Las Pozas in the time of the butterflies

One of several spring-fed pools (“pozas”) at Edward James’s phantasmagorical jungle retreat. 

Hush and listen carefully. You may hear Edward James’ snickering, giggling and even belly laughs coming from the myriad moldy crevices, rotting vegetation and crumbling concrete creations at his surrealist jungle retreat of Las Pozas. He started building it in 1945 and kept adding to it, one strange building, column or structure at a time, until he died in 1984.

Las Pozas, located about six hours from San Miguel by car, is described as a sculpture park and it’s open to the public. Visitors invariably walk around with their mouths open, noodling the same question over and over: What the hell is all this? 

A passageway to one Las Pozas’ many 
tabernacles. Watch your head.

There’s no definitive answer to that question, so the guessing game begins. This must be the trunk of an elephant. Or a Moorish arch. Maybe a swallow, a duck, an airplane or a poppy flower. After a couple of hours of clambering through the sticky heat, past catwalks to nowhere and columns propping up nothing, you are not one millimeter closer to solving the riddle of Las Pozas.

That confusion must endlessly amuse Edward James’ ghost, which surely hovers around the place, watching as the vegetation, humidity and creeping rot inexorably destroy his creation which is exactly what he said he wanted to happen.

When we visited Las Pozas earlier this week, James’ jolly spirit was accompanied by tens of thousands of butterflies deliriously fluttering about the place. Very few were common Monarchs, and we couldn’t figure out whether they lived at Las Pozas year-round or were just pausing to take advantage of the pre-winter bumper crop of tiny zinnias, orchids and other blooms.

Aside from us, our guide, the butterflies, assorted other insects–and James’ ghost–there were only two visitors at Las Pozas that day.

As you tame the impulse to constantly put labels on the artifacts lurking everywhere in the foliage, and perhaps make some sense of Las Pozas, your mind drifts to another imponderable: Was James creative, imaginative or crazy?

To my mind, creativity means transcending established, same-ol’ ways of doing things by arranging words, designs, musical notes or whatever in unprecedented and presumably pleasing ways.

Before Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple was built in suburban Chicago, most all houses of worship had soaring ceilings presumably to propel everyone’s attention heavenward. But Wright instead prescribed a flat, relatively low ceiling that leads the congregants to look at each other or the preacher. That’s a creative concept in church-building and in this case a useful one too, since most Unitarians don’t believe that a Mr. G. or anyone else is living Upstairs.

Imagination on the other hand suggests unreality, fairy tales, Harry Potter and little gnomes. A vivid imagination can be fun and wonder-full, but ultimately frivolous.

Walking around Las Pozas you sense and see imagination at the edge of craziness, but not useful creativity. In the case of James, his immense inherited fortune gave his imagination a freer rein that most mortals are likely to enjoy.

James undoubtedly had a 12-cylinder imagination, one hears supplemented by drugs, booze and side trips into religious cults. He also kept company with odd fellows like Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, not exactly boy-next-door types.

Except his friends created enduring things: new ways of writing music or depicting reality on canvas. Las Pozas is fabulously imaginative and fascinating, but ultimately pointless except for affording James a very enjoyable way to pass the time and spend his money.

Las Pozas’ hallucinogenic collection of elements didn’t start any artistic or architectural trends. Indeed it was James’ wish that it all be allowed to crumble and eventually get swallowed up by the jungle.

Maybe we should blame surrealism for Las Pozas’ seeming pointlessness. The point of it, if there was any,  resided only in James’ mind, beyond our duller, reality-oriented heads.

But that sort of analysis once again tries to rationalize or impose some logic on James’ greatest creation.  I can see his bearded face, lurking behind some half-finished concrete flower, grinning at our enduring confusion.

A six-inch-long butterfly-to-be.

A spider and the leftovers from its comida. 

A flower displaying its petals and pistils.
Supposedly a bathtub carved out of stone. During the rainy season the rushing spring waters
would wash over the top and onto the bather. 
Faux, poured-concrete bamboo vs. the real stuff. 
Las Pozas’ ruins host thousands of orchids and other air plants. James hoped
 his creation would eventually succumb to the surrounding jungle.
Moorish-inspired arches. Or so we heard. 

A concrete trellis duking it out with creeping moss, orchids and banana trees. 
The last step is a doozie. 
Few of the sculptural pieces at Las Pozas were actually carved out of stone. Most are poured concrete. To achieve the different shapes, James’ workers had to make molds out of pieces of wood–many of them tiny, like the ones above–into which the concrete was poured. 

Stairs to the clouds and back again. 

Help! Get us out of here! This place is nuts!

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