Kinship and the Powers of Place

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What do I mean by the word kinship? I believe that kinship is the idea, and the belief that all aspects of nature from photons to galaxies are connected to one another. Practically, I think of kinship as my feeling/sense of being intimately linked to place/landscape. In my mind Kinship and Place are not only related, each is shaped by the other.

The powers of place are invisible threads that work by exerting a kind of physical and psychic pressure, pulling me into relationship; place acts like an attractor site. My body behaves like a lightening rod or perhaps a tuning fork picking up information from the landscape. Once I have heard the “call” the door opens through my relationship with elements, trees, animals, stars or stones to name a few possibilities. As this presence manifests through its individuals place begins to teach me what I need to know about an area and how I might best live in harmony with a particular landscape, if not its people. This learning occurs in bursts or very slowly just below the threshold of everyday consciousness. Either way, information seeps in through my body as I listen and pay close attention to what my senses are telling me. I allow animals, trees, plants to speak to me in their native language, and I note synchronistic occurrences. Information also comes to me through dreams. Eventually a discernable pattern emerges. My body acts as the bridge between my self and Nature; my body is the vehicle that keeps me connected to the whole.

Ironically, I never heard the phrase “power of place” used until the 90’s. Yet, this force has driven my entire life spanning almost seventy – one years. As a toddler I was already “reading” and absorbing landscapes through rain, flowers, the presence of deer, stars, dogs, the moon. This first intimate relationship with place occurred on my grandparents’ pre -revolutionary farm with its attendant fields, brook, and forest. During the day my little brother and I spent hours in the woods playing by the brook, watching birds, catching frogs and salamanders. At night we learned the names of the stars and caught fireflies which we kept overnight in jars… My grandmother often awakened me to watch the deer grazing under her golden apple tree. I also have a sharp memory of my mother and I gazing out my bedroom window at the full moon. When clouds scudded by shrouding the moon I apparently remarked, “the moon has gone under her covers.”

As an adolescent power of place fatally snagged me with Monhegan Island, an artist’s paradise located off the coast of Maine with it’s beautiful cliffs and raging seas; I moved there after college, married a fisherman, and my two sons were born during those years (I use the word “fatally” deliberately because accompanying the call is a sense of being pulled into the “right” place for unknown reasons. To live one’s Fate is another way to express this calling).

On Southport, another island, 300 year – old apple trees cried out to me, and a diminutive 1700’s cape style house embraced my children and me after my divorce.

After the children were grown I heard the sound of “wilderness” keening and I moved to the western mountains of Maine seeking the source of that call, the one I called the Mountain Mother. I did not understand then that I was being called to witness the desecration of the earth from ‘my land’ and then to become Nature’s advocate. I was called to this patch of earth to begin my most important life’s – work: to write honestly about my experiences in nature with the hope that I might be able to sensitize others to the destruction of the earth through stories about individuals and my relationship with them. When I first arrived here this mother swept me off my feet! She flowed through me like a great underground river, rooting me to this particular ground with a love so powerful I had no words to express what I felt. When she continued to communicate with me I experienced ecstasy, and later during longer and longer silences I felt profound overwhelming grief.

My initial experience with place follows a certain pattern: first I feel joy and wonder, followed by a visceral feeling of belonging, the best kind of natural high. After a time the joyful aspect continues intermittently, as I become more deeply enmeshed in a landscape through relationships with its particular features and creatures as I have with this brook, forest and field, the birds and animals that live here with me… Experiencing joy also opens me to sorrow (For example, moving to the mountains of western Maine brought the mindless destruction of trees to the center of my attention). To love is to experience loss of the beloved; the two are intimately related.

In recent years although I continue to write, joy has absented herself from my relationship with this land… There are many reasons I could give and all involve change. The massive tree destruction, noise, gunning, chaotic neighbors etc. are concrete examples of negative changes that have profoundly impacted me. I still experience deep pleasure in particulars like the unfurling leaves of ferns, the first mayflowers, my love of birds, the few bears that continue to visit now and then, my wild gardens on fire with bee balm, delft blue delphinium, and fragrant yellow lilies, the changing seasons but I feel a deep penetrating sadness overall, though I retain a deep love for the land as a whole and my small log cabin. I believe the powers of this place understand that for whatever reason I am in crisis, (I turned 70 last September) and that I need to leave at least for a time in order to regain my perspective. As I continue to converse with the land that I love I feel that She is giving me permission to let go for now.

