Where a Whiff of Pinyon Smoke Leads

Georgia O’Keeffe.Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, 1935.
Georgia O’Keeffe.Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. 1935. [Source: Wikipedia]

A blind flaneur follows his nose, and his heart, whenever he can. So when I heard a friend’s story about a trip to Taos, one detail took me back to a New Mexico night long ago when I drank camp coffee for the first time and heard the heart-stopping yowl of a mountain lion beneath the indifferent stars. My friend reported crisp autumnal mornings in Taos with a whiff of pinyon smoke in the air. My nose remembered a backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains when I was fourteen years old. One night we were invited to a log cabin with a rough plank table before a stone fireplace. Our hosts poured cup after cup of the blackest Hills Brothers coffee. It wasn’t anything like the sugar-sweetened dregs in my mother’s coffee cup which I sampled as a curious child. Camp coffee was a revelation. It gave me a buzz. Throw another pine log on the fire, pour another cup from the dented coffee pot… it was the discovery of a primordial ritual re-enacted over and over again throughout my life. I was wide awake at 2 a.m. Instead of returning to my tent and crawling in the sleeping bag, I ambled down the dirt road that snaked through the canyon. It was clear and still and the Milky Way lit the night with no moon in sight. I could smell the tang of pinyon smoke more than a mile from the cabin. Something rustled in the brush across a little creek. I saw a blur streak across the top of a boulder on the other side. Then I heard the cat.

After Tom sent me images of the Eve Koch paintings he found in Santa Fe, I shared my memory of pinyon smoke with him. Yesterday a packet of pinyon pine incense arrived in the mail. He’d acquired that in Santa Fe, too, and lit some in his studio for nostalgia’s sake. This morning I chucked a couple pieces of it in the wood stove, my offering to the gods of hearth and fire. Then I went out in the foggy rain to stack cord- wood dumped unceremoniously in the driveway. Good oak and walnut mixed with soft maple — no pinyon pine in these parts, but there was an exotic tang in the air that must have made the neighbors wonder what I was smoking. And of course, there was a blue granite coffee pot waiting snugly on the wood stove.

A Note on the Image (updated 010608): There are no images of Georgia O’Keeffe’s art in the Wikimedia Commons, although you will find several photographs such as the 1918 Stieglitz portrait. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Wikipedia page presents only one image of her artwork, Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills (shown above). This image, like almost every other O’Keeffe image on the Internet, is copyrighted. You should read Wikipedia’s detailed copyright notice if you want to use it. See also Georgia On My Mind, and Yours.

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7 Responses to Where a Whiff of Pinyon Smoke Leads

  1. tomrobertstennessee says:

    Mark-
    I find the combination of the tangible with the virtual reality in your blog intriguing. The Eve Koch paintings on my walls take on a new significance when posted on Blindflaneur.com and linked to the University of Calgary website. When you mentioned Penyon incense in an e-mail, it was only natural to send you half the box sitting on my studio fireplace mantle.
    I once read about an Indian mound in Arkansas where archeologists found artifacts that came from as far away as Mexico and northern Canada. That kind of marketplace stimulates my imagination, like reading “The World is Flat,” selling stuff on E-Bay, and participating in your blog. It’s serious fun!
    Tom

  2. ms modigliani says:

    “Every autumn, from times uncounted, the calendar of the Ute Indians contained as one of the great, gala events of the years the annual expedition to the mountains for the nuts of the pinyon pine… the pine nuts or Indian nuts of the dry areas of the west played an important part in shaping the lives of the Indians there. Abundant, nourishing, keeping well, they formed the staple food of winter.” Edwin Way Teale

    from……. http://home.earthlink.net/~swier/PinyonPine.html (Stuart Wier’s webpage)
    ________________________________________________________________________

    Knowing nothing about the pinyon pine, I found Stuart Wier’s webpage vivid and informative in its discussion of the species, locations, uses, history, and environmental influences of the pinyon pine. Maybe sometime I’ll experience pinyon pine smoke and all it evokes:

    “Like the scent of the Ponderosa, Pinyon smoke instantly recalls a flood of evocative associations of place, season, and way of life to those who know it.” (Stuart Weir)
    __________________________________________________________________________

  3. Mark Willis says:

    Yes, Tom, I’m digging it too in more ways than one. There are Hopewell mounds near here where archaeologists have unearthed obsidian tools from Mezzo-America and float copper ornaments from the shores of Lake Superior. Soapstone effigy pipes from Ohio (what were *they* smoking?) have been found just as far afield. Paleolithic America may not have been as flat as Tom Friedman’s vision of globalization, but it was more connected than we might think. The quest for new connections is what makes us human.

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Ms. Modigliani was writing a comment at the same time that I posted the one above. Thanks, Ms. M. Edwin Way Teale was one of my favorite nature writers as a kid. Grandma Willis used to read to me from his book *North with the Spring*. It may have been my first inkling that one could make a life by writing books and walking in the woods. That’s probably where I first learned about Henry Thoreau, who lived that life to its fullest.

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