Songs of the Fluteplayer

If you have a good friend who notices things, and if you are lucky, you might have conversations like these on a quiet afternoon. In 1981, Sharman Apt Russell moved with her husband to a remote agricultural valley in southwestern New Mexico. These nine essays—on subjects as diverse as their daughter’s homebirth and range wars between cattlemen and environmentalists—welcome the reader into Russell’s reflections. She tells of refusing to hire undocumented Mexican laborers until she and her husband start building their own house. “In southwestern New Mexico,” she says, “building an adobe home is an intense rite of passage which requires, in its purest form, no previous construction experience.” Gabriel and Manuel see their struggles, take pity on them, and come to help—unasked and unpaid. And so, says Russell, “We began our career of hiring illegal aliens.”

Intertwined with personal experience, the essays also dig deeply, almost reverently into Southwestern history. “Gila Wilderness” imagines that area in earlier times. “Trading Posts” delves into the roots of Navajo culture. “Song of the Fluteplayer” tells the myth of Kokopelli, a prehistoric humpbacked fluteplayer whose image is scratched on rock walls throughout northern Mexico and the American Southwest. But Russell is at her best when she turns her attention upon herself. “Irrigation” explores their costly purchase of undeveloped but irrigated land as a symbol of independence, adulthood, the self-sufficiency of feeding themselves. It also confesses her awareness that “we overestimated our ability to transform ourselves, to become more primitive, more sensual, thinner, browner, healthier.”

Russell thinks she will live in the Mimbres Valley forever; at the same time, she prepares herself to leave. She sees no contradiction because “the process of connection has already taken place and the roots are growing inward. Something is growing that I can carry with me—away from here if I must.” Russell gives the reader something to carry away too—a piece of the Southwest, a piece of Russell, and, perhaps most worthwhile, a piece of what it means to choose your place, put down roots, and watch yourself grow.