Kite camera photos of Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, by Gerco de Ruijter
Chapters by Ton Haak from ‘Desert Passage’
Anne Ausloos, Gerco de Ruijter, Ton Haak, Jeroen van Westen, authors
Pleun Vos, graphic designer
(Amsterdam NL, Abiquiu NM/USA, 2006)
Some people insist that raindrops are rich with mystery, as did the 16th-century French writer Antoine Mizauld. According to him, each globule is rubbed to roundness by its passage downward through the air, after first having reached altitude through inflation caused by tiny internal fires. Their creation, however, remained a mystery.
Since Mizauld’s days we have learned that in fact raindrops are not round and never rise. Droplet formation involves condensation, coalescence around salt or dust particles, freezing, then melting – although no one knows how raindrops get so big.
A Dutchman from the wet lowlands of Europe’s Northwest, I am familiar with rain from day one. I know from long experience that raindrops are big, not to mention nasty and cold and of course terribly wet. Yet it is on my first visit to a desert, in 1980, to Death Valley on the border of California and Nevada, that I with my own eyes see how big raindrops really are. On the hot day I drive into Stovepipe Wells to hike in Sahara-like sand dunes, it starts raining. After feeling disappointment at first –it shouldn’t rain in Death Valley, should it?– I fall in love with the desert, any desert where only every now and then the raindrops fall this thick and fat yet so dispersed, and so slowly that I can count them, one by one, as they create distinct dark blots in the blinding sands that surround me. That memorable day in Death Valley I open my mouth and, yes, one fat drop hits my tongue, and a few moments later a new drop caresses my brow and, oops, twenty seconds later a third one lands in my hair! And looking up I notice how few drops in fact reach the earth, with most of them evaporating halfway between the practically singular towering cumulus cloud and the desert floor. Rain, as with any oasis, a mere mirage! Virga! Dry rain, ghost rain! How very wonderful!
When two Dutchmen meet (to paraphrase Dr Johnson) their first talk is of the weather. They are in haste to tell each other what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm. Right then, in 1980, I decide I want to live in the desert and not have to waste any more words on the weather – because I will live in a climate without any weather changes worth mentioning, a climate rather without weather at all. It takes me a while to reach my goal. After investigating all the deserts of North America –the Mojave, the Great Basin, the Chihuahuan, the Sonoran and the Painted Desert– I land, in 1997 it is, in Abiquiu, in the high desert of Northern New Mexico. Only to discover that, without any weather to talk about, the local desert dwellers (Hispanics, Native American Puebloans, Jicarilla Apache, and all of us newcomers to New Mexico) are not unlike Dutchmen or Dr Johnson’s Englishmen. We talk weather all the time.
Not that the desert itself ever disappoints me.
I dare say I am an ardent walker. Not a stroller, not the flaneur I pretended to be while still living in Holland and a city boy, but rather a hiker. Nowadays, living in Abiquiu, I am happy only when hiking off the beaten path. Practically all of Northern New Mexico being way off the beaten path, I find myself to be indecently happy each time I take my daily walk. Often I follow an ancient Anasazi footpath, I enter a canyon walled by tufa-topped sandstone, climb to a mesa’s jade green table top. My eyes scan the distant leaping line separating the azure sky from the purplish and orange and golden earth, and my mind goes blank from pleasure. Meanwhile, touching bedrock, thin sand in a wash, volcanic dust, my feet are finding letters. My steps lead to the formation of words, gaining ground creates sentences. Setting a rough course, I find that walking is talking, that I am telling stories, whether I want to or not. My writing is merely poking around. Orbiting. Skedaddling. And taking root.
Just being there, never searching, is my style of hiking. Unlike others, who become amateur geologists, historians, anthropologists, rock fetishists, or ardent bird watchers, I am fully content with knowing just a little of everything and altogether nothing about much. While hiking, my eyes do not take in many earthy details, my gaze stays level, and I swallow up the whole grand picture of earth meeting sky and shades of clouds racing over the desert and great eagles and hawks diving through the azure, the air rushing through their wings the only sound to be heard. Each day, the grand picture is different – the colors change, the shades falling elsewhere disguise familiar grounds and open up caves and slopes and sandstone structures hitherto unknown, never seen, either invisible in different light, or just not noticed. In this splendid desert I feel a long, long way from the ocean and, indeed, from the century.
‘I found my black hole. I stepped into my soul,’ are the lines I end my poem ‘Home At Last’ with. Yes, I love all of the Northern New Mexico’s high desert.
Of course, when hiking I cannot escape noticing a few details also. I wonder what the name may be of this brush, that plant, the flower that appears on a cactus in November, not in the spring. I wonder if there is any food in the cholla’s fruit, if I can sap its stem for water. I congratulate myself for noticing a small, blue-feathered bird, and I think, ‘Wow, this must be a Bluebird,’ then forget about it – and I will never check for its true name in ‘Birds of the Southwest’. It is not important. Important is that my mind goes blank from pleasure. Important is that my soul soars.
Although I am a devoted sleeper, too, you can wake me up at any time and invite me to go out with you, and I will happily join you to whichever trail. As long as my dogs are invited also. I have a hard time walking without Mikey and Blondie’s company – this duo know my favorite places better than I do and their absence would take away some of the pleasure, or rather a lot. Not only do I love their company, they are instrumental to the serendipity that directs my hikes. A huge jackrabbit scrams for safety, my dogs follow in pursuit –with Blondie now and then flying above the brush to scan the land– and I obediently follow them. These guys take me into canyons or up slopes I would avoid if I myself were in command. They show me around; they take me to hidden places where I find rock paintings, ruins of ancient structures, clean white bones of a devoured horse or cow, antelope antlers, or the empty Bud Light beer bottle that tells me someone ‘civilized’ must have been there before I reached the spot. One summer day, at least seven miles from the nearest paved road, I find a not-so-white bra, D-cup, hanging from a branch. One October day my dogs’ ferocious barking in the distance alerts me and I run after them, see how they circle a black mother bear and two cubs – sweat blood before I, clapping and screaming, manage to get them away from the reach of the mother bear’s claws. One winter day I stumble onto a beautiful young mountain lion lying against a tree trunk, peaceful as if sleeping – dead, but with no visible wounds.
Mikey, Blondie and I – the three of us know more about the land in the Abiquiu area than most people who were born and raised here. Again, what is known is the larger picture. The locals, mostly Hispanics, which means descendants from Indians, from Puebloans or Hopi or Navajo or Apache or Ute or Plains or directly from Asa (Anasazi), yet with mixed Mexican and maybe, maybe a little pure Iberian Spanish blood –viva los conquistadores!–, the locals know precisely where to let their cattle graze, how to check the forest for elk, where to ford the overflowing creek. I, expatriate lowlander, Dutchman, will never be able to match their knowledge, their experience, their intuitive relationship with the desert and the high country. But I cherish the whole grand picture and am amazed to learn that most of them will never have the experience of seeing and enjoying the land the way I do. So my pleasure is totally mine, with no intruders whatsoever.
Until, also from Holland, Jeroen van Westen and Gerco de Ruijter, and, from Belgium, Anne Ausloos arrive. I will call the three of them JAG from now on because they team up to create an art project with the high desert as its subject to which I also contribute – thus making it the JAGT team. Jagt in Dutch means chase or hunt, and ‘hunt’ we do, as you will see. Is it la chasse au bonheur, the pursuit of happiness? Ultimately it is, I guess.
I had learned earlier that visitors from abroad, new to New Mexico, do change my way of looking at this part of the world. They see things I do not notice anymore, maybe never did. Not just details, also broader fields. It is always refreshing to show visitors around Abiquiu – my own joy gets an unexpected surge. JAG are professional observers, analysts, and activists, and while in Abiquiu they are really working. They are artists who are feverish believers in what they are doing, permanently curious, never at rest – and their eyes are trained to observe and to register. Not being dreamers, their minds do not go blank from pleasure – no, the pleasure activates their brain cells and sets them onto the path to extensions of knowledge, to insight, to a deep understanding, and –most important– to sensational images which reflect their understanding. Their art is an hermeneutic concept understanding hidden means.
The images they sample, whether close-ups by Jeroen or aerial views by camera kite flying Gerco, are mucho different from any pictures I have seen so far of the high desert. For one thing they do not wait for the scarlet sun to set and create drama. It is not romance they are searching for. Their observations include creation, destruction, interference, death, whether invoked by humans or by nature itself. They record foremost the meeting of arid land and sparse water – one fighting the other, or caressing, or revealing, or hiding the other. The result is almost always a stunning image. Anne adds her own unique observations. The dirt samples she collects from arroyos and hillsides, canyons and stream beds, then waters and lets dry thus allowing them to act natural, present colors and structures I never in my life have dreamed of, not even in this most colorful and astonishing of all deserts. Together, JAG create, in William Least Heat-Moon’s words, ‘a deep map’ of the high desert. Isn’t the term ‘landscape’ of Dutch and Flemish origin anyway?
This project JAG and I become involved in is all the more important now that water is becoming one of the hottest issues in wet and humid Holland no less than in dry and arid New Mexico. The project is called ‘Cross References’ because the chase is for similarities and contrasts. As Jeroen says: ‘If manmade Holland is a cultural concept, pure and unmade New Mexico is merely a geological concept.’ Here, I will not dwell on the situation in Holland; there is amongst many others the beautiful book ‘Polders!’ by Adriaan Geuze and Fred Feddes doing this better than I can.
But let me tell you about New Mexico.
