Patron Saint of the Environment Honored in Santa Fe

Kateri Tekakwitha is the patron saint of Native Americans Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

In front of St. Francis Cathedral in downtown Santa Fe is a luminous bronze statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American woman to be beatified (in 1980). If all goes as planned, Tekakwitha will be canonized on October 21, 2012.

She’s also the patron of nature and the environment, which makes her pretty important in my book!

The statue is colorful, gorgeous, and full of life. No ramrod-stiff saints here.  In fact, this Tekakwitha has flowing black hair; wears turquoise earrings, necklace, and a bracelet; and she carries eagle feathers in her hand. It’s hard not to feel peaceful and encouraged about the prospect of preserving the planet’s ecosystems while beholding the serene smile of this saint-to-be.

This portrayal of Tekakwitha in her Southwestern aspect was created by Estella Loretto, a Jemez Pueblo sculptor, in 2002.

Kateri Tekakwitha is the patron saint of Native Americans and First Nations people—as well as the patron of ecologists, environmentalists, and of nature. Also known as Catherine Tekakwitha and Lily of the Mohawks, she was born in 1656 of Algonquin and Mohawk (Turtle clan) parents in New York. She died in Quebec in 1680.

The miracle that surrounds Kateri Tekakwitha is that the disfiguring pox scars from her bout with smallpox as a small child disappeared from her face a few minutes after her death. The priests who attended said she was revealed as incredibly beautiful and unblemished in death.

I hope this miracle will extend to all the places on Earth that have been blighted and disfigured by drilling, mining, pesticides, trash dumping, and toxic waste. May they be purified and made beautiful again with her blessing.

St. Francis with a wolf in front of the namesake church in Santa Fe Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

It’s fitting that Tekakwitha is honored at the Saint Francis Cathedral, as St. Francis of Assisi was known for his love and care of animals. In fact, there’s another lovely statue on the plaza in front of the church: one of a smiling bronze St. Francis accompanied by a wolf. This artwork definitely displays the wilder side of the saint.

For 500-plus years, Santa Fe has been a spiritual center of the Southwest. Here, vestiges of native spiritual beliefs coexist with Christianity. (Well, “coexist” is actually too soft a word, as the indigenous people were subjected to forceable conversion by the Spanish. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government seemed hell-bent on eradicating the language and culture of Native American tribes.)

Yes, there are many ugly things to remember about how we have extinguished indigenous cultures and ravaged the land. But I take heart that there are places in Santa Fe that honor both the Native Americans and nature. It’s refreshing to see the spiritual icons of several cultures converging here beneath the eternally blue sky.

Perhaps I’m too optimistic. On the other hand, miracles do happen.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

St. Francis Cathedral was built in Santa Fe by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy between 1869 and 1886. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Earthships: Recycled Houses Made of Dirt

Just 15 minutes from Taos is the world’s Earthship headquarters—and my New Mexico trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at these odd, but imminently practical, houses.

The Earthship entrance shows off beautiful stucco walls. The ?polka-dots? are the bottoms of old beer bottles embedded into the mud.

The Earthship entrance shows off beautiful stucco walls. The “polka-dots” are the bottoms of old beer bottles embedded into the mud.

What’s an Earthship? It’s an ultra-sustainable home built from recycled tires, aluminum cans and bottles packed with dirt, then plastered over with natural mud.

That’s right: no brick and mortar, no wooden studs. Just junk and soil.

In fact, one of these buildings diverts 500 to 5,000 tires away from the landfill.

Because Earthships are banked into the earth—with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight—they’re extremely energy efficient. Their earthen properties keep them cool in summer and warm in winter.

Earthships are designed with all the rooms open along a corridor with a huge bank of windows. This way, natural daylight eliminates the need for electrical lighting as long as the sun shines.

A lot of these New-Age structures on the sage- and rabbitbrush-covered land around Taos use solar panels or small wind turbines to create electricity from renewable resources.

There must be almost 50 Earthships dotting the northern New Mexico landscape with its dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain backdrop. Clearly, this form of architecture is here to stay.

This is what an interior wall looks like before it?s plastered over. Inside are old tires, cans and bottles.

This is what an interior wall looks like before it’s plastered over. Inside are old tires, cans and bottles.

Water Harvesting

New Mexico is dry land, so another advantage to Earthships is that their roofs catch water from rain and snow melt. The water is then filtered and used for drinking or bathing. After you take a shower, wash the dishes or do the laundry, the used water is recycled, filtered again, and pumped to gardens. (Used water is called graywater.)

