Signs and Wonders

Leslie Marmon Silko details her fascinating life in 'The Turquoise Ledge'

Leslie Marmon Silko inhabits a curious reality: Some of her best friends are rattlesnakes; she nearly fell in love once with a grasshopper; and she's known to kick back in the afternoon and watch Sesame Street with a parrot on her shoulder.

The celebrated author of Ceremony, Almanac of the Dead and Gardens in the Dunes spends a good deal of her time watching the desert from her leaky old ranch house in the Tucson Mountains, on the edge of Saguaro National Park. She grows night-blooming cereus, feeds her many dogs and macaws, prays for rain, and walks in a trance along a trail scattered with chips and shards of turquoise. She writes, of course, and she paints. A few years ago, she started painting large portraits of "Star Beings," cold gods from the cosmos who visit Earth from time to time.

She is tuned, after 30 years in the desert, to its interwoven rhythms. She communes with snakes and packrats. She reserves some of her deepest feelings for rocks.

Silko chronicles her life in the desert in her memoir The Turquoise Ledge. Intermixed with short chapters about her off-kilter, myth-soaked daily life—walking a big arroyo near her home and looking for turquoise rocks; watching the clouds; teaching herself Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs—are stories about her ancestors and her childhood growing up in New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo. She also tells various charming tales, most of them involving desert animals, about her three decades in Southern Arizona, while scattering little gems of natural and human history. It's a unique and rather brave performance, original and life-affirming.

One particularly illuminating story is about how she broke her foot in a fall, but didn't go to the emergency room. She didn't want to waste so many hours away from her animals to have some doctor tell her what she already knew. She wore a foot brace, took it easy for a while and went to an acupuncturist. It healed a few months later, and she was back on the trails looking for turquoise.

"A great deal of what I call 'memories' are bits and pieces I recall vividly; but the process we call 'memory,' even recent memory, involves imagination," she warns us in a brief preface. "We learn to ignore the discrepancies between our memory of an event and a sister's memory. We can't be certain of anything."

In other words, her stories are more about truth than fact. "Fortunately, my subconscious remembers everything I need," she writes.

Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948 into a family of Laguna, Cherokee, Mexican and Anglo ancestry. She grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation and attended the University of New Mexico as an 18-year-old mother and wife. She wanted to be a visual artist, but she kicked against perspective and realism, and she dropped out of an introduction-to-drawing class. Her husband, an English major, suggested she take a creative writing class for an "easy A."

In 1977, she published her first novel, Ceremony, which is now considered an American classic and has sold more than 1 million copies. After the novel had been accepted by Viking—on the cusp of a new life as a famous, beloved writer—Silko almost died. She suffered a misdiagnosed entopic pregnancy, which four doctors told her was merely the flu. She went into surgery not knowing if she would ever wake up. She could have been the best dead young writer in America. Instead, she came out of it, and she was reborn.

"In some ways, the person I'd been before Nov. 3, 1977, did die that day," she writes. "I woke from surgery with a profound sense of responsibility for how I lived my life. I did have more books I wanted to write but not if I stayed where I was. My writing was a source of tension in the marriage, and the teaching and other duties stood in the way. So I moved to Tucson in early January of 1978, two months after the emergency surgery."

She has gone on to great acclaim in American letters, friend to writers and poets such as Joy Harjo, Allen Ginsberg, Ishmael Reed and James Wright.

All these years later, she lives the life of a kind of shaman-artist of the desert, keeping watch, calling in the rain clouds to break the drought. The story of that life is a magical tale, filled with belief and patience, humor and wisdom.

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