Rancho Valmora

A carved iron sign hangs along the dry desert road. Rancho Valmora it reads. Evening sun filters through the carved letters every night, bright blue sky reflected during the day. The desert air is dry, the ground a constellation of sand and sharp plants, all strange to my East Coast eyes.

My friend Elise and I are here in the tiny ranch community of Watrous, New Mexico for the month to help rebuild Rancho Valmora, abandoned ten years earlier. Our teacher from high school has hired us and we are part of an eccentric group of individuals all here to heal the land, bring people back and make this once abandoned school in the middle of a working ranch into a farm and retreat center,.Our teacher wants the land to nourish the life that crosses this valley’s threshold. We gather information from what surrounds us in order to transform the land for new purpose.

My days are spent exploring this new dry home, working to transform the space. These buildings were left to creak with the wind, left for the animals to explore and claim, left for rain to travel in rivulets along rooflines, making its way into these strong structures. We brush ten years worth of dust from desks and chairs, beds and countertops. Notice paper and pencils left behind, hear our own voices echo in tall ceilinged buildings once used for meals, work and play.

We tear down old fences, being careful of rattlesnakes and cockroaches. We catalogue native plants, paint, clean, organize, try hundreds of keys in locks that have sat for years. At night we listen to the rafters above us creak, the wind whispering against our windows, the coyotes above us in the hills, our breath in abandoned space. Our mentor tells us what we can hope to return to. We are the first gardens and animals and people. Buildings with life brought back to them, pools of water, a kitchen bursting with food from this land. Land nourishing people, nourishing animals, nourishing land, an unbroken cycle.

Around our home, the mountains breathe. In, quietly in the morning as elk leave footprints in the sand and mist rises from our valley. Out, as the sun touches the edges of the cliffs. In again slowly as midday heat steeps the land in a sagebrush haze, out as late afternoon showers roll in quickly from across the plains. My own footsteps pad gently next to those left behind by deer, jackrabbits, the soft trails of snakes. Every day the sun moves across the sky, buzzards trace wind drafts in the air, lizards dart under rocks. For years this land stood still in time, reclaimed by the wildness of the environment. Silence peppered with the natural world overtaking what humans had built. We step gingerly into this world that wildness has overtaken. We dig into sandy soil and taste its forgotten minerals. We crawl up into the caves carved into cliffs, look for water, watch the sun move across the sky in order to understand the daily rhythms of this space. We have come not to overtake the land, but to look for what nature has to offer and turn it into a coexistence with humans. There is space on this land to grow, space to sit still.

This time is sacred. Our work is hard and rewarding, the tasks never-ending. Each day we rise with the sun and gather as a group before we begin the days work. We are noticing what the land has grown into over the years, and following its lead, bring it to life again. I am learning from the land around me, asking questions of its quiet stillness, noticing my own humanness amidst this desert-scape. This is what I want to bring to the world, what I want to carry with me through classrooms and lecture halls; the steady knowledge of place and learning, the hopeful feeling of something new. I breathe with the land, slowly in in the morning light, and with the afternoon’s wind and rain, a steady breath, a desert calm.

Elsbeth Pendleton Wheeler is a senior at Smith College.
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