The Santa Fe Itch

Recently I made my second sojourn to the Santa Fe area, a place of breathtaking beauty, fascinating history and distinctive cuisine. Both visits were brief and touristy -- and so I would not claim for a moment to have any right to say what I'm about to say. But I was vividly disturbed both times. I found myself wanting to Get Far Away, and ever since, I've been trying to piece together the reasons for this. Here is what I have come up with.

In 1990, as part of an annual conference of Georgist land reformers, a bus tour set out for an innocent afternoon at Taos Pueblo (which, I must admit, openly invites just such mild-mannered busloads of consumers as we undeniably were). This is an ancient city plying its crafts and trades within sight of one of the world's most glorious mountain vistas. Be that as it may, I did not take the whole thing in the best of humor, and my afternoon there yielded this poem:

    Taos Pueblo, 1990

    at only 300-odd years of age
    the catholic church of Taos Pueblo
    is a recent addition to the city

    but it has real adobe
    a half-inch of it chickenwired over concrete

    I believe that someone made sure
    I believe that someone heard the land and made sure
    that a piece of thin clay skin was knocked away

    for busloads of noble advocates
    to see, if they could
    there is great blasphemy here

    inside the shop a nine-year-old kid
    bangs his brand new cottonwood and elkhide drum

    outside the shop a fifty year old kid
    bangs his brand new cottonwood and elkhide drum

    the shopkeeper's drum is deeper, and it hurts.
    he plays vacantly, and faintly
    as if the last heartbeats of the city move his hand

Evocative perhaps, but retrospectively, the poem strikes me as rather cranky. Recently we made another visit to Taos Pueblo -- under different circumstances; just my wife and I and our five-month old in a stroller. I'm glad we did, because this time, instead of a tawdry travesty I saw a rather sad, and indeed noble, town of people doing their best to preserve their dignity and what shreds of their ancient culture they could salvage. Parts of the city are open to tourists; other parts are private residential streets and are off limits, but there are no armed police to keep the conquering consumers out -- just polite, handpainted signs. A half-dozen young men were working on repairing an adobe wall -- with real mud-and-straw bricks, in the real sun. We considered taking their picture, but we had declined to pay the $5.00 camera fee, and so we refrained. It seemed little enough to ask: the camera fee is an honor system; our camera was in plain sight as we entered, and we were not required to check it.

What led me to see Taos Pueblo so differently? Perhaps it was the series of lurid reminders, on the two-hour drive between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, of the money-making opportunities the people of Taos had sacrificed in order to maintain the quiet poverty of their curio shops. Each of the Pueblos is a separate reservation, a "sovereign" entity of only a few square miles, surrounded by the conquering nation, on which it must depend for infrastructure, communication, and -- consumer traffic. Given such a poor competitive position, it's easy to see why so many of the Pueblos have turned to the biggest and quickest wealth- transfer system -- casinos. They dot the landscape, each bigger and crasser than the next, all fighting to display the coolest computerized markee. Many, I was told, now run shuttle buses for the convenience of patrons who have gambled away their automobiles.

In Taos the sacred work of people's hands has been forced to become a trivial making of souvenirs, the sadness of that elder's drum was palpable, and I felt ashamed for being part of a bus tour -- but in the end, how can one avoid participation in the blasphemy? I imagine that the people are only a bit less repelled by having tourists take their pictures than they are by operating casinos -- nobody likes feeling like a whore -- which is why the services of prostitutes cost money.

In Santa Fe I picked up a copy of The Sun, a local New Age newspaper. Within the paper's twenty-eight pages, the following professional services were offered: Acupuncture. Angelic Communication. Astro-Cartography. Attitudinal Healing. Automatic Writing. Bach Flowers. Channeling. Community Chanting. Connected Breath Therapy. Cranial Sacral Therapy. Deep Chi Building. Devic Gardening. Eriksonian Hypnosis. Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. Flotation. Gestalt Therapy. Group Hypnosis. Hatha Yoga. Herbology. Holotropic Breath. Hypnotherapy. Jin Shin Jyutsu. Locational Astrology. Massage Therapy. The Method. Muscle Nurturing. Myofascial Release. Native American Spirituality. Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Numerology. Nutritional Consulting. Past Life Clearing. Phytotherapy. Polarity Therapy. Pranayama. Pre/Post-Natal Yoga. Psychic Surgery. Psychic Animal Communication. Psychosynthesis. Qi Gong. Radionics. Rebirthing. Reflexology. Reiki. Rubenfeld Synergy. Sex Therapy. Shamanic Healing. Shiatsu. Soul Integration. Sound Healing by Computerized Voice Analysis. Spiritual Empowerment Reading. Tai Chi. Tarot. Transpersonal Journeywork. Vedic Astrology. Vibrational Energy. Visionary Consulting. Whole Brain Conflict Resolution.

Now, I don't doubt that many of these services are worthwhile (maybe all of them). But the staggering variety, and the matter-of-fact sincerity with which they were offered, amazed me, and I looked up from my green chile-laced breakfast burrito with a pie-eyed question, "Why?"

Undeniably Santa Fe (the name means "holy faith", does it not?) is perceived as a spiritual center, perhaps even a Sacred Site. But that's not what it seems like, not now anyway. No, it feels palpably like a place of spiritual itching, like something that has been gravely wounded and never quite healed properly. As people who have suffered the loss of a limb can still feel sensations of pain in the "phantom nerves" that their limb once had, I suspect that the people of Santa Fe must feel the yearnings of a phantom spirituality left by the amputation of any true connection with the ancient earth-centered traditions of that place.

Yes I'm being harsh, and the good people of Santa Fe have every reason to be insulted by this rant,, but I don't take it back. No matter how we trivialize or narcotize it, we really cannot abdicate our rootedness in the earth. Places like Santa Fe and Taos are under terrific pressure, after all, being the sites that busloads of busy people (like me!) choose to come to for such desperate realizations.

September 21, 1997


Back to The Progress Report