Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Katherine Venn

Katherine Venn | 22nd December 2009

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

In 2009 I was lucky enough to wangle a week’s holiday visiting a much-missed friend who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was there for a week at the end of March, when the sky was a bright chilly blue and there was an unexpected dump of snow.

Aside from time spent reading, writing, nosing about Santa Fe and catching up with Estelle, what sticks in the mind from that week is the landscape: huge sky, mountains, mesas… it was a terrifying sort of beauty, one that leaves your head feeling scrubbed clean and your heart slightly lurching. (Although set in Texas, much of No Country for Old Men was filmed in New Mexico, and you can tell.) One day we drove to Taos Pueblo, a traditional adobe Native American settlement up in the mountains. It was a long drive, but that was part of the point – driving through this incredibly harsh but beautiful terrain, with its juniper bushes, underbrush, red and brown soil, canyons, snow-capped mountains, the Rio Grande… And then all the gas stations, casinos, trailers; a lot of where we were driving through was pretty poor. We talked and listened to our favourite music and I took photos almost continuously. For someone who doesn’t drive the whole concept of enjoying spending hours in a car was a bit of a revelation. The fact that when we got there Taos Pueblo was closed – ‘for religious doings’, we were told – didn’t really seem to matter. After all, driving home the view was completely different…

We had an even more spectacular drive another day, when we headed to Abiquiú, hoping to find Georgia O’Keeffe’s ranch; we didn’t, but again the drive, just being in the car on the road, in the company of a friend you only see every few years, was good enough – a substantial enough thing in itself, like listening to music or reading a book; all of it given more grandeur and otherness by the snow that had fallen (unseasonally) a few days before, which still lay in patches highlighting the hills and trees. Gorgeous to drive through, but the thought of living somewhere as remote as that made me feel a bit ill: too oppressively beautiful and big. Living under a sky that large would feel like being subject to some terrifying gaze, I thought, or being naked all the time… it still makes me shiver, slightly. The utter wildness of the raw earth that we make our living on. Still, I couldn’t get enough of it – wanted to consume it, somehow.

It was in New Mexico that I read Marilynne Robinson’s Orange-prizewinning Home, which is a companion piece rather than a strict sequel to her stunning 2004 novel Gilead. Taken together they form a beautifully interlocking piece that gives two sides to a slow, heartbreaking story about families, religion, race… you know, all the big stuff. Highly recommended – but read Gilead first. Then read them both again.
2009 turned out to be quite an eventful year: I turned thirty, got dumped in Paddington train station, quit my job, left London and moved to Norwich to be a student again – in that order, but fortunately not all in the same month. I’ll remember it for those reasons, but also for the epic poetry I read (The Iliad, The Aeneid, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy), digging deep to write my own and perhaps most surprisingly of all, learning not just to run, but to love running. A good year, all in, I reckon.