In Other Words
Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range by William deBuys and All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
Originally published in 1985, Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range was a book far ahead of it s time. In his attentive study of the Native American, Anglo, and Hispano cultures that call the Sangre de Cristo Mountains home, author William deBuys takes ecological history as seriously as cultural history, arguing that it is impossible to understand New Mexico’s three cultures without understanding t he forests and deserts that shaped them and that they, in turn, shaped. Thirt y years on,
Enchantment and Exploitation has become a classic work of regional history and cultural analysis. DeBuys wrote t he or i ginal manuscript on a typewriter. “Today,” said the author in a phone interview with Pasatiempo, “a lot of the people reading Enchantment
and Exploitation have never even seen a typewriter.” This winter, the University of New Mexico Press rereleased the book, with deBuys adding new chapters on climate change and wildfires in contemporary New Mexico. And in a new chapter, “Trails,” he sounds the alarm on the shocking state of child welfare in New Mexico. “To put matters bluntly, New Mexico, on average, is the worst state in the union in which to be a kid,” he writes. He buttresses his assertion by citing a 2013 study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation; it put New Mexico at the bottom rung of the 50 states when it comes to educating, raising, and supporting the health of children and teens under the age of eighteen. “It edged out Mississippi, which slightly bested it in the categories of education and health, to take sole possession of the most disgraceful place in the list of all fifty states,” he writes. (In the latest report, New Mexico had inched up to 49th, with Mississippi in last place.)
DeBuys s aid, “The new chapters on climate change and child welfare attempt to fill in some of the blanks between 1985 and t he 30 years of New Mexico life that has gone by. Either subject would properly require a book of its own. Instead, this is a proxy I could briefly touch upon.” DeBuys’ writing on the state of New Mexico’s child welfare is echoed in a recent media initiative by Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph’s Children, the nonprofit behind the viral internet campaign New Mexico Truth. Borrowing imagery and satirizing the catchphrase of the state Tourism Department, New Mexico True, the group has attempted to outrage and inform residents about the state’s rate of childhood poverty. Though deBuys is not connected with that campaign, he admires it s backers “for raising the level of conversation around childhood poverty in New Mexico.” As he writes in his own chapter addressing the subject, “You can’t eat enchantment.” By that, he means that the state’s much vaunted natural beauty has little to do with the quality of life for its most at-risk residents. “Something is gravely amiss,” deBuys writes, “if in spite of the state’s legendary endowments, life is going badly and disadvantages are mounting for so many of its youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”
Rather than launch a broadside attack on state services to children, the writer said he is interested in understanding why childhood poverty is so persistent in the state. “How much of it is built into the character of New Mexico and how much of it is something we can get our hands on and change? There are structural reasons why that number [childhood poverty indicators] may be so low. We’re a very rural state. It may be very difficult to deliver social services. Or is it that we are administering schools poorly?” deBuys asked. “What is the low-hanging fruit that New Mexico, working with regional and federal organizations, can do?” DeBuys feels we would do well to study the economic outputs of childhood poverty to find out if New Mexico’s poor educational system is preventing top talent from moving their careers and families into the state.
In his book, deBuys suggests the state’s rampant childhood poverty rate may be connected to the state’s growing income inequality. Citing a 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report, he notes that New Mexico has income inequality more severe than that of any other state. At the time of the report, the average income of the wealthiest 20 percent of the state’s households —$161,162 — was nearly 10 times greater than the average annual income of the state’s poorest 20 percent — $16,319. “This is a new phenomenon,” he writes. “In the late 1970s neither New Mexico nor any other state had a ratio greater than 8.0, which is to say that over the past forty years the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably.”
Rereading the original parts of the book in light of New Mexico’s current t roubles with i ncome inequality and childhood poverty is revealing. For instance, in the chapter “Manitos,” deBuys recounts the intimate, communal nature of New Mexico village and sheepherding life in much of the state for decades before World War I. With the post-war arrival of cheap, plentiful barbed wire, the state ushered in a new, individualistic approach to grazing sheep. The quick and widespread adoption of barbed wire to section off land tracts utterly transformed the communal spirit of shared land that persisted in New Mexico for centuries. While by no means directly related or even traceable to our current impasse with income equality, deBuys’ account goes a long way in showing
how through history, New Mexico has shredded a much older sort of safety net for families — being able to feed a family through communal use of grazing lands — that functioned in communities that were otherwise short on household wage income, schools, or medical clinics.
DeBuys is currently working on another book to be published next year, though it’s not one he wrote. The title in question, First Impressions: A Reader’s Journey to Iconic Places in the American Southwest, was a work in progress by deBuys’ close friend David Weber, a vaunted and pathbreaking historian of the U. S.Mexico borderlands, who died in 2010. To be released by Yale University Press, the book will be completed by deBuys using original drafts, notes, and essays that Weber finished before he died.