Georgia O’Keefe has long been one of my idols. When I travel to Taos, New Mexico each summer, I can feel her presence, and I often think about what she would think about the area in 2017. For this entry, I’ve penned a letter to her updating her on the “state of things.” Her ranch was known as Ghost Ranch, so something tells me she'll eagerly read this.
Dear Ms. O’Keefe (or may I call you Georgia?):
Greetings from your old stomping ground of Taos, New Mexico. I am writing to you as part of my blog. Oh, a blog is sort of like a public diary entry that is posted on the Internet...which is...well, wow. That’s just A LOT to go into...suffice it say that a good number of people (potentially millions but probably only a couple hundred) read the blog. Why on earth would anyone want to publish their diary? It’s SUCH a good question. I guess it’s a little like your decision to paint your desires for the world to see. It’s a way of connecting, and if it’s done well, it might just create some beauty in the world.
I’ve been in Taos for almost a week. I really understand why you left your philandering husband and journeyed West to this incredible place. I also understand why you hung out with Mabel Dodge Luhan. She must have been so smart and sexy! ;) Her old house is now a hotel that hosts artist retreats of all kinds. In fact about a month ago, there was an illustrated journaling retreat that for some reason I think you would have loved. (1) Oh, and there is a room named after you there. Crazy, right?
The old town you used to hang out in is growing! It’s sort of hard to figure out what the population must have been when you were here. It’s now about 5800 in the town and 36,000 in the county. When you were here it was about 16,000 in the county...so maybe 1000 in the old burg? I’m not sure how you’d feel about that, since you apparently, found “people difficult.” And I can’t say I always disagree. At any rate, it’s a bustling place full of Texans and Arizonans looking from respite from the unrelenting heat of the summer months.
The heat is BAD -- even in Taos. Many people believe that’s because of a phenomenon (likely caused by man) called climate change, and science confirms it. You died right as climate change REALLY got going thanks to the frenetic increase of industrialization and automobile production. I know you LOVED that old Model A that you had to learn how to drive. I can’t imagine how liberating a car must have been for a woman in the 1940s. Wait, yes I can...it’s liberating for a woman in the 2000s! The feminist movement is alive and well, by the way. Over the July 4th Holiday, activists put up signs all along Highway 150 with the names of women from your time who were badass activists for equality....I didn't see your name because they were mostly suffragists and birth control advocates. But of course you were a feminist extraordinaire, and your courage and tenacity live on in anyone who knows your story.
Back to that car thing, though, we (2 women and a dog -- imagine it!) took our truck (you’d love it -- all 4 wheels power it over BIG rocks and through all kinds of rough country) to the mountains many a time this trip and found that at about 10,000 feet, the forests are dying. Aspens and conifers alike. Can you imagine? Dead trees as far as the eye can see...the US Forest Service says it’s a result of, yup, climate change. The warming temps mean, on average, warmer winters. So the hard freezes come less frequently and that means insects (especially beetles) don’t die and can thus over proliferate and kill pines and other conifers. Aspens are similarly vulnerable to fungi and other parasites. Did you ever see a dead forest in your time? I bet not. I'm envious of that easier time. Drought has been especially bad of late. Of course, you lived through some of the worst droughts on record in the 1930s and 50s. And drought is cyclical in the West. Those who don't believe in climate change say this is just a "phase". But our drought isn't the same as your drought... couple it with hotter temps and well, that’s just hard on trees. (2)
Having said that, the Wilderness Areas in the region are still as beautiful as ever (imagine that -- you preserve something and it stays pretty well intact!). I wonder what you would have thought about the Wilderness Act of 1964. I would imagine you'd love it because it would force people to acknowledge beauty even if they didn't really want to take the time to see it. And it's good these places exist because the West (the whole globe really) continues to grow in population.
You wouldn’t believe all the houses out on the mesa toward D.H’s place. (3) As you may recall, Freda bequeathed the ranch to the The University of New Mexico. The University with cooperation from Department of English now oversees the ranch and people can go visit it and attend workshops there. He’s really still quite famous. But not NEARLY as famous as you are. Some people even have your cow skull images as tattoos! Oh and the ski area is now no longer owned by the Blakes as it was from 1956-2014; it is now owned by Louis Bacon who is an East Coast billionaire, who is devoted to conservation. You’d likely approve of his ethic toward the land...but maybe not his support for rather conservative political candidates. The mountain hasn’t changed much really. The Bavarian is still there serving great German beer and the runs are still pretty darn difficult. (4) Do you remember that skis sold for $1 each in the 50s? Today a nice pair of Rosignols could be as much as $1000 depending on the bindings! Oh -- and nowadays, people “surf” down the mountain on a single board...it’s called “snowboarding”. You wouldn’t believe it! Ski Taos didn’t allow it until 2014...so weird changes commeth even in the American Alps.
Somethings haven’t changed, though. The way the sunsets reflect off Wheeler Peak in the twilight continue to inspire people to write, paint, chat, eat delicious food, and meditate. The Taos Puebloans continue their traditional Pow Wow and daily produce the art that inspired you so much. (5) Cows dot the landscape and the rivers flow seemingly without end. They are SO blue those rivers...endlessly blue. When it rains, the sagebrush still fills the air with something essential. When I am here, I write, I breathe, and I take A LOT of pictures.
You were enamoured of the camera, so you would understand my need to capture every detail and every moment I can. You captured it with brush and paint and canvas, I capture it with a lens that is actually also part of my phone, that I carry around in my pocket with me. I can also send written textual messages across the globe in a nanosecond with my phone -- from the top of Truchas Pass -- gosh...that just sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Anyway, I take pictures and share them with friends and family because, I know, like you knew, that, as enduring as this place is, it is also fleeting, and I want to know it as it was. I share the pictures so that people cannot ignore (to use your words) it or its fragility. I guess that’s why I want to buy my own Rancho de los Burros...as you did all those years ago. To be able to always return to the “faraway” -- to a “blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.” (6)
Thanks for all your inspiration, Georgia.
1) See the Mabel Dodge Luhan House for information about the hotel. The illustrated journal workshop by Amy Bogard is one of many hosted by the retreat center.
2) See this recent report on the status of the Carson National Forest by the US Forest Service. Continually dwindling budgets of public lands agencies hamper their ability to study, manage, and protect these vulnerable landscapes. We can't live without trees.
3) D.H. Lawrence was a British author in the early 20th century who was given property by Mabel Dodge Luhan just outside of Taos. He and his wife lived there briefly, but he died of tuberculosis not long after accepting the gift of land. Information can be found here.
4) The Bavarian is a gem!
5) As their website explains, "Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark." The Red Willow people have over 1000 years of history on their Pueblo north of Taos. They are a remarkable people.
6) Georgia O'Keefe's quotes are taken from a variety of sources, but her archives are housed at the Beinecke Library at Yale University.