Running parallel with all these feelings is the powerful sense that I need to return to the desert. I first visited this timeless world in my early twenties just after I lost my only brother. That first time the desert was unable to penetrate the haze of this young woman’s grief. It wasn’t until mid-life after another series of losses that returning to the desert helped me re-capture my lost soul. How this happened remains a mystery to me but it has everything to do with the powers of place. The desert has a healing aspect to it that is unlike any other. What I did after my divorce was to surrender myself to the Desert Mother while asking one question: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? After six months in the Sonoran desert, I returned east feeling whole, having recaptured my joy, and ready to return to college. That was 20 years ago and in retrospect I see that the choice to return to school was a sound one because it helped shape my teaching and writing life and it gave me my first experience with a community of like-minded people.

During the last year, a year of deep depression and loneliness I began dreaming about the desert again. I struggled to give myself the permission to allow myself to make another pilgrimage to the desert for healing – to re –dress the imbalances in my life, and to re-capture my joy. Although I couldn’t afford it I made a decision to go to New Mexico to visit a desert that I have never seen before. I chose Abiquiu, a small mountain village in the high desert because the artist Georgia O’ Keeffe lived there during the latter part of her life and painted some of her most astonishing desert paintings in this amazing world of wide open blue sky, stars, and stone. Although I never met her, Georgia has been a mentor to me, a beacon of hope, because I believe that she experienced Nature in much the same the way as I do, and she allowed the powers of place to influence her decision making too. I admired O’Keeffe’s tenacity and refusal to live her life according to other people’s expectations. She lived an authentic, self -directed life.

As some of us know, while making a pilgrimage, time stretches out like a rubber band, and once the threshold has been crossed one is catapulted into sacred space where the present becomes all there is. That first morning in Abiquiu I awakened at dawn and ran out into the surrounding desert in my nightgown possessed by joy! The dusty gray sage laden hills were round, peppered with sea green spiked pinion pine, fragrant Juniper and mountain cedar. These beautiful small trees provided a stunning contrast in shape and color to the dusty red Earth.

On the peak of a nearby hill I was drawn to a solitary Grandmother Cedar, an ancient gnarled tree whose thick, rough, and wavy gray bark had been shaped by harsh winds and summer rains. Her lace-like fronds were few. Most branches lay dead, strewn around her trunk like bleached bones providing her with nutrients that might be helping her to keep on living long past her time. Startled by her probable age and tenacity, I picked up one of the dead twigs; I saw the shape of the whole tree mirrored in that one branch, just as the sparse but fan -like evergreen “leaves” that still lived reflected the same fractal patterning. I could sense a presence around and within the tree’s ashen body as she bled into me; I was reminded that if she could live on so could I as I entered old age. Did I imagine a new sense of self emerging from out of the rubble?

When I returned to the adobe house I was renting I was stunned to encounter a wild African collared ring necked dove sitting on a branch of a nearby snag. I am very familiar with these doves because I have one. Lily B has been with me for 23 years. Hundreds of these birds (who are imported because they are such good egg sitting parents for exotic species) have been released into the wild after they are no longer useful as egg sitters. With a shock I realized that some apparently survive here in Northern New Mexico where temperatures drop well below freezing during the relatively brief winters. I called out to this ring necked dove as I approached him warily, not wanting him to fly away. He cocked his head in what appeared to be curiosity but he didn’t respond to my voice with a song. I was disappointed. Perhaps this dove was a female; females adopt a shorter version of the male’s song but only respond to the voice of their mates. I experienced the appearance of this wild ring neck dove as a powerful link with my home in the mountains of Maine.

My first trip into Abiquiu village was bewildering because it seemed as if the winding road was one sinuous red serpent snaking its way down through the peppered hills. The clear untroubled Chama River flowed beneath a bridge in front of me as I made my descent to the place where earth met concrete. The cottonwoods were sprouting lime and chartreuse and mountain blue birds and three kinds of doves were singing to each other and perhaps to the sound of the river.

