Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.
A VISIT TO SWAN HOUSE
[C.M. MAYO READS FOR PEN SAN MIGUEL]
(APPROX 50 MINUTES)
C.M. Mayo: Welcome! This is C.M. Mayo and this is number 10 in the 24 podcast series. This is a live recording of my lecture for PEN San Miguel in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico on February 29, 2013 [ín the Teatro Angela Peralta]. Thanks for listening.
Elizabeth Starcevic [President of PEN San Miguel]: Welcome to all of you. Our presenter will be introduced by Lucina Kathmann, who is our secretary. Thank you.
Lucina Kathmann: It's my great pleasure to be able to introduce C.M. Mayo, who has many wonderful qualities. I always say that the research is the thing that most facsinates me but I think there could be many different interpretations of what is most fascinating about her work.
Today she's going to be talking about about a book-in-process which is going to be a travel book in the loosest sense. Back in the 90s, she wrote a book called Miraculous Air, which was about a very long trip through Baja California, and she, in some ways, is repeating in Far West Texas, that sort of approach. And in preparation for finishing that book she's been making a bunch of podcasts which are called "Marfa Mondays" and she does a lot of very interesting things on the Internet. There's also Madam Mayo's blog, and if you haven't seen that, you need to look at it. She does very interesting things that you wouldn't expect.
She's also the author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, and we have some copies of that, which is a historical novel about something that really happened, in which a kid was a prince in Mexico. That book was a Library Journal Best Book of 2009.
And now I'm just going to present Catherine Mayo.
C.M. Mayo: Thank you, Lucina, thank you. I am so delighted and so honored to be able to give this talk to you today. I've been a member of PEN for many years now and I know how hard the San Miguel de Allende chapter works to keep the flame bright. So thank you, Lucina, and thank you also Elizabeth Starcevic, President of PEN San Miguel, and Pat Herschl and everyone at PEN. Some of the names I got were Colleen Runch and Rachel Zelkind. I know it takes a lot of work to keep this going and make this happen.
And to all of you who bought a ticket to benefit PEN today, and therefore, freedom of expression, I very sincerely thank you.
I'm going to be reading from a work-in-progress which does have a title, finally, after a year of working on it: World Waiting for a Dream: A Turn in Far West Texas.
But first, what do I mean by Far West Texas? Well, it's work-in-progress, so I am not yet sure how precisely I'm going to define my range, but technically Far West Texas or the Trans-Pecos, is that whole swath of Texas west of the Pecos River, extending all the way to that sharp elbow of Texas at El Paso.
We're talking west, way West. Texas is big. The little towns out here are nowhere near places people have heard of; they are hours and hours and hours of driving from, say, San Antonio, Austin or Houston. To give you an idea, the little West Texas town of Marfa... Now how many of you have you have heard of Marfa?
Wow! I think that's like three quarters of the people in here! OK!
That's a seven hour drive from Austin, Texas's capital, which by the way sits smack in the middle of the state.
It's a varied terrain with some spectacular mountains and ocean-like high plains, among other features. But to imagine what much of Far West Texas looks like, you might think of "Giant". Who's seen that movie, the one with James Dean, Rock Hudson? Elizabeth Taylor? If you haven't seen it, it's a great movie. The scenes of endless open desert punctuated by prickly pear cactus, lechigilla and soap trees, an occasional tumbleweed bouncing away into the vastness what Elizabeth Taylor saw, to her shock, upon arriving at reata from her family's leafy-green estate was the northern Chihuahan Desert.
Now another thing about Far West Texas: it includes the Big Bend defined to the south by that bodacious bend in the Rio Grande, a bulge actually, corralling into Texas a substantial chunk of what was once, like the rest of the state, part of Mexico. By the way, by substantial, I mean, the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut put together.
And not just historically, but culturally, ecologically, and economically, the Big Bend region remains intimately tied to Mexico. And this interests me intensely, and I think it should interest yuou also, for we live in Mexico, and I think you'll agree especially those of you have been here some years you can keep on earning about Mexico for the rest of your natural life, and never get to the end of it. Let's call it "digging into Mexico"or, we could call it, digging into the complexities of human life.
