D.H. Lawrence Society of North America

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Historical Significance Narrative -- RANCH LIFE

National Register Nomination for the D.H. Lawrence Ranch
SECTION 8:  Narrative Statement of Significance, Continued


5. Ranch Life and Literary Works

            The Lawrences arrived back at Taos in March of 1924, and by May were hard at work on their own place.  Mabel had decided to give the "Flying Heart" ranch to Frieda.  The Lawrences insisted on giving Mabel, in return, the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers, valued several times over what the ranch was worth (see Appendix 2). Lawrence writes, "We were so pleased to see the ranch again.  It still seems like a home" (Letters 5:39).  Before their newly‑acquired ranch could be made livable, however, much repair work was needed.  According to Professor John Worthen,  "Lawrence threw himself into the work of it; it offered him a new challenge, a wholly new field to explore and master" (University of Nottingham website).  Lawrence shows his excitement in a letter to Catherine Carswell, dated May 18 (Appendix 3): 

            The process of reconstruction is well documented throughout Lawrence's letters of the period.  He makes requests for lumber (2 x 4s and 1 x 10s or 1 x 8s), tin‑tacks, hinges and screws, rope, putty and plaster, straw, paint (white and turquoise), brushes, trowels, and other tools which are brought by wagon or, as he says, "whenever anything is coming up, on wheels" (Letters 5:40).  He frequently purchased materials from Gerson Gusdorf, who owned a general store in Taos.  A June 6 "diary" entry logs initial expenditures of $217.65 in labor wages and an additional $245 in building supplies (Appendix R).22  In progress reports to Mabel, Lawrence writes:  "The walls of Jericho (the log cabin) are re‑built, and chinked and chinked‑plastered outside, and inside end room."  In another note: "We have washed and painted the other house‑‑looks a different place."  And still another:  "I've done one of the hardest days work in my life today‑‑cleaning the well.  All the foul mud of the Thames‑‑and stank like hell.  Now it's excavated and built in with stone, and the pipe sunk two feet deeper‑‑Lord, this is the week we promised ourselves rest" (Letters5:42, 49, 51). 

            This time of intense physical labor gave Lawrence a brief break from writing.  In the evenings the Lawrence party often relaxed with the Taos Indians that came to help with repairs.  Their temporary camp was set behind the cabins and under the "hanging stars."  Lawrence tells a correspondent, "we sit with the Indians round the fire, and they sing till late into the night, and sometimes we all dance the Indian tread‑dance. . . ."  (Letters 5:67).  Trinidad confirms that together they danced the "round dance" and the "eagle dance," among others (Clark, Dark Night, 39).  During the days, Lawrence worked alongside the Native American workers in a spirit of camaraderie (see Appendix D).  To his American publisher Thomas Seltzer, he says:

Did I tell you Mabel Luhan gave Frieda that little ranch--about 160 acres--up here in the skirts of the mountains.  We have been up there the last fortnight working like the devil, with 3 Indians and a Mexican carpenter, building up the 3‑room log cabin, which was falling down. We've done all the building, save the chimney‑‑and we've made the adobe bricks for that. I hope in the coming week to finish everything, shingling the roofs of the other cabins too. (Letters 5:46) 

And yet despite Lawrence's claim that no writing was getting done, he was working on at least one important piece called "Pan in America."  It is an article that promotes active relatedness between people and their universe as opposed to the modern mechanical conquest of nature.  In this way it parallels Lawrence's own hands‑on involvement with the ranch and its rugged environment.  L.D. Clark, a leading critic of Lawrence’s American period, remarks, "At Kiowa Ranch the surroundings brought it powerfully home to Lawrence that in this western forest and in the local Indians, Pan was still Pan if unhappily fading away" (Clark, The Minoan Distance, 305).  Lawrence envisioned the Greek god of forests, pastures, shepherds and flocks quite at home on the lonely property.  Of particular significance was the "Lawrence tree," which the writer infuses with a "guardian spirit."  According to scholar Keith Sagar, "Lawrence felt able to communicate with the savage spirit of place at the ranch most directly through the huge pine tree which stood just outside his door.  In . . . 'Pan in America,' we see the landscape at last beginning to yield its meaning" (New Mexico, 39).  (See Appendix 4.)  

