Biography: A Woman as Strong as Mountains

By India Wood

 

Nancy with wild colt, 1968
Nancy with wild colt, 1968

Introduction

Nancy Wood (1936-2013), prolific writer and photographer, authored 28 published books of poetry, fiction, children’s books, and nonfiction steeped in the American Southwest. The region’s wild mountains and Native American spirituality inspired her life view and profound poetry. Many Winters, her most famous of ten volumes of poetry, sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide. Wood won numerous awards, including a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and a Western Heritage Award. Several of her poems are in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

 

 

Nancy in 1960 at printers with her arts magazine
Nancy in 1960 at printers with her arts magazine

The Early Decades

Wood was born Nancy Clopp on June 20, 1936, to a Catholic family of five children in Trenton, New Jersey. Her father Harold Clopp owned a hot temper and a successful office supply company, and her mother Eleanor taught piano and was a homemaker. Nancy began work as a newspaper reporter at age 14 for The Beachcomber and soon became editor of the Ewing High School newspaper and wrote the school play. Wellesley offered her a tuition scholarship but Nancy’s father said even paying room and board was a waste of money on a girl. Angry and unfamiliar with contraception, she became pregnant and married at 17, took some classes at Bucknell University, and then fled west to Colorado Springs, Colorado at age 22 with her first husband Oscar Dull III. They soon divorced.

Nancy married prominent photographer Myron Wood in 1961. Myron was worldly and cultured: a World War II veteran who had fought in the Normandy invasion, classical pianist, deep reader of literature, and camera man who would go on to have his photographs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Myron sparked an intellectual rigor in Nancy that she had missed without college. He introduced her to Taos Pueblo, taking her there for their honeymoon where they met Red Willow Dancing, who started Nancy on a lifelong exploration of Taos history, culture, and spiritual life. In the 1960s Nancy wrote articles about Colorado and New Mexico for The New York Times, McCall’s, Empire magazine, and others. Nancy and Myron founded their own short-lived publishing house, Chaparral Press, which published two paperbacks of Nancy’s writing and Myron’s photography, West to Durango and Central City. They collaborated on three other books, Hollering Sun, Little Wrangler, and Colorado: Big Mountain Country for major New York publishers. This writer-and-photographer couple lived in a pueblo-style house in Colorado Springs with their four children: Karin and Chris, whom Myron adopted from Nancy’s first marriage, and Kate and India. Myron abruptly left Nancy in 1969. Nancy then somehow managed to raise their four children on an author’s wages and intermittent child support.

 

 

Richard Erdoes and Nancy, 1998
Author and illustrator Richard Erdoes and Nancy, 1998

Her Literary Circle

Nancy had a circle of literary friends and business partners who loved her because of, and in spite of, the force of her passionate and outspoken mind. Nancy’s dear friend and literary agent Marie Rodell was a key partner with Nancy in the 1960s and 1970s, helping her survive the divorce with Myron by building rapid literary success until Marie passed away in 1975. Don Congdon was Nancy’s literary agent from around 1980 to 1995, after which Nancy had no regular agent. The Chinook Bookshop, owned by Dick and Judy Noyes in Colorado Springs, hosted signings for all of Wood’s books and was the family bookstore until Nancy left Colorado in 1984 for New Mexico, where Art Bachrach’s Moby Dickens bookstore in Taos became a new touchstone. Nancy had a few beloved editors including Ann Harris at Harper & Row, Janet Chenery and Karen Wojtyla at Doubleday, and Karen Lotz at Dutton. Literary friends including Judy Noyes, Carolyn Johnston, Virginia Westray, Anna Gidley, Tal Luther, and Robert Parker gave Nancy feedback on manuscripts. Ford Robbins contributed his printing talents to Nancy’s photography in New Mexico. Luther Wilson and John Byram at UNM Press and Mike Kelly, director of the UNM Center for Southwest Research, were important supporters later in life.

 

 

Nancy with her three husbands Oscar, John, and Myron, 1981
Nancy with her three husbands Oscar, John, and Myron, 1981

The Men

Nancy loved men intensely and madly, and often, and they loved and supported her. She married three husbands: Oscar Dull (1957), Myron Wood (1961), and John Brittingham (1977). A fourth marriage (circa 1997) to Leigh Cross was annulled, though she did see the humor in briefly being Ms. Wood-Cross. Robert Parker, a World War II veteran and a founder of Vail, was Nancy’s boyfriend from 1985 to about 1995; Robert then continued to be her sensible dear friend and editorial right hand. David Willsey dated Nancy from 2001 to 2010 and contributed a further awareness of Buddhism that she had begun in Japan, though she never viewed herself as Buddhist. Authors Marshall Sprague, Richard Erdoes, John Nichols, Richard McCord, and Evan Connell were good friends of hers at various points. John Eastham, who ran the Whickerbill housewares shop in Colorado Springs and had similar passions for men, was Nancy’s best friend and confidante through all the husbands and boyfriends.

