The 2016 Mi Casita writing residents have been announced and are just beginning their stays in Taos, New Mexico. This piece by Leanna Torres was inspired by her residency at Mi Casita in 2014.
Tony’s boots are worn into a brown that is as familiar as my father’s; the boots are a signature of work, of toil, of a subtle pride that only a working-man knows. The worn brown resembles that of ponderosa pine bark, soft and dark all at once, a lovely tattering of years and work and wandering. I wonder how long Tony has had these boots. But instead of asking, I lean myself up against the wood of the cabin porch and look to the distant mountains to the east.
This cabin was built and lived in by the Leopolds, Aldo and Estella. Aldo is known by some, if not many, as “the father of conservation,” while Estella has slowly drifted into a forgotten history of northern New Mexico. In 1912, the Forest Service appropriated $650 to build a new supervisor’s quarters at Tres Piedras, NM, a small community northwest of Taos. Aldo was about to become the new Forest Supervisor of the Carson National Forest in Tres Piedras, so he built his cabin, this cabin, which the newly married couple fondly named “Mi Casita.”
We are eating breakfast burritos on the porch of Mi Casita, sitting as each of us will, casual conversation and breakfast among strangers and friends. Again, I glance at Tony’s boots, content with their familiar look, wondering at where they have walked and not-walked.
Several historians have noted that the two years Leopold spent in northern New Mexico were integral to the insights reflected in his famous “land ethic” and his many written contributions to ecology, conservation, and wilderness preservation. Along this vein, the Mi Casita Writer-in-Residence Program at the cabin was established to provide and promote an inspiring retreat for distinguished and emerging writers, thinkers, and artists. Its mission: to highlight the relevance of the Leopolds’ ideas to current and future cultural and environmental issues. So here we are, on the porch of this historic house, a place of living and longing, “residents” of the program both past and current.
It is summer in northern New Mexico.
We are characters as much as we are ordinary and strange; a woman from Los Angles, a man from Chicago, Tony with his brown boots, and me, a recently-returned native of New Mexico. A few of us have our significant others, some do not. Kristina breastfeeds her daughter in our presence, not nervous, ashamed, or apologetic; Gavin tries to get to know everyone, his slouch a little nervous among people he doesn’t yet know. And Chris is tall even in his chair, even while seated on the porch and the breeze moves in cools the warming air. We are on the porch of an icon, strangers and friends.
Leopold was a man who tried to make the West his own, but was forced to leave by illness and circumstance. But we know Leopold most for his “land ethic,” a philosophy that seeks to guide human action when people use or make changes to the land. Perhaps even more so than today, land use in the early 1900s was commonly based on economic self-interest, with the goal of increasing the direct, short-term benefits for humans. Leopold argued that humans are part of the ecosystems they inhabit, and that for harmony to exist, humans must respect their surroundings. Leopold understood that economic well-being could not be separated from the well-being of the land.
Conservation — the protection, preservation, management, or restoration of wildlife and of natural resources such as forests, soil, and water. Community — a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. And we sit on the porch of a couple who dedicated their life to both conservation and community, to family and to a great journey of the outdoors. We sit on the porch as writers and friends, communicating as the ordinary do. And what forms for me while on this porch is a recognition, a familiarity between conservation and community, between those journeys we have taken and the ones still ahead, history and the present, all-at-once and in-between. Kristina cradles her daughter in her arms. Gavin bites into a breakfast burrito with green chile. Chris plays with a toothpick while seating on a padded wooden chair. And Tony leans into a conversation about where each of us came from, and where we are going, and his boots are the color of ponderosa pine, a dull but brave brown that is as familiar to me as this land itself.
It is strange to me that I will remember Leopold more for his porch than his legendary “land ethic.” To me, this porch is a sentimental place made of wood and space and time, looking out over the Taos mountains, the place of red willows. Having sat here, I will remember the Leopolds for the legacy they have left here in this place rather than in history or in textbooks. I feel it now, on this porch, among strangers and friends, between boots and sunlight.
Tony’s boots are worn into a brown that is as familiar as my father’s boots, and I remain leaning against the outside wood of the cabin, knowing I ended up in this place, this here-and-now, by no mistake. I imagine Leopold wearing similar boots, dirt and mud worn as easily into the leather, and perhaps Estella asking him to wipe off the soles before coming inside the cabin. We are on the porch of a conservation icon, but all I can do is daydream into the sky. My contemplation quickly passes, and I am left with only a small smile, well-worn boots and the curious idea of conservation…