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History in the Writings of Peggy Pond Church

By Sharon Snyder



The heart of history is the power of memory, the creation of tradition, the significance of place, the importance of stories, the richness of language, the meanings of silence, and the employment of imagination.

That quote from Arizona State University Professor Peter Iverson shows the vast reach of what we call history.

The writings of author and poet Peggy Pond Church bring to life all of those elements, and though she was not considered a historian, she lived some unparalleled history and left glimpses and insights that are a special part of her legacy. From the age of ten until her death in 1986, she left journals, letters, poetry, and prose that mark each phase of her personal journey as well as moments of significance from our collective journey.

Peggy was born in the Territory of New Mexico in 1903 on a ranch bordering the western edge of the Great Plains at a place called Valmora. She was the daughter of Ashley Pond Jr. and Hazel Hallett Pond. Her father had been one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders until he contracted typhoid fever and came to New Mexico to recuperate. While regaining his health, he fell in love with the land and also with a young woman from a nearby ranch. Peggy’s mother was the granddaughter of former Arkansas Governor O. A. Hadley who owned a 4,000-acre ranch called The Clyde that straddled the Santa Fe Trail near Ft. Union.

Ashley and Hazel were married in January of 1903 and began to follow Ashley’s dream of establishing a ranch school for young men with health problems such as he had experienced. He knew firsthand the benefits of fresh air, sunshine, and wide open spaces. In 1901, he bought ranch lands east of the frontier town of Watrous, New Mexico, and by December of 1903, he and his eighteen-year-old wife were the parents of a baby girl, Margaret Hallett Pond, to be known as Peggy.

Life was good, and Ashley soon moved his young family into an existing two-story brick house on his new land and began adding classrooms and living quarters for students and a teacher. Then, within days of opening his school, disaster struck in the form of the Great Flood of 1904. The family, the teacher, the school nurse, and a ranch hand barely escaped with their lives as rushing water swept away almost everything Ashley Pond had accumulated. Clutched in her mother’s arms, ten-month-old Peggy could not have remembered details of that night, but she did retain subconscious impressions and later heard stories that formed an identity with the land of eastern New Mexico, a land that ancestors on both sides of her family had come to love.

Though she never lived there again, she visited the plains of New Mexico years later while researching her genealogy. She reached back in time to understand what her ranching ancestors had imprinted in her and to feel their emotions from those long ago days on the plains. In her poem “Return to a Landscape,” she presents some of the elements that Iverson calls “the heart of history,” and she shows the bond to the land felt by those early pioneers, among them her father.

Oh these are plains that summon something like music to a man’s blood,
a surge, a deep-sea swelling.
Doors open within him on a far space
broken only by morning and evening.
A feeling of wildness
knocks at his unaccustomed heart.
It is as though a released bird
remembered the use of wings.
The sloping grasslands
waken ancient nomadic dreams.
Visions of grazing herds begin to shimmer;
the horseman wakens . . .

In that passage it can be clearly seen why Peter Iverson considers the richness of language as important to history. Peggy’s words draw the reader into the lure of the West.

Discouraged by having his dream washed away in the flood, Ashley Pond moved his wife and child to his boyhood home in Michigan. Two more children were born to the family, and he built another house, but he couldn’t escape the pull to return to the West. By 1914, the family was back in New Mexico. Ashley and four Detroit partners had purchased the 32,000-acre Ramon Vigil Land Grant northwest of Santa Fe. In Pajarito Canyon, near present-day Los Alamos, he turned the remaining buildings of an old sawmill into a hunting and fishing club.

Peggy was ten years old that summer, but she still remembered years later her first observations of the Pajarito Plateau. She and her younger sister came by train from Los Angeles where they had been in school. They were met by their father in Santa Fe in his vintage Hudson touring car. The car’s canvas top was folded back, and the hood of the engine had been removed. Peggy further described the eccentricities of the car, giving us an idea of what travel was like in New Mexico in the early 1900s. “The running board on one side held two narrow spare tires, and on the other side was a rack with three big cans: one for gasoline, one for oil, and one for water. There were a couple of canvas bags hanging on the wind-screen and various picks and shovels here and there as well as a couple of long, narrow rolls of canvas stowed away, which he sometimes spread in front of the wheels when he had to cross a dry arroyo in order to avoid getting stuck in the sand. We drove down stony hills, across dry water courses, and came to the edge of a dark brown river,” Peggy remembered.

