Archive for the ‘Four Corners’ Category

Wide Ruins. Memories from a Navajo Trading Post by Sallie Wagner. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, N.M. 1997. 150 pp.


41vO5l7mxnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wide Ruins is the story of a Navajo Trading Post from the late 1930s until 1950—a time of irrevocable change both on the reservation and the country at large—and of its owners, Bill and Sallie Wagner. As Wagner described it, as newlyweds they arrived for a temporary ranger position at Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. A local friend who, like them, was an “outsider” had purchased a trading post himself and suggested the Wagners do the same. Which they decided to do shortly after, in 1938. As Sallie opens the book: “We slipped sideways into the Navajo Indian trading post business.” After a crash course from their pal Cozy, they took over the post and for the next three years managed it, as well as another they purchased on the reservation. This book describes what life was like for white traders located in an extremely isolated location between the Arizona Defiance plateau and the Painted Desert.


The closest post office was at Chambers AZ, a tiny, overwhelmingly Navajo settlement, eighteen miles south. The nearest “big city” was Holbrook, about 40 miles southeast. Emergency medical services were available at the hospital at Ganado, about 100 miles north along a dirt road. For the three years that closed out the Depression, the Wagners ran the post, learning much about the Navajo culture, rituals and clans as well as how trading happens. In the process they became a trusted institution for trading locally crafted jewelry, wool and blankets. Sallie Chambers introduced new weaving techniques (especially borderless blankets and rugs) as well as the use of vegetable-based dyes. These newer approaches led to the creation of what are now highly prized “Wide Ruins” blankets. The post also served as a kind of “bank”, storing valuables (which had been pawned for cash) in the store safe, where they remained until the owner returned to repay the loan.


Wide Ruins Rug, 1930s-1940s


Early in 1941, Bill was called up from the Naval Reserve and he and Sallie sold the post and moved to the West Coast. Later, as the war ended, the Wagners returned to the post, re-possessing it after the buyer defaulted on his payments. The Navajos were happy to see them return and business was soon brisk again. In 1950, they sold the post which finally burned down in the 1980s.


This is an engaging story, told with humility, kindness and humor. It is not as insightful as Edward T. Hall’s West of the Thirties set on the Najavo reservation at about the same time (Hall wrote this book’s glowing introduction). But then, these folks were businesspeople not anthropologists and they seemed willing and able to fit themselves into a tricky financial role as trading post owners in the community—a difficult feat in which few outsiders proved successful.

Read Full Post »

On December 21st, buried back there under the frantic ramp-up to Christmas, the Winter Solstice occurred. Beyond the astronomical explanations about the earth’s tilt and relation to the sun, much is made of the winter solstice’s age-old celebratory events. Festivals, feasts, yule logs, ancient carols, and modern celebrations, from Christmas to Hanukkah, have been linked to this moment, when winter’s lengthening darkness ends and the days again head back toward spring’s light and new life.

Winter ©SR Euston

There are two solstices, this winter one, the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day, and June’s, the year’s longest. In Sydney or Sao Paulo, it’s the opposite. The name, from middle English, is roughly translated to come to a stop or cause to stand. I have a mental image of the winter sun, stopping and shaking itself off as far away as it’s going to get from Earth for this year, then beginning to return, lengthening and brightening our days toward summer. (This is totally astronomically inaccurate, I might add.)

Petroglyph©SR Euston

But what about all those solstice markers scattered about our Four Corners region, especially Chaco Canyon’s highly studied and postmodern- mythologized Sun Dagger, whose main claim to fame is marking the summer solstice with a knife sharp shaft of high noon light on a large spiral petroglyph? What do these markers mark, if anything, about winter?

At Chaco, this solstice marker is, in fact, a kind of annual astronomical calendar made of five remarkable human-placed components—three slabs of closely aligned rock which form two separate slits of illumination cast onto two distinct petroglyph spirals. At the winter solstice, sun comes through both slits, illuminating the larger spiral in two offset bands, one on each side of its center. The spring and autumn equinoxes are marked with one shaft on the smaller petroglyph spiral. Unique in archeoastronomy, these sun dagger motions are related, not to the sun’s rising and setting, but rather to its height in the sky. (See http://www.solsticeproject.org/science.htm for more detailed information.)

So a thousand years ago, Ancestral Puebloans were carefully, intentionally, scientifically, marking critical annual astronomical events.

And this solstice what were we up to? Probably out reveling and buying things.

Read Full Post »

In 1906 Congress established Mesa Verde National Park, the first to expand the parks concept beyond exclusively preserving scenic natural wonders (like Yellowstone), to include the “works of man.”

