Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Robin and Sundew

I’m writing this memoir in honor of Robin Simpson and her daughter Sundew, both of whom are now dead. I would like to offer this piece of writing as my small gift to their memory.

I first met Robin in the fall of 1974 at a craft show in the Loretto Mall in Las Cruces. She reminded me of a woman I once knew named Carol.

“Are you named Carol, by any chance?” I asked by way of introduction.

“No,” she replied.

With most women, the relationship would have ended right there, but Robin and I had some sort of instant connection. So we kept on talking.

It turns out she had just broken up with her boyfriend after travelling around the country in a bus. (A lot of hippie-types traveled around the country in buses back then.) She and her two-year-old daughter, Sundew, had moved into a little wooden house about a mile south of my microfarm, on the other side of the Rio Grande. There were a bunch of hippie-types living in that area, so she fit right in.

About a half mile down the river from her stood a two-story house, with a little hot spring bathhouse. Max and Dan lived there. They were marble miners. Mr. Preece, who owned the Broken Arrow Rock Shop in Radium Springs, had a mining claim about 5 miles west of the highway. Max and Dan would drive Mr. Preece’s truck up the bumpy dirt road back to the marble mine, blast big chunks of marble loose with dynamite, then winch the boulders onto the truck and drive them back to the marble processing area, where Mr. Preece had a big diamond saw. The diamond saw had a blade about six feet long, with a spray of water to keep things cool. The saw moved slowly back and forth and cut the marble into slabs. They cut the slabs to a saleable size and polished them until they glistened. I once swapped Dan and Max some dope for a couple of bookends that they cut and polished for me. Dan was Robin’s boyfriend; that’s why I’m saying all this.

We hip-oids all socialized quite a bit, soaking in the hot tub at Max and Dan’s house, making music, sharing meals, smoking dope. We were always smoking dope, it seemed like. We liked to get high.

One family came down for the winter from Wisconsin every year, living in a teepee behind Max and Dan’s house. People did stuff like that back then. Do they still?

This was the “countercultural era,” when a certain cohort of our age group believed that an alternative to the mainstream monoculture was actually possible. We had no way of knowing that our beloved “alternative lifestyle” was fading away even as we were living it. Judy and I had a lot of spare time during these years, which is another way of saying that we were very poor financially. But we were very rich in unstructured time at a young enough age to fully enjoy it. When our peers were already locked into the System and getting established in their careers, we were exploring the Goat Path and digging into Reality from the inside in. In an earlier post I called this era “a wild and wonderful time,” and Robin was an integral part of it for us.

I remember wading the river with Bob Clark and walking down the Santa Fe Railroad tracks to hang out with Robin. And driving up to see the Tonuco Peak petroglyphs with her and Dan; baking bread with her and Judy; driving to upper Broad Canyon to look for arrowheads (we found one); performing “Sympathy for the Devil” in her house with Dan and a bunch of friends one night; on and on. She was a bright spirit: friendly, intelligent, good vibes; a good person to hang out with; a good person to have as a friend.

I really don’t remember Sundew all that well. She had a gimpy eye, as I recall, but other than that was a typical two-year-old. There always seemed to be kids running around, and Sundew was one of them. From my perspective, she was just another element in the total hipoid package.

I remember one evening going over to Max and Dan’s house with my friend Dave, who was gay. Dave had learned to enjoy his marijuana when he served in Vietnam with the Army, so I figured he would enjoy going over there and partaking. So we went over there and partook, and then he went to the bathhouse to take a soak. A couple of minutes later, Robin went to join him. Dave was a sweet guy and safe in his gay way, so he was no doubt a very satisfactory bath partner. But I remember feeling very quite seriously jealous of him right about then.

One afternoon in the summer of 1975 -- June, as I recall -- Robin and Sundew paid us a visit. This involved walking up the tracks, crossing a floodplain covered with saltgrass and tornillo trees, and crawling through the saltcedar thicket at the edge of the river. We heard her calling to us from across the river, so I dragged my pontoon boat into the water and paddled over to meet them. A friend had loaned me a little aluminum boat made by cutting out the top of an aircraft wing tank, and attaching pontoons on either side so it wouldn’t tip over. We attached a cow skull onto the prow of our ship, and cut quite the mythic figure paddling across the Rio Grande.

