Thursday, November 08, 2018

Three Days in Taos

After attending the “Stills and Collins” Saturday night concert and volunteering at the las Golondrinas Renaissance Faire the next day, on Monday we drove north to Taos, New Mexico to get away from home for a few days – and while there spent much of our time at other people’s digs: a former ranch that was one of our temporary staying places when we first came to northern New Mexico twenty-six years ago; the early 20th century 4,000 square-foot, asymmetrical, adobe Pueblo and Mission Revival residence of a renowned Russian artist and his family; the early 19th century adobe of a mountain man, wilderness guide, Indian agent, and U.S. Army officer who became a frontier legend in his own lifetime; a hacienda built during the Spanish colonial era that is now a living museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and a 21st century community of passive solar houses that is made of both natural and up-cycled materials “living off the grid.”

Stephen Stills, formerly of Crosby, Stills, & Nash (and later Young), and folk music legend Judy Collins were apparently “an item” in the 60’s resulting in CS&N’s recording of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” featuring the unforgettable lyric “Doo doo doo doo doo – doo doo doo doo doo doo.  Doo doo doo doo doo – doo doo doo doo” (admit it, you’re hearing it in your head) – and her break-up song “Houses” (You have many houses, one for every season.”)  Now they are touring together performing these and other songs (some solo and some together).  And one of their stops was the Camel Rock Casino up the road apiece across from the large, eponymous, red stone Camel Rock.

Not being gaming house people it was our first visit – so we took a warm up lap around the gambling area with “over 500 of your favorite slot and video poker machines” plus with “table games” on special nights, before we settled into our chairs in the “10,000 square foot event center that easily accommodates wedding receptions, conferences, corporate parties, concerts and more.” 

We both are fans of her, much more than him, and of less amplified music – which is how we remembered both CS&N and JC, but not how it was to be that night. Fifth time we have seen her and her multi-tiered voice is as good as ever.  His never was that good.  Still, overall a good experience.

Sunday we were both volunteering at the very busy 11th Annual Santa Fe Renaissance Faire at El Rancho de las Golondrinas – the museum’s most attended event – with a surprisingly large number of visitors who were just as interested in Spanish Colonial history as they were in the jousting, light & heavy weapons armored fighting, and kid’s Fairy Village.  Marsha had the unusual opportunity to coach a partially armored heavy weapon combatant through some basic weaving, while Jim began his morning being visited by a snow-white unicorn (actually a rather tall stallion with an invisibly attached horn) being ridden by his white clad princess to stretch his legs and visit the goats in Sierra Village.

We took the High Road to Taos, stooping at Trujillo and Ortega Weavers in Chimayo and enjoying a decadent “lunch” of hot fudge on pistachio ice cream at the “Pink Sign” just within the Taos town line.

We stayed at El Pueblo Lodge – originally built as a small ranch in 1912 – now with additional units and suite accommodations spread out over several buildings, many of adobe construction.  Marsha discovered El Pueblo through AAA for our first trip to northern New Mexico in 1992.  Its appeal to us was location at the north end of the town’s main drag within walking distance to “downtown Taos” (essentially one street and a side Plaza), price, outdoor pool & hot tub, and free breakfast (coffee and donuts).  The price is still comparatively low and the breakfast has gotten much, much better.  The location, Taos’ size, pool and hot tub are still the same.


On Tuesday we strolled down the street to the Taos Art Museum located in the former house of Russian artist Nicolai Fechin, his wife Alexandra and daughter Eya.  A somewhat successful artist in Russia Fechin emigrated to New York City, where he became quite successful, and then in the 1920s to Taos with the encouragement of the town’s doyenne of the arts (and pretty much driving force for everything social) Mabel Dodge Luhan who felt the dry climate and altitude would be good for Nikolai’s tuberculosis and the landscape inspirational for his painting.  He purchased his house in 1928 and remodeled it by enlarging the porch; adding and widening windows to take advantage of the views; and carving many of the fittings of the house and its furniture, using typical Russian design elements such as triptych windows and intricately carved doors.  The result “reflects a modernist sensibility combined with Russian, Native American and Spanish traditions.”

