The Anthropology of Taos

A side effect of being on social media (at all, and I have 14k followers from more lonely chapters of my life) is the occasional person who trolls you or puts literally dozens of other people against you somehow (a Dave Dittell moment last year) or just gossips about things they don’t know about that involve you. 

So someone on twitter said “some idiot says you don’t like animals” and being that I hate people mostly and I’m madly in love with animals and hadn’t had any coffee yet this morning, this random piece of gossip stuck in my head like a piece of gum that refused to leave till I shat it out seven years from now. Meanwhile, my dog Freyja was grumbling to go outside while I ignored her and fussed over this inconsequential news from a stranger. This is why I hate social media.

I want to protect my daughter from gossip and sychopants and social media and the brutalities of the world caused by crazy people, and Donald Trump, and people in general. Maybe I’ll move to a small farm in Ireland and get sheep?

I finished my book about a journalist who ran an ultramarathon and finally dug into my book about sheep farmers in England. Then, between a hike in the canyon and quinoa burger, I settled in to finish a book about turquoise that became about everything in my life and only a very little bit about a color.

I can’t stop sneezing, drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee, and disparaging over my own absurdity and lack of inherent meaning. Peggy Lee said “if that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is”. I remember hearing these lines during a PJ Harvey music video with confetti in a ballroom. Booze and confetti, it was just like college. I’d just seen PJ in Portland, Oregon, and run into an old college friend who’d become a stripper and had green hair. I was drunk on absynthe and she looked like a woodland fairy with too much makeup.

Life is very absurd.

I’ve been asked why I like to write. Why would someone cleaning up baby spit and dog poop all day, who says fuck and shit all the time, and can’t do her own taxes think it’s so beautiful to document memories with words?

But think about it this way. When you read a book, (I hope you fucking read books often), and you come across a vivid passage from a moment that happened 50, or 100, or even 1000 years ago, and you’re experiencing, frozen in time, the vision of someone’s internal reality from 1000 years ago. When I am reading The Anthropology of Turquoise, and Ellen Meloy writes, “Isabelle Eberhardt’s words about Arab women emerging into public venues, “draped in veils of red and blue, laden with gold and silver,” I’m picturing what Eberhardt saw through Meloy’s eyes around 1997, when she first wrote the book reflecting on desert, sea, stone, and sky. She writes, “the incompatible joys of women together, a mutual empathy with other living things- turning these and other emotions into a commodity seems to overload them with a hollow sensitivity”. I read these words and think, god, I can fucking relate … hiking in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada backcountry and picking Indian paintbrush and thinking, I’m a woman in the wilderness and I too run with the wolves. 

My pack, even just a pile of books, is my pile of kindred spirits. I want to feel this genuine spirit with people, and it can happen, but alone it’s inevitable, and there’s no pretense and no expectation. Hope without expectation- that’s what makes meaning, isn’t it? We find meaning with others, and others sometimes in words. And Meloy keeps words raw and unadorned. “Language traded for iconic babble suffocates truth in packaging.” 

And that’s why I write and read, because Ellen Meloy’s description of a voice that sounds like a “mouth is full of overfed tarantulas” is disgusting, and I can’t let it go, and for several minutes a woman who died in 2004 has consumed my brain with her vision, and I will never forget the mouth of tarantulas. 

Meloy describes how light and color inform human behavior. She was a desert writer from Pasadena relocated by the San Juan River. She wrote self-effacing praise of her explorations across the Four Corners. In 2004, in Bluff, Utah, she died suddenly while sleeping beside her husband. She was 58. 

I feel like I’m inside a painting when I read her words.  Solitude and sun-warmed slickrock. What was she thinking about before she slept? What colors informed her dreams?

I’m moving outside of what Meloy called a “four-walled trance” but it’s as much the four walls of a mental fortress as the four walls of a geographical location. If I can step out of this nest I’ve created to comfort myself, and find comfort in the unknown, then I can return to the state of something wild and sacred that pushed me to travel, study and teach abroad, to date wild men and to explore mysterious roads and mountains; to jump into marriage. If I can likewise step outside of the four walls I built of expectation for my future- for marriage, and motherhood, and writing- then perhaps I’ll be fearless enough to be my best self as a mother and writer, and potentially, if it’s meant to be, also a wife.

And my best self is the authentic self. 

The anthropology of turquoise is really the anthropology of being your authentic self in nature.

Rousseau, Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Maslow, May, and Bugental all have something to say about what it is to be your authentic self. Being honest and self-aware is, according to Kierkegaard, facing reality and forming for yourself who you are and what you believe. You define you.

The anthropology of forming your own worldview.

If you are in the desert and meandering between the words of Isabelle Eberhardt exploring North Africa, and your own spontaneous internal monologue cropping up upon experiencing the landscape around you, perhaps like Ellen Meloy you would think of a swift inner voice that drives and disturbs you, and you would say, “something prevented what I thought I wanted to do and pushed me into what I did”.

Meloy described a woman- Edith Warner- who moved to northern New Mexico in the 1920s, and wrote about clouds, mesas, juniper smoke and the Rio Grande. These are all aspects of the high desert landscape I’ve settled into this year. 

Just as Charley squirms, incapable of allowing his roots to dig deep into his homeland, my own roots test the desert sand and ask, Do I want to be here? How long can I do this? Do I belong?

Everyone came to New Mexico in the 1920s, and the art community exploded. Everyone, at least all of the people I read biographies about- like D H Lawrence, Willa Cather, Angel Adams, Aldous Huxley, and Georgia O’Keeffe- cane because Mabel wrote letters and told them about the sage and wild, open mystery of the Mesa. Mabel Dodge Luhan built the Taos, New Mexico, art colony from words. She was a syndicated columnist for the Hearst organization and a patron of the arts. Like a proper American socialite, she married four times. 

New Mexico may be poor and crime-ridden, but it’s home to Pueblo tradition, Spanish history, white sands and Los Alamos, red rock, Ghost Ranch, “Easy Rider” and “City Slickers”.

As Dennis Hopper said after filming “Easy Rider”, when he bought Mabel’s house and called it “Mud Palace”, Taos was sacred. His daughter Marin said her father felt, “It was the land of American Indians and their mountains, their beautiful Pueblo and their blue lake, which was meant to be so spiritual you could land in Tibet if you bore a hole through the bottom of it. [Dennis] also told [Marin] more than once that rattlesnakes refused to go to Taos because of its extraordinarily high altitude. They instinctively knew not to travel past Santa Fe”.

This wasn’t true, there were many snakes on the Mesa, but it also did feel sacred and wild and free. Hopper and Meloy both found a landscape in their respective deserts that gave them the free expression and contemplative lifestyles they were searching for, and it’s this search that brought me to Charley and our young, absurd, crippled family to Taos. Even if we keep searching, and Charley takes off again on some quest, and something stupid happens and we feel trapped and burdened by fate and fear, I have to acknowledge the wildness here and how it seems to accept the wandering habits of our roots. 

Keep wandering, the Mesa says, you might find yourself gone when you stay and here when you leave. It tells me that everything is absurd but it’s not wrong. Nothing has been wrong. Disregard what others say or what we say even; we have arrived.

Is that all there is?

Meloy sees the desert’s unveiled lust. I see it’s ruthless compassion. This is nature. This is desert. This is home.

*To read “Notes On a Hospitalized Pregnant Woman”: