Here at Santa Fé, Earth Is Floor to the Sky

Georgia O’Keeffe in Santa Fé (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, 1960)

The ride back to Santa Fé was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. 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. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it.

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, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

~ Willa Cather (1873 – 1947)
American novelist and short story writer

from Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
(Chapter 7: The Great Diocese | Part 4: Eusabio)

Musings and Impressions

I first heard of Willa Cather from an artist friend, Nancy, whom I had met at a Chinese calligraphy class at the China Institute in New York City in 2000. Cather’s name and Georgia O’Keeffe’s must have been breathed to me at the very same moment in one of those long, lazy summer soirées far from the madding Manhattan crowd, in her Scarsdale home by the pool deck.

It must have been one of those same Saturdays when the weight and sorrow of a breakup was just too much to bear, and all I had longed for was Nancy’s voice and stories, warmed by the comforting notes of family, the sunshine smile of Andy, her husband, the furtive puttering of their two teenage kids, Susannah and Alex, and the silly pranks of Edward and Willie, their two Westies.

Nancy put the idea into my head that I should visit Santa Fé for a million reasons, from the art, to the huevos rancheros, to O’Keeffe, and of course, to buy something nice for yourself, Mei Mei—a diminutive she was fond of using on me because of its pleasing melody, not least because it could mean either two things: little sister or pretty pretty.

So Mei Mei finally did make the trip with her golf clubs and Contax, her Ray Ban and her journal. Summer 2002 was the season of dreams. I was single, footloose, fancy-free, and all of that storied sky welcomed me the moment I zipped right out of the airport at Albuquerque in an Oxford green four-wheel drive, the hot and arid air drinking up all the moisture from the skin.

Those were the days when I was shooting with a Kodachrome, and I never got round to converting my Santa Fé prints to a digital format, so I’m unable to share this one print on this blog. But if you were to visit my home, you would get to see this one portrait—a segment of the roof of Georgia O’Keeffe’s museum set against that transcendent blue that Cather had painted in words, ocher upon blue, the poetic earth tones of a Pueblo adobe against God’s infinite sky. 

Once you’ve read Cather’s sky portrait in words and walked under it, no sky feels as same as the one in New Mexico. For this reason, Cather always whispers in my heart, in the same way that O’Keeffe haunts me with her spiritual connection to the big, bold, rugged New Mexican landscape, so vast, so mysterious, so eternal.

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