Saturday, October 27, 2012

La Llorona

It is the time for Halloween, so I thought I would share a few ghost stories.  In Mexico (and for that matter New Mexico) there is an oft-told story about a ghostly woman who lives near water.  Depending on who is telling the story, this phantom is a danger to children, to young men, or to teenagers.

Where did the stories of La Llorona start?  Was it Medea in ancient Greece?  Lorelei in Germany?  Every culture seems to have a story of a woman who lures sailors to their grave.

Or is it an Aztec tale?  In 1502, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtítlan, the goddess Cihuacoatl took the form of a beautiful lady draped in white garments.  Throughout the night she walked the streets crying out in misery, “Oh my children…your destruction has arrived.  Where can I take you?”  Many believe that Cihuacoatl was speaking of the future conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards.

Maybe it’s just a universal desire of mothers to scare their children away from the water.  Whatever the reason, every location has its own version of the story, so I thought I would share a few of them from the southwest.

La Bruja or the Witch

Sofia lived in a small town in Mexico--the kind of place where, if you weren’t married by the age of 15, you were an old maid.  Sofia was already 19 and still single, even though she was beautiful.  Unfortunately, Sofia was also egotistical and selfish and the gossips of the town whispered that she was actually a witch.

Then Sofia met Luís.  He was charming, handsome, and soon the two were lovers.  Within a year, Sofia had a baby boy who was the very image of Luís.  Shortly after the child’s birth, Luís disappeared.  Sofia was heartbroken, but the local people blamed her, saying she had run him off.
One afternoon, Sofia overheard two men talking about how they had seen Luís in a nearby town, with another woman.  As they laughed, Sofia grew into a terrible rage.   She ran to the local lake and pushed her struggling infant underwater and held him there until he stopped moving.  When Sofia realized what she had done, she stayed by the lake, wailing and refusing all food until she passed away.   Since Sofia’s death, several small children playing near the lake have vanished without a trace.

La Sirena, the Siren

Laura was an attractive girl from a desperately poor background.  As soon as she could walk, she began working to help her family.  When she was 16, she got a job in a store where she soon met Miguel.  Miguel was everything poor Laura had never known—he was a rich and handsome man who relentlessly pursued her until she agreed to go out with him.  Within a few weeks, he asked her to marry him.  Trembling, Laura said yes, and that very night she made love for the first and only time.

But after that passionate night, Miguel refused to see her again.  Laura soon discovered she was pregnant, and when her parents found out, they threw her out of the house.  She was penniless and her poor poor baby was born premature, weak, and malnourished.  Laura had no other choice; she went to Miguel and begged for his help.  Miguel laughed at her, saying the baby wasn’t his.

Laura walked to a nearby lake and slowly walked into the dark water until both she and the baby disappeared.

A few weeks later, Miguel, too, mysteriously disappeared.  And since then, men who have been out drinking or cheating on their wives have regularly disappeared; all having been last seen following a mysterious woman through the winding streets of the dark city.

La Ramera, the Harlot

Linda grew up in a tough neighborhood, so she had to learn early to use what she had to get what she needed.  A single mother, she worked as a waitress and was desperately tired of her dead-end life.  One night, she met Alejandro, a sexy man with a good paying job.  He was alone and an easy mark for Linda, who easily seduced him.

Within weeks Linda was talking about marriage.  Alejandro said he couldn’t marry her because there were always prying eyes--he didn’t think he could open up to Linda until they had some privacy.  Since Alejandro had always avoided being around the baby, Linda decided to get rid of the obstacle to her happiness.  A week later, the poor baby’s body was found in the river. 

The day after the funeral, Linda told Alejandro that since she had taken care of the problem, now they could be married.  Alejandro was horrified and said he had meant that his mother was always watching the couple.

Linda turned into a crazed animal, screaming and swinging her arms at Alejandro.  Suddenly, she grabbed a knife and fatally stabbed both Alejandro and herself. 

To this day, small children playing near the river hear her cries and run from her screams. 