Once across the bridge I visited the Inn and church compound where Georgia O’Keeffe eventually bought and managed her second house, a once abandoned hacienda. Here too I experienced another rush of pure joy. My love of O’Keeffe’s paintings had been part of my longing to visit this particular desert, so why was I so surprised when I opened the wrought iron gates of the church courtyard around to find it eerily familiar? Georgia had once painted this edifice. I found the fragrant herb Rue growing in the garden and picked some to take into the church with me. Rue is traditionally an herb of protection used by Meso and South American Native peoples to ward off evil. Inside, the lovely chapel had stained glass with lots of traditional Christian images but when I approached the lily strewn altar I saw to my right a statue of the Virgin, and on the opposite side of the enclave I was stunned to come face to face with the Black Madonna! In Arizona I had found these images outside or behind the churches, usually in little stone grottos. The country folk come to these shrines to light candles and pray to an older goddess than the one Christianity knows as the Virgin.

The images of the Black Madonna and Guadalupe that I had seen in Tucson and other places in the southwest were usually Indian looking; in Europe they are black. Oddly, this figurine was also black, embossed in gold, and seated. There was no place to light a candle for Her, this Mother of Us All, so I took a votive candle from the Virgin and lit it in front of the wooden carving. The hair prickled on my arms… After a while I left the church, leaving an offering of Rue at the foot of the Black Madonna’s robe.

Everywhere I went people told their stories about how they came to this thriving artists’ and writers’ community and how much they loved the area. With the exception of Native tribes like the Navaho, most folks seemed to have arrived here from all over the country. Some spoke of the spiritual energy that permeated the place, and I knew what they were talking about because the energy charge I experienced was so fierce that I was having a hard time staying in my body.

I met a group of women that called themselves the Intrepids who regularly hiked in the seemingly endless high desert, most of which was protected by National forests that stretched out all around this small village. While hiking I couldn’t help comparing this true wilderness to Maine where the wild places are under siege and virtually disappearing. I learned that the logging industry was dead in Northern Mexico. Thanks to the “Forest Guardians” this land would remain untouched; no doubt the reason the silence struck peace like a bell.

The following day I went to see where Ghost Ranch was located, the first place that Georgia lived, (and bought), where she painted many of her landscapes. I was not prepared for the astonishing depth and breadth and the visionary quality of the seemingly endless beauty that surrounded me. Ghost Ranch blended so well with the scenery that I could barely see the structure tucked into the base of one of the cliffs. I spent four hours staring at the austere mountains that changed color every second as clouds passed by and shadows fell in new places highlighting red, ocher, lavender, even deep purple and green until the night closed in. The landscape around Georgia’s “home-place” was so astounding that after my initial experience and attempt to describe it, I decided that O’Keeffe’s mountains must remain as stark impressions in my mind:

Sand, white clay, ivory, buff, orange and yellow ocher, brick, Indian red, violet and purple, even a pale moss – all colors running together against a background of Indian red rock and stone. The stillness is deafening and sweet. Fantastic formations, a roaring gorge, and one long deep blue lake – a sand stone floor teaming with life – raging gullies – slippery sands – and layers upon layers of clay forming pyramids that are painted in every conceivable earthen shade. The Great Goddess of the Desert Wilderness is a living presence here; the powers of place rooted me, clasped me in their embrace, and soared above me like great black birds vanishing into the deep blue firmament…

For artists and perhaps mystics like myself, the “value” is in ever changing color and truly this place embodies the Navaho spirit of “Changing Woman.” She continuously shifts clouds and sky, stones, sands and water – arroyos overflow, even reverse directions under thundering rains – the driest cracked red earth is alive with sage, juniper, cedar and pinion pine – all the colors except the red cliffs run together – pastels, each bleeding one into another. Desert Silence is like no other, and at night a bowl of silver stars stretches round over the night from horizon to horizon.

The fifteen – mile drive in to the Benedictine monastery requires both courage and focus on an unbelievably narrow winding dirt road that slithers its way above an impossibly deep gorge on one side and meanders around flaming orange cliffs or towering rotund sandstone castles on the other. The roundness of these Sandstone Beings, sculpted and curved by wind and time seemed infinitely wise and the sight of them left me dumbstruck. How could stone be chiseled and smoothed into such a fantastic myriad of shapes? I felt as if I needed eyes in the back of my head to take in all this wonder.