I loaded Robin and Sundew into my trusty craft and paddled back across the river. Judy and Sue Ann met us as we climbed out of the boat. Sue Ann was 5 at the time, so she and Sundew started playing together at the edge of the river.

“Want to see our new goat?” Judy asked Robin.

“Sure,” Robin replied.

So we walked over to the goat pen and talked about goats for awhile until Sue Ann came up to us, alone.

“Sundew’s gone,” Sue said.

Oh. My. God.

We ran back to where the girls had been playing and there was the river, flowing quietly and relentlessly downstream like it always does. There was no sign of Sundew.

Robin freaked and dove into the river, calling for Sundew. My memory goes blank right about then. I think that particular memory circuit self-protectively fried itself out of existence. I’m sure she screamed and cried, but all I remember is hopping into my car and driving to Leasburg Dam to see if I could spot Sundew’s body going over the spillway. This involved driving a couple of miles downstream, crossing the river, hanging a left onto Fort Selden Road, then immediately turning left along the Leasburg Canal Road, and driving a mile up the river to the dam. There were several hippie-types there hanging out (in other words, smoking dope), including one guy I knew. I imperiously told them to keep a lookout for Sundew’s body floating past, and they immediately bristled with hostility. I can’t blame them. God, what a prick I was. But I was totally freaked out and not capable of my usual standard of social nuance.

Watching for Sundew’s probably-submerged body in such a vast expanse of water seemed pointless, so I drove back home. Somewhere along in there somebody went to the Clarks’ house down the road and called the sheriff (we had no phone at the time). The deputy came out, took his report, walked down to the edge of the river where Sundew had disappeared, and said they would send divers out in the morning. I don’t know about now, but this used to happen all the time back then... a couple of times a year, probably: a family would be picnicking along the river, and suddenly somebody would notice that Johnny or Suzie had disappeared, and a fun family outing would turn into a tragedy. The sheriff’s job was to find the body, so the survivors could perform the age-old human ritual over the mortal coil from which the spirit has departed. They usually found the body, sooner or later, and I’m sure there were many closed-coffin funerals.

Afternoon turned to evening. Dan arrived in his car and picked up Robin. The next morning, the Sheriff himself came out and sat on our dock for a couple of hours as a couple of scuba divers scoured the river downstream, checking to see if Sundew’s body had gotten snagged by overhanging saltcedar branches. (Saltcedars, seeking light, grow way out into the river.)

Drowning victims usually float to the surface after a few days. As the body decays it fills with gas, giving it buoyancy. They found Sundew’s body five days later, stranded on a sandbar several miles downstream.

In my perception, Robin always had a haunted depth to her after that. She had fallen into the abyss, and I don’t know if you ever quite emerge after that. She was forever changed. She was wise beyond her years. She moved away eventually, and I heard she became a park ranger, working at various New Mexico state parks.

I visited Robin a few times in 1981, after I had left Judy and hooked up with Ellanie, the woman who would become wife #2. By this time Dan and Robin were living together. Dan had built them a house way back in the hills near Truth or Consequences. Since Ellanie lived in T or C and I was spending a lot of time there, it was easy for me to visit Robin on my trips back to Radium Springs.

Robin and I were living two very different lives by then, so we had a few good conversations and that was that. As time went on I got pretty heavily caught up in my own drama, and never saw Robin again. I later heard that she and Dan had two little girls. From time to time the idea would pop into my mind to visit Robin, but I never did.

Then, in 1994, a mutual friend told me what had happened to Robin. She said that Robin had been suffering from endometriosis, and was experiencing intense, unremitting pain. They tried everything, and nothing helped. One evening, right before Dan was to come home from work, she wrote a note, said goodbye to her little daughters, walked out into the desert, and shot herself in the head with a pistol.

I will always miss you, Robin. There is nothing more to say.



