Posts Tagged ‘Ancestral Puebloan Ruins’

Rocks to me are akin to bones, bones of the earth, it’s skeletal frame that has been pressed and extruded and deposited. Rocks in one sense hold the meaning of life, because life has evolved in a medium of rocks dissolved, eroded, polished, blown, washed away, wore bare by human feet or by their chips and scrapes, cut into gigantic blocks of stone somehow put upright; rocks placed one on another to make shelter, to use as ornament, to defend the castle.

Rock photography is about solidity. Rocks are there, a bit like Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. And they are quiet. They encourage contemplative visualization. Rocks are the finest blending of natural history and visual power, oftentimes overlaid with intimations of the mythic and mystical – the spirit of the land at its most basic. To see them  – really see them – is a near Zen practice.  SRE

Petroglyph, Three Rivers, NM © SR Euston

Volcanic Rocks, Jemez Mts., NM © SR Euston

Volcanic Deposits, NM © SR Euston

Coastal Upthrust, Oregon Coast © SR Euston

Canyon Rocks, NM © SR Euston

"In Place", Blue Ridge Mts., VA © SR Euston

"Castle", Hovenweep National Monument, UT © SR Euston

Blue Rocks, Catwalk, SW NM © SR Euston

Shoreline Rocks, Cape Blanco OR © SR Euston

Shoreline Rocks, Cape Blanco OR © SR Euston

Lava Cones, Craters of the Moon Nat'l Monument, ID © SR Euston

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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