La Fantasma, The Ghost

Barbara was a school teacher in a small town.  Alone, and desperate for someone to befriend her, she fell in love with the school’s coach.  Strong, confident, and assured, the coach assured Barbara that the most important thing for the school to do was focus on dodge ball. 

Soon, Barbara was neglecting her classroom and the pupils of the school were spending more and more time in the playground.  Barbara was worried, but the coach assured her, that eventually the people of the town would realize how important dodge ball really was to the students.  If the school could beat the dodge ball team from a nearby town, the coach was sure the parents would be appreciative.

But, the parents grew angry.  “Our children can’t read!” the parents screamed.  That very night, the school board fired Barbara.  Barbara turned to the coach for support, but the coach turned his back on her and told the school board, “I tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen.”

Barbara ran to the school, and went to the far end of the playground, where the duck pond was located.  To this day, no one has seen her, but occasionally, students playing near the pond still her wailing, “But we could have won at dodge ball!  I know we could have—just one more year!”

While no one else has disappeared yet, we all know they are going to.  It always happens that way.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

History of New Mexico—Part 2

Two weeks ago, we left our poor Hunter Gatherers in a precarious condition: they had become farmers.  Unfortunately, early farmers had all of the work and few of the benefits.  Surprisingly, for centuries, farmers didn’t even eat very well. At least the hunter gatherers had a naturally varied diet.  For centuries, our poor malnourished Paleo-agriculturalists subsisted on the ragged edge of failure.

It will take a long time before our farmers acquire the knowledge necessary to become successful, but eventually, we see activity that even today would be recognizable as farming--raised terrace farming using digging sticks.  While most of the crops sound familiar—corn, squash, beans, and peppers---we might have trouble recognizing them.  These are the cultigens (original variety) of the crops we enjoy today.

The original ears of corn contained only 5 rows of kernels and were about the same length as today’s okra.  Today, on Facebook, several of my friends are very concerned about genetically modified organisms.   Through thousands of years of selective breeding, all of our crops have been genetically modified.  If you want to only eat non-GMO foods, you are going to have to restrict your diet to water and salt.  I can’t think of anything else in the store you could eat.

There were very few animals on this farm, for very few animals in the new world were domesticated.  A few small dogs were used as food—though technically, the size of the animals violates the dog rule.  To qualify for the dog status, the animal has to be at least 10 pounds.  Under that, and it is called bait.

In all the new world, only a few more animals were domesticated:  turkeys, llamas, alpacas, honey bees, and guinea pigs pretty much round out the list.  And the last animal was used for food, just like the dogs.  Every other animal that we associate with farms came from the old world.  Do you remember the old kindergarten song, Old MacDonald Had a Farm?  If you can sing about the animal in that song, our farmer did not yet have it.  EIEIO.

Did our simple farmers live in harmony with nature?  (You know, kind of like Iron Eyes Cody in the classic Keep America Beautiful public service announcement where after watching people littering along the highway, a single tear forms in his stoic Native American face?  Well, probably not like him, since he was actually Italian and just looked Native American.)  The idea of Indians living in harmony with nature just never seems to die. 

Native Americans exploited their environment to the limits of their technological abilities.  If you remember, a couple of weeks ago, our natives hunted wooly mammoths to extinction.  And if you need more proof, look at ‘Head-Smashed-In-Site’ in Alberta, Canada.  The Indians put up stone markers along a trail for over five miles so they would remember the trail they used to stampede herds of buffalo off a cliff.  Far more animals were killed than were butchered—and the site was used for seven thousand years.

Eventually, our small gathering of farmers will be successful enough at farming that there is time for other activities:  pottery, basketry, and weaving.  Eventually, we see the signs of regional variation and artistic differences.  And sometimes these items are found far from the point of manufacture, meaning that trade between our groups has developed. 

Our natives have almost no metal, no system of writing, no beasts of burdens, hell—these rock-biting and bone-tossing savages don’t even have digital watches.  Obviously, this is a primitive society.  At least you might think so.

