BESIDE THE RIO HONDO
The Memoir of a Writer’s Life in Northern New Mexico.
Phaedra Greenwood’s “Beside the Rio Hondo” evokes in earthy detail the hardships and miracles of everyday life during her years of living alone in a sparsely settled Hispano community in Northern New Mexico, surrounded by mountains that have been considered sacred by the Taos Pueblo Indians for a thousand years. Through her loving sense of place and her sacred view of nature there glows a kind of recognizable glory, the feelings and meanings that permeate her personal life. Her memoir is the story of how, in a lonely struggle against social, psychological, and economic odds, she reestablishes her home and a sense of belonging to the land. First comes the slow letting go of the past, the ardent striving for a balanced life, and finally, the joyous grounding of self in the habit of nurturing and loving. In the end, she becomes “solid and rooted in who I am--a woman who stands by herself . . . married heart and soul to the fierce and vibrant spirit of this land.”
Like the rushing silver river itself, “Beside the Rio Hondo” is a source of comfort and revitalization for all of us who, anxious about the encroachment of machines in the planetary as well as the American garden, seek a path to higher consciousness, to emerge out of our own canyons of solitude.
Greenwood passionately opposes untoward forms of restraint and confinement. Not simply a feminist outcry, but a defining characteristic of literature of the American West, this opposition leads her, a devoted mother and competent Jill-of-all-trades, to part ways with her husband, Aaron, and exchange security for authenticity. Paradoxically, the growth in awareness of the wholeness and fullness of life seems to depend upon silence and enclosure by the land, which reveals for her the road to liberation.
“I want to go on no matter what comes next. It begins to feel like freedom. I feel centered in a new and more constant way by what I have voluntarily given up. Something else comes to fill the void and sustain me.
“I can bear pain and loss; what I can’t bear is being imprisoned. My heart feels as if it is opening and opening, and as it does, I get lighter and lighter. The grief and tears are mingled with the joy, the anger with the love. If I love and have nothing at stake, no one can ever take my life away from me. I am prepared to be a wanderer in the world just as much as I am prepared to live quietly at home alone.”
Having come from a family of wanderers and literary dreamers, Greenwood, herself determined to be a writer, knows she has the passion, the resilience, and the resourcefulness she needs for the job. But if Aaron sells the house that is her home and cuts her adrift, the writing will become even more difficult. What makes “Beside the Rio Hondo” a particularly compelling narrative, a profoundly American one, is the tension between the security of home and the possibility of displacement.
When Henry James chose to live in England because “the skinniness and aridity of America,” as his brother William called it, somehow failed to yield up material for fiction, he anticipated an attitude prevalent in the East today, namely that the West is a cultural backwater. The blank area between New York and Hollywood must be paved, poisoned, and overpopulated before it qualifies as serious civilization and can offer literature with universal themes. Never mind that this “region” has vast plains, towering mountains, abysmal gorges and flashing rivers to inspire the rebirth of the continental soul. Never mind that the West has the power to expose the tragedy of egocentric materialism, rationalism, and individualism. Never mind that a great Western poet, Robinson Jeffers, expresses a redemptive vision when he writes in “Credo,” “The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty/Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.” Someone back East, who in all other respects might be considered intelligent, will still call the West merely “a state of mind” and see himself far from Zane Grey. Westerners write “Westerns,” don’t they?
Let us consider the skinniness and aridity of Phaedra Greenwood’s home beside the river. Would Henry James have written spellbinding chapters about black widow spiders, tree-felling beavers, and Corn Mother dances? Would it have even occurred to him to ponder the significance of a petroglyph? Would he have dared to swing out over the river on a rope tied to a swingtree, to repair an adobe church, caressing the mud as if it were a woman’s body, to live for a spell with filthy hippies in a commune, to chop wood in a blizzard, to hunt elk with a bow, to swim across the icy Rio Grande, to dance naked in celebration of the vernal equinox, or to shove his arm up an ewe’s vagina in order to prevent the aborting of her lambs? Even if he had managed to go West and seat himself for a century in a freezing outhouse beside the Rio Hondo, would he have noticed the very real and vital presence of literature?
But look! In the valley D.H. Lawrence is galloping on horseback across a snow-packed road to Taos Pueblo. Cleofas Martínez de Jaramillo, born in Arroyo Hondo in 1878, suffers from no lack of subject matter when she writes “Romance of a Little Village Girl.” Just up the road in Arroyo Hondo lived Frank Waters, one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, seven times nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Would Henry James have come to understand that such writers in one little postage stamp of Northern New Mexico were, and are, somewhat more substantial than a state of mind? Would solitude play its music for James’ ears, as it does for Greenwood’s?
The compulsion to write leads writers, of course, to all sorts of weird places, including England. Writing takes time, writing makes demands on writers and their loved ones, but an author’s empty purse is always filled with the intangible wealth of sacrifice and compassion.
