I’m currently halfway through a 2 1/2-week teaching trip to the USA. Because the workshops I’m running are all east coast, but my heart is firmly in the southwest, I spoiled myself a little by taking four days in New Mexico before the work got started.
I wrote this on my Instagram feed, two days in:
If I really knew why certain places call to us I’d be so wise I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. On Friday I found myself flying across that old Atlantic Ocean again, back to the funny big country I spent six years in, back in the 90s. Hiding out here in the remote hills of New Mexico for four glorious days before I try hard to justify the airplane trip and get down to some serious work. Always pulled back to New Mexico, where once upon a time in a crosswind-buffeted, afternoon-turbulent, crazy Wild West desert, I received my pilot’s license from an equally crazy, crusty old ex-Marine who called me ‘little lady’ at least ten times but laughed like a lunatic and congratulated me for my ‘gumption’ when I refused to follow a navigation suggestion of his I didn’t think wise. Oh New Mexico, you gave me everything I didn’t know just how much I needed. It all began here. Woke up this morning well before dawn to coyotes howling in the still-cool desert night. Looking out to Padernal, Georgia O’Keefe’s mountain, over a strangely lush, green desert. Something in this mountain desert speaks to me of the mountain bog of home; something in my bog speaks to me of this desert. There’s the clarity and the old bone; there’s the stripping bare and the really not taking any shit. Not any, not at all. One land illuminates the other. Always has, always will. Raising a glass to Georgia and the spirit of coyote. Spirit of place. Myth to myth, crumbly black peat to dusty red sand, love always.
And then this:
I’ve haunted this ghost-place over the past three days. Haunted it mostly at dawn. Plaza Blanca. Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘white place’. The residue of an ancient super-volcano’s ash. The bones of this earth, seeming so strong, but crumbling wherever you look closely. I’m looking closely; I’m writing a book about the myths and stories of ageing and elderhood. And this land is teaching me many things about all that. Walking up a long-dry creek-bed into a dead-end canyon with three ravens circling overhead all the way. Ravens in the bog, ravens in the desert. Again: the one land illuminates the other. The Old Woman of New Mexico is different from the Cailleach of my Ireland but at some deep level the story is the same. We recognise each other. Hello. I sat with her for a while; she taught. She always teaches. You have to go looking. You have to go quiet. You don’t go to her with self-mythologising and a sense of your own destiny. You leave your ego behind and your big old cowboy hat at the gate. Listen. Hearing isn’t guaranteed. Hearing comes with the wisdom of a good few decades on this wild planet, a bucketload of humility (oh, a dying virtue for sure), and a lack of attachment to outcome. Strut in there feeling pleased with yourself and your place in the world, and she’ll bite your backside for sure. You know what that is? It’s hagitude (a word I made up which happens to be the title of that new book). I’ll go for that.
And always, when I’m in New Mexico, I think of flying. In my first novel, The Long Delirious Burning Blue, I wrote a highly fictionalised account of learning to fly. I set it in the Arizona desert rather than New Mexico, because for the purposes of my plot I needed a big city like Phoenix nearby. And I flew there a few times. Much of the novel was set in the desert around the Superstition Mountains, and this section of the book describes how that place made me feel – and how, ultimately, the entire desert southwest makes me feel:
‘Here, there is no such protection. The Superstition wilderness is rugged terrain. The Superstition Mountains do not bother with foothills: born of eruptions of fire and light, their jagged peaks thrust upwards from the flat desert floor and tower to a height of six thousand feet. These are no soft, green mountains with towering pines to give shelter and shade. Pitiless, this desert provides no such respite. Out there, there is nowhere to hide. The sun shines down on you fiercely, illuminating all your hollowed-out emptiness, casting far too much light on your daily fumblings for adequacy.’
That sense of a landscape stripping you bare, allowing you no place to hide from whatever reality you’re inhabiting, requiring you to confront whatever it is that needs confronting in your life – that’s what I love about the desert. It takes no prisoners. That’s why the desert reminds me (curiously, to some) of the grey mountains and wide bogscapes of Ireland and the Outer Hebrides – landscapes which have a similar impact on me. Fierce landscapes, landscapes saturated with Old Woman energy. Landscapes which teach you big lessons, whether you want them to or not.
This is place as the greatest teacher of all. Place as the greatest love of all.