Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mabel Dodge Luhan, Peggy Pond Church and "Ultimatum for Man"

Mabel partially inspired the subject for this posting. I had it in mind to feature a poet of New Mexico to celebrate National Poetry Month in April. While with polishing the final draft of my manuscript on two remarkable women of New Mexico*, I had occasion to revisit Mabel Dodge Luhan’s “A Poet of Los Alamos, New Mexico” that appeared in The Chicago Sun Book Week on December 1, 1946. In this book review Mabel introduced Peggy Pond Church’s new volume of poetry titled Ultimatum for Man and wrote that apart from the poets, no New Mexican writers had recorded “the most startling event [of the time]…the discovery of how to split the atom.” Of the poets, Mabel opined, Peggy Pond Church outranked all the others: “her life-pattern [was] singularly identified with the Great Event, for the environment of all her years was the scene of the magnificent discovery and the material of her latest poetry.”

Detail from the cover of Ultimatum for Man

Born in 1903, Peggy spent her formative years living on the Pajarito Plateau. She combined her love of horses and the outdoors and spent hours alone on horseback, riding through pine and juniper forests, wandering through canyons where petroglyphs appeared on the basalt walls overhead. During her summers on the Pajarito Plateau, Peggy often watched archaeologist Edgar Hewett and his students digging in Ancestral Puebloan ruins nearby. In her own explorations, Peggy discovered caves with smoke-blackened ceilings, corrugated cooking pot fragments and shards with black-on-white designs. Inspired by the Ancient Ones, she built fires in her favorite caves and roasted apples on pointed sticks.

To give a brief overview of the time she spent there as an adult, Peggy’s biographer Sharon Snyder has graciously provided the following text: **
By the time she entered Smith College, Peggy had won awards for her poetry and was achieving recognition. Although she loved college life, she was homesick for New Mexico, and when the chance came to marry a young master at the Los Alamos Ranch School, she jumped at the opportunity to return to the Pajarito Plateau. She married Fermor Spencer Church in 1924, and they raised three sons at the school. During that time Peggy published two volumes of poetry and an award-winning children’s book, The Burro of Angelitos. She was a respected member of the Santa Fe writers’ colony despite living thirty-five miles away. Her first two books, Foretaste and Familiar Journey, were among the seventeen published by the Santa Fe Writers’ Editions. Her happiness on the plateau was abruptly uprooted in 1942 when the government took over the school for the top-secret Manhattan Project. Distraught and somewhat bitter, the family moved to Taos, and in 1946 Peggy published Ultimatum for Man, a volume of poems considered by many to be her best and strongest work. The poems arose from the pain of losing her beloved home and from her pacifist beliefs that collided with the development of the atomic bomb.

Mabel reviewed several of the poems in Ultimatum for Man, interweaving them with Peggy’s story and with the historic sequence of events leading up to “the sad and frightened men who were responsible for the atomic bomb.” These men became the subjects of Peggy’s impassioned verse, “The Nuclear Physicists,” one of the most strident poems in this collection.

Given two other events in the news these past weeks – the damage to the nuclear reactor resulting from the earthquake in Japan and the 10th anniversary of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl – it seemed appropriate to include an excerpt from the poem.

The Nuclear Physicists
These are the men who
working secretly at night and against great odds
and in what peril they knew not of their own souls
invoked for man's sake the most ancient archetype of evil
and bade this go forth and save us at Hiroshima
and again at Nagasaki.

These are the men who
now with aching voices
and with eyes that have seen too far into the world’s fate,
tell us what they have done and what we must do.
In words that conceal apocalypse they warn us
what compact with evil was signed in the name of all the
and how, if we demand that Evil keep his bargain,
we must keep ours, and yield our living spirits
into the irrevocable service of destruction.

Now we, in our wilderness, must reject the last temptation:
the kingdoms of earth and all the power and the glory,
and bow before the Lord our God, and serve Him
whose still small voice, after the wind, the earthquake,
the vision of fire, still speaks to those who listen
and will the world’s good.

Peggy Pond Church. Photo courtesy of Corina Santistevan

Peggy came through this time of upheaval and went on to write the award-winning book, The House at Otowi Bridge (1960).*** The Pajarito Plateau looms large as the setting for this dual memoir of Peggy and her friend Edith Warner, who served home-cooked meals in her tearoom at Otowi Crossing to Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists (who through an agreement with the U.S. government were her sole guests during this time of secrecy). Metaphorically, the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande connected the book’s past and present: the past of the San Ildefonso people, living in the shadow of ancestral Pueblo ruins on the edge of the Pajarito Plateau, with the present Los Alamos era marked forever by the creation of the atomic bomb.

Now a Southwest classic, Peggy’s book served another purpose. As Sharon Snyder has noted:“For the people of the Pajarito Plateau who had been displaced by the war, it was a book of healing.”

Leaving you with thoughts for healing ourselves and our planet.

Adios for now,

*In its final stage, the manuscript now bears the title “Stones into Bread: Peggy Pond Church and Corina Aurora Santistevan, The Lives and Letters of Two Women of New Mexico.” 

**Sharon Snyder’s forthcoming biography is titled At Home on the Slopes of Mountains: A Biography of Peggy Pond Church. Sharon has kindly agreed to contribute a blog piece on Peggy in the near future.

***First published in serial form in The New Mexico Quarterly magazine (1958-59), “The House at Otowi Bridge” won a Longview Literary Award for excellence in 1959.


  1. I love this post! Have forwarded it to my friend in ABQ, a lover of Peggy Pond Church!

  2. An excellent post!It is akin to simmering down a segment of New Mexican, American & World history into the lives, living room and kitchen of two strong American women. Can't wait to read "The House at Otowi Bridge". Ribuan terima kasih (a thousand thanks - in Malay) Liz.

  3. Peggy is indeed inspiring--as are you Liz, as you discover the remarkable women who have built the foundation upon which we all grow into women who care and experience historical ecstasy. Thanks, Linda Lambert

  4. I'm delighted that 2012 will be the year of the women of Taos.