When I first arrived in Taos, New Mexico, I was offered the kind of mystical token of wisdom that you might expect upon entering Stonehenge or Sedona: “The place is magic, man.” For example, Wheeler Mountain, a smooth rock summit along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above town, I was told, had a mighty, if largely untraceable, magnetism. The town itself is said to possess a healing energy—even beyond the mysterious phenomena called the “Taos Hum,” which purrs along at a low frequency, unattributed, like an X-File—and spirits, both good and ill, are known, known, to haunt the place. Of course, natives of any remote, beautiful town with an artistic legacy, from Montauk to Big Sur, can be heard promoting the sacred, chakralike properties of their home. During my two visits to the Helene Wurlitzer residency program for artists, I became one of them.
This tiny town, with a population just north of 5,000, feels like no place else on earth. At nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, the air is dry as chalk—buoyant, feathery, and thinning out the brain’s oxygen as if in meditation. The Permian rock beds that wreathe the region, dense with ferric iron rusted from monsoons in the Triassic, have winnowed down in the years since to reveal dusty gorge walls and outcroppings of melon yellow, coral red, and mauve. The somewhat newer (though still ancient) adobe pueblo is thought to be the oldest continually inhabited structure in North America (carbon dating has placed it at well over 1,000 years old). With the past and present on the same plane, time in Taos can feel a bit…abstract.On my first sabbatical at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, in the fall of 2012, when I was able to finish in three months a novel that I’d been dragging around the page for four years in New York, my own personal sense of time became a bit malleable, if not melted altogether like a Dali clock. I wrote in binges—10, 20, 30 hours—and slept as long as I needed to support the next haul. Consequently, I lost all track of days, of time, of patterns—either inhabiting the Zenlike pinprick of the present or adrift in creative eternities—and only ever checked a clock to see if the local grocery store was open.
With freedom to sleep as I chose, I indulged my dreams, paying closer attention to them and writing them down whenever I woke, comforted by the knowledge that I could go back to sleep if I chose, to rise again whenever. I was working from the somewhat Jungian idea that in dreams my subconscious would reveal to me, in symbolic language, the answers to questions I put to myself in work and life. And so I began to put those questions to myself directly, writing them out before I slept—and found that, at least a few times, my dreams answered those questions succinctly, profoundly, in oracular riddle perhaps, but with resonance and elegance.Jung himself visited Taos in 1925, at the invitation of the saloniste and impresario Mabel Dodge Luhan, who had taken it upon herself to introduce the great artists and thinkers of her day to Taos, and vice versa. The impact seems to have been significant for Jung who came to think of the place as a kind of continental Atlantis from which we have much to relearn, and he continued to think and write about his experience there for decades afterward. “I fell into a long meditation,” he wrote in Memories, Dreams, and Reflections in 1962, of his conversations with the Puebloan Ochwiay Biano during a Buffalo Dance. “I was able to talk with him as I have rarely been able to talk with a European…the vessel floated freely on deep, alien seas.” Jung was particularly interested in the cosmology and practices of the Tiwa-speaking Pueblo people—the details of which remain, as then, closely guarded. What he did learn, and what caused him to reevaluate all that he’d thought about Western rationalism and the purpose of belief, is that, through their religious rituals, the Pueblo people believe that they summon the sun and move it across the sky. Their dreams and their practice, then, bring about the world; their effort sustains life and the cosmos; their commitment and faith keeps it in motion.
Knowing this, my self-help-y dreams and puny practice of scribbling suddenly seemed to be of significantly lesser merit. Still, I returned this past September to take up residence in one of the dozen adobe casitas scattered about the nearly 100-acre plot of alfalfa grass that is the Wurlitzer foundation, to again dream up a world and will it to life through my work: to write a new novel. And once again, I became unglued from circadian rhythms, time, and structure. I visited the hallowed grounds of the old adobe house built by Luhan in 1917 to commune with the ghosts there—D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Carl Jung, all of whom came at the urging of Luhan and stayed at the house upon their first visit to Taos (a house later christened The Mud Palace by Dennis Hopper, who bought it from Luhan’s granddaughter in 1970 after making Easy Rider, much of which was filmed nearby). Ask any Taoseño and they’ll tell you that the spirits of these people have never left.Then again, how could they? Coming and going are processes of normal, linear time. Time in Taos, as I came to understand it through my own experience, sets the place apart—a twilight zone of recurrence, of vastness. Taos is an eddy in the stream, a chronological cul-de-sac in the high desert where we can escape the pulls of the day. Taos is where one goes in order to hide, escape, recuperate, or re-create oneself, where creator gods do the yeoman work of keeping the sun afloat. Taos is where I went to press pause on my life, to breathe life into a world of my own making—which, it turns out, is something of a local specialty. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever really come back.
- Â©2016 Mona Makela
- Photograph by Ron Frazier/Flickr Commons
- Photograph by Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images
- Photograph by Bob Krist/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
- Photograph by Mona Makela Photography/Getty Images