            After five weeks, most of the major work was completed and the rooms modestly decorated with "serapes and Mexican blankets."  Lawrence announces on June 7: "We've finished the hard work on the ranch here, and I'm hoping for a bit of leisure. I might even try a bit of my own work again" (Letters 5:55)  A few days later he writes to Mabel:  "Time passes quickly and quietly here‑‑I ride every day, if only for the milk.‑‑Brett has walked off to Gallina to try for fish.‑‑I began to write a story.‑‑Am getting used to this place and its spirit‑‑then one likes it" (Letters 5:56‑57).  The Lawrences and Brett were settling into the routine of life on the farm:  tending the horses, chopping wood, fetching water, washing and cooking, writing and painting.  To a managing editor at the Curtis Brown agency,23 Lawrence says of the ranch, "It's fine to look at, but not altogether so easy living in these wildish places.  One feels dislocated sometimes.‑‑But soon I hope you'll get the atmosphere of the place, in a story" (Letters 5:58).  The story which would best capture the essence of the Kiowa Ranch was his novella, St. Mawr, written at the ranch during this period. 

            St. Mawr is the story of Lou Witt, her cynical mother, and a magnificent but unruly horse named St. Mawr.  The first half of the tale is set in England, where Lou becomes infatuated with and must possess this mysterious horse which adds a spark of passion to her bland and meaningless life.  The end focuses on the American Southwest where Lou decides to buy a dilapidated ranch and commune with nature.  Lawrence explores the stark duality of the beautiful, soul‑enriching grandeur of nature‑at‑large and the harsh, fierce and impersonal hardships of everyday living in the wilderness.  The last twenty pages are filled with lavish descriptions of the Kiowa Ranch, its scenic vistas, and its history.  The ranch is named "Las Chivas" in the story, meaning primarily "the goats" and relating to the ranch's past as a goat farm in addition to alluding symbolically to the goat‑god, Pan.24  The following scene shows Lou's first impression of the ranch as she is driven up by car: 

They climbed slowly up the incline, through more pine‑trees, and out into another clearing, where a couple of horses were  grazing.  And there they saw the ranch itself, little low cabins with patched roofs, under a few pine‑trees, and facing the long twelve‑acre clearing, or field, where the michaelmas  daisies were purple mist, and spangled with clumps of yellow flowers. 

'Not got no alfalfa here neither!' said Phoenix, as the car waded past the flowers. 'Must be a dry place up here. Got no water, sure they haven't.' Yet it was the place Lou wanted.  In an instant, her heart sprang to it.  The instant the car stopped, and she saw the two cabins inside the rickety fence, the rather broken corral beyond, and behind all, tall, blue balsam pines, the round hills, the solid uprise of the mountain flank: and getting  down, she looked across the purple and gold of the clearing, downwards at the ring of pine‑trees standing so still, so crude and untameable, the motionless desert beyond the bristles of the pine crests, a thousand feet below: and beyond the desert, blue mountains, and far, far‑off blue mountains in Arizona 'This is the place,' she said to herself. This little tumble‑down ranch, only a homestead of a hundred‑and‑sixty acres, was, as it were, man's last effort towards the wild heart of the Rockies, at this point.  (St. Mawr, 140) 

       Many of these passages from the end of St. Mawr evoke the rustic character of the Lawrence Ranch as it stands today.  Another important story from this same time frame was "The Woman Who Rode Away," based on a visit the Lawrences made with Mabel to the Arroyo Seco Cave not far from the ranch.  Mabel had informed Lawrence of the cave's legendary history as a ceremonial place of ancient Indian sacrifice and how it was believed to be surrounded by evil spirits which the local modern‑day Indians feared.  A thin waterfall that freezes in winter cuts across the mouth of the cave and its recessed altar platform.  High on the back wall, a cave‑painting of a sun marks the position of sunrise during winter solstice.  All these details combined to inspire Lawrence to write his mythic tale of a female Christ‑figure who naively allows herself (and the deadened white race she represents) to be ritually sacrificed in order to restore the Indian race (with its mystery and vitality) to power.  It is a disturbing Poesque tale with a haunting climax.  Despite the controversial ending, however, it remains an often‑anthologized short story and is considered by critic L.D. Clark to be "one of Lawrence's most powerful creations" (Minoan Distance, 309). 

