Four years ago I made a radical decision to spend a winter in New Mexico. Maine winters were long and I was 71 years old. An unfinished experience 25 years ago had left me with a longing to spend more time in the desert. Although I had formed a deep and abiding relationship with my land in Maine over a period of almost 40 years and had constructed a small log cabin on this beautiful piece of property that has a brook on three sides, woods and fields, I wondered if at this stage of my life I should consider moving….
I was very fortunate to find a place to live In Abiquiu, NM, and eventually I was able to move into a friend’s newly built casita that bordered a tributary of the Rio Grande, which also abutted another friend’s property. This abutting property included a Bosque (river wetland). I was blessed to have a beautiful place to walk through without having to get into a car. Most hikes required driving somewhere, a practice I disliked.
I discovered over time that New Mexico was a land of extremes – and not the paradise I had expected. The one torturous summer I spent there under 100 plus degree heat made it clear that I could not live in this stifling sauna with its bloody burning sun – star year round. Wildfires burned continiously. The west winds roared churning up clouds of dust that choked the air, sometimes for days on end; and the winds were relentless, especially during the spring. I remembered fairy tales that spoke to the malevolence of the west wind; I imagined I could feel that power here.
The songs of nature were continuously drowned out – I missed the birds singing, the fluttering of tree leaves; even the roar of the river was silenced by fierce wind and it had no scent. When the wind slept and I could be outdoors in peace during the late fall, winter, and spring I began to experience a strange sort of loneliness. Although I could enter a glorious canyon after a ten minute walk on a nearby road, once there, absence dominated. Where were the animals, the birds? The giant rock statues were utterly silent – although the astonishing shapes and colors were a perpetual feast for my eyes. The sky was a huge bowl that hung upside down and touched an unforgiving rock strewn floor below. Rarely, oh so rarely did the Cloud People bring rain. And when the rains came so did the wind. The rain never lasted more than a few minutes; it came down cold and hard, and often the wind whipped the moisture away. Sometimes not a drop of water actually hit the ground.
Within just a few months I began to hunger for the shark gray skies of the North Country… When the heavens opened gentle showers bathed the earth for hours – even days, leaving sparkling crystals on every shrub and tree. But most of all I missed the scent of water. The air was pitifully thin, crackling, it was so dry, and often it carried a bitter metallic smell that I later learned was due to air pollution. During the warmer months the skies were often choked by wildfires as ominous plumes turned steel blue to charcoal gray. However, sunrises and sunsets were spectacular splashing the sky with scarlet, rose, violet, lavender, lemon or orange. I remained in a state of perpetual awe for the sky at dawn and dusk. At first the gnarled shapes of the stunted junipers, the only trees around, except for the cottonwoods that lined the river, seemed to fill a void where a plethora of trees lived on only in my imagination… Later, the Matriarchs of the Bosque became my dearest friends because they were the only trees that towered gracefully overhead providing real shade from the fierce and deadly New Mexican sun. Cicadas inhabited their branches in warm weather singing up the night. Sunny days were the norm; gradually the monotony of a deep blue sky that seemed too vast and too empty, began to feel somewhat dead to me. Tuned to ever- changing weather in each season, I missed diversity.
After living in New Mexico for less than two years I began to walk to the river under a pre – dawn sky to escape the wind and the blazing white star that rose too soon. In that magical time between night, twilight, and dawn the air was still and I could listen to the river’s song, identify the birds I couldn’t hear during the day, and think with a kind of clarity I lost when the sun came up. I began to take my camera and took pictures of whatever caught my attention, a certain slant of light, a twig, the curve of the river. Focusing on details. During these meanders deep questions about the direction my life was taking began to surface. I let them be. Once I returned to the house I would look at my pictures. One day I posted a few on FB with some personal remarks. It seemed to complete my morning walk in a very satisfying way. I was able to find expression for the deep gratitude I experienced not just through visioning but through words. I was in love with nature and these walks of mine kept me present to wonder, at least for those moments in time.
I didn’t think about this process of photographing and posting publicly – I just did it. I was surprised and pleased when others read what I wrote, but this flow was not dependent upon responses from others. I was doing it for myself. I didn’t realize it at the time but these river walks were going to take on a life of their own, and along with the Cottonwoods in the Bosque, would gradually become the force that would help me to see once again.
