I began working on a cover design for my upcoming YA Novel, On Parson’s Creek, back before I had finished the draft last November! I know it sounds silly, but for some odd reason, it helps me focus on the story better if I have a visual touchstone. Now with the book in its final rewrites, I recently posted some alternate cover designs for some of my most trusted writer friends to discuss. Time to hone it down. There were variations between comments as expected, but one especially made sense about the action in the story occurring “on the ground, not in the treetops“. It got me thinking about finding another image more true to the situation. Another suggested swapping fonts.
To my extreme pleasure, I found a wonderful blogsite, In The Company of Plants and Rocks, operated by Wyoming based botanist, photographer, author and field-naturalist, Hollis Marriott for several years. The site features an in-depth look at much of our American Geology and Botany in such a way that it is accessible and yes, even fun to read. Not only is the site content really engrossing, but the photography is incredible. As I browsed through, my focus wandering all over North America… there it was! An image of a grove of old-growth Red Cedars in Montana, the protected Ross Creek Grove in the Kootenai National Forest, near Libby, MT. The foreground tree especially was such a ringer for my own teenage fave cedar tree in a small grove near our 1967 home, that I realized it should be the cover of the book. It also offered more light, and a pathway to tread between the trunks, drawing the eye right into the dark grove, beyond.
Hollis has granted me use of his image, Light Shade 2 for the cover of this book and I am truly overwhelmed with the serendipity of finding hers site as well as her generosity. I encourage any of my friends and readers with an interest in the Natural World to make a visit, if only to see her breathtaking nature photography. I also encourage any comments you may have on the cover artwork as well as any suggestions.
I haven’t given up on my original cover image choice. It was originally shot in black and white, and I’ll be using it with an appropriate quote as the frontispiece of the book when it’s released, this October.
Here’s the preliminary synopsis pitch short version:
On Parson’s Creek
A memoir inspired novel for YA readers…
The new kid in a small town, bored with school and living in his own head, discovers that there are dark mysteries in an ancient cedar grove near his new home. The story handed down several generations doesn’t tell the tale completely, nor do tales of lurking giants in the trees, an Indian curse, or the abandoned locomotive deep in the woods. As he asks questions of his teachers and local families, he finds himself pushed more and more into a corner from which there is only one way out. With the help of a local historian, his Physics teacher, a school friend and an old logger almost as old as the trees, he begins to put the clues together. The story unravels a community conspiring to hide the entire truth from the world. But, is that wrong? Maybe the world doesn’t need to know.
# # # #
If you need to know, you’ll be able to, in the safety of your own home, soon. Watch for my announcement.
Note: I’ve always wanted to use those two words in a title. Please just indulge me my less than scholarly cred and less than scientific theorizing. It’s part of the writing process for me that I have no say over…)
I’ve always been drawn to horses. I’m not much of a rider, but I have cared for them, fed and watered them, and admired them. I’ve even gotten to “know” a few fairly closely. In the caves in Lascaux in France, where a rich treasure of prehistoric human artwork has been carefully preserved since its discovery, there are amazing murals of horses in many different poses. It’s suggestive of an artist who spent a great deal of time studying these animals. The thing which always baffles me when I consider it, is that this artwork comes very close to expressing love for this animal, which at that time, was hunted and eaten by our ancestors. Why did horses ever allow themselves to be domesticated by a predatory enemy, then brought into the mutually beneficial relationship we now enjoy with them? Don’t they bear grudges? Of course, there is no ready answer but it’s one that keeps circling in my head. This really does have a point.
There are also many questions about the advent and migration of ancient hominids from one or more points of origin, but there are far fewer real answers. To complicate the matter, for armchair paleo-geeks like me, is the fact that recent discoveries and the newest data from genome studies can even contradict earlier theory accepted as fact. One emerging truth is we have a very diverse and divergent family tree. There were many different types of early man. Many of these co-existed during specific time periods and some even shared the same environments. Some interbred, as we now know.
What constitutes “Modern Homo” is still broadening as new evidence points to a much more gradual divergence as an end-point species. There are those who believe that the idea of a single end-point in human evolution is ridiculous, given the fossil and DNA record as we now know it. Our family tree has many trunks as well as many branches.
