Archive for February, 2007

Heavenly hiking


Yesterday was the best hike of all. Marjorie drove four of us to the Wild Rivers Recreation Area, about a 40-minute trip from Taos. This recreation area includes the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande. We chose a hike that went from the rim to the bottom of the Rio Grande canyon — less than a mile long, but a major change in elevation.


Near the rim, the hiking path was bordered by a calf-high barrier. A good thing, because it was icy and slick in a few areas. But as it went lower into the canyon, the little “fence” disappeared. The trail made many, many switchbacks and was never extremely steep.

All along it were unobtrusive but wonderfully informative interpretive signs. We learned about piñon pine, juniper, ponderosa pine, yucca, sage, chamisa, and many other plants. Near the bottom were picnic shelters beside a beautiful pond that looked as if it had been designed to go in a Japanese garden — with a crop of lush watercress along one side.


At the bottom of the canyon, it was wonderful! It reminded me of the New River Gorge a little, except that the mountains were higher and the rocks were black basalt created by volcanic action instead of the ancient sandstone boulders I’m used to seeing. Pilar and I saw what we think was a bald eagle.


We sat on rocks and enjoyed the sun and the sound of rapids for about half an hour, then began the climb to the rim. Looking up, I couldn’t believe we’d come so far; and I couldn’t believe I would be able to haul myself back up. But we all did it, slowly and surely, though we agreed that it was a good workout. I personally am eternally grateful to Marjorie for bringing chocolate.


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Abstract art

One of the things I love about having a digital camera is that it can see so much better than I can! It’s like carrying around a little microscope: you set it for “closeup,” hold it close, snap, and then look at what you couldn’t possibly see before. And so often what I see looks like wonderful abstract art to me. Here are three “paintings” made of lichen on rocks, from yesterday’s walk on the mountain:




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Sky signs

Yesterday afternoon, I drove up to my casita. Pilar was standing outside looking at the sky (we have time to do that, here!), and I joined her. This is what it looked like in the west:


We were both so amazed by the way the clouds seemed “caught” in the trees. Then we looked toward the east, and saw this:


And right in our own backyard.

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A couple of days ago I had my fourth voice lesson with Leslie Harrington, a Taos resident and a terrific singer. Among his many singing credits are opera performances that have received rave reviews from the New York Times. He can literally make windows rattle; I’ve seen and heard this happen.

Now, don’t get excited or alarmed: I don’t think there’s any chance I’m going to come back to West Virginia with an opera voice. For one thing, I am beginning to have an appreciation for the sheer amount of dedicated practice that would take. For another, my vocal apparatus, like the rest of my body, is middle-aged.

What I’m learning is more subtle and more exciting to me: That my voice (and yours) is both a physical and a spiritual entity. That my vocal range corresponds to an internal “cello” inside my body, and that I can reach the pitch I want by directing my breath toward a specific place inside me. That pitch is more about “feeling” than “hearing.” That the tongue is a marvelous part of the body — suddenly, the phrase “mother tongue” seems very beautiful and evocative to me.

And, perhaps most important, something I already knew but needed to hear from a great singer: That it’s in the song, not the singer, where the magic and mystery and power reside. That we who make noise or write lyrics do it in the service of something far beyond our understanding. We know this intuitively when we connect with an audience — or with a performer. We know it when we see a great painting, or paint one. When we read a poem that brings us to tears. Whenever we are uplifted by art.

See why I enjoy my voice lessons?

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Kit controversy

On the way to New Mexico, I happened to read a history of the Cherokee Nation. Like most people, I accepted the fact that the Europeans had treated Native Americans unfairly without really knowing much about it. The details of the story are horrifying. The sheer number of treaties broken and disregarded by the white men. The near-extinction of a native population by disease. The demonization of a race (“Indian savages” instead of “Muslim extremists”) in order to instill and inflame fear. This happened to many more tribes than the Cherokee, of course, although the Trail of Tears may top the list of atrocities.

Perhaps it’s not at all surprising that the historical marker next to the grave of Kit Carson, after whom a National Forest and a Taos public park are named, has been “amended” by some anonymous writer:


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The aspens behind my casita


Aren’t they magnificent? These are actually in Marjorie’s yard, but she’s very nice about sharing them. I can see them from my back window and spend some time gazing at them every day. I had to use Photostitch (for the first time!) to make them fit in one photo.

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Evolution of a workshop


From Taos, you can see Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain Georgia O’Keeffe painted so many times that she claimed God had given it to her personally. The mountain is the distinguishing landmark near Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe’s home and studio, and now a wonderful arts center. This year, I’m planning to come back to New Mexico in October to lead a workshop at Ghost Ranch. Two jaunts to New Mexico in one year! Here’s how it happened:

It all started with Anita Skeen — poet, English professor at Michigan State University, free spirit, creative dynamo, and unabashed peacenik. When she learned that MSU’s Kresge Art Museum was mounting an exhibition of 60’s abstract paintings, she contacted the curator and suggested adding music and poetry. Of course, it would be 60’s music and poetry. Better yet, it would be protest music and poetry.

The time was right: Another era of unrest. Another unpopular war. And, as she had learned from her own students, another generation that was clamoring to make a difference.

That’s how Julie Adams and I got the enviable job, last February, of doing the Kresge Museum’s first music performance. Anita put us in charge of choosing the songs; she selected poems and coached the students who would do readings to be interspersed throughout the concert.

