Last year, while driving south out of the San Luis Valley of Colorado, with the great humpbacked Sangre de Cristo mountain range to my left, I had a sudden epiphany about why I’ve come to love New Mexico so much. Up to that moment I had formulated my passion for New Mexico in more or less traditional terms: the quality of light, the stark grandeur of the high desert, the haunting work created by the many artists who had come to the state and been permanently bitten by its beauty, the ancient history of three cultures—Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo—that had met, fought, and ultimately mingled there. But it wasn’t until somewhere between Tres Piedras and Española that I realized what I most love about the state, and that is erosion.
I know that New Mexico does not have a monopoly on landscapes marked by erosion, but in an indefinable way the state’s history and culture seem to find an “objective correlative” in the exposed and corrugated look of arroyos and river beds carved out of soft stone and mud by wind, water, and time. At least that’s how I’ve come to see it.
Though the Native American and Hispanic cultures began their relationship in conflict, both developed a deep-seated knowledge of tragedy and loss, something that their religious traditions had prepared them to understand. This knowledge goes beyond mere endurance and survival; it touches on what the great Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life.” From ancient myths of gods in conflict to the disfigured and bloody Spanish crucifixes, these two cultures have never strayed far from the knowledge that suffering shapes and defines our humanity. And it’s just possible that the Anglo culture, which began its conquest of the West in typically triumphalistic fashion, has been touched by that tragic sense of life—I think of the years of harsh frontier life, the Civil War (which had a poignant New Mexico chapter), and even the dark legacy of the Los Alamos labs and the Trinity nuclear test site.
I find the eroded landscape of New Mexico to be a perfect analogue for the tragic sense of life. Even the tradition of adobe construction contributes to this sense, because adobe is a fragile material that needs constant tending and renewal. Mud becomes brick but it can so easily revert to mud again. When compared to the rationalistic optimism that came out of the Enlightenment, with its visions of conquering nature and remaking human society, the feminine concavity of the eroded land bespeaks a humbler vision, one less prone to vaulting ambition. Exposed and vulnerable, the rippled hills are worn away by the forces of nature, but what remains is at least as important as what is lost. It is not so much a metaphor of passive endurance as it is of feminine strength, of a beauty shaped by the pains of birth and death. As all mothers know, birth itself is like death—overwhelming, inevitable, fraught with uncertainty. Here, too, adobe provides another feminine analogy, since adobe structures have many curves but few right angles. C.S. Lewis once said that compared to God we are all feminine; no place on earth conveys that better to me than the landscape and culture of New Mexico.
One contemporary sculptor who has built this fascination with concavity and erosion into his work is Stephen de Staebler (featured in Image #2), whose stone and bronze creations often have the look of ancient monumental statues worn away by time. When asked about this aspect of his work, de Staebler said: “I want to express the quality of erosion in the loss of limbs over time and the rooting of the figure to the earth in time, so that it becomes in its own way an extension of earth, which we are.... So what you see here is this feeling of an eroded separation from something larger in time.... I hope that for the person who isn’t too literal this will also have the connotation of being connected in time to creation.”
America is a place that has yet to come to terms with tragedy. Our civil religion is based on the idea of a “city on a hill,” a novus ordo seclorum (“new order of the ages”) that will escape the clutches of the tragic past. It’s an energetic, forward-looking vision, one that has fueled a great deal of social progress. But it is also a form of arrested adolescence, a state of collective denial that detaches us from reality. Political discourse today, whether of left or right, never speaks of paradox or the tragic conflict of competing goods, only of the bright futures that free enterprise or social reconstruction will bring. Politics itself now seems like a branch of the self-help industry—the source of therapeutic policy.
For me, the land and the history of New Mexico provide a different perspective from which to view social and personal affairs. Weathered rocks and weathered faces remind us that we should not move through time as conquerors, but as suffering servants.
This year marks the beginning of what we hope will be a long-term association with New Mexico as Image brings our summer workshop program to the “Red Rock” country northwest of Santa Fe, the place where Georgia O’Keefe lived and worked for nearly half a century. Our theme this year—another way of approaching a theology of erosion—is “Stones, Bones and Clouds: The Shape of What’s Given.”