One branch of particular interest to me, is the Indo-European scion. The name applied to one precedent to modern man, at least in his travel East, is Homo Erectus or Java Man. There are also several possible offshoots of that scion alone, but they have enough in common that they may be considered cousins. We know now, from another very fragmentary fossil record — consisting entirely of one shoebox worth of teeth and jaw fragments and a couple of complete mandibles — that there was another potential cousin who shared the environment with Home Erectus in Southeast Asia. This cousin has been named Gigantopitecus. From only the teeth and jaw fragments, Paleo-anthropologists have surmised that this was a vegetarian, not an omnivore, as we are. They have also suggested that this cousin may have stood close to ten feet high.
There is also one more posited detail, determined from the surroundings of the discoveries, so far. Many scientists believe that Homo Erectus and Gigantopitecus were enemies. There is evidence that Home Erectus may have killed these creatures, possibly to eat them. Which, in the grasping mind of a novelist such as my own, makes a lot of sense and poses lots of additional questions.
If I may suggest that Giganto was the earlier to arrive in Asia, and there is some evidence to bear me out, then I can suggest that Home Erectus drove him from their shared environment, into ever more remote environments where Home Erectus would not assail the Giganto population, however small it may have been. Remote environments such as the once heavily forested plateaus near the Himalayas. Here, the retreating Gigantos would have found a rich, sustaining environment as long as they kept ahead of any Homo Erectus outliers.
I can also surmise, if this is correct, that some of them might have also followed the coastline route in their retreat. Bi-pedal movement is more efficient over distance, so they may have adapted to that form of movement exclusively. Over hundredes of thousands of years, all the while adapting more elegantly to their chosen, deep forest environment, they might have emerged from the treeline that ran across a broad, coastal plain to find themselves in what is now North America. Perfectly equipped for the arboreal forest, they slid seamlessly into a new range and were already well-established when the first Homo troupes made their way across Beringia and into the home of the evolved Gigantos. There is another theory that the North American forest primate may have evolved in South America and traveled north
The older proto-Hominid (for that is how I see them, not as Simians) had a long history of evading detection by their enemies, humans; they carried on in the tradition, staying completely off the radar except for occasional sightings or discovery of footprints, on into the modern era. The only remotely reliable indicators we have that they existed here at all are the oral traditions and stories passed down through generations of the people now referred to as Native Americans. In their stories, the descendants of Giganto are not considered a mythical being nor a beast, but a type of man who prefers the forest and does not want contact with other humans. As the human population has spread into the hundreds of millions, and as our habitation encroaches on even the most remote parts of deep forest, sightings have increased steadily during the past fifty years.
Today, there are hokey TV series, chainsaw wood statues of Bigfoot and footprint castings galore, but the truth doesn’t seem to be any closer than one hundred years back when stories trickled down from the Alaskan tribes to the Gold Rush miners barreling into the back country. Or from the Coastal Californian tribes to the crews of lumberjacks with their big, steel crosscut saws heading towards the giant Redwood groves. Fortunately for the Forest People, a name that seems most appropriate, humans tend to make a lot of noise and clatter wherever they go tearing up the land, chopping down the trees.
These possible remnant populations, so adept at keeping hidden for so long, will probably never truly be known by modern science, but maybe that’s the way it should be. After all, our ancestors were predatory enemies that drove them from their homes. Humanity is known for our long memories and longer grudges. Like a long lost relative, I would welcome them into our world with open arms, yet I’m also able to understand why they probably won’t show up at the July Fourth barbecue. My hope for them is for them to remain as elusive as ever and for those who come into even the slightest contact with them, to respect their lives and protect them from our crazy world. That they even may exist is reason to celebrate life in all its diversity. I’ll raise my pint to ‘em, and wish ‘em all the best. While I’m at it, I’ll wish that they can safely keep their distance, whatever name we might call them.
Dark Fantasy author and poet Jacqueline Watts, has invited me to take part in the Meet My Character Blog Tour. Jacqui’s (writing as J.S. Watts) first novel, A Darker Moon was a thoroughly disturbing, yet completely engaging read as are her poems. Her first complete poem cycle, The Songs of Steelyard Sue is particularly compelling. This is a very talented wordsmith you can get to know better on her Goodreads Blog:
I’m very grateful that Jacqui has invited me on this tour. Now it’s my turn, to choose one of my characters to introduce you to.
