FRK 3.28.2019-Notes for a Memoir APHRODITE OF THE PECOS Fred R. Kline Copyright ©2019
I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727, English physicist), Memoirs of Newton
Transmutation is a great mystery, which is by no means—as fools suppose—contrary to the course of Nature, or the law of God. Paracelsus ( ca.1493-1541, Swiss alchemist and physician, “Transmutation of Natural Things”)
Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur (1822-1895, French scientist)
Chance furnishes me what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something. I bend over and it is exactly what I want. James Joyce (1882-1941, Irish novelist)
“I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you.” Joseph Campbell (1904-1987, American mythologist and philosopher)
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Sunday, mid-summer 2000, Planet Earth. The poet and his muse found themselves awake in a beautiful wilderness.
I was looking for pretty stones in the water as I walked with Jann and our two dogs along the grassy banks of the Pecos River. The water was shallow and clear and flowing quietly through the lowlands below 7th Heaven Ranch, our new home, just a twenty minute hike away. We had been living in Santa Fe during the 1980s and 1990s and now we were living in the Pecos River Valley, in the countryside about forty-five miles away.
After months of trying to name our new home during the first year, it struck us that we were consistently using “7th Heaven” as the best way to describe our 20-acre piece of Paradise. As in, “This is 7th Heaven!”
Somehow, the term had appeared in my consciousness. Research revealed Seventh Heaven or 7th Heaven connotes a state of euphoria. That was on target. It may also refer to the highest of Seven Heavens according to Islam and Judaism, and it was one of the celestial spheres generally acknowledged until the early 17th century. Somehow, there we were in 7th Heaven, and a mystical feeling of déjà vu was palpable. Had we converged with a past life?
The source of our good fortune had been the sale of La Virgencita del Nuevo Mundo, the rare and wondrous, 16th century Spanish-Aztec statuette of the Virgin Mary, which we had discovered. La Virgencita represented the mystical bridge of religious and cultural transition in the New World, as Octavio Paz put it, from the ancient religion of Mesoamerica (Mexico) to the Renaissance Catholicism of European Christianity. Virgencita is now widely considered the prototype of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the first indigenous Virgin Mary of the New World. It has since been donated to Yale University. The story of its discovery is elaborated in my memoir, “Leonardo’s Holy Child.”
7th Heaven Ranch was a blue sky and starry night ranch; a nature preserve for wild birds, critters, trees, for cactus and grass and wildflowers & for us. I loved to wax poetic when people inquired, “What kind of ranch?” We lasso clouds, we ride the wind—it’s El Rancho Differente! We had a sign posted that said, “Birds Come Make a Nest.” Be giddy while you can.
A vast ocean of mountain air swirls and dances across the Pecos River Valley, a valley which was an ocean 300 million years ago, and somehow the weather can still be oceanic with big winds and squalls. The skies of day and night are right out of Genesis and I often felt I was actually an actor in a Genesis time warp. Without prompting, I could say unabashedly: I worship the Sun; I live in the Milky Way; I talk to ravens. I am a treasure hunter discovering once in a lifetime sunrises and sunsets and clouds. I commune with the ancient pines and cedars. I am Adam and Jann is Eve.
Our wild friends far outnumbered our civilized friends. Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, foxes, assorted snakes (rattlesnakes were not welcomed). The adorable phoebe clan that raised a family with us every year. An amazing variety of birds with blue feathers: Pinyon Jay, Mexican Jay, Mountain Bluebird, Western Bluebird, Stellar Jay. Cassin’s Finch, with its sweet canary-like song and its dashing red toupee. A lone roadrunner appeared just in time for my annual Cornell bird count, perched in the juniper tree by my studio window.
A young black bear I named “Buster,” just out of his first solo hibernation, came twice into our backyard and one late spring evening sat down next to our life-like cheetah sculpture guarding the children’s sandboxes, tipped over the seed barrel, and proceeded to have a snack of thirty pounds of birdseed in the moonlight (Fig. xxx). ~ Jann waded across the river and threw sticks in the water for our Labrador Retrievers, Rio and Sailor, mother and son, chocolate in color and just as sweet.