In New Mexico the discussion is heated like nothing before, or rather as hot as the discussion about water rights and water use always was; one has only to sit back and relax while re-watching Robert Redford’s 1980s’ sweet movie ‘The Milagro Bean Field War’ to get the gist of it. The only hotter issue in New Mexico may be the ownership of the lands. Or maybe not. Water has been called ‘the lifeblood of New Mexico’ so many times that it has become a cliche. ‘But,’ as Leslie Linthicum writes in the Albuquerque Journal, ‘the historical progress of New Mexico, from pueblo settlements to Spanish villages to expansive wheat fields and modern cities, has followed its water. From the Animas, San Juan and La Plata rivers in the northwest; the Chama, Mora and Canadian rivers in the north; the San Francisco, Gila and Mimbres rivers in the southwest; and the Río Grande and the Pecos River which cut parallel lines down the middle of New Mexico, river basins were and are where the people of New Mexico live, work and play. Water, when people were willing to share it, allowed New Mexico to grow’ (Italics are mine).
There is a saying in New Mexico that, alas, has become quite popular: ‘Mi casa es su casa pero mi agua es mi agua,’ meaning: You are welcome to my house, but make sure to keep your hands off from my water, including the aguas sobrantes, the water I do not have a use for.
A recent report published by a New Mexico think tank predicts a future in which competition for water will only get more fierce. The future will be a bleak one if rivers continue to be governed by the vagaries of weather, competing demands, and piecemeal responses to crises. Twenty years from now, unless action is taken, downstream water right holders in New Mexico will be left dry. The state will not be able to meet its legal obligations to deliver water to neighboring Texas (and the Texans and the federal government will sue New Mexico silly). Tourism will dry up along the dry river beds. Communities will be torn apart in a civil war over water – New Mexicans against New Mexicans.
In this report another Spanish dicho is quoted: ‘Agua que no has de beber, dejale correr,’ which roughly means: Water not needed should be allowed to run downstream to benefit the next person. The think tank proposes a Strategic River Reserve modeled on the federal government’s petroleum reserve, established by the U.S. Congress to protect the nation’s economy from a crippling oil shortage. It is a reasonably sound proposal and in line with the ideas of the Interstate Stream Commission and also with the New Mexico State Engineer’s vision of the future. John D’Antonio, Jr says he really likes its concept of this river reserve.
‘Imagine this,’ writes Linthicum, ‘a large savings account of water owned by all New Mexicans. That can be used to keep our rivers running through droughts and the increasing demands on our water supply as the population grows. Enough water to flow boats, grow hay, quench thirsts, and make microchips. No fights between farmers, and federal laws that protect fish. No meddling judges and angry mayors.’
Too good to be true. It is all about a stockpile on paper – the Strategic River Reserve would allow the state to buy water that would otherwise be used for agriculture and municipal uses and let it continue to flow downstream. ‘The theory is that the state’s water needs can be met without having to make choices between one water use and another, and one New Mexican and another.’ D’Antonio himself adds an approach that could coexist with the reserve, namely water banking, which would allow the state to enter in short-term leases of water rights in times of shortage.
And, yes, the reserve plans expressly exclude water in acequia systems from the water that could be purchased by the future water trust. In New Mexico, acequias are as holy as cows are in India, a unique part of the state’s culture, and should not be interfered with, says the proposal. Great – never interfere with a wonderful tradition, but would not this imply a false start? How much water runs through New Mexico’s acequias just for the heck of it, just ‘because it’s ours’? Or for sentimental reasons, to grow grass or alfalfa to feed cattle, that most uneconomic agricultural product of all that should not be grazing in the arid desert in the first place?
Then, these plans smell of respect for the continuation of growth. No mention, as far as I know, is made of limitations or of seriously attacking the boundless growth of need of water. No serious paragraphs are dedicated to plans for educating the people of New Mexico about a future that may differ from the acequia past dating back to the 17th century. Not that I want to abolish the acequia system, hear me well, because I love it, I cherish it, I even promote it to Europeans as ‘democracy at its purest.’ Yet in the 21st century its ‘holiness’ might for once be reconsidered. Water conservation if mentioned in the plans appears to be merely a sideshow of the kind the city of Santa Fe created when deciding to allow new office and home building to continue on the praised and hailed condition of installing a water-saving water toilet – a great step forward for mankind indeed.
The reserve plans sound as if they have only technocrats for fathers. It is all about buying and selling and leasing and stockpiling and options and probably in the near future junk bonds, too – all ‘for the good of the people,’ yeah. The plans reflect a purely capitalistic way of thinking. Remember the side effects to the world of the petroleum reserve? Remember the warfare and damage to the earth that the oil balancing act has caused and is causing? Remember where in the end the profits made from these schemes went, still go? Super rich investors like the Hunt brothers from Texas were already buying up water rights all over the country in the early 1990s. Will they sell for dimes on the dollar in 2030? A quart of water may easily be more expensive than a gallon of gas is now. Then what will happen to the acequia system? Better start digging trenches tomorrow, to be a parciante later… the money will roll in. Or rather, many parciantes and propietarios and usadores de agua and vecinos all over New Mexico will be robbed of their water rights by a system they can no longer control – just as, that other hot issue, in the 19th century East Coast lawyers stole their family lands. The big question is: Will the New Mexicans accept one more vital robbery, or will they –at long last– revolt?
No more fights, no meddling, plenty of water for everyone in New Mexico – who do they think they are kidding?
But more important to our own JAGT
project is the question: Whatever the decision that is made, what visual impact will it have on the land?
Will the land change? Will old shadows disappear, fresh lines appear? Will new
management show? JAG may ultimately
provide us with some historic visual documentation about a desert at least
partly extinct within twenty years’ time.
Walking with JAG is an experience. Not only do they notice so much, they keep reflecting their thoughts about the past and the present of the land, they keep comparing the New Mexico landscape with the Dutch (and Belgian) scenery. The high, wide and deep sky; the lean, clean air; the exotic smells; the just as exotic history; the humidity, or rather the lack of it; the wondrous shapes; the rough textures; the magic colors – foremost the colors. And their eyes scan a desert that I cannot see clearly anymore. I have been here too long to be as innocent and surprised as they are, and at the same time my way of frivolous glancing will never match their scrutinizing professionalism.
Not that this disappoints me. Maybe I am a little overwhelmed when JAG first arrive and I become aware of their expertise as observers, but soon –immediately– they appear to be as flabbergasted as I was, many years ago, when I first discovered the desert, and still am – so everything works out well. For weeks JAG go out on their own, observing, making photos and shooting video, collecting samples, digesting the desert, absorbing the land. And after they leave New Mexico and are back in Holland and Belgium, I find I am hiking the habitual tracks a different person than before. I am enjoying the old dreams, true; it is the familiar pleasing sensation I am experiencing; but on my left shoulder I feel the presence of Jeroen’s kaleidoscopic eye, and on my right shoulder –so eager to send up his camera kite that (as I tell him) he resembles an addict reaching for his daily shot– Gerco is leaning forward because he is shrewdly calculating the possibilities of a sensational panoramic aerial picture. My feet touch ‘Anne’s dirt,’ and each step makes me wonder about its secrets.
I appear to have acquired a new anxiety – theirs. A new curiosity – theirs. Which is why today I am retracing my old steps throughout the Piedra Lumbre basin, the Valley of Shining Stone.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article about the Piedra Lumbre. It is about the long lines of flagstones and rocks I detect all over this basin’s floor north-west of Abiquiu. I describe these remnants of stone walls (?), fence lines (?), as forming concentric half circles. On the valley floor down from my favorite spot in the American Southwest, the old windmill at the foot of Triassic maroon and orange and Jurassic mustard-colored sandstone formations (I am talking about land formed 150 to 220 million years ago), there, from where I have views of distant Cerro Pedernal and Polvadera Peak, and in the farthest distance the Sangre de Cristo range between Santa Fe and Taos, I find traces in the land that I cannot explain. Indeed concentric half circles can be detected, carefully built from flagstones or small rocks. These ‘walls’ or fence lines are at least 60 feet apart and sometimes hundreds of yards long. The picture they form today is not clear, for in time scores of walls have been grown over, or covered or deformed, by surface slides. Which tells that these walls must have been constructed a long time ago.
These were not the boundaries of fields, for prehistoric Indian agriculture in these arid lands made use only of small square fields for ‘rock mulch farming’ (their flagstone and rock markings are visible all over Northern New Mexico). Neither were these the set boundaries for post-Anasazi pueblos yet to be built, for nowhere in the Southwest were assembled peoples numerous enough to occupy a grand area like this. Nor were these the boundary lines constructed by Hispanic or Anglo-American ranchers – they look too old, and then, could anyone envision a Hispanic or an Anglo hauling flagstone after flagstone after flagstone on his back, hundreds of thousands in all, from a pit leagues away to create… whatever?
After I make my first discovery, I find scores of these low lines in the Piedra Lumbre basin. Some are part of the same concentric configuration, others seem to lead a life of their own. I have only one explanation to give. At the end of the Chaco Culture, the Anasazi spread out all over the Southwest. The pueblos of the Zuni and the Hopi and the pueblos of Northern New Mexico were formed. It took a while before the migrating people found the best sites for their future homes. Before settling in newly built towns along the Río Grande, many must have passed through the Piedra Lumbre basin, halfway between Chaco and the great river. Did they try to establish a new society here before they found the need to continue toward the Río Grande? Before they discovered the fertile washlands of the river? More conceivable is that this Valley of Shining Stone became a ceremonial place for the travelers and for the occupants of the newly settled villages nearby, near present-day Abiquiu, Cañones and El Rito. Mystic concepts or ceremonial duties may have been instrumental to the establishment of these strange shapes in the land.
