Skyscapes

Paul Greenberg

8/31/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

SANTA FE, N.M. - The country 'round here ain't much, as an ol' boy from back home might say, but the sky--the sky is something.

Driving up I-25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, a visitor from forest-covered, water-rich Arkansas finds himself a stranger in a strange land. Why'd they clear all this land if they weren't going to use it?

Maybe to expose the whole great, upturned bowl of sky. Out here there's nothing to obscure it except for the occasional mesa. The bare, rounded hills off to the side of the road look as if they were dumped there by some vast construction project. Beyond them, the deep blue mountains rise afar off, so abstract from here that they might as well be frescoes painted on a pale blue sky. Under its uncaring gaze, the pilgrim begins his ascent through the Sangre de Cristo, the Blood of Christ, up to Santa Fe, Holy Faith.

All 360 degrees around, there seems nothing but the sky - and its ever moving panorama of clouds. Off to the west, they darken into storm clouds, gathering ominously in a column occasionally torn by jagged lightning.

The old phrases take on new meaning out here: a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. You realize again why prophets of every faith go into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights before they emerge to hand down the Word.

And you begin to understand why those other species of prophet - conquistadors, visionaries, revolutionaries, land barons, empire-builders of all kinds, exalted bandits of every stripe - could look on this stark scene and imagine it empty, only waiting for their great selves to found a dynasty.

The conquerors, each in turn, must never have lifted their eyes to this sovereign sky that dwarfs human ambition. A firmament like this might have been painted by a Titian or Michelangelo, except that the clouds never stop moving. The light out here is always shifting, minute by minute, unwilling to settle for mere perfection.

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D. H. Lawrence, seeing New Mexico with always fresh eyes, spoke of a "splendid, silent terror, and a vast far-and-wide magnificence which (goes) way beyond mere aesthetic appreciation. Š (I)n New Mexico the heart is sacrificed to the sun and the human being is left stark, heartless, but undauntedly religious."

Welcome, in the phrase on the license plates, to the Land of Enchantment.

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Next morning in Santa Fe, we climb Olympus. Or rather we hike up to St. John's College, a school dedicated to classical education and the study of the Great Books in general. Here the past isn't thought of as the last quarterly report, or the future as the next election. Like the landscape, St. John's offers perspective. Not training or technique or expertise or any other guaranteed short cut to wisdom. But education.

Walk into the library, look at the books that are required reading year by year, and an old lesson is driven home again: There is no substitute for time - and intention.

Here is an exception to the cafeteria-style, multiple-choice, ahistorical style of so much "higher" education today, where specialization - which ought to be the superstructure of an education - begins before the groundwork is laid.

Many words have been written in reasonable defense of the classical idea and ideal of education, but in the end it is an act of faith. And an ever lonelier assertion in our times.

The object of an education in depth like that offered here would seem to be to leave the graduate totally unfit for the modern world, the better to rise above it. Or at least stand apart from it.

It's hard to decide whether such an aim is more modest or daring. But of course the two are the same today: Nothing is so daring in a society of strivers as a modest aim. Or so valuable in a world where the most extravagant claims are taken seriously, only to prove nothing but hot air. Which reminds me: Isn't another presidential campaign beginning?

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For the first stretch of the hike here, we take shady Alameda. As the narrow road twists up the mountain, the trees space out, and the sun intensifies. The Spanish names of the streets and trails we cross, like Camino Cabra and Acequia Madre (Goat Trail and Mother Ditch), are reminders of both an earlier conquest and its fading. It was a great, royal dream - but Time rules and men rue.

Up here, the daily detritus that ambition produces seems to have been left far elow. The height and heat are real, the news of the day of only abstract nterest. When you hear that an Alberto Gonzales or Karl Rove has left government employ, from this height it's as if another aide to another viceroy in another distant capital had stepped down. It's just another dream drying up in the heat. Empires, whether of land or ideas, power or fame, come and go. The illusion of permanence in man's affairs evaporates again.