“Singing is simply a sign of human habitation, like smoke.” (John Berger)

This morning I woke at five and lay for a time listening to birdsong — robins, Swainson’s thrushes, at least one varied thrush, a western tanager, and others I couldn’t identify. I found myself thinking of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I bought a copy in New Mexico, in the lovely Tome on the Range in Las Vegas, and brought it home to be savoured over during the course of a week. Cather noticed landscape and how it shaped people. Shaped her, no doubt — no one notices the geography and weather of a place so much as one who has felt the imprint of that place on skin, the soles of feet walking its contours, eyes opened to its sky. I haven’t read all her books but certainly My Antonia and O Pioneers are full of Nebraska and Death Comes For the Archbishop is like a map of New Mexico, the arroyos and piñons lovingly recorded.

The Song of the Lark is Thea Kronborg’s story. Born in Moonstone, a small Colorado town, she knew from the very beginning that she would do something grand.

 “Many a night that summer she left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window — or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation. It was on such nights that Thea Kronborg learned the thing that old Dumas meant when he told the Romanticists that to make a drama he needed but one passion and four walls.”

Thea’s gift is music. And she aspires to be a singer. The novel traces her quest for teaching and for experience. She’s not entirely likeable and the men she encounters are a bit obsequious, even the one who knows her best and believes in her ability. Of course they — the men, I mean — are not free to love her wholly (what is it about Cather and the hidden wives, the dystunctional marriages?). But they offer money and encouragement and one of them, the wealthy Fred Ottenburg, offers her time in a transcendent place: his father’s remote ranch which contains Cliff-Dweller ruins. It’s here, in Panther Cañon, that Thea finds her voice again. Literally. (And it’s significant that the middle register is the range she has had trouble with.)

“Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind — almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and colour and sound, but almost nothing to do with words. She was singing very little now, but a song would go through her head all morning, as a spring keeps welling up, and it was a like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than an idea, or an act of remembering.”

I loved this section of the novel. Cather takes the reader deep into the cañon where cottonwood seedlings flicker gold-green by the stream and swallows swim in the blue air. There are pot sherds (I saw so many of these at the Pecos monument) to remind her always of the original population:

“This care, expended upon vessels that could not hold food or water any better for the additional labour put upon them, made her heart go out to those ancient potters. They had not only expressed their desire, but they had expressed it as beautifully as they could. Food, fire, water, and something else — even here, in this crack in the world, so far back in the night of the past! Down here at the beginning, that painful thing was already stirring; the seed of sorrow, and of so much delight.”

The title of the novel is inspired by Jules Breton’s painting of the same name:

The_Song_of_the_Lark_(Jules_Breton,_1884)I can see how it appealed to Cather and the woman is certainly emblematic of prairie strength and beauty. But to my mind, it’s dated, and this novel has a rugged and contemporary heart. My copy has instead a cover image of a bird, clutching a strand of grass (maybe barley?), and looks almost pictographic in its simplicity. Like an image on a pot sherd, tawny and ochre, expressed as beautifully as some of the writing in this novel.song of the lark

“…the dream and the light softly fading”

Sometimes a song is all it takes. Sometimes it takes you there, to the moment when you drove down highway 518, through snow and deep forests, across the Mora Valley, through soft grasslands fringed with Ponderosa pines, piñons, those fragrant junipers, to the high desert where the unexpected was waiting: the beautiful plaza of Las Vegas. And it was all there, in Ian Tyson’s “Road to Las Cruces”:

On a high plateau out of Anton Chico

I see the dust of a herd coming through

The dream and the light softly fading

My horses will not stand

They wish to go with them

Riding for Alex Carone on the road to Las Vegas.

It’s a song I’ve loved for years though I never had a clue that it wasn’t Nevada he was singing about but that town a few hours from Albuquerque. And not too far from the Conchas-Pecos branch of the legendary Singleton Ranches where there is, indeed, an Alex Carone working as a manager.

In the second-hand stores near the plaza in Las Vegas, there were saddles, some of them broken-down and cracked, some of them in pretty good shape. I saw a bridle with silver conchas and many pairs of cowboy boots. There were paint ponies in a field on the way to Montezuma. You could smell history in the air, though maybe not everybody’s history. Not mine, I know, but that didn’t prevent the yearning.

Today I’m putting away my suitcase, the books I bought, and catching up with work at my desk. I took a moment to photograph the little Acoma rain pot that I bought from its maker, Emil Chino, at the Sky City Mesa. It stood out on the table he presided over — a few big ollas, some seed pots, and an assortment of the rain pots. I wish I could read the imagery a little more fluently but I remember Emil pointed out the rain, the clouds, some ears of corn. And for now, that will have to do.

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viva, Las Vegas!

Yesterday we drove through a high pass (9.000 feet) in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to Cimarron, New Mexico for lunch. John read in a guide book about its storied past, the hotel which housed various outlaws (Jesse James, Billy the Kid, etc.) and where Buffalo Bill convinced Calamity Jane to join his show. It was very quiet there, the outlaws all long gone (though some have bedrooms named for them in the St. James Hotel, built in 1872). And the hotel is beautiful — and quiet, yes, with just a few people eating in the dining room and a few more in an adjacent room, would-be bartenders  taking notes while a man walked them through the state liquour laws.

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We left our little room in the Taos Inn this morning, driving through another high pass where my ears complained until we descended (but only a little) to Las Vegas, a town which feels a bit like time forgot it. It’s high desert here, and so beautiful. 6,424 feet above sea level…We found a room in the 1882 Plaza Hotel which hosted dentist Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Big Nose Kate, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Mysterious Dave Mather, Hoodoo Brown, and Handsome Harry the Dancehall Rustler in its day.

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A friendly woman in a nearby shop wondered if I’d ever heard of the United World Colleges — which of course I have because son Forrest attended Lester Pearson College of the Pacific in the late 1990s… — because she said that the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West is in nearby Montezuma. So we drove out and although it’s not a day when one can tour the campus, the kind security guard let us drive up to take a photograph of the main building.

P1090970We ate our lunch on a patio overlooking Las Vegas’s spacious green plaza, overhung with huge cottonwoods. Who knew this place existed and that we would find it in time to enjoy the sun in the shade of its old buildings.