New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, Land of Circles

After two and a half weeks in the high-altitude New Mexico desert sun, I confess my summer freckles have returned. I like to think of them as my skin’s seasonal blossoming. They’re little circular perennials, roots dug deep and hibernating all winter long, waiting for a warm week to reappear.

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Juniper in front of Abiquiú Lake

I stayed in Abiquiú, New Mexico, a rural town outside Santa Fe, in June to work as an instructional counselor for a creative writing class for gifted and talented high school students. Ghost Ranch is now a retreat center, made famous by the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who stayed there for many summers and eventually lived there full-time.

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Instructor and friend Natalie atop the overlook at Chimney Rock

This was my first time to New Mexico even though its entire northern border is most of Colorado’s southern border. The high desert there was overrun with crooked trees and low brush—juniper, sage, chamisa.

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Trail to Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch, Cerro Pederal in the distance

At the welcome center for Bandelier National Monument I flipped through samples of dried and pressed plants, matching them to what I’d seen on our hike around the cave dwellings, their ruins. These amazing light brown sandstone cliffs full of holes and pockmarks, made hollow by centuries of erosion.

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Cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Circular structures ringed with stacked stones were built and called kivas by the Pueblo Native Americans who lived there. These buildings were used in rituals, especially coming-of-age ceremonies for young men wherein the structure functioned like a sweat lodge.

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More cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument

Bandelier National Monument is a dormant volcano featuring an enormous caldera, basically the collapsed crater-like center of a volcano since overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and thirsty western high-altitude trees like cottonwoods and aspen.

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Bandelier plant life

As our class stopped beneath some of the less accessible cliff dwellings (reached via a series of ladders) for lunch, we wrote in response to a prompt about rituals, and it occurred to me that the caldera could be seen as a sort of first kiva—the stone circle first laid by some ancient, powerful hand. This is what it looks like when the land forms circles—a collapse, an eruption, layers of volcanic ash pressed into earth, then sandstone.

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Blooming Cholla cactus at Bandelier National Monument

The town of Taos contains the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the longest continuously inhabited villages in North America. Here the Pueblo people built their multi-story homes out of adobe brick, which consists of clay, hay, and water.

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A typical adobe home at the Taos Pueblo site

Both the mortar and the plaster which covers the bricks are made of mud. Cedar logs were laid across each structure to help form and support their ceilings. These ceiling also functioned as the floor of the story atop it, accessed by wooden ladders.

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Red chiles as decoration at Taos Pueblo

Because of the materials of these structures, it is impossible to outfit them with modern plumbing and electricity. Our tour guide told me only five families remain as full-time residents here, though many more keep their ancestral homes while they live primarily in the town of Taos, or elsewhere on the reservation.

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A window at the Catholic church in Taos

While walking around Taos Pueblo, I saw a man setting up a table with a display of turquoise jewelry underneath a hay canopy in front of an adobe home. We chatted, and he invited me into the home he said had been the birthplace of his great-grandfather, and inhabited by his family many, many generations before that.

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The Rio Pueblo de Taos in the foreground, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background

It was a simple, surprisingly cool single room with a small fireplace in one corner. He explained to me the technique by which the Pueblo people made the chimney. They took a cedar trunk and covered it with adobe plaster. Once dried, they then set the wood on fire, which would leave them with a hollow, cylindrical adobe structure. A circle of sky, open to sky.

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One of many art galleries in Taos Pueblo

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A close-up of the bison leather dreamcatcher

One night on a silent walk to Matrimonial Mesa at Ghost Ranch, I pointed out to the students the hoofprints of a deer in the mud. In a place that receives fewer than eight inches of rain a year, it had rained that afternoon. One student had spotted a garden snake who’d been coaxed out of the shadows by the cool rain. And the small, halved circles of the imprints of hooves wandering from the dirt road to the arroyo’s cottonwoods, weaving between chamisa and juniper.

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Desert daisies and pink sunsets on Ghost Ranch

On the mesa that night we watched the scattered, sputtering circles of stars come into being. We lay there quietly, listening to the high-pitched echoes of chirping bats as they drew their own looped circles in the air above. Kivas, nightly natural rituals. Circles in space and time. Each time we return to repeat the ritual, each time we circle back, something is different. We hold constant what we can, but we treasure everything.

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Looking west from Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

[from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows]

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Sunset over Chimney Rock on Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keeffe painted Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) over forty times. The story goes that she took any paintings with which she wasn’t satisfied, drove down the mesa, and burned their canvases right there in the desert. About Cerro Pedernal O’Keeffe said, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She returned and returned. She ritualized the process.

Locals heard of her affinity for bones and brought them to her, bleached white by desert sun and preserved by desert air. She painted a series centered on a cow’s pelvis. There are circles here, too—the spaces for each leg, the ball of each femur joint, the socket space. She painted it so close up, sometimes, that you can’t tell what the curves are a part of at all, what the lighting reveals.