Readers of “Beside the Rio Hondo” will realize that Phaedra Greenwood has not swerved from her destiny, has not flinched from its demands, has not begged or borrowed or whimpered, has never strayed from the reign of wonder. Her memoir is a portrait of the artist as a young archetype. Her imagination is inevitably in revolt against the hostile forces that would destroy, through shabbiness and inhumanity, what she loves. So she is faithful to the wounds of life and cannot be discouraged from her task just because she is vulnerable before social, economic and religious, “get-a-real-job” authorities of the tribe. She breaks away from the tribe’s daylight world, submerges herself in the sea of images, makes a pilgrimage to the shrines where the truth of her experience lies, and finally, after years of sprightly dancing in a metaphorical wilderness, surfaces with a story that teaches the lesson of life renewed. The archetype is this journey, this night of the soul. The shrines are Time and Place. And the message is: we are never, any of us, really alone.
In our family writing was as ordinary as reading, eating breakfast or taking a bath. Dad struggled for years to write a best seller, pounding out his ire on an old Underwood typewriter. He took odd jobs to support the family, drove a taxi, worked for small-town newspapers and brought home bars of Linotype and newsprint for us to play with. Mother wrote poetry--verse, Dad called it--though it didn’t always rhyme.
Every night before we went to bed, Mother read to us--nursery rhymes and fables, then fairy tales, and eventually Anna Sewell’s entire book, “Black Beauty.” Then Dad took over and entertained us with junior books, biographies of famous Americans from McGraw-Hill where he worked as a proofreader. On cold autumn nights he provoked nervous giggles from us as he read the morbid tales of Edgar Allen Poe.
Once a week my parents hosted a writer’s group in the living room where the walls were lined with books set on Dad’s homemade shelves. I got the message early--books are sacred and writers are pilgrims on the long, literary journey, making daily sacrifices on the altar of the word.
My father never published. When he died, at the back of his storage shed, I found bundles of manuscripts three feet high and two feet deep, tied with string. For over two decades he had been writing and rewriting his autobiography, trying to express some essential truth about childhood events that had shaped his life.
I carted home as many bundles of paper as I could stuff in the trunk of my car. It took months to wade through this dark confessional memoir, written in his Hemingway style. Bats, snakes and spiders fell out as I turned the pages. When I couldn’t take any more, I dumped most of it in the recycling bin.
Unlike my father, I didn’t decide to become a writer--I just wrote. Writing was a way of expressing my feelings and keeping depression at bay, but I seldom made it the center of my life. I opened my arms to husbands and lovers, to children and animals, jobs, travel and outdoor adventures from camping in Alaska to scuba diving in the Caribbean.
In the 1970s and 80s I was a blur as I dashed around trying to save the Earth so that my children and grandchildren might enjoy the beauty of it as much as I did. In those days my best literary efforts went into composing letters to the forest service, congress and newspaper editors protesting nuclear power and nuclear waste, budworm spraying and the pollution of the Rio Hondo. But at night before I rolled into sleep, I grabbed fifteen minutes to jot a few notes in my journal.
Today my stack of journals is eight feet high. From these scribblings I draw fresh details for novels, essays and memoirs, shaping the material to tell the story of my life, which is not just my own story, but also that of my family and community.
In my “getting-on” years I was dismayed to discover my mouse-eaten manuscripts piling up in the trunk, at the back of the shed, under the bed, in every spare closet and drawer. My worst nightmare was coming true: I would die unpublished and unread like my father, my life’s work dumped in the hole with me.
So it’s deeply satisfying to see--fourteen years after I wrote it--that a segment of my private journal is about to waltz out into the world as my first published book. How strange to realize that I was writing it all along without knowing it.
“Beside the Rio Hondo” is a work of creative non-fiction that follows the seasons for one pivotal year of my life. In 1992, at the age of 49, I separated from my husband and made a beeline for our family home in Arroyo Hondo, a quiet valley in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Embracing the emptiness of my nest, I returned to an unfinished task that I had shunned at the age of eighteen: to establish an independent identity. For the first month, alone on the land, deep listening became my daily meditation. Grounded in the solitude of our old adobe on the edge of the national forest, I finally slowed down long enough to experience an epiphany.
The story expands in concentric circles to include the flora and fauna of the high mountain desert, the geology and changing weather patterns, my interaction with the neighbors and notes on the daily struggle to survive. I‘ve added a dash of local history that streaks across the centuries from ancient petroglyphs and pit houses to the wild hippie days during the 1970s when three communes in the area wrestled with rural life.
More than a personal memoir, this book is about the fierce spirit of place, the politics of the tri-cultural community of Hispanos, Indians and Anglos, the give and take that allows us to work and play together, and what it means to belong to the land.
People are hungry for tales that give ordinary life height and breadth and meaning. Creative non-fiction is the lens that focuses the narrative by eliminating extraneous detail, rearranging time sequences to build to a climax and supplying crucial resolution. Yes, it all really happened; more important, the story is true to itself. To paraphrase Iris Keltz in “Scrapbook of a Taos Hippie,” for those of you who experienced it some other way, your version is true, too.