I am content with this explanation until JAG arrive. They, being new to the high desert, at first do not have much to add. But then, at the Santa Fe Art Institute, we meet the leading American eco artists and eco warriors Newton and Helen Harrison, who come with a pragmatic solution: These walls were check dams meant to catch the little water that fell from the sky and allow the Old Ones to experiment with new cultures. The Piedra Lumbre basin as agricultural test station, a U.C. Davis avant le lettre. It sounds plausible at first.
Too easy a solution. For how big were these communities? A couple of thousand people? The settlements near Abiquiu and Cañones together at best did not count more than 2,000, maybe 3,000 families. Why would they create an experimental center large enough to assemble data for the agricultural endeavors of hundreds of thousands? And why would they do their experiments scores of miles away from their own pueblos where they had fertile river and creek lands and easy accessible mesa flats nearby?
Some historians speak of large Apache settlements in the Piedra Lumbre basin. Others talk about Utes settling here. They did camp out in the basin, true, but being nomads first, as well as warriors and robbers and scavengers and hunters, would they stoically build these stone walls just to peacefully catch water and grow plants? They would not even do it for the heck of it, nor for ceremonial purposes either, their main business being the trade in humans, kidnapping Plains Indians, selling them to the Spaniards. Easy money. These stolen people’s descendants are the ones who today are called the Hispanics of Northern New Mexico, Hispanos. The slave market of Abiquiu was comparable with the worst of its kind in Africa, as wrote one of the first Spanish priests who came to the area. No, no brute Apache or Ute contributed to these fragile, intriguing structures. Nor did the early Hispanic ranchers who settled in the Piedra Lumbre basin contribute. Their names are still alive and present in Abiquiu: Trujillo, Maestas, Archuleta, Cisneros, Valdez. Their ranches were isolated settlements often attacked by the nomadic tribes – they would not have been inclined, nor would they have found the time, to build such extended water catchments at undefendable outposts.
Finally pressed to concentrate on the details of the land, I find not only concentric half circles but also smaller full circles within and beyond these structures. I stumble onto lines also, broken lines, curved lines like snakes crawling through the desert and zigzag lines like lightning striking the surrounding highlands. The more I wander around in the basin, the more ‘drawings’ I detect in my path. The larger picture remaining undecided, I am allowed to dream on. Of course Gerco decides to send his camera up above the basin – to no avail, the kite’s camera cannot provide a clear overview. Good!
Ron Cox, an Abiquiu neighbor who is very savvy about the Anasazi culture and especially their relationship with the universe, without even seeing the lines already is convinced of their spiritual importance and their links to the stars. ‘No agricultural experiments, no way,’ he says. Yes, he too expects to find a ‘painting’ in this desert, a message written in stone and sent up into the sky. Yes, we will go hiking together, soon.
The picture gets distorted because in the same basin I detect obvious water catchments, real check dams. A dike created with the use of much heavier equipment than the Anasazi or their children, having pack animals nor the wheel, could muster. Some of these structures, using rough boulders and wire nets, clearly date back to the early 20th century. Sometimes they confusingly follow the older lines. But it does not make sense to deduce that, because these constructions were to conserve water, then the older ones must have had the same purpose. The old flow from slightly higher elevations and the water dripping from distant cliffs took other directions, still visible as scars in the land. One long, young dike clearly protects against the too strong flow of an also artificially created ditch. Some dikes help form ponds, watering holes for cattle. Once every two or three years I see enough water being collected in these ponds to create an atoll of emerald vegetation around them, amidst an expanse of pale green cacti and brush.
Jeroen responds to my reports: ‘I believe that, when nature as in the desert forces such strenuous life unto mankind, men will search for a religious experience in the land. The check dam as an agricultural instrument becomes a religious attribute. Daily life becomes sublime, becomes religion, or –in my case– art, l’imagination au pouvoir, the same force that grows plants, brings life. Which means that earth drawings and seed selections could be one and the same. A different goal, different intentions, a different relationship with the earth, a different belief in one’s relationship with the earth and one’s dependence on higher powers, one’s own power to create a livable existence, and the need to apply for support to a higher power. I predict the search for the essence of the flagstone lines you call walls will take you to this transitional point, this crossroads of knowledge and belief, somewhere between technology and ritual.’ Jeroen makes sense, he always does.
In all the years that I have spent long days of hiking in the Piedra Lumbre basin I never returned home with as many questions as I have since JAG came and polished my curiosity. I may decide to ask for help from people who have studied the area after all. Like Phylo Thompson, an archaeologist originally from the Deep South who is living in Alcalde on the Río Grande. Phylo is working at a Museum of New Mexico’s Office of Archaeological Studies excavation project near Tesuque and trying to determine why prehistoric people built about 100 fire pits in a small area that may have been a gathering place for the –Asa– ancestors of the Pojaque and Tesuque pueblos. ‘Pits built years apart were discovered within less than a mile of each other, sometimes even in layers,’ says Phylo. ‘The pits, which could have been used for cooking, heating or ceremonies, are lined with cobbles. Wood was likely burnt over the hearths, which date to between A.D. 900 and 1100 – the Late Development Period. Some of the hearths are bowl-shaped.’
Site director Nancy Atkins tells the daily Santa Fe New Mexican that she wonders if groupings of pits are more common than archaeologists believe but just have not been discovered. The discovery of potsherds from bowls and other cooking vessels which were made quickly from soft clay, and non-cracked rocks found in the hearths suggesting fires did not last long, could indicate ‘mobile people’ were there. Vagabonds, nomads.
Phylo digs up hundreds of flakes and pieces of arrowheads; the tools were most probably used for hunting in the nearby (Jemez) mountains. She also finds burned bones of deer, elk, and jackrabbit, and later unearths a gray, foot-and-a-half-tall hourglass utility jug with two round handles. ‘The jug was placed in a special pit, then placed in the ground. I also excavated a lid. It was like stepping back in time finding something that hadn’t been touched in a thousand years.’
I tell Phylo about my discoveries in the Piedra Lumbre basin. My description fires her curiosity and we decide to go hiking together someday and, of course, take all of our dogs along. Water management is too simple an explanation, says Phylo, thus brightening my day. Do you think so, I ask, because during the Chaco Culture, as during the Hohokam times in central Arizona, irrigation techniques reached very accomplished levels and differed from the rather rudimentary catches I found?
‘There is still so much that we do not know about,’ says Phylo. ‘Ceremony was an important part of the life of the ancestors, that much we do know. So, let’s find out. Take me there and I will give you my educated guess.’
Luckily it is never easy to set a date with Phylo. Meanwhile, I will just dream on. Trade center? Fire pits? Ceremonial meeting place? Ceremonial hearths? Land art? Communications with extraterrestrials? Mirrors of the universe? Or –a subject never spoken about in the pueblos and the tribes, definitely off limits to outsiders– ancient burial grounds? Or maybe ball courts for prehistoric Olympic Games. Who knows if all these flagstone circles do not form the ringed logo?
Jan van Westen, Jeroen’s father, after reading the first part of my thoughts –in which I mentioned how serendipity in the form of my dogs’ wanderlust directs my hikes– sends me a citation of an unforgettable line written by the Dutch author Marcel Möhring: ‘He doesn’t know the woods, yet, because he understands that only they who know get lost, he carries on without hesitation.’
In the same week this thoughtful observation reaches me, I go to the Santa Fe Film Festival screening of the documentary film ‘Agnes Martin: With My Back To The World’. The title is from a line spoken in the film by Martin, the celebrated painter. She lived in Taos, New Mexico, until deep in her nineties, died in 2004, and this documentary film by Mary Lance from Corrales who also directed ‘Diego Rivera: I Paint What I See’ does her proud. The film is as quiet and translucent as Martin’s work, at the same time as lively, as surprising, as lucid. Martin, who is shown at work and who, lightly yet precisely on target philosophizing about her work, proves to have been an unusually spiritual and wise and smart and funny woman who kept painting her mostly horizontal lines with never ending fascination and devotion. Nevertheless she liked ‘that painting best that left’ her house.
Often classified a minimalist artist, Martin herself preferred the qualification of abstract expressionist painter. The following is roughly what she says in the film: ‘I paint with my back to the world. I have emptied myself of knowledge, of facts. Facts have the habit of being proven wrong, so why gather and store them? I don’t know of any fact that in the end hasn’t been proven wrong. I stay away from intellectuals and their educated and reasoned approaches to whatever subject.’ Words I take at heart. Do you hear me, Jeroen? All exterior interferences she cleared out (including marriage). Says Martin: ‘What matters –the only thing of importance– is what I feel. When painting I am merely expressing my feelings. I am expressing the translucence within me.’
Not a week later I am reading the first book from the series of mysteries by Nevada Barr, not for the mystery, for I have lost much of my former appetite, but because her main character, Anna Pigeon, is a Ranger who in each book works in a different National Park.
And since I spent long days, many weeks, in all of the parks of the Southwest, I wonder what Ranger Anna must think. ‘The desert, with its curtains of heat and scoured, star-deep skies, is for dreaming.’ I agree. Sea shores, glacier lakes, Alpine mountains, spitting geysers, do not allow for dreamers. Badlands – badlands most definitely do.
In the same week I come across a line by one-time Taos resident D.H. Lawrence, who wrote, ‘It was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilization.’