Do you know what an epiphany is?  That is the wonderful moment when you are studying—usually alone—and suddenly you understand something.  It is your “Eureka” moment when you have a breakthrough and understand something.  An epiphany is the second best feeling in life—and if you don’t know the best feeling in life, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog.

My epiphany was when I suddenly understood that everyone on earth, anyplace and at any time had far more in common with me than there were differences.  The more I studied a people, the more I realized they were just like me.  If you could really get inside the heads of our Paleolithic farmers, we would probably realize they worried about their children, their spouses, and they work they had to do.  In short, they were just like us.

Every culture has rituals, taboos, and customs.  There are no primitive cultures, only primitive levels of technology.  And even primitive technology need specialized knowledge.

If you find lumps of copper, they can be hammered into tools, but as you do this, the copper gets brittle.  How do you keep this from happening?  The ashes from which trees cure leather the best?  How do you make soap from cactus?  How do you keep the poisons in acorn flour from killing you?  How do you boil water in a clay pot?

You and I can probably both make fire from two sticks, but only if one of them is a wooden match.  Our Paleolithic farmer knows the answer to all of this, and more.  His life is probably just as complex as yours, just different. 
Our Indians have not yet started making communities, but we will cover that in a few weeks.

Oh yes, heat the copper until it is red hot, and then you can hammer it again.  Oak trees contain tannin, and if you don’t know which ones are the oak trees, just chew bark off of every tree you find.  You’ll know when you find an oak tree even if you have never tasted tannin before.  Blanche the acorn flour with boiling water that you got by adding and removing  hot rocks to the clay pot until you have the temperature you want.  But you knew that.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Just a Po' Dumb Ol' Country Boy

I had lunch today with a very nice Yankee.  Smart, too, since she had the sense to marry a man from North Carolina.  Though the Bible is against the marriage of Southerners and Yankees (see Second Corinthians, Chapter 6, Verse 14), I think it is the only chance the South has of ever understanding these people.

Liz (I’ll call her that, since that’s her name) thinks her husband talks too slow.  According to her, every time she asks him a question, she can count to ten before he answers.  While she thinks that southerners are slow of wit, I think the poor guy is just mentally checking his answer for loopholes and incriminating content.  Yankee or not, Liz is still a wife.

There is a whole building full of fast-talking Yankees where I work at Enema U.  I think we Southerners are outnumbered about as bad as at the Battle of Pittsburg Landing (occasionally called “Shiloh”).  Each and every one of those Yankees seems to think being born in the South is synonymous with mental retardation.  As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing.   It is simply amazing the things you can get away with by just saying, “Aw shucks.  I’m just a po’ dumb ol’ country boy.”  It doesn’t even matter how many times you use the line, those “po’ dumb ol’ carpetbaggers” are predisposed to believe it.

Funny thing is that, even as the carpetbaggers are poor-mouthing the country folk, little by little, they are picking up our ways.  Take Liz, for example.  A couple of years ago when she came here, she thought black pepper was a spice instead of a garnish, but not that long ago, I saw her eat a stuffed jalapeno—hell, she had even made it.  Even today, she invoked the ‘great southern curse’ while describing her neighbor.  For those of you who don’t know--the great Southern curse is where you can, with a clear conscience, call someone a lowdown chicken thief who cheats at cards and steals from the collection plate--as long you end the sentence with the phrase: “bless his heart.”

Evidently, we Southerners can get away with this foolish country disguise forever, since our new neighbors and friends never seem to learn that we can turn the “country” on and off like a spigot.  Hell, some of my new friends will even read this and still marvel every time I manage to show up with shoes on.

All this kind of reminds me of the city slicker who went for a drive out in the country in his new Mercedes.  As he went around a long curve, he met a deer standing in the middle of the road. The man frantically swerved the car, missing the deer by only a few inches. Unfortunately, in the process, the car ended up in a ditch, stuck deeply in the mud.

