Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tortugas - Las Danzas de los Indigenes

Late one fall afternoon in 1969, I walked down a dirt road in Tortugas village, looking for some Indians a friend had mentioned.  A film-making student, I had a documentary film to make, so I was curious.

A few men stood around a small wood-fire burning in the street.   Someone was playing a drum, someone a violin.

Leo Pacheco, their chief, said they were about to practice the danzas for the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In fading light, I filmed the practice on an old 16 mm. Bolex.

During the next few weeks I was often in Tortugas, just talking with Mr. Pacheco or shooting film of the practices and then the danzas.

Mr. Pacheco became a friend.  He spoke of the danzas’ history, which was also part of his history.  He was trying to retain a living connection to the past.  It saddened him that this year he would have to let children dance, because not enough adults were dancing.

The danzas seemed an interesting mix of traditions.   The bright red costumes were Indian, sometimes with elaborate feather headdresses, but included a large scarf depicting the Virgin.  The music was simple and mesmerizing. One drum had “Azteca” written on it.  Leo’s people were descended from the Aztecs.  But they danced beside the Catholic Church, the religious and social center of the village.  In one dance, an old man with a wolf-mask was keeping young girls (malinches) from seeing the Virgin, and so they killed him.  I think they drank his blood.

I saw Leo a lot that year, and occasionally over the next few years, until I moved away.  He stayed in my mind.  I even wrote him and the danzas into a novel I was trying to write in Tibet, 25 years ago.

After moving back, I hoped to look him up.  The priest from Tortugas told me that he had died.
Recently I went again to Tortugas.  For the danzas.

Tortugas has changed little.  Some dirt streets are now paved, a few houses are bigger, and the Casa de Comida – which may not have existed then – is large, with old photographs and news articles on the walls.  The day I went in, it was filled with the warmth and cheer of many Pueblo members eating and talking.

When you are in Tortugas you are somewhere.  Unlike many modern neighborhoods, it’s a real place, with people who have danced together – or resented each other – for years, decades, generations.  While Las Cruces has grown up all around it, Tortugas remains – somewhat proudly, I think – unincorporated.

Local Indios have danced in this valley since the 19th Century.  An 1885 news article refers to the “peculiar ceremonies” on this Day, while another comments that, “The peculiar headdresses, odd costumes, the rattles with which they mark the time of the dancer, the different steps and movements all seemed as attractive to the old residents who have seen them year after year as to the newcomers who had never seen them before.”

The Pueblo danced at St. Genevieve’s before construction started on the Tortugas Church in 1920.  The Pacheco group (called “Los Aztecas del Carrizo” or “Juan Pacheco’s Dance Group” back then) was granted permission to dance on the North side of the church in Tortugas in 1924, but had danced in Mesilla before that.  Four groups actually dance in Tortugas these days: two from the Pueblo (Tigua Pueblo and the Danzantes) and a fourth that is an offshoot of Pacheco’s group.

I asked a young lady when the dances would begin.  She turned out to be one of Leo Pacheco’s granddaughters.  Her son, three or four years old, was Leo’s great-grandson.  On his red shirt was a picture of Leo with the caption “Gone, but not forgotten.”

Soon the dancers gathered in the yard beside the Pacheco home, and emerged dancing, to walk with the altar to the Church.

I followed along, shooting – as I had decades earlier, except now with better equipment and slower feet.  It felt familiar, and good.  Shooting video immerses you in your subject in a special way.

For the infants I saw around me, these rhythmic drums are one of life’s first powerful sounds in life.  For Leo’s grandson, watching the spectacle with little understanding, this music is already deeply familiar.  How many times have Leo’s daughters heard it?  They began among the malinches, following instructions as best they could, proud and shy at the same time, and now lead the dancing, organizing practices and teaching others the steps.   Committed to tradition and their father’s memory, they direct dances which were once danced only by men.
Leo was a great example of the fact that a man’s worth has nothing to do with his financial balance sheet or his professional position.  Leo was a good man who, in a very modest home, raised a large family that remained as solid as the thick adobe walls of the older houses in the village, despite pain and some early deaths.  He doggedly kept the danzas going, although he feared they would die out during his lifetime.

More people dance now than before.  That’s a tribute to Leo and his daughters – and to equally strong and dedicated families among the Tigua Pueblo and the Danzantes.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 23 December.]