Lawrence, Möhring, Martin, Barr/Pigeon – as if I need more arguments to continue my own dreamlike stance. I know that after so many years in the high desert I myself am looking at the world with one Dutch eye and one New Mexican eye. That does not make a bad observer, or does it? By the way, my New Mexican eye must be my right eye, the one that has been lazy since I was born. Bad joke…
Keeping up a correspondence with Jeroen forces me to think more clearly and to acknowledge certain facts and thoughts about the earth, and life in general, and more particular that of an artist. The mental left-over space artists seek is the broad territory of possibilities that escape most people’s mental grasp as long as they clutch onto established positions and constantly fix their gaze on the same focal point. I do not remember who wrote this, but very possibly it was Jeroen himself. Which is why, Agnes Martin notwithstanding, nowadays I cannot hike without, be it hesitantly, looking for answers, can no longer walk away from certain questions. Like those about the strange flagstone half circles and lines in the Piedra Lumbre basin.
History and biology and any other ‘gy’ must help me find explanations, I guess, now that Gerco’s new photos again show too little to help me at deciding what really was going on the Piedra Lumbre basin. The area appears to be too large, the lines in the land are too long and too dispersed if not too overgrown, to be caught by his lens and form a coherent image from the kite camera’s low altitude of 200 to 600 feet. I should try and engage a private pilot with a Cessna willing to take me up over the basin for a bird’s eye view.
Or try G.P.S. I learn about Jeremy Wood and Hugh Prior from Great Britain, who use the Global Positioning System’s network of 24 satellites to produce virtual art on the Internet. Traveling by car, plane, foot, boat, train and bicycle, they have drawn an enormous butterfly in Nottingham, a spirograph around Upton, and a few free-form designs by riding a land mower 18 miles back and forth across the Oxfordshire Gardens. Their technique involves holding a G.P.S. device, which records their path as a kind of line drawing; the results are posted on the Web: www.gpsdrawing.com. Their most elaborate works are a 42- mile bicycle trip through the streets of Brighton that produced a drawing of a cruise ship; and the word ‘IF’ stretched out across southern England including the towns of Iffley, Iford, Ifield and Ifold, the letters 70 miles tall. ‘Their ideas,’ says art critic Michael Kimmelman, ‘like most digital art are spiffier than the visuals.’ Wood and Pryor tend toward cartoonish shapes that ‘look like they are drawn by an Etch-a-Sketch.’
Wood and Pryor’s basic concept is that the technology of surveillance may produce a poetry of form. Thus, if a poetry of form already exists, as I believe it does in the Piedra Lumbre basin, G.P.S. surveillance of it may produce an explanation. Jeroen himself already indicated this while first visiting New Mexico – but then he is a gadget man. I mean, why not get the Pentagon involved and ask them to use above the Piedra Lumbre –just as they do in Iraq– those tethered blimps known as Aerostats which are loaded with sensors? Or even better, Raven Unmanned Aerial Vehicles which are smaller and easier to handle than the well known Predator drones. Or the true state of the art, a ‘pocket’ U.A.V. no larger than a paper glider.
These whiz-bang approaches, cool as they may seem, sound altogether too easy to me. I prefer romance, mystery. I prefer to remain in the dark a little longer. I keep believing in what Somerset Maugham called ‘the long arm of coincidence.’ Someday a wise word will be whispered, a pattern will prove to be perfectly clear. Someday…
Meanwhile. Let’s step back in time from an ethnobotanist’s point of view.
‘A fabric of ecological warp and anthropological weft as durable as a Pueblo or Navajo rug.’ This is how Gary Paul Nabhan, Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH from Tucson, Arizona, describes ‘Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province’ by William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney. I start reading their phenomenal book because Jan van Westen, who as I said is Jeroen’s father, while working on an English into Dutch translation of Gary Snyder’s ‘Mountains and Rivers Without End’ comes upon Bear bloom and Saltbush and Rabbitbrush and Greasewood, plant names for which he needs a precise description to be able to furnish an acceptable translation.
Dunmire and Tierney get me hooked. They provide me with an essential tool to better understand the past and present interconnection of the natural and human worlds of Northern New Mexico. What do I learn? I learn what my Piedra Lumbre ‘walls’ can not be. That’s fine – what more could I hope for?
From Dunmire and Tierney. It appears, they confirm, that at first the people who had moved away from Chaco lived in dug-out pit houses, much like the Anglo-American homesteaders in Texas and Oklahoma who were also building sod ‘dugouts’ to live in until after their first crops had been harvested. Only later did the people build pueblo-type masonry dwellings, as they had in Chacoan times. Their communal gardens were very close to the new towns. Still later, when the human population began to increase and crops from the adjacent fields were insufficient to feed these growing populations, new fields a few miles from the widely spaced pueblos were cleared for cultivation. The people began to maintain double residences – permanent village homes and single-family field houses near the supplemental garden plots. A typical family might move to its outlaying field in late spring, spend the summer engaged in rending crops, gathering wild plants, and trapping small game and birds; then return to the communal village.
In the Piedra Lumbre basin, 12 miles from the nearest old settlements in Abiquiu and Cañones and even farther from El Rito, I find no more than a few walls meeting at 90 degree angles and short enough to resemble parts of the ruins I have seen in Chaco, Bandelier, Puye, and elsewhere in Northern New Mexico. Yet most are constructed from flagstones, which were not used for building (post)Anasazi settlements. Therefore, no field houses were built here, at least not in this part of the basin.
From Dunmire and Tierney. Since the fields were usually far from a stream, various structures were built to trap and hold moisture from the downpour that occurred sporadically. Stone check dams were constructed across arroyos to collect storm runoff, allowing fine-grained soil for planting to build up behind the dams. Stone-lined reservoirs were built to hold water between one storm and the next.
None of the old walls down from the windmill have been constructed across an arroyo, as far as I can discover. The thin flagstone lines sometimes rather run parallel to an arroyo. No build-up of soil that I can think of. The walls of stone-lined reservoirs? Even when taking into consideration that the walls may have sunk through the years, they definitely do not form reservoirs. They would have kept mere drops, halted just a little snow melt, at most. And the shapes do not make sense – this is not the way to build a reservoir…
From Dunmire and Tierney. Other water conservation devices associated with upland dry farming included (as I indicated before) rock terracing on steeper slopes and, on mesa tops and other flat areas, rock-outlined catchment systems now known as ‘grid gardens’ that were sometimes paved on the bottom with a mulch of cobbles and gravel. A typical grid garden might consist of a checkerboard of rectangles 15 by 25 feet or smaller, each rock wall a foot or so high, with a dozen to hundreds of rectangles comprising a single garden. Rainwater would trickle off the walls into each grid; moisture levels were further enhanced by the use of gravel mulch as a barrier to evaporation. The Zuni Pueblo became famous for its ‘waffle gardens,’ with a surface texture resembling a giant waffle (two- or three-foot compartments with clay earth walls a few inches high).
In the Piedra Lumbre basin not one small area can be defined as resembling a grid garden. No checkerboard, no waffle garden is in sight. Yet there are grid gardens abundant on many of Abiquiu’s mesas.
From Dunmire and Tierney. In this land, clothed in richly diverse vegetation and nearly as bountiful today as it was down through the ages, and long a home to the American Indians, more prehistoric ruins and other archaeological sites are concentrated per square mile than in any comparable part of the Southwest. Why? Very possibly because of the enormous plant and animal diversity of the region. Elevations range from 5,000 to more than 10,000 feet; the topography contrasts sharply from flat valley bottoms and mesa tops to steep-walled canyons and slopes. The region contains many different geologic substrates and soil types. Northern New Mexico was, and is, arid as it may be, a sublime plant habitat. In the Piedra Lumbre basin –with Dunmire and Tierney at hand– I cannot find any leftovers from domesticated plants. What I do find are: One-seed juniper; Joint-fir (a shrub also knows as Mormon tea); Beargrass (Jan van Westen’s Bear bloom); Fourwing saltbush all over the place, just like Cane cholla (a shrub-like cactus with brilliant magenta flowers and bright yellow fruit). There grows abundant Rabbitbrush (better know in Abiquiu as Chamisa) with thanks to a fine ‘wool’ a grey-green look, and a yellow-green flower that turns to rich gold. Also Sagebrush; some Prickly pear cacti; Scorpionweed; Groundcherry; Paintbrush, magnificent when in scarlet bloom; and lots of Indian tea, a wild sunflower (the larger domesticated Sunflower every few years blooms in tens of thousands mostly along the now paved roads). These plants are not special to the Piedra Lumbre, I find these all over the high desert in the same loose formations. That some growth seems to follow the flagstone lines is not indicative of any relationship other than the obvious: that the flagstones indeed trapped some of the little water that reached the valley floor.
Unlike elsewhere in New Mexico I do not find much Wild buckwheat, or Doveweed, or any other ‘indicator plants’ for archaeologically interesting sites. Wild buckwheat, also known as Antelope sage, I do find on rocky slopes but not in the basin itself, where it should be if there would be any hearth sites or, like near Chaco, desiccated human feces. This tell-tale vegetation does not cease to amaze me – pointing out non-excavated sites and ancient ruins dating back 600, maybe 800, a thousand years.
From Dunmire and Tierney. The Spanish colonists brought wagons, draft animals, and iron tools like plowshares and hoes. They dug multi-village irrigation ditches and tapped upstream water so it would flow above their fields and could be manipulated when needed. Nothing in the Piedra Lumbre basin indicates the use of these Spanish agricultural techniques. I think we can disregard any suggestion that the flagstone walls date from after the Entrada. About 40,000 Puebloans lived in New Mexico when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. As many of the present-day Puebloans still are, they were linked by an overarching view of life based on the long-ago emergence of a people who were one with the world and all its parts. ‘The traditional relationship and participation of Indian people with the American landscape includes not only the land itself but the very way in which they have perceived themselves and reality. Indian people, through generations of living in America, have formed and been formed by the land. Indian kinship with this land, its climate, its soil, its water, its plants, its animals, has literally determined the expressions of Indian theology’ (says Greg Cajete from Santa Clara Pueblo).
