I Begin to Write the Southwest

And then along came love and New Mexico.  Immediately after arriving in the state, I not only read enthusiastically, I began writing again.  In the spirit of Abbey, Mary Austin, Lawrence Clark Powell, Willa Cather, Frank Waters, and others, I wanted to write about the fundamental land and what it does to a person. 

Recalling the first words I ever scribbled to myself about a particular landscape―the Pawnee National Grasslands, during my visit there years earlier―I purchased a cheap stenographer’s notebook.  To Linda and curious family and friends, I called it just that: a “notebook.”  To myself, however, I called it a “journal,” preferring the loftier name.  I always filled it when I hiked and backpacked.  And I tried to fill it at least once or twice a week while confined to Albuquerque.  The more I scribbled in it, the more I realized what a pleasure and revelation it was.  Aspirations to Thoreau and Abbey, a fount of epiphanies and profundities, were not its purpose.  It was a remedy whenever blockage of my more high-minded literary efforts occurred.  It was a mountain of raw material for future high-minded literary efforts.  It was a regular affirmation and reminder of my unique skill, a reminder of the hard work that is often required to put even the simplest and most mundane event into a word, sentence, or paragraph.  This paragraph is a product of my journal, which today numbers thirty-seven “notebooks.” Or, more loftily, “volumes.”

“Loftily”? Apologies, Ernest.      

Not long after arriving in New Mexico, I did publish, albeit obscurely.  I wrote a volunteer column for the quarterly newsletter of the city’s Rio Grande Nature Center, discussing, among other things, my first impressions of the Rio Grande; my landscaping activities on the center’s grounds; the Corrales hobby farm of my lumber company coworker; and my impressions of a summer afternoon in the bosque.

And my thoughts on the late Edward Abbey.  One warm March afternoon in 1989, I was pedaling Linda’s stationary bike on her balcony at The Conquistador when I heard National Public Radio’s Noah Adams announce, to my shock, that Abbey had died after a mere sixty-two years.  Just prior to this, I puzzled over the announcement in the Albuquerque Journal that an appearance by Abbey at a local bookstore to promote his latest novel, The Fool’s Progress, had been cancelled; now I knew the reason why.[1]  I was deeply saddened by the death of this novelist, essayist, philosopher, and iconoclast who had so influenced me.  Here I was, newly arrived in the Southwest about which Abbey so lovingly wrote, prepared to read carefully for the first time his various novels set in New Mexico and Arizona, to eagerly await his latest observations about this land and the powers that daily threatened it, all the while knowing he was still alive, still out there just across that harsh desert, observing exactly what I was observing.  My remembrance of Abbey in the newsletter did not approach the insight and eloquence of essayist Edward Hoagland’s in The New York Times, but I was grateful for the permission by the newsletter’s editor to write it.  For all I knew, mine was the only commemoration of Abbey by a local writer in Albuquerque’s print media in the immediate months after his death.

In the summer of 1990, Linda and I wed at the chapel on the University of New Mexico campus, our Methodist minister officiating.  We honeymooned at the Inn of the Mountain Gods on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the White Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, where I was accosted one morning by a security guard for straying onto the resort’s golf course while going for a brisk walk.  Linda continued with her fellowship in infectious diseases, and I began attending the University of New Mexico as a graduate student in English.   

[1] Despite his obvious fame, Abbey was never asked to give a reading at his alma mater, the University of New Mexico, likely because, as editor of the UNM literary magazine, The Thunderbird, in 1951, he published a quote by Diderot―“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”―yet deliberately attributed it to Louisa May Alcott.  The quote infuriated a Catholic archbishop, and The Thunderbird was promptly shut down.  This lack of an invitation irked Abbey throughout his life as a published writer.

1 thought on “I Begin to Write the Southwest”

  1. I am often smiling, if not chuckling. A nice self-deprecating wit, Are you sure your genre isn’t humor. And the wit to uniquely turn a unique phrase. enigmatic as…fungus white moon. Flavorful verbs–your writing class must have had the lesson about replacing forms of “to be” with a more vivid choice. It’s working. The imagery now jumps out graphically. You’re a Sensualist, too, eh? Light Texture, form, temperature, plasticity, etc. gives the land personhood, movement.



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