Monday, December 26, 2016

On Winter




Winter is hard. The older you are, the harder it gets.

Winter is when history was invented. People stay indoors, huddled around fires, and make chronicles. The Plains Indians painted their history on buffalo hides – the so-called "Winter Count," pictures devised as a mnemonic so that the significant events of each year could be recalled. The Dakota and the old Anglo-Saxons counted years by "winters." Anyone can survive a Summer or Spring or Fall. It is an accomplishment to survive a Winter.



I developed a peculiar skill. Standing outdoors, I closed my eyes, felt the breeze on my skin, listened to the sounds around me, and, opened my mouth, to taste the air. The objective was to ascertain the temperature in degrees fahrenheit. After a minute or so, being careful not to overthink this, I would derive a temperature, imagine it in my mind, and, then, get into my car, start the engine and compare my impression with air temperature reading displayed on my console. Without any practice, I achieved uncanny accuracy – I had become, as it were, a human thermometer. If I registered the temperature as 13 degrees above zero, the display in my car confirmed this. My temperature-sensing capability was extraordinary, a gift from God.

There are many clues to the temperature. All senses participate in determining temperature except the eyes. The eyes grasp appearances and the cold is something more integral, more essential than what can be seen – a bright day with a cloudless sky full of sun may be, in fact, terribly cold. A grey murky evening in which even the trees seem to shudder may be warm, full of spring-like breezes. More accurate are the ears and tongue. Twenty-below zero is a terrifying silence riven with strange, remote fracturing sounds. The air tastes of acetylene and your teeth ring like bells. At zero, the breeze is warm and furry with wood smoke. Creatures are active under the snow: you can hear them burrowing. Twenty-five is moist, placid, conversational. You can smell dog excrement and worms.

It was 17 below zero when I nearly perished in my car. I had gone to work, a drive of a mere five blocks in my new Honda. Since my coat is bulky and makes it hard for me to fasten my seat-belt, I was wearing layers of clothing – a tee-shirt, shirt, another flannel shirt on top of that, then, a sweater, then, another sweater. The top layer sweater was bulky and had long sleeves dangling down below the tips of my fingers. At lunch time, I darted out to my car, feeling the crisp and deadly air all about me, pulled the car door shut hurriedly, and, then, drove back to my house where I planned to make myself a ham sandwich.

I drove into my driveway, pushed the button to stop my car, and, then, tried to open my door. The door didn’t respond. It was locked against me. I wondered if I had inadvertently triggered a child-lock. I pushed some buttons, caused the windows to rise and fall, and, then, tried the door again. It still wouldn’t open. This was odd and frustrating. I unlatched my seat-belt and threw my weight against the locked door, but it didn’t budge. It seemed that I was trapped in my car.

I pounded on my steering wheel with frustration and the cry of the horn, like a wounded animal, frightened me. But, then, I decided that I should calm myself and take objective stock of the situation. Feeling around the edges of the recalcitrant door, I discovered that about six inches of my bulky top-most sweater was caught between the door and its frame. Apparently, the door’s locking mechanism would not unlatch so long as part of my clothing was caught.

The portion of sweater that was trapped between door and frame was part of the sleeve over my left arm. An idea occurred to me: I would have to gnaw off my arm to escape. For a moment, the horror of the situation flooded me and I was drenched in sweat. Then I bent down and, gnashing my teeth, began to chew through the fleshy part of my left fore-arm. This was hard and painful work and, after a half-dozen bites, I paused and considered whether this was really the only way to escape the car. In fact, if I chewed off my arm, the sleeve would still be trapped in the door and the door would still not open and I would be in shock, sans hand and arm. So I decided to alter my course: by thrashing and writhing, I was able to wriggle out of the sweater. This maneuver required me to bend in places where I am not jointed and so my back and the flesh over my ribs went into a spasm. I twisted and wriggled like a fish out of water and, almost passed-out. When the darkness cleared, I found that I was holding my sweater on my lap. But the sweater was still pinned in the door. I pulled and pulled at the sweater but could get no purchase on the garment because the crimp was too close to me and I was applying force from a distance of six or eight inches – I couldn’t get back far enough away from the door to really pull hard on the trapped garment.

I was gasping for air and, now, suffering pangs of terror. What if I had to spend the rest of the winter trapped in the car? What if the door would never open? Did that cramp in my stomach mean that I needed to have a bowel movement? I leaned to my right, stretching sideways, and was able to reach the right-hand passenger door with the tips of my fingers. Extending my body until my tendons and sinews began to snap, I was able to push open the door on the right side of the car. At least, the other doors didn’t share the obstinacy of the door with which I was battling. But, now, that I had the door open, what next? Somehow, I would have to crawl over the central console and the gear-shift to exit from the right front door. How would that be possible? I wriggled around some more, contorted myself into a ball, and tried to slip between the gear-shift lever and the steering wheel. But this only induced more flexion at places where I am not naturally jointed and so my muscles flared into a red spasm again and I collapsed into the seat defeated. If I tried to crawl over the console, undoubtedly, I would find myself impaled on the gear-shift – I would have the gear-shift’s wedge-shaped handle thrust up into my rectum and, in this undignified posture, the car would have to be towed to the emergency room and disbelieving ER doctors would have to somehow unscrew me from the car’s lever on which I was impaled. No one would believe that this had occurred by accident and I would be accused of all sorts of unnatural acts. It would be very much like the time that I accidentally sat on a pop bottle while buck-naked and had the narrow end of the vessel thrust up my ass to the point that a suction effect occurred and I was unable to remove the bottle without disemboweling myself. At the ER, no one was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and, although the libel was never made explicit, I was thought to have been engaged in some kind of carnal exercise so as to result in the bottle becoming lodged in my fundament in that manner. No this wouldn’t do at all and so I decided that it would be fruitless to try to escape by crawling over the center console.

I decided to engage the mechanism to recline the front seat as much as possible. Perhaps, I could make the seat horizontal and, then, somehow push myself to the rear of the car with my heels, sliding on my shoulders and spine into the back seat from which I could extricate myself. But the seat declined only to about 45 degrees and this didn’t seem to give me enough space between the top of the neck-rest and the ceiling of the car to squeeze myself into the back seat. And, it seemed, very unlikely to me that I would be able to caterpillar myself over the seats and into the back of the car. So this plan, also, failed.

There was nothing for me to do but drive to my office and hope that someone could bring a sledge-hammer or a cutting torch to the door to rip me out of my metal prison. Uneasily, I drove my car to the office. It was the end of year and big farming families had gathered to divide the parcels of land owned by recently deceased patriarchs among themselves. Every single parking space outside the office was occupied with pick-up trucks or made-in-America Buicks and Chryslers. I circumnavigated the parking lot and watched the farmers trooping up the sidewalk to the reception lobby and it was obvious that there was no place to park close to the door or the windows of my office building. Tears blurred my vision. I pulled up in the alleyway and looked over the palisade of pick-up trucks and, then, I hit my horn, short dot-dash-dot honks to signify SOS. No one came to my rescue. I panicked and beat at the horn with my fists until they were bloody. The din was enough to raise the dead but it didn’t draw anyone from inside the office.

I drove away from my office, wiping the tears out of my eyes. My bladder felt full. Everywhere, Christmas decorations beckoned to me and the traffic on the roadways was bright and merry. But I was trapped in my car with no hope of escaping. And, so, the holiday decorations seemed to me nothing more than a bitter and cruel taunt.



Someone must have read poems to me when I was a small child. I don’t recall the voice that was reading or the occasion or any inflections in that reading. No visual memory remains – perhaps, I had my eyes closed when the verses were read to me. But I know that certain poems were read aloud to me because I have always known them, because they are integral to my thought and intertwined, in some way, with the genetic material of my imagination. One of these poems is a little verse by Shakespeare describing winter. When I thought of this poem, I had no idea, at first, where to locate the text. Then, it occurred to me that the verse was printed in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry, a book that has also always somehow been known to me. (I think my father took a course in poetry when he was studying at Iowa State University in 1957 or 1958 – the text book for that course was a big grey volume incorporating two anthologies edited by Louis Untermeyer: Modern British Poetry and Modern American Poetry. However, my guess is that the Brooks and Warren volume was also required reading for the course.) My memory was correct and it’s my surmise that the Shakespeare poem about winter was read to me from Understanding Poetry.

Poems don’t format well in this blog and so must apologize that the verse, actually one of two seasonal poems concluding Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor Lost, will not look right on the computer:

When icicles hang by the wall

And Dick the shepherd blows his nail

And Tom bears logs into the hall,

And milk comes frozen home in the pail,

When Blood is nipped and ways be foul.

Then nightly sings the staring owl.


Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,

And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,

And birds sit brooding in the snow,

And Marian’s nose looks red and raw

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl.

Then nightly sings the staring owl.


Tu-whit, tu-who: a merry note

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

This poem seems to me beyond praise, something akin to Brueghel’s mysterious Hunters in the Snow, a wonderfully precise account that is somehow perfectly general and uniquely specific. The poet’s eye begins outside with icicles against a wall – not portrayed as something dangling or pendant from an eave, but rather an obstacle, a curtain that veils the building and, perhaps, obscures it’s door, perhaps, making it hard to come inside. We see those whose work requires that they be outside: Dick the shepherd blowing on his fingernails, Tom bringing in logs for a fire, the farmer delivering milk that is frozen – the inversion "milk comes frozen home", an oddity required by the poem’s ballad meter (four stresses per line) emphasizing the strangeness of the frozen milk and that fact it is the "coming", that is, the milk’s delivery through the icy landscape that has resulted in this curious state. After an abstract line about Blood being nipped and ways that are foul – again images that remain resolutely outside – we see the "staring" owl. Of course, we could not see the owl’s stare unless we were outside and, so, the poet has projected us into his frigid landscape. But, then, the owl, whose objective stare, I think, defines the poem, utters a challenge to the reader – sounds: "Who are you?", an inquiry that also means "where are you?" within the poem’s precise configuration of outside cold and inside warmth. And, then, the sound carries – it penetrates into the kitchen where we see the other central figure in the little community that the poem defines, "greasy Joan", the kitchen maid who is "keeling" a pot. The owl’s nocturnal cry, a sound that embodies the cold and loneliness of winter, bridges outside and inside. Presumably, Joan hears the owl’s cry as she skims grease, probably some kind of animal fat, from the boiling pot. At this point, the poem is enormous, as vast as all of winter – we see the hills where the shepherds abide, the icicles, the muddy and desolate roads, the vast eyes of the owl defining this landscape and we can smell the rank odor of animal fat being rendered, big mammals slaughtered in the winter-time so that their meat can be frozen.

