D.H. Lawrence’s Private Utopia: On the trail of the British author’s chapter in Taos, New Mexico

By Srianthi Perera

The 5-mile unpaved approach to Kiowa Ranch in Taos, New Mexico, off State Road 522, cuts through juniper forest and a visual theater of gorgeous mountain scenery.

When D.H. Lawrence stayed at the 160-acre ranch in the 1920s, the area was surely more remote and inaccessible, because even this rutted road didn’t exist.

But the British author of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Women in Love” fame apparently didn’t seem to mind the sparseness of humanity and lack of resources. He had his wife, Frieda, and a few other artistic types ensconce him in that personal utopia he sought for much of his 44 years. Taos, 7,000 feet above sea level, heightened his senses.

“I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever,” he reportedly said.

Nearly 100 years later, the property is owned and managed by the University of New Mexico; it draws near 60 visitors a week, some of them international Lawrencephiles.

Docent Ricardo Medina is on hand for a personal welcome, with his friendly cat, Honey, by his side. Buddy the dog barks his greetings from his enclosure.

There’s not much to see: just the cabin that Lawrence occupied with Frieda, the smaller dwelling that painter and British aristocrat Dorothy Brett used, one or two grimy outhouses and a shrine to the author, which supposedly contains his ashes.

But then, imagination takes over.

Press your nose against the window of his cabin (mind the thorny gooseberry bush there) and see Lawrence, bearded and thin, contemplating his next fictional character and plot twist by the homespun fireplace. Each day, under a huge ponderosa pine outside the cabin, he penned his stories on notebooks; this was his writing studio.

The pine is dubbed the Lawrence Tree, referring to a 1929 painting by artist Georgia O’Keeffe, now at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

In the summer of 1924, Lawrence wrote the short stories “The Woman Who Rode Away” and “The Princess,” the novella “St. Mawr,” and the New Mexico sections of a travel book titled “Mornings in Mexico.” In 1925, while recovering from a bout of malaria and afflicted with consumption, the prolific author wrote the Biblical play David and a collection of essays titled “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine.”

His work contains themes such as industrialization’s effects on society and reflect on human emotional health, spontaneity, vitality and sexuality. The last quality wasn’t received well by the prudish British authorities, who banned the sensual novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” for being “obscene.” The U.S. government also briefly banned him from the country for the same reason.

Besides his renowned penmanship, Lawrence was also a painter. The art was a racy indulgence into his personal mythology and was banned by Scotland Yard, so he removed them from England.

A restless soul who traveled, he lived in fits and starts in many places. The coal miner’s son from Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, in England, left for Germany in 1912, eloping after a brief relationship with Frieda Weekley, a married woman and a mother of three.

After a stay in Germany, they walked over the Alps to Italy, lived in various cities, and interspersed their stays with stints in England.

In 1922, he even visited Ceylon on the way to Australia, where he lived briefly in New South Wales and wrote “Kangaroo.”

That same year, he came to New Mexico at the invitation of former New York socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan and settled in Questa, near Taos.

He occupied the three-roomed homesteader cabin at Kiowa Ranch for a total of 11 good-weather months in 1923, 1924 and 1925. During those years, he also lived in Chapala and Oaxaca in Mexico; Spotorno, Italy; England and Europe.

Outside the cabin, the Lawrence Tree grows thick and strong.

The American artist, who made New Mexico her home for more than 40 years, lay supine on a bench at the pine’s foot to envision her work. The result is a painting of a tree with a perspective like no other: Its cinnamon pink trunk reaches with crustacean-like tentacles into a starry, blue night.

Consider Luhan, who wanted to secure as many literati as she could to fall in love with the New Mexico mystique and live here. To that end, Luhan gifted the barebones ranch to Lawrence, who had never owned any property in his life and was uncomfortable with the concept. Instead, she deeded it to Frieda. Not wanting to be beholden to her, he gifted back his manuscript of “Sons and Lovers.” Not knowing that it was more valuable than the ranch, she exchanged it for psychiatric therapy. The manuscript has a permanent home in the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s time to ascend a little zigzag, hilly pathway to visit the shrine. A colorful story blows in the breeze. It helps to distract because the air is thin and it’s easy to get breathless.

After tuberculosis claimed Lawrence in Vance, France, in 1930, Frieda buried him there. A few years later, she returned to Taos with her new lover, Italian Angelino Ravagli, and resettled in the area.

However, she doesn’t forget her tumultuous marriage to husband No. 2: They constructed a simple hilltop memorial. Lawrence’s body was exhumed, cremated and brought back to Taos.

According to Medina, a hullaballoo ensued between Frieda, Dorothy and Mabel. This isn’t entirely unexpected, as the three women were said to often compete for the author’s attention when he was alive.

“The other two want to spread the ashes all over the ranch, but Frieda says, ‘We’re not spreading the ashes.’ She has a wheelbarrow with wet cement. She dumps him in there and mixes it in. That’s how the ashes ended up here,” Medina says.

The wet cement was used to make the altar inside the little memorial building, he said. It’s closed, so imagination needs to take reign again.

Just outside is a wooden cross and Frieda’s grave with an ashen tomb containing an enameled photograph of her smiling visage. She died in 1956 in her El Prado, New Mexico home on her 77th birthday. It was her wish to be buried here.

She was the free spirit that Lawrence wrote about in many of his novels; she didn’t care about convention of the time and didn’t mind “living in sin.”

Everything ties up nicely. Lawrence acolytes are somewhat sated on his chapter on New Mexico.

Info: dhlawrenceranch.unm.edu