Monday, June 21, 2010

Graffiti and Roses

Today is the Summer Solstice, and what that immediately conjures in my mind is Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and a vague longing for romance and the ocean.

But I am single, and nowhere near the ocean.  I was hoping to visit the west coast this summer, but chose instead to put money into a writer's conference that will be happening here in Taos.  (Have I mentioned that I'm writing a book about my relationship with the San Francisco de Asis church?)  My heart right now is very much with the Gulf Coast, and so at this Solstice time of great light and life, I am permeated with the awareness of darkness and death.  I feel it in my own body.

Today is also Honoring Sacred Sites day, and so I send my light and life to the Gulf Coast, the sacred ocean.  And I turn, as I do every day, toward the San Francisco de Asis church, the sacred site right outside my door.

Taos is a tourist town, and each summer a theme is chosen to center activities and events around.  Last year it was "The Summer of Love," and the focus was on Taos' strong and enduring hippie culture.  Dennis Hopper came for the opening of his art show.  This year the theme is "Return to Sacred Places."  In fact, the newspaper held an essay contest for Taos residents around this theme, and I got an honorable mention for my essay about the church.

Because of this theme, there has been a lot of focus on the St. Francis church, with talks given and three art shows around town.  I missed the talk that was given at the public library on June 5, but was lucky enough to catch it on the radio the other night.  The thing that most struck me in this talk, given by David Maes, who is a lifelong resident of Ranchos de Taos and member of the church, was in his introduction.  He spoke of how the church belongs to anyone who experiences its sacredness, and how even the air around the church feels holy and refreshing.

I did not participate in enjarre, the annual remudding, which is now over.  There is a variety of reasons for that, but one of the most unexpected ones was the sense of loss I've been experiencing over the cutting down of trees in the grove by the church.  It left a bad taste in my mouth and made me want to stay away from the church altogether.  It was several days after seeing all the stumps before I could go back, and when I did, the stumps had all been overturned so that the whole space resembles a twisted wasteland.

The next time I went, a few days after that, I discovered that the entrance to the grove between the gift shop and rectory was now defined with edging and filled with gravel.

I have to admit I'm having trouble with these changes.  A little bit of wildness has been tamed.  I don't think the birds are happy about it either.  The doves have been completely silent and the crows have sounded so angry lately.  They've been congregating and having screechfests in my yard.  I know I've mentioned the birdlife at the church before but I want to give you a clearer picture of this.  It's really only been in the past month or two that I've realized how central the church is to the bird communities of Ranchos de Taos.  There are more birds in this part of Taos than any other, and what I finally realized is that the church is their crossroads, their center.  They fly back and forth, in and out from that hub.  Maybe it's my imagination, but it seems like there's been less bird traffic since enjarre began.

And I can't help but wonder how St. Francis would feel about all this.  One of the things he was famous for was going around and restoring rundown churches, but I wonder how far he took that, balanced against his intense reverence for Mother Earth and her creatures.  Sigh.  Well, what's done is done, and there is nothing for me to do but accept and integrate these changes, and continue to simply observe them.  One thing I do like is the new sign that marks the entrance to the grove from the church side:

The grove is still in flux.  Orange fencing surrounds the area near the adobe ruins that borders the grove, and certain spaces are marked out in a way that suggest something is planned.  Perhaps I've never mentioned the ruins before.  It's hard to give you the scope of it with my simple camera, but here's a try:

It's not the Parthenon, but there is still something sacred in this to me, even or perhaps especially in the graffiti.  There is a sacredness in the way we leave our artful marks on things.  I love the way recent generations have come up with ways to do this even in urban landscapes.  Graffiti, skateboarding, and parkour are all ways to use and add to the mundane and manmade in elevated ways, turning the utilitarian into the artful, for the sheer joy of it.  (I must mention here that I love the concept of Tess' blog, Sacred Graffiti; I highly recommend you visit there.)

After some inquiry at the gift shop, I discovered that the activity around the ruins is because an archaeology group is doing excavation.  When the church was first built, it was surrounded by a fort, and the buildings later became private residences, many of which are still occupied.  Since those buildings hold a lot of history, it makes sense that an archaeology group would be interested in the ruins. 

On the other side of the ruins is the church lot, a deep contrast in its manicured beauty.  Now that things have calmed down a bit over there, I've been able to settle in and enjoy it again. Today, a man was revarnishing the benches in the courtyard.

I love to see the seasonal changes over there.  The flowers that the hawkmoths come to aren't blooming yet, but the rose bushes are in full bloom, something I missed last year because I didn't start walking to the church until after the blossoms had faded.

Clare, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and their roses.  Notice the ruins in the background.
I'm thinking about the pruning metaphor again in terms of manmade changes versus "natural" ones.  I once had a student who wrote an astonishing paper using Emerson's ideas about nature to back up the claim that everything humans do is natural.  Is the grove-clearing and throwing down of gravel as natural and beautiful as any seasonal change of the flora?  My instinctive resistance to this idea is based on the fear that if we believe that, it gives us license to do all kinds of real damage, just the way that verses from Genesis about mankind having "dominion" over Creation have been used to justify all sort of horrible nonsense.  And yet, partially thanks to that student's paper, and also Byron Katie's teachings, I can't help but wonder:  If we consciously saw things in this way would it not ultimately give us a greater, not a lesser, awareness and sense of responsibility in our interactions with the natural world?  In fact, we would no longer see ourselves as being separate enough to have "interactions with" the natural world, but would know ourselves to be part of the organic whole.

