Instead of a formal review of Steward of the West by Ned Danson’s grandson, I opted for a more imaginative “interview” with my old friend in the present tense. All the questions are in my own voice. Ned’s responses are taken accurately from Haury’s book with the exceptions of Jess’s 80th birthday, my move to Sedona, and the tale of my living in Juliana hermitage.
Tessa: Ned, even though we both were born and raised in the lush green east, you and I share a passion for the arid Arizona desert. When did your love affair with the desert begin?
Ned: I first saw Arizona in 1926 when my family traveled to the Southwest from Cincinnati. My memories of that trip are faint, yet I recall the Grand Canyon, Indian dances, and visits to various archeological sites. But at age ten, I was more interested in the big cars we drove!
T: That changed on your second visit to the desert?
N: In 1937, at age 21, I drove to Arizona to help my uncle turn some desert land south of Tucson into a dude ranch. As we drove out of the canyon west of Bisbee and up on to the plateau to Tombstone at 5 am, there was a pink and blue pre-sunrise sky with fleecy white clouds, a hill with a coyote on it – I know it’s melodramatic, but that’s the way it was. I fell in love with Arizona there and knew it was going to be my home.
T: Arizona was even part of your “marriage proposal” to Jessica, right?
N: On our first date I said, “You’re going to love Arizona.” She thought, “Wow, what a line!” I wasn’t engaged for a while, but doing my darndest to be. My only worry was whether Jess would like Arizona and like going on expeditions and roughing it. She’d “camped out,” but never “lived out.” There’s a big, big difference. But she loved the open. She was a good sport with a sense of humor. And she had imagination and intelligent interest, all necessary attributes.
T: And did she fall in love with the Arizona desert, too?
N: She did. We were married in 1942. After serving in World War II as a naval ensign, we bought a house in Tucson in 1945. Then I got my PhD in Anthropology at Harvard. For my dissertation, I surveyed the Upper Gila River Basin, 14,500 square miles of wilderness along the Arizona-New Mexico border. For three summers, while Jess lived in California with her parents and our two children, I filled in the archeological map. I taught briefly at the University of Colorado in Boulder where I felt I should get excited by Plains archeology. But I never did. The Southwest was always my cup of tea. In 1950 I was asked to teach at the U of A in Tucson, and we moved onto five acres of Sonoran desert. With few houses nearby, we could look out on the desert and walk there whenever we wanted. Our son Ted developed a passion for horseback riding. Our daughter Jan loved playing “knights” with long, straight “ribs” of dead saguaro cactus as lances. Jessica loved wild nature and thrilled to Arizona’s powerful thunderstorms. One day she heard thunder crashing outside, threw open the door, and called out, “Isn’t this glorious?”
T: She didn’t like moving to Flagstaff in northern Arizona?
N: Not at first. I joined the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Northern Arizona in 1953. In 1956 the Museum needed a new assistant director. Jessica asked who should be named, and I was suggested. For years she considered asking the question one of her worst mistakes. I served as assistant director from 1956-1958 and then director from 1959-1975. Jessica and I especially loved the annual Hopi Show which stimulated a market for the tribe’s arts and crafts so that their traditional skills would not be lost – pottery, jewelry, rugs, baskets, katsina dolls.
T: There was a Navajo show, too, but you and Jessica were closer to the Hopi?
N: Over the years we developed a network of friendships and partnerships with the Hopi. We attended their dances on Saturdays with the same reverence we brought to the Episcopal Church on Sundays. Before each Hopi show, Jess and I and other members of the Museum went from village to village, house to house to collect items for the annual exhibit. People welcomed us warmly into their homes on the desert mesas. You should have heard them laugh when I stumbled through the few Hopi words I’d managed to learn! I was something of a tease, which stood me in good stead with many Hopi women who could give great teases back!
T: Jessica played a big part in your work, didn’t she?