From there we journeyed farther on down the road to the former residence and now museum of Christopher “Kit” Carson – perhaps Taos’ most famous and celebrated resident.  The house is a modest single-story adobe structure, built in 1825, that is an east-facing U shape with a central courtyard. The oldest portion of the house consists of the front three rooms, and the next room to the north. The interior of these rooms has been furnished in the Spanish Colonial and Territorial styles of the Carson period, while other rooms house museum offices and displays.  Some improvements, such as wooden supports and floors have been added for visitor safety and comfort.  Carson was (as the museum brochure describes him) “an enigmatic and complex man who participated in, and helped pave the way for, almost all of the major historical events of America’s westward expansion” – to his credit and detriment.  Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides is an extremely well written history of Carson and the westward expansion.

After refreshing ourselves with falafel, and other middle-eastern delights we drove out of town to the Hacienda de los Martinez located on the bank of the Rio Pueblo de Taos– a large landed estate built during the Spanish colonial era and now a living museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places.   Don Antonio Severino Martinez bought the property and then four-room adobe dwelling in 1804 expanding it to twenty-one rooms around two inner courtyards, or placitas. Like the Golondrinas Placita within which Marsha docents and weaves it was constructed as a fortress for protection against attacks by Plains tribes, such as Comanche and Apache raiders, when there was a threat of violence, the livestock were brought into the courtyards of the hacienda for safety.  The buildings are interpreted as the 1820s under Spanish colonial rule. For example, the weaving exhibits display wool died with vegetable based tints (as are those at las Golondrinas); the hacienda's interior walls are white washed with tierra blanca, a mixture of micaceous clay and wheat paste; and the dirt floors are sealed and polished with oxblood.  Martinez Hacienda is one of the few remaining Spanish colonial haciendas open to the public year round in the United States.

Having OD’d on the past, the next day we visited Earthship Biotecture, pioneered by architect Michael Reynolds – a hoping-to-be community of passive solar houses made of both natural substances like adobe, and up-cycled materials such as earth-packed tires.

We took the self-guided tour of the exterior of some houses and the entire visitor center – including that building’s roof containing the capture mechanism that begins the rain-to-potable-to-gray-to-black-H2O.  (Marsha was assured by visitor center greeter that even out here in the desert rainfall is sufficient – although “a few of the owners did have to buy water last year.”  Earthships have also been built in Haiti where that is less of an issue.)   The rooftop was easily accessible since the north side of the building is embedded into the hilly earth.  Many of the buildings incorporate glass bottles for style and are adorned with structural elements similar to those of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, whom we studied in an Elderhostel program in Barcelona and whose works we find attractive and appealing.

There are currently twenty or so residences built on the large, semi-remote desert property on the west side of the Tres Orejas (Three Ears) Mountain 1.5 miles beyond the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  Some dwellings can also be rented for evenings or longer.  Earthship #96590 – a comfortable solar heated and solar photo-voltaic electricity powered, green, two bedroom, one bath, 1,800 sq. ft. home located on two acres – is currently on the market for $149,000.

Oddly our real estate agent did not bring us out here when we were looking last summer.

Rain curtailed our visit to the DH Lawrence Ranch, the 160-acre property where the English novelist and his wife lived in the 1920s.  Lawrence was clearly blown away by the Land of Enchantment – “In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.”

Now that’s our kind of place.  Next time for sure.

Friday morning around ten we went to the Post Office to pick up our mail, which we had held there during our absence.  Standing at the counter we thought we heard the “cock-a-doodle-doo” of a crowing cock emanating from behind the window clerk.

“Do you have a rooster back there?” Marsha asked.

“Yes”, answered the postal employee impassively– with an implied “of course we do” in her voice.

“Only in Santa Fe,” commented Marsha as we left.

Some New Mexico Fauna

I think that I may once have seen a hummingbird moth in our “butterfly garden” back in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  It snuck up beside me while I was working in the flowerbed one sunny summer afternoon.  Alerted by its whirring sound I looked up just in time to see it leaving.  Not knowing about such insects I thought it must have been a tiny, perhaps young, hummingbird – which of course was one of the fauna, along with colorful butterflies, that Marsha and I were hoping to attract with our patch of nectar-bait flora.  The moth was about the best we did.


