The DH Lawrence Ranch Re-Opens for Visitors
‘This was the spiritual place he found, that he had always been searching for,’ Robert Cafazzo tells me as we huddle against the rain and gaze out towards the mountains of northern New Mexico. If only we could see them through the mist. Taos is also visible on a clear day, and it was here that DH Lawrence would sit and write, on a table he made himself, under a tree made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe in a painting.
‘He wrote The Plumed Serpent while he was here,’ Robert says. ‘And St Mawr and The Woman Who Rode Away. It’s hard to be exact as of course he worked on different stages of things in different places, but he wrote a lot at the ranch. He also painted here.’
Most visitors to Taos only see Lawrence’s ‘forbidden art’, the erotic paintings that are on private display at the La Fonda Hotel down in Taos. They’re unimpressive and amateurish works. Robert shields his smartphone from the rain and shows me some of the other works that Lawrence painted while he was at the ranch. They dazzle against the grey drizzle, accomplished and vibrant images which show that this Englishman had a talent for pigments as well as prose and poetry.
The DH Lawrence Ranch stands almost five miles up a dirt road, near the town of San Cristobal. The road weaves through woodland, and at one point a flock of wild turkeys scrabbles across in front of the car. It feels remote, even now, as the rain batters down and the road goes on and on, and upwards. In Lawrence’s day – he lived here at the ranch with his wife Frieda for two years in the 1920s – it was even more remote, the writer and his artist wife travelling the 5-6 miles into San Cristobal by horse and cart to collect supplies.
‘They had a cow called Susan,’ Robert says. Cafazzo is one of the dedicated docents, available to show around the handful of visitors who make it each day on this literary pilgrimage. ‘Lawrence liked to milk the cow. They also had a couple of horses, some chickens and cats. The farmer who originally owned the ranch kept angora goats. Lawrence also liked to bake bread, and you can see their outside oven.’
You can also see the chair Lawrence made for himself, and the table he sat at while writing in the shade of a tall pine tree. ‘One goes out of the door,’ Lawrence wrote, ‘and the tree-trunk is there, like a guardian angel.’
‘Lawrence is described in his time here as always looking down at the ground,’ Robert explains. ‘In fact he was looking at the plants. He was fascinated by the berries and herbs here, and the wildlife, the trees, the whole of nature.’
Lawrence grew up in England’s industrial Midlands, the son of a miner who could barely read and write. After his first literary successes he met Frieda, who was already married and had three children. The two ran away to Germany, and later lived in various places including Cornwall and Italy. It was his work Sea and Sardinia that attracted the attention of the socialite Mabel Dodge Sterne, who invited the Lawrences to visit her in Taos.
Frieda was rather wary of Mabel’s intentions, and when Mabel later offered the ranch to Lawrence it was Frieda who insisted it go in her name, not her husband’s, and that they give Mabel the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in exchange, so as not to be indebted to her. Mabel was known as a controlling woman.
Although what was then called the Kiowa Ranch was the only property the Lawrences ever owned, they continued a nomadic life. They visited Mexico, where Lawrence was diagnosed with tuberculosis. They returned to New Mexico, and Lawrence’s health improved. When their US visas were due to expire, the author was keen to return to Europe for a time, and he and Frieda settled in Italy. His health deteriorated, however, and having expressed a keenness to return to New Mexico he died in France in 1930 at the age of 44 and was buried in Vence.
Five years later, at Frieda’s request, his body was exhumed and he was cremated. His ashes were brought back to the ranch where he had been so happy, and to which Frieda had returned after Lawrence’s death. Lawrence’s ashes were mixed with the concrete that was used to build a memorial to the man who wrote Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Virgin and the Gypsy, Mornings in Mexico, and Twilight in Italy, amongst other works.
‘His ashes are in the concrete of the memorial to save them from being disturbed,’ Robert explains.
Although Frieda remarried she stayed at the ranch and when she died in 1956 she was buried in a grave next to the Lawrence Memorial. The two lie united in death, 8600ft high on Lobo Mountain, in that spiritual place in northern New Mexico.
The DH Lawrence Ranch was closed from 2008-2014 and is now open at weekends only. Visit http://www.dhlawrencetaos.org for opening hours and further information. Other useful web references include:
All photos courtesy of the DH Lawrence Ranch Alliance, Taos, New Mexico.