WINTER IN TAOS
WINTER IN TAOS
Mabel Dodge Luhan
A review by Ray Greenblatt
Ray Greenblatt has been an English teacher for many years. He was on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and is now on the staff of the Schuylkill Valley Journal. He spoke at the John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California. Presently he teaches a course, The Joy of Poetry, at Temple University. His experimental novel, Twenty Years on Graysheep Bay, is available online.
Note: Reverence page numbers in the Sunstone Press edition are in parenthesis.
Some called her a controlling salon hostess or a flaky art patroness. However, Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879–1962) also became a nationally syndicated columnist for the New York Journal. She had been born into a wealthy family in Buffalo, New York, her father a banker. After her schooling she purchased a villa in Florence, Italy and a house in New York City, where she lavishly entertained many famous people. She also had a series of unsuccessful love affairs and marriages.
Searching for meaningful roots, she eventually traveled to Taos, New Mexico in 1919. Here she met Tony Luhan, an Indian chief of the Pueblos. They married in 1923 and began a solid marriage that lasted nearly forty years until the end of Mabel’s life. This southwest environment cultivated in her a deep love of the land, which we see in her book Winter in Taos (1936). We also observe a sensitive, passionate and profound writing style.
This is a personal book; that is, it is not about people, except perhaps about Mabel and her husband. Rather, it is about the verities she discovered in the southwest: her animals and house, the farming, the seasons, and the natural scenery. Let us visit “Los Gallos” (the roosters) as so many have made pilgrimage to this now famous landmark.
1 – Animals
Mabel knows the nature of the animals on her ranch and describes them delightfully. On a horseback trip we meet Nelly: “Without any pleasure in life, a snarl of tangled hair over her face, she would watch the rear from the corner of her eye. She is the most sagacious mare in the world, well behaved and obedient, fast and strong, but utterly without the joy of life. Her back is deep and upholstered like a rocking chair, her rhythm is even, and she has a smug, swinging gait that never tires one, but she hasn’t a particle of excitement in her, no electricity, no emotion. On and on she goes, the leader of them all, her only personal wish being that she must be first.” (159) This description certainly could depict a human; her phrasing like “a snarl of tangled hair over her face” suggests it.
She has a pair of parrots who seem to know how to enjoy themselves: “The parrots jeering and laughing raucously at one’s every move, or singing ‘taps’ in sentimental saxophone voices. Sometimes one of them calls, ‘Perro! Perro!’ in such a convincing tone that the dogs come running . . . They yell at every passer-by, at Indians on horseback, at the milkman, or the other delivery boys. They give loud, exultant shrieks, or jeers of laughter. Their laughter is so loud, up and down the scale, it can be heard all over the hill, sounding like two maniac women.” (18)
Their old dog at breakfast time: “She stands and stares, with bulging eyes that stick out on the two sides of her round black head, her two threadbare ears cocked up like ventilators. She stands shivering in the snow and she stares straight ahead as though she would will the door to open. She can smell the bacon just beyond, and a long drop of saliva escapes her worn jaw and falls to the ground. Her upper lip is caught back of one of her two remaining tusks, and this gives her a sardonic grin. Her eyes are wide and brilliant, now, and she wills and wills.” (21)
One day Mabel takes in a young dog: “I got used o seeing him there, always waiting politely at a short distance, sitting on his haunches, bright-eyed and delicate, and persistently hopeful. I stopped stamping my foot at him and crying, ‘Go away!’ And once I suddenly saw him. I noticed the early morning sun shining through his red hair and making him incandescent; and he was like a little burning bush.
‘Poor boy!’ I said. ‘Come here,’ and I held my hand out to him.
He delicately picked up a little dry stick and, hanging his head, he walked slowly over and offered it to me with some embarrassment. Of course, from that moment he belonged!” (15) By her depictions, she makes each animal so unique. Most of her animals had free run of the house, so it must have been very lively!
2 – Farming
Here is Mabel’s philosophical outlook on farming: “But farming is not all luck. Of all man’s occupations, it is perhaps the most portentous, depending so much, as it does, upon two other things: knowledge and energy.
