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Living in Balance: A Pueblo Woman Discusses Her Balanced Life Philosophy

Following the principles of permaculture, an artist creates a serene, self-sustaining oasis in the northern New Mexico desert.

| May/June 2003

  • An entrance into her creative space, this living gate protects Roxanne’s privacy.
    Photography by Lark Smothermon
  • Ceramist and permaculturist Roxanne Swentzell works in her studio adjacent to her adobe home, constantly in connection with her environment. “There’s a balance to the world you have to be careful not to disrupt,” she says. “How you walk through the world matters. When it feels right you know you are in balance.”
  • Roxanne’s sanctuary is limited to only what she needs, and yet has become a virtual “jungle oasis.” Called Flowering Tree, these grounds once were busy with workers, tending to the duties of the nonprofit Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, and now the property, not so busy, still stands awash with abundant, sustainably raised flora.
  • An entrance into her creative space, this living gate protects Roxanne’s privacy.
  • An entrance into her creative space, this living gate protects Roxanne’s privacy.
  • Roxanne Swentzell has fashioned a simple life in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. Her solar adobe home glances out among luscious plant growth. She lives privately, in earnest effort to remain in contact with the pulse of the earth.
  • Roxanne Swentzell has incorporated artistry into her home. Even this open-air pantry shows her taste for natural beauty and simplicity.
  • Roxanne has carved out her life creatively, making much of what she needs, decorating with her ceramics, and drawing upon her Native American ancestry
  • An entrance into her creative space, this living gate protects Roxanne’s privacy.
  • A mill for grinding wheat into flour
  • Flowering Tree has a careful balance between sun exposure, for solar energy, and the shade provided by the healthy sizes of Roxanne’s sustainably developed garden. She uses the outdoor adobe oven for baking during feast days.
  • An entrance into her creative space, this living gate protects Roxanne’s privacy.
  • An entrance into her creative space, this living gate protects Roxanne’s privacy.

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!”

Healing through permaculture

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.

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