I am on the trail of two ghosts. As famous ghosts, who left behind respective legacies of words and images, they are easy to track. One was a writer, the other a painter. Celebrated, controversial, visionary, iconoclastic. These being some of the terms applied to them during their lives.
Compelled by what you might call an incurable existential itch, both the writer and the painter were restless, self-possessed seekers and individualists. Their work struck an artistic hammer-blow to convention, and extended boundaries. In a sense the writer, D.H. Lawrence, and the painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, were spiritual kin, who not only found vital bits of their souls reflected back to them in the stark mirror that is New Mexico, but also a profound sense of home.
A FIERCE AWAKENING
“I think New Mexico is the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It completely changed me forever . . . In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the old world gave way to a new.” This awakening, as described by Lawrence in one of his essays, underscored his deeply cherished desires and ideals: A new way of seeing and being in the world. His self-defined “savage pilgrimage,” was a personal Grail-quest to find a civilization with spiritual and holistic principles woven into its fabric. An unflagging idealist, one of Lawrence’s goals in New Mexico was to spearhead Rananim, a utopian society. Rananim was never realized, but you might say its flower-haired younger sibling was the Peace-and-Love Groovement of the 1960s. Despite the soul-stirring impact that New Mexico had on Lawrence, he only spent a total of eleven months in the area, between 1922 and 1925. The remote San Cristobal setting where he and his wife, Frieda, lived was the Kiowa Ranch (now known as the D.H. Lawrence Ranch), a rustic 160-acre property which was gifted to them by Mabel Dodge Luhan. Lawrence declined Luhan’s charity, but Frieda accepted. In return they presented Luhan with the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers. Offended by the exchange, two years later Luhan bequeathed the manuscript to her New York therapist, A.A. Brill.
A RANCH OF ONE’S OWN
The D.H. Lawrence Ranch, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is owned by the University of New Mexico. The Ranch re-opened in July 2014, after having been closed for five years. A visceral mixed salad of juniper, piñon, oak, sage, and ponderosa will be encountered once you turn off the main road and wind your way to the Ranch. Volunteer docents are there to guide you around the property, if you wish, and provide background info on the Ranch and its history. I enjoyed the company of an animal-guide, a sweet and affectionate gray kitten, Callie, who followed me around and lent a domesticated touch to the rural setting. There are three primary points of interest at the Ranch: The D.H. Lawrence Memorial, the small cabin, and the Homesteader’s Cabin. A stone pathway leads to a modest white chapel, dwarfed by towering pines. This is the Memorial, where Frieda is buried (her gravesite, marked by a tall wooden cross, fronts the chapel) and Lawrence’s ashes have been preserved in a concrete shrine inside the chapel. Or so it is said. It seems that controversy followed Lawrence beyond the grave, as Frieda’s lover, Bersaglieri Angelo Ravagli, was to transport the ashes to the Ranch, and may or may not have dumped them somewhere between Marseilles and Villefranche, before arriving with substitute ashes for historic memorialization. Lawrence, his cremated stand-in, campfire ashes? A mysterious case that only a ghost whisperer might be able to crack. The small cabin, shoebox in proportions, was occupied by Lawrence’s friend and artistic comrade-in-arms, the Honorable Lady Dorothy Brett. Affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group in England, Lady Brett moved to the Ranch in 1924 where she painted (some of her paintings are on exhibit at the Harwood Museum and Millicent Rogers Museum, both located in Taos) and helped Lawrence by typing up his manuscripts. Lady Brett traded in the comfort and privileges of her aristocratic background for high desert grunge—no running water, no electricity, self-reliance—and even after leaving the Ranch she lived in Taos until her death in 1977. The Homesteader’s Cabin was where Lawrence and Frieda lived. The time-scarred adobe exterior features the image of a buffalo, painted by Taos Pueblo native Trinidad Archuleta, who signed his name “TRNRDOD.” The cabin is fronted by a towering ponderosa, which Lawrence referred to as his “guardian angel.” In warm weather he would sit under the tree, shadowed by its boughs, and scribble in his notebook. O’Keeffe, during a visit to the Ranch, painted “The Lawrence Tree” and the effect is one of horizontal awe, as if the tree is being visually scaled from a root-down perspective. Her inimitable vision transforms the branches into a concert of tendrils, and its coat of needles into an amorphous dark cloud, with stars freckling the background. O’Keeffe wrote, in a letter to Mabel Dodge Luhan, “I had one particular painting—that tree in Lawrences (sic) front yard as you see it when you lie under it on the table— with stars—it looks as tho it is standing on its head…” The Homesteader’s Cabin, built in 1884 and restored in 1924, has been historically preserved (there is a kitchen addition, which was not part of the set-up when Lawrence and Frieda occupied the cabin). Comprised of a kitchen, living room, and bedroom, the vein-mapped walls lend character and a tangible sense of time to the Spartan accommodations. It is easy to imagine Lawrence at the desk in the living room, writing by lamplight, a window looking out onto the night-cloaked ponderosa. Photos and memorabilia can be found in the cabin, and three Lawrence poems are exhibited on the main wall of the living room, including this one, titled “At the Window”:
The pine-trees bend to listen to the
autumn wind as it mutters
Something which sets the black
poplars ashake with hysterical laughter; While slowly the house of day is closing its eastern shutters. Further down the valley the clustered tombstones recede, Winding about their dimness the mist’s grey cerements, after The street lamps in the darkness have suddenly started to bleed. The leaves fly over the window and utter a word as they pass To the face that leans from the darkness, intent, with two dark-filled eyes That watch for ever earnestly from behind the window glass.
