"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"
Taos, New Mexico USA
Frank Waters died June 3 at his home in Taos. Those of us who loved Frank and learned so much from him, now share his wife Barbara's grief. But remembering how much he gave us, we take joy in his life.
I wrote this essay in 1992 to commemorate Frank's life and work. I now offer it as an elegy for Frank Waters.
I have been thinking of Frank Waters this summer. Since he and Barbara took up winter residence in Tucson, I think of him as an eagle who moves south for the kinder winters of the Arizona desert, but he must return in the spring to the magic mountain of Taos. He must return to the hunting grounds he has known for so long. Only the mountain can mirror his weathered granite face, his soul.
Spring is a time of migration. Snow geese and sandhill cranes ascend from the Bosque del Apache where they have wintered, a sign of the return of life to the Earth, one of the ceaseless cycles that Frank Waters taught us to see.
In spring, Grandfather Sun returns north, renewing fields and orchards, returning the essence of life to those who guard the druid spirit of fields and trees.
In the Jemez Mountains where my wife and I have a home in the Jemez Canyon, a place blessed by the spectacular beauty of the red cliffs, the peach and apple trees bloom in mid April. In late spring I turn on the acequia water and think: Almost time for Frank Waters to be migrating north to Taos.
Time for Frank Waters and his wife Barbara to come chugging up from Tucson in that cranky old Ford that has become an essential part of him.
Frank Waters wrote a story about the man who killed a deer. Before World War II and before the laboratories were built, when New Mexico was a more innocent place, Frank Waters wrote about that era. That novel has influenced every writer in the West.
Frank Waters' stories brought the cultural groups of the West together and taught us to see our relationships, good and bad, and he taught us to peer deep into the truths the Native Americans had been guarding for so long.
In The Man Who Killed The Deer, the new laws are already encroaching on the ancient traditions of the Taos Pueblo, changing the landscape and the people of the northern villages.
The novel is prophetic. It warned us the change coming was going to affect the ways our people hunted, gathered wood, watered our fields and kept our ceremonies.
Ay Dios, we should have listened. Now I have written a short story, "Devil Deer." The story is about Cruz, a young man from one of the pueblos near the Jemez Mountains.
It is October, deer season, and Cruz goes hunting. He wants a big buck, so he wanders into forbidden territory. He enters through a hole in the fence that surrounds Los Alamos laboratory.
When he kills the deer, he discovers it is deformed, mutated. The deer has grown hair on its antlers, the tail is the tail of a donkey, the eyes are white stones mottled with blood. The brother of the forest has been changed by the forces of the laboratories.
Cruz carries the fetish of the bear in his leather bag. But the fetish has a crack in it, the medicine has a crack in it, and I worry about the meaning of the story. We know the poison of our technology is leaking down the mountain into the water and the grass. What are the old men saying in the pueblos? Will there be prayers to wash away the poison?
When Frank Waters wrote his novel, the time was still more innocent. But now the times are out of joint. Hunters return with strange stories of deformed deer they have seen.
Frank taught us to see the mountain, the deer, the birds, water, trees as living. He breathed in the teaching of our vecinos from Taos Pueblo and gave it to the world in his books.
But we have changed that pristine world of northern New Mexico. We are living at the end of an age, and we look desperately around for men like Frank Waters to point the way into the new cycle of time.
When I started teaching at the University of New Mexico in 1974, I taught a class on Frank Waters' works. I had just met Frank up in Taos, and I was as impressed by the man as by his novels. I gathered a group of students who knew and loved Frank's works around me, and for a semester we read and talked about his novels.
Every student in this state should know his work. The schools should insist that the history and literature of our region be part of the curriculum. Young people need to read and analyze our literature to better understand their own lives.
We need to take care of the earth, the air, the water. This is the enduring lesson in Frank's works, a lesson learned from his vecinos at Taos pueblo and the Nuevo Mexicanos of Arroyo Seco.
Men like Frank Waters and Cleofes Vigil from San Cristobal taught us a lot. The presence of Cleofes Vigil is still with us. The presence of Frank Waters is with us. These men from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the eagles and deer of the mountains.
The migrations of the spirit never end. Each spring I will await with prayers the return of Frank and Barbara. Ay Dios, the transformations occur. Todo se acaba, the old viejitos taught us. The soul remains. The signs remain. Let us be alert. Let us learn to see and listen.
"The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying." Often considered one of the great understatements in the English language, this sentence by the seventeenth-century writer, Sir Thomas Browne, may serve to remind us why we are gathered here today: to honor the memory of a man whose long habit of living was in every sense a celebration of life. Even as we mourn the loss of this great-hearted man, we are to some extent consoled in the knowledge that his love of life has been bequeathed to the world in the timeless form of art. Frank Waters endures. His warmly beautiful presence continues to manifest itself in words that speak, as he himself once wrote, "as foci of unmeasured power with the mystery of divine origin."
It is not premature or rash to proclaim the greatness of the Waters legacy. In a life that spanned the twentieth century Frank moulded its meaning in the curvature of his hands, rejecting our materialistic and overly rationalistic age and seeking instead the spiritual self, envisioning our common humanity in process of creative enlargement, and teaching us all that life is not chaos but cosmos. Aware of his dual Anglo and Native American heritage, he celebrated as sacred the interrelationship of man and nature. Not for him was the nihilism and apocalyptic thinking that have permeated the modern age. Intuitively he found his way to the other side of tragedy where darkness is but a prelude to a sunrise brighter still. Although his vision remains transcendental, it was also prophetic of the forces that have in fact already effected historical change. Thus it seems to me inevitable that the world will come to recognize Frank's greatness and to accord him the fame that partially eluded him during his long habit of living if only because he fixed his gaze so steadily not on the past but on a new world of the mind.