Nearby, the man saw a light from a farmhouse. He walked up the driveway and knocked on the door, which was soon answered by a kindly-looking farmer. The man explained his situation to the farmer, who said, “Don’t worry--I think I can help you.”

The farmer led the man to his barn where he got into his pride and joy--a John Deere 9630 4wd tractor with a deluxe cab, an active seat, and 800/70r38 duals.  After driving to the Mercedes stuck in the ditch, he slowly backed the tractor up to the car, put the emergency brake on the tractor and jumped down with a large heavy chain.  After attaching one end to the pintle hook on the back of the tractor, he began walking towards the luxury car stuck in the mud.

“Wait!” yelled the Yankee.  “You’re not going to tow my $90,000 Mercedes with that tractor, are you?”

The farmer looked at the man for a long ten count, then turned and began walking slowly back to his tractor.  “No,” he said.  “I’m not going to tow your $90,000 car with my $250,000 tractor.”

That ignorant Yankee thought everything in the country was low-class, backwards, and simple.  In so doing, he revealed that it was he that was classless, backwards, and simple-minded--bless his heart!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The History of New Mexico - Part 1

Part 1 -- The Beginning

For a very long time, New Mexico just was.  It was kind of boring.  Actually, it is still rather like that--most of New Mexico is still kind of empty.  There is very little difference between the way the state used to look and the way it looks now, except we used to have grass and more trees.

The state had grass, even though there were a lot of animals that ate our grass--I guess they were on a diet, because they never seemed to eat all of it.  There were a whole lot of camels, horses, giant buffalo, and wooly mammoths.  It is amazing that with all these rather large animals, there still seemed to be lots of grass.

The grass is gone now.  What seemed to be an endless supply of feed for giant elephants was not nearly enough grass for cattle.  The strange thing is that New Mexico is not really even much of a ranching state.  We don't really raise cattle for food--they are more like pets for men who like big hats and even bigger pickups.

And some of the trees are gone.  Many of our mountains used to have trees, but a few of those peaks are bare now.  Lots of trees got cut down by settlers, and as the trees went, so did the thin layer of topsoil.  If we wait long enough, they might come back, (say a couple of thousand years from now).

Yes, most of what New Mexico has now has been here a very long time:  Sand, sun, and a wind that has always seemed to come from the west.  New Mexico is dotted with old volcanoes, and if you look at them, the east, or downwind side always seems to be the bigger side.

Then, all of a sudden, there were little groups of people.  Somewhere about 15-25,000 years ago (unless you ask Dr. Unleashed, anyway) Hunter Gatherer groups began wandering through the state.  During the Wisconsin Glacier Age, so much water was tied up in the form of ice that the level of the oceans dropped dramatically, exposing the land between Siberia and Alaska.  We know this for certain because Sarah Palin saw it from her house.

Anthropologists called this a land bridge, which is a particularly poor choice, since the "bridge" was about 1200 miles wide.  That ain't a bridge, it's just land.  And those Hunter Gatherers never knew they were making a journey to anyplace new, they were just following those wooly mammoths.   The elephants probably knew they were going someplace new, since each of them took a trunk.

Hunter Gatherers had a perfect lifestyle--they hunted when they were hungry, gathered nuts and berries when they found them, and did positively no discernible work when they didn't have to.  Most of the time they sat under a tree and scratched.  Occasionally, more than one kind of itch got scratched.

No houses, no mortgages, no fields to tend--what a life!  When you ran out of food, you grabbed your spear and went hunting for elephant--AND when you killed one it was a giant barbecue!  I'm not sure how long a group of 25--the optimum number for hunter gatherer groups throughout history--could live off an elephant, but I'm sure such a kill dramatically increased the amount of quality scratching time.

We know this happened in New Mexico, because we have found the remains of the hunts, in places like Clovis and Folsom, where spear points have been found.  And the dried bleached bones of a few barbecued elephants have been found, too--a few still bearing the markings of the  stone tools used in the butchering.