From Dunmire and Tierney. Both the ancient and the post-Anasazi farmers left an unplanted strip at the edge of their fields so useful species such as Beeplant and Purslane might thrive unattended. Ditch banks were another place where useful pioneering plants, such as Blue trumpets, Groundcherry, Indian tea, and Milkweed, were encouraged to take hold. Even medicinal plants were sometimes transplanted to the ditch banks.
None of these useful pioneering species can be traced as still existing in the basin. And ditch banks, or bordos, well, if there are any, I cannot find them.
A few lines to end this episode with, just to remind myself and you that arguing with the forward march of civilization does make sense. From Gary Paul Nabhan in ‘Enduring Seeds’: ‘In essence, what many Native American farming traditions integrate with wild species within their cultivated fields and domestic economies is a dynamic balance of wildness with culture. This is what modern farmers lose when they cultivate their fields from edge to edge, leaving no hedges, no weeds, no wildlife habitat. The trend in industrial farming is a repudiation of wildness, and yet, a certain wildness may be exactly what our ailing agricultural system needs.’
Back to the Piedra Lumbre basin. The first vessel to roll through the Piedra Lumbre came in 1598, shortly after Juan de Oñate, heir to a Zacatean silver fortune, founded the first Spanish colony in the north, in what is now New Mexico near San Juan Pueblo, just south- east of present day Abiquiu, at the confluence of the Río Chama and the mighty Río Grande. The name Chama (‘wrestling river’), first Zama, must have originated from Tsa-a Ma-a, a pueblo on the banks of the river known for its wrestling contests and abandoned soon after the Entrada, as tells Lesley Poling-Kempes in her delightful book ‘Valley of Shining Stone’. The Puebloans must have stood flabbergasted at the sight of wheels turning and ox pulling (83 carts), not to mention the horses (7,000 of them!) and the shiny body armor of the 130 Spanish soldiers, who came with all their families and friars and servants.
This seems the right moment to investigate whether the history of the Spanish settlement or the more recent Anglo-American takeover sheds any light on the constructions I found in the Piedra Lumbre basin.
Not much happened in the first one hundred years after the Entrada. Therefore I am jumping roughly one century. The Puebloans –after at first revolting and, be it temporarily, kicking the Spaniards out– by 1692 had learned to accept the colonists, because attacks by nomadic Indians pushed west by the westward movement of French colonialism became more awkward and the Spanish government decided that settlers must hold New Mexico as a buffer against that threat. One of the first powerful settlers in Abiquiu was Hernán Martín Serranos. Virtually the whole population of 40,000 of present-day Río Arriba County including Abiquiu –expatriate lowlanders excluded– can trace ancestry to this settler. Martín led to Martin, or Martinez, or Martínez. The whole bunch was indicated as ‘Los Martins.’
It was in those days that New Mexico –according to Frances Leon Quintana in ‘Pobladores, Hispanic Americans of the Ute Frontier’– saw the beginning of the acequia system ‘on the terraces and fertile flood plains of the river’ – but not anywhere near the elevated area of the flagstone walls. ‘The principle substance crops of the settlers were corn, wheat, and frijoles (pinto beans). Irrigation ditches were dug, generally one to a ranch, edging the bottomland fields. The ditch laterals watered the crops. As the population grew, these individual ditches often caused conflict between older and newer settlers because they drained the fields which the newer families wanted to plant. Problems with water were solved when settlers jointly built a mother ditch (acequia madre) and took turns bringing water to their fields.’ Nowadays, one can see bumper stickers telling to ‘Honor Thy Mother Ditch’.
The annals tell that north-west of Abiquiu, facing toward Cerro Pedernal, the first ranch was created on a large grant owned by Jose de Reaño y Tagle, one of the richest men in New Mexico in the mid 18th century. His 1743 will listed an inventory of ‘1,027 breeding ewes, 1,298 withers, 74 bulls, 26 steers, 207 breeding cows, 46 heifers, 47 calves,’ and a fair number of horses. In addition he owned a mulatto slave, 150 pesos worth of pelts, and other valuables. His main house was in Santa Fe, and he apparently did not reside at his ranch, which comprised lands later divided into the Polvadera and Piedra Lumbre land grants.
In the 1740s the pioneering Montoya family and their sheep herders had permission to use the ranch house, corrals, and rangelands of Jose de Reaño for their livestock operations. Some of them lived in Reaño’s casas de madera (wooden houses) and thus were much better off than those who had to live in hovels or jacals, poles plastered with adobe mud. A sudden attack by nomads killed a few Montoyas and sent the remaining back to ‘civilization’ in Abiquiu. In those days the Piedra Lumbre was known as ‘La Tierra de Guerra,’ the land of war.
Others followed the Montoyas, until in 1748 the settlers asked permission to withdraw from their exposed settlements to safety. Permission was withheld by the Spanish governor until the summer. The settlers then abandoned their ‘growing crops and ranging livestock.’ This was the first time that growing crops was mentioned as one of the activities of the settlers in the Piedra Lumbre sheep country; but clearly agriculture was not their main source of income, merely a sideshow to feed the families, and I cannot find any mention of the construction of water preserving walls of the scale I detected in the valley. No mention of bordos either – no earthen mounds along the furrows to contain irrigation water. (The only atarque in the area, built of brush, rocks, and logs, and resembling a large beaver dam, a dam to divert water from a deep wash, clearly was constructed much later, possibly in the early 20th century.)
The Martín Serranos family came from Abiquiu to the Piedra Lumbre in the late 1700s and acquired more than one hundred square miles of the new Spanish province’s most wild, beautiful, and dangerous country. On February 18, 1776, wrote Alcalde (judge) Paraja, ‘I took by the hand the lieutenant of the militia Pedro Martín Serrano and walked him over the aforesaid tract, where he plucked up grass, and threw stones, and shouted ‘Long live the King our Lord!’.’ I am not surprised, for even after ten years of hiking more than twice a week in the magnificent Piedra Lumbre basin, I myself each time cannot refrain from loudly singing praise to the lord, and the lady as well.
Settlement of the Piedra Lumbre became the more significant in its relationship to trade with the Utes. In the 19th century, visiting Utes camped out on the meadowlands of the Piedra Lumbre, and a trade relationship (considered illegal) grew between Hispanics and roaming Indians. I tried but could not find any visible traces of Ute encampments. A few protected coves with a view of the approaches to the valley seem to be ideal defensive positions, yet the Utes were attackers rather than in need of much protection against the small-sized settler forces and may have camped out brazenly on the plain amidst my precious walls.
It is less strange that so many remnants of early life in the Piedra Lumbre have disappeared if one knows that a sizeable part of the basin was inundated with water in the 1970s with the creation of the Abiquiu Reservoir. Much of daily life must have taken place on the flood plains of the Río Chama that were put under water. Investigations are made even more difficult because ‘the region has never been accurately mapped,’ as ethnogeographer John Peabody Harrington wrote in 1910. ‘All the maps at the author’s disposal are full of errors, many of the features shown being wrongly placed or named, while others were omitted altogether, and still others given where they do not exist.’ I find confirmation of this statement when in the 21st century friends try to buy land in the area. If there are surveys, they prove to be inaccurate or in dispute. It is a hell of a job to prepare a land sale; then, after a sale, descendants of (presumed) owners from way back may continue to dispute the transfer of ownership. It is even more problematic with lands bordering Indian pueblos. The Native Americans over time have learned their lesson well, and will pursue each loophole federal and state law offers them.
That the nomadic Ute visitors did not create the flagstone walls seems certain. The Jicarilla Apache who came later did not either, although they did irrigate and plant 130 acres of corn and wheat in the flood plains at the confluence of the Chama River and the Río Puerco, far away from the walls.
Nor did the Martín Serranos or others of the few (seasonal) Hispanic settlers of the Piedra Lumbre create any of these structures – for, hear this, yes, do hear this: ‘The Piedra Lumbre was too arid to ever become an agricultural enterprise’ and ‘agriculture was practiced almost entirely at the subsistence level because, once lands were cleared and planted, women, children, and old people raised the crops’ (Quintana). The men and boys went herding their churros (hardy, light-fleeced sheep common to Spain, with succulent, flavorful meat), and hunting, trading (Rocky Mountains fur and, infamously, slaves), or soldiering for the Spanish Crown.
At the end of the 18th century the first of many disputes between settlers over the effects of diverting the Chama’s waters began. Disputes, either about the water or the land, became a part of daily life in Northern New Mexico. In 1825 (New Spain had become independent), the Mexican government tried to see that the boundaries near Abiquiu were set as stated in the original land grant documents. These documents mysteriously disappeared, as did other title papers.
This set a tradition greedily adopted by the Anglo-Americans after New Mexico became part of the United States. In the early 1870s, representatives of land and livestock enterprises funded with international capital and headed by the British speculator William Blackmore, in alliance with the so-called Santa Fe Ring of lawyers and bankers originally from the East Coast, began to make rapid headway in acquiring New Mexico grant lands. By considerable trickery, speculators took entire grants from their rightful owners. They also stole the water, by irrigating thousands of acres upstream in vast agricultural enterprises. In the 1880s half of the acreage farmed downstream had to be abandoned for want of water. Hand in hand with the vast expropriation of lands went a wave of violence and terrorism. Family histories relate incidents of their ancestors’ covert shooting and public lynching over land and water and political control. It is this period that established so much of the bad blood that still exists between the Anglos and the Hispanics of New Mexico. Between the take-over by the United States and 1912, when New Mexico was finally granted statehood, ‘Hispanos were gradually stripped of their land grant rights. Chauvinistic, anti-Catholic propaganda was spread to justify discriminatory treatment of the territory and its Hispanic and Indian populations, while the record shows that prolongation of territorial status made possible massive alienation of lands in New Mexico’ (Quintana). If robbed land grantees went to Santa Fe to protest, they had to make enormous expense just to file their claims and hire (Anglo) lawyers who took as much as half the land grant as their fee. A Catch 22 situation.
