Nancy, Taos

Nancy is a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. During summer 2012, she is participating in a course on New Mexico wildflowers at SMU-in-Taos.

What a wonderful week!

This class has been inspirational to me in so many ways. Who knew that the pine nut from the pinon tree is the perfect food? It has all the essential minerals a person needs, as much protein as a steak and all the essential amino acids. Or that flowers have designs drawing insects and birds that can’t be seen by the human eye? Pollinators can see the designs but humans can see them only with an ultraviolet light.

I am leaving with 14 new friends who have inspired me with their kindness, intelligence, resilience, senses of humor and fun. We already are planning a reunion and a Shutterfly book with our photos and memories.

I’m also sporting a suntan without getting hot, have loved a week away from the Dallas inferno, and have a new appreciation for the flowers in my garden.

Last night I dreamed I was in college and my parents had arrived to drive me home at the end of the semester. I wasn’t packed, I couldn’t find my things, and I was sad to say goodbye to my friends. I wasn’t ready to leave.

Hmmmm … I wonder what that means?

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Soaking it up

Soaking in the Iron Spring

I didn’t think our last day at SMU-in-Taos would top the hike to Williams Lake, but I was wrong.

Today we went to Ojo Caliente spa and resort, home to geothermal mineral water that has flowed from a subterranean volcanic aquifer for thousands of years. It was first used by Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago. In the 1500s the Spanish soaked in the springs, and we continued the tradition today. At the spa, adobe buildings surround a courtyard filled with flowers and sculptures. Soft Native American music playing in the background set the tone. Our group was challenged by the signs that said, “Whisper,” but soon we were so mellow we hardly talked.

Muddy Doug.

First stop was the 104-degree Iron Spring, warm iron-rich water beneficial to the blood and immune system. Next we moved to the mud baths. Yes, we were wearing swimsuits. We coated ourselves with cold soupy mud and sat in the sun until it dried. After we washed off the mud our skin was as soft as a baby’s. Next was the 100-degree Soda Spring followed by the 107-degree Arsenic Spring, which is not poisonous but good for skin conditions. By this point we were so relaxed we didn’t care if we had skin conditions or not. After the cooling pool and wet and dry saunas, we were practically in comas.

Just the right number of cooks in the kitchen: Doug, Jose and Jeanne

Only one thing could rejuvenate us – lunch. At the spa restaurant I had the best gazpacho: tomatillo and green chili.

For our last evening together, Dr. Ubelaker hosted us at his house for chili, baked beans, salad and cobbler. We had just enough cooks in the kitchen with Jeanne, Doug, Sandra, Jose and me stirring things up. Dr. Ubelaker grilled elk brats, too, for a wonderful party. We spent one last evening admiring the view from his flagstone patio. The mountains we saw in the distance were in Colorado, 40 miles away.

Before it got too dark we took a look at his cactus garden, and the new cactus species he recently discovered. We gave him plenty of suggestions of names for the new species and for his house.

This little guy needs a name.

Facts of the Day

  • Two couples in our class celebrated wedding anniversaries on our trip. Happy 38th anniversary to Les and Ruthann and 32nd anniversary to Doug and Jeanne.
  • Cactus plants occur naturally only in North America. They have been imported to Europe and South America.
  • Cactus were the last plants to evolve. They evolved about the same time as rabbits.
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Hiker’s paradise

Many of us have decided that this is our favorite flower – the Columbine.

Our hike today to Williams Lake was a highlight of the week (so far, each day gets better and better). In spite of a few complaining hips, knees and feet, we did it. We are young, but we are not undergraduates.

We climbed the Williams Lake trail near the Taos ski valley into the Alpine zone in the shadow of Wheeler Peak,  at more than 13,000 feet the highest mountain in the range.

On the trail we saw elderberry, thimbleberry, wild strawberry and twin berry. Besides berries we saw new flowers: Old Man on the Mountain, California Corn Lily, Delphinium, Blue Bells and Columbine. We also saw Marshmallow plant. Long before Kraft sold marshmallows in plastic bags at Target, marshmallows were made from the root of this plant. Cut up the roots; blend with water until the water gets light and foamy. Wrap on a stick and enjoy a sweet treat. How did anyone ever come up with this? Hershey’s thought it was such a great idea that it began making marshmallows with sugar, and now we have something to float in hot chocolate.

Maria demonstrates how this lichen earned its name: Old Man’s Beard.

At Williams Lake we were in the Alpine zone, where the permafrost is just two feet below the surface at the height of summer. The tallest tree there is the Alpine willow, just seven to eight inches high and a favorite meal for bighorn sheep.

All the hikers we passed who were heading back down the trail told us to be sure to hike beyond the lake to see the waterfall. We followed a rocky path back into the forest and discovered a lovely waterfall, which made the perfect background for more Columbine photos. Going back down the mountain was a breeze, and once again we arrived at the van just before an afternoon shower.

Jane’s pressed flowers, gathered at Ft. Burgwin.

Back at Ft. Burgwin we checked on the flowers we pressed our first day. We learned to spray-mount them and were as proud as kindergartners with our finished projects. We would have displayed them in the dining hall if only someone had asked.