They had reached the “so-called town” of Buckman, which was no more than a railroad siding. She continued by saying: “In 1914 there was nothing at Buckman but a log corral with chutes from which cattle could be loaded into the diminutive, once-a-day train, an idle freight car or two, a few abandoned shacks, and a yellow box car that served as station and post office.” In those days the main asset at Buckman was a bridge across the Rio Grande. Actually, it was the third bridge to occupy that site. The first two had washed away. In describing the bridge, Peggy noted, “I am not sure the word built is the right one to apply to its construction.” Old photographs show it to have been a wood and rock assembly with weathered planks not much wider than the width of a car. “Mid-June of 1914 when I first encountered the bridge,” she said, “the water was actually running a couple of inches deep over the planks at the center. My father made his innocent little children take off their shoes and wade across it. Apparently he thought we were more amphibious than his car.”

Peggy and her siblings lived an idyllic life in the canyon. They rode horses, explored pueblo ruins, collected arrowheads, and roasted apples over campfires in the cave dwellings, but for Peggy, the experience of living in the canyon was much more. She sought time to be alone, to make peace with solitude, and to develop her sensitivities to nature, and it was in those years that she wrote her first poetry. She was an unusual child in that she realized the importance and beauty of her childhood as she lived it. She awoke early on summer mornings so that she could walk in the forest without interruption. “Such joy it is to be the first to bend / the cool, sweet grass,” she wrote of her impressions of early morning, “to come so breathlessly / on hidden birds. And strange it is to feel / the self her mother knows is not so real / as the half-fairy child who dances here.” Those phrases are from a poem titled “Ten Years Old,” written in 1925. As Peggy described her years in the canyon, “it was a world to fill a child with wonder.”

Her father’s efforts to make a success of his Pajarito Club failed in 1916, but Peggy would always look back on her time there as the two most important years of her life. They were the formative years that set her on the path to becoming the poet who would be referred to decades later as the First Lady of New Mexican Poetry, a title given to her by David Laird, a past librarian of the University of Arizona.

Peggy had bonded with the land of the Pajarito Plateau, so it was difficult to resume her education at boarding schools far away from New Mexico, but there were even more significant intersections with history awaiting her on the plateau. In the coming months, her mother established the family’s new home in Santa Fe and her father rekindled his old dream of starting a ranch school. By 1917 he had returned to the plateau, bought a homestead, and was constructing a two-story log building to house students. In the autumn of that year he opened the Los Alamos Ranch School, a place destined to become one of the premier western schools in the United States.

Peggy and her sister were, to say the least, unhappy with their father for designing his school for boys only. Their younger brother attended classes there and camped and rode horses while they were enrolled in eastern schools. Ultimately, though, Peggy found her way back to the place she loved. While home for the summer after her freshman year at Smith College, she met a young master from her father’s school. His name was Fermor Spencer Church, and he shared Peggy’s love for the Pajarito Plateau. They were married the following summer of 1924.

Becoming a ranch school wife was more challenging than expected. The twenty-year-old Peggy had been accustomed to women’s boarding schools. She found living in an almost all-male environment very different. The school was regimented, and Ferm was busy much of the time with student responsibilities. She had no young women friends in the area, so Peggy borrowed ranch school horses and explored the mesas.

While on her rides, she would sometimes find the inspiration for some of her best poetry. On such a ride in 1926, she wrote one of her finest works, putting into perspective the natural history as well as the human history of the Pajarito Plateau. The canyon named Guaje, mentioned in this piece, is just north of Los Alamos. The poem is titled “Yesterday.”

Yesterday,
riding to Guaje,
a warm wind blew through the spruce boughs.
The snow ran in rivulets to the river.
Above the yucca
shone a vision of flowers.

Yesterday,
riding to Guaje,
I saw trees mighty in girth, tall and cool-shadowed,
rooted in a black dome of rock once molten.
I saw the river
bent from its course at the place
where the canyon is narrow,
flowing between the dark cliffs.

Yesterday,
in a canyon beyond Guaje,
I saw a deer flee through the pines.
I heard the wind on a mesa beyond
stride furiously from the mountain.
I saw swift clouds
darken the sun.
I heard the advancing rain.

At a cliff’s edge I saw a ruined city
whose name is now forgotten.
There were five kivas carved in the hard rock;
forgotten now
are they who fashioned prayers.
Not even high-flying birds remember these walls,
only the high-spread stars.