I was actually relieved to reach the monastery, which was tucked under its own mountain, shaded and sheltered by many surrounding cliffs; rich red soil had already been turned for spring planting. Walking into the chapel for vespers stunned me. Above all the usual ecclesiastical images on the altar there was a huge bowed window that stretched across the front of the church and reached the top of the building. This giant window was angled like the prow of a ship and opened directly on a towering burnt sienna cliff with a solitary mountain cedar rooted to its pinnacle. I let out an involuntary gasp as the golden sunlight streamed into the building and lit up the room. Whoever had done this architectural work clearly understood that the Stone People were the first earth beings. The image of the stupendous cliff turning red, orange, and gold in the setting sun was so breathtaking that I was speechless. It’s impossible to write more about this place beyond stating that it must be experienced.

Later that afternoon I meandered around the Indian red hills. From the top of a craggy red rock a solitary raven crowed. Because this was virgin desert I didn’t expect to find a creative homemade wood and tin birdhouse lying on the desert floor. Was this a second message about home? I picked up the bird -house and decided to keep it.

The sparse and spiky vegetation suggested that this area was a bit drier here and I wondered how much water was left in the underground aquifers. The average home well was 400 – 500 feet down. Masses of juniper, cedar and a few pinion pines provided some protection from the wind and the dirt road wound its way up the nearest mountain. Nature sculpted circular sandstone paintings on the rough stone eroding on the ground. There was a steep red gully that ran through the west part of the rolling hills and across from that arroyo stood another group of sandstone Desert Beings. I imagined I could hear the water tumbling down that gully during the summer rains. Birds of all kinds flew in and out of the holes of these cliffs.

To the north a nearby softly rounded mountain range speckled with pinion and juniper rose in austere silence. To the east the imposing snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range stretched over the horizon as far as I could see. I wondered which peak was 14 thousand feet high since all seemed equally immense. To the south I saw another blue mountain range with its solitary mesa or Pedernal rising in the middle. Georgia had painted this configuration of rock with its flattened top, and her ashes were scattered on the top of the mesa. She once said that god told her that if she painted this mountain enough he would give it to her! I wondered if O’Keeffe knew that according to Navajo Myth, Changing Woman was born on this mesa. The contours of the land rose and fell around the mountain ranges, flowed over gullies and shallow arroyos. The Earth seemed to be whispering to me in an ancient language that flowed out of stone into thin air. Late that afternoon I wandered back to this higher terrain and eventually ended up at the crest of the mountain where I witnessed a miraculous sunset on fire.

Early dawn would find me at the airport headed for Maine. Reflecting on the powers of place I realized that the high desert of Abiquiu mirrors my life through wild beauty and my fatal attraction to it, through song and scarcity, tenacity, loneliness, and death, my need for silence, wonder, thorns, bones, and for flowers.

I thought about the particulars that stood out from the whole: the mountain cedar, the brief appearance of a ring necked dove, the bird house, the Black Madonna, flaming cliffs seen as if from the prow of a ship, and the sense that Georgia in some magical way had accompanied me throughout this entire journey. The message seemed obvious – She was calling to me again, this Mother of Stone. For the second time in my life I had discovered a spiritual home in the mountains. A part of me is attached to this land by invisible threads; I belong to this place and to learn what this desert has to teach me, I will have to return.

(This picture of the little red hills came from one of Georgia OKeeffe’s art books…one that I own)

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4 thoughts on “Kinship and the Powers of Place

  1. I enjoyed reading of your sojourn in the Chama River/O’Keeffe country. I spent some time there in October…beautiful cottonwoods were glowing along the river. I’ve not made it to the abbey yet but I drink their beer. I’ll get there — a friend has been gently urging me to go.

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    1. I am glad that you do! Yes, you have to come back to go to the Abbey – this is an amazing place – I would go over that way much more often if I didn’t have to traverse that winding road – the view are beyond spectacular – email me if you come again – I’ll go with you!

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