Selecting My Character
Through several books, I’ve had the pleasure (and the frustration…) to work with quite a few different characters. If I lined them up, they would make a really odd assortment, from Oxford professor, to astro-colonist all the way to Neanderthal youth; but they all have a few things in common, one of which is how ordinary their lives are until I begin messin’ with ‘em.
Growing up, most of the stories that really struck a chord were those that thrust unsuspecting regular, every day people into impossible situations. Probably my very favorite character from literature is Samwise Gamgee from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Stolen through loyalty to a friend, from his garden and then put into a direct confrontation with overwhelming evil and its power, he gets to come home and tell the tale. In that spirit, I’d like to talk about another of my favorite characters, Sullivan Ortega, from my new book, Back to Santa Fe (writing as W.T. Durand). He has a few of Sam’s qualities plus, a huge bouquet of bad habits, misconceptions, and a terrible temper, to boot!
1. What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or historical?
He’s called Sully, or Hey! Ortega! He is a complete contrivance, but you’ll recognize his misplaced brethren all over the West.
2. When and where is the story set?
Back to Santa Fe is set in the present, in Santa Fe, New Mexico — The Land of Enchantment, according to the Tourist Board. Nestled in a mountain valley, it’s between 6,000 feet and 7,600 feet high, which might make a statement about how a lack of oxygen might affect logical thinking.
3. What should we know about him?
Sully is a man-mountain. Six-foot-five and all muscle… well mostly muscle. The product of a proud Irish bloodline mixed up with the very best of Mexicano genetics, he’s a relatively clueless guy who likes a beer or six. Deep black hair and bright blue eyes. He’s an arresting fellow alright, and he manages to get arrested himself with some frequency, since keeping a lid on it isn’t his strong suit. It’s quite a contrast to his meticulous skill as a cabinetmaker, which is the livelihood he inherited from his illegal immigrant father. He’s got a grip on his tools, but is usually between jobs, as sticking with anything seems to be something else he has issues with. Neither is getting down to knowing what makes him suddenly burst into tears, or rage with clenched fists. Sully’s a problem waiting to happen, and he’s faced with being the sole living member of his family who has to try and figure out what happened to his kid sister while he was off finding himself in San Diego.
4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?
Sully has to return to the empty house of his childhood to lay his sister to rest after she’s killed in a strange single-car accident on a road she knew really well. One she drove every single day. He finds out all kinds of things about her friends, mostly stuff he doesn’t want to know about. He thinks he knows someone he can blame, but really understanding the situation is beyond him at the outset. Just when the mystery of his sister’s death consumes him… there’s the unspeakable thing his dog digs up in the backyard, which brings the police to his home and a girl he dumped back into his life. Main conflict? Why settle for just one when you can have a seven-course meal?
5. What is the personal goal of the character?
Sullivan just wants to make things right. He wants some justice for his sister and some peace for himself, but the more he finds out about, the further beyond his reach they are. He has a lot to come to terms with before he can truly settle down in his home.
6. Is there a working title for this novel and can we read more about it?
Back to Santa Fe was released in both print and eBook formats this past April. It is available from Amazon and B&N and most other online booksellers as well as your local bookstore. You can read a bit more at your chosen online location or here, on my blog site under the Back To Santa Fe menu, where an interview with the author is posted. Serious reviewers in genre are welcome to request a reader copy.
7. When can we expect the book to be published?
Done. Grab one before the ink dries… better yet, grab six. They make wonderful gifts for the Southwest style collector in your life or just someone who thinks they have a grip on familial relationships.
…and the tour carries on
The writer taking this blog tour ever onwards, picking it up where I have dropped it, will be novelist Randy Attwood, whose great writing blog can be found here: Randy Attwood Blog
I was very honored to have been asked to talk about my current “Work in Progress”, by Fantasy, SpecFic and SciFi author Sarah Potter. My guest spot on SarahPotterWrites can be found here. I talk about On Parson’s Creek, my upcoming, YA novel that takes place in the deep forest of the Oregon Cascades. It deals with being the new kid, getting used to a new home in a small town that may or may not be all that welcoming to outsiders, depending upon how many questions you ask. Sixteen year-old Jack, unfortunately, asks lots of questions…
Brian, are we getting some use out of this “new school” of Physics thinking, that utterly weird interactions at tiny, sub-atomic levels dictate our reality?
Q: I see, then you must have near-constant brainstorms as the ideas swirl around inside. How do you make a decision as to which you’ll concentrate upon?