There was a potter, Bob Johnson, who had an outdoor pottery in the bosque behind where the Blue Moon Bar is now. For some reason he made hundreds of little pottery baby faces, and he left the imperfect ones scattered on the ground all around his pottery. I asked Bob if I could have them, and he said, “Sure.” So I gathered them up. One morning, about six months after Sundew had drowned, I drove over to Robin’s house with my baby faces and my camera. I had an idea. I had Robin lie on the floor, with her long hair spread around her head like a halo. Then I placed the baby faces in rows around her head. In the photo, Robin, with her gentle, open face and hands radiating a blessing, is literally The Goddess; in this particular manifestation, “Mother of Thousands.” As to what the picture “means,” I haven’t a clue. The picture says it all. I merely got the idea and implemented it.


In addition to the photograph, three pieces of writing came out after Sundew drowned: a prose piece, a song, and a poem:

The Drowning of Sundew (Mama Baca’s Little Daughter)

One afternoon Mama Baca’s little daughter fell into the Rio Ancho and was swept clean away. The boys formed a posse and probed the river with poles, but they couldn’t find anything. (Her last breath had risen alone.) For days afterwards you could hear Mona and Kid padding up and down the river path at twilight, calling softly. But Sundew never answered.

A week later, Lone Jones found Sundew’s bloated little body caught in the sluice gate of his irrigation ditch, so he trucked her up to Dos Garcias for a good simple burial into the Earth with sprinkled offerings.

The next spring Papa Baca planted a pecan tree over her grave as a memorial. “She always liked pecans,” he said.

Every fall, Mama Baca would go up there and pick the nuts from the tree for a pecan pie to remember Sundew by. She always left a few pecans on the grave.


Song segment:

Saltcedars are blooming,
Catfish are swimming,
Swallows are flying over my head.
Last week they say you fell in the river,
Today they found you lying there dead.

When the sun disappears behind the other mountain,
You know I never
Never could find the fountain.
When the moon disappears into your eyes,
You know I finally saw through your disguise.



“It’s the river!” they cried, loosing yellow feathers and lacy fronds,
waving wands, throwing hunks of scalding incense into the current.

The Earth has turned to dirty silver. Wait yer turn.

Rootie toot toot and Ten Tops tall; give us time, we’ll climb em all.
Bright inane chatter.

So was the matter? Here’s the baby, now take the cradle and rocket.

Incense sucked into the whirlpool—smoke, steam and all.

And that’s not all:
Those wands they’re waving willow whips, bark stripped off, dripping sweat;
people chant a HOOM a HOOM;
current sucking stronger now, wash away the sandbar mud
exposing silver willow roots
sending slender willow shoots across the space
a cradle rocks the human race
the chant gets louder, river moan
the BONE they found her bone, they found her bone,
the river bone, they found her bone.

And just think: we’re all in this together!


Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

Jesus Christ Gordon... that brought tears to my eyes.

Your words, your story, prompted awareness and powerful feelings for me:

The burdens human hearts bear. Sorrows oft denied, and understandably, seldom touched.

Sorrow borne silently, stoically in the hearts' memory, along with the unanswerable. The unknowable - The "what ifs?", "if onlys" and "whys?".

Only your heart knows how much emotion still saturates the memories of these events for you. Perhaps a great deal, perhaps not
-but, what you wrote certainly stirred my heart and my emotions...

Thank you.... I suppose....

7:53 AM  
Blogger Gordon Solberg said...

Thanks, Jacques, you have paid me a very high compliment. Beyond the mere transferrence of information, my goal as a writer is to touch other people emotionally -- to make them laugh, or cry, or go "hunnhh?!"

And yeah, digging into that era like that has released a turmoil of emotions within me, which I'll be sharing in future posts. Now you have a better idea of where my stories came from.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incredibly moving . . . thank you for sharing Robin and Sundew with us, blessings sweet beings . . .

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Mick Harris said...


I've been meaning to comment your blog for quite awhile now. So, I figured there's no time like the present and as the old adage goes "better late than never".

I've been following your blog writings for a month or two and I've read it quite thoroughly.

This particular writing; this beautiful memoir of your experiences with Robin and Sundew affected me like none other. It humbled me and grounded me. It reminded me of how fragile and yet beautifully interconnected our life-web is. I thank you for that.

Reading your writings shows me a side of you that I didn't know of. A youthful, creative, and emotionally sensitive side of you that is highly, highly admirable.

Keep writing, please!

Mick Harris

5:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home