Facts of the Day

  • Cindy Gimble, who helps keep things running smoothly at Ft. Burgwin, is the daughter of Johnny Gimble, legendary fiddler and former member of Asleep at the Wheel and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He used to host camps for fiddlers at SMU-in-Taos.
  • How do you tell if a mint plant has no smell? Mint plants with round stems have no smell. Mint plants with square stems have a smell. Of course, you could just smell the plant.
  • Always carefully wash mushrooms you buy at the grocery store. You don’t want to know why.

Be proud: Our class at Williams Lake, 11,000 feet, five-mile round-trip hike.

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Natural beauty

Elephant Nose: See how the tiny flowers look like an elephant’s trunk?

Today’s field trip ranged from Sound of Music moments in the La Junta valley of the Picuris mountain range to a good old-fashioned Dallas hail storm.

First we traveled 10 miles on a gravel road to a meadow at about 9,000 ft. elevation at the junction of the Canadian zone and the Alpine zone. We madly photographed wildflowers as if we were paparazzi at the Academy Awards: Elephant Head, Columbine, Indian Paintbrush, a white Indian Paintbrush known as Wyoming Paintbrush, Osha.

Leaving no plant unphotographed, we climbed back in the van for a trip to the top of the ridge, cleared more than 70 years ago by loggers. Nature regenerates forests very slowly. We saw more evidence of the logging operation than we did of a new forest. We did see a wonder of nature, the bristlecone pine, the longest-living organism in the world. These pines can live 5,000 to 6,000 years. The loggers left it behind because it is not a useful wood.

Instead of enjoying a picnic lunch on the ridge, we headed back down the mountain because of looming, dark storm clouds. Sprinkles, rain, then hail proved Dr. Ubelaker made a wise decision. He has put lots of miles on the van on our behalf and is very patient with our requests. We are rather picky about the temperature in the van and not terribly easy to please. Jean and I sit on carsick row in the front of the van and are grateful to people like Tracy, Regan, Carol, Jane, Les, Ruthanne and Jose who take the back rows.

Only Doug was brave enough to climb down into the pit house on a ladder missing a few rungs.

We ate our sack lunches back at Ft. Burgwin, then explored the archaeology of the area. Near the fort we saw an excavated pit house where Anasazi lived about 800 years ago. They dug round pits and lived underground with a hide covering the opening. A separate fire pit was connected to the pit house by a tunnel for warmth. The smoke plume from the fire left pit house residents vulnerable to enemies. Nearly every pit house excavated on the SMU-in-Taos property included the skeletons of a family with evidence of attack from above. Above-ground pueblo houses proved to be much more safer.

Our recent meals have been wonderful; last night we had pork, chicken and veggie tamales, black beans and squash. Tonight the grills are fired up for ribs. Although not typically a breakfast eater, I have developed a nice routine here: Greek yogurt, topped by organic and locally grown fruit ( the blackberries are as big as my thumb). Then the grand finale, homemade granola.

A new species of a mountain hummingbird has arrived at Dr. Ubelaker’s feeders, but I’ll have to wait until tomorrow night to see it. Tonight we’re going into Taos for an outdoor music performance on the square.

Time to gather yarrow leaves to have on hand after tomorrow’s hike. It’s the most ambitious hike of the week.

Facts of the Day

  • The Aspen tree is the largest organism in the world. An Aspen grove may be just one tree with many trees growing off one set of roots.
  • The Indian paintbrush is a parasitic plant. Its seedlings grow into the roots of another plant, and it sucks nutrients from that plant.
  • To be continued….

Wildflower paparazzi

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Hello, little one

Baby beaver sighting!

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Happy Fourth, from Taos

A paper on a medicinal plant is a class requirement. The Fred Wendorf Information Commons offers resources designed for classes taught here.

Today we left the desert behind and headed for the Italionalis Trail near the Taos Ski Valley. The trail was once a mule trail leading to a gold mine.

We hiked alongside a clear stream, which we got to know quite well each of the 14 times we crossed it by jumping from rock to rock. Thanks to the helping hands of Doug and Dr. Ubelaker, the only casualties were a few wet hiking shoes.

We learned that the roots of the wild geranium can stop bleeding, as can the liquid in the stem of the dandelion. And beware of tasting any part of the monk’s hood, a purple flower on a tall stem. It kills more hikers in New Mexico than any other plant.

With a friendly hand from Dr. Ublaker, we successfully jumped from rock to rock on five stream crossings.

We didn’t see any bears but we saw plenty of bear evidence, such as dens and territorial claw marks on aspen trees. I was already on the lookout after seeing bear-spray for sale at the Taos Walgreens. Dr. Ubelaker taught us, however, what to do if we see a bear: Put our hands above our heads to look bigger, make noise and keep from smiling and showing our teeth. No problem there.

Maria: So what’s the bear population around here?

Dr. Ubelaker, the master of understatement: Pretty good.

We passed the road to Julia Roberts’ house on our way back to Taos, then enjoyed 4th of July festivities in Arroyo Seco, a tiny artists’ community. Some celebrated with  ice cream cones, others enjoyed the all-American pastime, shopping. Carol, Sandra, Tomasina and I are all owners of new jewelry.