Her enduring life partner, however, was the mountains: Every year in July she would dance among the wildflowers atop Independence Pass, near Aspen on the Continental Divide.

 

 

Beethoven

Wood loved classical music and attended the Aspen Music Festival each year starting in the early 1970s until the year she died. On Beethoven’s birthday, December 16, she would carry a cake outside with candles, sing “Happy birthday dear Ludwig”, and wait for the wind to blow them out.

 

 

Nancy Wood dancing on Independence Pass, CO
Nancy dancing to Mozart in July on top of Independence Pass

Nature Spirit and Environmentalist

Nancy believed in nature, not in any organized religion. As she said in the preface to Dancing Moons, she believed in “an awareness and appreciation of the complex, magical world around us. Nature, not us, is what keeps on giving.” “For it is not through war or violence that lives and nations are changed, but through application of old enduring truths. These truths have no label–Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist–for the are simply our most basic connection to one another, to origins, and to a future that must contain the promise of ages past.”

Wood was a longtime environmentalist. She wrote a book for the Sierra Club, Clearcut: The Deforestation of America, in 1972. She was rumored to have cut down billboards south of Colorado Springs in the early 1970s. Grand Junction banned Nancy for few years in the 1970s after she wrote an exposé of uranium tailings contamination there. Many of her poems are about the essential human connection with nature. She was an avid hiker and cross-country skier, though she rarely got far, often stopping to say “Look!” and pointing to a flower or distant peak as her children fidgeted or her boyfriend stood riveted.

 

 

Poet

Wood wrote six books of poetry inspired by the spirituality of Taos pueblo and the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. Her Catholic upbringing among ruler-wielding nuns and the incantations of mass likely influenced the lyricism of her poetry and identification with oppressed people. Hollering Sun was her first exploration of the spirituality of Taos; the book included photographs by Myron Wood and was published by Simon and Schuster in 1972. Many Winters, a second volume of Taos-inspired poetry but with paintings by Frank Howell, appeared to great critical acclaim in 1974. Doubleday republished Many Winters in 1992. Nancy then wrote four volumes of poetry as companions to Many Winters, all illustrated by Frank Howell and published by Doubleday in 1994-1998: Spirit Walker, Dancing Moons, Shaman’s Circle, and Sacred Fire.

Wood wrote five other books of poetry that ventured beyond Taos. Wood wrote War Cry on a Prayer Feather in 1979, the poems based upon Ute spirituality and history alongside historical photographs. She wrote three unpublished poetry books in the 1990s: Black Sun Rising, a work of animal prophecies; Wild Love, poems of love from all ages and stages; and Japanese Fireflies, about her experiences with love and Buddhism in Japan. Her last book of poetry, We Became as Mountains, published in 2008 by Sherman Asher Press, narrated the brutal Spanish conquest of the New Mexico pueblos.

 

 

Nancy photographing cowboys, circa 1985
Nancy photographing cowboys, circa 1985

Nonfiction Writer, Ethnographer, Photographer

Wood conducted interviews and historical research, photographed, and wrote the text for several books about the Southwest, leveraging her tools from decades as a freelance reporter to form true stories without Western sentimentality. As Vine Deloria said about Wood in his introduction to her book, Taos Pueblo, her work was a rare combination of personal reflection and astute observation: “Her observations are firm, incisive, and pointed, sometimes expressing her own bewilderment, other times recounting her admiration and her affection, but always trying to find the fulcrum point of truth that will enable her to tell the real story of what is happening at Taos in a manner that will express the innate dignity of the people of the village.”

Nancy’s photographic eye was awakened by her second husband Myron Wood and developed by Roy Stryker, with whom she collaborated on In This Proud Land: America 1935-43 as Seen in the FSA Photographs, published by the New York Graphic Society in 1974. As she said, Stryker taught her “the art of seeing.” Nancy began to take her own photographs in the mid-1970s, funded by grants from the Colorado Centennial Commission and the Colorado Historical Society. But as Nancy said in the introduction to Eye of the West, “I knew nothing about the technical side of photography, only the aesthetics that Stryker had taught me and the practical experience my former husband had imbued in me. I was in over my head. I didn’t know an f-stop from a bus stop.” But she learned quickly. The Grass Roots People, an intimate portrait of rural Colorado, was published by Harper & Row in 1978. Wood then researched, photographed, and wrote the text for When Buffalo Free the Mountains, an exploration of contemporary Ute culture and politics published by Doubleday in 1980 that aroused anger from some Utes. As usual, Wood had done her best to reveal the fulcrum point of truth.

