I just finished “The House at Otowi Bridge” by Peggy Pond Church, I’m embarrassed to say. Embarrassed because I should have read it years ago – it’s been recommended by professors and friends, and I always assumed it would be a dry rendition of life in northern New Mexico in the mid-twentieth century.
But when I found the collections of essays by Ferenc Szasz (“Larger than Life, New Mexico in the Twentieth Century”) at the bookmobile (http://bit.ly/gPXFLn) and read the piece on Robert Oppenheimer, Szasz mentioned Edith Warner and Los Alamos and this book. I thought I’d dig in and see exactly what the fuss was all about.
Here’s what I have to say about all the fuss: It’s warranted. The House at Otowi Bridgeis a beautiful book about Edith Warner’s 20-plus years tending Otowi Bridge at the foot of the mesa that became Los Alamos. When she came to New Mexico, Pajarito Plateau was home to a boy’s school in the mountains and Edith Warner was in her mid-20s and Peggy Pond Church is a young wife who grew up on the Plateau. When the book ends, Pajarito Plateau has been overtaken by the government and Los Alamos is a city of over 13,000. The atomic bomb has been successfully tested and then used to kill thousands of souls at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II.
Edith Warner was a great friend to the Indians at San Ildefonso Pueblo and to the scientists who came to the plateau to work on the Manhattan Project. Instead of romanticizing the pueblo, she absorbed their culture, celebrated her inclusion into their ceremonies, and became an honored member of San Ildefonso society. Instead of prying into the work or the Manhattan Project scientists or judging the outcome of their research, she created a haven in her little home by the river, welcoming them first for tea and then eventually for dinner parties where Oppenheimer and his friends and their wives would spend a rare evening away from the mesa.
And in the middle of all this life happening around her, Edith Warner paid attention to the natural world outside her door. The words in her journal are always true and always moving. In her fifth year by the river, she wrote:
“When I had a tooth extracted a few days ago I was very calm. As I sat in the chair I saw inwardly my mesas. From thoughts of them strength and calm seemed to come to me. I became tense at times, but as I thought of the mesas I relaxed. It was not that the fear ceased to exist, and then the pain, but that another thought was greater than me. That must explain what my Indian friend once said. She had felt a fear once that I did, but she said, ‘I am strong in my heart.’ Surely that is better than saying there is no fear, no pain.”
On Christmas 1950, just before her death, Edith wrote:
“How to endure the man-made devastating period in which we live and which seems almost as hopeless to control as drought; how to proceed. . .but I know what depths of kindness and selflessness exist in my fellow man. Of this I have had renewed assurance recently, when those about me have shared self and substance. When Tilano lights the Christmas Eve fire, perhaps against a white hillside, I shall watch from the house where some have felt peace, and hope that in your sky there are some bright stars.”
It’s hard to do justice to a book like The House at Otowi Bridge. I finished it in tears and wanted to immediately read it again so that some of Edith Warner’s wisdom might rub off and lodge in my thick head.
I have a habit of turning up the bottom corner of a page when I read a phrase that makes me pause. I’m holding the book and noting that I have dozens of bottom corners turned up. The House at Otowi Bridge may well move to the top of my list of favorite New Mexico books.
Edith Warner came to New Mexico to change her life after she experienced a breakdown. People still come here for lots of the same reasons. Edith ended up changing the lives of everyone she met, however diverse or complicated those lives might have been. She saw her fellow man as worthy of treasuring, and treasured the natural world around her in the same way. It sounds like a good way to put your life back together. It sounds like a really good way to live.