Tag Archives: women writing the West

When Clouds Come Into View

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As my friend and I drove to Ghost Ranch outside Abiquiu, New Mexico, I tried to imagine the dirt road as Georgia O’Keeffe would have driven it in her 1930s roadster. Red rock towers spindled along the narrow highway as we left the Rio Grande valley and ascended the Colorado Plateau. We were on our way to Ghost Ranch as part of the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe, but it was a woman painting the Southwest who was on my mind as we drove.

The Ghost Ranch tour was led by Leslie Poling-Kempe, author of Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and their Adventures in the American Southwest, a study of the circle of East Coast women who came to New Mexico in the early 1900s to create lives independent of repressive Victorian gender roles. Kempe’s remarkable history of these women is this year’s WILLA scholarly non-fiction award winner and is an impressive work of research that re-illuminates the lives of women whose marks on the Southwest had almost faded from view.

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One of the ladies of the canyon was Carol Bishop Stanley, a trained musician who came to New Mexico on an adventure, married first one cowboy, then another, and never left. Her first gambler husband won a reputedly haunted, remote camp outside Abiquiu from cattle rustlers in a poker game. Stanley became owner after their divorce, named the place Ghost Ranch, and built it into a successful dude ranch and refuge for wealthy families from back East. We toured Stanley’s original adobe home and headquarters with its low ceiling and rustic wooden furniture. Ghost Ranch itself is now owned by the Presbyterian Church and is open to anyone for day or overnight visits. Part of our tour was a preview of a new exhibit at the Ghost Ranch museum about some of the ladies of the canyon, including diaries, photographs, and artifacts of their day.

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Georgia O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch in 1934 and in 1940 bought a piece of the property with a house that had been built by Alfred Pack, who purchased Ghost Ranch from Carol Stanley (read Ladies of the Canyons for the whole story). While O’Keeffe’s house was not part of the tour, we did see the casita she rented when she first came to Bishop’s Ghost Ranch.

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We could also view the Pedernal in the distance, a flat-top mesa in the Jemez range that O’Keeffe painted many times as the colors changed with light and season, joking that it was her private mountain since God had promised to give it to her if she would paint it often enough.

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After the tour and exhibit, my friend and I hiked into Box Canyon, so called for the geological formation that created a natural corral for the rustled cattle once hidden there. We followed red dirt trails uphill, past abandoned hogans, toward a plateau of scrub pine and high stone buttes ringed with cottonwoods, now ablaze in the October sun. As I hiked, I tried to place myself in O’Keeffe’s paintings, imagining what the artist might have seen as she hiked a path much like ours.

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At the top of the rise, before the trail split into two, I stopped. Looking up from where I stood at the edge of a deep arroyo, it seemed the clouds were rising one at a time from the depths of the canyon, rather than floating across the sky. I thought of O’Keeffe’s paintings like Above the Clouds I, a canvas of oval clouds filling the sky to the horizon line, or In the Patio VIII, with its dots of clouds hanging over her adobe home. I could see why these New Mexico clouds appealed to O’Keeffe and how her particular style of painting them straddled a line between abstract and representational, as her work generally did.

On previous trips to New Mexico, I hadn’t noticed how the clouds in that high desert region could differ from the clouds in Colorado that barrel over the Rockies and drape across the Front Range sky. Like the clouds in O’Keeffe’s paintings, the clouds at Ghost Ranch that day were distinct from one another, individual even in their similarity. As my friend and I continued onto the plateau and threaded our way through astounding rock formations towering far over our heads, I kept an eye on the clouds drifting in that trick of the horizon up and over the buttes.

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According to O’Keeffe’s biographer, Laura Lisle, in Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist began to consider painting clouds in the 1960s when she started traveling by plane. Her first oil portrayed a solid mass of clouds under a sky. Next she broke the bank up into smaller clouds, and then placed more blue between them, creating, as Lisle writes, “an inviting path of stepping stones into infinity.” Whether this metamorphosis from large mass to smaller shapes was inspired by the clouds of her New Mexico home, I don’t know, but the evolution from clouds by plane to clouds over her own patio does seem likely. Whatever its inspiration, the oversized cloud panorama she exhibited in 1966, Sky Above Clouds IV, was unlike anything any artist had painted before.

Two weeks after visiting Ghost Ranch, I hiked with my partner John in Rocky Mountain National Park just a half hour drive from our home. I wanted to compare our clouds with the ones I’d viewed in New Mexico. Just as I remembered, small clouds are rare here except as part of a larger pack. What’s more, in the Rockies, the mountains are so dominant, it’s easy to overlook the sky. Each time we hiked up and around a switchback, a new vista stretched before us, like another layer of a painting hidden, until then, from view. As I tried to let the majestic peaks recede in my vision, the clouds suddenly came forward, reversing background for foreground, earth for sky. With surprise, I realized that the clouds before me were as big and even bigger than the mountains, so massive in size, even their shadows could cover an entire mountain from peak to base.