We searched the Internet, asked friends for recommendations, and chose our own favorites — striving to balance the folky, the funky, and the downright outraged. We added a couple of songs that didn’t quite fit into the era because they fit the theme so well (like Paul Simon’s “American Tune”) and we included a few that weren’t, strictly speaking, protest songs (“Teach Your Children”) because we loved singing them.

The museum was a wonderful performing space; how many singers can say they’ve had a Morris Louis painting for a backdrop? We were equally thrilled by the audience, and the fact that they sang along, even the students. (“We were raised by hippies,” one of them remarked. “We grew up with these songs.”)


(Okay, it’s not the greatest picture of me or Julie, but I want you to meet Anita, between us.)

Driving home to West Virginia, we said to one another, “Could we do this in Charleston? With more musicians?” Collaborating on a fundraiser with WV Patriots for Peace was a natural. After all, it’s no coincidence that the word “harmony” describes peace as well as musical resonance.

Artist Charly Jupiter Hamilton donated his artwork for a poster. The members of WV Patriots for Peace went all out to publicize the concert. And, on May 19, 2006, many talented friends joined us for a special evening of songs and poetry for peace.

It was another incredible evening. A standing-room-only crowd packed Christ Church United Methodist. Everyone sang. Many people wore vintage tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottoms. Funds were raised for the important work of peace-making. We had a good time. We felt a revival of hope.

Now, back to Anita. In addition to teaching English at MSU, she coordinates writing programs for Ghost Ranch. And, this year, she has asked Julie and me to focus a weeklong singing/songwriting workshop on “words and music that change the world.”

Our workshop — which runs from October 8 to 14, 2007— is just one part of the tenth annual Fall Writing Festival at Ghost Ranch. It will be a celebratory time. In addition to our workshop, there will be many other classes. Participants can focus on poetry, fiction, essays, travel writing, playwriting, bookbinding, and more. Whatever you choose to study, we promise we’ll be singing together in the evenings.

Check out the Ghost Ranch website and my Protest Songs page on the Blogroll at the right side of this page for more information. Think about joining us this fall at Ghost Ranch, and please tell your friends.

‘Cause the times, they are a-changing.

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Shadows on adobe

Last night and this morning, I have been concentrating on the soft (or sharp) shadows of tree limbs on adobe. I’m not sure why; I think there’s a poem trying to emerge. In the meantime, here are some images:





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Unintended consequences

Remember the flicker? I was so delighted to see that beautiful woodpecker perched on the tree outside my casita that I went into a sort of frenzy of planning for the next visit. This was my first foray into the world of bird feeding. (On Arlington Court, what with the cat population, the kindest thing you can do for a bird is to advise it to get out of town, pronto.)

At the local hardware store, I bought a metal container that accommodates blocks of suet or bird seed, and selected the “Woodpecker Mix” from many available choices. I brought it home and actually climbed up into the tree to affix the feeder to a spot that seemed ideal — high enough for a bird to feel safe but where the afternoon light would be perfect for photographing. And I waited.

I didn’t have to wait long for results, but they weren’t the results I’d expected. A day later, I came home to find my yard filled with birds. Not a flicker among the flock, unfortunately. They were all magpies and ravens — the former the egg-stealing meanies, the latter huge, black animals with enormous wing spans and harsh voices. There must have been thirty or forty of these giants. They are beautiful in their way, but I had my heart set on the flicker. The ravens showed no fear of me and did not fly away when I got out of the car. I could not help thinking of the Alfred Hitchcock movie that scared me out of my wits as a child.

At night, the ravens sometimes walk on top of my casita. It makes an unnerving noise.

By now, a couple of days later, the woodpecker mix is nearly gone. The raven population has decreased. But I haven’t seen a sign of the flicker. I don’t know; should I try suet? Bird lovers, I need advice.

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A tour of the Harwood Museum

Pilar and I strolled along Ledoux Street — the Taos equivalent of Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, although much shorter — enroute to the Harwood Museum. It’s a beautiful building (another fabulous adobe structure) that has been carefully preserved even as it has been remodeled and enlarged. The collections include paintings from some of the artists who contributed to the early heyday of the Taos art colony (late 1800s and early 1900s), as well as some of their models-turned-artists.

There’s a room of modern art, a serene octaganal room of minimalist Agnes Martin paintings, and, upstairs, a delightful collection of folk and religious art. There are also two galleries for changing exhibitions. While we were there, one was occupied by a photography exhibit featuring albumen prints by Zoe Zimmerman and the other by a multi-media installation from artist Sabra Moore.

I was particularly taken by the carvings on the second floor. Several were the work of Patreciño Barela, who lived in Taos. His carvings are often crude and sometimes appear to be unfinished (apparently he had an unhappy and chaotic personal life), but they are full of wit and wonder. I love them.

Here’s a sample. The “death-cart” theme is not original — it’s a popular subject — but the carving is very typical of Barela:


Another variation on the theme, by an anonymous artist (or one whose name I failed to write down):


Nearby, among the many religious carvings and retables, was this rather modern take on a statue of Christ:


Taos is full of wonderful wood carving, and some of it is on furniture. This chest of drawers, which stands in a hallway at the Harwood, was carved by a WPA artist during the Depression. I wish more of our tax dollars were being spent for things like this now:


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