Cliff Palace ©SR Euston

In 1888 the Wetherills, a local ranching family, stumbled upon magnificent and mysterious cliff dwellings perched in caves up Mesa Verde’s canyon walls. Throughout the 1890s commercial pot hunters looted these ancient ruins; many original artifacts now reside in private collections. This widespread destruction led to the drive, spearheaded by Colorado women’s clubs, to preserve Mesa Verde for posterity.

Although the cliff cities remain the park’s major attraction, there are vast mesatop ruins in Mesa Verde too. Today, within its 52,000 acres, there are the over 4500 identified archeological sites, only about 600 of them cliff dwellings.

One of the most accessible of the mesatop complexes is Far View, an agricultural community which encompasses a cluster of small unit family housing within a stone’s throw of each other. There are larger pueblos too: One of these is Far View House, a two-story 40 room building enclosing four kivas. Because of its size, archeologists speculate that Far View House was more a town hall than a housing development, serving public purposes for the extended Far View community. Along with four other partially excavated sites, the Far View complex give a flavor of ancestral puebloan agricultural life.

But there is also a different kind of surprise at Far View. Unnoticed by most visitors are the remnants of Mummy Lake, a specially engineered reservoir to the north of the community. A network of upstream ditches served as catch arteries for runoff which was channeled into this 90 foot diameter stone walled and lined depression. Mummy Lake could hold as much as one half million gallons of water. Besides providing water for Far View’s 500 residents, it also was used to irrigate nearby fields of corn, squash and beans.  In the late 1200s, when Far View inhabitants moved over the edge to cliff dwellings below, they built a ditch which continued to provide water for fields and drinking.

This now dry, sediment-filled reservoir was certainly a remarkable feat of coordinated planning and construction. In 2004, a millennium after its construction, Mummy Lake received a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation as “One of the earliest public works projects in North America.”

How was all this planning and construction—cliff cities, mesatop towns, huge reservoirs—accomplished with tools of only wood and stone? It’s those kind of questions that make Mesa Verde such a haunting place.

Edge of Chapin Mesa ©SR Euston

Read Full Post »

West of the Thirties, written 60 years after the events it records, chronicles the four summers a barely adult Edward T. Hall spent working on the Hopi and Navajo reservations of northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. He was only 19 when he arrived to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933.

Hall went on to become a world renowned cultural anthropologist.  In his college classes and his State Department foreign service officer training, he taught his central theory: Because individuals in one culture are unaware of, or insensitive to, differences in how other cultures perceive and act in the world, fundamental misunderstandings and miscommunications occur all too easily and all too often.

As the subtitle, Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi, suggests, Hall’s groundbreaking ideas were shaped in those four years he acted as a camp manager in the Native American equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps, overseeing work crews of Navajos and Hopis as they improved reservation roads—which were in deplorable condition—and built check dams, important to reservation agriculture.

The reservation years most certainly provided him direct experience of his now widely accepted anthropological concepts: the importance of proxemics, how various cultures define and organize space; the essential nature of nonverbal communication; the likely misunderstandings between high context cultures (much background information is taken for granted) versus low context cultures (little background information is assumed) ; and the difficulties arising between monochronic cultures (those who do one thing at a time with emphasis on planning and time management) versus polychronic cultures (those who emphasize human interaction, allowing results to evolve in their own time.)

Hall admits he thought long and hard about the title West of the Thirties and what it might convey. Not only was he talking about the 30s as a pivotal time in our collective history. He was also aware that he was describing one of the last true frontiers—the empty, stunningly beautiful land, red and sculpted, resting in the sun under the bowl of azure sky. The mud and sand, horses and wagons, sandstone canyons and dry arroyos, Indian traders and reservation agents. This was the Real West, not the cheap imitation created by Hollywood and horse operas. A West that still existed in Hopi and Navajo land in the 1930s.

That descriptive vigor and obvious infatuation with the harsh southwestern landscape makes West of the Thirties sing and gives it a lasting place on my Western bookshelf. I’ve read all of Hall’s popular works and this is my favorite, the most personally engaging and illuminating. It is a paean to an almost mythic place, a time, and a way of being in the world that has been all but lost. It is a Western in the truest and finest sense of the word.

Edward T. Hall, anthropologist extraordinaire and New Mexican to the core, died July 20, 2009 in his Santa Fe home.

West of the Thirties: Discoveries Among the Navajo and Hopi.

by Edward T. Hall.

Doubleday. New York. 1994. 187 pages.