I’ll raise a glass to their efforts! Thank you, Brian for giving us your time today. I know that The Quantum Age will be joining your other titles on my own library shelves and I recommend all my readers take a look, put your fear of science away for a moment and dive in. The water’s fine!
For writers tackling science subjects, the Guardian Masterclasses workshop is a must-attend event. Enrollment slots remain available.
Here are just a few of Brian Clegg’s best-known books. Your science library is not complete without a solid section of these. For more information and more writing, visit: http://www.brianclegg.net
He wasn’t always home for dinner, and we didn’t toss the football around much, but I can’t get through a single day without remembering him and his presence in my life. We moved a lot when I was growing up. I’d no sooner get to feeling comfortable in a place, then we’d be packing up for greener grass someplace else. I never really understood, but I think all along, I had the impression that he was jumping through hoops to keep us fed and sheltered. Money was always tight, but there was always enough.
There were quite a few big disagreements and shouting matches, but as first-born, I finally figured that one out, too. We began cutting each other lots of slack. We did spend a lot of time together, quietly in the woods, fishing on rivers and lakes and hiking around with rock hammers, looking for geodes in rubble, cliffs and talus slopes. He taught me how to walk through a forest without making any noise. He taught me respect for the regular tenants whose homes we were disturbing by just being there. He taught me to recognize trees, birds, animals and fish and all their names.
Dad had an artist’s eye for beauty of all kinds and taught me how to find it everywhere. His camera was a constant companion and he taught me how to compose through a lens. Later, I’ll admit that the darkroom lessons were wasted on me (thank the gods for digital imaging!) but I absorbed it all, from Persian poetry, to Edgar Kaysee stories and his deep respect for all kinds of spirituality.
He’d served in the Army during the Battle of the Bulge and was in the clean-up medical battalion after Bastogne. He spent several years traveling around Europe on a recovered German motorcycle after the war was finally over. He didn’t have many war stories when I was a small boy, but one that came out when I was older, had to do with spending time with a farmer they’d stumbled upon through a hedgerow in France. He raised hemp. Dad told me about the most amazing cordial liqueur he and his buddies were served. Very herbal. Very powerful. Spent several days enjoying the farmer’s hospitality.
The past few years I missed him, as our talks had gotten fewer and shorter as his pain med doses got higher. He was far away, across the country, but would still make the effort to call on birthdays and other events and we’d share things we’d read or music we’d appreciated. One of the last gifts I sent him was a portable CD player and a copy of Tom Russell’s recording, Hot Walker, which brought back his memories of a job as a Carnie Shill on the midway when he was still a small boy in Colorado. It all came out in an unusually animated phone call I’ll never forget. He sounded like he had when he was in his forties, not his nineties.
Soon after, he was gone. None of us gets out alive. I understand that, but when our Dads have to move on, it can feel like the world is a little emptier and a little scarier. I’m glad we became good friends when I grew up. His approval of my risk-taking and sometimes unexpected choices remains with me and I feel his hand on my shoulder all these years later, when I wonder if I’m about to make the right move. We all need guidance and help. Dads can do that when no one else’s words make sense.
Today, it’s a real privilege to talk books and writing with one of my favorite authors, Iraj J. Sarfeh. He’s a man of wide-ranging, formidable knowledge as well as great wit and humor. He’s quick with a joke but can be quite intimidating, with that great mane of hair and all the lifetime and professional cred he’s amassed as a respected surgeon, educator and world traveler, not to mention his prolific writing. I’ve enjoyed several of his titles over several years and we’ve corresponded and discussed our approaches to writing, our subjects and our favorite travels and attending libations. I’m very pleased to announce the publication of his latest novel, From the Ashes of Strife, from Musa Publishing. Here is the publisher’s overview:
Ten-year-old Sohrab Vessali and his parents escape the violence of Iran’s Islamic Revolution to live in America. As the years pass and anti-Iranian sentiment soars, the bullying and taunting at school leave Sohrab confused and aimless. He becomes alienated from his domineering father, a former general in the Shah’s army determined to initiate a counterrevolution. But Sohrab’s wounds of alienation melt away when his father secretly returns to Iran and disappears. Have the mullahs imprisoned or executed him? Sohrab is obsessed to discover his father’s fate, hoping he is still alive so that they can undo the hurts of their turbulent past. He looks to Emily Clarke, an Iranian-born nurse who places her love and faith in him and helps him in the perilous quest.
