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.

Laramie Scenes

Notes from Laramie:

  • Nobody actually likes that winter lasts so long here
  • Overhearing a discussion on well water – where it tastes best, where it dries up
  • The metaphorical use of the term “bearcat” to describe a flummoxing process, e.g., “Getting my car registered today was a real bearcat”
  • Two severed male elk heads sitting upright in a neighbor’s backyard, in full view of the sidewalk, their bodies nowhere to be found
  • Wyoming town names include Chugwater, Bar Nunn, and Ten Sleep

Two good Laramie observations, made by other people:

  • A student in the economics graduate program with Matt, who just moved to the U.S. this fall, asked us why college-aged boys here are allowed to own such powerful rifles. He attended a military boarding school for boys in Bangladesh growing up
  • Sherman Alexie, the Native American poet from Seattle, came to speak at the university last week. He poked fun at the audience, asking if we all realized how close we are to Denver. He said he’d decided that the relentless Wyoming wind was just trying to kill itself by careening into everything as hard as it possibly could. This description isn’t far off

In other news, Matt and I are still afraid of our basement, I have yet to organize the bookshelf, and it snowed again the week before last (and last night!).

Abe's snowy paw print

Abe’s snowy paw print

And for those of you who missed my Instavideo, here’s a little snow ditty:

First inkling of snow
out through bay window

tumbling flakes start to flurry
in their breathless meandering hurry

settling in hair, nostrils, uninvited
spinning out, up, in – in spite of

wind tugging firmly otherwise
air now misted thick with white

I’m trying the handle of my car door
stuck numbed shut in winter storm

Notarized, a Poem

An original poem for you all. I’ve been writing very short poems recently; this was my attempt at a longer one.

Notarized

Yesterday I processed paperwork for a dead woman.
She’d lived in Wyoming all her 67 years
according to the affidavit of domicile.
67 years all in one place – in Wyoming, no less –
which, though beautiful, doesn’t vary much
between its snowy granite peaks and limestone canyons
and plains empty but for sagebrush and sky,
from corner bars with canned beers in a fridge out back
to cargo warehouses with dusty parking lots,
all devoid of people who aren’t white and straight.

Spending your whole life in one place
is an experience I’ll never have. I want to be in all places –
I have five tabs open in Google Chrome for a hopeful vacation
to Costa Rica: flights, guided rafting trip, a treehouse
built on a mango tree in Cahuita out past the sloth sanctuary.
Reviewers say you can hear the ocean through open windows.
This Wyoming woman, her life spelled out
in front of me, notarized, never heard waves.