Are you called to a specific place? Does one area of the world draw you in?
When I moved to New Mexico at the beginning of the summer, a woman told me during a serendipitous conversation:
“New Mexico. It either chews you up and spits you out, or pulls you back in.”
I’m definitely being pulled back. They call it “The Land of Enchantment” for a reason.
How and why do specific spaces do this? One area of the world may attract a person while repelling another. So what is innate within each of us that connects us to an area?
In her book, Ghost Ranch, Lesley Poling-Kempes asks this question:
“But what is a place and how does one qualify to become one?” (Ghost Ranch 3)
She explains Wallace Stegner’s answer:
” . . . a place becomes a place when it meets two criteria: ‘First, things that have happened upon it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monument; and second, it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry.'”
(Stegner quoted in Poling-Kempes, Ghost Ranch 4)
A place develops its own story and personality through the histories, layers, and people before and after us. One famous story embedded into the New Mexico landscape that we love to talk about at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is, of course, the story of Georgia O’Keeffe. She fills in both of the criteria to make a place a place: she is one woman who added to the long list of the land’s histories and legends, and one who paid careful, caring attention to the land to poetically show it to us today. This artist truly identified with New Mexico and was continually drawn back each summer from 1929 until she moved permanently in 1949.
However, the connection she felt does not seem like it was a gradual process, but instead immediate. Her very first visit to New Mexico was a quick stop on a road-trip between Texas and Colorado with her sister in 1917. Later in her life she said of that moment,
“From then on, I was always on my way back.”
-Georgia O’Keeffe in 1973
(quoted in Poling-Kempes, “A Call to Place” 77)
In fact, in 1930, the year after her first extended visit to the land, Miss O’Keeffe said,
“My period of indecision is over – I a[m] going West . . . it came quietly – naturally . . . It is what I want to do for my work – and I have been so very well after the summer out there . . . the country seems to call one in a way that one has to answer it.”
-Georgia O’Keeffe, April 1930
(quoted in Poling-Kempes, “A Call to Place” 79)
The artist identified with the land so much that she called many of its spaces her own. For example, she titled this painting, “My Red Hills”:
And she claimed the cliffs of Ghost Ranch as her backyard:
She also said, “I have this mountain,” referring to the Cerro Pedernal.
(quoted in Poling-Kempes, “A Call to Place” 77)
Now, the land is often referred to as “O’Keeffe Country”.
Some might say this is a bit possessive of a natural space, but don’t many of us do this when we are drawn to a place? We begin to identify with the land.
Though it is true that Miss O’Keeffe undeniably added much of the personality and history to making this place a place, we cannot forget the thousands of stories many others have added over time. It is all of these stories combined that layer to give this place a feeling and an essence. These layers are much like the layers of rock, each a different color, each a different line, each a different tale.
But we must also remember today. For a moment, we are here adding our own impressions in the year of 2015. As we work at the Ranch twenty-nine years after Miss O’Keeffe’s death, I can see why she, and so many, have been drawn to this land. Lesley Poling-Kempes describes the landscape,
“The desert has always provoked and invited personal reflection and spiritual contemplation, and the landscape of Ghost Ranch offers these transforming opportunities in an almost biblical proportion.”
(Ghost Ranch 7)
Perhaps this personal reflection and contemplation arises because there is a vast area of space to think. The landscape is not cluttered by buildings, nor is it overwhelmed by the noise of traffic or people. Rather, it is completely still. The silence allows a visitor to hear and truly feel the wind. It is quickly apparent that this emptiness is why the word “desert” comes from the Latin word for “abandoned”.
However, when we are out in the New Mexico summer heat with the peachy-tan swirls of desert dust circling around our ankles, the space seems to be anything but abandoned. True, it is not the full-on isolated space of a distant desert, but it still has the heat, stark wildness, and empty space characteristic of these landscapes. But life is all around! There are the little bugs waddling through our footprints carrying a cargo of leaves or twigs to their next destination. There are the white, fluffy clouds floating over us, moving with the enlivening breeze. And this summer, there are the infinite fields of yellow flowers and green shrubbery adorning the mountain slopes and flat lands.
As I look around, I am reminded of Miss O’Keeffe’s own thoughts about the landscape:
“The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable… and knows no kindness with all its beauty.”
But trying to put words to a space as magical as this does not come close to capturing the entirety of the feeling that saturates the area.
“It’s difficult to talk about Ghost Ranch in a few words. You end up sounding like an advertisement for God and New Mexico. But then, maybe that’s what Ghost Ranch really is.”
(quoted in Poling-Kempes, Ghost Ranch 7).
Though many people have feelings of spiritual connection to this space and other landscapes, there are a vast array of connections we can feel to an area. There are connections of healing, nurture, excitement, joy, adventure, peace. Whichever it is, these are strong connections that speak to us and pull us closer.
So in the midst of these connections we return to the question:
“What is a place and how does one qualify to become one?”
Yes, it is the histories. Yes, it is the human attention. But I also believe a place becomes a place when it makes us feel completely present and alive, at least for a moment, forgetting the past, forgetting the future, and just being.
In his essay, “On Her Conquest of Space,” Frederick W. Turner recounts his own experience visiting O’Keeffe’s old stomping grounds. In the midst of a canyon where he was surrounded by the color and drama of the rocky landscape, he explained his feeling:
“‘Here,’ so our situation seemed to say to us, ‘it is, right here.'”
-Frederick W. Turner (117-118)
When we are in these spaces where we feel connected, we can be right here, appreciating the ground beneath our feet, the wind in our hair, and the infinitely blue, blue sky above us.
Though my internship is drawing to a close much too quickly, I have a feeling that, like Miss O’Keeffe, I will always be on my way back.
Poling-Kempes puts it plain and simple:
“People are changed by Ghost Ranch.”
(Ghost Ranch 7)
It has certainly changed me.
Liz Brindley, Curatorial Intern
Lynes, Barbara Buhler, Lesley Poling-Kempes, and Frederick W. Turner. Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press in association with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2004. Print.
Poling-Kempes, Lesley. Ghost Ranch. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2005. Print.
Georgia O’Keeffe | My Red Hills | 1938 | oil on canvas | 19 x 36 inches | copyright 2008 Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York