I really enjoyed immersing myself into Sohrab’s changing world and recommend it to any reader who likes to investigate cultural differences and collisions.
Q:Iraj, many writers have grappled with cultural adaptation and displacement. In your newest release, From the Ashes of Strife, you throw all that and more at your main character. Clawing his way out of the traps you’ve set for him, he still retains his humanity. He reminded me of people I knew growing up. Is he a reconstruct of anyone from your own life?
A: Yes, Richard, he is a bit of a reconstruct of my own early life, which began in Tehran, Iran. At the age of nine, I was as mischievous as any imp. After playing a silly prank on a visiting Brit – he was a little snooty – to our home, I overheard him telling my father, “That lad needs some good-old British discipline.” So a few months later, I was packed off to boarding school in England. A stranger in a strange land facing the venom of xenophobic kids who had never seen an Iranian kid. Soon, the headmaster, a priest, introduced me to the infamous British approach to discipline – now defunct, thank goodness – for the least infraction of the strict rules: six to twelve swishes of the bamboo cane to the bare bottom.
Q: Following the attacks on September 11th, 2001, anti-Middle Eastern anger rose to a level even higher than it reached during the Iran Hostage crisis. Many completely unrelated members of differing ethnic communities were targeted here in the greater NY Metro area for vicious reprisals, including Sikhs, of all people. Have your Iranian roots created trouble for you?
A: Not for me personally, Richard, but a friend of mine, a restaurant owner, did receive a few threatening telephone calls. Thank goodness, nothing came of them. But aside from that, many of my Iranian acquaintances in the U.S. are feeling more and more like outcasts, and many are even too ashamed to admit their heritage, to admit they come from a land ruled by religious fanatics bent on destroying the once-proud Persian heritage established by such notable past rulers as Darius the Great and Xerxes.
Q: It’s so disappointing when folks jump to uninformed judgments, classing whole cultures as enemies without any comprehension of who the people actually are. We all need to keep our ears and eyes open and our mouths closed most of the time.
Iraj, in your writing, you’ve told stories of dis-connected souls who find redemption in unexpected ways and seem capable of even heroic action. Do you have an abiding faith in people being able to rise and break free of restraints?
A: I firmly believe that people from all walks of life are inherently strong, Richard, but most do not realize their inner strength until confronted by hostile forces. In many respects, my MCs reflect this human trait – externally weak, timid souls who rise to the fray when facing a critical situation. How that strength manifests is part of my infatuation with character development in the novels. The protagonist of From the Ashes of Strife, Sohrab, is exactly such a character, someone who chooses to run away from every adversity until he faces one that threatens his way of his life. He sheds the restraints of cowardice when he uses his creative mind to overcome that adversity. Heroes, in my opinion, are rarely the likes of Hollywood’s glorious swashbucklers, gunfighters, or secret agents. Most real heroes rise in a moment of intense decision-making, such as the man who risks his life to rescue a toddler teetering on the edge of a rooftop, or the woman who risks her life to rescue a puppy from the jaws of a mountain lion. Such are my true heroes, Richard.
Q: In many passages from Ashes, you relate the beauty of the Iranian/Persian geography and the cities mentioned. You’ve traveled a great deal in your lifetime. Is there any one place you feel most at home?
A: First, right here in Southern California, living among friendly, hospitable people. More than one friend has told me that I am more American than many Americans. My second favorite place? The Caspian Seashore, its miles upon miles of splendid isolation with sandy beaches separating the warm, turquoise waters of the sea from the lush rain forests nestled at the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. Childhood memories of family holidays spent there are still as vivid as if they had taken place yesterday. Third favorite? London – its rich history, museums, theatres, shops, and, of course, the city that taught me the art of assimilation.
Q: Searching for home is something I’ve found in your work and it’s certainly present in mine, too. I’ve always found it easy to empathize with a character who feels vulnerable because they are not in a place where they can feel protected or able to defend themselves. Sometimes the entire basis of their life’s goals go through change, too. Did you always have your professional goals in mind as you grew up, or did they develop over time, through relationships and surroundings?