What intrigues me about the Big Bend and intrigues me enough to not just go there, but I know you writers will understand me commit to writing a book about it, is its remoteness and the kind of people that attracts. Very few people venture into the Big Bend by choice. And in fact, the Big Bend National Park, a park about the size of the state of Rhode Island, is one of the least visited in the United States. And this is not for any lack of beauty, wondrous flora and fauna and coal-black night skies spangled with the glory of the Milky Way. Nor for any lack of historical and cultural interest. It's just... remote.
There are many more
things to say about the Big Bend and Far West Texas but at this
point, as it's a work in-progress and you're not going to want
to listen to me past the dinner hour though, believe me,
I could talk about this for 10 hours! I want to focus on
one thing in particular.
The Food Shark, a truck selling sandwiches by the railroad in tracks in Marfa, population, 2,000 I just checked last night, @FoodShark now has 1,129 followers, many of whom are from New York, one's a food and culture writer for GQ; there's an attorney in Savannah; a Libertarian mom from Arizona; a guy who runs a pet-sitting service in Austin, who says in his Twitter profile, "The bitches love me."
The Food Shark also has a happening YouTube channel, by the way.
A friend of mine
I've changed her name, let's call her Jan just posted 13
photos on Facebook. Jan says, "Time to depart Oaxaca and
see more of Mexico. It's been a great visit and I hope to return." Eleven
people "like" this.
It's easy to make light of this, but it's something humungous, really. Kevin Kelley, author of What the Technium Wants, and many brilliant pieces for Wired Magazine, writes on his blog, KK.org:
"This is the first and only time a planet will get wired up into a global network. We are alive at this critical moment in history and we are just at the beginning of the beginning of the many developments that will erupt because of this shift."
Wow. With facebook,
blogs, Twitter, yelp.com, TripAdvisor.com, we're all travel writers
now. We can tweet our pictures from Oaxaca, from Easter Island.
We can blog about charismatic megafauna in Laguna San Ignacio
or Camp Denali, Alaska.
Literary travel writing as I understand it, in the best of the Anglo-American tradition I'm talking about works by V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Marry Morris, Sara Mansfield Taber, Ian Freazier, Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Ted Conover, Nancy Marie Brown, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Gretel Erhlich we have such a long list of names, such a rollicking fine literary travel writing tradition. It's so much much more than the simple chronicling of a journey or fussing about with pretty language.
If Susan Sontag was right that the novel is an education of the heart, I would say then that the literary travel memoir, ideally, is a novel-like education of the heart and the mind, because it's nonfiction, so we can get really crunchy, we can go into history, politics, geology, what-have-you.
Like a novel, a literary travel memoir should have an architecture, so the reader trusts to keep turning the pages, just as she would trust the stairs in a well-built house.
And it uses sensory detail and whole raft of poetic techniques to create the illusion of vividness:
The smell of a cow;
the heat of the sun on its black hide; its lowing; its hoof pressing
a pebble into the sand; the shush of a pitchfork into fresh hay.
And when that, ideally, results in some shift, when we come back up for air, when we put the book down, see the world anew.
One of my very favorite writers, Edward Swiftwhom I'm sure many of you know he's written many fine novels and one of the best personal memoirs ever, My Grandfather's Finger he talks about the writer taking the Orphic Journey, and I think that is the most powerful and true metaphor for what we do. We leave our tribe, normal life; we descend into another world; then we bring something back to share.
I want to share something from this book-in-progress with you: "A Visit to Swan House." This is much longer in the book; here it is condensed into a piece which is in the current issue of Cenizo Journal.
And by the way, coming back to whole the idea of connectedness in this digital world, I am recording this. It will be podcast number 10 in the 24 podcast series, "Marfa Mondays," which you can follow on Twitter @marfamondays, and you can "like" Marfa Mondays on facebook should you be so inclined. And inconceivable as this would have been to any literary travel writer I know and indeed, to myself until it happened, Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project has joined the Marfa, Texas Chamber of Commerce... because they let me, and because the price was right, and because they mention my podcasts in their weekly emailed newsletter.