The second stanza of the poem takes place mostly indoors. People have caught colds from their work outside and they are coughing violently – so much so that the tedious words of the preacher can’t be heard. People in the community have runny noses that look red and raw. A glance out the window shows little birds brooding in the snow. Crab apples are roasting in a bowl and the liquid in them, a distillation of Summer and Fall, hisses as it escapes and, then, again the sound of the owl, the poem’s central consciousness, the objective eye that beholds winter, penetrates the kitchen asking a question that no one can answer while "greasy Joan doth keel the pot." The owl’s enigmatic cry is "merry." Why? Because the poem pivots on the distinction between cold outside and steamy warmth inside – and we are inside, warm beside the hearth: hence, the cry of winter, the owl’s inquiry, is "merry" to us. It is like being warm under covers in bed and hearing the wind of the blizzard howl outside.

Great lyric poems swivel between opposing poles of meaning. It is cold outside and warm indoors and this is dramatized by Shakespeare’s lyric. The owl’s stare is objective, indifferent, general. This stare, signifying a portion of the poet’s perspective, contrasts with "greasy Joan" who seems blind, a figure bent over a steaming pot, greasy with rendered animal fat. But "greasy Joan" who is named like Dick and Tom and Marian define a specific community, real individuals in a real, intensely defined space. Thus, the poem whirls between extremes of indifferent objectivity, the outside defined by winter’s cold, and the subjective inside, the human world comprised by this tiny community of named individuals. Somehow the poem sutures together inside and outside, extreme cold with extreme heat (hissing crabs, the steam enveloping Joan and making her greasy), and, finally, the objective generality of the winter, the white season, and the subjective interior formed by the hamlet of people named by the poem.



Snow had fallen all day. And as the day lengthened, the temperature increased until now, an hour after sunset, it was about 33 degrees.

New-fallen snow conceals the odor-markers by which dogs navigate and my Labrador Retriever, Frieda, was confused and skittish. The familiar signposts in her landscape had been eradicated by the heavy, wet snow covering everything and, it seemed to me, that she was afraid that the dogs that we heard barking within houses might plunge forth and attack her. Accordingly, I led the dog on her leash and we walked gingerly between the heaps of snow cast-up by the snow-blowers and making trenches of the sidewalks. Sometimes, a small tree heavily laden with wet snow cast down wet clots onto my shoulders and the dog’s back.

It was two days before Christmas and the fresh-fallen snow smelled like a lake in early spring, wet and clean and inert. The snow was very white and it reflected the light from cars and front porches and street lamps so that the entire landscape was faintly phosphorescent, glowing with a blue-grey radiance. In the distance, storm clouds dipped over the lights downtown and caught a little of the faint tomato-colored radiance from them before ascending once more into the sky.

The dog was panting. The moist air seemed very warm. Music came from an alleyway – someone was playing Adestes Fidelis from within a garage or an enclosed porch. The tones wafted over the quiet streets and the snowy lawns.

I was wearing a warm cap and had on white athletic socks within my tennis shoes. With head and feet warm, I thought that it would be very comfortable to cast aside all the rest of my clothing and so clad only heel and skull, go naked through the winter. The tennis shoes would keep the cold off my feet and the smoke stack of my head would be capped by a furry and warm hat and the rest of my body would tingle like shaken jingle bells as I made my way through the melting snow.

Friday, December 16, 2016

On a "License to Kill"



The people that I know who are licensed to kill are maddeningly obtuse about the exercise of that privilege. Once, a Navy Seal friend of mine suggested we buy some booze at a crowded liquor store near Lake and Chicago. There was a noisy queue at the cash register, most of the people drunk and disorderly, hooting at one another as they waited to exchange greasy 20 dollar bills for packs of malt liquor. I suggested to my friend that he execute a few of the people ahead of us or, at least, brandish his silencer-equipped 9 mm short-magazine Walther to speed things along. My friend sniffed at me disdainfully and said that would be an abuse of power.

A couple years later, I represented a CIA operative in a divorce. On the way to Court, we ran into a traffic jam and a guy driving a pickup truck with double Vikings flags waving gaily in the wind cut in ahead of us. I suggested to my client that he gun down the offending motorists. He unholstered his .50 Smith & Wesson and fired twice, shooting off the antennae to which the purple pennants were attached, but refused to kill the driver of the pick-up. "What is the use of a license to kill," I asked, "if you can’t use it?" The CIA agent winked at me and said that, maybe, he should execute the Judge and the opposing lawyer in his case. "The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers," he said. "Present company excepted?" I asked. He nodded. At the Courthouse, there were motions and counter-motions, arguments and counter-arguments but no one was shot.

The idea of the "license to kill" as a warrant to murder adversaries of a State-sanctioned and covert mission arises in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The concept is mentioned in Fleming’s first book, Casino Royale and, later, in his second novel, Live and Let Live. Bond says that the license is one that is retroactively granted to excuse past homicides. In Casino Royale, he says that the "00" nomenclature means that he has been granted official immunity for two prior killings – each "0" representing one authorized homicide. Bond explains that the 0 "mean(s_ that you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of an assignment." In later books, the idea that the "license to kill" can be granted only retroactively is blurred and, by this time, the lonely 7 in Bond’s ID number is now at the tail of an enormous number of zeroes. Although the 16th Bond film is entitled License to Kill, the movie doesn’t really explore that concept.

During hearings about Princess Diana’s death, speculated by some to have been a killing targeted by the Royal Family and MI 6, a spy named Sir Richard Billing Dearlove testified to a government commission. Dearlove said MI 6 did, in fact, grant licenses to kill – he described these as "Class 7" authorizations. Presumably a "Class 7" authorization arises under Section 7 of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act. This legislation authorizes "crown servants", that is spies and other government officials, to commit acts overseas that would be illegal in the United Kingdom. Dearlove implied that MI 6 had invoked this section to kill, or attempt to kill, a "Balkan war lord." Dearlove denied that anyone with "license to kill" had tampered with the impetuous Princess Diana. (There is no corollary law in the United States. Indeed, Part 2.11 of Executive Order 12333, an enabling Act for American national security prohibits assassination – this is at Part 2.11. This probably explains why the two men with licenses to kill that I knew were hesitant to exercise that right and couldn’t show me the license itself – although the Seal spent a long time flipping through his credit cards before acknowledging that he had probably misplaced the actual document.)

I think that it’s interesting to observe that the exact phrase "license to kill" appears in Shakespeare. In fact, I believe that some echo of this phrase probably underlies the later literary use of the concept by Ian Fleming. The expression is used in Act IV, scene iii of Shakespeare’s Henry VI part Two, probably the first play that the Bard wrote entirely by himself.

Henry VI (II) is generally lifeless, comprised of bombastic exchanges between various conspirators against the feckless King. However, the first dash of recognizably Shakespearian drama occurs in the fourth act. At that point, the stage is taken by a group of peasants and tradesmen, the same kind of caricatured "rude mechanicals" that will later appear as slavishly loyal to the Athenian crown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These rural commoners are led by Jack Cade, a charismatic peasant who claims to be related to the Mortimer family – that is, the Duke of York, an enemy to King Henry VI. Cade urges a rebellion against the King and gathers his followers into a ragtag army. The rebels manage to kill a few noblemen who have underestimated the strength of the insurgency. Cade reaches London and taps the famous stone with his sword, a weapon appropriated from a nobleman killed by his rabble, and declares himself Lord Mayor. The King’s troops put down the rebellion when the common people in London recognize that governance by a peasant lout from Kent will be bad business for them and rise against insurgents. Cade is mortally wounded. Later, his body is dragged through the streets of London, quartered and his limbs sent as warnings to villages in Kent thought to be particularly implicated in the rising.

Shakespeare’s peasant rebels are witty anarchists. They talk in jargon and apply the expertise of their respective trades as part of their uprising – a butcher, for example, is expected to slaughter the Crown’s minions. Cade is belligerent, funny, and energetic and, although monstrous, he is the best thing in the play. The audience’s egalitarian sympathies are with this bold rebel who declares that anyone who so much as knows how to write his own name should be executed – it’s like Mao’s cultural revolution or Trump’s insurgency against the elites. Furthermore, Cade’s program is one that parodies the excesses of the upper class – the rights that he seizes are those that are traditionally held by noblemen and royalty. (For instance, he declares that he will exercise droit du seigneur.) Shakespeare deploys Cade’s rebellion both as a veiled attack on upper class privilege but also as a mirror for the various rebellions vexing the regime – each faction seems to divide into smaller factions by a process of seemingly unlimited fission. Accordingly, Cade’s rebellion doubles the uprising of the House of York that will ultimately produce Richard III – it’s typically Shakespearian to show an event and, then, parody (and criticize) that event by showing it enacted by people of lower social status.

Cade’s rebellion is noteworthy for a famous quotation originating in that part of Henry VI (II). After Jack Cade has exhorted his men to rebellion, a follower named Dick, a butcher, cries: "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers." Cade responds that parchment on which lawyers write deeds and warrants is a "monstrous" thing and that bee’s wax used to produce documents "under seal" sting the common man like a bee itself. He urges his followers to enlarge their violence and to kill anyone who can read or write or "keep an accompt" (that is, "keep accounts" or do bookkeeping).

At the battle of Blackheath, Shakespeare has Cade call for Dick, the enemy of the Bar, described as the "butcher of Ashford." Cade praises Dick for having killed a number of noblemen. Then, he says:

They fell before thee like sheep and oxen and thou behav’st thyself as if thou had been in thine own slaughterhouse; therefore, thus will I reward thee, the Lent shall be as long again as it is, and thou shalt have a license to kill for a hundred lacking one.