Out here now in Santa Fe, New Mexico I have actually been on the lookout for this plump, clear-winged, and (unlike most moths) day-flying Lepidoptera.  We were told by a docent at the city’s botanical garden that we could expect to see the little guys hanging around our newly planted purple four-o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa, the marvel of Peru) – which, as their name implies, open their flowers just in time to provide a nice end-of-day snack for the little fake-hummers
While we haven’t witnessed that particular insect happy hour, both Marsha and I have seen the buzzing bug hovering around our red penstemon bush – one of the drought tolerant plants left by the previous owner in our front garden along with: another penstemon; (this one low growing); several lavenders; a potintilla; something that may be a Russian Olive tree that we keep pruned at a slightly lower height than the bushy penstemon, which it is immediately behind; and some volunteer pink evening primrose.  We have added three cactus, an agave, another penstemon variety, two yucca and the aforementioned four o’clock – all also requiring little or no hydration.

We are enjoying learning about the existence of these unfamiliar flora.  But just as much, if not more so, we are also taking pleasure in the new animals we are seeing on a daily basis both in our yard and on our walks around the neighborhood and in the desert.


First of course are the real hummers that began appearing at our nectar feeder about one month ago after the nesting and fledging of the new little ones was completed.  We have discovered that ours is a Rufous hummingbird who, typically for the breed, is  quite territorial and belligerent in defending its turf – or at least the space above it.  Which is to say if you want more than one hummer at a time, and one of them is a Rufous  – then you need more than one feeder, not to be placed too close to the others.  Something we are in the process of taking care of thanks to our local Wild Birds Unlimited store.

 Based upon what we have seen of the solitary humming moth it seems to act pretty much identical to its slightly larger avian role models, so we suspect that it will also exhibit the same possessive trait towards our penstemon.  We do not however plan to expand out garden to accommodate a bigger crowd.


Meanwhile, beneath our feet, is a plethora of the Official State reptile Cnemidophorus neomexicanus – the New Mexico whiptail lizard.  They are literally everywhere – on our placita patio, on our exterior stucco walls, in our gardens, strolling on the sidewalks and walking trails, and scurrying across the desert caliche.  About 3.5" from snout to vent, slim, light brown with seven yellow or cream colored stripes and numerous light spots, blue or gray-green tipped tail, and a slim, pointed snout – other than the color you would fully expect these cute little guys to stand up on their hind legs and try to sell you protection for accidents in your home or automobile.  But you would be wrong on two accounts.  (1) They are more interested in eating insects than providing liability coverage.  And (2) – none of them are guys.

The whiptail – along with several other types of the four-legged reptile – is parthenogenic, that is absolutely no male assistance is required to produce other little lizards.   Which is of course a good thing since there are in fact no males available.  Interestingly, although only one set of genes is involved in the creation process, the offspring are not clones of the mom.

Cuteness may count in selecting who gets to officially represent a nation or territory or an insurance company – but we are hoping that the whiptails excessive numbers and omnipresence are the principal reasons for its official state status.  And why other New Mexican reptiles such as red racer snakes and diamondback rattlers don’t have similar honorifics.

 Or did not, we hope, even make the short list.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Like other colonialist countries, Spain has a history of slavery.  In Nuevo Mexico the practice resulted in the creation of a hybrid population group known as “Genizaros” who today make up a significant portion of the populations of northern New Mexico,  southern Colorado, and the South Valley of Albuquerque.  And Genizaros founded the towns of San Miguel and San Jose, as well as Abiquiú – site of a witchcraft outbreak and trial from 1756 to 1766, and two centuries later the home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
The definition of who is a Genizaro is however not precise.