It is long in men’s memory since these cities stood
white in the sun.
Yet even then had the river carved this canyon
and the far-off valley remembered in these same shadows
the colors of an ocean.
Thus yesterday reaches backward and forward forever and disappears like the sky.
How can I say what I thought while riding to Guaje yesterday?

 

In the first years of their marriage, Ferm built a log house for his family, and he and Peggy raised three sons there. Eventually other faculty wives came to the school, and Peggy made friends with women who ranched or lived in the area. One of those women was destined to touch many lives with her gentle nature, her hard work, and above all, her spirituality. Her name was Edith Warner, and in 1928 she came to live beside the Rio Grande at the Ottawa crossing just below Los Alamos.

Like so many others, Edith came to New Mexico for her health, intending to return home to Pennsylvania, but within her first weeks in the Pajarito country she knew that she had to find a way to stay. A job offered to her by the Los Alamos Ranch School made that possible. She was hired to guard the shipments of freight for the ranch school that were unloaded from the narrow gauge train known as the Chili Line. The job didn’t pay much, so Edith opened a tearoom and small store, where she served occasional guests and sold sodas, canned goods, and gasoline.

From her unlikely spot by the river she made many friends. They came from the ranch school, from nearby pueblos, from Santa Fe, and from foreign countries as far away as Denmark and Italy, because, as history determined, Edith had moved to a crossroads for the world. And Peggy was to be the one to write her story. Their lives intertwined not only in friendship but in a memoir that has become a southwestern classic.

After living at the ranch school for almost twenty years, Peggy’s life and the lives of others on the Pajarito Plateau took a fateful turn. In 1942 the government condemned the school and the nearby ranches and homesteads to locate the Manhattan Project on the isolated plateau. The students left for other schools, and the masters and staff members and their families scattered. Peggy and Ferm went to Taos where they had relatives.

For Edith, living a few miles away at the bridge, life changed, too. For security reasons, she couldn’t continue to operate her tearoom and store, so she began to serve dinners to the scientists from Los Alamos, allowing them evenings away from the stress of their work. Thus, Edith and Tilano, her longtime companion from San Ildefonso Pueblo, served Robert Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr, Philip Morrison, Enrico Fermi, and the others in the small adobe by the river, and they became endeared to everyone who came to the little house.

Peggy’s book, The House at Otowi Bridge, is a dual memoir that includes the connection of Peggy’s and Edith’s lives as well as Edith’s years at the river with Tilano and their unexpected association with some of the world’s greatest men.

Peggy opens the story like this:

I have been sitting in my garden this morning thinking of Edith Warner, how many years it has been since she died and how fast the world we knew has gone on changing. She lies in an Indian grave near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso, nothing over her but the earth hard as a bare heel, and the fragments of the clay pots that were broken over the grave according to the ancient custom of the Pueblos. The little house she lived in beside the bridge was already falling to pieces when I saw it last. The new bridge of towering rigid steel, with two lanes for the traffic that now speeds back and forth to Los Alamos, crosses the Rio Grande close to the well house. The vines that used to hang there, their leaves so glossy and cool in the quivery summer heat, are a mass of clotted dry stems and tendrils. I suppose hardly anyone stops to listen to the river any more.

Perhaps not many people actually stop beside the river these days, but many thousands know Edith’s story because of The House at Otowi Bridge. It has never been out of print since it was first published in 1960.

Peggy went on to write several volumes of poetry, a total of eight in her lifetime, and two others have been published since she died. She and Ferm lived in Taos, Berkeley, and Santa Fe in the remaining years of their lives. Both were active, participating in their community and continuing to hike and picnic and enjoy the outdoors. Peggy gave lectures and poetry readings and took classes and seminars, enriching her mind to the very end.

In 1984 she was presented with the coveted Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts, and she was named a Living Treasure of Santa Fe. Her life was full and rich and complete, but there was never a time that she looked across the valley from Santa Fe to the Jemez Mountains that she didn’t feel the loss of the years she might have spent on the Pajarito Plateau if history had been different.

Sources Used:

Peggy Pond Church. The House at Otowi Bridge. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1959, 1960.

Peggy Pond Church. This Dancing Ground of Sky. Santa Fe: Red Crane Press, 1993.

Peggy Pond Church. Accidental Magic. Albuquerque: Wildflower Press, 2004.

Peggy Pond Church Papers. Los Alamos Historical Society Archives, Los Alamos, NM.

Peggy Pond Church Papers. Center for Southwest Research, Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM.

Sharon Snyder. At Home on the Slopes of Mountains (upcoming biography).