A: Just like Sohrab in my novel, I floundered as a youth. After finishing high school, I led an aimless life, headed for oblivion. What turned me around? Being expelled from college for some bad mischief and terrible grades. I worked in a warehouse for a while, living off minimum wage. It was a simple life, but lacking the substance that my overactive imagination yearned. Soon, the constant pounding of my father’s lectures about the virtues of hard work and ambition took over. So I pleaded with him to offer me a second chance in college. He did, and I was on my way to realizing my capabilities.
Q: In your professional life, you’ve pursued a very difficult course, both highly academic and highly focused. You seem to respond well to challenges. Do you find yourself looking for them as you approach a new writing project?
A: Very much so, Richard. If you’d permit me a little self-analysis, I’d venture that in my early days of living the life of an outcast foreigner, a voice whispered to me that I should outdo the natives at their own games, so excelling in teenage sports became my mindset. And the more I excelled, especially on the rugby fields, the more I was openly accepted into the British fold to the point that no one viewed me an outcast. That was my challenge, and I had met it head on. But with acceptance came some loss of purpose, or more accurately, loss of challenge. Only when I realized that my life was headed nowhere, did I feel challenged again.
Yes, Richard, the same drive propels me to writing, to “making a difference”, to thwarting the ubiquitous threats of living in oblivion.
Q: What can we expect next from I.J. Sarfeh… besides discovering your newest, favorite single malt, I mean?
A: I have an interesting family background, Richard. My Russian grandfather – mother’s side – was a tank commander in the Czar’s army based in St. Petersburg. During the Bolshevik Revolution, the advancing Red Army destroyed his command. Wounded, he managed to escape and take his family to Bulgaria then to Beirut. Meanwhile, my Persian father ran away from his home in a remote part of Iran in order to pursue any career other than working at his father’s general store in Yazd. With the help of relatives, his repentant father found him and sent him to college and ultimately to the American University of Beirut to study medicine. That’s where my parents met. My children love this saga and hearing about my own struggles in the early years. They pleaded with me to write the Sarfeh family’s biography. So, Richard, I will be taking a break from writing novels until the saga is completed.
Well, I don’t think I’ll be the only reader looking forward to cracking that tome! It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you. I.J. Sarfeh’s titles include the following books and are available at all online booksellers as well as your local bookstore here and abroad. He maintains a blog site that covers his writing and medical background at http://www.ijsarfeh.com/
In the Name of Islam(2006)
The Final Victim (2006)
Hunting for Tamara(2007)
Stone Man (2006)
The Caspian Scrolls (2007)
The Phoenix Incursion (2008)
Beyond the Third Garden (2013)
From the Ashes of Strife (2014)
Note: This sudden flurry of essay writing followed a read of Anne Hillerman’s debut novel, Spider Woman’s Daughter. (My review here) Reading her mystery, which expands on characters created by her father, Tony Hillerman, seems to have unlocked a section of my heart I’d been carefully keeping protected. That’s how the muse is though, demanding and unexpected.
My wife and I have never been destination collectors. We’ve known quite a few of them; born travelers who pursue the next destination with the focus of a gunfighter adding one more notch to his pistol’s grip. No, while we enjoy seeing the scenery and remarking on the views, what we really love is to sink our feet into the sand and really get to know a place. Most of the places we love best are places we were led to through human interconnections and the stories that fired up our need to experience these places for ourselves.
New Mexico was like that. In 1984, returning home to Long Island after a funeral in Oregon, the Chicago layover got us thinking about a pursuit we hadn’t tried yet. We’d both had modest success reinventing ourselves and sliding into new careers as necessary. I had been self-employed most of my adult life, so the idea of a new venture carried only excitement, none of the trepidation it probably should have. We saw a dealer selling authentic American Indian handmade traditional crafts and fine arts in the airline terminal. The store was jammed with browsers and there was a line at the register. As far as we knew at that time, there were precious few of these items for sale in the greater NY Metro area. Why shouldn’t we give it a shot, too?
With some cash we’d made in a lecture series, after some focused research, we caught a flight to Albuquerque, NM. It was a place neither of us knew, except for the occasional directional inquiries Bugs Bunny was constantly dispensing. Oddly enough, my paternal grandfather was buried there. I didn’t discover this for a few more years of as many as six trips annually for buying and learning as our business grew.