The term "license to kill" is my focus. This is the phrase that I think Ian Fleming cribbed from this play. In this context, a "license to kill" means a legal franchise to kill animals and produce meat during Lent. Traditionally, Catholics were prohibited from eating red meat (or fowl) during the forty days of Lent. However, the Crown granted certain butchers a "license to kill" so that they could produce meat for people exempt from Lenten fasting and dietary requirements. The Church recognized that a forty-day prohibition on meat might be dangerous to pregnant women or people with health problems. Accordingly, some butchers were allowed to produce meat throughout Lent for the specific purpose of serving that group of customers. Of course, prohibition always spawns violation of that prohibition. Presumably, butchers granted a Lenten "license to kill" were particularly popular during the 40 days of abstinence – I expect that all manner of people, and not just those with frail health, might patronize a butcher with an exclusive "license to kill" during Lent. Thus, a monopoly "license to kill" would be particularly lucrative to its holder.

In his speech, Cade blasphemously announces that he will extend Lent to eighty days, thereby increasing the value of the "license to kill" he plans to grant to the butcher, Dick. Shakespeare is amused that Cade’s arrogance extends to far as to adjust the calendar and make changes to Lent – it’s like the French revolutionaries renaming the months after 1789 and abolishing the Holy Days. Furthermore, Cade promises to reward Dick’s bloody service by granting him this monopoly "license to kill" for not merely one 80 day period of Lent, but for a "lease" of "one-hundred lacking one" – that is for 99 years.

So far as I know, no critic has observed that Fleming’s "license to kill" may originate in Henry VI (part Two). I have now rectified that omission.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY -- S (A celebrity -- saved by the Katchinas)




On the airplane departing Albuquerque, Julie sat next to a celebrity. Every seat was taken on the plane. We were crushed together, sitting stoically with our shoulders flexed inward and our knees pressed together, hip to hip, and the pilot announced in his jovial Tennessee-accented voice that we were privileged to be serving the father of one of the best and most competent Air Traffic Controllers in the region, naming the man with a "shout-out," so that the man, a big, square-cut fellow with glasses and a friendly smile, could whisper to Julie, his seat-mate, "that’s me."

Julie spoke for a while with the celebrity, a gentleman probably about my age. He said that his son had just suffered a painful break-up with his girlfriend and that the young man was left alone with only his dogs for company and, so, he had come down to Albuquerque from Bloomington, Minnesota for a visit.

"How is your son doing?" Julie asked.

"Okay, considering," the man said. "He is on-duty right now in the tower."

I don’t know what the plane was carrying in its cargo-hold: gold treasure from lost Spanish mines or plutonium from Los Alamos in specially designed vessels or corpses in lead sarcophagi or some combination of these things together with luggage, salesman’s heavy cases of pharmaceuticals, Acoma pots in bubble-wrap, and who knows all what, but the aircraft was too heavy and as it careened down the runway, the wings clawed at the sky, but the sky offered no hold, there was no traction, and, so, the plane went faster and faster and the glass and steel buildings of Albuquerque flew by with bewildering speed, but still the plane would not lift off. At the very end of the runway, the plane tilted upward and zoomed forward, but at a height of only a dozen feet above the parched desert. Buildings were ahead and beyond them the buttes and mesas under Sandia Peak and, then, five-thousand feet of escarpment itself and I thought that there was no way the airplane could clear those obstacles if it couldn’t rise more than a sapling’s height into the air. Then, the plane began to shudder violently and the wing blurred and the window portal rattled so loudly that I thought it was going pop out of the wall and, vibrating in this way, the plane tilted upward again and caught a hold of some invisible ramp or surface in the sky so that it shot upward with a ferocity that caused the luggage in the bins overhead to slam back against the bulkhead compartments.

Everyone pretended that things were okay.

The plane found a groove between the mountains and drove through it and, then, the sky darkened and the sun set and the earth was covered with low, writhing clouds.

We reached Minneapolis but were early and so the plane was detoured far to the west to circle over Willmar or Sioux Falls. Then, a window opened for our landing and, so, the airplane powered down out of the clouds, descending in a steep dive. Something was wrong the landing gear. I could hear the motor deploying the gear whining beneath my seat, a high-pitched noise that went on and on like a car trying to start on a sub-zero day. Every time, the landing gear extruded from the belly of the plane some great fist pounded the wheels back up into the aircraft. And, all the while, we were dropping like a stone out of the sky.

The plane pierced the cloud cover and I could see the wet runways only a few feet below the plane’s wing tip. The wheels had not deployed and, instead, the plane had extruded two raw hands, bloody and with talons, to grope downward for the concrete that was rising rapidly toward us. The plane reached out and caught the earth in its Katchina-grasp and we smashed hard onto the runway shooting beyond the end of the landing zone and, then, careening hard to the left, so that we almost toppled over.

Everyone gasped as if the wind had been knocked out of them.

We followed the celebrity with the air-traffic controller son down the jet way. He was limping a little.

The moment he emerged from the jetway, his cell-phone rang. It was his son verifying that he had survived the flight. The man held the phone to his ear with trembling hands. The calamity that we had narrowly escaped turned his face white and bloodless. He staggered to a seat and crumpled into it.

But we were back, returned to Minnesota, in one piece.


October 26 - December 1, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY -- R (Siri - Jambo Cafe - a desert rat)




A friend, greatly accomplished in the culinary arts, recommended that Julie and I eat at the Jambo Café, a restaurant specializing in African-Caribbean food. This café is located at a mall thirty blocks to the south of the downtown area and, so, we had to drive. I asked Julie to program her telephone to find the place for us.

By map, the route was simple enough. The strip mall was located on Cerrillos Road and I knew how to reach that road – it was simply matter of turning onto the street outside the hotel and, then, continuing southward, veering right at each place where the road branched. But the telephone had a different idea how to reach restaurant: only a block away from the hotel, the phone ordered me to turn sharply right and follow a drainage ditch to the west. Soon enough, we had left the downtown behind and were driving through residential neighborhoods of old brick houses, utilitarian neighborhoods crouching along bleak-looking railroad yards. The phone demanded that we continue in this direction for many blocks, through a number of intersections, heading outward toward what seemed the outskirts of town. Then, the phone directed another sharp right onto an even narrower and more improbable street, a lane passing between Montessori schools and little real estate offices, then, limping over speed bumps past public schools – the homes were all one story, only three- or four-room structures spread across the treeless desert. After driving stop-and-start through this neighborhood for twenty blocks, I came to Cerrillos Road, a limb of the street passing by the hotel to the north. Some orange barrels blocked one of the turn lanes and I could see traces of construction along the road, but traffic was flowing efficiently. To the left, an unprepossessing strip mall stretched across a parking lot – Jambo café was crushed between the Hobby Lobby and PetSmart.

We were early notwithstanding the circuitous drive and, so, we looked at some relics and Africa-themed knickknacks in the Jambo import store on the other side of the Hobby Lobby. There was an exquisitely carved Dogon door and some chimeras – old African wood effigies assembled to sit atop new pedestals floridly carved in ebony-colored wood. Julie bought a few wicker-woven animals, a giraffe, a hippo, and an elephant – these figures could be used as anchors for a key chain. Stacks of Jambo café cookbooks were piled by the cash-register.

The Jambo café itself was crowded, an aromatic space densely packed with tables, dimly lit with a few tapestry-like hangings on the wall. The waiter was flamboyantly gay with his long hair tucked into a samurai bun at the back of his skull. It was our last night in Santa Fe and so we ordered extravagantly: first, the waiter bought a saucer with some cornmeal, water, and oil, then, we drank cocktails made from colored liqueurs. We asked the waiter to bring a bottle of Goats Do Roam wine from South Africa and, then, as starters, a cup of cocoanut shrimp bisque soup for me and plantain crab cakes for Julie. I had a combination plate with coconut chicken curry, goat stew, and a lentil stew. For dessert, I had mango cobbler with ice-cream. Julie had date coconut flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream. Everything was very good, the flavors in the food reminding me generally of Indian cuisine. It was a Monday night, but the restaurant was full to overflowing and very convivial. When we left, a half-dozen couples were waiting for a table and one of the cooks was standing on the sidewalk in front of PetSmart smoking a cigarette.

A desert rat with antalgic gait staggered across the parking lot. He was carrying a backpack and had a poncho patterned like a Navajo rug cast over his shoulders. He asked me for money and I gave him two dollars in quarters that were weighing down my pockets. I couldn’t get that change through security.

Out of the Mall parking lot, I turned right and drove on Cerrillos Road straight downtown to the hotel. No turns were required until I reached the Hilton on the Plaza.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY -- Q (An invitation to the home of a patron of the arts -- Forest as endless text -- trigger warnings -- a corpse-monger)





Before nine a.m., I drove up the mountain to the ski basin. The ski-runs are on the west-facing side of the mountain range above Santa Fe. You can see the bald places cut in the forest from the desert below at Posaque, striations on the peak impossibly high and remote.

The road rides a canyon upslope, first passing the homes of millionaires perched above the dry-looking scrub forest. The houses show windowless facades to the winding road, although doubtless they are all glass for the vistas turned away from the highway. Each rests on an isolated pedestal of rock or a terrace on the mountain slope and they seem inaccessible – I can imagine steep-graded, spiraling lanes climbing to somewhere beneath them and, then, the garages hidden in the underbrush and, perhaps, other cottages, guest houses, on the property with less prepossessing views of the terrain. What would it be like to be invited to one of these place? There would be a luminaria set on the road as a marker for the hidden driveway and, then, you would steer through trees with low, overhanging branches, pine cones crunching under your wheels and, at the cul-de-sac, more pale illuminated pouches would show you the way up a sidewalk and past a plashing fountain to a front door in the Spanish-style as massive as the gate to a castle. Inside, it would be silent and perfumed and well-dressed people would beckon to you from distant rooms, across big airy spaces and, through a glass wall, the night would pour into the house like a starry waterfall. A painting by Agnes Martin would occupy one interior wall and there might be a small Georgia O’Keefe lithograph framed under track-lighting. You would have the sense that only a precious few guests have been admitted to the home and, yet, the drinks and hors d’oeuvres would show such intricacy as to establish as obvious that an army of domestic servants were concealed somewhere in the building. The rich man would declare his benediction. He would hold the pages of this manuscript close to his heart and would beckon to his third wife, much younger and laden with turquoise, gesturing to her that she should take the writing and read it. And he would pronounce everything that I have accomplished in these pages as just and true.

