The only sounds are the wind whooshing in the rugged pinon pines, occasionally broken by the buzz of a Broad-winged Hummingbird, the squawk of a Scrub Jay or the call of a kingbird or Plumbeous Vireo. As the sun warms the ground, the aroma of warm pine needles begins to permeate the air. All of my senses are piqued, allowing the sounds of nature to ooze through my pores.
I am attending a nature writing workshop at the Ortiz Mountains Educational Preserve (OMEP) south of Santa Fe. The preserve can only be reached by deliberate persistence – on a steep, rutted road. Two of the docents ferried us the 2 ½ miles up into the preserve in their four-wheel-drive vehicles. Part way up, we stopped to look out over the Galisteo Basin, the remains and reclamation of a former gold mining operation, and the now defunct village of Delores – once the largest town in New Mexico.
As we sat under a kiosk near the entrance to the preserve, Pamela Christie, workshop leader and historical novelist, set the stage by reading a paragraph from local historian Bill Baxter’s Gold of the Ortiz Mountains about Dona Tules, a young woman who accompanied her husband to a mining camp near Santa Fe around 1823. She then read a passage from Wind Leaves No Shadows, a historical novel about Dona Tules and from her own mystery novel, The King’s Lizard, that both took their inspiration from the historical account.
As I begin to absorb my surroundings, it is clear this was not always a place of solitude. A dilapidated three-hole out house gives testament to the lives of women and children who camped out in the Ortiz Mountains in the winter while their husbands pursued their dream of finding gold.
Mining could only take place during winter when snow could be melted for panning. Life must have been tough, especially for women. A short distance a way is a collapsed mine addit, or opening. Remnants of the early camps had been placed in a pile – fragments of colored glass, a section of an old wooden wheel, pieces of metal – each one with a story to tell, perhaps the basis for a future story written by one of the workshop participants.
While mining along the Turquoise Trail petered out by the late 1800’s, the operation at Delores continued well into the 1900’s, until it also became inactive. When the mine was purchased by a minerals conglomerate, local citizens banded together to prevent the mine from re-opening. The court settlement resulted in 1,300 acres being set aside as an educational preserve, and the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens was chosen to be its steward. In addition, the mining company was required to take steps to correct and prevent further environmental pollution.
Bonnie, one of the docents, pointed out one of the reclamation projects – a cupola built over a mine shaft to allow bats the freedom of flight, while preventing people from entering. Bats have claimed abandoned mines as permanent homes or stopovers during migration, since their microclimate resembles that of caves. One of OMEP’s educational activities is a ‘bat watch’ during a full moon.
Trees were planted and netting was stretched across the polluted standing water to prevent birds from stopping in for a drink.
In the early afternoon, we wound our way down the mountain to the parking area. As I was driving away, I noticed a Red-tailed Hawk perched on the top of a power pole. I could see its yellow eye constantly scanning the terrain, and then it raised its wings and slowly glided out over the desert. I am grateful for vigilance of the individuals and organizations that have worked to restore this striking habitat.