A VISIT TO SWAN HOUSE
[By C.M. Mayo. Published in Cenizo Journal]
spied it from a Jeep on Casa Piedra Road: a huddle of oddly shaped
brown buildings baking in the sun. I'd arrived at its modest
gate after a mile and a bit of crunching over gravel up from
the Rio Grande near Presidio on the U.S.-Mexico border. What
interested me thenI was just starting my book on far West
Texas, focusing on the probable route of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza
de Vaca, the would-be conquistador of Florida who got lostwas
the landscape. Such raw, open vistas were easy to imagine seeing
through that ill-starred Spaniard's eyes. From a cloudless dome,
the February sun beat down on the rocks and tangles of mesquite
and clumps of prickly pear cactus, and ocotillo that stretched
on for what must have been, for anyone on foot, a merciless number
of miles. To the northwest loomed the bulk of the Chinatis, to
the east, the jagged and lavender Bofecillos, and into Mexico,
the Sierra Grande.
Audience member: What took you to West Texas from Mexico?
C.M. Mayo: Three things. One is, I was born in El Paso, but I didn't grow up there, so it was always kind of a mystery to me.
The other thing was that I saw that it had a lot in common with Baja Califorinia, not just ecologically but also culturally and historically, and I thought I could do some really interesting compare-and-contrast.
And then finally, Marfa is well-known for its artist community, as I know many of you here must know, and I've always really enjoyed talking to artists. I love talking to artists because they make a habit of seeing what other people don't see, of having fresh eyes. I thought, oh, I'd like to do that.
But actually once I got started, I started finding things I never expected, like Swan House. That was not on my radar.
Audience member: [On an] NPR broadcast recently, I heard a discussion having to do with immigration from Mexico, about a border crossing somewhere in that area of the Big Bend where, basically, for a long time now, people have been able to go back and forth across the border [?] That may be coming to a change, they may have to do something [?]. Is there is anything special about that you remember?
C.M. Mayo: It's been a big issue about the border crossings, and one of the most interesting things to me about that whole border region is that for centuries, decades, until really 9/11, people could informally cross very easily. When I was down looking at some of the funny little spots along the river [Rio Grande], I even saw a place where the Border Patrol for, like the 27th time, destroyed a handmade bridge that people were usually because, there were family members on both side, as well as, I'm sure, illegal things and who-knows-what, but the little bridge was finally, definitively, destroyed at Candelaria. But the funny thing was, when you stand there, there's this muddy bank, and then an expanse really, about from where I'm standing to where you are, Susan not very far the Rio Grande is not very big at that point and you could literally throw something to the other side. But I saw paw prints. A dog had crossed! Maybe it was a coyote, actually.
One of the things that I also found that was really interesting about what's happening down there right now is they're using drones, like the ones they have in Pakistan. They fly overhead and
Audience member: I saw one in El Paso.
C.M. Mayo: Yeah. People have strong feelings about that.
Audience member: Catherine, you alluded to opposition that Swan House received from its Mexican and American [?]. Can you describe that further, what they were opposed to?
C.M. Mayo: Well.... I think a lot of people, it's just kind of beyond their ken to live in a mud house. That's not their view of getting ahead in life. They would prefer to live in a trailer or a mobile home or a traditionally constructed building. I think there's sociological reasons for that.
I was certainly convinced that all the benefits are there it is ecological, it is sanitary, if it's done properly, and you can build a house where you don't need to use as much air conditioning and heating and so on. There are a lot of really amazing ancient techniques that can really help you live more comfortably in a desert environment that people don't use. But, you know, we all live in places that are not just about that, they are also about how they look to our friends and neighbors and family, and a mud house may not fit with that.
Audience: What kind of Native Americans lived in the area?
C.M. Mayo: I love that question!
But let me just quick a add something to [my answer to] the last question, which is, there are some houses built using these techniques in Mexico, in Ojinaga, which I've seen photographs of them and they're very beautiful. If you're interested further, you can find a lot on the Internet about Swan House, if you Google Simone Swan and Adobe Alliance, you'll find the Adobe Alliance webpage and you can see a lot of the photos and get a lot more information about that.
I think they're really beautiful and what I tried to convey with this is when you look at is, you might think, it's this weird Egyptian mud-house, so what? But when you're in it, it's just transfromative. I hope I conveyed that. And there are people on both sides of the border who do appreciate that. But certainly they're not the majority at this point.