The rich man’s canyon ends with tall pine trees in a basin filled with little cabins and fire-pits, some kind of boy scout camp, and, then, the road ascends the slopes to the ski-hills, winding across the rib-like ridges running down the sides of the mountain. The views into the valley are vast and abstract, like something seen from an airplane. A surprising amount of traffic is making its way uphill, dashing around me, to get to work in the ski basin. At that place, I can look up along the green swaths cut in the forest to the summit where clouds are scudding by, a number of pickup trucks parked in the lots and the sound of chain-saws and leaf-blowers buzzing in the distance.

On the way down, I stop at a bend in the road where there is an overlook. On the uphill side of the road, a narrow trail runs along a stream that is leaping and dancing among the grey torsos of boulders. One of the boulders has been painted with an image of an alien, a tentacle-monster somewhat like a squid with a big, cyclopean eye on the crown of its head. I look down across the desert for UFOs. The sky is clear and, as far as I can see, nothing is moving between heaven and earth.

The downslope vantage features a Kit Carson National Forest marker directing attention to an aspen grove wound like a ribbon or a bandage across the face of the mountain. The trees have shed their leaves and the white bark shines with a silver patina in the shadow cast by the peak above. Aspen are all connected underground – they spring, the marker says, from a common rhizome. Thus, the aspen grove can be accounted a single biological entity, each of its trees comprised of identical genetic material, a stand of perfect twins multiplied over and over again. In the forest, all the trees are related in mysterious ways. The roots communicate with one another and exchange electrical and chemical signals. Species cooperate. Even the living nurture the dead – old stumps are kept alive at their core by infusions of glucose from neighboring trees. The entire forest exists as a web of living things that interact with one another. This is the subject of the German writer, Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees and it is certainly intriguing to think of the forests draping the mountains as vast intelligent beings.

With the advent of computer networks, we are programmed to see the world as a system of hyperlinks and connections. There is too much information and it swamps our ability to process the data that the world makes available to us. Every text can be eighty-thousand pages long, each data point linked to some other relevant data point in immense clouds of information. Indeed, each text is already 80,000 pages long or, in fact, indefinite in length because there is no end to the cloud of information that wraps us. I can’t control the text any longer. It just keeps expanding, link by link, and, even when I have stopped typing, the connections continue to sprawl away from my words in all directions. This essay on New Mexico was supposed to be only a few pages long and, now, look what has happened. I no longer know where the beginning is to be found and the notion of an end is purely fictional, an arbitrary stopping point that doesn’t necessarily bear any relationship to the structure of reality or consciousness.  


They don’t want you to get upset in New Mexico. The powers-that-be are careful to issue trigger-warnings. If you don’t want to look at something, you don’t have to. And it’s important that you not misconstrue what you see.

At the Museum of Folk Art, an exhibit is built around a miniature circus that some eccentric pensioner whittled from balsa wood fragments. The miniature circus sits under a glass dome and is the size of my dining room with tents and sideshows and railway cars lined up on a siding to transport all the gaudy stuff away once the show is struck. On one of the walls, a placard reminds us of the "dark side of the Circus", the fact that circuses often exploited "the differently abled and the disfigured" – circuses promoted, the text says, the idea of the "Other" to be exploited as a "freak". There is a poster hawking tickets to see Joyce Heth, an ancient Black woman thought to weigh a mere 46 pounds and said to have been George Washington’s wet-nurse. "This African-American woman’s appearance and history as a slave was exploited by P. T. Barnum."

In some dim galleries with red walls, sacred objects from Asia are displayed. A warning at the entry says portentously: "Some of the items displayed contain human remains." This references a Tibetan kapala, that is an offering cup to a wrathful deity made from a halved human skull, and a kanling or Tibetan Buddhist trumpet carved from a femur. Another warning reminds us that "The Objects displayed are exhibited out of context and that the viewer should be aware of distortions in meaning that this causes." Finally, upon leaving the show, another prominently displayed sign says: "The Objects displayed may not be representative of Asian Culture."

This abundant caution is out of character with the rest of this place, an exuberant and infinitely vast collection of junk purchased on his world travels by one Alexander Girard, a Santa Fe interior decorator. His souvenirs fill a ballroom-sized gallery, the so-called Neutrogena Hall, and the stuff is mostly small, figurines made in Africa or India, China or Latin America – animals and mythical beasts and thousands and thousands of Day of the Dead skeletons, human figurines playing instruments or marching in processions or being tormented by cochineal-red demons in hell, tradesmen, mummers, vamps, Kachina dancers, miniature engineers on miniature trains, clowns, ghosts and monsters. In one image painted on cardboard, a man leads a brown and skeletal zombie on a leash through a Haitian graveyard – the picture was made by one Albert Bazile in Port-Au-Prince in 1966. The picture has peculiar authority, but, I suppose, that this is because it features human remains, may be disturbing to some viewers, and, probably, is not representative of Haitian culture, particularly since one must be sensitive to the fact that the painting is displayed outside of its original context.

I walk out of the folk art museum staggering a little, giddy – perhaps, it’s the high elevation and some residual dehydration. Julie says: "I don’t like places of that sort."




Another famous artist who lives in New Mexico, Albuquerque to be exact, is Joel-Peter Witkin. He is famous for his photographs of freaks and disfigured people. His MFA is from the University of New Mexico (1986). In the nineties, Witkin bribed a morgue attendant in Mexico City and was able to use cadaver parts in his pictures. He made elaborate black-and-white still life photographs showing mask-like flayed faces, bouquets of severed hands, a dead infant arranged among flowers and fresh fruit.

I wonder what sort of trigger warnings were posted at the entrance to his show.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY - P (Mantis at Las Trampas -- Holy dirt -- an unfortunate contretemps at Chimayo -- Among the Sentient Pots -- A People's History)





From Rancho de Taos, I took the mountain road back Espanola.

The blacktop climbs eight or nine steep hills, then, drops into valleys behind them, but, apparently, the valleys are each slightly higher than the next and so, by this roller-coaster, progress, the traveler reaches a pine forest that extends like a great rumpled pedestal to the three conical summits of Truchas Peaks. The plateau is pitted with small round valleys, potholes a couple hundred feet deep with narrow ridges separating them. For the first twenty or so miles, there are no towns. The country is disorderly, up and down the waves of small hills – some of the holes have shallow-looking ponds in them, but the mostly the ridges and valleys are dry-looking.

Closer to Espanola, there are towns. They are small, huddled in the hollows, and poor. A sprawl of broken cars and trucks mark the outskirts and, then, there are a dozen or so huts with tin roofs. It’s early afternoon and smoke is coming from the stove-pipes piercing the tin sheets held up by crumbling adobe walls. I can smell wood smoke in the air.

The villages seem to be organized according to a principle of moeities – by this I mean that one small valley will hold a village and, then, just beyond the nearest ridge, there will be another village of about the same size and appearance. It’s as if the ancient communities divided at some point, part of the kin moving into the next valley so as to keep a steep wooded ridge between the two parts of the tribe. Some of the wooded ridges are marked with crosses, little Golgotha of three rough timber crosses marking the divide between the two places. An example is Las Trampas and Oja Sarco ("Corpse Eye?"), both tiny hamlets separated by a stony ridge.

Las Trampas is the site of San Jose de Gracio, an adobe parish church built in 1761. Whenever I have come this way, I always stop to photograph the old church. It is not as massive or fortress-like as San Francisco de Assisi in Taos, but built on a similar model, with broad heavy-set church towers surmounted by boxy steeples of old weathered wood. Las Trampas looks desperately poor – the streets are dirt and gravel and the town’s restaurant has a crudely written hand-lettered sign that is both humble and a little sinister, menu items spelled out in crooked Spanish words. No one is around – the place always seems like a ghost town with silent trench-like alleys between collapsing lathe and adobe shacks. The church is locked as always. Who knows when it is opened and for what occasions. A couple graves are marked in the bare dirt yard behind the adobe and mud walls surrounding the building. A dog is limping across a splintered porch.

On the wooden curb along the parking lot in front of the church something is moving. At first, I think that it is green lizard. But I see that it is a big, gaunt-looking praying mantis. The mantis claws its way out of a tangle of thistle and squats on the wooden trestle. It is as green as an emerald with dark, obsidian eyes.

Some people from Albuquerque pull up in an expensive car. A man and woman get out and begin to take pictures of church. The silence is heavy. The hills crowding around the valley are barren at their tops and scuffed-looking.

I drove on Truchas. The Spanish word means "trout." The town is built on a ridge so narrow that it can accommodate only a narrow lane between buildings. The structures on both sides are perched on the edges of steep canyon walls dropping several hundred feet to a rocky ravines. Each time I drive through this town, the number of art galleries increases. As far as I can determine, nine out of ten of the ramshackle buildings clinging to steeply pitched hillsides are now galleries. At the end of the lane, the ridge attaches itself to a broad meadow where some sheep are grazing. The meadow is slashed here and there with old fences and seems to slope very gradually upward to the pyramidal Truchas Peaks. The peaks look close, only a hour’s trek over the gentle incline of the pastures, but, in fact, the summit is probably 15 miles away.

Below Truchas, clustered in a dark-looking grooved ravine, there is Cordoba, presumably, the other half or moeity of the village community divided between the two places. You drive uphill to Truchas and down into the canyon for Cordoba.

Beyond Truchas, the road descends a great slope. The desert has climbed here, pushing its grey and parched tongue up against the edges of the mountain heights. Below there are labyrinths of pinkish and yellow badlands, puzzle and maze country extruded out of the flanks of the mountains. The hills are dizzying and you can see across the Espanola basin to the green and blue ridges of the Jemez mountains and Los Alamos.

The road slips into a ravine complicated by many flash flood gullies. Houses are half-hidden in the aspen groves. It’s a very slow road, interrupted by many intersections, with impoverished neighborhoods standing under hills of hot, sloping gravel. This is old Chimayo.

Then, I am at the bottom of ravine, waiting for traffic in sun-burned, tawdry Espanola.




