“Headed into the Wind: A Memoir” by Jack Loeffler, University of New Mexico Press 2019, 288 pages, Hardcover $27.95, E-book $9.99
Editor’s Note: In honor of Earth Month, let us call your attention to the life and accomplishments of an influential New Mexico environmentalist, vividly recounted in a memoir recognized by the Pima County (Tucson) Public Library’s prestigious award as a Southwest Book of the Year 2019.
Jack Loeffler welcomes us into this endearing, intentionally meandering memoir with a cover photo of himself, sporting a big, genuine, toothy smile. Photographed in Chaco Canyon in 1980, he is posed in front of a huge rock formation with binoculars, recording equipment and a bandana, all around his neck. Loeffler, a longtime Santa Fe resident, is obviously in his element, making us wish we were there with him. And, from the comfort of our armchairs, we do go with him on the exciting adventures experienced by this “former jazz musician, fire lookout, museum curator, bioregionalist and self-taught aural historian,” as his publisher describes Loeffler’s eventful life.
“Headed into the Wind” is divided into two sections. Part One is mostly personal narrative. Part Two is also personal narrative, but includes transcriptions of fascinating interviews Loeffler recorded with colorful literary and activist figures of the 1960s and ‘70s, including his best friend, Edward Abbey. Abbey graduated from the University of New Mexico with a master’s degree in philosophy in the 1950s, and his activism and writings have inspired two generations of environmentalists, making him the godfather of radical environmentalism. The Loeffler interviews give us entrée to the thinking of Abbey and other important countercultural pioneers who helped to stimulate the rising social consciousness of the final decades of the 20th century.
Because the book was written in a non-linear fashion, reading it feels as though we are spending many sociable hours with a good friend, who slowly, over the course of time, shares his exploits, interests and passions. Even the unnumbered chapter titles—presented in what looks like a hand-written font—reflect the author’s approachability and informality.
One of the most pivotal experiences in Loeffler’s life took place in July of 1957. A trumpet player in the 433rd Army Band, he and his band mates were rousted at 4 a.m. one morning, loaded onto a bus and driven to a military base at the Nevada Proving Grounds. Dressed in shorts and pith helmets, the band played Sousa marches in the dark from memory. In the middle of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Loeffler saw the “sky burst into light brighter than the sun, and an enormous mushroom cloud rocketed skyward.” The band was seven miles from ground zero of an atmospheric test of an atomic bomb.
It was a defining moment. “I realized,” the author writes, “that I was totally sane, born into a culture that was not totally sane, and that thenceforth I would pursue my own trail through this lifetime and that my trail would involve great resistance to any form of governing body that condoned the detonation of atomic bombs that blatantly destroyed spans of earthly habitat and all life therein, ostensibly in defense of the American Dream.” In embracing the epiphany that to “terrorize natural habitat for economic gain is fundamentally evil,” Loeffler was at the forefront of environmental awareness.
After being discharged from the Army in 1958, Loeffler immersed himself in the Beat scene that was in full swing in coastal California. He first made his way to Santa Barbara, then on to North Beach in San Francisco and ultimately to Monterey. There he learned that Doc, the hero of John Steinbeck’s novel, “Cannery Row,” was based on Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist whose lab assistant and bottle washer was Joseph Campbell, the future comparative mythologist.
Although he never met Steinbeck, Loeffler was one of the habitues of Ricketts’s lab gatherings, where he did meet and once shared a bottle of wine with novelist Henry Miller, another regular. Loeffler refers to Ricketts as “a high school dropout, an endlessly curious vagabond,” who was “probably as great a role model as I’ve ever had.” They shared many interests, including listening to classical music, enjoying the vagabond lifestyle and having deep conversations with some of the finest minds of Loeffler’s generation.
It is in California, in 1960, that Loeffler met people who became “peyoteros,” occasionally holding a peyote “meeting,” or healing ceremony, in a cave in western Nevada. These meetings became the basis for the non-native branch of the Native American Church that remains active to this day. Discovering “peyote mind” was another defining moment for Loeffler, who came to believe that use of this psychedelic puts one in touch with the spirit of the Earth.
Loeffler was first introduced to New Mexico in 1958 on a hitchhiking trip from LA to Cleveland, Ohio, that he made while on furlough from the Army Band. Descending into the Rio Grande Valley and Albuquerque, he immediately recognized that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the Land of Enchantment, but it took him four years to move back here permanently.
In the early 1960s, Loeffler settled in Santa Fe, where the octogenarian still lives with his second wife Katherine in a adobe home that he built by hand. He became the curator of an adult travelling exhibition for the Museum of New Mexico in 1967. He wrote, performed and recorded the soundtracks for audio/visual presentations about indigenous people and their relationship to the land. This effort to raise environmental awareness took him to 37 towns and cities around the state. Becoming fascinated with sound as an art form, this time spent as an aural historian provided him experience and income enough to fund his further adventures.
In 1968, Loeffler was invited by the director of the Laboratory of Anthropology, part of the University of New Mexico, to a meeting where he was introduced to Lee Udall, whose Center for the Arts of Indian America in Washington, D.C.,had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to create a travelling exhibition about Navajo history to take to Bureau of Indian Affairs schools throughout the Navajo Nation. With his experience with traveling exhibitions and familiarity with the Navajos, Loeffler was able to provide helpful advice to Lee about the CAIA project. He was later invited to the Udall home, where he met Lee’s husband, Stewart Udall, then U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The Udalls and the Loefflers became close friends and remained so throughout their lives.
Flying deep into Mexico on an assignment for the CAIA in 1969, he, photographer Karl Kernberger and a small crew happened upon and documented a colorful Huichol peyote ceremony. It was another moment of self-definition “I didn’t want a job,” Loeffler writes. “I loved to make quality sound recordings in stereo. I was deeply committed to the preservation of habitat and indigenous culture. Something clicked in my consciousness, and I recognized that, although I would not get a job, I would pursue my work as I saw fit—and my life’s work had already begun.”
The CAIA team’s plane was days late in picking them up, they were out of food and supplies, camped by the runway, and at a loss. A friendly Huichol boy stopped by their encampment, fashioned an airplane from some corn husks and twigs and set it beside the runway. “Shortly thereafter, we spotted our plane heading in for a landing,” Loeffler remembers. “I looked at the kid, he looked at me, and we both laughed and shook hands.”
Loeffler was receptive to the simple magic of life and allowed it to lead him anywhere, unafraid.
It takes Loeffler four or five short chapters to wind down to a conclusion because he still has much to say, and he doesn’t want to let the memoir go, enjoying the excuse to reminisce. So he provides snippets of his favorite memories of dozens of friends, two pages of personal suggestions and a reiteration of the critical importance of consciousness, of living every day in the moment and of recognizing and protecting the interconnectedness of all forms of life. We are lucky to have portions of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and Gila National Forest right here in Sierra County. Loeffler asks us to steep ourselves in the natural world, for therein we are truly alive.