N: She typed up everything I wrote for my dissertation, and we edited it together. As well as entertaining guests from the Museum, Jessica cleaned cabins for summer assistants and took care of sick staff. As one student wrote years later, “Jessica was an essential presence, providing a depth and beauty of character and spirit that nourished” us all. I was energized by the entertaining and loved playing host. But it began to drain Jessica. You know how she loved her solitude. Yet she felt bound to give hospitality – both by a sense of duty and her own inborn desire to give of herself.
T: Which brings us to Sedona, where we met.
N: All the entertaining got harder for Jessica. In one year alone, we had 500 guests. When they stayed overnight, Jessica missed her solitude in the tiny chapel she’d created in the house. Without this quiet time, she felt her life was out of balance. In 1969 her sister moved to Sedona and Jess started to visit her. Since you moved to Sedona yourself in 1967 to join the Spiritual Life Institute, you remember how small the town was then, with only 2700 residents. In 1971, Jessica discovered “Singing Waters,” and soon after we bought the house with its beautiful gardens, apple orchard, and frontage on Oak Creek.
T: Getting to know you and Jessica during those years remains one of the highlights of my life.
N: Jessica found SLI’s contemplative Christianity invigorating and became such an eager friend of all you “Nadans,” as she loved to call you. I wasn’t initially drawn to your community. At first I resisted, but as I got to know you all, I changed my thinking – changed it completely.
T: At the end of your life, did you experience the “desert of human diminishment?”
N: My health started to decline. Decades of smoking gave me emphysema and heart problems. I had a hard time giving up cigarettes and even deceived Jessica about quitting. And my memory was fading. I could easily use my charm and social skills to cover up my growing forgetfulness, but details were starting to slip. In 1974, the Board of Trustees and I decided it was time for me to retire as director of the Museum.
T: But you stayed involved for almost 25 more years.
N: After retirement I became President of the Board of Trustees and continued to use my skills to help the Museum without having to deal with day-to-day details. Jessica and I made plans to move to Sedona full time and designed an extra wing to turn Singing Waters into a year-round house. It became a living reliquary of our lives. We covered the floors with Navajo rugs, built a special shelf for our Hopi pots and baskets, and hung the walls with Jeffrey Lungé’s Southwest paintings. And we added a small chapel for Jessica, where you also came to pray with us.
T: You also operated on a much wider stage throughout the region, influencing federal policies and initiatives in Arizona and the West almost until your death.
N: Yes, bear with me as I give you a more formal list. In 1958 Senator Barry Goldwater recommended me for the archeologist’s seat on the National Park Service Advisory Council where I served until its demise in the early 1980s. My service on the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association Board continued until 1986. When I left, SPMA established the Edward B. Danson Distinguished Associate Award “for contributions to greater public understanding of the importance of the National Parks.”
T: But you couldn’t “save” Sedona, however, and that forced us to move the SLI to Colorado.
N: Like you, I felt strongly that the loss of Sedona’s scenic area would be a loss for all Americans. With other Sedonans, I tried to make part of Sedona a National Park, but failed. So I joined Keep Sedona Beautiful, and in the 1980s we “saved” three national wilderness areas near Sedona. But I didn’t save the land around SLI, so Arizona lost you to Colorado.
T: Despite the distance, we remained close friends.
N: Yes, we loved our regular visits to Crestone, and loved building Juliana, the first hermitage for you there. I love how it reminded you of our Sedona home. And I’m glad you got to “christen” it and live there for several months, alone at the new Nada, while the chapel and other hermitages were being built. It was deeply meaningful for Jess and me, members of the Episcopal Church since birth, to convert to Roman Catholicism under SLI’s influence, and renew our wedding vows with you in Colorado. And we celebrated Jess’s 80th birthday there, too.
T: Among life’s many rewards and awards, you also suffered increasing diminishment.
N: In 1987 I had a heart attack. By 1994, Jessica noticed that my memory was seriously failing. That year I fell and suffered a back injury that never fully healed. After I broke my ribs falling into the irrigation ditch at Singing Waters, I required supplemental oxygen full time. I could still tell tales from my youth, yet I had difficulty recalling what happened that very day. And I loved the southwestern desert until the day I died.
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