creative ramblings & reverie

Friday, September 9, 2011


            It's two days before Christmas.  There's been no new snow around Santa Fe, just the old crusty patches, and a few wet flakes in the air late yesterday with the smell of piñon smoke.  I park head-on against the barbed-wire fence at the entrance to Tsankawi, along Highway 4, the truck route north to White Rock and Los Alamos.  Only a few other cars are here, as usual.  I start out up the Park Service trail through piñon, juniper, and rabbitbrush—silvery chamisa, walking on the soft volcanic tufa.   Farther along, parts of the ancient trail are worn a foot deep into the rock, worn from daily use by the Anasazis.  In places it's too narrow to cross one foot around the other, and I have to get out of the groove and walk on the uneven rock above it.  I'm out of breath even before the first kiva ladder.  You climb it to the top of the mesa, feeling the smooth rounded rungs and siderails of peeled cottonwood, fitted together and lashed with loops of rawhide.  My throat is a little sore, but I'm hoping that it's only from the cigarette smoke in my mother's house and the fresh winter air will flush it out; that I'm feeling slow and ponderous because of the elevation, not because I'm getting sick.  I'm comfortable in two woolen sweaters; there's no wind yet today.
            I look down on the line of caves in the reddish tufa, facing the sun, the long canyons and mesas all around.  Tsankawi, in Tewa, means "village between two canyons at the clump of sharp, round cacti."  In the shaded valley, to the northeast, are the remains of the school for potters, somewhere between me and the quiet highway.  I imagine I can pick out the skeleton of its walls.  The ruins of the pueblo on the mesatop are nearly indistinguishable too:  overgrown stone rubble, the rubbed-out walls of some 350 rooms, circling the central plaza.  Hidden under clumps of chamisa, or laid out on flat stretches of rock, are thousands of pot shards, some with bits of a design.  The trail guide says that modern Pueblo people would never take the old pottery because they feel it belongs to the ones who made it.  Imagining the shards pieced together again, whole, I ask as I always do here why I didn't stay in Santa Fe, work for the School of American Research, be a real artist?  Live in the canyons?  Closer to myself.  To the vital red earth.
            I start down.  Petroglyphs animate many of the rock faces.  It's warm in the sun, sheltered by the porous volcanic rock, on the path that goes back along the lip of the line of caves.  I know I'm not to take anything, neither shards nor plants, rocks.  "Do not disturb, remove, or damage."  But I can't resist pressing my hand print into the cold snow; picking one indigo berry from a juniper tree and crushing it between my fingers, to release its inner nature and transfer to my own skin the vivid, sharp, spicy fragrance of the juniper that is so quintessentially of this place, of me.

            One January afternoon in ninth grade we went looking for red clay.  Our art class walked up the river from the Santa Fe Prep campus on upper Canyon Road, high into the canyon where I had never been before.  Above the reservoir, there, the river wasn't just a trickle as it was in town.  It was lined with waterbirch, with perfect tiny cones, and fossils in the rocks of the far bank.  In warmer months it was full of cress, and something we called grungey—a scummy riverweed or algae we had Grungey Fights with, flung dripping from sticks as from medieval catapults.  That January day we walked through slushy patches of old snow, ducking under unravelling strands of barbed wire (Dee Walker, who I thought maybe liked me, held two strands apart for me with his ski gloves, so I wouldn't snag), tossing snowballs idly, in long graceful arcs, oddly companion-able, the nine of us.  It was a bright, hard-edged New Mexico day, sky and snow distinct like Wedgewood, a counterpoint of sunlight and cold patches of shade, melt beginning but sure to be reversed over the next two months, like the obliteration of the Dark Ages.  Individual crystals sparking on the surface of the snow.
            The quixotic joy of walking up the canyon looking for red clay has never left me.  The lode was somewhere up where only the artists and the rich people lived.  We were reading about the Greek gods, that year (the river nymphs, Daphne turned tree), learning geometry, learning to shape heads, in the art studio with the red geraniums in its window in coffee cans denuded of labels, one of the old low buildings in the compound which was once all labs.  We scooped the clay, richly fecund, from its winter rind.  We felt—as we intuited seeds stirring, sighing, shifting in their sleep in the equanimous earth under the old snow—an inkling of how things might be.

            It is June, 2017 (this century that feels beyond the margins of the maps).  I see the turn-off ahead, cross the busy northbound lanes of the highway to the funny little Kokoman liquor store on Pojoaque Reservation land, oddly perennial, with its dwindling selection of imported wines—French, Italian, Greek.  I want a couple of bottles of Mas de Guignol, the Provence red, for this evening, to remind me that I was in Provence once.  I smell the spicy tacos from the drive-in next door as I park and get out, around back by a pile of empty kegs.  It's Saturday, my birthday; friends are coming from California.  They'll stay for a week, in the studio out among the last few Velarde apricot trees.  I've got lamb marinating in lemon juice and oregano in the glazed blue bowl.  I remembered to put it in the refrigerator this morning before starting out for Tsankawi to walk—still one of my favorite places, though my knees are too stiff to get up the kiva ladders anymore.  It's good, I've decided, that my mobility is limited.  I can appreciate better what's right in front of me, one thing at a time.  It was hard before, even all those years I practiced Zen and tried to copy down the quiet clean prose of the old Pueblo storytellers.
            I'm taking vacation this week from my part-time work at the archaeology lab.  I have to remember to stop by the museum shop while we're in town for lunch on Monday, to give Dolores more signed copies of my books.  Now that faith has been so severely impugned, people seem to want the photographs of all the poignant little northern New Mexico village churches with their simple wooden crosses (like the Penitente crosses Georgia O'Keeffe thought of as placeholders in the desert), and my biography of the two faithful women who built and ran the potters' school in the canyon almost a hundred years ago, before any of the world wars.  Vera von Blumenthal and Rose Dugan.  The past is so much easier to read—or write—about than the world now.  I remember how history didn't use to interest me, with the future seemingly so endless ahead.
            I can't wait to see my friends; it's been two years since I've been back to visit, before the third bombing on the coast.  I worry about them a lot, in spite of almost daily e-mail.  I want to show them everything I love; find an afternoon for Ben to take us to San Ildefonso to watch his sister shaping her famous black pots.  "You must  bring them," she's told me several times.  I'm hoping secretly to persuade them to buy a house here, where things are saner (the Indian Nations and Switzerland the only ones to refuse to join the war).  Tonight we'll sit at the farmhouse table I found in Taos and eat the lamb with shepherd's bread and bowls of Anasazi beans flavored with juniper berries.  At one end of the table I've put the San Ildefonso wedding jar with the single stem of Peace roses which Micaela cut for me first thing this morning from the old thorny bush in her patio—the same roses my mother used to cut for my birthday when I was little, sweet and fragrant, lavish then as time (with summer always just beginning); almost impossible to keep alive now that water has gotten so scarce.



  1. Reading this is walking through a gate guarded by Janus. I touch the sides. Here are stately tan, the elegance of petrified cream, and guardian gray, stone on stone in smooth array, tangled vines of reveling green, the occasional flare of red, and crisp brown almost-fallen husks turning in the autumn coolness conceal more than reveal. The gate whispers as my hands find a tangle of ivory and bone.