There is so much that must be known and not only from the books, or the almanacs and all the farmer’s manuals, but from experience. From making mistakes and profiting by them, from trying things over and over again until just the right quantity, measure, weight and quality will bring the desired results. From studying the locality, the season, the prevailing habits of nature, from endless observation and care.” (28)
Mabel’s restless wandering had settled down to focus on the land she came to love the most, despite the hard labor. She describes growing a basic but essential crop, alfalfa: “The fine seed is thrown on, and it settles on the dampened surface of the earthlike dust; it clings and breaks open and sends a little tentacle as fine as a hair down into the dark beneath. If all goes well, it develops into a tenacious root two or three feet deep in the ground, that gives three crops a season here, and four or five in lower altitudes. We always cut two of the crops, but leave the third for the horses to graze on, because it comes too late to mature and flower. The cold nights of September prevent that.” (26)
After the harvest Mabel feels great satisfaction: “Something left over in me from my grandmother has made me turn back to these earlier ways of living, made me to enjoy my storerooms full of the fruit of the earth, though it has meant so much hard work to stock these dark cellars and these storeroom shelves, and has, probably, cost more to fill them than to buy the efficient products of the shops . . .
Food, one’s own, home-grown food, reaches back into one’s land, comes up along one’s days through the seasons until it stands waiting on the storeroom shelves, or cool in the dark cellar. It seems more real, and more rich and full of wonder, when it comes before one on the table, than anything one can buy.” (46) I like the image of how food is a mixture of space and time, beginning in a place then developing through the time of growing.
3 – Seasons
The construction of the book is very original. Mabel Luhan focuses on winter when she is often pent up in her house. Thus, in the process she has time to recall the various seasons. Let us first revisit spring: “We ourselves are permeated with the blessed change and something gives in us. We cry to each other as we pass: ‘Just like spring, isn’t it?’ And men cease to walk with heads bent to keep the warmth of themselves inside their collars. They lift their faces and look about them, and everybody is able to recognize and share this marvel. Their bones and blood vibrate and flow with the season’s rhythm; for a moment they are one with it. The new light comes like a breath that enlivens and lifts the dull, sleepy earth and it glows inside men, shining in their eyes.” (109)
Then Mabel employs a striking symbol of a panther: “In the spring, there is a black panther hidden behind all the appearances of Nature. He crouches in us when we are at bay among the chairs and tables of houses; he is clinging to the tree tops and lashing out, teeth bared among the young leaves, and he is riding down the streams on the sparkling brown water, sleek and black with the white light in his eyes.
He is the master. Out of his ruthless ferocity there pours the soft foam of wild plum blossoms all over the valley; the orchards are pink and blond with the beneficence borne out of his cruelty; and along the borders of the garden. The large purple blossoms touch their heads together gently and breathe out a perfume that fills all our rooms; and each flower carries a drop of the stinging blood of the black panther in its heart.” (120)
Then follows summer: “Talk is intermittent and unfocused in such hours, unlike the brisk argument and the sharp rejoinder of the electric-lighted rooms; and time slides by unheeded, sleepily, and perhaps a little sadly, perhaps a little wistfully, with a tinge of undefined desire, the night is so beautiful, so fair, and unpartaken. It seems then to one that Nature provides sometimes a beauty to which we are unequal, and that we are seemingly without the gesture and response that would adequately fit the scene.” (155)
Journalists like Hemingway, Luhan and many other noted newspaper writers were taught to use short declarative sentences. However, Hemingway broke that mode by often employing “ands” to connect sentences, giving each independent clause equal importance. So far we have noticed that perhaps Mabel Luhan was influenced by his technique.
“What heat forces are commanding the summertime? The solar power, the blood heat, all the fires are loosened! In August the electrical storms waver and shimmer over the mountains and the air is full of unspeakable tension, on summer nights. The yellow leaves picture the conflagration that was endured, for later on, in September, when the aspen forests are painted yellow splashes upon the high slopes, their color seems to show what a passion burned through them to reach this culmination which is like the fires that blazed on summer nights.” (169)
Here is autumn: “After the trees are fully turned and are like torches of fiery yellow, often with coral red tips, and others are big round balls of radiant, sun-colored loveliness, they have a long quiet pause before the end. Day after day of Indian summer passes, breathless, when the whole valley is immobile and every leaf is motionless, shining golden and still. What days! One moves in a dream through the country, scarcely able to believe one’s eyes, for the wonder of it.” (228)
“The air is full of the rustle of dry leaves falling and blowing into drifts. They brush across one’s face and one has to shut one’s eyes against them. In other days there was a sharp pain at the sudden autumn ending, at the sight of the trees being stripped, the air full of the scattering leaves, but now I only know a feeling of pleasure in it, almost a feeling of peace. This is new and strange and has taken a long time to come, this feeling of complacence when the sky darkens and the air grows harsh, and all the yellow leaves blow across the sky.” (230) Mabel revels in the seasons and the changes each brings.
