Hollyhocks

My introduction to New Mexico came on an experimental farm. Here, my Northern self learned to dig patiently, redefine, and delve beyond first impressions to find beauty in a dry and dusty landscape.

I slept on the native stone floor, on the other side of the freezer from where the black widow spiders once crept. (I trusted the past tense.) The freezer was plugged into the only outlet in the hand-built adobe home, but it was Jason and Rita's ultimate aim to do without electricity. Our bathroom was down the path, a stained glass window lending a touch of class. I learned early to shuffle to it after dark so as to merely nudge, rather than step on, any rattlers sprawled across the path.

Our water we drew from a hand pump up the hill, hauled into the house in five-gallon buckets, and poured into the porcelain sink for dishwashing. When the plug was pulled, the dirty water roared into a filmy bucket below and was lugged outside and heaved onto a patch of weeds where Rita promised hollyhocks would grow next summer. I found it hard to believe that anything lovely would spring from the tangle, but I faithfully aimed the water as directed.

Jason and Rita were researching ''natural farming.'' This meant that we let the weeds grow with the crops. By the end of the summer, the sunflowers and Johnson grass were over our heads, and the only hope of finding the okra and potatoes lay in remembering where they'd been planted.

What others called weeds, however, we called food for our rabbits and climate and insect control. The horehound deterred the rampaging grasshoppers, and our eight-acre plot proved to be a cool oasis in a hot, barren land. Our little adobe, made of soil gathered nearby and baked by the sun, looked as though it had sprouted as naturally as everything else.

Our visitors were mostly feathered and furry. I became adept at ushering hummingbirds, honeybees, and skunks from the house. A roadrunner frequently called on us, dashing after mealworms tossed from our doorstep.

As the months meandered by, it became clear that all was not as peaceful as the gently swaying Johnson grass and unruffled crayfish pond suggested. For, while the couple devoted great energy to nurturing ancient strains of seed corn and developing a healthy duck flock, they failed to plant seeds of trust and tolerance and to develop sound community relationships. Whether the tension was due to their original outlook or to their pride in their originality, I never knew. They cultivated beauty in the landscape while drawing verbal caricatures of the neighbors. And the neighbors gossiped in like manner about them.

It became quite clear that learning to live in harmony with the land, which is what drew me to these strangers in the first place, ought not to be at the expense of living in harmony with mankind.

I had joined the experiment in the role of caretaker. When I was alone on the farm for several weeks, I began to invite neighbors to dinner, a few at a time. Reluctant, suspicious, they came. And invitations were returned. Doors creaked open. Walls slowly tumbled.

But when Jason and Rita came back, the mutual mistrust fairly sizzled in the hot sun. The couple finally put the farm up for sale and moved to another state to start over. I moved to a ranch farther south.

I returned to the farm, once. The duckyard stood eerily silent. No honeybees searched the flowers; no roadrunner strutted past the doorstep looking for mealworms. The little place with the stained glass window was gone. Weeds crowded the paths more than ever.

But in front of the house where day after day I had tossed a bucketful of dirty dishwater into what seemed nothing but a tangle - were hollyhocks. Dozens of them. Springing from the weeds.

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