The federal government seemed unaware –or could it be they pretended to be unaware?– that New Mexicans had been living under Spanish political and social traditions for hundreds of years. The U.S. legal system was as foreign to most New Mexicans as the English language, and no one cared to explain it to them. Officials appointed to posts in New Mexico by the federal government helped deprive land grant heirs of their rights. In 1869 territorial governor William Pile sold a large number of colonial and Mexican archives as waste paper. William Arny, during a brief tenure as acting governor in 1866, had all the archives placed in an outhouse, leaving the documents to rot if not to wipe backsides with. Thomas Benton Catron was the most notorious land robber, leader of the Santa Fe Ring. His name lives on in Catron County in the western part of the state dominated by Gila National Forest, where even less than ten years ago ranchers, lumbermen, environmentalists, and Forest Service employees all opposed one another in land use disputes, and carried loaded weapons to prove their point.
When the Court of Private Land Claims was resolved in 1904, the federal government had acquired more than 52,000,000 acres of land in New Mexico. Many acres fell into the hands of powerful ranching and mining interests. Nine million of mostly stolen acres were set aside for national forests – for which I personally, as an inspired user of public lands, am of course forever grateful.
Land grabbing continued into the 20th century. In the 1930s the Taylor Grazing Act, supposed to be a reform and increase the grazing lands available to villagers, actually had the reverse effect of strengthening the hold of corporate livestock interests on the range. In 1961, when villagers tried to gain compensations, the appraiser hired by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation managed to sow so much disinformation that many communities were not able to unite and defend their own interests. Courtroom chicanery and forced tax sales took most of the remaining lands away from the families that originally owned it. ‘The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo pledged U.S. protection of the personal property rights of previous Mexican citizens. It has been repeatedly and drastically violated by fraudulent and thieving disposition of land grants (…) and the reckless obliteration of communities and failure to relocate them as viable socioeconomic units’ (Poling-Kempes). In Leslie Marmon Silko’s words (from her opus ‘Almanac of the Dead’):
Only a bastard government
Occupies stolen land!
Hey, you barbarian invaders!
How much longer?
You think colonialism lasts forever?
Res ipsa loquitur!
Cloud on title
The loss of land hit hard. The landed gentry of New Mexico, whether affluent or of marginal means, had and has a proud awareness of their ‘hidalgo’ status. Elderly people of New Mexico often ask one another upon introduction, ‘Donde está su merced?’ (Where is your land grant?) in recognition of their mutual status of landowning gentry, even if the grant has been long lost to them.
There is one period left to investigate before I take Ron Cox and Phylo Thompson hiking. In the 20th century, the Piedra Lumbre basin, having been Tierra de Guerra for so long, became what can be called ‘The Land of Free Love,’ or rather ‘The Land of Adulterous Fornication’ – and this long before the first hippies rented or bought old adobe homes in Abiquiu. I do not expect to find an explanation for the flagstone walls in recent history. If the various aventuras sentimental created anything, it was havoc in many marriages; the romping certainly did not leave much time and stamina for hauling flagstones and carefully digging these in, row after neat row.
‘The winds of change brought in with the Anglo-Americans had begun eroding away many of the valley’s oldest internal characteristics’ (Poling-Kempes). By 1898, one of the Hispanic ranches had already fallen into Anglo hands, but most of Catron’s schemes happily misfired in the basin and a few Hispanos managed to build their homesteads before new faces arrived on the scene and took over. These sheep herders in a region already rich with superstition were troubled by ‘brujos’ – flying cows, child-eating snakes, or the ghosts of mysteriously murdered travelers. One of the ranches, owned by the Archuleta brothers, murder suspects, was called Rancho de los Brujos. Witch Ranch became Ghost Ranch. This name sank in.
One of the Archuletas killed not just travelers but also his youngest brother, who was suspected of finding and secretly burying a treasure. The search for this fortune went on for decades, to no avail. On my hikes I, too, keep an eye out for this priceless pot of rustler’s gold. I do not inform Gerco about the riches to be found, of course, for I do not want him to start checking the images of the Piedra Lumbre shot by his penetrating kite camera with too feverish eyes.
Later various Anglo ranchers bought parts of the Piedra Lumbre. Most of these rico patrones lived in Santa Fe. Anglo cash and capitalism brought in the first merchant traders who like Karl Bode in Abiquiu often became money lenders or bankers. Gone were the golden days of barter – instead villagers had to leave to find cash paying jobs in distant mines or lumber camps.
Then came, from Massachusetts, by way of Santa Fe and San Gabriel, concert pianist Carol Bishop Stanley. She decided to buy the magnificent Ghost Ranch at the foot of the magenta and vermilion shining stone of the majestic Triassic and Jurassic cliffs. The valley would never be the same, for in her wake came many New Yorkers, Long Islanders, affluent people from the East Coast and their writer and artist protégées. Ghost Ranch was a working ranch, managed by Richard Leroy Pfaeffle, an Iowa-born cowboy who first became Stanley’s tour guide, then her lover, then her husband. Yet Ghost Ranch became foremost a retreat for the rich and famous, and the ranching business was merely decor. Natalie Curtis, Joseph Hodges Choate, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, and Dorothy Kent came. Ansel Adams too, who wrote in a letter to Alfred Stieglitz: ‘It is all very beautiful and magical here – a quality which cannot be described. You have to live it and breathe it, let the sun bake it into you. The skies and land are so enormous, and the details so precise and exquisite that wherever you are you are isolated in a glowing world between the macro and the micro, where everything is sidewise under you and over you, and the clocks stopped long ago.’ Also Georgia O’Keeffe, Godfrey Rockefeller, David McAlpin, Edward Bennett, Jr, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Willa Cather, Oliver La Farge, to name a few more, came to visit Stanley and explore the Southwest.
In fact, Ghost Ranch was one of the first guest ranches, or ‘dude’ ranches, in this intriguing part of America that had suddenly become so accessible. The women who were charmed by the rugged ranch life and the seasoned dude wranglers –who had to be a ‘man’s man, a ladies’ man, a prince of a good fellow, an entertainer, an authority on horses, weather, cows, sheep, and wild flowers’– were called ‘dudines’ or ‘dudettes.’ Western literature capitalized on romantic pairings, ‘the upperclass eastern lady riding off into the sunset with the adventurous, hitherto independent cowboy.’
One of the reportedly most charming cowboys was Jack Lambert whose handsome profile in the 1920s would grace the covers of dozens of New Mexico tourist advertising brochures. Orville Cox (I have yet to ask Ron if he is related) became a most famous pioneer automobile guide in the rough canyon-infested country, where roads were absent and the weather was unpredictable; it is his handsome profile one finds opposite Georgia O’Keeffe on that famous photograph taken by Ansel Adams. Pfaeffle, by the way, ended as he started; a notorious gambler and adulterer, he was divorced by Stanley in 1932, the year that she added more than 16,000 acres of the old Piedra Lumbre land grant to her ranch. Wherever I look, I cannot find a word indicating the flagstone walls. Ghost Ranch did create the rougher earthworks, though, the water collecting ponds, a few windmills to fill watering holes for cattle, a couple of deep ditches and low dikes, and rudimentary sluices still visible in the terrain. The ricos evidently saw cattle ranching as more befitting their cowboy/cowgirl status than sheep herding; raising sheep was for the poor.
To finish the story: Ghost Ranch is still out there in the Piedra Lumbre basin. After the tumultuous Stanley years, the ranch was bought by Arthur Pack, a Princetonian, son of a wealthy logging king turned ‘tree hugger’ conservationist but only after he had made his fortune. Young Pack co-founded Nature Magazine. The Lindberghs were his friends, as were Robert Wood Johnson of the Johnson and Johnson medical empire, Lawrence Rockefeller, and Frank Hibben, who, one sunny day, rode off into the sunset with Pack’s wife of sixteen years in tow. Then one of the female guests, Ardith Johnston, left her husband and rode off with one of the cowboys, a family man with four kids. And so on.
World War II brought the people to Ghost Ranch from ‘The Hill’ at nearby Los Alamos where the ultra secret Manhattan Project was approaching its grand finale, the final stage being the test explosion of the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo. Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, George Kistiakowski, Edward Teller, and J. Robert Oppenheimer became regular weekend guests.
After the war, the ‘mad scientists’ left and the paleontologists came. On Ghost Ranch they found fossils of the phytosaur, Permian reptiles, the typothorax reptile, and other Triassic and Jurassic bones, including skeletons of the coelophysis, the great-great- grandfather of the dinosaurs then yet to come – a paleontological find beyond one’s wildest dreams. Ghost Ranch proved to offer some of the best quarries in the world.
After acquiring Ghost Ranch, Pack added 15,000 acres of the Piedra Lumbre to this already huge property, then first lost 6,000 acres including hundreds of prehistoric and historic habitation sites and later 3,000 more acres to the dammed reservoir. In 1955, Pack offered the ranch to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to create the splendid conference center it still is. Gone were the days of adulterous fornication (I guess). The Presbyterians named one of the tablelands with 360 degree views ‘Matrimonial Mesa,’ and that is where quite a few people enter holy matrimony nowadays.