Fray Angelico Chavez, O.F.M. (1910-1996) – archivist of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and “oppositional historian” who wrote about the non-Anglo, Hispano roots of New Mexico past’s – defined Genizaros as, “Indians of mixed tribal derivations living among [Hispanos]…having Spanish surnames from their former masters, Christian names through baptism in the Roman Catholic faith, speaking a simple form of Spanish, and living together in special communities or sprinkled among the Hispanic towns and ranchos.”  In practice the category came to be applied more generally to Indians who had lost their tribal identity, spent time as captives or servants, and were living on the margins of Spanish society.
 The initial legal basis for compelling such enslavement was the “encomienda” – a system designed to meet the needs of the mining economy in the early Spanish colonies.  As defined in 1503, an encomienda consisted of a grant by the Spanish crown to a conquistador, soldier, official, or others for a specified number of Indians living in a particular area. The “encomendero” (or recipient of the grant) could then exact tribute from the Indians in gold, in kind, or in labor.  In turn the encomendero was required to protect the natives and instruct them in the Catholic faith.  (The practice was based upon a similar system of exacting compensatory payment from Muslims and Jews during the Reconquista (“Reconquest”) of Muslim Spain in 1492.)            
The original intent of the encomienda was to reduce the abuses of forced labor (repartimiento) that the Spanish colonists employed shortly after the discovery of the New World.  However in practice it had the reverse effect and became a largely means of enslavement.  The Spanish crown attempted to end the severe abuses of the system by passing the Laws of Burgos (1512–13) and the New Law of the Indies (1542) – but both failed due to heavy colonial opposition.  Instead a revised form of the repartimiento system was revived after 1550.  The Spanish government’s view of slavery shifted pro and con over time and the encomienda itself was not officially abolished until the late 18th century.

When the Spanish Conquistadors first came to New Mexico, Spanish law explicitly forbade servitude.  However an ambiguity in the rules, the Recopilacíon de Leyes de Reynos de las Indias of 1681, allowed the capture and enslavement of unconverted Indians for the purpose of Christianizing them.  This practice was given further sanction in 1694 when a group of Navajo brought a group of Pawnee children to New Mexico to sell to the Spanish.  When the Spaniards refused to purchase them, the Navajo beheaded their captives.  After learning of this Charles II, King of Spain, ordered that royal funds be used if necessary to avoid another such atrocity.
The Spanish government had authorized this practice as a means of saving the souls of the heathen Indians by converting them to Catholicism.  However local government officials, landowners, and some members of the clergy often placed more emphasis was on the amount of work Genízaro servants performed, while teaching their servants Christian doctrine was often ignored.
The standard wage for a Genízaro was three to five pesos per month, depending on the length of their service.  And once the process of Christianization had occurred and Genízaros had earned enough to pay off their ransom, they were supposed to be freed.  This part of the law was also not always followed by the slaveholders.
Genízaros were purchased at annual trade fairs held at Pecos, Taos, and Abiquiú where they were considered one of the most profitable commodities; the “richest treasure for the governor,” in the words of the Fray Pedro Serrano.  The value of Genízaro servants varied: fifteen mares (about one hundred fifty pesos) were paid for an Apache captive in 1731, and eighty pesos were paid for Pedro de la Cruz who in 1747 was brought to trial for planning to escape enslavement and escape to the Comanche.  Pedro may have also fled (and been recaptured) a year earlier with four Genizaro women.  He is reported as saying at that time that his destination was, “the infidel nation of Comanches.”
In the 1747 trial a servant name Manuel George testified that Pedro told him he was determined to escape to “la Nacion Comanche” with Maria de la Luz – and then “return in the company of Comanches and take out the Espanoles by their hair” (i.e. scalp them).  Other witnesses, among them Geronimo Martin who was described as “a rational Indian with known good intentions,” also said they knew that Pedro wanted to flee to the Comanche.  De la Cruz was found guilty of planning to “apostate to the Comanches”   and sentenced to five years of labor as a personal servant in the obraje (wool cloth processing plant) of Antonio Tivurcio in the Pueblo of Nuestra Senora del Socorro at a salary of three pesos a month.
Genízaros were marked with a very low social status because they were neither Spanish nor Indian; thus, it was difficult for them to obtain land, livestock, or other property required to make a living.   “The primary elements of Genizaro status were servitude or captivity and Indian blood.  Within these two factors there were numerous variations, the defining characteristics being quite elastic.  When the Genizaro category is expanded to include mestizos (mixed Indian-Spanish) who were captives of Indians, and then lived as Spaniards after their release…while retaining their mestizo status, additional permutations of what constitute a Genizaro emerge.”   Such a person was Juana “La Galvana” Hurtado, who was able to leverage her experience and contacts in both the Hispanic and Native American worlds to acquire land, livestock, and a substantial amount of material goods, although still retaining her Genízara status.
Juana Hurtardo was living as the daughter of Andrés Hurtardo and a Zia woman servant of his at Santa Ana Pueblo, which he held in encomienda.  Even though her father was probably an elite member of Spanish Society, Juana still would have been considered a coyota, (mixed Indian-Spanish) mestizo or Genizara.  A few months before the Pueblo Revolt in August 1680, at the age of seven Juana was taken captive by a band of Navajo with whom she lived until 1692 when her brother ransomed her.  By that time Juana had given birth to at least one and possibly two children with Navajo fathers – and probably had been adopted into a Navajo clan.  This close relationship with the Navajo continued as members of that tribe made frequent trading tips to Juana at the rancho where she now lived.  Juana also continued a relationship with a Zia man named Galvan (hence the “La Galvana” in her name) with whom she had four more children. 
The trade business that Juana brought to the Zia, and her relationship with Galvan generated such strong loyalty to her from the Zia people such that in 1727 when Spanish Official Alcaide Ramon Garcia charged her with “scandalous behavior” and planned to put her in stocks, the Zia “threatened that the whole pueblo would move to the mesa tops, rather than have her mistreated.”
When Juana died in 1753 she owned a ranch with three houses and extensive herds of cattle and sheep.  Her funeral costs – which were paid from her estate – totaled 229 pesos, paid in-kind with: four cows with calves; several goats with kids; several sheep; one “fine” mare; one horse; one embroidered manta (cloth); and one cotton manta.  The remainder was distributed among her four Galvan children.  The majority, 1,222 pesos including land and a house at Zia Pueblo, went to Lorenzo Galvan to whom she referred as “her legitimate son and heir.”  Matias, Diego, and Juan Galvan received 1,101, 823 and 480 pesos respectively.  Fifteen-year old Juan’s share was held by older brother Diego who was charged with teaching his younger sibling the rudiments of the Christian religion – indicating that the children may have been raised more as Zia than as Spanish Catholic.  The balance of 1,855 pesos was paid to unmade creditors.
Juana Hurtardo was a woman with one foot in the world of her Spanish conquistador father, and the other in the Indian world of the Zia and the Navajo.