Read Full Post »

We are heading north across the Great Sage Plain—a gently rolling 1500 square mile plateau covered with wind-blown soil and gray-green scrubby sagebrush.

IMG_4829 (1)

Across the Great Sage Plain

It stretches across southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah and holds the highest density of prehistoric and historic sites in North America, according to the Bureau of Land Management. It’s thought that upwards of 30,000 people lived here in the 1200s.

We peak a rise in the rod-straight road and spread out before us, replacing the monotone landscape, are huge green rectangles of alfalfa and wheat and pinto beans—the visible results of twenty-first century irrigation technology. The change from arid plateau to rich green pastoral vista is absolutely abrupt, and to me almost breathtaking, this modern western agricultural scene where centuries ago Ancestral Puebloans successfully cultivated beans and corn and squash.

IMG_4822 (2)

Running Horses

Heading up a dirt road we are suddenly flanked to the south by a large herd of horses, at least 40, being controlled by four mounted cowboys, two men and two women. They hold the horses in the field and ditch directly off the road while we, another car, and a truck stop dead. Then with whistles and shouts the cowboys direct the herd—paints, roans and tans who are now trotting—down the road and across into the northern field of alfalfa. In a swirl of dust and muscle they move east. I am dazzled. The running horses, the dust, the cowboys convey such a beautiful sense of freedom. To tell the truth, I almost cry.

Later, as we head for home through McElmo Canyon toward Cortez, we come across another herd being moved to new “pasture.” This time it is a good looking band of angora goats, maybe 50, who appear over a barren dirt and stone hill on the north side of the road. They are being managed by five dogs. There are no people in sight. Again we stop dead in the road and the lead dog, a black and brown mongrel, crosses


Dogs Herding Goats

the pavement. He is followed by goats who string out in twos and threes, being goaded by three more dogs who work the pack, pushing them along to an equally uninviting, overgrazed plot on the other side. The last dog, this one black and white and fancy enough looking to be perhaps at least part border collie, sits patiently on the road’s north side, waiting for every last goat to cross safely before he jumps up and trots along behind. For a moment I think: “Dogs herding goats? Is this real?”

But of course it is. For me, in moments like these, the West of the Imagination becomes very, very real.

Read Full Post »

This afternoon it is snowing here in Albuquerque. It’s at least an inch deep in my backyard. Just after 3:00 pm, it’s 27°. This is not standard end-of-October weather. Today’s average temperature is 65°.


kivas amid ruins

Yesterday, I sat in front of our first-of-the-season fire, reading up on Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, where we’d taken a trip last week. I was struck by this quote from Ancient Dwellings of the Southwest: “Ancient people all over the world spent most of their time outdoors….The mild and dry climate of the Southwest made this especially pleasant for Mesa Verdians.” Humm….

Last week’s trip began with an exceptional Indian Summer day. It must have been 74° as we toured the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde—Cliff Palace, a spectacular stone city of 220 rooms and 23 kivas. Nestled inside a sandstone alcove, it sits about midway between the top of Chapin Mesa and the bottom of 200 foot deep Cliff Canyon.

On the ranger-led tour we were invited to imagine what it must have been like to live there, perched within a sheer cliff, the only way up or down by narrow trails and foot and hand holds worn into the smooth, tan sandstone walls. It seemed on the one hand a very confined world (especially for the very young and very old) and hard. How did they manage to carry game, corn or wood to this seemingly inaccessible place? On the other hand, with the sun warming my back, I could imagine Cliff Palace’s plaza filled with the familiar, almost cozy atmosphere depicted in the museum’s paintings and dioramas—kids playing, dogs barking, the sound of  women laughing as they ground corn with mano stones in metate troughs or bins.

IMG_4964 (1)


The next day, deep autumn had set in. Under a cold, gloomy, gray, drizzly sky we toured Spruce Tree House, another remarkable cliff town. I was grateful I’d brought my high tech layers of polar fleece, chamois and down, zipped safely in my waterproof jacket. Standing in the plaza, atop a restored kiva’s roof, I heard, across narrow Spruce Canyon, young conservation corps workers gossip and chip away at the sandstone bricks they were preparing for a new retaining wall. I didn’t need much imagination to feel I was immersed in a very plausible original Mesa Verdian scenario. But I wondered how, wrapped only in turkey feather blankets or animal skins, did the Ancient Puebloans continue to work outdoors on a day like today? After all, it can get to zero in the Four Corners region in winter. As we peered into the back of the ruins we could see the fire-blackened back wall of the cave, a dark reminder of the Ancient Puebloans’ only source of heat.