The next afternoon, Julie and I drove back up the Chimayo road to the old Sanctuario directly under the white cross-studded Truchas ridge. The church stands in a muddle of small decrepit buildings in the center of the arroyo. You have to drive between vendors of sacred talismans and huts selling tamales and tacos to get to the parking lot. The fences around the parking lot are knit with crosses made from corn stalks and ribbons. Two horses are grazing under a couple of bright yellow cottonwood trees.

The Sanctuario also becomes more commercial each time that I visit. The mud church is humble enough, just a heap of adobe with some little belfries inserted into its mud-brown towers, but there is now an infrastructure of modern shrines and altars under the sanctuary, built up against the sandy slope where the holy place stands. Of course, the Sanctuario must be handicapped accessible and so long, serpentine ramps rise up the hill above the open-air shrines, their grade designed for wheelchair use, and, at the top, there is a small plaza surrounded by ramshackle sheds, some of them selling snacks, rosaries, postcards. There are thresholds in the Sanctuario requiring a step and I can see a paralyzed man in a wheelchair being scooted into the lean-to on the side of the chapel where there is a broad door and a level way. The church has a wall around it and some modern buildings to the side – it is the same kind of ageless building that I admired in Los Trampas, heavy beige-colored adobe with squat towers, a windowless bunker defensible in case of siege with a bare wooden cross over the entrance.

Inside the place is hushed and dark. The pews are dark wood and vestigial. A enormous club-shaped Christ, eight feet tall and carved like an instrument of war, stands at the rear of the chapel – his flesh is lacerated and he wears his crown of thorns like barbed wire wrapped around the thick part of a baseball bat. Across the aisle, Christ lies dead on a stony-looking bier, pale and limp, a life-sized corpse with gaping, bloodless wounds. The altar screen is white and red, the color of ox-blood, and there are niches holding archaic-looking and crudely whittled images of the virgin. A Bible sits on a pedestal next to several large and spiny-looking Penitente calvados, unwieldy two-hundred pound crosses that gouge your shoulder and tear your flesh the whole march from Gallup or Albuquerque or from wherever you are making your penance up into these foothills. The Bible is open to Psalms 36 to 38, but the text is written in Spanish and I don’t know what it means. A carved effigy of Santiago on his horse with his Moor-killing lance stands next to the Bible. The wood idols look like things made in the Congo or the archipelagoes of Papua.

The holy dirt is in the lean-to on the side of the chapel. You have to duck your head to enter the lean-to and the pocito filled to the brim with brown sandy earth is within another small dim chamber with an even lower entry-way – you crouch until you are almost kneeling to come into that space, a cell that feels cool as if you are far underground. Hidden track lighting casts a yellow ray down on the pit in the middle of the packed clay floor and the soil spilling out of the crater is lit so that it glows like honey. Some abandoned aluminum crutches rest against the adobe wall. A big man with tattoos who looks like an ex-convict, his bullet-shaped head shaved bald, is standing against the wall as another younger man kneels next to the healing dirt, washing himself in the sandy stuff so that it runs in rivulets down his knees and into his tennis shoes. It seems that the man washing in the dirt has trouble with his knees because he is rubbing handfuls of the soil into those joints. The ex-convict has a woman with him wearing dark motorcycle leathers and she has turned away discretely from the fellow massaging dirt into his legs. The ex-convict wears a tee-shirt that shows Jesus crowned with thorns. I step back away from the pocito, the sacred spring from which the healing dirt seems to well up. In the chamber next to the alcove with the pocito, the walls are covered with photographs of people, most of them Hispanic, little passport-sized photographs that paper the surfaces from floor to ceiling. Many of the people in the photographs seem to be hurt in some way, lips tilted askew or eyes occluded by tumors and it is painful to imagine the array of human suffering that the walls represent, the collapsible wheelchairs pushed to the side of the aisle and the orthotic braces, crutches, walkers. Julie goes into the alcove with the pocito and, from the long narrow room in the lean-to, I can see that the golden light aimed into the whorl of sacred dirt in the middle of floor is like the radiance of the oculus in the Agnes Martin chapel, an otherworldly puddle of brightness in a dimly lit place.

There’s a story, of course. There always is. It seems that a shepherd found a cross lying in a meadow in the arroyo in the mountain foothills. The cross was "budded" – that is, at the end of its beams, there were scallops representing buds bursting from the dead wood. The shepherd took the cross down the ravine to Espanola and entrusted it to the parish priest. The next day, he found the cross again, lying in the meadow at the same place where he had earlier discovered the relic. Puzzled, the shepherd again make the long hike to Espanola and, again, entrusted the artifact to the priest. The priest was surprised. He had not known that the crucifix had gone missing. On the third day, the shepherd came upon the crucifix again, bedded in the grass among the sheep, precisely where he had found it on the two previous days. This time, the shepherd did not pick up the crucifix and, instead, sent for the priest. After a few hours, the pastor made his way to the field and, after examining the relic, declared that it was a sign that a church should be built at that place. Spades were brought and when the earth under the cross was cut, fresh water welled up out of the earth. The water from this spring was miraculous – it had the property of healing the sick. The church was built adjacent to the holy spring. After a few decades, the water in the ooze dried-up, but the soil retained the healing characteristics of the spring. It was Tierra Sagrada or Tierra Bendito, the blessed soil of the place of pilgrimage. There are different versions of the story and, indeed, the tale probably pre-dates the Spanish villagers who lived in this arroyo in the early 19th century. The word Chimayo is Kewa for "healing dirt."

By 1860, the pilgrimage site was well-known throughout the Spanish-speaking villages of the Sangre de Cristo. Another, later chapel was built dedicated to the Nino de Atocha, the patron saint of Zacatecas, Mexico, the place from which the original pioneers in this valley had come. (The "child of Atocha" was a marvelous boy who visited Christian prisoners held for ransom by the Moors in the ninth century. The boy brought the hungry prisoners loaves of bread and, though at first, it seemed that he had come with only one or two loaves in his basket – all that the cruel Moors would allow into the cells -- the bread multiplied until all had been fed.) The Nino de Atocha is a chapel for children and it is decorated in brighter colors and contains toy-like images of the sacred boy, a porcelain doll with rosy cheeks dressed in rich purple velvet. The walls of that church are also plastered with images of sick children, a mosaic of misery all the more poignant because the sufferers are infants and toddlers.

The paths between the old churches are dusty. There are several gift shops filled with cheap curios. The air smells of chili. Many of the images of the churches show them decorated with a froth of white snow. Apparently, it snows here from time to time and this is regarded as particularly picturesque.

Julie went to the little café in the plaza while I inspected the chapel of the Nino de Atocha. It was about one o’clock, time for lunch. When I returned, we went into the café and ordered Frito Pies. The man behind the counter looked like Mr. Clean on the Procter and Gamble bottles of cleansing compound. He was muscular with a shaved head and arched white eyebrows dressed like the doughty advertising mascot in a white shirt and pants. Mr. Clean was surly. We sat at a splintery little table a dozen feet from the counter in the shack where he was cooking behind a screen of withered ristras. When the Frito pies were ready, he barked at us to come to the counter to pick them up and, then, balked at making change. Julie thought that he should have served the food at our table, such as it was, but I thought that this man was made in the image of distinguished trademark and that nobility of his kind has privileges and that, in any event, I was not proud to stir myself to get the bowls of chili and soggy fritos. The chili was mediocre and the meal was not served with the obligatory bowl of water and oil and corn meal.

Julie told me that there had been an unfortunate scene outside the café while I was looking at the photographs of sick and mutilated children in the chapel. The ex-convict wearing the Jesus tee-shirt and his girlfriend had come to the café, sniffed the air a little, and, then, decided that they weren’t hungry for whatever Mr. Clean was cooking. Next to the restaurant’s entrance, there was a catalpa tree, green with fat, dusty, heart-shaped leaves. The leaves were large and the ex-convict’s girlfriend stroked at them, feeling their texture, and, then, she apparently plucked one or two of the leaves as a souvenir. Mr. Clean came charging out from behind his counter, bellowing insults. He cried: "How would you like it, if I came to your house and picked the leaves off your trees?" The woman apologized and ex-convict, shamed, stared down at the dust. She said she would put the leaves back by the tree. "No, no, you’ve taken them already. Just get out of here," Mr. Clean said. The woman and ex-convict hustled away. Mr. Clean stood behind them in his white apron over his white nautical trousers and his white tee-shirt. "Trash!" he muttered under his breath. "White trash!"

Julie said that she thought the display of rage was disgraceful in a holy place.

I walked around to the front of the church to take a few pictures with my cell-phone. A shy-looking Buddhist monk in sunglasses was standing outside adobe wall surrounding the chapel. He fiddled with his cell-phone and, then, dropped the keys to his rental car. The keys glinted in the dirt and the monk seemed unaware that he had dropped them. It wasn’t entirely clear to me where he had pockets in his bright orange robe.

A young woman looking at monk said: "You dropped your car-keys." He thanked her and stooped to pick them up.




On the way back to Santa Fe, we stopped at the Poeh Cultural Center. The Pojaque pueblo has a large well-appointed casino with a strip mall, some fast food places, and an efficient, bustling gas station. Across the highway, on a frontage road, a mud-brown compound of buildings with a truncated, windowless tower comprises the Cultural Center.

An earnest young man greets us at the door and urges us to take a tour that he will guide. Julie buys some souvenirs and gives the Indian boy some money for the tour. First, we enter a side-gallery and look at the repatriated pots on loan from the Smithsonian Institute. We read about those pots in the lifestyle magazine in Santa Fe and here they are, hulking utilitarian vessels in a big glass cube. The pots are supposed to be living creatures, sentient and breathing, and it seems inhumane to me to confine them in such close quarters, all pressed together with scarcely room to stretch their arms and legs. I whisper to Julie: "This seems cruel. It’s like crowding chickens together in a laying house. They need more space."