For more information about the Ranch, located in San Cristobal, 20 miles north of Taos, visit dhlawrenceranch.org or call 575-770-4830.
GEORGIA ON MY MIND
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for. — Georgia O’Keeffe A fugitive spirit who relentlessly stalked line, color, and form, O’Keeffe found a wordless muse in the bare bones landscape of New Mexico. When O’Keeffe arrived in Taos in 1929, at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan and Lady Brett, she had already gained fame, acclaim and notoriety not only for her groundbreaking abstracts and texturally magnified flower paintings, but also the nude photos of her which had been snapped by her husband, the photographer, Alfred Steiglitz. Ghost Ranch, located near the village of Abiquiu, is part of Piedra Lumbre (“Shining Rock”), a 1766 land grant to Pedro Martin Serrano from Charles III of Spain. Arthur Pack, writer and editor of Nature magazine, bought the Ranch in the 1930s and in 1934, O’Keeffe’s “fling” with the Ranch turned into a lifelong love affair. She wound up buying Ranchos de Los Burros—a house and seven acres—from Pack, and summers at Ghost Ranch and winters in New York, where Stieglitz remained, became her migratory pattern. This continued until her husband’s death in 1946, when she settled in her rebuilt adobe home in Abiquiu. The 21,000 acres comprising Ghost Ranch could be the raw interior of a painter’s wet dream. Or an alien getaway for societal expats. Reddish-ochre hills and cliffs, waterfalls darkly threading canyon walls, sun-bleached cloud spools spanning wide-open skies: O’Keeffe applied palette and imagination to claim and honor these elements. Pedernal, the flat-topped mesa situated in the Jemez Mountains, was one of O’Keeffe’s favorite “subjects” and her ashes were scattered on its peak (or so we can safely assume, as Bersaglieri Angelo Ravagli was not involved in ash-transport). For the past 55+ years Ghost Ranch has been run by the Presbyterian Church as an educational and retreat center. Artist workshops and plein-air painting allows artists to render “O’Keeffe Country” in their own style and bent. A time-sculpted window into the past can be experienced through archaeological and paleontological expeditions. And the rugged beauty of the area can be explored in a number of ways: rafting, canoeing and kayaking on the nearby Rio Chama River, rock climbing, horseback riding, and three popular hiking trails — Box Canyon, Kitchen Mesa, and Chimney Rock. Three guided O’Keeffe tours are offered: O’Keeffe Landscape Tour (motorbus), O’Keeffe Landscape Trail Ride (horseback), and Walk in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Footsteps (hike). Also, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Line, Color and Composition” is a new exhibition running through September 8 at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. To find out more about day trips, overnight stays, and other programs offered at Ghost Ranch, call 877-804-4678 or visit ghostranch.org.
— John Biscello
Photographs: “Georgia O’Keeffe, On the Roof, Ghost Ranch House” by Maria Chabot, courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. D.H. Lawrence photo courtesy of Nita Murphy and The Southwest Research Center of UNM, from DH Lawrence and New Mexico, edited by Keith Sagar.