Marfa’s Genius loci

by jane arie baldwin

Donald Judd Untitled Works in Concrete

Donald Judd Untitled Works in Concrete

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.—  Alexander Pope

Last week I had much trepidation planning for a 4 day trek to the west Texas town of Marfa.  I had become comfortable, even complacent, so enmeshed in my own life and all our animals I could not imagine taking off for a few days.  Who’s going to watch the dogs and cat? Feed the rabbit? Mind the hermit crabs? Water my newly potted potatoes?  Was the stress of leaving worth it?

Luckily, I have come to learn that if I am asking the question – Is the stress of leaving worth the road trip?  Then the answer is, “Yes!” I am definitely due for a road trip.  Once on the open road the undue stress I had placed on myself began to melt away.  After more than a few hours of westward travel I saw the Davis Mountains rising in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief.  As we drew closer all my West Texas memories came flooding back. In my gut I felt I was coming home and wondered for a split second what is that ‘thing’ that makes me, makes all of us yearn for a particular place?

West Texas has been close to my heart since high school.  When I was about 15 my family floated down the  Rio Grande’s Santa Elena Canyon. I resisted my family’s plans to rough it by bringing with me nail polish and makeup.  By the end of the week I hadn’t even remembered I brought that stuff.  Nor did I care about my chipped nails.  I was hooked! I was in God’s country, floating down the river, echoing my voice through canyons millions of years old, swimming in crystal clear natural springs.

My love affair with West Texas grew over the years. All through college while living in Austin I came back to West Texas and the Big Bend to get my fill. When I met Jimmy I could not believe that an El Paso boy had never ventured east into Big Bend country as El Paso is the closest city to the area.  After about a year of dating we drove an RV out to Big Bend National Park one Valentine’s weekend and I knew then that some day we would marry and when we did it would be in West Texas.  A few years later we did marry at a ranch outside Marfa.  Then went back to Marfa and Alpine for our daughter’s Christening and again to renew our vows in the cupola of the Marfa courthouse on our eighth wedding anniversary.

What gives a place that je ne sais quoi?

Prada Marfa

Prada Marfa

I have a friend in Marfa who can spin a yarn and often does.  Sitting in her presence hearing her great stories is one of the joys of my life.  This weekend she told the story of how one Marfa rancher, upon being asked by a reporter why he had chosen to live in Marfa, replied that he had settled here because the town had a “genius loci.”

Now, there is a little bit of irony in a local Marfa rancher having such an academic response to that question and his answer helped clarify a lot for me.  I was familiar with the term, “genius loci” from my experience as an archaeologist studying the archaeology of place.  I understood ‘genius’ as a guardian spirit or guide.  The  “genius loci” translates to – the (guardian) spirit of place.  In Marfa, it is the atmosphere of the place with its dry air, vast sky, seemingly barren but incredibly complex landscape combined with the people attracted to it – the artists, ranchers, retired bon vivants, and locals (I think you have to be second or third generation to be considered local in most small towns) – all living on the border with sketchy mobile phone service, almost completely unplugged. Oh, and the lights, the Marfa mystery lights definitely contribute to the spirit of Marfa.

At brunch on Sunday we discussed the Marfa vibe with friends who have made their home there.  Small towns can be difficult for outsiders.  People coming in with new ideas can often result in resistance to change as tradition takes precedence and Marfa is no different from any other in that respect yet the relationship of outsiders with locals has experienced somewhat of a peaceful coexistence.  The unspoken motto of Marfa tends to be  “Live and let live,” one of our hosts explained.   His comments resonated with me as I thought about the many places I enjoyed visiting and why I like them.  The spirit of live and let live is a big part of the creative spirit and also be part of a community spirit that helps each other to thrive.

Driving home yesterday I read an article in the lastest Texas Monthly.  It was about the city of Austin, another Texas town with a particular creative vibe.  I was surprised to see a parallel idea about place rise up from the pages of the article, “[Austin] has always allowed people to be themselves,” John Spong writes.

It’s the idea of “live and let live”, an idea that creates a culture of acceptance and allows ingenuity to flourish.  Could there be a link between the idea of live and let live, allowing people to be themselves and the creative vibe that makes a place feel so special? Indeed.  That feeling, that vibe is the genius loci.

The Wrong Store, Marfa

The Wrong Store, Marfa