Once viewed in those terms, the pots seem vaguely sullen and menacing. The big pear-shaped ceramics with white glaze and stepped thunder-cloud motifs shrug disdainfully and are about to release torrents of water from the sky, or, at least, the fire-protection sprinklers overhead. The young man enters the room and is anxious to answer questions about the pots. But like many Native American guides, he doesn’t really know anything about the subject on which he is talking – it’s his assumption that because he is a Tewa Indian, he necessarily understands his culture and its byways. But this assumption, of course, is incorrect – a culture is too complex and contradictory for any one person to wholly understand and, although the ways of a people are imbued with certain prejudices and characteristic attitudes, this nebulous Stimmung or ambience, must be applied to facts to be meaningful. Accordingly, the young man, who is friendly, handsome and well-meaning, simply repeats that the pots are living beings, although he is not clear how these pieces of ceramic can be understood in that fashion and what the implications of that belief might be. Do the pots have rights? Can they be said to communicate? Were they dead or merely imprisoned at the Smithsonian? Isn’t their liveliness, their vitality, connected in some form with their use and, as displayed in this antiseptic, climate-controlled glass case, aren’t they radically detached from use and, therefore, amputated objects in some real sense? The boy admits that that pots weren’t made by his forebears in any event – they come from the Cochiti and Tesuque Pueblos. "But we are trying to learn more about them," he says.

He leads us into the darkness of simulated cave. "Close your eyes now for we are about to go on a journey," the young man says. I dutifully close my eyes. "Listen for the sound of dripping water, enter into your senses, smell the earthy odor in the air, sense the ground enclosing you." I can hear water flowing, a patter of splashes as if some kind of New Age fountain were flowing. As for the odor of earth, I don’t smell anything.

The young man tells us to open our eyes and he, then, leads us through five rooms. The first four show the seasons. In the initial room, squat Eskimos are hurling atlatl lances at reindeer. A woman and a child crouch in a cave. The atlatl lances are obviously equipped with elegant, serrated Clovis tips. In the second room, spring is blossoming and the people are digging pit-houses. Some straggly ears of corn are portrayed in the diorama – the figures are two-thirds life size with huge brown eyes and high cheekbones. They are the sort of vapid, tubby caricatures of Indians that would arouse rage if they were perpetrated by a White artist. (Apparently, the woman who designed these cartoonish figures is herself Native American.) In the third room, the culture of the Indians has reached its high-noon: it is summer and the maize stands tall and proud next to three-story pueblo buildings where women are weaving and making graceful-looking pottery and where Katchina dancers, elaborately arrayed are entering onto the plaza amidst sacred smoke coiling up from a subterranean kiva. The guide’s patter suggests that he is telling the story of all Native Americans – how they emerged from the darkness of the Sipapu, hunted in the wilderness of the Bering Strait, then, developed simple villages and domesticated corn, and, finally, the flowering of the Pueblo culture.

The fourth room shows war. A Mission church is on fire. A mad monk, tonsured and in a brown robe, is flogging a cowering Indian. The Indian’s back is all furrowed with bloody lash marks. A woman screams and pleads with the monk to desist. But the war is already underway. From one of the vigas of the Mission church, a half-naked monk is dangling, shot full of arrows. On the horizon, smoke rises and there are storm clouds. In the chaos, we can see two young men running away from the burning church – they are the Tesuque runners, heroic figures like the Greeks who brought the news from Marathon; the runners are carrying knotted cords that will tell the other Pueblos when to rise up against the Spanish. (The date of the coordinated rebellion was August 11, 1680). "Some people don’t like this room," the young man says apologetically, "It’s controversial to some people." "It’s okay," I say. The young man says: "It shows the Pueblo Revolt when my people rose against injustice and threw out the Spaniards."

The Missions in New Mexico congregated people who had no natural immunity to western diseases and, so, half the population died as a result of measles and small pox. But the Franciscan’s intent was benign and, to this day, almost all of the Pueblo people are Catholic in one way or another. In the ecology of belief, religions always compete for dominance and nueva Mexico was no exception. About twenty years, before the revolt the Catholic priests suppressed the Kachina dancers and, then, executed by hanging several medicine men. Pope, the leader of the revolt, told the Pueblo people that if they burned the churches and refrained from growing the Spaniard’s crops, wheat and barley, the Kachinas would return to earth and be among their people once more and the great drought that afflicted the land would end. In the revolt, the churches were destroyed and the priests killed along with many converted Indians. Santa Fe was burned and its people forced into exile in El Paso. But, of course, each pueblo was autonomous and jealous of its own rights and could not maintain a concerted front against Europeans and, so, in 1692, the Spanish returned and after negotiating a truce that allowed them to enter the ruins of Santa Fe, began a course of reprisals. But, in some ways, the Spaniards had learned their lesson and, in general, they left the pueblos alone, allowing them to retain their customary independence and ancient rituals.

"Here’s how we live today," the young man says as he ushers us into the last room. Here an Indian boy is aiming his remote at a large-screen TV. The TV broadcasts news about the Pueblo’s victory in the Supreme Court, a ruling that allowed the construction of the casino. There are some family pictures, some military regalia, and a niche in which an image of the Virgin of Guadulupe is displayed. "This shows one of our houses," the young man says.

Julie likes the young man and buys some more souvenirs to show her appreciation of his ancient and noble culture. We drive down the frontage road to the Kokoman Liquor Store – it’s at 34 Cities of Gold Road. (The Poeh Cultural Center is at 78 Cities of Gold.) The liquor store has a fantastic selection of fine wines, the best, in fact, that I have ever seen anywhere.

Friday, November 25, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY -- O (A minimalist artist -- the canyon road to Taos -- a brand-new National Monument -- Agnes Martin -- a road not taken -- mine and mountain pass -- The Moreno Valley and E-Town -- a gunslinger and a serial murderer -- San Francisco de Assisi --Another chapel -- What is beauty?)


(A minimalist artist – The Canyon Road to Taos – A brand-new National Monument – Agnes Martin – a road not taken – a mine and mountain pass – the Moreno Valley and E-Town – a gunslinger and a serial murderer – San Francisco de Assisi – A chapel – What is beauty?)




Critical consensus was that the spiral ramps at the Guggenheim Museum were too coercive for the large Agnes Martin paintings exhibited in her recent retrospective. Martin’s paintings invite extended contemplation; they are too subtle to be appreciated in a glance. Indeed, quick look at one of Martin’s late paintings shows reveals or next to nothing – a slightly luminous, field of cream-colored paint edged with the faintest of shadow. Only closer inspection reveals the grid of graphite lines inscribed into that field, or overlaying, or, perhaps, half concealed by a translucent layer of paint. Martin’s works are very hushed and still, and require patience. You can’t effectively see them propelled up the ramp coiled around the museum atrium or driven downward by the sloping inclines – the museum’s architecture is, to put it succinctly, too propulsive for Martin’s quietly reticent work to be shown to best advantage. And, the effect of her retrospective was further diminished by an art world stunt – one of the little, inconveniently small toilets embedded in the Guggenheim walls, dark and nasty little enclosures that fully deserve the term water closet, was equipped with a solid gold potty. (The 18 carat loo is the work of Maurizio Cattelan and part of an installation called "America".) Of course, Manhattan’s art crowd lined up to shed their excreta in this golden toilet, making a long line that wrapped across the sober, and dismayed, front of a half-dozen of Martin’s painting, obscuring them between a column of vulgarians masquerading as art lovers. It is reported that the wait to use Cattelan’s toilet is about two hours.

I would like to tell you that I sought out Martin’s work in New Mexico. There is a gallery in Taos that holds seven paintings by Agnes Martin – therefore, I should persuade you that I went to that place, the Harwood Gallery, to see those pictures.




I left Santa Fe in morning’s half-light, the sky only half-opened and the desert rats at the C-Store still trembling under their horse-blankets in the dawn cold. The desert rats were sitting with legs outstretched on the sidewalk in front of the store. Inside, two girls behind the counter were bantering back and forth in Spanish.

I drove past the freeway retaining walls decorated with images of snakes and lizards and tortoises. I passed the exit to the outdoor opera amphitheater. Light gradually filled the basin to the north of Santa Fe. The ring of mountains were affixed to the horizon by messy, pinkish badlands striated with shadow.

From Espanola, I took the canyon road to Taos. It was Sunday morning and public radio was playing gospel music interspersed with Buddhist chanting. The Rio Grande gorge was still shadowy, shadow spilling down from the high barren hills to darken the deep valley where the river ran silver between boulders and landslide debris. I stopped at the headquarters for the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. The parking lot was empty. The chemical smell in the toilets made my eyes water. A sign said something about a battle between dragoons from Taos and the Jicarillo Apaches. The battle took place near the river, under the formidable desolate mountain at the head of the valley. The mountain blocked the river or diverted its course so that it flowed in a narrow, stony sluice around the flanks of the big bluff.

The road angles diagonally up the side of the valley and emerges on the grey and vast Taos plateau. From the crest of the hill, I can see north for many miles – the Rio Grande chasm zigzags across the plateau. At this hour, the east canyon wall is leaden with deep shadow while the rim of the west cliffs are lit by a flare of sun raking across the plain. The huge sage-colored plain is treeless and high mountains to the north and east are black rising to dark domes of rock. It’s a heroic view, a vantage that encompasses all of the earth – I can see to Taos spread out under the mountain, the country lanes arrowing in toward the city with haciendas and ranch-houses set at intervals like shards of ceramic pottery.

On the canyon road, you reach Taos from Santa Fe very quickly – it’s not yet 9:15.




Agnes Martin was born in 1912 in Macklin, Saskatchewan (north parallel 52 degrees 20 minutes). She came from Scottish Presbyterian stock. When a sister was pregnant and had some medical difficulties, she moved to Bellingham, Washington to assist her. She studied at various colleges in the west and New York, taught art from time to time, and received a fellowship grant to support her painting in the mid-fifties. She used the money to move to Taos where she worked for two years. Then, she returned to New York City. She met Ad Reinhardt, the abstract expressionist painter, and he seems to have served as a kind of mentor to her. Until 1967, she had a studio at Coentles Slip in New York City. During this time, Martin worked scrupulously to develop her style. She was a ferocious critic of her own art – it is said that for every ten canvases she painted, she cut nine of them up with her mat knife. During this time, she worked to eliminate any figurative impulses from her paintings, gradually simplifying her images until they became geometric and fully abstract.

In 1967, Reinhardt died and the Coenties Slip was demolished. Martin had some kind of breakdown and, then, left New York, driving around the country and living in her car for 18 months. She ended up at a tiny town in north-central New Mexico, Cuba. She built an adobe house with her own hands and lived in that village for nine years. It is said that she stopped painting and didn’t do any work for seven of those years. She moved to Gallisteo, New Mexico in 1977, another tiny town, again built her own home from adobe, and painted there for 16 years. It was in this place that she met Bruce Nauman, the conceptual artist, who she sometimes described as her best friend.