Images of Maine surfaced in that pre-dawn hour. I acknowledged ruefully how much I missed the moist mountain air, the gift of quiet rain, deep emerald green, fragrant fertile woodland earth, the long velvet black nights of winter, remarkably, even snow. The constellation of the Great Bear no longer oriented me in this southern sky because instead of circling over my head it lay low on the horizon. I recalled the trees that protected my too sensitive eyes from the harsh white glare of the sun. Except for these peaceful twilight meanders I was forced to wear glasses all the time.
Yet, I was content enough here wasn’t I? The desert was starkly beautiful, and I loved the place I lived, doing my best to create a home, planting trees and creating small gardens. I had escaped the too long winters, the heavy physical work associated with them. Yet questions gnawed at me. What did it mean to feel at home? Why the profound sense of emptiness and lack of clarity? And what about the light?
I couldn’t escape the problem of light. One of the reasons I set out for the river in the dark was because I wanted these walks to end before sunrise. There was a quality of intense light present during the day in the too thin air that I found disturbing. Too much light, air, wind, and on the other extreme, too much stone. The crust of the earth held little in the way of new life in the desert. Survival of any plant species was precarious and dependent on the rains that rarely came. Almost everything I planted ended up dead. The desert had little to offer in terms of containment for people or plants. The sky gods ruled the desert, and did so with an iron will. Stone doesn’t surrender; it is incapable of receiving. This was not a forgiving place.
During the fourth winter, I began slipping into a meditative state as I set off for the river in the dark. I knew the path by heart; my feet guided me allowing my questions to dissipate in silence without thought intruding. Peace entered when I was focusing on what my senses were experiencing – paying close attention to whatever Nature presented me with – every piece of bark on the Cottonwoods, decaying brown leaves, dead grass, birds – all seemed to carry messages I could discern through my bodily senses – examining a frost covered branch, frozen grasses that glowed, listening to the haunting calls of the migrating cranes allowed me to anchor myself firmly in Now. My gratitude for being alive flowed naturally, without effort. Gradually, oh so gradually I began to realize that I had never been able to ground myself anywhere in this barren rock strewn earth.
When I came to the desert I left my body.
Except for these brief walks to the river and into the wetlands each morning I had been walking on air.
For an hour each day I was able to re-enter my body as I entered a light trance circling the paths of the Bosque. Illumination after illumination struck as trees and roots spoke to me. For four years I had been traversing an invisible maze. No wonder I was unable to put down roots here. I needed to return to my home in Maine. This truth suddenly seemed so obvious that I found myself questioning what had happened to me to lead me on this circular journey. When the answers came they were as clear as they were complex. Meanwhile, each morning I continued to post a photos and personal comments after reflecting on the truths my body imparted to me that day …
When Covid struck I felt terror strike for I was in in the highest risk category … At the same time I began to think of these pre-dawn musings as a kind of intentional gift, not just for myself, but for anyone that might need to ponder images of beauty, experience gratitude, or listen to one person’s truth during increasingly fearful and uncertain times…
I returned to Maine in April with all kinds of problems ahead. The most important issue besides my health and money is that I have yet to find anyone to commit to replacing rotting beams in my cellar crawlspace. Mold is another issue. So I am hardly living a paradisiacal life! And yet…
Although I no longer have to leave the house in the predawn hours I continue my morning meditation with as much awareness as I can conjure up, using pictures I have taken the day before to post publically as I comment on what has moved me. On some heavily clouded mornings like this one, I meander through my pine forest breathing in the intoxicating scent of pine listening to the comforting sound of rumbling thunder in the distance feeling reverence and gratitude for the coming rain and ‘what is’ … sinking into that same light trance state as I did in the Bosque.
My sight has been restored. I am rooted in the midst of a dark green religion of trees, fertile ground, and water. Fruit trees lean towards the house. Maples provide abundant summer shade and fall color. Evergreens line the brook. A path through a forest of white pines beckons from my door. All these roots tap into my own. My body knows I belong here. I move through an underground portal; I am attached to the body of the earth and to my own body through my love for this forgiving land.