Brushing the cobwebs off the D.H. Lawrence Ranch

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SAN CRISTOBAL – As a reporter signed the guest book Wednesday at the shrine north of Taos that contains the ashes of English novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, a tiny spider scurried out from the pages.

No surprise there since the Lawrence Ranch – on Lobo Mountain near San Cristobal, about 20 miles north of Taos – has been shuttered from its seasonal opening since October.

The ranch was closed to visitors from 2008 until 2014 but was opened last summer three days a week and is expected to reopen next summer. A cat and kittens sidled up as longtime caretaker Ricardo Medina gave visitors a tour of the buildings set within a dense pine forest.

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Some consider the 160-acre ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 8,600 feet elevation, where the Lawrences lived for a spell in the 1920s, an international treasure. They are pushing for greater uses for the ranch in conjunction with its owner – the University of New Mexico.

The last three visitors signing the guest book were from Greenville, S.C., Buffalo, N.Y., and Annapolis, Md.

“There is a lot of interest in Lawrence from all over the world,” Medina said.

The reasons the property has languished: lack of funds for upkeep, an unreliable water supply, its isolated location and the Hantavirus scare – a large warning sign about that is front and center at the ranch.

But things may be about to change as Taos groups like the D.H. Lawrence Ranch Alliance, Friends of D.H. Lawrence and elements within UNM push for change. Both the foundation and the alliance are helping with fundraising.

Recently, UNM launched an effort called the D.H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives to figure out how best to renovate and revitalize the historic site for artistic, cultural and educational endeavors.

The task is led by English professor Sharon Oard Warner and Gary Smith, associate director of the UNM’s Physical Plant Department. The ranch is not supported by the usual UNM funding sources, and must rely on grants and donations from community groups and individuals. Atkin Olshin Schade Architects of Santa Fe has put together a historic preservation and development assessment that Warner finds encouraging.

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Famous novels

Lawrence is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, even though he died at age 44 when the century had not quite completed three decades. The titles of his novels are instantly recognizable: “Women in Love,” “Sons and Lovers,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

D.H. Lawrence, the English novelist and poet, in the 1920s.

D.H. Lawrence, the English novelist and poet, in the 1920s.

Even though Lawrence’s stay in the Land of Enchantment was relatively short, it greatly influenced him and his writings, and he came away with an affinity for the state’s Native American cultures. “I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever,” Lawrence wrote.

It was Mabel Dodge Luhan, the wealthy Taos doyen of the arts, who invited Lawrence and Frieda to visit in the early 1920s. Lawrence died in 1930 in France, but Frieda later had Lawrence’s body exhumed and cremated, and brought the ashes to New Mexico.

According to UNM materials, the most accepted story of what happened to the ashes is that Frieda tossed them into a wheelbarrow full of wet cement – to keep them from being scattered over the ranch, as others wanted to do – and the cement was used to build the Lawrence altar inside the ranch’s chapel-like shrine. Frieda gave the ranch to UNM in 1955 and died in 1956.

Friends of D.H. Lawrence President and Alliance member Bill Haller gravitated to Taos because of a long interest in Lawrence. “Lawrence traveled his whole life looking for a special place to live,” Haller said. “But, once he got here to Taos, he has the famous quote that he really felt at home here and he often speaks of the spirit of the place … . He would have lived out the rest of his life (in Taos) had he lived longer.”

Alliance President Stanley Riveles and Vice Chairman Richard Archuleta, a Taos Pueblo member, are interested in a greater acknowledgement of the ranch’s importance.

“Our watchword is revitalization of the D.H. Lawrence Ranch and making it part of the community,” Riveles said. “It’s a big tourist attraction.”

Haller has been training docents for tours and a visitor center is also a possibility, Riveles said.

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Julianne Newmark, an associate professor of English at New Mexico Tech in Socorro and the archivist for the D.H. Lawrence of North America, has written articles on Lawrence. Every three years, the society meets in Santa Fe.

“People come from all over the world and see the shrine that Frieda built for his ashes,” Newmark said. “He (Lawrence) would later say there was something about New Mexico that you can never really shake.”

The ranch – including a cow shed built by Lawrence himself – is on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. Frieda bequeathed it to UNM with the stipulation it be used for educational and cultural purposes, and that the memorial be open to the public.

D.H. Lawrence’s ashes are said to be in the cement used to make this memorial altar inside a shrine resembling a small chapel at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch near San Cristobal. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

D.H. Lawrence’s ashes are said to be in the cement used to make this memorial altar inside a shrine resembling a small chapel at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch near San Cristobal. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Ready for new uses

The ranch was in bad need of cleanup in recent years, which has been done, said UNM’s Warner. “So, now, we are in a good position to bring the ranch back to its former uses and expand on those,” she said.

In the 1950s, it was used as an anthropological field school and, from 1981 through 2005, it was used by art and art history professors for painting classes, Warner said.

“The art history department definitely wants to use it again for classes,” she said. “The plan is to reinstitute some of the same classes for fine arts and anthropology, but there are a number of other possibilities.”

Currently, English professors take students who are studying Lawrence and other modernists to the ranch. UNM should find out next month if it will receive a grant from the New Mexico Office of the State Historian and, if so, architecture students would take part in the rehabilitation and restoration of buildings, Warner said.

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Lawrence completed a short novel, “St. Mawr,” the biblical drama “David” and parts of a lesser-known novel, “The Plumed Serpent,” at the ranch in 1924 and 1925. New Mexico also figures prominently in other Lawrence essays and stories, such as “The Woman Who Rode Away.”

Lawrence and New Mexico are forever linked. “Because D.H. Lawrence only owned one piece of property in his lifetime and that was in New Mexico,” Warner said.

Lawrence influenced other writers to visit the state, including Frank Waters, Aldous Huxley and Willa Cather.

In the short term, the most urgent need is to repair the water system – storage tanks, bathrooms, a pumping system and a water supply to the caretaker’s house, UNM’s Smith said. “The infrastructure is very old.”

Long-term plans call for the construction of a meeting place, replacing 15 dilapidated cabins and rehabilitating all six of the property’s historic buildings.

In 1998, Warner was appointed to head a creative writing program and was asked what her ideal project would be. Her immediate reply: “To start a writers’ conference in Taos.”

Ironically, she had never been to Taos, she says with a chuckle, but, like other writers, she knew about the ranch. She also knew that authors, including Lawrence, and other artistic luminaries – Georgia O’Keeffe, Lillian Gish, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams – long had been attracted to Taos.

A cat stands guard over the Dorothy Brett cabin at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch. Brett was an English painter friend who joined Lawrence and his wife at their ranch in the 1920s, initially as part of an effort to establish a utopian society. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A cat stands guard over the Dorothy Brett cabin at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch. Brett was an English painter friend who joined Lawrence and his wife at their ranch in the 1920s, initially as part of an effort to establish a utopian society. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The following year, the first Taos Summer Writers Conference was held at Taos’ Sagebrush Inn. It’s been an annual event every year.

The conference also has created an online writing community, Rananim – Hebrew for “rejoice” and the name Lawrence used for what he’d hoped would be a utopian society at the ranch – which helps raise money for the ranch. The conference has become one of the largest gatherings of writers in the country, “but it really didn’t help the ranch that much,” Warner said. “The ranch didn’t get the attention I thought it would.”

Warner would like to see the ranch develop into an artists’ colony.

“It was the place D.H. Lawrence hoped to bring young people to, for writing, art, music,” she said. “I, for one, feel compelled to try to help keep that vision alive.”

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