4 – Winter
Throughout her book Mabel Luhan refers to the season of winter: “The fields are blond with snow and pale, shining yellow grasses, now; and the sky above them is a cold, light blue, different from the burning depths of the black-blue of summer. They sweep, in a gentle rise, across to the foot of the range, and the Indian horses are dotted about on them. In the distance, little Indian adobe summerhouses sleep like forgotten rectangular boxes, with a bare tree or two hanging over each of them. The winter landscape is vast and pale with blue shadows lying upon it, and the tender, smoldering red of the willow clumps beside the stream.” (72)
“But now, in the frozen immunity of winter, the earth on either side of the road looks like blue glaciers interminably stretching to the mountain slopes, monotonously still except for a sudden splash of black, when a couple of crows land on the dark huddle of a carcass, for horses and cows fall and die throughout the cold months and are devoured in a few hours. By the time the meadows bloom again their bones, so austerely and precisely beautiful, lie bleached white with green blades pricking up through the interstices.” (85)
“A still wood, with the new white covering, can be wonderful and as though the earth were premade that day; and the trees, standing bowed a little by the weight they have to bear until a wind comes that will shake it off, seem patient and trustful.
On the ground we saw many little writings, left delicately by the animals, lovely patterns in a rhythm of movement and ease, soft as the imprint of waves upon the sand, sensitive as the record of the heartbeat, written by the electrocardiograph.” 118)
However, winter can make one feel sad: “Something like a shiver went over me at the thought of the winter thickening still more, covering us, clamping us down, until I remembered what I learned long ago, but always forgot and have to learn anew each year: that if one gives up and lets it come right down over one, if one sinks into the season and is a part of it, there is peace in this submission. Only in resistance there is melancholy and a sort of panic.
It doesn’t take long for the aspect of the world to change here, and in a short time great galleons of cloud sailed over the sky and soon covered the sun. Then everything looked sad indeed. We depend so much on the high key of light for illumining things.” (102)
“We reach our house before we expect it; it looms up all of a sudden, and if it is late afternoon, there will be a lighted window shining yellow.
When we shake off the snow and go in the house, there is a warm smell of the narcissus and hyacinths that bloom all winter there, and of freesia and jonquils in vases, lovely in the firelight, with hot tea and cinnamon toast.
But not more lovely than the cold, odorless world of ice and snow, where the pinon, cedar and sage are pungent with the magical oils they draw from the deep, living earth.’” (70) Notice that Mabel finds safety and contentment when she enters her house; we will talk more about that later.
5 – Sites
Many significant landmarks both natural and manmade dot the region Mabel and Tony knew so well: a mountain, cave and lake, a cemetery, adobe houses and Indian culture. A mountain holy to the indigenous Indians lies behind the Luhan ranch: “ The bed stood beside a wide casement window that opened upon a long-reaching view. The Sacred Mountain faced right down upon it, beaming across field after field of Indian land, pale yellow stubble showing through the snow; and horses were meandering around, their dark, furry outlines looking as though they had been brushed in with Chinese ink on absorbent paper.” 49)
In addition: “In the wintertime, one only knows the mountain from a distance, and then one can get it whole. One can ponder its vast bulk, and watch its changing forms and speculate upon the mysteries it hides within its canyons and in its deep folds. In other months, one loses the mountain in the nearness of the mossy banks along its streams where the large mauve columbines grow and, looking up through green branches, one finds the sky is hidden by the leaves.” (52)
They approach a sinister cave: “We skirted the harsh walls of stone, and the noise of falling water was deafening. Soon we could see it, falling from above our heads. It splashed icy drops that coated everything near with a covering like steel, and it fell upon a thick column of green ice that had gradually reared itself up out of the basin below it.