The size of her estate and the amount of her funeral expenses place her in the same category as other women of property in eighteenth-century New Mexico.  But Juana Hurtardo was consistently referred to as a coyata throughout her estate proceedings.
Some Genizaros assimilated and became full-fledged Spanish citizens through marriage to Spaniards.   Others such as Manuel Mestas and Pedro Lujan were able to acquire “vecino” (property owner, freeman) status by actively engaging in the same business of slave trading from which they came.  But despite her success as a mother and independently wealthy woman in her own right – in the end, as an Hispanicized Indian, “La Galvana”, was still considered just a Genizara.


The Witches of Abiquiu by Malcom Ebright & Rick Hendricks, University of New Mexico Press
New Mexico Office of the State Historian –

Remembrance of Amaranths Past

“…And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.” — Marcel Proust, "Remembrance of Things Past"

Proust’s seven-volume opus has long been one of my favorite novels.  And amaranth has long been one of my favorite flowering plants. 


So, having recently moved to northern New Mexico, and being somewhat a gardener as well as a fan of history, I was excited to learn that not only does this tall maroon-colored weed with spinach-shaped leaves grow here, but it also played a major role in the lives of the ancient residents of this area.  But I was most surprised to hear that this “everlasting flower” (as it translates) at on time was banned and destroyed by the Spanish colonists because of its use in native pagan practices.

Marsha and I were first introduced to amaranth back in Wethersfield, Connecticut by her parents who, unbeknownst to us while we were at work one day, sowed some of their seeds into our small backyard vegetable garden.  The big red weed became our most successful crop that year.   Being self-seeding plants their location shifted from season to season.  Yet they always remained the star of that garden.  However the in-law connection is  likely the primary cause of my affection for the plant, which, like Proust’s madeleine triggers pleasant memories of people in my own life story.


Likewise the sight of tansy precipitates involuntary memories of J, a dear friend of Marsha’s and mine and a master gardener who gave us what became a patch of this yellow, perennial, herbaceous flowering plant that we placed within shouting distance of the amaranth.  The herb garden at El Rancho de las Golondrinas living history museum where we volunteer likewise has a tansy bed, which now touches off the same reminiscences. 