Here and there I pulled out large river stones and found bleached driftwood and made sculptures along the way, some actually rising out of the water and others on solid ground along the shore.
This was one of my outdoor studios. There is in these materials and their shapes a natural relationship to sculptors whose works inspire me: Noguchi, Arp, Moore, Brancusi—to which I added the constructive whimsy of Fred Kline. Some of the sculptures would stand unmolested until the next spring when the mountain snows would melt and bring big water rushing through, erasing every trace of my river works, as if a thousand years had passed and changed everything. As Heraclitus wrote, all things flow (Fig. XXX).
This was our secluded Eden, where Adam and Eve could walk naked if they chose and make love on the soft green grass of the riverbank and picnic and fish and skip stones and swim and listen to the river run and watch the river birds and admire the grace and power of our great water dogs at play. Breathe! Breathe!
I stopped and looked more closely when I thought I saw an animal tooth along the shore, gleaming white among the pebbles, and looking like two short ivory stumps emerging from the mud. I pulled it out and washed it off. To my utter amazement, I saw…not two stumps of a tooth, but two legs! And buttocks and a back and a torso with yet developed breasts! It was a tiny porcelain figure of what I perceived as a young goddess, a Greco-Romanesque Aphrodite now lying in the palm of my hand (Figure xx).
Alas, her head was missing, half of her arms and legs were missing; the common misfortune of ancient sculpture. A young Venus de Milo ravaged by time and the river. Miraculous! The discovery of an ancient Greco-Roman civilization along the Pecos River crossed my mind.
I shouted to Jann to come look. I recreated how it appeared as a tooth, then opened my hand to reveal the tiny body. She gasped when the tooth changed like magic into a tiny figure. We were both agape with wonder. “This is like…the…the Venus of Willendorf…(The 30,000 year old Paleolithic fertility goddess found in Austria)….it was right here in the water…”.
I was carrying on, stuck to the spot. Jann was as dumbfounded as I was. I showed the dogs and they licked it approvingly. I searched for another but of course this was a once in a lifetime find. Not a treasure of gold but a miraculous object, a treasure of miraculous serendipity, and it seemed fated and mythic and imbued with magic. These things will happen to poets.
A tooth one moment and Aphrodite the next. This was the stuff of Greek mythology and all day I was in a happy state, feeling amazed and enthralled by my little treasure. I had never found anything like this. It was a sign! It was a portent! What next?
Wanting to clarify her mythology, later that day I looked up Aphrodite in my classical dictionary. I was pleasantly reminded that she was the Greek goddess of erotic love and marriage. I read on: “Her name was identified by the Greeks with the word aphros, sea foam, from which she was created…” By the gods! I had lifted her from this very element! Well, river foam, but surely as good. And she seemed to have been born in my hand, as if I were a Zeus or something. I expected her to come to life any minute.
This went beyond coincidence and into the mystic. She had come to me, a gift from the river, a gift from the goddess who was, I learned, also the protector of sailors. I’m a sailor, I recognize, and every day I will humbly ask her for fair winds and be thankful when they blow my way. Steady as she goes.
And so for years, she was my talisman, and I kept her in a small leather pouch in my pocket. Sometimes I recreated the magical moment for friends and even casual acquaintances. First a tooth, then a tiny Aphrodite. They all gasped as if seeing something never seen, something extraordinary, a transcendent object, an alchemical transformation. Seeing that metamorphosis probably changed their lives.
Then, just as surprisingly as I had found her, I lost her. I looked everywhere. The pouch with her in it had disappeared. Over time, I looked everywhere. Finally, I accepted her disappearance as a kind of mystical, full circle, lost and found.
By and by, while walking along my well-travelled ranch road after heavy rains, a small gleaming object caught my eye. Eureka! It was a tiny arrowhead, a beautiful obsidian bird-point, still perfect after perhaps a thousand years. Alas, the bird had flown away and the arrow head had been lost and the hunter had turned to dust. I visualized the perils of the hunt and of daily life for an Indian of the ancient Pecos Pueblo. Try again, and again, and again.
And so, by chance, my new talisman had found me. To this day, I stay prepared for the next miracle I might find, whatever it may be, wherever it may be. Onward to the miraculous. ###