Book Review: Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities By Kay Matthews

Editor’s Note: Kay here. I recently published a book called Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities, which chronicles the many cultural and colonial contestations among the land grant descendants, Pueblo people, hippies, yuppies, counterculture, Forest Service, developers, environmental justice advocates, deep ecologists, and any number of others who lived, worked, and played in the forests of northern New Mexico from 1970 to 2000. As an activist/journalist, I both participated in and reported on these intense times, as a freelance reporter and then as co-editor of La Jicarita News.

La Jicarita colleague Bill Whaley, publisher of the Taos-based alternative newspaper Horse Fly and the online journal Taos Friction, published a review of Culture Clash in Taos Friction, which is excerpted here. The book is available through,, and local bookstores.


In her memoir, Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities, Kay summarizes the years 1970—2000 in brief fast-paced chapters, alternating between themes about family life and issues. Throughout the book Kay’s recurring focus is community, the struggle by norteños to hang onto a land based, sustainable way of life despite the intrusive forces of modernity. As Truchas land grant heir Max Cordova says, the Forest Service was devising a management plan that causes “irreparable harm to our communities and our culture.” Both anthropologists and Hispano writers frequently use the term “”querencia” to refer to the affection of nortenos for place.

Severing the connection between people and place—removing them from the Forest Service lands—where nortenos historically engaged in low-impact work, much in contrast to industrial clear-cutting or over-grazing, amounted to “reckless disregard,” according to Max. He argued that when the Forest Service effectively severs the connection between people and the land, it causes them to lose their sense of stewardship; people sustain the land when they are dependent on it. Further, when enviros file lawsuits to protect owls or streams and the land based cultures respond in the courts, Forest Service bureaucrats can use the judicial system as an excuse to ignore their management responsibilities by doing little more than issuing permits to tourists.

Kay arrived in New Mexico circa 1971 as an Antioch College student and worked during the 70s for the Forest Service as a fire lookout and an intern in Santa Fe for Harvey Mudd’s Central Clearing House, an enviro organization. She got to know all sides from the inside out.

Later in the 70s she and her partner Mark Schiller settled in Placitas, a Hispano land grant community adjacent to Sandia Pueblo, northeast of Albuquerque, joining the back to the land movement. She and Mark built an adobe and brought two children into the world. She includes an excruciating description of child birth.

And so Kay and Mark cobbled together a living doing odd jobs. She free-lanced for the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico Magazine, and several national publications even as she reared a family and raised vegetables. Along with her neighbors in the community. she wrote about and actively resisted the encroachment of developers bent on turning Placitas into an Albuquerque suburb.

But after Placitas did change from a village into a suburb, she moved to El Valle in 1992, just south of Chamisal up by the Penasco Valley in Taos County, where she, Mark, and the family settled in and made a second life, a second commitment to the land and community. When she finally visited her first home after twenty years, she describes the hand-crafted adobe as a mangled remodeled house. She barely recognized it and says it was no more than just a “place.” Even worse she describes what has happened to the village and her friends, who “drive up the road alongside ‘Homesteads’ and ‘Ranchos’ with their eyes pointed straight ahead, following the route home without looking.”

The line above is about the most chilling in the book except for the recurring lines and themes that illustrate the native “querencia” or connection to the land versus the outsiders’ “reckless disregard.” Now the reader recognizes how northern New Mexico Hispanos feel about slogans like “zero cows” or “zero cut,” ideas that make the Hispano blood run cold.

For some 30 years Kay reported on or joined in the struggle between nortenos and representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, Duke City Lumber, private developers, the Forest Guardians, and other enviros.

While some environmentalists call for transcendent preservation of the forest and would reserve the commons for the soft footsteps of hikers and tourists by ejecting the sound of cow bells and fencing off the gentle “moo, moooos” from access to the moon, others would pull the plug on cacophonic chainsaws and forbid axe-wielding wood choppers, whose use sustains a traditional economy and way of life. The owl and the wolf, the nortenos and the culture are all endangered species.

The writer includes stories of the victories and defeats of the people from Placitas and the Sandias to Truchas and Tierra Amarilla, from Taos to the hinterlands of Rio Arriba County. She devotes special attention to characters, like her good neighbor, El Valle’s Tomás Montoya and fellow travelers Ike DeVargas and Chellis Glendinning, who fought the Forest Service and Sam Hitt’s Forest Guardians. She writes of an unusually open-minded forest ranger, Crockett Dumas. For Taosenos she includes a chapter on the resistance to gentrification, a proposal by the Las Sierras developers to transform the rural Las Colonias neighborhood into a country club community during the 90s. Local defenders battled back and won a victory over this famed local incident of sagebrush skullduggery.

Instead of “reckless disregard,” Kay offers practical illustrations of sustainable living, and how to get along with your neighbor. She leads by example: gardening, wood cutting, livestock raising, part-time jobs, building a house, neighbors helping neighbors, and always actively engaged at the community level. In El Valle, she finds a little bit of heaven even as she and her vecinos today watch the younger generation exit from the valley.

Kay quotes Gary Snyder, who advocates the kind of “work that doesn’t cheat people.” She writes that you can be a logger without clear cutting the forest for Duke City or a builder who doesn’t work for a giant developer like AMREP, and use a computer without buying into a technological world view. “Be a sustainer,” she says, “part of the solution.”

Kay began publishing the print edition of northern New Mexico’s authentic issue-oriented community newspaper, La Jicarita News in 1996. Today the paper is published exclusively online. Beginning in 2012, along with her managing editor, UNM Professor David Correia, La Jicarita published in-depth stories about the Albuquerque police department killings and cover-ups. She served on the Public Welfare Water Advisory Committee for Taos County, freely making her knowledge about the Aamodt and Abeyta/Taos Pueblo Water Settlements available to the public and a reluctant county commission. (Let’s hope she writes another book focusing on water issues.)

The tone of the memoir is passionate but tactful and fair. She advocates for the community but allows the issues and characters to speak for themselves. The prose style is practical, the story easy to read. New Mexicans, who have a passion for el norte and nortenos, will find this book a mouthwatering home-cooked dish prepared by loving hands with vegetables from Kay’s garden.

Culture Clash, despite the dismal and frequent defeats of the activists and the defenders of the community, gives one hope because of the noble and generous spirits, neighbors with good hearts, who couldn’t be bribed or intimidated. Her neighbors and colleagues remind me of Kay herself: independent, principled, an activist and plain-spoken advocate.





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