However Marsha and I had not seen any amaranth during the fifteen months since we moved out here until we visited the Santa Fe Botanical Garden where more than a dozen amaranths form a phalanx above their terraced vegetable garden.  Docents S and K explained briefly the plant’s place in New Mexico’s dietary and fiber arts history – and the Spanish Colonial’s distrust and destruction of it.  Both of which prompted further research on my part.

Similar to our own surprise introduction to the tall red plant, amaranth (which is native to the Americas) was happened upon and harvested before being domestically planted around 4,000 BC in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley (also believed to be the first place maize was ever cultivated by humankind.)  From there, it is considered to have spread to the Southwestern United States via ancient trading routes.

Unlike Marsha and me, these Late Archaic-era Mesoamericans, and later-in-time Southwestern Indians found many practical uses for the seeds and leaves of the plant.  Native Americans in general have eaten amaranth seeds for thousands of years, while the Apache and Navajos used amaranth to make flour for bread.  Aztecs and later the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) people of what is now Mexico would make “pinole” by grinding and toasting the amaranth, mixing it with sugar, spices, and a bit of water to then be eaten as hot cereal or cooked into cakes. Amaranth flour, mixed with cornmeal, was also made into dumplings.  And the seeds were popped like popcorn and sometimes mixed with honey, chocolate, and pumpkin or sunflower seeds for Day of the Dead and other celebrations.

And, before the advent of corn, amaranth was used to make tortillas.

The Spanish Colonials and Priests however were not that concerned about the culinary practices of this newly conquered people (many of which they adopted) as much as they were about their religious rituals.

Fray Diego Duran was a Franciscan Friar whose job was to help his fellow priests identify and wipe out the pagan practices that they found among the Aztecs during and even after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  He compiled his findings, including his long list of forbidden foods, in the Book of the Gods.


As described in “AnthroSource”, a publication of the American Anthropological Association, “Duran was particularly concerned with parallels between Aztec and Christian religion, for he believed the natives often associated pagan beliefs with Catholic rites. He noted that Easter fell in the same season as the pre-Conquest feast for the Aztec tribal god Huitzilopochtli. Both feasts celebrated human sacrifice through rites of Holy Communion. When the Aztecs consumed bits of dough [made from amaranth] sprinkled with the blood of sacrificial victims they claimed they had eaten the flesh and bones of their gods just as Christians believed they received the body and blood of Christ at communion.”

Amaranth was clearly a no-no – so deeply engrained into the fabric of the native’s spiritual consciousness that it had to be eliminated.  The crops were destroyed and its growth or use was banned.  Penalties for violations were harsh – e.g. severing hands.  However the plant still grew abundantly in the wild.  So while its ritual use disappeared (or at least disappeared from the friar’s view), it remained a staple of the Mesoamerican diet  – while the Colonial Spaniards continued to use the native word “huautli”, meaning amaranth greens to refer to greens of all kinds.

Here in New Mexico amaranth was used by the Hopi as a natural dye to color their world-renowned piki bread.  (Baker CreekHeirloom Seed Company, which now owns Comstock Ferre Seeds in our former home of Wethersfield, sells what it calls Hopi Red Dye Amaranth.)  Apache, Chiricahua and Navajo ground the seeds into flour to make bread and ate the young plants eaten as greens.

And amaranth leaves were used by the Navajo in religious ceremonies to “smoke for lewdness” during the Coyote Chant, according to Tsvetelina Stefanova writing in Native Plants of Arizona.  Definitely not something Fray Diego Duran was interested in seeing continue.

The late poet Gertrude Stein wrote, "A rose is a rose is a rose" – generally interpreted as meaning "things are just what they are – no more, no less." 

Ms. Stein certainly has more literary clout than me – but I sincerely doubt the accuracy of that particular observation.   It certainly is not true of any garden plant that we have ever been given.  Like the tea-infused madeleine, each flower carries within it the power to invoke involuntary memories of things past – “in the sensation which that material object will give us,” as Proust would put it.