The water ran down the sides of the monstrous, transparent pillar of ice, congealing and thickening it; and what escaped formed a dark pool at the base and ran out at one end to filter down the hill away from that grim place behind the trees, until it reached sunlight and happier things.” (89)
One might think of this region as being arid, but water sources were greatly revered and protected: “This Blue Lake is the most mysterious thing I have ever seen in nature, having an unknowable, impenetrable life of its own, and a definite emanation that rises from it. Here is the source of most of the valley life. From this unending water supply that flows out of the east end of the lake and down the miles and miles of the rocky bed of the stream to the Pueblo, the Indian fields are irrigated.” (203)
“We have the prettiest graveyards in the world here in this valley, I believe: all sown with pale blue or white wooden crosses, where the wreaths of pink and red and orange paper roses hang since All Souls’ Day, and have been wetted by snow and blanched by the sun, until they are mellowed and melted into a dream-like impressionistic picture of their first hard, crisp contours.” (72) Mabel even uses poetic alliteration where it intensifies the scene.
The local architecture is also unique: “They are spacious enough and with lovely proportions. They nestle close to the earth and seem to be rooted in it: in fact, the earth that composes them was dug up where they stand, made into adobe bricks dried in the sun, and raised one upon another. The beams that support the roofs are the trees from the near-by hills; the whitewash on the walls comes from the side of a mountain over beyond Ranchos de Taos. Like the Mexicans who built them and lived in them so long, they are out of this soil and will finally return to it.” (84)
And finally the ubiquitous presence of the native Indians: “From the top of one or the other of the two pyramidal piles of dwelling houses, the Governor or the War Chief calls his orders, and the voice reaches into every corner of the Pueblo. People talk and children laugh and play, uninterruptedly, but the voice penetrates consciousness and is noted and obeyed. The voice is the same in tone and inflection, and it has the same inherited authority. It is the voice of the community.” (53)
6 – Los Gallos
Mabel loves the land, but her house is very dear to her since it reflects her personality. First, let us see how it appears from the outside: “On a lightning-conducting rod, a gold cock is reared high up from one corner of the roof of this sunroom, and it can be seen sparkling all the way to the Pueblo as it turns in the wind. Sometimes when Tony and I are riding up in the hills behind the house, we look down to find the long adobe building has melted into the earth and we cannot find it until suddenly the sun strikes the gold cock and it flashes a sign to us, showing where we live.” (66)
And inside their home: “When I opened my door, I felt the lovely warm radiation from the stove, and smelled the faint perfume of the room coming out of the heated air. The sun was streaming in the eastern windows over the big table, and falling on the blond, glossy floor and its pale, hand-woven rugs.” (49)
Her house moves Mabel spiritually: “The silent house was perfumed with the dry cedar that is burned in it every morning; a small branch is lighted and blown out, and the smoke permeates the rooms and makes a most clean and peaceful smell. In the big room everything sparkled in the somber way that dark, waxed furniture and colored glass and copper bowls will do when they are set in order and dusted. I always think a room never looks so attractive all day long as just after it is cleaned in the morning, the cushions patted out, and the water changed in the flower vases, waiting and ready and renewed for living in again, fresh every day.” (98)
Tony has a room that personifies him: “It is the room where his guns and hunting knives are locked in the carved gun case Manuel made for his Christmas present two years ago, and where all his Indian things are. In this room he has many confabulations with Indians who come to talk over things, sitting before the corner fireplace. On the chimney place there are some things people have given him, a bronze horse, a bronze deer, and a golden buffalo!
The old beamed ceiling is painted sky-blue and the walls are whitewashed. There are white muslin curtains on the long window that looks eastward over the desert, but on Tony’s father’s tall, narrow window, there is none, so one can see out onto the portal through the small, uneven panes . . .
