When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
Twelve years ago, when we moved out of the city and came up here to live on the edge of the woods, it was definitely an attempt to get away—and to find a place where we could grow good garlic. But it also felt crazy. I was commuting over an hour to my job at a newspaper, living in a dilapidated house and not quite sure what we were doing out here.
That same year, on September 11th when the World Trade Center collapsed, I woke up in our cozy little adobe bedroom and, like I did most mornings back then, turned on the radio news. After hearing what was happening on NPR, I went and got my TV out of a closet and plugged it in, trying to get a signal. I got a weak, fuzzy picture from CBS that I watched as the radio blared. Frantically calling my sister (who was in Manhattan that day), trying to get information, it felt like the whole world had gone mad.
But it was September. Up here, in the valleys of northern New Mexico, September is the time we cut our fields and bale hay before winter. My neighbors, the Martinez family, spent all of September 11th, 2001 in the twelve-acre field in front of my house baling their hay in the autumn sunshine. I went back and forth between watching the grainy images of the twin towers collapsing on my TV and watching Joe Martinez hop off his tractor to check out a gopher hole or hurl a rock out of the way of his tires, sending it splashing into the creek. The Martinez’ were, simply, taking care of their cows this winter. Let the people in Washington worry about the terrorists. Joe was worried about his cows.
As a journalist, I remember this as an incredibly grounding, centering and calming contrast. What’s more real: terrorists ten thousand miles away or Joe’s cows? What can we do something about right now, the terrorists or the cows?
And so, that next spring, I got me some goats. And some chickens. And we planted a bunch of corn, more garlic, some tomatoes and a bunch of herbs. We planted beans and squash and learned how to butcher chickens for meat. We failed miserably that year on our first attempt to grow potatoes (darn Canadian thistle). In time, we figured out the potatoes. I added geese and tried sheep and rabbits; I built some huge worm beds and started some honeybee hives and learned to tend them. We made mountains of compost.
And I quit my job.
That time, around 9-11, stands out as the critical shift in my heart—a leap into work that was grounded and life-affirming. It was also a shift into self-employment, as my husband and I began to develop our farm into something that actually makes a profit. These days, we sell eight months of the year at the farmer’s market in Santa Fe. We make ends meet. Unless it hails.
Our farm, which sits at 8,100 feet, borders on national forest in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Early on, I became interested in learning all the trails and ridges and secret meadows behind our house. In fact, one of the reasons we chose to buy land and start a farm up here was because I wanted to spend time in the woods. In fact, I wanted to spend weeks in the woods. I wanted to walk out my back door and into the woods and disappear—a fantasy I’ve had since childhood.
And so, a few years ago, I began the hunt for an animal I could take with me into the wilderness to carry my gear and the shovel I use for digging roots and my brandy bottle. Initially I intended to have pack goats, but a year into this project I learned that the Pecos Wilderness, which is my backyard, does not allow pack goats. My dad and I then took a trial pack trip with a friend’s horses and spent most of the time wrestling with animals who would really have preferred to be at home and definitely didn’t think we were qualified to lead them. The truth is, we weren’t. I’m too scared of horses to pack them.
But then I got a great deal on two medium-sized donkeys (Greta and her uppity daughter Ruby) and figured I might learn how to pack them in the woods. Two years and zero pack trips later, after their umpteenth time running away and getting into the neighbor’s corn patch, I realized donkeys just weren’t my cup of tea.
Almost fondly, I remember those hours I spent trying to figure out how to make a donkey that has dug in its heels cross a creek. But Greta once got miffed and broke my nose by shaking her head at my face. The last time they ran away, I sent one of our farm workers to fetch them and the donkeys led poor Johanna on a two-hour trip all over the neighborhood. She came back in tears—and donkeyless. I ended up giving them away to a guy in Tucumcari who loved donkeys. I did not love donkeys.
But a friend who actually lives in the wilderness had some llamas. I had met Mary’s llamas a few times and they seemed to me strange and quiet and gentle. The first time I met them, they came up to me softly and stuck their noses in my face to smell my breath—which I viewed as a kiss. And so, one year after “selling” my donkeys, Mary and I went out to eastern New Mexico to fetch some llamas.
That was two years ago. My husband was suspicious at first—he thought I needed a new hobby like I needed a hole in my head. He wasn’t exactly wrong. But I have since fallen in love with the llamas. We have been on several trips with Lorenzo, Tambo and Mr. Brown, with many more planned this year. I have finally found companions for walking in the wilderness.
Of course, I’ve since learned that llamas aren’t always gentle. And I’ve learned that while the llamas might be willing to cross a creek, they also might jump that creek and lose all their luggage. But compared to a donkey? While I would be literally dragging donkeys up the hill, llamas glide along behind silently as if floating through the forest. While the horses my dad and I took up Jicarita Peak pawed the ground all night and left bare patches all over the forest, the llamas lay down and nibble on a bush, leaving no trace they’ve been there except a suspicious pile of poop that could just as easily have been left behind by an elk.
My life is too busy, now, to even consider disappearing indefinitely into the woods. But walking with the llamas in the forest on occasional trips is a wonderful respite for me —moments of rest in the middle of an often hectic life. The steady steps, the smell of ponderosa, the trickle of springs, the excited clatter of aspen leaves in wind, the chatter of squirrels, the soft hum of the llamas when they see something strange, the quietness that can settle into your heart... It’s a bit like making hay while war rages around you.