Following the principles of permaculture, an artist creates a serene, self-sustaining oasis in the northern New Mexico desert.
An entrance into her creative space, this living gate protects Roxanne’s privacy.
Photography by Lark Smothermon
Down an unpaved, unnamed country road on Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico, Roxanne Swentzell lives on old family ground near the houses of her brother, her aunt, and her grandmother. Here she built her own house, reared and homeschooled two children, transformed half a desert acre into a jungle of sustenance, and created the clay sculptures that have made her one of the most sought-after contemporary ceramists in the United States.
Roxanne’s patch of land is an idyllic island set amid the poverty and worn care of Rio Arriba County. A couple of horses, a few sheep, turkeys, and chickens contentedly roam their pens within distant views of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There’s growth everywhere—peaches, apricots, herbs, asparagus, purple grapes hanging heavily from lush vines. Roxanne lives a simple life, limiting her wants to a few basic necessities, raising her own food, baking bread and pies from scratch, and making as many of her own supplies as possible.
“I’ve always liked to grow things,” she explains, “and I’ve always had animals around me. They are my friends. I love to watch things grow. Now I live in this jungle,” she says, gesturing sweepingly at her out-of-control surroundings and laughing. “I need to cut down some trees so I can get some sunlight. If I’m going to live in a solar house, I need to keep the sunlight coming in!”
When she first moved to her desert half-acre in 1986, Roxanne set up housekeeping with her two small children in an old shed, determined to get used to the rhythms of her land before building a permanent dwelling. One morning, still in pajamas, she walked to a chosen patch of earth and drew an outline on the ground with a stick. Then she started digging a foundation.
She knew what she wanted in a house. It had to be adobe, and it had to be powered by solar energy. It doesn’t make sense in the Southwest not to have solar, she insists. She wanted a typical northern New Mexico territorial-style house with a pitched roof and two second-story dormers large enough to walk into. And she wanted a big kitchen with access to the outdoors.
Roxanne built the house mostly by herself, with help now and then from friends and family. After a year she was ready to move in.
Around this time she met and married Joel Glanzberg, an itinerate gardener with a passion for permaculture, an Australian concept developed in the 1950s that literally means “permanent culture.” Permaculture allows people to live sustainably off the land without destroying it. With Joel’s help, Roxanne turned her attention to the land.
They built up the soil with manure, straw, and anything they could find. Roaming turkeys and chickens helped fertilize the yard. They laid out trails so other parts of the land could heal and regenerate. Around the trails they planted bushes, trees, and herbs. They built a large cold frame on the south side of the house where they could grow greens year-round. Then they created an inner courtyard surrounded by an adobe wall, with microclimates where various kinds of plants thrive.
Roxanne’s high desert half-acre receives fewer than twelve inches of annual rainfall, making water a sacred commodity. Drinking water from the tribal well is too precious to waste on gardens, so Roxanne harvests as much rainwater as possible. A large metal tank under the eave catches rainwater as it falls off the roof. Trees surrounding the tank provide shade to keep water from evaporating. A shaded open tank a few feet away provides water for a small plant nursery (and makes a good swimming hole). Two small cement-lined ponds support fish and water plants.
She uses graywater in a simple irrigation system composed of swales (shallow, contoured ditches lined with rock). By providing a channel for water to flow, a swale helps control erosion, holding water around plants until it seeps into the ground. At Flowering Tree, bathtub water empties into a swale, as does dish and laundry water. Once the irrigation system was established, plant areas off the swales “became full of life, like magic,” Roxanne says.
Ditch water runs through the ponds, helping clean and aerate them so fish can breathe. A series of three cement “flow forms” acts as a waterfall, aerating, energizing, and cleaning water before it’s carried to a corn and bean field.
That the couple transformed half of a desert acre into what is now a jungle oasis is truly remarkable. Add to that the family’s ability to live completely off the grid, growing their own food and raising organic vegetables and meats, and the story becomes almost miraculous. That was back in the 1980s, the heyday of the nonprofit Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, when the property was known internationally as a successful experiment in sustainable living systems. During the institute’s glory days, Roxanne and Joel experimented with different ways of raising and storing food. They killed pigs, turkeys, sheep, chickens, and ducks with their own hands, then butchered, dried, smoked, or froze the meat.
“We did the whole works. From the sheep we got milk, cheese, and butter; from the chickens, eggs and meat. We raised bees, made candles, gathered honey; grew wheat and ground it in a mill. We dried all the fruit we could and turned grapes into vinegar,” Roxanne says. “Plus, we were having to learn it all. There wasn’t anyone to teach us. We lived as completely off the land as we could.”
Roxanne’s children grew up making gardens and herding turkeys. “To me they are the true permaculturists because they were brought up with it,” she says. “They must see the world differently from other people. They see it all connected.”
With classes, workshops, and a steady stream of visitors, it became difficult to maintain a private life. There came a time when Roxanne wanted out of the goldfish bowl. Consequently, today Flowering Tree doesn’t have a community of people working on it. Roxanne, single now, lives quietly. “I can’t do everything so I’ve had to compromise,” she sighs. She brought electricity back to the property, and she’s not growing all her own food anymore.
“You get tired of killing animals. I fall in love with my animals, so it’s hard to shoot ’em or chop off their heads. Just the prospect makes you think, ‘Ugh! I don’t think I want to do that.’ I know what it’s like to kill your own food. I did that for years and years. I’m tired of killing. Now it’s just, ‘Ah, let ’em live,’” she says, brown eyes sparkling.
So she’s back on the grid and has pared her flock to a few chickens, sheep, and turkeys. She raises her chickens for eggs, her turkeys for ceremonial feathers for dances, and her Charro sheep (a distinctive Navajo breed) for their wool. Her children, now in their twenties, have moved to a nearby pueblo. Although she misses them terribly, Roxanne is serene, full of energy and uncommon joy in living simply.
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