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 year round. Wildfires burned continuously. 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 five 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 a year 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 – 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.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.