In 1993, Martin was 81 and felt that her health was failing a little. She moved to Taos, still painting daily. She lived until 2004. Seven of her late paintings are owned by Taos’ Harwood Gallery, a part of the Univeesity of New Mexico. The paintings are displayed in a special gallery built with an overhead oculus. Until her death, Martin would often come to visit the paintings, sitting quietly in the room with them. Agnes Martin lived alone and had no romantic liaisons known to anyone. She was schizophrenic and endured electro-shock therapy on several occasions. In 2003, she boasted that she had not read a newspaper for fifty years.

Martin’s famous grid paintings were made in New Mexico. These paintings depict metaphysical states of experience that are the closest thing in art to an encounter with Plato’s ideal forms – pure unconditioned beauty. Martin told admirers that the paintings were made with "(her) back to the world" – that is, not influenced by any external sensation or image. She said that she would sit quietly in a rocking chair and eliminate all conscious thought from her mind. With her mind emptied, Martin explained that inspiration would come to her – she seems to have regarded the inspiration as wholly separate from her personality or capabilities, an infusion of radiance from some other realm. Martin inspiration represented the paintings, complete in themselves, and very small – they appeared to her mind as the size of a postage stamp. In her notebook, Martin would transcribe the image meticulously, precisely how it appeared to her in a tiny drawing also the size of a postage stamp. She would, then, scale the image up to the size of her canvas using mathematical proportions to design the finished painting.

Martin thought music was the purest and most complete form of art. She said: "From music, people expect pure emotion. From art, people want explanation."




After passing through Taos, I drove north on 522 along the west flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The road runs just above the high chaparral at the edges of the pine forests spilling down from the peaks. I passed the turn-off that leads up into the gently rolling foothills to D. H. Lawrence’s ranch and his tomb made from poured concrete in the tall Douglas fir. (When I visited Lawrence’s grave ten years ago, a big silver-colored UFO was nosing around the place, dipping and diving over the mesas.) At Questa, I turned and ascended into the mountains – the highway follows a river-bed past some towering sentinel cliffs up toward the alpine meadows where the stream originates.

A couple miles up the canyon, there is the strange and disheartening spectacle of an amputated mountain, the raw oozing torso of a peak cut into a ziggurat of steep, exposed ramps. At the base of the mutilated mountain, a high chain link fence encloses some ugly-looking white structures, sheds, I suppose, for the big earthmovers that carved the peak into its present form and, above the place where tailings and the steep rock slopes on the opposing slope almost seal off the canyon, there are some crushers mounted on a terrace overhead, an empty parking lot, and some trailer houses linked together to make a kind of office. The operation seems to be closed and, furthermore, ashamed of itself – there’s no sign anywhere naming the mine or specifying what kind of ore has been extracted from this mountain. In fact, there are no signs of any sort, not even no trespassing markers. A map tells me that this is a molybdenum mine. What is molybdenum? The mountain has been flayed to its exposed yellowish tendons and huge inclines of spoil hang like ominous clouds over the road. There is no retaining wall and, in any event, I don’t know what kind of structure could protect the curving highway from landslide if rain were to dislodge tailings overhead.

Red River is uphill beyond a half-dozen curves in the highway. The town occupies the narrow valley between mountains and seems eerily deserted. Ranks of ski-chalets with Alpine-style peaked roofs stand next to main street, a big shuttered colony showing no sign of life. The tourist strip is desolate, a couple of souvenir places, some restaurants closed for the season, and many bars with false-front facades and faded Old West feel to them – a marquee in front of one tavern says "Ride Pepe the Bull – Fame or Shame?

At the west end of town, the road climbs steeply out of the valley. The top of the hill is the pass marked with a modest sign showing the elevation and an Arctic Cat snowmobile dealership. From that height, the highway slopes downward crossing an immense and beautiful park, the sort of voluptuous, endless green meadow that attracts hobby-ranches owned by Hollywood celebrities. This lush green meadow, lying indolently like a naked maja, between high mountain peaks, has a name – it is the Moreno Valley.

Nestled far from the highway at the edges of the steep pine-clad slopes, I can see a few opulent mansions, one every couple miles or so and there are a few jeep tracks cutting out across the meadow, slipping between marshes and wet spots in the hollows of the rolling hills. To the east, a big benign mountain rises, bare shoulders and bare summit – this is Mount Baldy at approximately 12,500 feet. Towering over the valley on the south, I can see the jagged lance-point of Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico. On this warm day, under translucent skies, the big meadows of the Moreno Valley seem to me to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, a mild, kindly, forgiving kind of landscape well-watered by noble summits rising above the tall grass and wild-flowers. When I traversed this area ten years ago, I remember a sign advising travelers about the history of the area. The sign alluded to a macabre event – some kind of serial murderer who haunted the valley and slaughtered travelers passing through this area. I looked for the sign on this transit of the valley but didn’t find it roadside.

The highway droops down to more meadows now climbing up toward Mount Baldy. There is a strip of restaurants and gas stations at an intersection where the traveler can choose to drive north to Colorado or south to Taos. This is Eagle Pass. In the midst of the grass lands rising to the east, a long quicksilver smear brightens the valley – this is a lake impounded behind some inconsequential dam, eighteen or twenty acres of water inundating the low part of the valley. At the intersection, a roadside marker tells the story of Elizabethtown or E-town, a settlement that once occupied the middle of the Moreno Valley but that is now entirely vanished. It was this marker, previously located higher up the valley, about four or five miles from the intersection, that told the sinister story of the serial murder. There is nothing about any killings in this marker. The sign simply says that in 1866 a mining town was platted in the Moreno Valley, Elizabethtown. During the gold rush, E-town boasted 7000 residents, two or three hotels and many saloons and brothels. Photographs show me that as late as 2004, some masonry arches remained of one of E-town’s hotel, but those structures have now been knocked down by snow-loading and nothing remains except some scattered yellowish bricks. The historical highway marker was once located adjacent to those arches – an old log cabin, another relic of the town, stood a half-mile away on the Wheeler Peak side of the meadow. No trace remains today of the log cabin.

From the E-Town sign at the intersection, it’s only six miles south, past the Angel Fire ski-resort airstrip, to the hairpin curves climbing to Pechado Pass. This is the pass over the ridges rising up to Wheeler Peak and the descent to Taos. It’s only a few switchbacks to the top of the hill, an elevation increase of 600 feet perhaps, the road descending the long, dry canyons to Taos is 15 winding miles and a loss of 3000 feet.

Sometimes, the most interesting features in a landscape are those that are invisible. Winter is brutal in the Moreno Valley and season after season of deep snow crushed into oblivion the timber towers of the mine workings on Mount Baldy as well as the stick-built carpentry of E-Town. Elizabethtown (founded 1866) was New Mexico’s first incorporated town – that is, its first village laid out according to norms of Anglo city planning with fee title to real estate held according to the rules of the old Northwest Survey Act. The story is that a Ute Indian was sick and, possibly, dying in a cabin near the headwaters of the Red River. A prospector nursed the Indian back to health and was rewarded for his generosity by being shown a place where there were "pretty stones", an arroyo on the west-facing slope of Mount Baldy. The prospector, with several associates, blazed a Douglas pine on the mountain heights with the words DISCOVERY TREE. People talked as people will and a gold rush followed. E-town was built and the entire Red River diverted for a distance of 41 miles to provide water to the sluices high on the slopes of Mount Baldy. The project was elaborate consisting of tunnels and overhead trestles but it didn’t really work – only a tenth of the water diverted ultimately reached the gold fields.

To the east of E-Town lies Colfax County. In 1872, several New Mexico politicians, backed by money from Holland, formed a syndicate and purchased a huge tract of land extending from Cimarron at its east boundary to Elizabethtown in the west. The syndicate headquarted in Santa Fe (the so-called Santa Fe Ring) served eviction notices on several hundred ranchers, small farmers, and prospectors living on the property that it owned. The pioneers weren’t willing to voluntarily vacate their homesteads and so the Santa Fe ring retained thugs to drive them off the land. A number of the so-called "squatters" as they were named by the Santa Fe ring were shot dead defending their homesteads. A local Methodist minister, Rev. Franklin Tolby, riding the circuit in north-central New Mexico, sided with the pioneers and preached some fiery sermons on their behalf. Gunslingers hired by the Santa Fe ring dry-gulched him near Cimarron. Another circuit-riding Methodist minister, Oscar McMains, demanded vengeance and, so, the squatters formed a militia called the Colfax County Ring. The Colfax County Ring murdered several men reputed to be hirelings of the Santa Fe oligarchs. More gunfighters swarmed into the area on the payroll of the Santa Fe Ring.

Ultimately, Pastor McMains met with Clay Allison, a local "shootist" not affiliated with the syndicate. Allison was a psychopath, discharged from service in the Civil War, because of his violent and "manic" tendencies. Involved in several shoot-outs with Federal forces in his home state, where he was a terrorist employed by the local Ku Klux Klan, Allison had fled to New Mexico territory in 1870. He had a clubfoot and dressed flamboyantly and his exploits were famous. He invited an enemy to dinner, let the man finish his steak, and, then, shot him dead – when questioned about this, Allison said that he thought it would be inhumane to send a hungry man to hell. In another famous case, Allison is said to have summoned his foe to a local graveyard, dug a grave, and, then, descended into the pit with his adversary, both men armed only with a Bowie knife. Allison was happy to assist the Colfax County Ring particularly since he liked losing causes and enjoyed championing the underdog.

A man named Vega was accused of assassinating Reverend Tolby. At the head of lynch mob, Allison captured Vega. When Vega refused to admit involvement in Tolby’s killing, Allison tortured him with the enthusiastic participation of the mob. Reverend McMains was appalled and fled. Allison, then, moved the war to Cimarron where the Santa Fe Ring stabled its hired killers. A number of shootings and ambushes occurred and, some historians estimate, that as many as 200 men were killed. When the incorruptible Lew Wallace became governor, trials were convened and some of the violence quashed.