The Aztecs, the Native Americans – and most definitely the Spanish Conquistador Franciscan Friars – clearly understood that.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

O'Keeffe, Taos, and the Standard Oil Heiress

Georgia O’Keeffe was the reason Marsha and I came to northern New Mexico for the first time almost twenty-six years ago to celebrate our silver anniversary. 
 I had little familiarity with her art when earlier that year we went to a retrospective exhibit of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  And, although not really fans of non-representational paintings, we both were, in the jargon of the day, totally blown away by what we perceived as O’Keeffe’s abstract interpretations of the desert southwest – recognizable, yet not realistic.
So when we were trying to choose where to celebrate our marriage milestone we recalled that artwork and decided to go see the land that was the inspiration for her non-pictorial pictures.
And quickly discovered when that we looked at things a certain way, particularly through a camera viewfinder, they were not that imaginary after all.  And we were forever hooked on the desert southwest.
 O’Keeffe’s first home in New Mexico was at “Ghost Ranch” in the town of Abiquiu about forty-five miles north of Santa Fe.  And following the advice of a fellow traveler we had met at breakfast we decided to make her first home our first sightseeing stop.
The ranch was then, and today, a Presbyterian Education and Retreat Center, donated to the church by Arthur Newton Pack and his wife Phoebe in 1955.  In the 1930s Pack had been a frequent guest at what was at that time an exclusive dude ranch run by Carol Stanley whose former husband by divorce Roy Pfaffle had won the deed to the property in a poker game sometime early in 1928.  Guests at Stanley’s high desert resort included Charles Lindbergh, Ansel Adams and John Wayne – and for most summers from 1929 to 1945, Georgia O’Keeffe.  Prior to that it had been the property of the Archuleta brothers, cattle rustlers who enjoyed the coverage and invisibility that the canyon provided and had a tendency to murder others who came onto their refuge.  To discourage their neighbors from snooping around the Archuletas spread the rumor that the land was haunted by evil spirits – from which it came to be called “Rancho de los Brujos” (“Ranch of the Witches.”)  Ultimately, and probably inevitably, one Archuleta killed the other – after which a group of local men came to the ranch, and hung the remaining brother and his gang from a cottonwood tree that still stands next to one of the casitas on the property.  On taking over the property Carol Stanley renamed it Ghost Ranch – a friendlier moniker that still captured a bit of its past history.
O’Keeffe’s casita could not be visited.  But on the way in to the ranch Marsha and I noticed a tall red rock formation, which we discovered at the visitor center was appropriately named Chimney Rock and was climbable via a three mile round trip trail with a 600 foot rise in elevation.  So, armed with our bottles of apple juice and some small snacks, we set upon our inaugural New Mexican hike at the top of which we found a panoramic view of the landscape which was so inspiring to O’Keeffe.  And to us.  I also personally learned that, with Marsha, I was willing to try things I once would never have thought I was capable of doing.
During her summers at Ghost Ranch O’Keeffe learned to drive an automobile. And on one of her motor trips came upon a property in the village of Abiquiu, which she decided she wanted as her own house.  At the time, it was a deteriorating adobe structure owned by the Roman Catholic Church, which for about fifteen years did not want to sell it. O’Keeffe persisted.  Eventually the church relented, and she was able to purchase it in 1945, renovate it, and reside there until 1984 when frailty forced her to move to Santa Fe for the two remaining years of her life.
It was this house which was itself the subject matter of over two dozen of her most iconic painting that we finally visited on a recent Friday with our friends Roberta, Doug and Elizabeth from our former home town of Wethersfield, CT who were visiting Santa Fe for the first time.  And who, like us on our maiden voyage to the Land of Enchantment, were drawn here (at least in part) by O’Keeffe’s work.
Access to the residence is available only by guided tour through the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which ferries tourists from the Visitor Center on the grounds of the Abiquiu Inn, through the tiny village, to the 5,000 square foot residence with acequia drenched gardens and a central patio that is one of her favorite subjects.
 In O’Keeffe’s mind, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”
For example, our tour guide explained, the tiles shown in the picture below, as well as the doorway, are both real.  But the tiles are not on the bottom of the wall.  They actually form the walkway below.  However O’Keeffe noticed that when the light caused a certain type of shadow, the visual distinction between wall and walkway was almost invisible – so, why not build on that semi-illusion.  Recognizable, yet not realistic – abstract but not imaginary.