I think Earthships are pretty nifty—and rather unconventionally beautiful—inventions, although I’m a bit skeptical about the used tires outgasing fumes into the air. However, because they’re surrounded by thick layers of dirt and mud, I suppose the earth absorbs the toxins.

Still, to many people, Earthships look like houses on Mars. Over breakfast at our B&B, La Posada de Taos, a woman described them as “weird, but fascinating.”

“They’re actually built into the dirt!” the woman added with a shudder. I suppose Earthships are an acquired taste.

Curious? If you’re in Taos, slap on some sunscreen and stop by the Earthship Visitor’s Center (located on U.S. Highway 64, west of Taos.) They have displays explaining Earthship technology and offer tours of the area’s demo homes. ($5 per person).

You can also rent an Earthship (a room or the whole house) by the night or week.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Art Quest Near Taos, New Mexico

Last weekend I discovered an art jewel: northern New Mexico’s High Road Art Tour, an annual, late-September event.

If you enjoy seeing art, meeting artists, and driving through the creativity-inspiring hills between Taos and Santa Fe, this is a don’t-miss event.

My husband and I and our two friends made our home base at La Posada de Taos—a charming B&B in a hundred-year-old adobe house that’s just two blocks from the Taos Plaza. The new owners, innskeeper Brad Malone and chef Michael Carter have created a lovely ambiance and fantastic gourmet breakfasts. We highly recommend the El Solecito room and the Casita (Honeymoon House).

The historic house itself has an arts connection: It was built in 1906 by Burt Phillips, one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists.

The Spanish Colonial works of Andrew and Lorrie Garcia

The Spanish Colonial works of Andrew and Lorrie Garcia

On the Art Road

Feeling like a cross between art pilgrims and treasure hunters, we all piled in the car with our High Road Artisans map in hand and drove through the mountain villages of northern New Mexico on the High Road (which links Taos and Santa Fe).

As we wound through picturesque roads lined by golden-blooming rabbitbrush (aka: chamisa) we encountered weavers, photographers, painters, potters, sculptors, jewelry-makers and woodworkers whose studios are located all along the High Road.

I love glimpsing the studios of world-class artisans, many of whom open their doors to the public only once a year during this art tour. I also love that the High Road Art Tour organizers are dedicated to preserving and developing local talent and traditions in these remote, northern New Mexico villages.

On our journey, we stumbled across an intense mix of interesting artisans and kooky characters—all passionately devoted to making art:

  • Andrew and Lorrie Garcia: We expended plenty of oohs and aahs for Andrew’s exquisitely carved Spanish Colonial furniture and Lorrie’s authentic-looking traditional retablos and bultos. Andrew mills wood off the couple’s property.
Potter Betsy Williams paints each of her tiny Japanese-inspired, wood-fired plates in a different pattern.

Potter Betsy Williams paints each of her tiny Japanese-inspired, wood-fired plates in a different pattern.

  • Enbi Studio: Potter Betsy Williams specializes in wheel-thrown bowls, influenced by her apprenticeship in Japan. Betsy’s Dixon, N.M., studio gets the blue ribbon for gorgeous views.
  • Studio Gallery: We wandered for almost an hour through David Cudney’s sculpture garden and outdoor installation-art display. David has spent six years creating weird, riveting, surreal art from junk, which is spread out over a couple of acres off State Road 76 near Chamisal. A few of the wacky highlights include: a paint-bucket waterfall, steel-girder dinosaurs with cow-skull heads, a totem pole made with rusty chamber pots and enamel basins, Michelangelo’s “David” in an aquarium.
  • Buffalo Ranch Studio: Located on an actual buffalo ranch near the Picuris Pueblo, Harriette Tsosie works in acrylic and encaustic (pigmented wax). We watched her melt the wax on a new painting using a blow-torch!
A well-carved pantry: Isabro Ortega lavished years of craftsmanship on food storage in his Truchas home.

A well-carved pantry: Isabro Ortega lavished years of craftsmanship on food storage in his Truchas home.

  • Isabro Ortega: Isabro is carving nearly every wooden surface of his work-in-progress home in Truchas into the New Mexican version of the Taj Mahal. He calls himself crazy, and no wonder: He’s spent 24 years carving nooks, window frames, a home chapel, ceilings and the most ornate pantry (yes, pantry!) I’ve ever seen. Isabro is a hoot, and hopefully it won’t take 24 more years to finish his house.

Sadly, the High Road art Tour is over—for this year. I’m marking my calendar for next September.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The New Mexico sky over a ruined adobe on Buffalo Ranch was actually the most fabulous art of all.

The New Mexico sky over a ruined adobe on Buffalo Ranch was actually the most fabulous art of all.