Circles form from gravity, from wear and falling and moving and the difficulty of moving. Everything softens over time, forgets its corners, collapses. The desert is a land of circles, the simplicity of curves, the complexity of a single eye.

Ode to Snow

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Brighton Ski Resort, Utah

Winter is a time for contemplation. Everything takes a little longer to do. Food must be warmed, layers must be compiled and worn, windshields and sidewalks must be scraped and shoveled of ice and snow.

Whether you are in the midst of knee-deep snow yourself or whether you only dream of it, I invite you to listen to my new snowy playlist on Spotify while indulging in some wintry reading (sources cited) and photography (all by me) below. Enjoy.

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Laramie, Wyoming

“Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.” -From Mark Strand’s “Lines for Winter”

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Southern Wyoming

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'” -Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

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American Fork, Utah

“Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood… in Nature’s warm heart.” -John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra 

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Steamboat Springs, Colorado

“One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land…” -From Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”

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Centennial, Wyoming

“It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.” -Truman Capote
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Steamboat Ski Resort, Colorado

“A few feathery flakes are scattered widely through the air, and hover downward with uncertain flight, now almost alighting on the earth, now whirled again aloft into remote regions of the atmosphere.” -Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming

Love and warm wishes to all from the wintry American West.

Poem: A Beat Behind

A Beat Behind

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Kant says we are removed from these moments
of our lives and we only know their effect
just as our vision of stars’ light, living on after
their technicolored deaths, is distant from the star
itself, heaving gas and heat, a flame – no, a frame
of light just visible and always a beat behind.
Millennia ago they sang their swan songs.

I’m learning to let myself be in time, in this
very second. Between chimes of the ting-sha
Tolle says that past and future are both illusions;
all we have is now. Kant has said we don’t
even have that so I choose to believe in beauty
over truth, to see echoes of stars and be struck
dumb by their pinpricks through this dark
matter fabric lightyears away, years ago.

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A Beach Meditation

Though my response to the question “beach or mountains?” has invariably been “mountains” since I can remember, (sand is my nemesis – it has no respect for personal space) I must admit that spending several days at Figure Eight Island in North Carolina recently was a much-needed break from the dry, thin air of the Mountain West.

My brother Will woke up early one morning to see the sunrise

My brother Will woke up early one morning to see the sunrise

I live for the moment when, exiting the airport, two automatic sliding glass doors swish out of your way like curtains, parting to deliver you to the realm of humid, hazy summer air. Most travelers at the Raleigh-Durham airport were either walking very quickly to their intended destinations or waiting inside, getting all chummy with baggage claim, while I stood outside on the sidewalk, dreaming of a Cook Out milkshake.

Last year I went to the North Carolina coast to remember my Oma, my grandmother. Her four sons – my dad and three uncles – and my Opa spread her ashes in the ocean. It has been over a year since she passed away. She never met my cousin, who would’ve been her newest grandchild, baby Maxime, who is not yet a year old. We think she bears a strong resemblance to Oma.

Will took this adorable photo of Maxime on the beach

Will took this adorable photo of Maxime on the beach

A house filled to the brim with seventeen family members, all salt-crusted, tanned and sandy and sunscreened, sucking on sweaty soda cans, is a joy.

Beach hair & family

Beach hair & family

Figure Eight Island doesn’t have any public access beaches, so the strand stays relatively empty, dotted by the occasional sand castle, umbrella, swimmer, or fisher. On a few days, I went for walks barefoot in that small strip of land close enough to the tide that the sand stays compact, and footprints wash away behind you.

Photo credit to Libby

Photo credit to Libby

After a few minutes of step after step, I realized how empty the beach truly was. Once I turned around to head back, the wind threw itself at the front of my wide-brimmed straw hat. If I lifted my chin, the wind would catch the brim and toss the whole hat clear off my head and toward the dunes. If I tucked my chin down, the wind pushed up against the brim, pressing it into my nose and almost entirely obscuring my vision. It was like this when I realized I could simply walk forward with my eyes closed for minutes at a time. I can’t think of any other setting in the world in which this would be possible.

Occasionally I’d step on a shattered shell or a larger wave would catch my ankles by cold surprise, but mostly it was full minutes of waves, ocean rush, wind, sand beneath my feet, and nothing else. How peaceful to walk, completely trusting in the landscape and the strength of my legs, no background noise but breeze and sea. One dark step after another, the inner ear pulsing with breath and heartbeat, a walking meditation.

Libby took this photo of Ben on one of his walks

Libby took this photo of Ben on one of his walks

I admire our planet’s ability to hold a singular space for destruction and messy life alongside such transcendent calm- a flat, clean emptiness.