Back to your question. One of the most interesting things to me about this region is the indigenous past. And when I was writing about Baja California, that was a big part of my book. Baja California is very well known for its cave art. Well, the Big Bend has the same darned thing. And interestingly enough, it's not well-publicized in part because the government doesn't have the resources to protect it.
The people who were there originally, I think most of them died of disease or intermarried with other groups that came from the north. The Apaches and Comanches are the best known peoples of this region, but they were actually originally Plains people who came down on horses after the Spanish arrived.
So it's different from Baja California Baja California is a very long, narrow long peninsula, so the indigenous people there were hunter gathers and they didn't adopt horses [apart from the missions], it was a very tiny population, whereas, in Texas, you have access to the Great Plains, So it's this sort of infinite supply of Indians and horses coming down, and they saw the cattle ranches and they started raiding them, and that's kind of where we get our cowboys and Indians stories.
Audience: You mentioned that you were making a podcast of this? Can you tell us more about that and what your goals are for the podcast?
C.M. Mayo: When I did my book on Baja California and this one is going to be very similar I interviewed a lot of people because to me, that was the most interesting thing about being able to travel there was sitting down and talking to someone in detail, like Simone Simon telling me about her childhood in the Belgian Congo to me, that's the joy of doing this. And I thought, now I can share this! What fun! Instead of just leaving it in the drawer, I can share it!
And also, a lot of the material isn't going to make it into the book. I mean, I have five hours with Simone Swan, I'm sure only a tiny fraction of that will make it into the book, but I can share some of that as a podcast.
And I can do it, it's actually not that difficult to do. And I recently brought out an ebook you can get it on the Kindle or iBookstore called Podcasting for Writers. Podcasting is actually very simple, especially if you have a Mac, you can use GarageBand to edit it, it's very simple. I'm recording this on my iPhone, OK? You don't need a studio. I do like to be able to edit out the parts where I babble and cough and say stuff I wish I hadn't said. [LAUGHS]
That's really all it is. So I decided to do 24 over two years and I thought, well, that will pretty much get in most of the interviews, not all, but most of them. And then I thought it would be fun to leave it as an archive. It's not the same as the book, but complements it.
Audience: What demographics, like in small communities there, are there lots of kids or do people come from the outside, or are you looking at places that are just dying embers, of communities beforehand? Or? What's your sense when you travel there, of the communities?
C.M. Mayo: It's really varied. Presidio, which is down on the border with Ojinaga, my impression is, it's a very border-culture place, people have family on both sides of the border, whereas, when you go an hour north and get to Marfa, then you're suddenly getting people who are from Manhattan, and then people who have been there a long time. It really varies.
One of the really interesting things about this region that I've noticed that Rubén Martínez talks about in his new book, Desert America which I just reviewed, I gave it a great review, it's a really interesting book he talks about how over the last decade, there has been this mass migration into the desert. And I think that Marfa is a kind of like a mini-Greenwich Village. A lot of people who, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, would have gone to Greenwich Village, now they're going to go to Marfa. I think that's interesting. The sociology is very complex out there.
Audience member: I recently read your book on Baja and though I had not really traveled in Baja, I was struck by how much it must have changed since you wrote the book. So last century.
C.M. Mayo: Oh yeah!
Audience member: My question is, one, you have been going back to Baja, how has it changed? And secondly, do you see the same thing happening in West Texas? Not necessarily the same types of changes, but the same rapidity of changes, speed of change?
C.M. Mayo: Oh, yeah, Baja has changed, and as a matter of fact when I was there, there were many places that didn't have telephones. You had to pay to go use a public telephone, four pesos a call or something, and the Internet was dial-up... Now it's a different world.
The difference though is that Baja California is next to Southern California and it's on an airline route that comes from Anchorage and Fairbanks, hits Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, LA, San Diego, so you have airlines coming down all day long every day and if you look at the Los Cabos airport you'll see that big Alaska Airlines thing out there understandably, especially in the winter. But they are next to that flow. And I don't think the Big Bend has got that. And also, obviously, Big Bend doesn't have the beach.
Eva Hunter: Catherine, another writer who's only written about Texas, Christopher Cook, is just about to return to San Miguel, and I know a lot of you know about him. But he writes about East Texas and the stories he writes about are so amazingly different from what you've been talking to us about tonight. What's your take on the difference between East Texas and West Texas?
