‘At Home on the Slopes of Mountains’

-A A +A

By Susan Wider

“I write to keep things from getting lost.” — Peggy Pond Church, poet and author

“I write to keep Peggy from getting lost.” — Sharon Snyder, biographer

We owe serious thanks to the Los Alamos Historical Society for believing in both of these women.
The Society recently released Sharon Snyder’s beautiful and intelligent biography “At Home on the Slopes of Mountains: The Story of Peggy Pond Church,” about  New Mexico’s treasured poet and writer. Beautiful because that’s exactly what Snyder’s fluid, lyrical writing is, and intelligent in the way she alternates her narrative with Church’s poetry, a wealth of historical photos, and “imagined” yet fact-based vignettes about moments from Church’s life.
A retired science and journalism teacher, Snyder’s 15 years of research for the book took her to obvious places like the University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research, and as far afield as the University of California-Los Angeles, San Francisco and Bath, England to run down leads, and to walk where Pond Church walked. “Research is seductive.
Writing is hard work,” Snyder said. But Church helped, she left a timeline of her life, which offered Snyder a detailed road map.
In 1996, while helping a friend’s mother pack before a move, Snyder stumbled upon a short-press-run book of Church’s poetry called “Foretaste.” Snyder wasn’t much help with the packing after that, opting to read the poetry book instead.
“For someone who loved Los Alamos and the Pajarito Plateau, it was perfect,” Snyder said.
It launched her on a hunt for more of Church’s books and for a biography. Growing up in Los Alamos, she had already read Church’s “House at Otowi Bridge” — never out of print in 60 years – and she discovered Church’s biography of Mary Austin and several poetry books.
But  there was no biography of Church. Snyder would have to write it herself.
Snyder’s research turned up many wonderful family and historical photos to enhance the story and they are sprinkled throughout the text.
This is preferable by far to those biographies that lump photo clusters together once in the middle of the book, or twice if the author found enough good photos.
The italicized “vignettes,” add tremendous heart to the book.
Because her research is so extensive and she had access to between 15 and 20 of Church’s journals and many of her letters and other writings, Snyder was able to create fictionalized accounts of many events in Church’s life.
Snyder inserts several of these into each chapter. Snyder could have simply told us in the narrative that Church was at times angry with her father, but we feel that anger so much more when it is in the context of one of these vignettes.
Many of Church’s published and unpublished poems also grace the pages.
The volume is beautifully designed by Shirley Veenis of Comuniqué and production costs were supported in part by an inspired private donor to the Los Alamos Historical Society. Thank you Sharon Snyder, for 15 years well spent.