A Taos Field Evokes the Extraordinary

A field outside Taos, with Taos Mountain in the background. The earth here has been tended for at least a thousand years, and the setting may have inspired notable 20th-century art.

MY favorite place is a field — an ordinary farmer’s field on the edge of Taos. It’s easy enough to find, but equally easy to miss. If you’re driving north through town on the Paseo del Pueblo, you’ll see it on the right, not far after Cid’s Food Market, a four- or five-acre field edged with cottonwoods on one side, a dirt track along another, and a row of unassuming houses that separate it from the Taos Pueblo’s land beyond. In the background looms Taos Mountain.

The field is the kind of small, almost accidental place that, for visitors and residents alike, seems to quietly capture the essence of the entire area. In northern California, it might be a hidden stretch of rocky beach; in upstate New York, it might be an untouched stretch of woodland beyond the garden fences at the end of a small-town street. For me, in Taos, it was this field.

Twenty-one years ago, a young man, I arrived in Taos on the TMM & O bus, the local Greyhound, and after a night in a cheap motel, I rented a weekly room in a small adobe apartment complex. I had no car, and I did my shopping on foot.

Every day I’d saunter out under the cottonwoods, their leaves stirring silver in a breeze off the mesa, and cross the irrigation ditch into the nearby field. I had to negotiate an old wire fence rusting amid the undergrowth, then find my way onto a faint, narrow path that ran across the broad space of tall grass. The path was just a pale ribbon of dirt no wider than a sheep track, invisible except when my stride brushed the grasses aside.

I never knew who used the path besides me, and never saw anyone else on it. Why was it there at all? Who had made it? It crossed the field to the main road, and from there it was a short walk to the grocery store. I don’t know whether I would have ended up spending much of my life in New Mexico had it not been for my daily crossing of that field. It became a sort of bridge between my childhood in the English countryside that I hadn’t realized I had lost and my unknown future.

I had come to this far-flung desert town to write a memoir about searching for traces of one of the heroes of my English adolescence, D. H. Lawrence. Taos was the only place where Lawrence had ever actually owned a house, and I suppose, as a visitor, I was hoping some of the inspiration he had drawn from the land and people might rub off on me. I had imagined the landscape would all be bare desert and mountains. The last thing I had expected was to find it reminding me of England.

But all around town there were grassy fields, tussocky, mostly flat, with patches of shorter grass where horses and cattle had grazed. They were no different from the fields back home where I had grown up, playing soccer with friends, walking the dogs, rambling, sleeping out in summer. This one near my apartment was no exception.

An unexpected sense of intense familiarity with a foreign place has been felt by other travelers in other lands, but I was surprised by how completely at home I felt in this field: the long grass, the faint scent of hay, the trees hissing softly in gusts of breeze. Of all strange things, this meadow in Taos had exactly the same rough grass stalks, feathery at their tips, as the field next door to my childhood home in the Cherwell Valley north of Oxford. And the path, beaten smooth as hide, was just like the path that ran through that field, too. And the tremendous ribbed trunks of the cottonwoods that ringed it were like the boles of old English willows.

Even the weather seemed like an English summer — gauzy, hazy, often with a low lid of thin cloud filtering the sun. Yet at the same time, both field and weather were subservient to something else, an atmosphere, a mood, a feeling I hadn’t known in a long time. My walks through the field would stir a familiar peace. Maybe it was the peace of land long inhabited, long farmed and fructified by human presence — land where humans and the earth had established a lasting friendship. After at least a millennium of human use by the Pueblo Indians and Spanish farmers, this whole part of the plain of Taos had a settled, benevolent air. Or maybe it was a youthful love for land reviving in me. Plutarch, after all, said youths must spend time in nature or they won’t grow up right.

Things happened in the field — small things maybe, but they took me out of my nostalgic realm of childhood memories back into the unfamiliar present. Once I tried to step over a snake lying across the path, dark blue, silent, warming itself on a patch of sun-heated dirt. Suddenly it sensed me, and instead of zipping itself away, snapped toward me. I leapt back, jumping several feet in alarm, as it hissed away through the dry grass.

Another time I heard a rhythmic beating as I approached the field, and high-pitched cries. A circle of Pueblo men were sitting deep in the long grass and stayed there all afternoon with their drums and rattles, singing their song to the field.

One day, walking back from the store on a sunny afternoon, overcome by sleepiness, I decided on a whim to climb up to a fork in a mighty cottonwood, where I lodged myself in and lay back against the trunk. Next thing I knew I was waking from a vivid dream in which an old tribal man had been standing right under the tree, calling up to me. “Sunshine! Tree!” he had called, as if giving me a new name. I could have sworn he had really been there.

In England there had been nothing like Taos Mountain. The field offered an unobstructed view of the mountain. I’d never seen anything like it, an awesome massif, a clump of peaks, an agglomeration of several mountains. Almost a range unto itself, it stood there, a Precambrian megalith thrust from the plain, a word of God made manifest and irrevocable, a reminder somehow of what really mattered. It put your life in perspective, that mountain.

Taos Mountain has a mystique like no other, with an unrivaled place in American cultural history. Had it not been for the mountain, and the people who live at its foot — the Pueblo Indians, whose elemental lives attracted avant-garde thinkers and artists in the early 20th century — the course of modern art in America would surely have been different. Some have even argued that without Taos Mountain there’d have been no Abstract Expressionism. As I became more familiar with some of the 20th-century Taos artists — Ernest Blumenschein, Andrew Dasburg, Marsden Hartley, John Marin — who forged a new American art that drew its inspiration not from Europe but from the Southwestern desert, I realized a number of their paintings of the mountain had been done from a perspective similar to the one from this field. Even Victor Higgins’s magisterial “Winter Funeral,” centerpiece of the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, a somber and captivating rumination on humanity and the earth, looked like it had this same perspective, with a ditch and a humble field in the foreground. Could it have been this very field?

I doubt I will ever know. But I was still shocked when I recently heard that today one of the meadows in this part of town is under threat. It may even be this very meadow. Developers are circling round it, looking to cement it over and turn it into a strip mall. Family Dollar store, with annual sales of billions of dollars and more than 7,000 outlets nationwide, is engaged in a push to open hundreds more stores in the Western states, and that field recently fell across their developers’ desks as an attractive proposition.

Taos may be extraordinary in its multicultural history and its spectacular geography, with the desert on one side reaching to the blue horizons of Arizona, and the mountains on the other, but these treasures are nevertheless set in a context of ordinary land, land like this field. Unfortunately, it seems that these places are the most vulnerable. Such small, unmarked and unprotected open spaces are scattered across America, beautiful in their own right but humble. Unlike government-sanctioned parks, they have no one to speak out for them, and are at risk of being ruined by development.

AS it happens, in the case of this particular field, many others have been dismayed about its possible devastation, and a local opposition group has formed to try and protect it. Its fate touches on the fate of land everywhere. Every time another acre of land gets paved over, it’s that much less land on which one undervalued but vital chamber of the human heart can thrive — the part that can’t help loving land as if it were a living, breathing entity.

Like all fields, this one changes with the seasons. In winter it’s brittle and blue, the grass congealed into tufts that reveal the hard earth beneath. In summer it’s bright, either bitten low by cattle, or lush and glossy if it’s been left to grow. In spring it has a meager look, as if awakened from winter but too beaten by cold to emerge as yet. And in autumn it’s muddy, bruised by the weather.

To appreciate it, all we have to do is notice it.

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