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A Southwestern Classic Turns Eighty

PUBLISHED: April 22, 2014

We first crossed into New Mexico westbound on Interstate 40 at Bard. It was the spring of 2005, and we were heading to Las Vegas to see my sister-in-law Gail graduate from law school. When my wife told me that she wanted to attend the ceremony, I had surprised her by suggesting we drive all the way from Alabama. For me this was a no-brainer, since I hate to fly, and I thought a cross-country jaunt would be a great experience for our fourteen-year-old daughter. And so it was—the awesome majesty of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg; the quirky fun of Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo; the ancient splendor of Arizona’s Painted Desert; and the engineering spectacle of Nevada’s Hoover Dam. These are all well-known show-stoppers, but nothing could have prepared me for the scenic panorama of New Mexico, all 373 glorious miles of it, as it unfolded outside our van’s windows. Never had I seen such cobalt-blue skies, with the fair-weather cumulus clouds seeming close enough to touch, or such Technicolor landscapes. Grasslands and mesas marched to the horizons, eventually changing to red-rock buttes and plunging canyons as we proceeded west. Parallel to the interstate ran the storied Route 66. I was utterly smitten and, after our return home, embarked on a quest to educate myself about this extraordinary state.

As it turns out, they don’t call New Mexico “The Land of Enchantment” for nothing. A long line of writers and artists from Willa Cather and D. H. Lawrence to Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams have been famously inspired there, and virtually everyone who has visited talks about the incredible sky and the dazzling light. The writer Mary Austin toured Taos Pueblo during the late 1920s and enthused over the “beauty of cloud and rain and split sunshine.” In her 1927 masterpiece, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather declared, “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.” But Lawrence put it best when he wrote, “the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fé, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.”

This was all fine material, but I soon stumbled upon a book that more than any other captured the Land of Enchantment for me. Somewhat awkwardly titled Sky Determines, this delightful volume was first published eighty years ago by the MacMillan Company and subsequently reprinted in 1948 by the University of New Mexico Press with evocative sketches by Peter Hurd. Its author was an unassuming scholar and clergyman named Ross Calvin who had sought out New Mexico’s dry air for his health. Once there, he became fascinated by how the harsh climate had shaped the landscape and the colorful human history that had played out upon it. Reviewers and readers were impressed.  The journalist Ernie Pyle, who lived in Albuquerque with his wife for a period in 1942, stated that Calvin’s book was “our Southwestern Bible,” and the famed Western librarian and critic Lawrence Clark Powell gave his imprimatur when he called it the “finest single book about New Mexico.”

Ross Randall Calvin was born in Illinois in 1889, graduated from Indiana’s DePauw University in 1911, and went on to Harvard, where he got his doctorate in English. In 1920-21 he attended the General Theological Seminary in New York City. Poor health forced him west shortly thereafter, and from 1927 to 1942 he served as an Episcopal priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver City, New Mexico. During his off hours, Calvin hiked the surrounding country and eventually traveled all over his adopted state. He loved talking to people—ranchers, cowboys, miners, old-timers, biologists, historians, Pueblo Indians, Hispanic farmers—and each one of these conversations further buttressed his growing conviction that climate dictated everything in New Mexico. When not roaming the countryside or tending his congregants, he wrote for religious and scholarly journals and also produced four books, the best known of which are Sky Determines and River of the Sun: Stories of the Storied Gila (1946).

“In New Mexico whatever is both old and peculiar appears upon examination to have a connection with the arid climate. Peculiarities range from the striking adaptations of the flora onwards to those of the fauna, and on up to those of the human animal.” This is Sky Determines’ opening salvo, and for every one of its subsequent 340-plus pages, Calvin eloquently demonstrated its veracity. Again and again he hammered his theme as it applied to nature and history, from the spiky form of desert cactus to the rounded lines of an adobe church. For the state’s earliest inhabitants, whom Calvin called the “forgotten peoples,” sky determined “their mode of life by anchoring them to the valley cornfields.” For the Pueblo Indians, sky “shaped their religion, permits their survival.” Sky also determined the “line of economic development” for the Mexicanos, as well as “the unparalleled duration of Apache warfare.” The latter tribe, he argued, was “nature’s supreme example of adaptation to arid environment.” Its warriors knew every canyon, arroyo, and waterhole, and their phenomenal ability to survive and fight on the hardscrabble landscape kept both the Mexican and American armies chasing them for years. As for the late-coming Americanos, sky determined the dominance of ranching and mining over large-scale farming.

Not surprisingly, Calvin was beguiled by New Mexico’s famous light. “It is a sort of spiritual experience,” he marveled, “a psychic phenomenon.” Gifted expositor that he was, he offered a simple test to prove its intensity. Anyone traveling to New Mexico from the eastern seaboard, he asserted, need only check a camera’s “exposure meter” for confirmation that there was now “double the brightness which he is accustomed to.” Altitude and aridity are the reasons. New Mexico is a Rocky Mountain state, far from any large bodies of water. Its mean elevation is 5,700 feet above sea level, and its lowest point, 2,842 feet, is above the highest elevation of numerous other states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. This means that there is less water vapor and particulate matter floating around an observer’s head in New Mexico. “Here,” Calvin wrote, “the light seems to bite into the negative as the etcher’s acid bites into his copper plate.”

But New Mexico’s startling clarity comes at a price—a frightening aridity. The driest portions of the state barely register ten inches of precipitation annually, and throughout human history severe drought cycles have made life hard to unbearable. In such an environment, what little rain that did fall understandably became the object of a highly focused theology. “It was most natural that the aborigines should think of the sky and its deities as rulers of their world,” Calvin wrote in one of the book’s most memorable passages. “When the rainclouds formed above them and descended low into their valleys, they were readily transformed by primitive faith and simplicity into the hovering wings of the Thunder Bird.” 

Calvin was remarkably open to native customs and beliefs and, in fact, seemed quite enamored of the “Sky Powers” himself. Again and again he referenced them in an almost mystical tone. He was especially alert to New Mexico’s diversity of climatic zones—from plains to mountains—and how the amount of rainfall varied accordingly. “It is on the mountain tops that the rain gods sit,” he wrote, “pouring out frugally the life-sustaining moisture from their ollas (water jars).”  On one occasion, he informed the reader, he heard summer thunder roll fifteen minutes without cessation before rain fell in a “grey-blue curtain of shivery coldness from the base of the cloud island.” 

Calvin concluded with a chapter on how the Americans had at last conquered the Sky Powers with their wells, dams, railroads, and highways. “The despot sky no longer determines,” he conceded, “except within limits.” But, natural philosopher that he was, he knew that this victory would not endure, and “when the last Americano … follows the last Spaniard and the last red man into the shadows, this will still be the same poignantly unforgettable land of beauty, its arid mesas, canyons, and deserts lying perpetually beneath an ocean of pure light, and its Sky Gods still pouring frugally from the ollas the violet-soft rain.” 

Shamefully, on its eightieth birthday, Sky Determines is no longer in print. But used copies of the first and subsequent editions are readily available on websites, including Amazon and AbeBooks, for laughably low prices.


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