Posts Tagged ‘Spruce Tree House’

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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