Spruce Tree Ruins, fire blackened rock ceiling

It is now believed that the multitude of smaller kivas scattered around the cliff and mesatop villages served not only ceremonial functions, but as kin-related “living rooms,” which maintained a minimum 50° temperature year-round. With a fire burning, it actually could have been warm, maybe even cozy, in these mysterious underground rooms. Perhaps, as winter closed in, they remained mostly in their kivas, telling stories, weaving, making pottery by the fireside.

We’ll never know for sure. Still it seems a kiva would have been a welcome refuge to a Mesa Verdian on a day like today, where, just as outside my house, it’s 27° and there’s snow on the ground.

Read Full Post »

Spruce Tree House - Mesa Verde NP

Spruce Tree House - Mesa Verde NP

Last week we visited Mesa Verde in Southwestern Colorado. The homeplace to thousands of Ancestral Puebloans for 600 years, the mesatop stone cities and cliff palaces carved into canyon cliff walls were abandoned over the course of the final quarter of the 13th century.

Why did they leave? A question with too many answers—extended drought, crop failure, soil depletion, using up all the available firewood, over-hunting. And yet, because there is no one left to ask, the question will never be definitively resolved.

October 15 was Blog Action Day 2009, devoted to global climate change. Thirty one thousand bloggers responded, in 177 countries, reaching an estimated 18 million readers. It’s been called one of the largest social change events ever held on the web. I’m proud to say Home on the Range was one of those blogs. (See our October 15th post.)

Forest of the Future?

Forest of the Future?

Also on October 15, the Wall Street Journal—let me repeat that, the Wall Street Journal—ran an article on page A-30 lamenting the tree die-off currently being observed in the Rocky Mountain west. Not only are the aspens dying, following on the heels of a massive piñon die-off when, in 2002 and 2003, 40 to 80%  died, the lodge pole pines and the white fir are now following suit. If the current plague continues, foresters think that, in the end, there will be no mature lodge pole pines, currently five million acres of them, left in Colorado. None. Zero. Nada.

Researchers credit the piñon disaster to the combination of two factors, prolonged drought coupled with higher than normal temperatures.  Thus weakened, trees were easy prey for bark beetles.This manifestation of climate change is certainly one of the reasons being posited for the aspen and lodge pole die-off as well. (See www.uagrad.org/Alumnus/gw/pine.html for full article.)

On Thursday October 22, 18 scientific organizations wrote Congress reiterating the consensus in the scientific community that global warming is happening. Now. Also on Thursday the federal government released a report stating that global climate change is the reason for the heating of the Arctic.

On Friday, October 23, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a new poll showing that 57% of Americans “believe” the climate is warming. That’s down 20 points from three years ago.

Saturday, October 24, we participated in two 350.org Day of Climate Action events. Around the world, in over 5200 events in 181 countries,  people did everything from roller-skating to pumpkin arranging (that was in Taos), all around the 350 theme. What’s 350? It’s the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in parts per million (ppm) which leading scientists say is the safe upper limit for our atmosphere. Unfortunately, we are currently nearing 400 ppm. As www.350.org says: “We need to scramble back as quickly as we can to safety.”

How can people from Fiji to Finland, from India to Iceland, from Afghanistan to Argentina, from China to Chad, get it? And we, the leader of the world (and BTW historically the world’s major source of CO2) can’t? Or won’t? The demand from nations around the world, as well as from the United Nations, is simply this: the world must immediately move to reduce carbon dioxide.

There is no more time to waste paying attention to a certain segment of the American public who are uninformed or misinformed or ideologically driven. What difference does it make if  they “believe” in anthropogenic global warming? It’s happening, whether they believe it or not.

So, will the United States surprise the world at Copenhagen this December and unfold daring and bold plans for a new international climate change treaty? I am reminded of a quote attributed to Robert Kennedy, rephrased from the philosopher Hillel: “If not us who, if not now, when?”

The Mesa Verdans didn’t have the science. What’s our excuse?

We can hope and pray. And continue to agitate.

Read Full Post »

I think there is nothing more distinctly Southwestern than our Ancient Puebloan Ruins. Built roughly 700 to 1000 years ago, they dot our sage, rabbitbrush and piñon/juniper mesatops, canyon floors and sandstone cliffs. They lie beneath thousands of mounts of southwest earth, where their stones or adobes have tumbled or melted. They are, it seems, everywhere, especially in the  inhospitable, windblown, inaccessible, drylands.

Autumn Day—Aztec Ruins

Autumn Day—Aztec Ruins

Except for Aztec Ruins National Monument in northwest New Mexico. Located on the everflowing Animas River, it lies 55 miles north of Chaco Canyon. Chaco is one of the most well known ancient puebloan sites, an enormous stone city abandoned by its builders in the 1100s, “discovered” by Richard Wetherill in the early 1910s, and recently “re-discovered” by new age revelers and sun dagger buffs.