The Colfax County war was waged over the old Maxwell Land Grant. This was territory around the Moreno Valley and extending toward Cimarron that Lucien Maxwell had owned but that was contested by the Dutch investors and the Santa Fe Ring. When gold was discovered around Mount Baldy, Maxwell granted deeds to prospectors and pioneers and these were the combatants involved in the fighting. Ultimately, territorial courts ruled that the Santa Fe Ring’s land rights were subordinate to the Maxwell Grant and that the "squatters" had legitimate title to their land. But periodic ambushes and vigilante hangings continued until the 1920's.

In the course of the Colfax County War, Clay Allison was implicated in many killings. In one case, he shot a man dead and, then, a couple days later, got drunk, stripped naked, and did a war dance over the place where he had killed his enemy, a red bow neatly tied around his penis. When things got too hot for Allison, he fled New Mexico to Pecos, Texas where he bought a ranch. He wandered about the west, on one occasion facing down Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, Kansas. In Cheyenne, Allison had a toothache and had to have one of his molars extracted. Allison thought the process was unduly painful and, so, he knocked down the dentist and used a pliers to wrench a molar out of his jaws.

Married, with several small children back on the ranch, Allison tried to go straight. While transporting a heavy load in his buckboard wagon, a wheel broke. Allison climbed under the heavily laden wagon to fix the wheel. The wagon collapsed on him and running gear almost severed his head. Clay Allison was 47 when he died.

A picture of Clay Allison taken around the time of the Colfax County War shows a handsome man with slit eyes and a bushy black beard. Allison is wearing garishly striped trousers and, with his left hand, he holds a crutch with a padded top – the fabric on the crutch’s pad is also striped. Allison used a crutch because of his club foot, a deformity with which he was born. The gunfighter holds the crutch proudly as if it were some kind of exotic, and deadly, weapon.


One-hundred and fifty years ago, it was a long two-day ride from Taos over Pecado Pass to Elizabethtown. Midway between the two villages, a big, burly pioneer named Charles Kennedy owned a lodge where weary travelers could spend the night. Unfortunately, Kennedy was a serial killer who murdered his guests.

In late September 1870, an Indian woman, bruised and battered, staggered into Elizabethtown. She said that her husband, Charles Kennedy, had killed their son and attempted to murder her. Apparently, a traveler met Kennedy along the trail. Kennedy invited him to his isolated lodge where the two men began to drink. The wayfaring stranger asked Kennedy if he saw many Indians in the hills where he lived. Kennedy’s small son was sitting next to the table and he blurted out: "Can’t you smell the one papa put under the floor?" Kennedy drew his revolver and shot the traveler. Then, he beat his son to death. He knocked his Indian wife down, kicked her a few times, and, then, continued drinking to the point that he passed-out. She escaped from the cabin and made her way to E-Town.

As luck would have it, the Indian woman told her story in a saloon where Clay Allison was boozing with Davy Crockett, a nephew and namesake of the famous Tennessee frontiersman. Allison and Crockett put together a posse and rode out to Kennedy’s lodge. Still drunk, Kennedy was stirring a fire-pit in which blackened human bones were found. The posse tied Kennedy up and dragged him back to E-Town.

A circuit judge appeared at a Grand Jury hearing on October 3, 1870 and the issued an order that Kennedy be held in custody until his trial. The Indian woman testified to the Grand Jury and said that her husband may have killed as many as 14 travelers.

A rumor spread through town that Kennedy had hired a lawyer from Santa Fe and that the attorney intended to spread around enough money to buy the alleged murderer’s freedom. Clay Allison got drunk, incited the other patrons in the saloon until they formed a mob, and, then, led an attack on the local jail. Someone through a rope around Kennedy’s mid-section and Allison, reportedly, galloped back and forth on E-Town’s main street dragging the man until the alleged murderer had been rubbed to death. The crowd hauled what was left of Kennedy to the town outskirts where a group of Catholics stood at the gates to their cemetery barring interment of the corpse in their graveyard. A shallow trench was dug and Kennedy was slopped into it. The next morning, Clay Allison is supposed to have dug up the corpse, decapitated it, and, then, carried the head Cimarron. He stuck the head on a post in front of the town’s hotel, daring the local folks to remove the grisly relic. The head was supposed to have remained in that place for several months.

How much of this is true is anyone’s guess.

(Other accounts say that Charles Kennedy had a large cabin on the trail to Taos at the mouth of Fernandez Canyon. Fernandez Canyon is one of two outlets leading from the high park of Moreno Valley to the outside world. In some stories, Kennedy is charged with attempted murder when one of his putative victims escaped with serious injuries. A trial was convened but Kennedy eluded conviction. Later, Kennedy’s Indian wife is supposed to have come to E-Town with a bag of charred human bones. This led to Kennedy’s second detention and another trial. At that trial, a young lawyer named Melvin Whitson Mills successfully defended Kennedy. He was again released from jail but found hanging from "a pine limb" a couple days later. His body was cut down and dissected by a physician named Bradford and, then, allegedly sent to the Smithsonian Institute "where it can be seen today" – so says a genealogy site devoted to Melvin Mills and his heirs.)




Highway 64 is the modern road that runs from Eagle Nest over Pecado Pass to Rancho de Taos Junction on the south side of the Wheeler Mountain ridge. The road winds down from the frigid pine forests on the summit through a shallow canyon cut by the Comanche Creek – this is Fernandez Canyon. At Taos junction, the traveler is a only a couple hundred yards from the one of the most beautiful churches in the United States, the adobe mission church of San Francisco de Assisi.

The church crouches like a great, noble sphinx in a plaza surrounded by other old adobe buildings. When I first saw this church fifteen years ago, the buildings surrounding the massive, lion-colored church were five and dime shops, offices for the local parish, humble local businesses, a lawyer, perhaps, and an insurance agency. The plaza arcade is now upscale – expensive boutiques and places retailing western art and galleries full of five-thousand dollar curios.

It was Sunday morning, fore-noon: the church stood among a throng of parked pick-up trucks. The great belltowers, more like geological features, than structures made by human hands cast their long shadows over the vehicles.


Seven paintings by Agnes Martin occupy a kind of chapel at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. The art museum is about a block west from the highway that bisects the town, a structure that is shaped like a pueblo with three stories stacked atop one another and vigas extruding from a turquoise-colored frieze. Martin’s paintings are large, about ten feet tall, and simple: ribbons of pale paint cross the light blue canvases; in some of the pictures, the cloud-tinted white strips are the prevailing element, extending laterally across the field of the canvas – in other paintings, the blue background becomes foreground, the white mist expanding so that the blue elements of the picture no longer predominate, but appear as arm’s width white bands crossing the canvas. You must look from picture to picture to grasp the subtle interplay between the creamy white bands appearing against the blue background and other canvases in which the blue becomes stripe marking a foggy but radiant white backdrop.

The gallery has a peculiar shape – the ceiling is complex, possibly a dodecagon, pierced by an oval central oculus open to the sky. Some track lights are bolted to the polygonal ceiling and each large painting occupies a single facet or white wall of the chapel. Directly under the oculus, there are four cubes, richly honey-colored – these were made by the artist, Donald Judd and they are intended to serve as benches. The cubes are not attached to the floor and they can be moved aside readily – indeed, an early morning yoga class uses the place and, when exercising in that room, pushes the four cubes toward the door to put them out of the way and, also, to block entrance to those not in the class. The gallery’s floor is polished wooden staves, light-colored and smooth as a dance-floor.

Agnes Martin used to come to the studio and sit quietly on the cubes pushed together in the middle of the floor under the pale wash of blue sky light falling through the oculus. There is a video of her coming into the room and sitting there to contemplate her paintings –the pictures were made on the occasion of Martin’s 90th birthday and she is a massive, heavy set woman who walks gingerly on hips that are not entirely functional – her hair is grey and cropped, cut the way a truckdriver might wear his hair.

The rest of the museum is small. There are some interesting Santos and a penitente Death with bow and arrow in a cart with hideous square wheels. Indians grimace at you from dusky canvases and there are paintings of katchina dancers and canyons.

Some people come into the museum and step for a moment into the Agnes Martin gallery – the air seems too thin and rarefied for them in that room and, so, after glancing at the pale arctic paintings, they retreat. Others walk blindly to the center of the room and its honey-colored cubes, not daring to experience the paintings until they have taken a place on those benches under the warm and austere light descending from above. Then, they look at the paintings, turning from canvas to canvas, and may remain in the room for ten minutes or more. A cloud may pass over the sun and, then, suddenly, the room becomes colder and the paintings seem more remote, something viewed from an immense distance. When the cloud frees the sun, the pictures seem to come closer and become brighter and, even, whisper a little to one another – the white strips are the color of angel’s wings. When it is bright in the gallery, the light cast through the oculus makes the visitor feel as if he or she is a kind of sculpture, also on display and a part of the exhibit.



When I drove through Taos, it was still early on a Sunday morning and the Harwood Museum would not open unti 11:00 and I had miles to go and promises to keep and so I drove onward, through town.

Barricades blocked the road to Taos Pueblo. I didn’t go to the museum and have never been there.

North of town, I saw the arrow of buildings pointing up the arroyo to the canyon where the road ascended to the ski resort. There are no trees on the dry, high plateau and so the shapes of villages and towns and commercial strips are entirely naked to the eye. I thought that I should turn at the intersection where there was a flashing yellow and take the eight mile road to the top of the mountain and the Bavarian Lodge under the summit of Wheeler Peak. It’s a place that I have thought about and, even, seen in my dreams.

But I had to be back in Santa Fe by two-o’clock pm and so I didn’t visit that place.

When you are on vacation, it seems that you are always so terribly rushed.



Agnes Martin’s dealer at the Pace Gallery in New York, a man who looks like Bob Balaban, told a story about the artist.

The dealer had come to visit her in Taos with his eight-year old granddaughter. Martin had a rose in vase in her studio.

Martin pointed to the rose and said: "Is the rose beautiful?"

"Yes," the little girl said.

"What makes it beautiful?"

"The way it looks," the little girl replied.

Agnes Martin took the rose and put it behind her back. "Is the rose still beautiful?" she asked.

"Yes," the child said.

"You see that the rose is beautiful because of what is in your mind. That’s where beauty will be found," Agnes Martin said.