New Mexico with Hooves and a Tail

William deBuys

My first horse was like New Mexico.

On summer grass under an arch of the cottonwoods, no creature could have been more beautiful, at least to my eye. He was a big rangy bay with a white blaze, and he animated the afternoons just by lazing into view. He was an ordinary country gelding, but his long-limbed grace and equine pride conjured a kind of magic. At a hundred yards, when he lifted his head, I could feel his kingly disdain. He was all horse, not an ounce of Flicka, and he could fly over the hills. Not to coin a phrase, but I was enchanted.

Get up close, though, and you saw a different animal. The lower lip was as thick as a bicycle tire and the hooves as big as skillets. Bareback, the ploughshare withers could terminate a man's genetic future. He had a little of every kind of blood in him, from draft horse to cowpony, including enough of old-time Barb to have a Roman nose. Pretty he wasn't, but when you were close enough to smell him, his aura did not dissipate so much as it heavied with a kind of musky mortality. This was a real horse, not a scenery ornament. You could hear his gut rumble, touch the nicks and scars of his hide, and feel the throb of the great heart. And, right behind the anger and the arrogance, you could see the fear that never entirely left his eye.

All of that was like New Mexico. Fiorello LaGuardia said, “Tickertape ain't spaghetti.” Well, you can't eat enchantment, either. Ours is the best of states and the worst of states. New Mexico's chromatic landscapes and storied cultures inspire us every day, but we consistently rank near the bottom in every meaningful measure of societal health. Teen pregnancy, children born to poverty, and functional illiteracy (not just among drop-outs but among the kids who are in our schools)—these are areas in which we lamentably excel. If states really were horses, even the forlorn nag of Mississippi would nose us out time and again.

So if we know all that, what do we do?

We work toward a government that is compassionate, smart, and responsive, and sometimes, maybe because of our efforts, it is those things, but sometimes it isn't. We also thank our lucky stars that today New Mexico has more of a philanthropic community than it ever had in the past, and we put a lot of hope in the freedom of all that (mostly) smart money. The freedom to innovate, to invest in ideas and good people, to develop leaders, and to bind up wounds and salve pain—these are among life's greatest and most necessary blessings, both for those who receive and for those who give. Even in a secular world, it is a sacred work.

The results are usually small and incremental, single steps in a thousand-mile journey along paths no one has mapped, but when you take enough of them, the world begins to change. Want to ameliorate poverty? Here's a target: break the cycle of teenage girls losing their shot at decent jobs because they've got babies to tend, babies who—according to the statistics—will have halfway lost their own shot before they grow teeth. It can be done. For years New Mexico has had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country—which means one of the highest in the entire developed world. But lately that rate has declined 11 percent statewide and more than 20 percent in many key areas. Foundation grants helped bring about the change.

The work to be done is immense but thrilling. It makes you feel like Sisyphus because it is never finished: you are always rolling that cursed rock up the hill. But now and then you look back and realize that the hill under your feet is not the one you started out on. That first hill is far away and out of view. Where you are now is more absorbing and surprising than any place you thought you'd be. And although you might have begun your journey by yourself, you find you are no longer pushing your rock alone. The idealism of philanthropy and nonprofit work is contagious. All around you are people embarked on similar journeys. You are not just part of an economic sector defined by the tax code. You are part of a community defined by hope and by the determination to make hope real.

It is a hope for jobs and honorable work, for health and security, for kids growing up with faith in themselves and in their future. It is a hope for an enduring society, sane in its use of energy and land, conscious of its past and thoughtful for its future. It is a hope to enjoy the beauty of both nature and culture, and to expand the heart and grow the spirit.

In general, New Mexico's philanthropies have been a beacon in the pursuit of such hope, and as near as I can tell (and I have been watching pretty closely), their light keeps getting stronger. That is a good thing for all of us because, without it, the horse of New Mexico would look a good deal knobbier than it does. It is still no beauty, and probably never will be, but it gives a helluva ride. The trick for all of us, as we sit on that broad back, is not just to be passengers, but to match our mount's spirit with our own. It is up to us to steer that horse in the right direction and to ensure that the ornery old fellow stays hale and fit as we go down the trail together.

“New Mexico with Hooves and a Tail,” by William deBuys,
reprinted from the McCune Foundation Annual Report.