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In the Mimbres

Enlightened by garden and creatures

Not long after daybreak, the mountain ridges near San Lorenzo appear as endless hazy undulations, majestic and serene. After epochs of mountain formation, time-weariness is indetectable in this light.

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Michael Gilman’s garden facade displays an Asian allure and an array of tree species. (Photo by Vivian Savitt)

Farther on, past the Mimbres River, a side road allows a sweeping view of monsoon-verdant pastureland. In one field among grazing horses, a lone donkey trots cheerfully – looking more free spirit than beast of burden.

Then comes one of those inevitable sights blemished by hard luck and human callousness: rusting, burned-out cars; one wheelless junk-filled pickup; a caved-in trailer home assailed by broken glass and crumpled cans. Only the green of ailanthus trees, normally unwelcome, helps blunt the calamity.

Amidst these varied Mimbres scenes, Michael Gilman has spent the past decade creating a half-acre sanctum that once held garbage and debris alongside buried ancient artifacts.

Seated on his patio, one hears birdsong and a flurry of creature activity.

Hummingbirds nest in low ailanthus branches. Phainopepla eat the berries from Sambucus trees.

Both doves and Gambel’s quail gobble seeds that have dropped to the ground from the native bee balm plant. Some think that its stems provided the black pigment painted on Mimbres pottery.

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A blooming castor bean.

Reptiles and amphibians also enter the picture – the monsoons have stirred previously burrowed toads; a resident bull snake slithers through tree limbs irking the nesting wrens; a twin-spotted spiny lizard approaches Gilman very closely as if wishing to converse.

This garden surrounding man and beasts is now mature with fruit trees and New Mexican olive, as well as desert willow and Italian cypress. Lush stands of black bamboo evoke a foreign realm.

Long before Gilman’s arrival on the property, the ailanthus trees had secured their invasion. Ten days of clearing were required to make space to park his VW bus.

The “tree of heaven/tree of hell” monikers are ascribed per one’s disposition toward the species. Even now, as “pruned” ailanthus highlight the Asian atmosphere of the transformed landscape, their management is an ongoing task.

“But,” Gilman said, “they remind me of the tropics – the way they move with subtle breezes.”

At age 70, Gilman is an elder who lives and gardens on an ancient site. Its rich soil and available water is what drew him there.

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Buddha watches over the plantings.

“Humanity and nature have been part of this site for millenniums. I can see why it drew prehistoric people,” he said. “Both the University of Minnesota and the Museum of San Diego dug here in 1926 and 27, excavating about a quarter-acre of this property. In those days, archeology was more fantasy than science. Archeologists were pot hunters seeking museum-quality specimens.”

Gilman has heard that objects left behind, like mortar and pestles (metates), were collected by locals who were hired to help excavate.

As a college undergraduate he spent years illustrating artifacts at the Archeological Research Lab at the University of Missouri. Consequently, owning such objects no longer holds any appeal for him.

Living among 2,000 years of history meshes with Gilman’s degree in anthropology. The GI Bill provided his college education.

He joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school in Joplin, Mo., “Gateway to the Ozarks.” Only 17 years old at the time, Gilman’s parents had to sign an under-age consent form.

“I didn’t know anything about the world then,” he said. “I was an innocent kid with no bad habits and a good physique. Back in Joplin, I would walk along the river at night watching otters and mink search for crawdads. I had an appreciation of nature, but was lacking when it came to people.”

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Michael Gilman in his Mimbres garden. During his travels abroad, he visited rural areas to learn what people were doing for food. Now he enjoys a productive vegetable garden, cans for year-round produce, and also keeps chickens.

Gilman served in the Navy from l962-65 as the sole cryptographer on a salvage ship, home ported in Pearl Harbor.

“We didn’t use computers,” he said. “Our technology was from 1943 when the ship was built. There were 70 guys on board, including 13 salvage divers who wore those big diving helmets that bolted to their suits.”

During this period, Gilman traveled throughout the Pacific Rim. In Formosa (now Taiwan), he saw his first Buddhist temple situated high above a river gorge.

“Trees inhabited by monkeys and birds hung from the cliffs,” he said. “At the bottom of the gorge was a river and at the top, a temple. After that day, I was always pulled to Buddhist sites. I sat on the steps and photographed them, but it was too early to ask myself what I was doing there.”

Today, the shipshape quality of Gilman’s home and grounds is not only attributable to the Navy’s instilled fastidiousness, but also to his building skills and artistic eye. “The good money that I made in the building trades allowed me to travel six months of the year,” he said. “I was drawn to creative custom work – finish carpentry. Eventually I got the name ‘Tight-fit Gilman’ because my work was exact, never sloppy.”

On a big ranch in eastern Oregon, he worked as a cowboy-handyman and also branded and butchered pigs. In Bend, Ore., he created playground equipment for the Parks & Recreation District and also helped restore a lodge.

During this period, Gilman ceased living solo and was married for 13 years.

Then came a brush with mortality. At age 36, Gilman suffered encephalitis, a disease that attacks brain cells. He was not supposed to survive.

“I breathed mechanical air for 27 days in the hospital.”

Afterwards, he endured a lengthy period of neurological and spinal problems – making his future uncertain.

What Gilman explains as “pivotal clarity” came in his mid-50’s.

“I was living in Prescott, Ariz. and the mail carrier

– she was a Buddhist – left me a flyer announcing tha Ripoche Garchen was coming to give a teaching on Tibetan Buddhism,” He said. ”Ripoche Garchen triggered my awareness of the ‘knowing’ that has always been with me, but I could never explain. Under his influence, I heard the dharma.” For the next three years, Gilman lived among monks and stupas at the ashram outside of Prescott. Devotees like him helped to landscape meditation trails and other areas on the 76-acre site.

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Aspects of Gilman’s varied experiences – his inner landscape – are reflected on the Mimbres property. A salt cedar gate evokes mysteries beyond it. Elements like bamboo, bird baths set on terra cotta pillars, stones and prayer flags appear throughout the grounds.

Gilman said the prayer flags are connected more with “the sentiment that the world needs help” than with Buddhism per se.

About six years ago, he began building “Non-Ado,” a small, cool abode “for tranquility and rest – not meditation.”

“At this point, there is nothing else I need to do in the physical world,” Gilman said. “And in the garden, I am happy watching Nature take her course.”

In June, his place was a stop on the 24 Club home tour. A sign on the door at Non-Ado requested that visitors remove their shoes before entering the spirit house.

“I accompanied a young Hispanic woman inside, and during our conversation explained how nothing can be accomplished, learned or experienced that instantaneously brings enlightenment,” he said. “There’s a point where you’re just waiting, and grace taps you the shoulder and says that you are now.”

“The woman turned to me, and said sweetly, ‘My name is Grace.’ ”

Today – back in the now – Gilman finds life “kind of a sweet time.”


 

Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.

 

 



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