This sounds pretty close to perfection to me--my goal in life is to be a hunter gatherer.  According to my wife, I've been one for years.   She may be right, because I have noticed a marked difference in the way we go about acquiring possessions.  Say my wife needs a pair of shoes (evidently, someone has been saying that a lot!).  She goes to  the mall (think of that as a forest) and will try on shoes at every store in the mall before going back to the first store she entered and buying the first pair of shoes she tried on.  Chances are, a week later, she will return to this resource site and acquire another pair of the exact same shoes, only in a different color.  This is a classic example of gathering.

On the other hand, I do things differently.  When I need something, I call ahead to the store to check availability.  This is a scouting report.  Then I drive to the mall, go into the store, locate the item, kill it with a credit card, take it outside and tie it onto my pickup truck, and drive home.   Total time round trip--15 minutes.  This is called hunting.

Almost everything about hunter gatherers is perfect.  A varied diet, plenty of leisure time, and lots of outdoor exercise.  The only small drawback was the piddling little problem that by the time they got to be my age, they had been dead for a quarter century.

Well, there were a few other problems: about 11,000 years ago, the weather changed again.  Even though Al Gore wasn't there to make money out of it, the weather got warmer, the ice melted, the seas rose, and a long dry spell began.   Either the weather or over-hunting meant the end of many species, including the giant wooly mammoth, the saber-toothed non-house cat, and the giant bison.  (Spear Control!  Spear Control!)

With the loss of large game, our tribe had to adapt, find new methods, and think a little outside the ...cave?  They needed a new approach.  They could hunt smaller game, learn to use snares, perfect fishing, and even depend a little more on gathering.  Probably hunter gatherer groups all over the world were dropping like flies, but a few, (quite a few) figured it out and survived.   For a while, hunter gatherers ate damn near anything in a desperate gamble to survive.  To them, five miles of highway road kill would have looked like a gourmet drive up restaurant.

And a few of them began to engage in proto-agriculture, which is just a fancy way of saying they maximized their resource sites.  Someone might remember that cattails grew along the bank ten miles upstream, so they might want to transplant a few plants downstream.

Let me give you a little proto-agriculture homework.  This fall, go to your local feed store and ask to buy about two pounds of seed corn.  You may have to repeat that request a few times before they believe you, since feed stores are used to selling that commodity by the hundred-weight.   They probably lose more than two pounds a day to crows and rats, so they might just sweep up a couple of handfuls and give it to you.  Thank them politely, and tell them you are working on a science project.  Actually, it won't matter what you say--they're going to think you're a loon.

Divide up your seed corn into 7 piles and start driving around your county.  Stay within 20 miles of your home and find 7 out-of-the-way places to plant your seed corn.  The edge of a golf course, a hundred yards away from the interstate, or the garden of the local library.  Pick seven spots at random for your impromptu farm, then forget they are there until spring.  Then go inspect your crops.  Chances are that at least one of your sites has somehow, miraculously, grown corn.  The other six are probably as dead as that wooly mammoth.

Our hunter gatherers did not want to become farmers.  Farming is hard work, and hunter gatherers had the kind of aversion to hard work that you normally associate with preachers and senators.  But they were going to be forced into it, screaming and fighting all the way.  And it was not their fault, it was population pressure.  Remember all that non-scratching activity under the trees?  Even though it took a long time, one day, our hunter gatherers climbed to the top of the next hill, looked down into the valley and saw a large group of hairy men down there.  Prudence demanded a change of course.

Unfortunately, no matter which way our band went, they found a group blocking their path.  Whatever valley they happened to be in, there was where they had to stay.

Of course, they are going to develop agriculture, but I will talk about that again in two weeks, when we continue with the History of New Mexico.

By the way, there may be hope yet for that furry 'phanty: after a ten thousand year absence, the Wooly Mammoth is considering a come back tour.  Having discovered enough frozen carcasses to provide adequate DNA material, scientists around the world are working on cloning the animals.  And if they are successful, the critters are going to need a whole lot of big empty to live in.  I think I may know a place that might suit them.  Besides, I may want to hunt them.