 After our house tour, and a delicious lunch at the Abiquiu Inn the five of us drove out to another of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects, The White Place (aka Plaza Blanca) – an area of bone white hoodoos (rock pillars that do not maintain the same form from top to bottom).  Now on the grounds of the Dar Al Islam Education Center and Mosque and open to the public it is reachable via a circuitous pair of back roads culminating in an extremely unimproved quarter-mile entryway that could deter even the most devoted O’Keeffe enthusiast if they were not aware of what awaited.  (I cannot fathom how O’Keeffe herself got out here.)
It is monsoon season in New Mexico.  And when we got to The White Place the surrounding skies became decidedly non-blue, and the winds began blowing fiercely.  So we limited our visit to a short walk towards the formations and some zoom photos.  But even in the less than ideal lighting conditions I think all of us could see the possibilities, which Marsha, and I at other times on sunnier days have experienced up close and personal.

Two days later our quintet traveled the High Road to Taos – stopping along the way at ElSantuario de Chimayó – a Roman Catholic Church, and National Historic Landmark in the village of Chimayo.  Whether you believe or not, there is something about the peacefulness and serenity of old, small Spanish Colonial New Mexican churches that draws you in and wraps its arms around you.
 Plus, the dirt in a hole called “el pocitio” in a small closet-sized room is believed to be miraculous, making the church “one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage centers in the United States,” according to the National Park Service, which cares about this because of the site’s Historic Landmark status.  A Prayer Room next to el pocitio contains an amazing number of discarded crutches and rosary beads   And a walking procession of the faithful follows our thirty mile driving route from Santa Fe to Chimayo each Easter.

The youngest among us hunched herself into the tiny room to retrieve two cupped hands of the sacred soil for our group to share.
After fortifying ourselves with brunch at Doc Martin’s restaurant in the center Taos –”the best pancakes ever,” according to one of our group – we headed on to Taos Pueblo, constructed between 1000 and 1450 A.D., and “considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA” according to their website.  As well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately our monsoon luck struck again just as we pulled in to the visitor parking lot.  But armed with umbrellas and jackets we persisted and enjoyed the short walking tour of the Pueblo including Saint Jerome’s Church with its Virgin Mary/Corn Goddess at the center of the altar – a reminder of the forced conversion of the resident Tewa Indians to Catholicism, and of the Native American’s continuing practice of their indigenous Tewa Religion in parallel with their imposed Christianity.
Marsha and I first visited Taos Pueblo on our initial foray into New Mexico – on a magnificently sunny day.  And what I recall most from back then was the way in which, as on O’Keeffe’s patio, the luminescence visually rearranged the architectural lines of the multi-story adobe apartments creating another recognizable, yet not realist – abstract but not imaginary scene.
The sun came back out during our drive from Taos Pueblo to the Millicent Rogers Museum on the outskirts of town.  The MRM was established by one of her sons and is filled principally with objects from Millicent Rogers' personal collection of jewelry, textiles and baskets.
Sometimes known as “the Standard Oil Heiress” as the granddaughter of the company’s co-founder (with J.D. Rockefeller) grew up in New York within privilege and wealth.  “Millicent’s life, before Taos, includes the things one would expect, such as travel, homes, marriage [three] and children. But she was also distinctive for her looks and her fashionable style, which resulted in popularity with photographers, clothing designers and fashion magazines.  Apart from photographing well and having a figure for couture design, Millicent had a way of combining fashion elements with an engaging flair, which in turn caught the eye and attention of fashion devotees.  So how does this answer why Millicent collected art of the Southwest? That Millicent approached fashion creatively is the key.”  (MRM website)
Looking to recover from her breakup with actor Clark Gable, Millicent came to northern New Mexico in 1947 – saw the light, and never left.
"Dear Paulie,” she wrote to her son, “did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the earth, so that I felt the sun on my surface and the rain. I felt the stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers ran..."
While Marsha and I may not have felt a spiritual connection of the same depth as that of Millicent Rogers – or an artistic interdependence as profound as Georgia O’Keeffe’s – nonetheless there is something about northern New Mexico that has both changed us, and at the same time, made us immediately feel right at home.  After a quarter century of visiting we moved to Santa Fe last May.  Monica and Bram (our daughter-in-law and son) visited the area twice – once on their honeymoon – and moved to Santa Fe twelve years before we did.  Monica says that she still sometimes looks around and thinks “I just can’t believe I am really here!”
We hope that Roberta, Doug and Elizabeth experienced some of that same northern New Mexican
mystique – and that others who follow them will also.