In August Lawrence made two more trips that resulted in significant pieces of writing.  One was a trip to Hotevilla to attend the Hopi Indian snake dance festival.  The other was a trip to Columbine Lake with Brett and the Hawks which would provide the setting for his well‑known short story, "The Princess."  It is a tale of a pampered, aristocratic woman who, out of curiosity, rides off into the countryside to see its wildlife with her Mexican guide as escort and ends up being held hostage in a remote mountain cabin.  By the time she is rescued, dementia has helped to reshape her memory of the experience.  The story is also filled with lush description of the New Mexican landscape, the result of Lawrence's many horseback excursions in the Taos area.  America was the only place he rode horseback, and horse‑riding quests figure prominently in his ranch fiction. 

Lawrence always had a deep interest in ancient cultures, religions, and rituals; thus he attended many of the local Indian ceremonies.  The spirituality he observed there was incorporated into current projects, such as The Plumed Serpent, as well as influencing later works like some of his Last Poems.  During his second stay in New Mexico, he wrote several articles on Pueblo Indian dances which were eventually collected in Mornings in Mexico, brought out in 1927.  Two of these, "Indians and Entertainment" and "The Dance of the Sprouting Corn," were written just prior to moving up to the ranch. The first essay received initial publication in the New York Times Magazine in October of 1924.  The latter essay, including Lawrence's drawing of the corn dancers (Appendix S), was first published in the American journal, Theatre Arts Monthly (July 1924).  Lawrence's long road‑trip to the snake dances in Arizona (mid‑August) produced two more articles‑‑a short satirical one called "Just Back from the Snake Dance‑‑Tired Out"25 and one of his masterpieces, "The Hopi Snake Dance." 

Lawrence was particularly fond of his "Hopi Snake Dance" article and was careful to specify to his Curtis Brown representative that he preferred its length not be cut.  Its first appearance was also in the Theatre Arts Monthly (December 1924), and it has earned the praise of both literary critics and noted anthropologists like Ruth Benedict.  The essay offers an evocative description of the snake‑dancing spectacle taking place on the mesa tops.  It also shows Lawrence at his best interpreting the symbolism of this Hopi ceremony in a "parched, grey country of snakes and eagles, pitched up against the sky" (New Mexico, 66).  He treats his subject with respect while at the same time pointing out the contrast between the Indian priests' vision and the modern sentiment of the crowd of tourists gathered to watch: 

And amid all its crudity, and the sensationalism which comes chiefly out of the crowd's desire for thrills, one cannot help pausing in reverence before the delicate, anointed bravery of the snake‑priests . . . .  We dam the Nile and take the railway across America. The Hopi smooths the rattlesnake and carries him in his mouth, to send him back into the dark places of the earth, an emissary to the inner powers. To each sort of man his own achievement, his own victory, his own conquest.  To the Hopi, the origins are dark and dual, cruelty is coiled in the very beginnings of all things, and circle after circle creation emerges towards a flickering, revealed Godhead. . . . To the Hopi, God is not yet, and the Golden Age lies far ahead.  Out of the dragon's den of the cosmos, we have wrested only the beginnings of our being. . . . (New Mexico, 72)  

Intermingled with the business of writing and publishing these literary works, modifications to the ranch were still underway.   Besides the mending of corral fences, Lawrence was involved with the construction of major additions to the ranch property‑‑an adobe oven in front of the Homesteader's Cabin and two covered porches.  He writes to his mother‑in‑law, the Baroness Anna Von Richthofen, about the first porch and oven:

