It's a quiet, astonishing, ancient, and wild place. Still. As in, nothing really moves here other than the sky and shadows. Also still in the way that, despite its many attractions to the outside world, it remains almost frozen in place. From this earth come the bones of dinosaurs. From its cliffs, artistic inspiration.
It's easy to see why Georgia O'Keeffe was so attracted to this wild land. Her 1940 purchase of Rancho de los Burros was purposeful, but naive. For in this part of the world, even now, living is not easy. The dry, high, desert wears one out, and wears one down. Though its beauty obviously inspires, it also challenges. She needed help, and asked Maria Chabot to provide it. And there began the storied friendship between the two.
I recently caught my first glimpse of Rancho de los Burros, where Maria and Georgia began their odyssey. From all of the descriptions of it, I thought I would prepared for its setting but in person, I still sucked in a breath. For there it stood, tiny in comparison to the cliffs that so closely guarded it. I had thought, for some reason, it would stand more alone, sentry to the lands behind it. But there those cliffs stood, more sentry to it. One can see how Georgia didn't need to leave this house, other than in necessity, for painting. Out the front, Cerro Pedernal. Out the back, the vermillion, strangely verdant, cliffs of the Piedra Lumbre.
Maria's take on it was best, as she got to know O'Keeffe and the challenges of living in one of New Mexico's most beautiful, but difficult, spots:
"We learned to conform with the desert...the pinon tree, a slow-growing pine of the hills, supports the packrat and man, sometimes, with its edible nuts. The packrat, in turn, becomes food for the rattlesnake, and the rattler food for the eagle, the owl, the hawk. The sparse grass that grows in hollows of the plain keeps the rabbit alive, and the prairie dog. And these in their turn feed the coyote -- the more hungry and prolific of them all.
One becomes a part of this balance of nature when one lives in the Piedra Lumbre -- or else one vainly attempts to resist, and resistance is folly. If one has something one gives or else it is taken. So one grows weary of having, one conforms to the neatness and order the desert demands of its dwellers.
Our neighbor, the packrat, for instance. One must be wary or else he will make off with the upholstery of the car. He will take whatever shines - a spoon left out of doors, a shining nail. If we plant grass in our patio, then surely the rabbit will arrive. And it the rabbit is near the coyote will lurk - bad work there is nothing more bold than the hungry coyote. They bay at our house like dogs, resenting it would seem, this man made shadow in the universe. If we fail to draw the curtains on our windows the bluebirds will break their necks on the very glass by which we view them.
So to become non-existent would seem our function in the desert; to strip our possessions to the essential. No woodpile to harbor the rat and the rattler, no hens to attract the hungering hawk, no garden for the rabbit more lush than the plain he runs on. The car is kept in the garage. The guest room becomes the wood room. The chicken pen shelters only the cat.
Yet how loosely did we learn to forego ambition? How reluctantly did we come to conserve and cherish effort? We began to make war on the creatures of the desert before we knew fully what that war was about. And our aggression, more often than not, was founded on fear and ignorance. We were as afraid of the rattler and the tarantula as our neighbors in Abiquiu are afraid of the witches of the country of burning rock.
We killed the tarantula until we discovered that this hapless creature is harmless. Despite his 8 eyes he is blind. Scarcely able to distinguish daylight from dark, he lives almost wholly by his sense of touch. With a mouth so small that he can eat only liquids, squeezing and sucking the juice of his victims, more often than not does he die of starvation. Had we used our wits we would have seen that he cannot jump, is armed only with his hideous looks, and with tireless necessity pursues our household flies. Though we on’t welcome our ugly neighbor when he comes we no longer kill hil. We send him on his way and feel more sorry than not for his problem of existence.
On the shelves in our dining room too, is a black box containing a record of which we are not proud: the rattles of snakes we have killed. That box might be labeled Old Ambitions, Foolhardy Aggressions -- for these snakes were draws to our house by sundry efforts we have made to resist the desert, to enlarge our domain and enforce our will -- before we had learned our place in the order of nature. It took three years and an unholy fear to make us think about the rattler and why he was attracted to our patio. When we used our imagination, put ourselves in the place of this desert hunter, we brought in our woodpile, left no colored corn or old boxes around that would attract the desert rat -- the object of his search -- and he quit us. Before this seemingly simple process of thought, before the proper ordering of our life, we made war upon him -- a war that left us always uncertain in conscience.
Yet we had not learned --so strong is the human tradition to kill all that frightens. The following spring as a result of another ambition, the planting of a vegetable patch, a dream as impractical as anything -- another of the small green desert rattlers came and curled itself by the saddle-room door.
I walked the long distance from the corral to the house. You were in the kitchen and I said, “It’s a question of policy…”
We were reluctant, but again we took up the hoe. The garden was there, the snake, and this time it was yours.
“Be quick! Strike it in the back of the head,” I said. And you had no fear; you struck it as I told you to strike, and flung aside the hoe.
“It’s soft! I didn’t know it was soft!!!” YOU CRIED.
“They always are!” I said, handing you back your weapon. “It is the softness that hurts the killer.”
That was our last snake, Georgia!
We will dig up the garden, we said,
What’s the sense in it?
But, in truth, the wind did that for us -- the wind, the worms, and our waiting neighbors.
We were glad to be done with the effort."
Maria Chabot, 1941
Courtesy, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center