Tim Posey lived in a former barracks bought surplus from the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas, and moved a few miles into the dusty, unpaved village of Anapra, New Mexico in the late 1950s. Most of Tim’s 10 acres was devoted to his business-the Posey Trailer Park. But at the center of his property, surrounded by the trailers and the vast Chihuahuan Desert, the Posey homestead teemed with life. Milk goats bleated under a shed. Chickens scratched in the shade. Miraculously, two dozen kinds of vegetables grew in the sand behind the horse stable. A big man past middle age, suntanned and stiff with arthritis, Tim spent most of his time on a kitchen chair under one or another of the awnings he had built onto his barns. He watched the animals, sharpened his tools and chatted with his tenants when they stopped by. I remember him in dark prescription sunglasses. I almost never saw him indoors.
I was 9 when Mr. Posey “hired” me. My family lived about a quarter-mile away. The livestock and the garden drew my attention. I was fascinated. Once I was certain he wouldn’t chase me off, I started spending nearly every spare moment there. He asked me if I wanted to learn how to milk the goats. Then he asked me if I was willing to do it every day. He paid me in produce, eggs and goat’s milk. My dad paid me cash for the food.
It was my first job, and I loved it.
There are places on the continent more barren than southern New Mexico, but not many. Creosote and mesquite bushes dot the sand hills. Most of the plants have spines or thorns. We called the surrounding landscape “hills,” but they were more like dunes. If you leave a junked car on the downwind side of a hill there, the hulk will disappear under the drifting sand in a few months.
Mr. Posey boarded horses. He raised chickens, guinea fowl, milk goats and honeybees.
I don’t know how long he had been moving manure from the chicken pens and horse corrals into the vegetable garden, but he had created a marvel there. Watermelons grew huge and dark green in the tangles of vines. On the ground between the rows of corn was a moist wonderland of dappled light buzzing with insects.
It’s hard to describe the emotional impact of encountering all that life in the context of our garbage-strewn village in the middle of the desert. Tim Posey had taken a small plot of land, raked out the broken glass and old bleach bottles, added manure and created a small, earthly paradise. It captured my heart.
I helped Mister Posey mix a potent fertilizer from chicken manure and water in a 55-gallon drum, a slurry that could be mixed with the irrigation water he pumped into the garden. I gathered the eggs. I milked the goats. I don’t remember many sweeter moments in my life than the walk from my home to the goat pens in the cool early morning, smelling the creosote bushes, then the goats, then the sugary aroma of cracked corn and the warm, delicious odor of new milk. Sometimes we let the goats out into the open desert where they browsed blue grama grass, mesquite beans and acacia leaves. I loved watching them shop among the plants for those they found most appetizing. The technical term for the way a goat eats is “browsing,” and it’s a perfect description. They are like shoppers in a supermarket, and even in the desert they seemed to find plenty of goods. While the goats were out of their pen and the gate left open, the chickens and guinea hens moved in and, scratching and clucking, found a feast of their own. I could never tell exactly what they were eating. They probably found scraps of grain and alfalfa, maybe insects or worms attracted by the animals and the manure.
From the chicken pen to the garden to the watermelons, from the mesquite beans to the goat’s udder to my breakfast cereal I became an eyewitness to a form of alchemy that struck me then-and strikes me now-as magical.
I thought of Tim Posey as a sort of magician whose rituals of feed, fertilizer and irrigation created numinous transformations. I wanted to learn how to practice that magic.