Jan van Westen sends me a few lines from Gary Snyder’s poem ‘Mountain Spirit’:
Old woman mountain hears
tell the wind
‘nothingness is shapeliness.’
How wonderfully true. It comes to me during the night after I read this line. Nothingness is shapeliness. Jan van Westen had asked me to help with the translation. I advised: ‘Het Niets Is Welgevormd,’ a line sounding elegant even in the poured concrete of the Dutch language. In 2001, I wrote a poem about the Piedra Lumbre which I published in my little book ‘Abitare Abiquiu’, my ode to the land and the people of Northern New Mexico. In ‘Your Land Is My Land’ I was trying to express the same experience as Snyder had, only he did it better. Not that I am not happy with this poem:
The sign says,
This is federal land,
National Forest, owned
By the people, thus the
True Land Of The Free.
Yet this land is my land, if
Only because, 360 days
Out of each year, there,
On the sliding slopes and
Metaphysical mesas, beneath
The castle cliffs and deep in the
Comforting canyons, I am as
Lone as the proverbial
Ranger, as lonesome as the
This land is my land of
Opportunity – these
Multicolored layers older than
Sanctuaries for the
Broken bones of the
Dinosaurs’ granddad. This,
My frequent hiking ground, is
Triassic Park, my personal
Connection with prehistory,
My private link with my own
Future. My beacon is the old
Windmill – at the base of the
Vertical cliff I listen to the
Creaking of its blades,
A sound so tranquilizing
That the world beyond my view
Ceases to exist. The peaks in the
Distance will, until eternity,
Protect the harmony of the
Chama River valley, the
Piedra Lumbre’s magic
Stone, my path back home.
The woolen clouds hang around merely
To build up picturesqueness to
Outlandish maxims, to please
My eye, my eye alone. While my dogs,
Jumping high over sage and
Cholla, have time just for
I, master of the desert, am
Loudly singing the praise of
Being land rich beyond means, the
Might of being, the joy of being
Solitaire. And nothingness
Becomes everything, and I am
I have plenty of opportunity to hike close to my home, but at least twice a week I just have to drive out into the Piedra Lumbre. The highway climbs out of Abiquiu’s river valley, up Trujillo Hill, then goes onward for a mile or so, and I enter the Piedra Lumbre basin. Each time, without exception, the confrontation is breathtaking in such a violent way that it practically stops my heart from beating. So voluptuously beautiful is the land… with Abiquiu Lake to the left, its true blue water creating an astonishingly clear reflecting pool on windless days, or angry green waves distorting any reflections when the winds are blowing. The mountains of the Chama River Wilderness behind the lake. The vermilion cliffs far to the west and the north-east. Ghost Ranch in the distance and, not yet visible, the site of my favorite windmill, the entrance of the Chama River Canyon, and Echo Amphitheater. During all my travels throughout the American West I have not seen a valley more perfect, more exciting, more diverse, more colorful, more peaceful, than the Piedra Lumbre.
Austere, sublime and enchanting all at once, the hand of man has not, almost not, spoiled the basin and forced to bring a return. Even with the presence of the manmade reservoir everything is… noble and, how unexpected for a desert, almost tender, everything speaks of love, almost nothing recalls the defects of civilization. The contented eye sees a land more vigorous and happier than anything else in the world. Does landscape indeed, as Gilbert White said, enter the blood with the milk?
Entering the Piedra Lumbre it is moreover as if I enter the mind of others, the ghosts of former times who must have looked upon this same view and like me felt wistful. I am suspended – on, but not of, this earth. I have detached myself from time, can move in any direction.
The expanse grows as I continue driving, whether in the direction of Tierra Amarilla and Chama on Highway 84, or to Youngsville, Coyote, Gallina, Cuba on Highway 96. On Highway 84 a second breathtaking experience is the descent past the ‘battleship,’ an imposing, freestanding, Monument Valley-type megastructure, blood-red, which I sometimes elect to circle; this takes two fine hours of not even moderately strenuous hiking.
The best views, though, are from the position of the windmill at the foot of the vertical cliffs. Not only do I have a view of the high mesas of Ghost Ranch and, more specifically, the magnificent area where Georgia O’Keeffe practically through coercion managed to rent a little adobe house, the panorama also includes the volcano-shaped silhouette of Cerro Pedernal, and, farther to the south, Polvadera Peak, the highest mountain in the area (11,232 feet). To the east are the Sangre de Cristos, snow-capped at least five months of each year.
In front of me lies the valley with the mysterious flagstone walls; the first one begins just a few steps down from the windmill; the majority are stretched out on the other side of the dirt road that leads to a dead end, this dead end being –how appropriate– Christ in the Desert. This is what they have named the Benedictine monastery hidden as a true Shangri-la deep in the Chama River’s canyon. ‘No better drive anywhere in New Mexico,’ is what I advise visitors to the area. The 14-mile dirt road follows the river upstream, sometimes high above the flow, sometimes at water level, and is lined by hundreds of multicolored cliffs and the entrances to many deep side canyons. Here the Río Chama meanders lazily, there it rushes and foams between slippery boulders – a little-known kayaker’s dream. A dreamer’s paradise so magnificent that what keeps me from crying is only fear of disturbing the silence with my own sobs. Desert Solitaire. Yeah, nothingness is everything.
But drive carefully. One Friday, a fast Benedictine nun in her Toyota 4Runner comes flying straight at my truck and almost drives me over the edge of the cliff – and she doesn’t even wave. This daughter of Christ in the Desert’s behavior somehow reminds me of a few lines in P.R. Banham’s ‘Scenes in America Deserta’. Banham is stopped in the Mojave. A Bureau of Land Management surveyor has a questionnaire:
‘What is your utilization of the desert, Professor Banham?’
‘The BLM is studying desert utilization; what is it you actually do here?’
‘Oh! Well, I… er… stop the car and look at the scenery.’
‘Hm? I don’t think we have a category for that.’
Nothingness if not everything is at least shapeliness – but be careful, statements like this can get you arrested anywhere in our civilized world. Too many are hasty and hard on any happiness which offers itself to them, and also stupid enough not to make haste to enjoy it.
Winter in New Mexico. It is almost February and Abiquiu today has its second not very impressive snowfall since November. The present drought, having started at least five years ago, may continue for many more years. Already comparisons are made with other long drought periods, including the one of the 1950s. At a Water Commission meeting in Río Arriba County, State officials tell the worried landowners that they expect Abiquiu Lake and Heron Lake –both reservoirs already pathetic remnants of a much wetter past– to be empty if not this summer then within two years.
At the same meeting I hear about hot new law suits against the State of New Mexico because Texas, and southern neighbor Mexico, do not receive the amount of water they by contract have a right to. Funny. Crazy, rather. For most of New Mexico’s rivers do not originate in New Mexico; the Rocky Mountains in Colorado have most of the springs and most of the snow melt. Totally crazy rather, for the end users are pressing New Mexico to deliver precisely so-and-so many units of water, disregarding the fact that there is just less water to begin with. No, they will not accept their share in terms of percentage.
These contracts stink. Who with any common sense would write –let alone sign– a contract promising a steady amount of a fluctuating product of nature he does not have control of? How much graft was or is involved? Yes, the first water wars have started already, and they are about water that, like the Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, is not even there. Nothingness appears not to be everything after all.
The drought. E. (Ted) Perrin Bucklin sends me his report after he returns to California from nearby El Rito, where he owns a vacation home:
‘January 2004. We are now back in drizzly ol’ Sonoma after a long road trip and a couple of weeks of high country brilliance in New Mexico. We left our mountain home in El Rito with fresh snow and bright chilly skies in our wake. We took the scenic route past Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite landmark, Cerro Pedernal, that truncated black mesa with the elegant flanks you see in the background of about a hundred of her paintings, and around the northern perimeter of the vast Jemez volcano. I had forgotten what an incredibly lovely stretch of country that is along Highway 96 from Abiquiu to Cuba. Red earth and cliffs the color of spilled blood, and suddenly more cliffs, of pale cream, ochre, pink, and the best- named rock formation in all of geology, the Todilto formation, bulbous gray mushroom caps of gypsum on white columns. The Todilto formation is seen across hundreds of miles of New Mexico terrain, having precipitated from dissolved minerals that settled at the bottom of a huge fresh water lake covering much of the landscape for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s an ironic reminder of how changeable the world can be, especially when you see the effects of several years of extremely dry weather across present-day Northern New Mexico, with dried up dead trees dotting the hills. Millions of hardy piñon and juniper trees dead and dying. We lost most of the cottonwoods in El Rito Canyon in 2002, the river dried up, and my well ran dry too. The hills around my house are brown with dead and dying trees, maybe 20% mortality. The fact is, the last fifty years have been extraordinarily wet in New Mexico, and we may be returning to the pattern of much less moisture which was the norm for thousands of years. It highlights the way humans perceive the world to see how the alarms ring out across the land and the word ‘drought’ is used to create an Orange Alert crisis atmosphere, whereas in the longer view these swings are just part of the normal oscillations of nature, from lake to desert. My downstream friend Jim has made it his personal campaign to get people to stop using the ‘D’ word (drought). Just get used to it, he says. Hills dotted with dead trees are a saddening sight, no doubt about it, and water and moisture and life are all things we celebrate, yet we are talking about desert here. I think Jim is right.’
