Behind the Mountains

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Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (1901-1963) is best known for his 1929 novel ‘Laughing Boy’, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year and was made into a motion picture in 1934. He was a descendant of both Narragansett American Indians and some of the most prominent European founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Benjamin Franklin was his great-grandmother’s great-grandfather. As a young man, trained in archaeology, he headed west and southwest in the course of his studies and work, meanwhile discovering two previously unknown languages in Central America and in the American Southwest, along with what would become known as some of the most important Olmec archaeological sites in Mexico. He was a lifelong champion of Native American rights and the author of many works of journalism, fiction and non-fiction. One of his lesser known gems is his 1956 book ‘Behind the Mountains’, the story of his wife’s family and their large ranch in the Rociada Valley in the mountains east of Santa Fé. I learned about the book purely by chance, after reading an obscure essay by La Farge in an obscure anthology of essays found on some obscure bookstore shelf, in what year I’ve long since forgotten. 

The ranch had come into the Baca family, a very old and illustrious New Mexican clan indeed (they have a whole county named after them), because La Farge’s wife’s Spanish-American father had married her French-American mother, Marguerite Pendaries, eventually inheriting title to the vast Pendaries lands in the Rociada Valley which form the setting for this book. La Farge describes the area in very lyrical terms. A recent photo of the Rociada Valley in winter appears at the top of this post. 

The narrative takes place mostly during the 1920’s. It focuses on the patriarchal life, largely unchanged in many particulars, of a family of large landowners who lived in a state of complex involvement with those who inhabited the valley with them, and in relation to whom they maintained a complicated network of rights and responsibilities inherited from past generations. The chapters are filled with adventures and customs now largely vanished even from such remote areas as the Rociada Valley: the open hospitality of a sprawling hacienda where guests could arrive and stay for weeks without prior notice; Christmas and other holiday traditions brought from 16th century Spain and 19th century France; the mystery-enshrouded rites of the somewhat feared ‘Penitente Brotherhood’, who maintained a kind of private version of Roman Catholicism on the fringes of the official religion; the bootleggers’ stills, precursors, perhaps, of today’s methlabs; the agricultural and livestock activities which kept the Baca family and most everyone else in business; the Baca family’s many servants, private schoolroom and tutors; the brujeria, which ran the full spectrum from beneficent folk religion to outright sorcery and which had existed alongside Catholicism in New Mexico for centuries, and in some respects predated it; the bucolic life of horses, flocks, grainfields and orchards in a valley then still largely innocent of paved roads, automobiles, electric lights and telephones.

Since this is my second reading of this book, I must ask myself the question: why does it interest me? As a form of mental escape, no doubt, which raises the whole question of what place mental escapes and fantasies play in our lives (A friend of mine often dreams he can fly, for example, and one of his very practical pals always scoffs at such dreams as mere ‘escapist nonsense’). But I think there’s more to it than that. The Baca’s world came to an end with the unexpected death of La Farge’s father-in-law and the onset of the Great Depression, which brought about the sale of the ranch and the removal of the family to a smaller house in Santa Fé. And of course subsequent decades brought far more enormous changes to the valley as a whole. Someone has said: ‘You don’t have to be very old in America to say that the world you were born into and grew up in no longer exists’, and that thought is probably at the basis of my fascination with this story. The older I get, the more intrigued I am with the world, now vanished, which produced me, which my much younger self certainly assumed would last forever, and which I find myself identifying with more strongly–in vivid contrast with the present–with each passing year. I cannot imagine living in Rociada. It’s too high up, for one thing, at 7500 to 8000 feet. The winters are too severe. I don’t dream of dwelling amid alpine scenery on a full-time basis, and it is the arid regions of the Southwest which draw me, the more lapidary and sun-drenched the better. But Rociada, the vanished, the lost Rociada, makes me remember my own vanished and forever-lost youth. We all have one, after all. What were its customs and concerns? It may not be ‘behind’ the New Mexican mountains, but it does rest securely ‘behind’ the mountains of today. Can we get to it? Can we hear its lost voice?  In some sense, I’m sure, we never leave.

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