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One mark of a great artist is how they inspire us to look at the world in a different way. I love O’Keeffe’s work for many reasons—her fierce commitment to her art, the trails she blazed for women, her recognition of beauty in common or traditionally “feminine” objects, and the emotional sense of place she worked to portray. But it wasn’t until I visited the land on which she walked that I understood the way her art inspires us to transcend what we see with our eyes into a larger vision. Whether the genius of her work is found in color, shape, scale, juxtaposition, or craft, her paintings capture something more than the sum of their parts. They offer us the opportunity to see both into the essence of an object and beyond its earthly form. O’Keeffe’s work teaches us that new perspectives are within our reach if we take the time to look.

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Photographs by Kayann Short

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Filed under ecobiography, memoir, women's writing

Rocky Mountain Blues

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Part memoir, part diary, part poetry, The Last of the Living Blue: A Year of Living and Dying Among the Trees propels readers into the haunting landscape surveyed by author Gin Getz from her remote mountain home in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. Here readers will find the magnificent blue spruce and pine forests of the Rocky Mountains dying from a beetle infestation once prevented by frigid winters now diminished by a warming climate. In a small entry like a poem, Getz introduces us to the problem she faces every day:


Confessions heard in dying trees
a small woman looking
at a big forest ravaged
by tiny beetles

As this passage portrays, Getz’s memoir is a story of witness, a lone woman’s voice compelled to detail the loss through the hope of raising awareness before the tragedy is complete: “I can only tell you what I see. I see our hillsides turning pale green, yellow, brick red, then brown, and eventually gray. If you were here, you would see this too.”

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Beetle killed pines in Rocky Mountain National Park

Between descriptions of the disappearing treescape, Getz writes of her life in the mountains with her son and husband, of difficult transportation for goods and services, hard work for daily needs, and welcome isolation for many snowy months of the year. She shares a diary of “digging ditch”—the tough physical labor of clearing a wilderness river diversion of trees, stumps, and rocks with horses, saws, and picks. The work is grueling but the pay-off is large: “Silence. Space. Air. Wind. Rain. Wilds.” The appeal of these everyday scenes carries us through the grief of Getz’s interior conversation.

One summer, drought and fire threaten Getz’s home and guest ranch business through smoke and blaze worsened by the forest’s death: “Beetle kill burns well. This fire has gone huge. We’ll never look at a dead standing hillside the same way again.”

Fire claimed a ridge of pines outside Gold Hill in Boulder County

Fire claimed a ridge of pines outside Gold Hill in Boulder County

Still, Getz and her family remain on the mountainside, choosing to build a new home from logs they themselves will clear from the other side of the frozen river. This home will be full of light, with room for books and baking bread, a place from which to watch her “beloved trees.” Despite the changing climate that threatens her way of life, Getz knows the mountain will endure. “If I am to have faith,” she asserts, “I shall find it in the wind and wild.”

Sometimes, Getz’s verdant prose lulls us into forgetting that what she’s describing—the death of the trees she loves–conveys the opposite of the rich imagery with which she describes their demise: “Sap emerges in sparkling drip lines from almost invisible pin holes. A new batch of dying trees. A new generation expiring.”

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A stand of dead trees near Bear Lake in RMNP

Lush language pulls the reader—the often-addressed “you” Getz hopes to persuade into caring—toward empathy with Getz, the mountain, and the disappearing forest. To those who consider such devastation “natural,” Getz counters with a small dose of science and a large dose of observation: “I take out the draw knife for the first time this season and peel a small log we need for a remodel project on a guest cabin bathroom. With every pull of the knife, tiny white life revealed. Ten, twenty, maybe more. Slicing through life. Larva.”

Readers unfamiliar with the beetle infestation of Colorado’s Front Range eastern slope may require more context before they’re convinced of the link between “the last of the living blue” and global warming, but for those who are interested in this environmental tragedy or remember the Rockies before they withered brown, Getz’s memoir will remind them why testifying to such a loss matters. By many accounts, any policy actions—should the will to enact them ever transpire—will be too little and much, much too late. But for Getz, what matters first is the sharing: “Perhaps there will never be comprehension, but at least there should be compassion.”

Snow-capped Scotch pines still standing on the Front Range

As an ecology-based memoir, The Last of the Living Blue falls into a category I call “ecobiography” that connects a human life with the larger ecosystem in which it exists. Ecobiographies are testimonies that bear witness to the natural world around us. Insightful authors like Getz see and evoke beauty for us so that we, too, may understand. As life on earth changes lamentably and inexorably, books like The Last of the Living Blue will become important records of a world once lived with abundance and hope.

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Filed under ecobiography, women's writing