Sunday, May 25, 2014


This field of wooden crosses is part of an old cemetery about 30 miles northeast of Ruidoso, not far from historic Fort Stanton.

They're arrayed in a parched, windblown field of patchy wild grass, set off from the surrounding prairie and scrub juniper by an old hurricane fence. The gate is fastened with a rusty lock and chain, but there's enough slack in it for visitors to duck and squeeze through.

There are no names or dates on the markers, just a small rectangle of cement hidden among the dead weeds at the base of each one, etched with a small cross and a number.

Fort Stanton has had many missions since its founding as a frontier cavalry post to protect settlers from the Mescalero apaches who lived in the nearby Sacramento Mountains and still do.

For a while the place served as a TB sanitorium for merchant seamen, and later it was also a mental hospital. Some of the patients were indigent with no known family. The Fort Stanton Merchant Marine Cemetery was created for those who died in the hospital's care.

These humble resting places only occupy a fraction of the property set aside for them. There are smaller sections with rows of stone monuments placed by the families of sailors who chose to be buried here, probably because it was closer to survivors than their other choices.

In the past 10 or 15 years, local veterans have obtained access because the nearest military cemeteries are hundreds of miles away, and it's now known officially as the Fort Stanton Merchant Marine and Military Cemetery.

Pam's dad spent his last 20 years or so in Ruidoso and died here in 2004. John Mauldin is buried at Fort Stanton. He served in World War II and was called back with the reserves for the Korean War. A staff sergeant, he was wounded at Guadalcanal, and at the Chosin Reservoir he saw two thirds of his platoon killed in a fighting retreat from the exposed position where incompetence and lethal miscalculation had sent it.

In his honor I answered an ad in the paper several weeks ago for volunteers to do maintenance work at the cemetery. I thought I'd be handed a litter bag and spend a couple of desultory hours looking for paper scraps while others operated lawnmowers and weed whackers.

But they pointed me to a trailer load of new crosses, handed me a posthole digger and told me to look for broken or overturned markers to replace. It was harder work than I've been used to in some while, but it was very satisfying.

The cemetery got a formal designation last year as a state-operated veteran's cemetery, but the status was conferred without any budget to speak of for maintenance or improvements. I learned that a small handful of volunteers have kept the place up as best they could for the past quarter century.

They've mowed and trimmed and they've replaced every cross more than once, just because there was nobody else to do it and, I suspect, because they felt that a large institutional burial ground abandoned to neglect and ruin doesn't do credit to whoever lives anywhere nearby.

There were about a dozen people working on the day I showed up. I read that a class of high school students came out a couple of weeks later and painted some of the many markers stripped by snow and wind of their thin coats of white paint.

The first time I saw the place, I thought it looked unspeakably bleak and sad with its sun-baked, weedy grounds, its hundreds of nameless graves and the vacant distances from any living community.

But I've changed my mind. The setting is spectacular, in the valley of the Rio Bonito which meanders between Sierra Blanca and the rest of the Sacramentos looming in the west and the Capitan Mountains covering up the entire eastern horizon. It is a classic western landscape under open skies. John was born and raised in Arizona and made his home on or near the range for virtually all his life. This was his kind of country.

Nobody leaves flowers beside the anonymous markers in the section where I was working. But it was a sunny spring day, and much of the ground was carpeted with dense clusters of the tiny blossoms of some kind of small but brilliant wildflower.

Perpetual care if ever there was.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

For the Birds

Last year we took an art studio tour around the county in which we bought our life-sized ceramic raven from Susan Weir-Ancker.

While we were considering the deal, we sat on the long veranda of her charming ranch-style home, where the artist had hung a dozen or more hummingbird feeders.

There was a magical feel to the place. The sunshine was bright and warm, the grass was brilliant green, and a peaceable multitude of birds hovered and flitted all around us, like a family of amiable fairies.

I thought wistfully of our own deck, where we too had hung several feeders and filled them with sugar water in hopes of creating just this kind of atmosphere.

We did get birds, but there were seldom more than a handful. And their behavior was not like anything we saw in Susan's little avian Eden.

The most frequent visitor looked to us like a male rufous. He claimed our property as his exclusive preserve. Not only did he insist on being the only diner at his favorite feeder, which was designed to accommodate four birds at once. He also kept his eye continuously on all the other feeders and left off eating to attack any intruder that tried to get a taste at any of them.

The rufous "outflies all other species," according to, "and usually gets its way at feeders at the expense of slower, less-maneuverable hummers."

Yes, that was our guy for sure.

The other birds didn't give up. They lurked in the branches of a nearby juniper and took turns trying to distract the little thug so the others could sneak a slurp or two.

