There is a small friendly grocery store called “Jake’s” in Reserve, but Silver City or Socorro are the nearest towns with supermarkets, and the closest natural foods co-ops are found in Silver City, Tucson and Albuquerque. Please let us know in advance if you are vegetarian or not, and about any special dietary needs.
The Animá Center is a USFWS affiliated wildlife refuge. For the sake of protected species, all guests and residents are bound by covenants that prohibit domestic animals (including dogs). We ask that you please make other accommodations for your animal companions.
Alcoholic beverages are incompatible with the experience, lessons and spirit of the canyon. We request you not bring any in.
There is no charge for our services per se, though there are suggested amounts for voluntary, sliding scale donations listed on the various applications and registration forms. Please offer as much as you’re able, at once, or later after you’ve left. Those who can give extra will be helping to support the attendance of others with little or nothing to contribute, and we also welcome regular or sporadic giftings/tithings from those most committed to supporting our teachings, programs, and restoration of this wilderness sanctuary. If you would like to consider making regular monthly or yearly donations of any size (no matter how small), please go the Member & Support page.
Things To Consider Bringing:
A list will be included with logistics and directions, prior to your trip here.
A busy mind and entrenched perspectives can make it harder for one to hear the available revelation and instruction of self and place. Please make every effort to remain present and open for the gifts at hand, and limit any reading to books directly related to your intentions or studies here. Any prolonged benefits from this visit must begin with focused reinhabitation of “your sensate self, this inspirited place, and the vital present moment.”
We welcome you, coming with openness and respect, humility and love.
Have a wonderful experience… and a special thank you for your gifts in return.