Aztec, on the other hand, remains another of the national monuments which is missed by many on their ruins pilgrimages. And that’s too bad.

We visit on a warm, hospitable Indian summer day. Against the New Mexican autumn blue sky, adrift in flame-gold cottonwoods, is etched the enormous ruin which is Aztec, an ancient  community of east and west multistory complexes, on the Animas River’s north bank. At its peak, each unit was up to three stories high and formed a three-sided enclosure around a central plaza, a great kiva, and smaller kivas. (Kivas are round underground rooms used for ceremonial, spiritual and community purposes. They are still found at modern pueblos along the Rio Grande.) Other even smaller kivas are found inside partially excavated West Ruin, a 400 room building, a football field long across its north face.

At first Aztec may have been an outlier of Chaco but as Chaco’s influence waned in the late 1100s, Aztec’s may have risen and, judging by its size and the grandeur of its great kiva, it may have served as a regional trading and ceremonial center.

Visitors see the various ancestral puebloan units as they were when acquired by the National Park Service (NPS). Because of NPS policy, few ruins have been restored, except for necessary stabilization to preserve what remains. (Or, in too many cases, what’s left, after ransacking by amateur “archeologists” and low life pot stealers.)

Not so at Aztec. In the 1930s, Earl Morris, an archeologist with the American Museum of Natural History, returned to Aztec, where he had undertaken the original mapping and excavating of the Aztec mounds, beginning in 1916. On his return in 1934, he supervised the reconstruction of the great kiva, based on his earlier findings. Today, it remains the only reconstructed great kiva in the Southwest and is the largest and oldest of its kind.

Upon descending into this huge (two stories tall, 40 feet in diameter), round, underground architectural feat there can be no doubt of the builders’ incredible skill and dedication when, after all, they were using only stone age tools. The sheer magnitude of the construction is awe-inspiring. The spiritual power held within it is unmistakable. I approach it as sacred space, not in the new age sense, but with a sense of its timeless centering in the earth. The grounded culture and community it embodies are undeniable.

This reconstructed kiva, for me, is the greatest gift of Aztec. Even for those few who are not moved by the huge community ruin, the great kiva confirms that Eurocentric culture isn’t the only culture to achieve greatness.

In this time of incessant noise and instant communication, of  arrogance, the silent walls of Aztec Ruins are a wonderful, and humbling, tonic.

Read Full Post »

In September we camped at Hovenweep National Monument. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t, including many of our Southwestern friends. Although it’s been a national monument since 1923, less than one million folks have ever visited.

Hovenweep (Paiute/Ute for deserted valley) straddles the Utah/Colorado border in the Four Corners area, less than 30 miles from Mesa Verde as the crow flies. While much less celebrated than its neighbor, Hovenweep is one of the most fascinating of Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Above pinon dotted canyons, finely masoned towers up to 20 feet high are posted like sentinels watching over the vast mesaland landscape. Those which remain standing are architectural wonders, some perfectly square, some round, some D-shaped. The masonry is exceptional, the stones fitting together with remarkable precision. Many perch directly on the knife edge of sheer canyon walls and seem almost to have grown organically from the mesas.

It’s quiet, definitely off the beaten southwestern loop—a pleasant secret of spectacular ruins and Great Sage Plain.

On our second afternoon we had a desert downpour that rocked our little car and tent. When it stopped around 4:30 pm, we set off for two little-visited ruins, Horseshoe and Hackberry, about six miles north of camp. Down a rutted dirt road we reached the trailhead and skirted across a mesa top toward the ancient towers. Along the trail we watched and were watched back by three gray foxes. When we first spotted them I couldn’t believe they weren’t coyotes. But the large ears, bushy tails and pointy snouts were unmistakable.

Late Afternoon—Hovenweep

Late Afternoon—Hovenweep

But the best came last. On the trip back we looked south across a desert panorama blown clean by rain. Through the fresh washed air we watched as the storm moved off toward Arizona and Utah. From our upland vantage point looking south, we named the mountains along the horizon—San Juans, Ute Mountain, Shiprock, Chuskas, Abajos, La Salles. And there, 85 miles southwest, like a tiny, distant cityscape between the Chuskas and the Abajos, stood Monument Valley, etched against the darkening sky.

That night we slept peacefully beneath the star-filled bowl of desert night. Far away, coyotes howled in the wilderness.

Read Full Post »