It was interesting. And I realize that both down in Susan's river valley and up on our piney ridge it was just birds being birds. I don't take it personally. I know I'm no St. Francis of Assisi. But I much preferred the spirit of community, generosity and plenty that I enjoyed on the artist's veranda, and instead I was immersed in naked aggression, craven stealth, guile and greed.

This year I suppose it's still too early for hummingbirds. But Pam has a new bird strategy. She's hung the contraption shown above consisting of two long tubes of tightly woven mesh. I call them feederpants. She stuffs them with tasty seeds.

They've attracted an eager flock of some kind of finch. They look to me like house finches. But judging from the images Google serves up, they could also be Cassin's finches or rosy finches, although I can't see much sign of the pink or even red that males of all three types display in their close-ups.

Pink or not, what they are for sure is hungry. They're all over the feederpants morning, noon and often well past dusk. They seem more focused than the hummers. They cluster on the pants in as large a number as will fit, and everybody eats their fill. No fighting, not much shoving.

It only takes them a few days to empty the pants, which hold several pounds of seed. I think they have much to teach the hummingbirds, which I've read must eat continuously or starve to death in just a few hours. They don't have time for foolishness, but they engage in it anyway. I suppose I'm not the one to criticize.

As for the finches, the collateral benefit to us is that they chatter while they gorge. It's not a particularly sweet song, but it beats the audio competition, which is usually the soundtrack of  Peppa Pig drifting out of Elizabeth's room.

All in all so far, however, the bird that contributes most reliably to the ambience is still Susan's raven. Always there on his pine perch, head turned just so, beak angled upward, eye cocked our way, a model of dignity.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Back to Scratch

Our neighbor Betty up the street in Ruidoso just moved here from a little town called Texico, and she told us the first time she washed her eyeglasses in her new sink and put them back on she thought she was going blind. The lenses had frosted over entirely.

It's a common complaint in these parts. In the years before we started spending summers here, I dimly recall hearing references in detergent ads and household conversations to "hard water," but I never knew exactly what they meant and never had any reason to ask.

I know quite a bit more now. The water here in the Sacramento mountains is beyond hard. It is off the charts.

Literally off the charts. In ordinary online discussion of water hardness and even in documentation that accompanies some water softeners, there's no suggestion that water could ever be as hard as what comes to us through our village distribution system.

The U.S. Geological Survey rates water as soft if it contains less than 3.5 grains per gallon of calcium, magnesium and assorted other minerals. Above that, water gets labeled "moderately hard," then "hard," and finally tops out at "very hard" if there are more than 10.5 grains per gallon.

Well, our tap water recently measured 60 grains per gallon, and our plumber Cody told us we were lucky. He routinely sees water in triple digits and some that goes higher than 150. The problem has grown much worse in just the past few years, as drought has lowered the water table and wildfire damage has forced the village to abandon some surface water sources for wells.

Dusty white scale appears on our faucets and drain fixtures. Calcium builds up in the water lines of our appliances. Our skin and hair come out of the shower seeming like strangers, requiring ever larger doses of lotions and unguents to control the whole-body itching and dryness.

The surface of the hot tub gets scratchy and rough. To control it, we add even more toxic chemistry to whatever is already seething in there. That's not working, so we plan to empty the tub and give it an "acid bath". I tell the guy who does this for us that he should wear rubber gloves, but when he's done we climb inside nearly naked.

I have some idea what all this is doing to us from looking at the glassware as it comes out of the dishwasher. It's opaque in a smeared, unwholesome way that makes you wonder if it's safe to drink from.

We haven't been just sitting back and letting this happen. Before we moved into the new cabin in 2012, we ordered a water softener. Our builder said we could save a bundle if we ordered it online. We did, and it seemed to work for a little while, and then it didn't.

When I called the help center in Pennsylvania last year, the guy on the phone asked if I knew how hard our water was. At the time, we were showing 70 gpg, as they say in the trade, so I told him.

"Oh, no," he laughed. "That's impossible. Let's set your softener for 25. That would be really, really hard water, a lot harder than our chart shows for New Mexico."

After a week of fruitless adjustments, it turned out that our machine wasn't designed to handle anything beyond 30 gpg. It's in a dumpster now. Cody said it's useless in Ruidoso, and there's no market for it anywhere else.

Three days ago, we installed a unit that looks almost exactly like the discarded one, but Cody assures me it will handle water up to 150 gpg. "I've got one just like it at my house," he said. "It's great."

Supposedly it takes several days for a new softener to clear the lines and flush out the hot water heater so we begin to notice the difference. It does seem to be starting to work. The skin on my hands has stopped cracking. My scotch glasses are clearing, so happy hour is back.

I hope that's it. If not, we'll have to start buying our Lubriderm by the case.