I was the only visitor to the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, made iconic in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings and Ansel Adam’s photograph. The heavy-hipped adobe church was silent. The mud and hay exterior held the heat at bay so the sanctuary was cool and rich with the smell of carved wood and old incense. I thought that I would write inside, or draw the elaborate altarpieces I wasn’t allowed to photograph. But I couldn’t bring myself to do either. I just wanted to sit. To be inside a building that seemed to breathe.
I have visited Cathedrals in Europe, with soaring buttresses opening the nave up to the sky. Rooms filled with colored light and air. But the Mission Church is not like that. It is made of mud. It is close to the earth. It is raw and its beauty is in the baseness of its materials. Sitting inside the church is like being inside a turtle shell.
Every spring, parishioners and community members gather together to add a fresh coat of mud and hay to the exterior of the church. This annual ritual is called enjarre or remudding. It takes two weeks to shore up the walls; to strengthen the adobe that has shrunk and expanded over the course of the last year. With each addition, the building is stronger.
On my drive back home from New Mexico to Jackson I detoured through Hondo, New Mexico. This small town is not famous. Built in the narrow seam between two mountains, its best feature is that it has the only gas station between Ruidoso and Roswell.
But to me, driving through Hondo was worth the extra two hours added to my already 19-hour drive. From my desk in Jackson I had written about Hondo, had researched its history and geology and agriculture. Each poem was just another layer painted on the mythos of the town. It had become larger than itself. With each layer it grew and came alive.
In a letter Willa Cather wrote of Death Comes for the Archbishop: “I did not expect to write a book about the Southwest. It was too big and too various…You see, the story of the Southwest involved too many individuals—little related to each other.”
But it was in two priests working to found the church in Santa Fe, two French missionaries in the act of uniting disparate parts, that Cather found the common ground for her novel. These priests began a tradition that continues to unite communities every spring, to add another layer to the church.
In the sparseness of the landscape, rituals are extraordinary.
Clouds build mountains that crumble as soon as they reach their peak. The century plant blooms, shooting a firecracker of white petals into the sky. When it rains, the desert erupts in green, frogs hum in the night, the cholla speckled in burnt red pepper the landscape. Another layer.
(Photo by Ansel Adams)