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Visit to the Bosque - November 2012

Again we visited the Bosque to share the full moon and cool weather with an abundance of snow geese and sand-hill cranes, and the occasional heron or bobcat, but also with an abundance of other photographers from all over the U.S. and Canada, all with expensive lenses that looked like something you'd see poking out from a hummer in a middle-eastern war zone.
  Obviously it ain't fair to complain about other citizens of the republic enjoying our shared public land; but there were a great many of them.  When you're shooting video, so that as well as visual record of the critters you're recording the sounds of quarrels and cries and flapping wings, it ain't fun to come home editing out a constant chatter about people's meals, health, camera equipment, and itinerary.  So fair or not, I wish you'd all stay away next year -- or stop jabbering the whole time.  The rat-a-tat-tat of motorized cameras all around me is bad enough, particularly when a crane actually flies right in front of the moon.
  Having said that, most people tried to quiet down a bit when I politely mentioned my plight.  They forgot pretty quickly, but they tried.
  Besides which, if you're a photographer and life puts a bunch of other photographers in your way, then you might as well start photographing photographers.  I've done so in a variety of sometimes comic situations -- a big, bearded European tourist on an island in Lake Titicaca shooting a close-up of a little girl with a lens that was longer than she was tall; a couple of Asian tourists, surrounded by the vast beauty of Yosemite,

taking snapshots of each other; Japanese girls photographing sakura blossoms with their cell-phones.  In other spots, including Death Valley, where almost no one else was around, the inclusion of a lone photographer with his or her tripod in a vast expanse of sand helped communicate the scale and loneliness of the scene.

So I do routinely photograph the photographers, and sometimes even send them the images later.

While I'll still always prefer seeing and hearing no one else (except Dael) anywhere around, sometimes a photographer's intentness on her subject might communicate something I'd not have been able to get across without her.

  Besides which, how could i be irritated with the gent disturbing the peace of the snow geese at right, when his stroll into their midst yielded images of them in flight?

  (As it happened, we talked with him later.  He said usually when he walked along that bank the birds just slipped into the water, which was what he was hoping to photograph.)

  Meanwhile, we have our routine down: we pack carrots and sandwiches and plenty of water for the drive North, arriving in Socorro in time to check into a motel by mid-afternoon, then head back down for a late-afternoon / early evening shoot, featuring the full or nearly-full moon rising majestically above the mountains beyond the cranes as the cranes settle in for the night; supper at the coffee house, the huge Mexican restaurant, or on sandwiches in our room; off-load video and stills; get up before dark to join the snow geese and cranes before the sun does; videotape the full moon falling and the birds awakening and flying off, sometimes in great torrents, for the day; breakfast at the coffee house; another late afternoon / early evening shoot, with the full moon rising about 42 minutes later than the previous night; another night in Socorro, then another early morning of moonfall and sunrise and birds, ending in a regretful start back toward home.
  Answers to FAQ's we get (or questions I'd have if I read the preceding paragraph):
      -- from Las Cruces to the Bosque is a couple of hours' drive; if going directly to the Bosque, cut off I-25 and do the last 20-30 miles on Route 1 (El Camino Real), which is windy, rural, and less-traveled -- and means you don't drive on past the Bosque to San Antonio and then double back a few miles;
      -- San Antonio is the I-25 exit for the Bosque coming from Albuquerque or Socorro; San Antonio has two inviting places to eat (though not for non-meat-eaters), the venerable Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Saloon, both famous for green-chile cheeseburgers, but no motel or hotel;
      -- the coffee house is on Manzanares Street, and offers great omelettes and coffee and pastries and an exceedingly comfortable place to hang out for hours (to get there from the Bosque, take the first Socorro exit from I-25 and head North on California Street, the main drag, keeping an eye out for Manzanares Street, then turn left on that toward the plaza but make another left into the parking lot as you notice the side of the building there has a mural on it -- that's the place);
      -- if you don't want to spend the middle of the day lounging in the coffee house, going home to nap, or processing your photographs and writing, there are plenty of neat side-trips you can make between the early morning and late afternoon visits to the birds:
                  1. you can drive slowly around the Bosque, as we did in January, or hike around in there;
                  2. you can head East on U.S. 380 through the Malpais to the ghost town of White Oaks or to Lincoln, both famous in Billy the Kid / Lincoln County War lore.  (The Malpais National Monument is volanic lava dried into weird looking shapes, a stark and strange landscape that's worth a look, even though the caves are currently closed because of a bat-killing fungal disease);
                  3. the Very Large Array ain't too far away, but aside from making that idiotic rhyme I have little to say on that subject yet;
                  4. you could, as we did this time, drive West on 60 to Magdalena, enjoy the countryside and look around the town, then continue West toward Datil and the Wilderness or drive up to the small Navajo Reservation somewhat North by Northwest of Magdalena; or
                  5. you could explore another refuge such as Sevilleta, which we hope to do one one of our next visits.
Sunrise from just North of the Flight Deck - Bosque del Apache
The birds are mostly sleeping when we arrive.  They awaken slowly (except when a train lumbers past), and seem in no hurry to head out for their day's foraging.

Sometimes we find the snow geese and cranes slumbering in the same pond.  The snow geese awaken
A high-contrast vision of morning in the Bosque
first, and make an incredible racket, as if they were debating the day's plans, definitely without a copy of Rogers Rules of Order.

The cranes slumber on.   Eventually they awaken and contribute to the cacophony.   They stand around in groups, or in pairs, and eventually the more ambitious of them being walking, in
Moonfall with Sand-Hill Cranes - Bosque del Apache
their oddly ungainly gait.  While others remain motionless, increasing numbers walk, almost all of them in a single direction.  They pause now and then to eat, but then continue, toward the direction in which they will eventually take off, as if jockeying for position.  Mostly they don't get in each other's way, but occasionally a minor quarrel gets one or both of the participants jumping up and down, making a
Cranes Are Flying

good deal more noise, and flapping their wings violently until one or the other gives up.