There is then a nine-year gap in her published books due to personal upheaval, mainly her third divorce in 1982, and work on several books which would be published years later, including The Soledad Crucifixion and Taos Pueblo. During this time she often left her house in Colorado Springs to write at the Baca Grande, a New Age retreat near Crestone, Colorado. She also spent many summers writing near Aspen in a sturdy timber line cabin she called Fortress America, owned by her old friend Stuart Mace.

Wood received a grant in 1987 from the Museum of New Mexico to fund her book Taos Pueblo, published by Knopf in 1989. The book was critically well-received but the Taos ran her out of town for disclosing their private lives. She moved to Santa Fe around 1990. The University of New Mexico Press in 2007 published Eye of the West, a retrospective of her photographic work from all four books, which won a Western Heritage Award. The UNM Center for Southwest Research acquired Nancy’s papers and photographic archive including 25,000 negatives when she passed away in 2013. Nancy’s fine art photography is currently represented by the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, NM.

 

 

Collaborator

Nancy was also adept at using her creativity alongside that of others, whether it was Myron Wood’s photographs, Frank Howell’s paintings, Richard Erdoes’s art, or historical photographs of the Utes. She was a consulting editor on a Bill Moyers 1976 documentary, “Cowboys”, about ranching families in northwest Colorado. Her interest in the FSA photographers continued with Heartland New Mexico, her exploration of the people and places featured in the New Mexico FSA photographs, published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1989. Nancy edited The Serpent’s Tongue, a landmark anthology of the prose, poetry, and art of the New Mexico pueblos published by Dutton in 1997.

 

 

Fiction Writer

Nancy published five novels and wrote at least two other unpublished novels, Miss America Goodbye and The Trial of Joseph Yellowtail. Nancy’s first novel, The Last Five Dollar Baby, about the demise of a Colorado town overrun by a dam, was published in 1972. A Denver Post reviewer summarized her modernist novel as “long on expletives and short on punctuation.” The King of Liberty Bend, her 1976 novel about a cowboy, was also published in German. That same year she released The Man Who Gave Thunder to the Earth, based upon Taos spiritualism. Two decades later she wrote Thunderwoman, an epic novel set in New Mexico history and illustrated by Richard Erdoes, published in 1999. Nancy completed her final novel, The Soledad Crucifixion, about a holy New Mexico priest who is a murderer and fornicator. The book was published by UNM Press in 2012 and received a Zia award and an IPPY award.

 

 

Ireland and Japan

Nancy visited Ireland in 1994, researched her Irish ancestry, sampled the whisky, and set a rose on the grave of W.B. Yeats. On that trip she took her only fine art color photographs, a series of abstract images of decaying building details which were later paired with one-line poems as part of a retrospective show of her photography at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe in 2010.

Wood flew to the far side of the world in 1999, visiting Japan to speak to an audience of 800 admirers from a stage-set adobe pueblo. Japanese translations of her Taos-inspired poetry books have sold about 100,000 copies, revealing a deep resonance between Nancy’s spiritual perspectives and that of Shinto and Buddhism—as Wood said “Same song, different drum.” Her experiences on Hokkaido inspired Wild Love, a work of poetry published only in Japanese about an intense love affair she had with a Japanese man. Nancy’s poetry continues to be in print in Japan as well as Korea, and most recently in China.

 

 

Nancy at retrospective show of her photographs at Gerald Peters Gallery, 2010
Nancy at retrospective show of her photographs at Gerald Peters Gallery, 2010

A Change of Worlds

The 21st century brought increasing challenges from her mental illness, leading her to focus on shorter works and finishing long-term projects including a novel and photography show at Gerald Peters Gallery. She wrote two whimsical children’s books published by Candlewick Press in 2005-2006: Mr. and Mrs. God in the Creation Kitchen and How the Tiny People Grew Tall. Morrow published Old Coyote, about the great circle of life, her final children’s book. She died of cancer in 2013 at age of 76 with her family gathered around her at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her four children raised ceremonial glasses of her favorite spirit, Johnny Walker Black, and burned a sacred fire ignited with an old page of Miss America Goodbye, her unpublished biographical novel.

The Nancy Wood Literary Trust, which Nancy set up before her death and is managed by her daughter India Wood, ensures her words and photographs continue to inspire people worldwide. Hold on to What Is Good: The Selected Poetry of Nancy Wood is forthcoming.