Right now we're making a roof over the little verandah, in front of the kitchen‑door‑‑with eight little pillars, pine‑trees, and boards on top: very nice. It's almost done.‑‑You know, too, we have an Indian oven, made of adobe.  It stands outside, near the kitchen‑door:  built like a bee‑hive. . . . I've made bread, and we've baked bread and chickens in the oven:  turned out very well. We can bake twenty loaves of bread in half an hour in the oven. (Letters 5:62) 

By October the Lawrences once again ventured south to Mexico (with Brett in tow) so that Lawrence could complete work on The Plumed Serpent.  As he says in a note to E.M. Forster, it's "down to Old Mexico, to finish a novel, and see the gods again there.‑‑One can go no farther than one's blood will carry one.  But there are worlds beyond worlds, and some sort of trail" (Letters 5:77).  The trail would lead first to Mexico City and then on to Oaxaca, a small cultural center with a strong Zapotec Indian heritage and local color.  The surrounding countryside, still suffering from the aftermath of revolution, was politically unstable and dangerous to travel in; but Lawrence was focused on the reworking of his novel and almost doubled its length over the next few months as he fleshed out characters and plot.   

            The novel deals with a revival of the Aztec gods, the "Quetzalcoatl movement," and attempts to reconcile ancient and modern ways of life by restoring a primeval connection with the cosmos.  This new world order includes the pitting together, and hybrid mixing of, indigenous Indian and European cultures as part of the revitalization process aimed at restructuring social and personal relationships.  Lawrentian scholar and editor Virginia Hyde states, "Despite containing authoritarian ideas, The Plumed Serpent is a pioneer in depicting interracial marriage, in the union between Kate and the Zapotec Indian Cipriano" (Introduction to The Plumed Serpent, xx).  She goes on to say that while Lawrence had always been fascinated by the mingling of cultures, his portrayal of racial intermarriage at this time may have stemmed from his witnessing the real‑life relationship and subsequent marriage of Mabel Dodge to the Taos Indian, Tony Lujan (xxiii).  The Plumed Serpent, which is considered experimental on a number of levels, is the last and most complex of his so‑called "leadership novels."  By combining narrative prose with elaborate rituals and embedded songs and chants, Lawrence creates a whole mythology rich with religious symbolism that is also grounded in the everyday details of Mexican life, landscape, and history.  Critic Arnold Odio remarks that through The Plumed Serpent and essays contained in Mornings in Mexico, Lawrence has "had a subtle‑‑if not direct‑‑impact on a type of [predominately Spanish‑American] novel which has been described as being sui generis:  the novel of magical realism" (188).  The Plumed Serpent took American literature into new realms by exploring our aboriginal roots and giving voice to the dispossessed Indian. 

            Immediately upon completion of this exhaustive mental outpouring, Lawrence fell deathly ill with a suspected combination of tropical diseases and influenza which ultimately triggered his tuberculosis.  It was officially diagnosed as such for the first time, and Lawrence was given only a year or two to live.  Following the doctor's advice for a climate of sun and dry air, the Lawrences arrived back at the Kiowa Ranch on April 6, 1925.  Brett, who had returned earlier, was to remain down at the Del Monte Ranch with the Hawks, thus giving the Lawrences more privacy.  The recovery was slow, as recorded in letters to friends and family (see Appendix 5).  He writes to his sister: 

Yes, I was awfully sick:  malaria, typhoid condition inside, and chest going wrong.  Am much better‑‑but must be careful all summer‑‑lie down a great deal.‑‑When the wild cold winds come, I just go to bed.  In the wonderful sunny days‑‑they are six out of seven‑-I potter about and lie on a camp bed on the porch.  I don't work yet, Trinidad and his wife Ruffina [sic]‑‑the Indians‑‑do most things for us.‑‑We have brought up two horses‑‑and bought a buggy‑‑it stands by the barn.  Trinidad drives it in style.‑‑Now they are busy, away at the Gallina canyon, about two miles off, building a little dam and putting in pipes, to get the water out of the canyon  into our irrigation ditch, which winds round the hills to the house.‑‑It's rather an expense.  But we must have water on the land. (Letters 5:224) 

The addition of running water to the ranch allowed the Lawrences to plant a little garden.  Lawrence was then in charge of keeping it and the field watered:  "I go out every morning to the field, to turn the water over a new patch.  So the long 15‑acre field is very green, but the ranges are dry as dry sand, and nothing hardly grows.  Only the wild strawberries are flowering full, and the wild gooseberries were thick with blossoms, and little flocks of humming birds came for them." (Letters 5:257).  