On the wall over the bed, there is a crucifix carved out of ivory, that Clarence gave Tony, and upon it hangs a small rusty rosary he found in the ground here on the place. There are some Indian paintings hanging on the walls; also a fishing basket, a coiled-up hair rope, a pair of beaded moccasins and some other Indian things.” (60)
In many rooms of the ranch, Mabel has accumulated the varied aspects of her life: “The gatherings of all my past life are deposited here. Besides the regular furniture and pictures and books that came from Italy and France and New York, letters, in packets, that date all the way back to Buffalo, are stuffed into cabinets and drawers, and all kinds of curious odds and ends that have followed me down the years are tucked away in corners and shelves. Bits of china, silk, scraps of carving, parts of Buddhas, lacquer, incense, parchment and tooled leather throw out odd scents when one opens a cupboard door, or opens the heavy lid of some chest.” (62)
“Old colored glass stoppers from English bottles; strings of beads from everywhere under the sun; silk parasols and brocade bags stuffed into carved chests along with pieces of old Portugese printed cotton, batiks from Bali, embroideries from Czecho-Slovakia, left behind by Reed and Maurice. Keepsakes of ever kind from all kinds of people, stuffed away into dark corners. One couldn’t have all the stuff out gathering dust. One thing edges another out of place, symbols in layers of thought, feeling, living, that has been and has passed away.” (65) It is striking how often Mabel uses the sense of smell—a sense writers do not often use—to convey a feeling or mood.
7 – Mabel and Tony
The core of any home, of course, is the people who live there. Mabel’s emotions are very strong and her moods run deep. She admits that she made many mistakes before meeting the bedrock of her life, Tony Luhan. From experience she writes: “When one thinks of the people who float around the world in hotels and boarding houses, the aging women, and men of all ages, who are looking for climates or distraction or something, they don’t know what, who are without roots, and without the small household gods that give a person more heart-warming than theaters, art galleries, or any public festivity in the world, it is inconceivable that they don’t know enough to find a little house somewhere that will be their very own, where every corner means something intimate and special, something planned for comfort and convenience, where the kettle sings on the hearth and the flower blooms in the window.” (78)
Mabel goes on: “Still and all, if one hadn’t done a lot of things and been through all the movements of life, one wouldn’t have this fund of experience to draw on, or be able to sense all the many experienced pleasures and delights and pains and worries, too, that are suggested by the sights from my window, by the things about me in the room, by the odors and memories and associations that are the essence of activity and that, like poetry, are now the emotions of activity remembered in tranquility .” (50) She acknowledges by paraphrasing a great poet, Wordsworth.
She has a trick for getting centered: “I always knit in the wintertime, and I can’t endure doing that in the summer! But as soon as the days grow shorter, I hunt for my bag of wools and all my amber needles, and I am perfectly content to sit in the window and knit and knit and knit and ponder and remember and get into a kind of even rhythm of thinking, feeling, breathing, knitting; that is, somehow, a very satisfactory activity like a dance, or like the slow, sure motion of a constant star.” (97)
And she has a final thought about people and places: “People and animals, only, on this earth, can animate and stir the immobility of places, fill them with life and movement and a crackling vibration: when they are absent, inanimate objects droop and sag and lose significance.” (137)
To conclude, here are some snapshots of the Luhans’ marriage: Now, twelve years later, he seems like a rock; more than that, a mountain, that will support all the weight I can put on him. Nothing can really hurt a woman who has a man like this, to give her moral and emotional support. We could lose our houses and our horses, our friends, our health and our strength, but as long as we are together, we are immune from essential loss.” (42)
Tony has a view of Mabel: “’Your heart, he stronger than cold or bad things like that, if you got a good heart. And my heart good.’
‘Oh, sure! I know it! But I can’t forget all those things I’ve been taught! You know . . . !’
‘White people know too much and feel too little,’ he answered. ‘Well, I goin’. ‘
‘Come here!’ I cried, and stretched out to reach his hand and draw him down and give him a big kiss, for I felt the warmth he always knew how to release, flooding my nature and making my own heart good.” (44)
A last glimpse at them: “Every once in a while, after the oats are up, you’ll see Tony walking slowly around this near-by field after sundown, peering down, trying to see signs of the new alfalfa. When I see him doing that, I go over and join him, for it’s a heavenly thing to walk about in the early June fields after the sun has set; the earth is still warm and the air is full of scent of flowers, and the wild birds are settling down after the sweet excitement they have been fluttering in all day, feeding the small new birds in the nests.” (27)
Mabel Dodge Luhan’s friends who visited at Los Gallos were many, among them: Martha Graham and Carl Jung, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Willa Cather and Robinson Jeffers. But when all the social hubbub had abated, she could sink back into what she had searched for so long—the contentment of a southwest environment. Her unique and powerful writing style has allowed us to accompany her.