I don't know.  If I've learned anything in my four decades here on Earth, it's that it's a long road from ideology to integration.  But on this Solstice day of honoring sacred sites, it feels like an appropriate rumination.  Graffiti and roses, skateboarding and birdflight, excavation and pollination, pruning, enjarre, restoration, decomposition - my former student would say these things are equal to each other, equally natural.  What has always appealed most to me about the St. Francis church, which is the most sacred place in the world to me, is the dance among nature, culture, spirituality, religion, art, tradition.  And the paradoxes in all of it, the paradox in my relationship to it as an intimate outsider.

What better way to honor the seasonal changes of nature and sacred sites both "natural" and manmade than to perceive ourselves as fully integrated with and responsible for them the way we are responsible for our own selves?  This is also National Prayer Day, and the only prayer I have is for this, and then to rest in the holy paradoxes, the mysteries to be integrated within and beyond our ideologies.   


  1. Your photos and reflections on the church and its changes seem to me a microcosm of the other manmade changes happening -- i.e., the Gulf disaster. While you don't make a direct comparison, as I suppose would not be fair since the church's changes are in the name of "improvement" whereas the Gulf's are hideous carelessness and greed, they both perhaps do relate to the bigger issue you raise of human's thinking they are separate from rather than part of the natural world. You make a good point on that -- one I hadn't thought of. I do think mostly setting ourselves apart is a bad thing, because we do seem to take license to treat the earth (and beyond!) as our own little stash of private resources and ashtray rolled into one. Anyway, back to the Gulf/St. Francis parallel -- I find it interesting that you focused on birds, and in the Gulf so much of the harm has come to the native birds. Birds are far more integrated into our lives than I suspect most people know. Just this evening I was watching the many birds on my property, thinking how from their perspective I am the interloper on THEIR property.

    One more really interesting item I found in your post was on graffiti. I have always found it so annoying unless it is actually a drawing of some kind. But just writing names or illegible "names" seems like trashing to me...but I am going to try to see it differently, as a different form of cultural art.

    Your pictures are so telling...the stumps do look strange and twisted and out of place. I understand why you miss the trees. The ruins have that feel of deep history, holding the souls of those long past.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

  2. DG - Thank you for your thoughtful response. I deliberately kept the Gulf travesty out of this, because I didn't want to make any sweeping generalizations, but I like the way you've connected it here.

    Your response helps me think about this further, that the bottom line is that our sense of separateness from nature is truly the cause of our abuse of it, whether through "improvement" or careless greed or whatever.

    Graffiti as cultural art - that's exactly it. I think of graffiti as code - I may not always understand it, but it still has value to its culture. One person's culture is another's trash, and vice versa.

  3. Thank you for the link to Sacred Graffiti. It's the most peaceful part of the week for me, gathering pieces of "graffiti" that I've seen and scheduling them to pop up over the succeeding days. A kind of meditation.
    And although like Dreamfarm Girl I struggle with modern graffiti, it is as you say a very ancient form. I've seen workers' names written on stone blocks in English castles, and the thought that these men have been dead for many hundreds of years but still leave a little of their life behind them is touching.
    I don't know if "enjoy" is the right word, but I did enjoy reading through your reflections here, interspersed with these images and the descriptions of bird life.

  4. Sacred sites are so important and I am so glad that you have one next to you. Yes, the birds must be sad to have lost their trees... But if indeed the church is sacred inside and outside, then the sacredness will find a way to return. You witness to it, and so some of the sacredness goes into you as well. Maybe you are the tree the birds need.

    Congratulations on your honorable mention. Thank you for a beautiful post.


  5. Congratulations for the recognition of your written word about the church - a little bit of honor can give us a big boost - at least that's what it does for me now and then:)

    I agree that birds do/don't like places and changes and that they're highly sensitive to change. They do adapt as I suppose I do too but more than once in life I've felt really sad to see the present and remember the "what was." At any rate, your post here re the "better way to honor the seasonal changes of nature and sacred sites both "natural" and manmade" in perceiving ourselves as fully integrated with and responsible for them rings true for me....only I'm not always really thrilled to see how we humans take responsibility for our own selves - so perhaps there should be extra care given to those places we wish to honor as sacred:)?

    Nice post!


  6. That's a smart student you had there! The way I see it we are nature, we exist for the very same reason's dandelions and crows exist, so when we plunder and ravage we harm ourselves as much as the rest. It's a bit like someone eating their own arm because they're hungry but can't be bothered to go out and pick an apple.

    Congrats on the commendation, good luck with the book, no you hadn't mentioned it (at least if you did I didn't see).

    Lastly, I love graffiti: turning a corner and unexpectedly seeing the expression of someone's voice is always a joy, no matter what their level of talent.

  7. I love the picture of you on your FB Badge!

    "What better way to honor the seasonal changes of nature and sacred sites both "natural" and manmade than to perceive ourselves as fully integrated with and responsible for them the way we are responsible for our own selves?"

    There is so much to provoke consideration in this post.

    Responsibility to and with and for...spurts around on my insides, the degree to which we are responsible as a species because of the intelligence bestowed upon us...I don't think I've considered it to the level that I do now.

    I am sad as I see the pictures, except for the smiling face of the gentleman...I LOVE THAT! Oh, and the the sign, oh and love the roses too.

    Still - What would St. Francis sense or feel? What do I sense or feel as I participate in the process of pruning? Am I even aware enough to know when to prune and when not to prune?

  8. Reason's? What's wrong with me? Apologies for the errant apostrophe!

  9. This is so cool - everything - the pictures and your take on it. I, too, am a fan of graffiti and not so hot on taming the wild.

    What a beautiful, primal place. Wow.



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