We put out our shingle on the streets of Manhattan, offering our latest purchases to buyers during special events and street fairs. We actually had repeat business and began to develop a following. Our little hobby was becoming more lucrative than my design business which had been my fall-back since 1974. I was happily surprised. The airfares were piling up as the trips increased, and it was clear that our future lay in retail sales of this beautiful work. Our bills were all getting paid, so we plowed a lot of our profit right back into our inventory.
One day, we got to talking with a regular customer who worked for Ralph Lauren’s design operation. She and her husband had just bought a small farm in the Rio Grande Valley, just south of Route 66. She told us that if we wanted to build our business up we should consider a home in New Mexico to set up a base of Western Operations. When we asked where they would suggest, she told us about a tiny town up in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. “Nothing there yet, but I think it’ll be the next big thing.” were her husband’s exact words.
Those words led us to our first home in New Mexico. In one of the first homes built by the first developer in the area, we’d spend lazy mornings on our second floor balcony, watching for the sun to break over the 11,000 foot top of Sandia Crest. In a sudden burst, it sent its rays racing into the valley across the tops of distant mesas and eventually touching the crest of Cabezon, a huge volcanic plug some sixty miles distant. Navajo stories tell it is the partially buried head of a marauding giant killed by Monster-Slayer and Born for Water, the hero twins, after the people came into this world. It’s not a stretch to believe it may well be. The house sat at around 6000 feet in elevation almost completely alone on the Juniper and Yucca – studded hills, so we always needed a few days to acclimate our sea-level lungs. What better way could there be than to sip wine and watch the shadows of clouds play across the valley floor and mesa tops?
We’d plan to cozy up for a few days each trip. It meant filling up our pantry and refrigerator with as much of the local delicacies and inexpensive but good California wines, we could afford. The nearest supermarket where the prices were reasonable was down the mountain and south more than twenty miles into the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque. Some days we’d just roll down into the nearest village, Bernalillo, and buy our produce from the local market. Bernalillo was founded in 1540 by Coronado himself. A little conversational Spanish would have been a big help and I’d wrack my brain trying to remember the phrases I’d learned in Junior High. I remember once asking directions from a guy on the street, in Spanish. He and his friend laughed quietly. I asked what I’d said that was so funny, expecting I’d mangled the language.
“Man,” he told me, “you sound just like Cervantes! Real serious, like. You know?”
I wasn’t going to blend in too well, I guessed. We’d head home with our groceries and return to the balcony to watch the sunset, silhouetting different places as it sunk into the far western horizon as the lights of Albuquerque began to twinkle off to the south. It was just us, the mountain, the valley and the stars falling all the way to the horizon on every side.
Some days, our view was clear all the way to Mount Taylor, more than a hundred miles away. We could see snow sparkle on its summit as late as early June some years. It carried a special significance we learned, as it was one of the boundaries of the traditional homelands of the Navajo people.
We had business with many Navajo artists and their families and got to know most of the huge Navajo reservation pretty well, but it went much further than that. Our travels took us often to the high mesas of Hopiland in Arizona, into Southern Utah and Colorado as well as all over New Mexico. Our trade had started with handmade sterling jewelry, but soon we were also buying Pueblo pottery; Zuni fetish carvings; Kewa (formerly Santo Domingo Pueblo) turquoise beads, earrings and tab necklaces; sewn Plains beadwork, traditional crafts, sculpture and even fine art such as paintings and drawings.
We learned a few words of Navajo — actually Dineh — and found out that there were many more languages spoken among the variety of traditional tribal people in the Four Corners States. There is a photo somewhere my Dad took when I was a boy, of me standing with my little brother on the exact spot where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico come together. We all laughed that day. I had no idea I’d ever be back again, let alone make a home in that country.
We grew to love the high desert. The clear skies; the regional smells of ever-present Juniper berries, the dusty smell of an approaching thunderstorm, the fragrance when the Russian Olives began to bloom; the wide splashes of color in the outcroppings and mountains that ringed the valley below us. Each time we returned, our noses were assaulted, not only by pollen we never got used to, but also the sweet smell of the unfinished pine beams that carried our second floor. Our eyes were startled by some new discovery, some new location; our tongues were treated to some new flavor, another example of the local cuisine. My wife, Candy learned to make tamales in corn-husk wraps and incredible Posole soup.
We were always learning, expanding our awareness of where we were. Walking the enormous aisles at Costco, (then Price Club) Listening for the soft cadence of the lilt of Spanish, or Tewa, or Keresan spoken by other shoppers became a real pleasure, as did seeing the big, round eyes of the tiny Pueblo kids as Grandma pushed their basket through the store. It helped remind us where we actually were, despite the universal, box-store ambience.