Meanwhile the moon flees for cover and the sun creeps up over the horizon.

The cranes keep walking.  A few strays fly in from another pond to join the party.  The noise-level rises.

"Let's go, guys!  Time's a-wasting!"
Then sometimes singly, or in pairs, or in small groups, they begin flying.  Generally the cranes all take off in the same direction.  Although they seem to us to have been moving forward to get a good position, it's not always the ones at the North end of the group who take off flying North first.  Sometimes a pair from somewhere in the middle will suddenly rush forward a few steps
and take off, at first flying just a
foot or two above their neighbors' heads.  Sometimes the ones remaining in the water ignore them, sometimes they watch, sometimes one or two will take off to join them.  Then more standing around, more desultory snacking on whatever it is they like under the shallow water, more striding forward.

The rhythm of departures rises and falls as if some unknown station manager had assigned everyone his or her flight time, and communicated those times in some fashion wholly unknown to mere humans.  If the cranes are sharing the pond with snow geese, there will come a time when the departures come more and more quickly, culminating in the sort of mass fly-off I've mentioned in
earlier posts, and even included a video (with apologies for quality) of hundreds or thousands taking wing at once, all bragging about it at the same time.

Almost always there are stragglers among the cranes.  Dozens or hundreds of cranes fly off on urgent business, leaving fewer and fewer standing around in the pond.

Sand-hill crane gives another a piece of his [bird-brained?] mind

Some of these stragglers begin to act as if they plan to spend the whole day here.  Vast majorities of both cranes and photographers have long since disappeared, and a few cranes still stand around, or stroll about stealing snacks from beneath the water-surface, or discuss whatever they discuss with
the same desultory mood of a half-empty cafe in a small Texas town on a weekday morning,

But the second crane looks distinctly unconvinced.
with just the retirees still hanging about with nowhere to go.

Eventually they too will lean to the side, then forward, then get a running start and lift-off.

Of course, many of them fly a very short distance. While some explore dozens of miles to the north or south, many land n the nearest field.  A drive through the
Bosque or North toward San Antonio will provide plenty more photo-ops for visitors, although the light becomes a good deal less interesting real fast.

The guys at left have lingered awhile in the shallows not too far north of the wooden viewing area called "The Flight Deck."

Similarly, only a couple of human beings remained at the spot.

Periodically we see a bobcat or coyote, or watch a coyote stalking around a field near one of the ponds, as reminders of why the birds are so careful to sleep out in the middle of a pond at night.  This weekend we saw a bobcat, and during the early morning at one of the ponds we heard coyotes howling.

By late afternoon, we're back, wandering among the same ponds and fields, shooting video of the birds.   The light grows richer by the minute, until the sun disappears and the moon rises and the birds settle down for the night.
Snow geese back home by late afternoon

More snow geese at another pond

A crane joins his pals

A snow goose looks for a suitable landing spot . . .

A crane and his reflection stroll off in search of a snack.

After Sunset

A killdeer walks on the moon

When I get a chance, I'll upload video from these trips to the Bosque.  That's what I concentrated on; and though from moment to moment it could be frustrating -- training the camera for long periods on cranes I hoped would start moving, only to give up just before they took off; hearing quarrels and panning to them too late to get more than the tail end of the incident; following birds from their first appearance over the horizon to circling, approach, and landing while trying to keep the camerawork as steady as possible -- things worked out well enough often enough to yield some decent sequences.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Visit to the Bosque - October 2012

In January, we visited the Bosque del Apache.  There were still plenty of sand-hill cranes and snow geese, and a surprising number of eagles, and a coyote pacing around at sunset, frustrated by the birds' habit of bedding down out in the middle of a pond, beyond his easy reach.  

At dawn, with the full moon falling toward the horizon, we watched the birds awaken.   At first they slumbered.  Then the snow geese made an incredible racket, while the sand-hill cranes miraculously appeared to sleep on.  Eventually, as the moon disappeared, the snow geese swept into the sky, in a great cacophany of flapping wings and screeches, covering the sky almost completely.   Enthralled, I shot the whole thing on videotape.  I was hooked.  (The January post has the video, unedited -- fast-forward to about the two-minute mark and watch the last 50 seconds for the fly-off.)

I resolved immediately to be there every full moon from September 2012 to January 2013.  We skipped September because bad weather up in the Bosque would have made videotaping pointless -- and moonless; but we made it in October; and although mostly I was shooting video, this post contains stills from 28-30 October, mixed in with a travel tip or two.

Autumn lent the scene a special richness.

Full Moon Rising - 28 October

Morning - 29 October

Four consecutive exposures of these guys taking off.
When we returned in the afternoon,
this fellow was watching the snow geese

Moonrise - 29 October

Cranes Flying - Morning of 30 October

Flying Cranes Reflected