Frank Waters as a writer is unique in American literature, as great a philosopher as he is a novelist. If William and Henry James had been a single genius, then Frank would have his match, but this circumstance obviously isn't so. With the exception of William Faulkner, it can be argued, no other American novelist has produced as many classic novels as has Frank. And he is wiser and kinder than Faulkner, deeper than Hemingway, tougher than Steinbeck. To the literary historian, Herman Melville looms as the greatest American writer of the nineteenth century. Frank Waters, who in prophetic vision -- and belated recognition -- so much resembles Melville, may well in the not-too-distant future be perceived as having that kind of standing relation to the twentieth century in our national literature. His works attest, as Melville's did, to a greatness in depth -- depth of vision, depth of soul, depth of humanity.
Frank takes us on a journey into the very depths of our selves. Always he will be for me a spiritual father. He will, I know, be guiding future generations in their quest for life. Thank you, Frank, for your long habit of living.
"First, write from the right brain, Ron.
Then edit left. Don't do both at once. You can't do the two
together." I think there are three things you like about me, Frank: I'm
open to women, risk, and chocolate.
You breathe pure air. The sun is off and on Wasson Peak. You nod off and on. You wheeze. It is a kind mountain. The last word is yours. "Ron, There is no death by woman, risk, or chocolate." How we laughed and coughed at that.
The Mosaic on West Grant is a favorite. So is Westward Look on Ina Road, and Ye Olde Lantern on Oracle. All of which fed you richly. Frank is frank when he talks. He picks his words tastefully after his bones. He is absolutely clear about barbecue. Over the table I ask you questions you don't answer. I don't eat. I talk. "Hush Ron, Frank's chewing on it."
Barb said Frank had no flair for gambling, but she did.
He liked Las Vegas anyway; especially the oriental women. Probably it was
fallout from his Atomic Energy days at Los Alamos and the Nevada test site.
It was a big gamble then. As now. Perhaps it was the mixed and pure border
women his memory held as odds and evens.
It pissed Frank off that the Mexico mule rolled on him back then. It was in steep Tarahumara land. They took care of you their best, but your hip never did get right. That's what pissed you off. Well, you had to piss and so did I. Our backyard sky had the Pleiades clearly in vision. "My favorite women," you murmur. We unzip in unison. The sound is one zip. Our streams mix in foam. "You know, of Atlas' seven, just six are visible." As they watch us pee, the women laugh and twinkle inside and out of the house. They dance inside and out of the house for you. Visualize that.
One week before you rolled out of bed in Seco and kissed the good earth good-bye, we picnicked. You, Barbara, L.D., Laverne, Charlene and I broke sourdough, chicken bones, and the neck off of a fine wine bottle. There was some blood shared with all that breaking going on.
We had luck. We found a clean table where you could roll up nicely in your oxygen-tanked wheelchair. There were bees instead of flies.
We were all happy with ourselves together. The sun was full of itself too, as it set far to the flat-out west in a sherbet way: lemon, orange, strawberry.
You rose above our table talk, "Look! A woman with hair of fire!" We cranked our necks to an overlook where you looked. Sure enough, a woman was watching the long sun set from above. Her hair was of fire.
Our eyes blazed in wonder. She was not being consumed, but she was on fire all the same. Her head flowed with flames. Barbara strode up the path believing that the woman standing by the barbecue was unaware that her hair had caught fire. The woman gazed into the sunset of melting color.
When she reached her, he hair was there, but as light licking out in wind and oxygen. Barbara asked her to join us, and she did.
"Here's the woman with hair of fire," you said.
She said, "It's the henna, the sun, the wind, my split ends. It's not me." She knew we all had seen her in a special light; that she had been seen by someone special, that she had been in your eyes, Frank.
She wasn't shy about it either. Rather matter of fact, as if fiery hair was usual for her and others, for that matter. She left.
Pues. It was, it is, it will be. We should expect to see more of this phenomenon. We left.
Your cauliflowered cheek amused you. The clump of gauze that covered transplanted skin from your thigh seemed to really grow a head of its own in 1992. My cheek's blood lines purpled like the veins in what looked like beet leaves in our four-star salads. Charlene said so afterwards.
You took discomfort in stride. Barbara said you chose strong friends, but I wasn't so sure about your choice in me.
Charlene said, even later, that I was a late bloomer; that was why it took me so long to get it right. I'm at a disadvantage because I don't know what is right. Quien sabe.
Spud called you Taos's Gary Cooper. You still stand tall.
Spud introduced me to you post-mortem at Austin. His Laughing Horse skull went, "Boo!" His Horse Fly stung, "Read Frank, Ron." Spud loved you.
So I flew to Albuquerque to read your papers at the University. "Just tell them it's fine with me," you said. Rose believed me when I told her you told me so. I couldn't believe it, even though I had flown there with no place to go but back, if they turned me back, if they didn't take my word on your word.
We ate our vegetables. We drank to our distinguished selves. Thank you Frank. Here's to you.
Crystal's ghost is in your house for her, to this day. Crystal flew from Heathrow to Seco to read in your pasture among your friends. She didn't falter. Your two horses nickered close to her as she spoke of growing up near you. It seems the ghost is a mother looking for a child from way back when. She found Crystal. Crystal rode away.
How about this, Frank? A neighbor shot Trickster the same day. Something to do with his sheep and your coyote. He flooded the pasture too, between the aspens and the oak. It seems he had nursed a grudge over a gelded stallion. Just one more quirk, huh, Frank.
Your niece, Susie, was there. She and Barbara took us up to a cave where you liked to go. They found a four-petaled rose. The cardinal points cross wherever we are on our way back home.
Your ashes to ashes in our hands; the dust within the
rock to stardust.
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