Meeting Martin Prechtel: New Mexico, August 2015
It was a hot bright day with a warm desert wind when David Abram and I set out to visit Martin Prechtel. It took awhile to find his ranch, we had to ask a number of the locals of Ojo Caliente – there were no signs, no outward signs of what lay within. It reminded me of Australia at first; jumping out of the car and walking on the sandy earth to open the farm gates, one then two, till we got to the barn where Martin’s two young daughters were playing with kittens, and we met Hanna, his wife. We walked down the track, past the many horses, beside the tall grasses (it’s been a wet year) to the draping cottonwood tree where we met him. He’s much shorter than I expected, not much taller than me, and with a rolling gait, his body shaped by injuries and much horseriding. And a sunburned face, small blue eyes and long white curling hair.
With the wind blowing the grasses and whirling the cottonwood and leafing through the pages of my notebook, I read him a traditional Maori greeting from my partner James, and I spoke a Wurundjeri blessing. I gave him a copy of my book, the book I doubt I could’ve written without his example to me of what is possible. He then spoke a long and elaborate thank you in Tzutujil, long and elaborate being the only way to say thanks in the Mayan language in which he learned so much of what formed his soul. He spoke of writing, of how untrue it is to the essence of his teaching, which for him is in person, spoken aloud, so that the world and the spirits are in on the learning too, and are giving of themselves in that place and in that moment. Yet he acknowledged too how much his books have meant to people all over the world, including very many people in prisons around the world. But he said that the books are purely to try to keep some of the seeds alive, so that when we have passed through this madness, hopefully there will be some intact seeds taking root in some not entirely broken lands, so that together they can grow back something of the richness that we once shared with our homeplaces.
He showed us his teaching hall, known to all as The Lady. Eight years old, it could have been there for centuries as far as I could tell, for it has been built in the same way that the pueblo peoples and then the Spanish had been building there in New Mexico. All the internal adobe walls were smoothed over with micaceous clay, the local clay full of mica, or fool’s gold, and so the walls glistened and shone. The roof was held up with the largest trees I’ve ever seen in a construction; massive pines that has been killed in a fire decades ago and had stood curing on a nearby mountain, before being hand cut and winched down to the valley. Giant and beautifully hand-painted maps that subverted the colonial rules of up and down lined the walls. Martin knew every single building material and everything inside for its story; he could tell its genealogy, its maker, its tradition. The building defied every local regulation, but feeding the building inspectors delicious lunches and enchanting them with the history that they as New Mexican loved and mourned the loss of, the building bypassed the rules created by the insurance companies to ensure that no building can be made free with local material, to force people to leave the land and work jobs that separated themselves from their place and their stories, and he has made a building that will last centuries, rather than mere decades.
How can I express what this man’s work means to me?
Personally I have never met cultures not reeling from the loss of their places and their cultures, places and cultures being one and the same thing, whether Maori, Aboriginal, Nepali, Celtic, Italian… Martin talks of the universality of the loss of indigenous soul, and what he has done, by giving a glimpse into the complexity, intricacy, beauty and depth of traditional Mayan culture, has revealed more to me than any other voice the immensity and deep grief of this loss. This has been particularly poignant for me in the last few days here in San Francisco, with huge numbers of homeless people crowding the streets and public places, displaced souls lost to whatever community they may have been born within. While sad or broken, so many of them were yet warm and kind and engaged, despite their hardships, and I have been grieving the lack of respect given to these wild and damaged and dear humans.
Shane, your question to him, how do we sustain the village heart? – I couldn’t ask him direct so busy was he with his wondrous stories, but I got a strong sense of what it might be. It is working together with place; planting, harvesting, creating, giving and receiving, thanking and gifting back to the outrageous generosity of life, this life we can never pay back for all its gifts, but we can work at understanding this sacred debt and honouring it with all the beauty we can muster. To witness each other at this work, to admire and celebrate each others’ attempts, to co-create and share this with the children and to seek out and learn from the elders – I think this might be something like his answer of how to sustain the village heart.
As we drove back down the desert roads, David spoke aloud the Tzutujil blessing out the car windows and into the wind – ‘Long life, honey in the heart, no evil, thirteen thank yous. Long life Martin, long life, long life to you!’ Yes, I too wish this man, this ‘spiritual genius of the highest order’ as David described, the longest of lives, for his work is the sanest and truest of anything I’ve known.