            The thought of his novel and Mexico brought back uneasy memories of illness, so Lawrence turned his attention to other projects.  He began to write a biblical play called David (published in 1926 and first performed in 1927).  In the play, Saul loses his power through disobedience to God's will.  Likewise, Lawrence had always believed that illness and its consequences were partly the fault of the sufferer, a failure to recognize life's mistakes which wounds the soul. Cambridge biographer David Ellis remarks, "The advantage of this attitude was that, if a man was ultimately responsible for the illness, then recovery might also lie in his own hands" (261). The writing of David during Lawrence's convalescence at the ranch was perhaps therapeutic as well as being a testament to his dramatic skills and writing stamina.  He also wrote several essays on the novel as art‑form and the purpose of art in general:  "Art and Morality," "Morality and the Novel," and "The Novel."  These articles form the core of a series of essays on literary theory and aesthetics conceived while in New Mexico.26 According to Ellis again, "these three pieces, written in May and June 1925, constitute one of the most impressive of all Lawrence's many replies to his detractors and have provided crucial concepts, as well as striking phrases, for which many literary critics have been heavily in his debt ever since" (250). 

            At this time, Lawrence was approached by Centaur Press to produce a book of uncollected essays. The title of the book, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays (1925), came from one of the new pieces he supplied for the collection and was partly inspired by his own experience with a porcupine at the ranch:

I noticed, riding through the timber, the porcupines are gnawing the tips of the pine‑trees.  I saw a huge one with all his bristles up, the other evening, just in front of the house.  Wish I'd killed him.‑‑And I heard Aaron squealing and running to corral‑‑he's my black horse, very nice‑‑and I found he'd got a little bunch of porcupine quills in his nose.  Had to pull them out one by one with the pliers, and he hated it.  (Letters 5:278)  

Lawrence did later kill a pesky porcupine with a twenty‑two rifle and felt conflicted regarding this first hunting experience and the harsh necessity of killing as "part of the business of ranching: even when its only a little half‑abandoned ranch like this one" (Reflections, 354).  For the essay collection, most of the material was either newly written or revised, and glimpses of ranch life are sprinkled throughout.  Michael Herbert affirms in the Introduction to the Cambridge edition that the book was "a remarkable tribute to life on the ranch and to his own possession of that vividness and vitality stressed in all the essays" (Herbert, xli).  

            Of particular note is "....Love was Once a Little Boy," in which Lawrence talks about his newly‑acquired cow, Black‑Eyed Susan, and the mysterious connection between them.  (See Appendix O for a historical photograph of Lawrence and the cow.)  Brett documents Lawrence’s first milking of Susan after struggling to get the unruly cow into the corral: “[A]t milking time you go in cautiously with the bucket.  We [Brett and Frieda] hide behind palings to watch.  You talk to her, stroking her nose; then sit gingerly on the stool and begin to milk. . . . She stands as quiet as a lamb as the milk streams into the bucket.” (222).  He states in a letter: "I seem to be forever milking.  We have pulled down the old corral, and made a new smaller one out of the old lumber.  Also reroofed the barn. . . .  Now the lesser house is the dairy‑‑all cleaned up and nice" (Letters 5:268).  Lawrence catalogues his other livestock as consisting of four horses, white and brown hens, a white cock, and a little wild rabbit that Trinidad had caught.  He reports to his mother‑in‑law:  "Frieda makes two pounds of butter a week!!  Today we got as many as eight eggs!!!" (Letters 5:266).  In describing their simple farm life to his publisher Martin Secker, Lawrence comments: 