The last year in our first home, new neighbors had completely surrounded us as the development was sold out. Eventually, we needed more room, so we sold our home and moved to a new, much larger full adobe home. A house made of mud! It was located a half mile further up the mountain road, where it was still relatively unsettled. It had a big, well-designed fireplace in the corner of the… sala, the livingroom. It could almost heat the entire house as the thick adobe walls absorbed the warmth, but when there was a weather shift, we’d get occasional sudden downdrafts. I eventually mounted an empty Pueblo Bean pot to the top of the chimney, in traditional Pueblo fashion, and the down-drafts stopped completely.
Learning how to be New Mexicans consumed us every time we returned. It was an immersion unlike any other we’d ever experienced. The blend of the many ancient traditions with the newer ones was exhilarating and it proved just how durable the hardy souls that populated this country actually were. We’d learned academically, that the Southwest had seen human beings for more than twelve thousand years, but walking in the same narrow well-worn pathways, along ancient buildings that the builders planned centuries before, never got old for us. Nor did seeing the symbols and images pecked in the hard basalt by artists a thousand years before, lying only a short distance from our home.
Along with our memories of friends and business colleagues, we compiled a collection of amazing stories during our trading years. Two of my favorites were published in the Journal of the Santa Fe Writers Project in 2011 and just this year, but there are literally hundreds of them in notes and touchstones, still lying all over my office. Our business grew and thrived and we enjoyed a life neither of us could have foreseen. Until things changed.
In 2007, after a slow slide, we closed our bricks and mortar gallery. It had been open since 1989, but 2007 saw the final collapse of discretionary spending on the objects we sold. Days, I’d be happy if one or two visitors stopped in, but towards the end of Summer, we were making more money online through our website than we were on the street, so we closed our doors and moved the entire operation into the ether.
Business continued at a reasonable level until late 2012, but by last year, it was clear that change had come. We could no longer pretend it wasn’t happening. As much as we hated to, we let our New Mexico home go, selling off our collections and filing our memories away. Since then, it’s just been too painful to dig too deeply into our recent past. While we clearly had a great, long ride, we never thought it would ever end. Nothing in life lasts forever and I’m still trying to pull together some conclusion from our long time in the Southwest.
Many years ago, songwriter James Taylor’s big brother Alex died. I loved Alex’s voice and music and owned one of his recordings on vinyl. His song, Southbound remains one of my favorite acoustic R&B songs. Anyway, JT released a record (Hourglass, 2009) that contained a song, Enough to Be On Your Way, which remembered his brother’s death and what followed. It began, “The last time I saw Alice (Alex) she was leaving Santa Fe…”
The idea of leaving Santa Fe for the last time struck me deeply when I first heard him sing the song. It’s a very sad, moving elegy, as you can imagine, but the chorus gave me some cheer then as it does now: “It’s enough to be on your way, it’s enough to cover ground… home is inside your heart, safe with those you love.”
Leaving Santa Fe… leaving our long-time home in New Mexico is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It was done because it had to be, not because it was our choice. But JT is right. It’s enough to be on your way. All living things must grow and move through the changes that life tosses. The ground we’ve covered isn’t gone, it’s just been retired, for a time, to our storehouse of memory where it will wait for us to rediscover it. We may not be able to see the sunrise over Sandia Crest every morning, but we can see the same sun rise through the tall oaks around our home. We may be back to sea-level, but we still carry the mountains around inside along with all the rest. It’s enough.
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I’ve had a couple of my trader stories published in the Journal of the Santa Fe Writers Project. First, in 2011, was “Corrales“, then in February of this year, “You want Me To Do What?” If you enjoy humorous, oddball memoir, you would enjoy reading these. More may come, if the muse agrees. Eventually I’d like to compile them all into a book.
My newest project involves a fictionalizing of old memories from my teen years, into a murky tale about secrets for YA readers. It takes place int he deep cedar groves of the Oregon Cascade forests, when young Jack Taylor begins to notice things he;s not supposed to…
This image works around a photo taken by a close friend who has spent a great deal of time in the Oregon woods. There is a smudge of a clue, just barely visible. See if you can figure out what the book is about, and post your guesses and opinions of this cover.