My Private Mountain: Capturing the Jemez

“It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me.
God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
(Georgia O’Keeffe on painting in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico)

The new film, “Sky Island,” a half-hour documentary by nature filmmaker John Grabowska featured on PBS (debut 7-10-2011), takes viewers to Georgia O’Keeffe’s mountain and beyond to examine how climate change is affecting this rugged and delicate land of ghosts and shadows.

The Jemez Range where O’Keefe worked for nearly a half century is a collection of peaks as high as 11,000 feet centering on the great Valles Caldera. Now a green swiped valley, the caldera is the remnant of a volcano that last erupted 50 or so millennia ago. The Jemez range hugs the western bank of the Rio Grande, about 30 miles southeast of Santa Fe. It’s a land of ancient pueblos, petroglyphs and cliff dwellings that reach back at least 10,000 years.

These compressed ash cliffs
of Frijoles Canyon were easily
excavated by Ancestral Puebloans.
Photo by Sally King

Reviewed by Miller-McCune editor Michael Todd, the film is co-narrated by actress Meryl Streep and poet M. Scott Momaday. Much of the credit for the eco-science in Sky Island goes to Craig D. Allen of the U.S. Geological Survey. Allen, a desert ecologist, has spent his entire scientific career in northern New Mexico.

“Climate change presents no threat to the continuation of life on Earth,” Streep says in the film, “but it will determine which (species) survives, and how.” Among those likely losers are endemic species like the Jemez Mountain salamander and the American pika. Pushed ever higher toward the sky, they are already at the limit of their range — they have nowhere to go.

Todd writes, “Climate change in a high desert intolerant of environmental error has already claimed some victims: the region’s iconic piñon pines. Some 90 percent of the mature specimens of these slow-growing trees died from the heat in a two-year period.”

Lone pinyon
Mary Saxton Griffin. fine art photographer
Contact at:

Piñon nuts provide sustenance for many woodland creatures and a wild harvest cash crop for the local people, were part of the landscape immortalized in many of O’Keeffe’s paintings, Todd notes. But, overgrazing and fire suppression have allowed woody plants like the piñons to invade areas that had been historic grasslands. Now climate change is returning these former forests to grasslands again that can probably better withstand the climate’s changes and survive in a likely drier future.

“That the piñons’ advance was a case of people-powered change reflects an unexpected point — for a natural history film — made explicit in Sky Island: the ‘human presence ingrained into landscape.'” Todd says. “This is obvious in the scenes of archaeological sites that dot the film. It’s less obvious in the suppression of fire, a natural force that Streep refers to as an ally of the forest and that must be reintroduced after years having been kept at bay by well-meaning people.”

O’Keefe – Ghost Ranch

Georgia O’Keefe on Flowers, on really seeing:
“Everyone has many associations with a flower–the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower–lean forward to smell it–maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking–or give it to someone to please them. Still–in a way–nobody sees a flower–really–it is so small–we haven’t time–and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.

So I said to myself–I’ll paint what I see–what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it–I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”

Take time to see “Sky Island” and look at what nature filmmaker John Grabowska has to show us and be surprised. 

O’Keefe – flower series

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Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

4 thoughts on “My Private Mountain: Capturing the Jemez

  1. At the very end of the film we fly right over Cerro Pedernal, the mountain where Georgia's ashes were strewn — her private mountain. John Grabowska chose well his images.

  2. At the very end of the film we fly right over Cerro Pedernal, the mountain where Georgia's ashes were strewn — her private mountain. John Grabowska chose well his images.

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