A male bear claims an aspen grove as his home with a swipe of his huge claw on a tree.

We wrapped up the day with a 50-minute fireworks show in Taos – a great show, and we were freezing by the end.

Facts of the Day

  • Cure for sore feet: Crush the leaves of the yarrow plant in hot water, soak feet.
  • Here is how you tell the difference between a fir and a spruce: fir needles are soft, spruce needles are sticky.
  • The baby beaver has been spotted for the first time this summer. Carol, Regan, Jane and Maria saw him swimming in the pond carrying a sprig of willow in his mouth.

Yarrow flower: after a long hike, soak your feet in hot water and yarrow leaves.

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Cool waters

After a warm day learning about desert plants, nothing felt better then dipping our toes in the chilly water of the Rio Grande.

Today was about water, its power to carve the Rio Grande Gorge, how plants have evolved to rely on very little water, and how a homeowner can design a home to be completely off the grid, including water.

We started our morning at the Rio Grande Gorge, a dramatic gorge carved by the Rio Grande River. It is the same age as the Grand Canyon, but it is carved from much harder volcanic rock rather than the sandstone in the Grand Canyon. It is still spectacular and a testament to the power of water.

Dipping my toes into the Rio Grande, a cool 50 degrees

Many of the plants we saw today look like something only a mother could love. They are covered with needles and spikes. But they still offer practical uses. Native Americans use fibers from the roots for weaving, the spikes for needles and other parts of the root for a shampoo known for producing a shiny head of hair. The local Walgreens sells yucca shampoo, and one of my classmates has already tried it. I’ll be bringing some home.

Dipping our toes in the river was nice ... But then we had to hike back to the van.

From looking down at the gorge we traveled to a spot along the river where we could hike down to the shore for a close view of the water. Steaming hot water bubbles out from the side of the gorge to create a hot spring. Most of us opted to soak our feet in the cool river instead.

From the river Dr. Ubelaker took us to the home he designed outside of Taos. In an open and gracious stucco home with a wall of windows overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, he lives completely off the grid. His water comes from a well, power from solar panels and heat from warm water in pipes that run under the tile floor. The local electric company actually owes him money for the surplus electricity his solar panels have created.

Nightlife tonight is an anthropology lecture by SMU anthropologist Christopher Roos. Two of my classmates spotted the beavers at work last night, and my classmate Sandra spotted one just about 30 minutes ago while we were taking the nature trail from the dining hall to the library. He was swimming across the pond with a willow branch in his mouth. Then he disappeared into a hole in the bank.

Classmate Tomasina

Facts of the day

  • Several of us represent the second generation of SMU-in-Taos students. Our daughters were students here before we came.
  • More than 100 Taos residents filled the dining hall tonight for the lecture. SMU-in-Taos hosts weekly lectures or performances for the community during the summer, and the residents come out in droves.
  • Wildlife sightings: Beaver, prairie dogs, quail, magpie, red-winged blackbird, rabbit, ground squirrel.

Lunch on the patio of Dr. Ubelaker's home near Taos. Great view, wonderful conversation, delightful classmates

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Better than summer camp

I expected the wildflower class at SMU-in-Taos to be a combination of Girl Scout camp, Little House on the Prairie and the park ranger campfire talks I remember from vacations in national parks.

After just one day of class I know I was wrong. This class is better than all three combined.

Professor John Ubelaker and classmates

SMU Biology Professor John Ubelaker already has taught me and my 13 classmates about climate zones, Ponderosa pines, Junipers and Pinon pines, and their incredible and miraculous adaptations to their environments. We’ve learned how to press flowers in a way that will preserve their vibrant colors for several hundred years. We wear small hand lens around our necks to observe the beauty of the tiny blossoms that make up an ordinary clover, which (who knew?) is an incredibly important plant for sustaining life.

And we haven’t even left the SMU-in-Taos campus. Who would want to?

Our casita, a pueblo house that is home to nine of my classmates, is quiet and cozy. We follow a winding trail and cross a footbridge to get to the dining hall, where we’ve feasted on homemade meals. Today’s highlights were green chile posole soup, roasted beets with meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and this wonderful herbal iced tea that we all carry around and sip on while Dr. Ubelaker lectures.

From the dining hall we followed a nature trail to the restored fort where we met in a classroom, checked out the library and practiced pressing plants. The nature trail passes a beaver pond where, if we return in the evening, we may see the beavers and their kits at work. This is what they call night life here, and I love it. Tonight we chose another option, observing about 60 hummingbirds feasting at Dr. Ubelaker’s feeders.

Here are my facts of the day:

  • The bird the Virginia warbler is not named for the state of Virginia; it is named for the wife of the surgeon who was posted at Ft. Burgwin. Dr. W.W. Anderson discovered the species and named it for Virginia Anderson.
  • The conditions for a Ponderosa pine seedling to germinate are so specific that a tree  produces only one seedling every 300 to 400 years.
  • What I have all my life incorrectly called petals on flowers in the aster family, like zinnias and sunflowers, are actually individual flowers with fused petals. Yes, a petal is actually a flower.
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