A Further Perspective

Western Samizdat

If you haven't read New Mexico writer Stephen Bodio, it's time you did.

By 3.8.12

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I once sat in the writer Chilton Williamson's living room in Kemmerer, Wyoming, twenty years ago, drinking coffee and chatting about books and writers. Chilton kept parrots -- I recall three or four in a tall corner birdcage -- and periodically they would begin their subtle ornithological gossip among themselves, which quickly escalated to loud squawking. Hardly interrupting his erudite monologue, Chilton calmly rose from his chair, walked over to the cage, put his closely-cropped blond-bearded face next to it and shouted: "Shut up!" The parrots were immediately silenced: all ruffled, pastel plumage, and cowering on their perches. Chilton performed this disciplinary chore a couple of more times during a long conversation where such names as Edmund Wilson, Cormac McCarthy, and his old boss Bill Buckley were dropped, and after another of these terrifying cage visits he again sat down, and asked: " Have you read Stephen Bodio?"

I hadn't, in fact hadn't heard of him, and Chilton rose again to pull a book off the nearby bookshelves. It was a large-sized trade paperback titled Querencia. On the cover was a reproduction of a painting by Montana artist Russell Chatham of a handsome woman wearing a long draping scarf and walking dogs in the snow, with a vast plain behind her (the painting is titled "Betsy Huntington and her dogs"). The Spanish "Querencia" is translated as affection for the place one calls home, a place of security and safety, its main usage originating in the dying art-sport of bullfighting. Chilton wouldn't part with his copy, but I've since read and reread Querencia and other Bodio books. He's something of a writer's writer. I made his acquaintance through an exchange of letters for a short time.

Sadly, Querencia is out of print. It was published in 1990 by Clark City Press, a now-defunct small publishing venture originally founded by Russell Chatham -- among others -- in Livingston, Montana, that for a number of years put out a half dozen titles annually. It published obscure writers -- some western, some not -- including such poets as Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber, and Barry Gifford. Bodio's book received some positive blurbs from the likes of Rick Bass and the late Tony Hillerman, who wrote that "Stephen Bodio writes like Pavarotti sings. He is a master. No one who loves the West should miss this book."

Stephen Bodio is a sixty-ish Massachusetts native who has lived in tiny Magdalena, New Mexico, for three decades. He is the author of a half dozen books about the natural world, including A Rage for Falcons (1992) and Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia (2003), the latter reflecting a lifelong fascination with the ancient herding and hunting traditions of Central Asia. Predatory birds are a central interest, Bodio being an avid falconer. On the Edge of the Wild: Passions and Pleasures of a Naturalist (1997) is a more eclectic collection of essays on hunting and fishing and adventurous travel.

A previously published magazine freelancer, Bodio initially arrived in New Mexico in 1979 with Betsy Huntington, a down-to-earth woman with Boston Brahmin roots who "drawled patrician vowels." Her life with Bodio and eventual death from cancer after what the author calls his "seven years of grace" is the touchstone of Querencia, a memoir brimming with lives lived outdoors, and the couple's social connections in New Mexico. Bodio and Huntington enjoyed friendships with writers and ranchers and bartenders, and the sort of daily-encountered eccentrics familiar to people who live in small towns. There's a couple named Chubby and Shirley Torres with a large extended family in Magdalena, and a desert rat named Dutch Salmon who lives in a remote trailer with fierce dogs.

And it's a book full of vividly rendered diversions, whether it's catching a live rattlesnake, or attending a cockfight (for journalistic reasons). If Querencia has a larger-than-life character it's New Mexico itself, "high, windy, and bright" (the searing sun responsible for America's highest skin cancer rates), yet at times mysterious and "ferociously alien" with its mixture of Hispanic, Indian and "Anglo" cultures. Magdalena (population 900) sits at 6,500 feet on a plateau high above the Rio Grande Valley in the central part of the state. Bodio and Huntington are clearly enchanted by life in "The Land of Enchantment," and there are long days of upland bird hunting with a view of "the sky island" of Ladron Peak, one of New Mexico's prominent landmarks and a long ago hideout for outlaws and Apaches. There are rambles on the Plains of San Agustin accompanied by beloved dogs. It's a life of work, love and wonder.

Huntington, an enthusiastic smoker, died of lung cancer in 1986, and this final health struggle closes the book. After her death, Bodio, while observing sandhill cranes in the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge that remind him of "flying crucifixes," reflects that after a peripatetic life "Betsy has finally found a home."

One would hope this book could also find a new home as a new edition reprint. As it is a limited supply of copies of Querencia can be found at Amazon.com and Allibris. Good luck finding it in a bookstore. Bodio also has a website, "Querencia" (same as the book's title), where he details his eclectic interests, outdoor activities, and recent work.

Steve Bodio still lives in New Mexico; Chilton Williamson resides in Laramie, Wyoming; and nowadays I call Salmon, Idaho home. Western writers seem to inhabit a regional network unlike any other in America. They're aware of each other and their work. More so than, say, New England writers and Southern writers. It's as if despite the huge stretches of geography that separate us, we still live in the same cultural neighborhood, with the same flora, fauna and vast public lands. We inhabit small cities and tiny towns that are still hospitable. Our doors are always open to visiting family, friends and writers.

I wonder if Chilton still keeps obnoxious parrots?

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.