C.M. Mayo: Well, I'm still learning, but my impression at this point is that Texas is kind of a hybrid culture or, that's not even the right word, there are mutliple cultures in Texas. I think the Southern one is what you find more in the East and then the western one in the West... and I'm definitely a western person. Probably very typical that my family well, everybody who came to California came from someplace else but my parents are from Chicago and New York and we moved out there. So I just feel like my background, my mentality, is very western not in the sense of cowboys-and-Indians western, but just west. I'm very Californian. I'm culturally very Californian, this idea that [one can be] very mobile, that's it's OK to move here and move there, to do this or do that. Whereas my sense of Southern culture I'm not Southern but my sense of it is that it's more rooted, and it's more traditional, and it's less mobile. And my sense is that Texas has both of those things.
Audience member: My idea of Christopher Cook story is that you get deep into East Texas, you're really looking at more of an Appalachian-type culture than western culture.Would that be your feeling, too?
C.M. Mayo: That's my feeling, but you know, the extent of my knowledge of East Texas is from visits to Houston and reading Edward Swift's wonderful memoir, My Grandfather's Finger. If you haven't read it, go read it, it's really good! But I'm really not an expert on East Texas.
Edward Swift: I am an expert on East Texas! Because the Big Thicket is my literary terrain and it's in all of my books. I will say this one sentence East Texas, and particularly the Big Thicket National Preserve, is the South, it is the Deep South, it's swamps, it's rivers, it's [?], it's low places and the people are very inbred, and the accent is very soft. And I think the people in West Texas are more resilient, they are tougher, and the accent is a little harder. But East Texas is the South. The Sabine River you don't cross Lousianna and go into arid sandy land. You're still in the bayou country.
Lucina Kathmann: We probably have time for one more question.
Audience member: Yes, I'm interested in knowing what your thought is about Donald Judd. I mean, he's the one who really made Marfa happen, isn't that the case? Or is that a misperception?
C.M. Mayo: I think that's a fair perception.
Marfa was a stop on the railroad, a ranching town that existed
because it was a stop on the railroad. They filmed the movie
"Giant" there, and during World War II it had a military
base and a prisoner of war camp for Germans. And he came after
the war and put his sculptures there, and some of his paintings
as well. A variety of different types of art. My understanding
is that he felt it was important to have the art not just in
a corner in a museum, but in situ, in the landcape.
I had my come-to-Jesus moment in there. It wasn't my taste, I didn't get it, it struck me as ridiculous. It's in this old gigantic old artillery shed that's full of box after box and the boxes are big, like about yay big. The light was so extraordinary. And to see the way the light was moving on them... I said, oh my God! And then to just think, what kind of person would do something like this? He was kind of like this emperor.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this book was precisely because of the artists in Marfa and he's certainly not just the most famous one, but I think without question, the one who's had the biggest impact on the town itself.
That was really what pulled me into it writing about it, but the once I got into it... I'm at a poiunt where I'm finding other things more interesting, and I'm kind of moving from Cabeza de Vaca up through history. Right now I'm doing cowboys and Indians, that's my next trip. And I'll get to the 20th century later, at the end of the book. So I'll probably have a lot more to say about him by the time I get there.
Lucina Kathmann: Thank you very much.
C.M. Mayo [to listeners]: Thank you for listening. I invite you to visit my webpage, www.cmmayo.com, read all about my several other books, as well this book-in-progress which might be done by the time you listen to this. And you can also, on my website, listen to all the Marfa Mondays podcasts which, so far include "We Have Seen the Lights" about the Marfa Ghost Lights, a very weird but real phenomenon; "A Spell in Chinati Hot Springs" interviews with bee expert Cynthia McAlister, rock hound Paul Graybeal, Big Bend expedition leader Charles Angell, painters, Mary Baxter and Avram Dumitrescu, and curator Mary Bones on "The Lost Art Colony."
There are fourteen more podcasts to go in this 24 podcast series. If you would like to be notified when new podcasts are available, I would be delighted to add you to my mailing list. I send out a free newsletter a few times a year. You can sign-up for that on my webpage, again, cmmayo.com
Until next time.