We are busy on our ranch just ranching.‑‑. . .  Sounds idyllic, but the cow escapes into the mountains, we hunt her on horseback and curse her . . .: an eagle strikes one of the best hens: a skunk fetches the eggs: the half wild cows break in on the pasture, that is drying up as dry as pepper‑‑no rain, no rain, no rain. It's tough country. (Letters 5:268) 

            By the end of May, Lawrence was recovered enough to begin the tedious work of revising his novel.  He writes, "They have sent me the typescript of my Mexican novel‑‑I did so want to call it 'Quetzalcoatl', but they all went into a panic‑‑and they want the translation‑‑The Plumed Serpent‑‑I suppose they'll have to have it‑‑but sounds to me rather millinery" (Letters 5:254).  With the name of the book established, revisions continued throughout June and into July.  During this time Centaur Press published A Bibliography of the Writings of D.H. Lawrence by Edward McDonald.  The list of literary accomplishments was already quite extensive and growing.  McDonald's serious attention was one of the first in a long line of scholarly studies, leading to academic pilgrimages to the ranch made by young and old in the years to follow. 

            As autumn approached, the Lawrences' six‑month visa was coming to an end, and they packed up for another visit to England.  Although they hated to leave the ranch they'd put so much hard work and care into, Lawrence was feeling nostalgic because of his close brush with death; and he was torn between the old world and the new.  His sadness is expressed in this unknowingly permanent farewell:  "It grieves me to leave my horses, and my cow Susan, and the cat Timsy Wemyss, and the white cock Moses‑‑and the place. . . . it's very wonderful country"  (Letters 5:291).  They left New Mexico on September 11, 1925‑‑his birthday.  It had been exactly three years since his arrival in America, and Lawrence would never again return due to his failing health.

            Lawrence continued to yearn occasionally for his ranch and to write about his experiences in New Mexico.27  On a November evening of 1925 in the village of Spotorno on the Italian Riviera, he wrote an essay entitled "A Little Moonshine with Lemon."  It was written specifically for Willard Johnson's special Lawrence issue of his magazine, Laughing Horse, that was published in April 1926.  The essay gives a portrait of the uncharacteristically sentimental Lawrence comfortably having a glass of vermouth in the temperate Mediterranean on St. Catherine's Day, while dreaming of his American ranch in the snowy mountains where he would instead be drinking "moonshine": 

not very good moonshine, but still warming:  with hot water and lemon, and sugar, and a bit of cinnamon from one of those little red Schilling's tins.  And I should light my little stove in the bedroom, and let it roar a bit, sucking the wind.  Then dart to bed, with all the ghosts of the ranch cosily round me, and sleep till the very coldness of my emerged nose wakes me. (Laughing Horse 13:3) 

He derives some comfort from knowing the same moon shines on both him and the shut‑up ranch.  Brett did return to Taos in June of 1926 and kept Lawrence informed of conditions there and saw that the horses were fed.  In January of 1927 Lawrence writes to her, "I'd have loved to see the Christmas and New Year dances at the pueblo.  I'd love to ride Poppy in a race with Prince.‑‑But there you are, 6000 miles, a pot of money, and a great deal of travelling effort lie between, to say nothing of New York. . . ."  (Letters 5:629).  This is to say nothing, too, of strict immigration officials who would have made such an attempt humiliating for the more and more obviously sick man.  He also maintained contact with Mabel and dedicated Mornings in Mexico to "Mabel Lujan" since, as he explains, "to you we owe Taos and all that ensues from Taos" (Letters 6:36).  And he wrote an article at Mabel's request called "New Mexico," which summed up his feelings toward the rugged and majestic Southwest:

I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had.  It certainly changed me for ever. Curious as it may sound, it was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilization, the great era of material and mechanical development. . . . the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. . . .  In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new. (Survey Graphic, 153)

 Narrative by Tina Ferris & Virginia Hyde