I’m sitting at the big picture window at the Hogan, looking over rabbit brush, piñon pine and golden rice grass to the San Juan Mountains, across the open valley to the west. The blazing sunset has just subsided, and I await the appearance of Venus, Jupiter and Saturn in a rare alignment of planets that will not recur for many years. The lone female coyote who’s frequenting this area now just passed by, along her usual evening route. The loud howling of the larger pack, close to my house, has kept me awake at night. In the east, Sirius the Dog-Star trails Orion the Hunter over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. “See how red the mountains are growing,” says a young man at sunset to Archbishop Jean Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop, the superb novel by Willa Cather, which I have just read for the umpteenth time. The archbishop replies: “Yes, Sangre de Cristo; but no matter how scarlet the sunset…[the mountains never become] the color of living blood, but the color of the dried blood of saints and martyrs preserved in old churches in Rome…”
The Sky, the Sky!
Through Cather’s poetic language, Latour also reflects on the beauty of the southwestern sky which has swept me away these days: “The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world; Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away…was the sky, the sky!” Latour was the first bishop of New Mexico, a vast territory that eventually included all of Arizona and then the even wilder country of Colorado. (In “real life” his name was Jean Lamy.) At one point this dedicated Frenchmen was staying in the Hogan of one of his close Navajo friends. (Latour was criticized by some of the wealthy Mexican ranchers for his friendliness toward Indians and “Yankees.”) Cather describes this time: “[He] found his Navajo house favorable for reflection, for recalling the past and planning the future….The Hogan was isolated like a ship’s cabin on the ocean, with the murmuring of great winds about it.”
The Morning, the Morning!
I find the same true of my own Hogan along San Isabel Creek, ten miles away from the town of Crestone. Though it is larger and sturdier than the original Navajo version, wood paneled and carpeted, with large windows and cushioned benches, it retains some of the traditional features: octagonally built of rough-hewn logs, with the door facing east to let in the sacred morning light. Over the years it has become more and more crucial for me to live in a house that lets in full morning light, from which I draw great strength. I’ve never been able to articulate exactly why, though of course it connects me to Christ, the Morning Star, Radiant Dawn, and Dayspring from on High, as he is variously called. Here’s how the archbishop puts it: “In New Mexico he always awoke a young man…. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry, ‘To-day, to-day,’ like a child’s…. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back [from France in old age] to die in exile for the sake of [those lighthearted mornings of the desert.] Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!” This Hogan is the perfect morning house with its east window and full glass door; the perfect afternoon house with its south window; the perfect evening house with its west windows. I need all this light, this spacious landscape and spacious skyscape, moonlit and studded with stars, far away from any human habitation and manmade artificial light to spoil the natural light – and the natural dark.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
I have such a deep hunger and thirst for the stillness and simplicity of a desert life. The Hogan gives me the most natural earthy rhythms: hauling water, stacking firewood, lighting candles and kerosene lamps after sunset. And the view from the door of the outhouse, which I always keep open, is one of the best in the world! Though I have to work hard here because of the solitude and rugged wilderness, I try to live balanced days without pressure. This Hogan “magic” helps me become more finely attuned to a deep sense of Presence. Yes, the holy archbishop has something to say about this, too: “But when he entered his study [my Hogan], he seemed to come back to reality, to the sense of a Presence awaiting him. The curtain of the arched doorway had scarcely fallen behind him when…a sense of loss was replaced by a sense of restoration. He sat down before his desk, deep in reflection. It was just this solitariness of love in which a [person’s] life could be like his Master’s. It was not a solitude of atrophy, of negation, but of perpetual flowering.” Presence, restoration and “perpetual flowering,” in the silence and solitude of a wilderness hermitage, a desert Hogan, all in the name of Love. This truly sums up the meaning of my life.