Ted in his report (‘On the High Road’) has a lot more to say about his experiences while traveling between New Mexico and the San Francisco Bay Area. I am citing also the last remarkable paragraph:
‘At last we turn off the interstate, west past Stockton toward the coast, wading through the swampy lowlands filled with regal geese and agitated ducks, ungainly snowy egrets hunting crawfish and gophers along the roadside, and then fifteen seconds to cross the mighty Sacramento, as if it were a mere feature and not the author of all that is around here. That’s the beauty of automotive travel. We traverse the landscape with such ease and speed and we no longer transact with the topography. The world has become nothing more than a sight to see, ‘Look, honey, there’s the river.’ It used to be, ‘Okay, we’ve come to the river, now how the hell are we going to get across, and which river is this?’ Imagine how you would ‘know’ the Sacramento River after you had swum your horse and family across it or paid a man to ferry you across on a barge or boat.’
In his book ‘Bay of Tigers – An African Odyssey’ Pedro Rosa Mendes writes: ‘Space and time are the coordinates that lie the most.’ I am trying to understand the meaning of this statement. Maybe I never will. For Mendes is not writing about the Piedra Lumbre in New Mexico, where I without hesitance take any deer or cattle trail, or old Jeep road, or ancient wagon trail, that I encounter. I can keep my eyes fixed on the heavenly horizon and hardly pay attention to the path itself. Mendes is writing about Angola and Mozambique, about the African continent and the maimed survivors he meets while ducking bullets and running from highwaymen and crazier species all the way from Africa’s west coast to its eastern shores.
Mendes is writing about travel with fear, about a journey with death as a constant companion. For: ‘Every twenty minutes someone is maimed or killed in this world by an antipersonnel mine. There are more than one hundred million mines buried in seventy countries, close to a tenth of them in Angola. In Cuando Cubango, where it is believed 45% of Angola’s mines are located, mines outnumber people.’ There were not a lot of people to begin with, and in recent years most of them have died. Think of it, 4,500,000 land mines lying around in this one tiny piece of the world waiting for someone as innocent as I am –more innocent than I am– to step on them. Boom! Space and time are the coordinates that lie the most…
Mendes cites from Victor Segalen’s ‘Written in Blood’: ‘We have come to the end. We have eaten our horses, our birds, rats and women. And we are still hungry.’ Yes, travels in Africa do differ from hiking in New Mexico. Never should I forget that I am the lucky one. All I step on are flagstones laid out in (pre)historic times in neat lines to serve either body or soul, or to pay tribute to the stars, the gods. Or possibly the goddesses. For even in New Mexico’s early history no one would have dared mentioning rats and women together in one shorter-than-a-breath’s sentence, or would they? What do I know about hunger, about killing fields? I may believe I am hiking in badlands, but my New Mexico badlands, though barren, are peaceful paradises not lost.
The original inhabitants of the North-American continent may have a different opinion about that. Although, in comparison with the Africans from Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, even they have not much cause for complaint. The aboriginals’ descendants were relocated to what many ‘civilized’ people then considered to be the end of the world, yet these initial boondocks in time became more sacred, much lauded, after civilization found itself short of beautiful and wide open spaces. Thus the Indians attracted tourism on a very profitable scale, and some of them found they had been granted –by some ignorant, lazy Washington lawyer’s stupid mistake– abundant oil and natural gas resources to boot. When somewhat later they also discovered they could legally open casinos and keep most of the huge profits from gambling to themselves, they all lived happily ever after.
Maybe not. I attend class at the Northern New Mexico Community College in nearby Española. My remote professor, on screen, teaching with a talk-back system from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, is Charles Truxillo, Ph.D., a relativist historian so brilliant he is soon fired and, sadly, has to beg for an academic position elsewhere, out of state. His course, ‘History of New Mexico: The Chicano Experience’, is eye opening; listening to his voice coming from far away and expressing his well-balanced world view is more than a pleasure, this is Education with a big E.
There are just three of us in class in Española (others are attending in Dulce, Taos, and Magdalena; Gallup too, I guess). There is a lady from New Zealand; a young Native American, a Puebloan from Santa Clara whose name, regretfully, I cannot recall; and I, the lowlander. No Chicanos, no Hispanos – maybe they think they know their history already. The guy from Santa Clara Pueblo soon expresses his admiration for the Dutch. ‘You were the only people who in the 17th century fought off the Spanish invaders and managed to kick ‘em out of your country, right?’ He takes me by surprise. ‘Yeah,’ I say, suddenly a little proud, suddenly understanding patriotism, ‘but it took us eighty years of guerilla warfare to do so.’ The Dutch were the terrorists of their time.
What I learn to understand is, that Dutch resistance to the Duke of Alba, four hundred years ago, earns us Hollanders the lasting admiration of many of the Indians of the American Southwest. ‘We envy you,’ my classmate says. ‘See, we are still stuck with these bloody Hispanics.’ With these words he drastically rearranges my perspective of New Mexico, New Spain.
We also talk about contemporary pueblo life. Alcohol is still Public Enemy Number One, he admits. ‘Alcoholism leads to much domestic abuse and, of course, numerous deaths on the road. Drugs came up fast in the past ten years – not just marijuana, but crack, too, and methamphetamine.’ He knows, for he works at the pueblo’s rehab center. ‘Then most pueblos decided to build casinos. Santa Clara did not, nor did San Ildefonso, but all the others have, nearby San Juan, Pojaque, Taos, the Jicarilla Apache, all the others. Since the casinos were opened –supposedly for the well-being of the Puebloans, who were promised jobs, a booming economy, what not– we see a new addiction added to the ones that were harming our communities already. Compulsive gambling robs many of our families from most of the little income they make. In addition prostitution, until recently unknown, has become a common factor of pueblo life.’
I hear similar stories while visiting the huge Navajo Reservation on the Arizona-New Mexico border and the so-called Checkerboard Reservation east of the big Rez, which reaches from Crownpoint via Chaco all the way to the small town of Cuba. The Navajo tribe is plagued by alcoholism leading to domestic violence, drug abuse leading to date rape, with extreme poverty being the main cause of all this misery. Generations of Navajo kids grew up with a blank future. The last employers of importance were the uranium mines, which left a large portion of the 20,000 Navajo they used as cheap labor between the 1950s and 1980s crippled if not dead by cancer, lung diseases, and blood diseases. The Navajo, being kept ignorant, used to dig out the ‘yellow cake’ practically with their bare hands, transported the highly radioactive shit in open truck beds, and brought the sticky yellow dust home to infest their families. Now, years later, the survivors are trying to receive compensation from the federal government, a process so superbly bureaucratic by design and so slow, slow, slow, that most of the few still alive will have died long before the money is awarded. Little wonder they took to booze and drugs.
What does not help them is the fact that the Navajo Nation –Dine’ Bikeyah– became a conduit for drug traffickers. From the U.S.-Mexico border to Phoenix is just a couple of hours, from Phoenix it does not take more than four hours to enter the Rez. Once on Navajo land, the trafficantes are safe. They disappear in the deep canyons, only to leave the safe haven of the Reservation somewhere on its long, mountainous, uncontrollable eastern border – heading east across the badlands to Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and beyond. The seventeen million acre Navajo Reservation, larger than the Netherlands, with a population of just over 100,000, is a nation of its own, with its own government and its own law enforcement, separated from the United States except for most federal laws and issues. And rightly so. Regretfully, this independent position leads to gaps in law enforcement which allow drug traffic to continue freely and drug use on the Rez to grow without much opposition. The Navajo, not wanting Anglos whether from Washington D.C. or from surrounding counties to interfere with their homeland security, deny that there is a problem. Mum’s the word. They rather play the ostrich and bury their heads in the badlands.
Space and time are the coordinates that lie the most – is there a connection between Central Africa and the Navajo Nation of the American Southwest?
There is. Leslie Marmon Silko said it. It is indeed called colonialism. It is called capitalism and globalism also, but these words are just today’s marketing terminology for the same. Quite often it is also and falsely called democracy, which could be confusing to those who, unaware of the lessons of contemporary history, still do not know better.
Colonialism’s aftershocks create havoc not only in scores of countries in Africa, in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, but also in my beloved New Mexico. The confusion the Spaniards created… first turning Mexican Indians into pseudo-Hispanos, then turning American Indians into pseudo-Hispanos or pseudo-Mexicans. At the same time Spain converted all of them to Roman-Catholicism, which through the ages has proved to be the best way of creating a docile, obedient slave force. The economic, social, and racial repressions that followed have lasting effects until today, tomorrow.
The Anglo-American takeover of New Mexico did not bring much relief either. No, instead colonialism was given completely new dimensions. Today one can hear Indians declare their pride of being Hispanic, Hispanos swear to be Indians (or Anglos), and Anglo- Americans pretend to be hidalgos straight from Catalonia, thus the real stuff. Confusion is good for complacency. The land was stolen over and over again, the same happened to water rights, and today everyone is claiming historically rightful ownership of almost everything in the State of New Mexico that is put on, or kept deliberately off, the market. The difference with Africa is that tribal genocidal wars have not occurred, anyway not lately, or not yet, and that famine and AIDS and child death are not part of New Mexican daily life. The umbrella the United States holds over the Hispanics and Indians is pretty broad – which does not implicate that the future is golden. The economy merely has to be hit severely, the environment only has to deteriorate expansively, the ‘D’ word has to take long-term effect and be yelled instead of whispered, then Albuquerque will fight Santa Fe, and the city of Santa Fe will fight the pueblos as well as the golf course suburbs, and the golfers will fight the ‘natives,’ while the ranchers will fight the environmentalists and the Forest Service and the timber people to boot, and so on, and so on.
Water wars. Is it ridiculous to predict water wars? I do not think so. Water wars are being fought already, all over the world, frequently under a different pretense. Take Israel. Israel lies at the heart of an old and steadily growing, violent competition for limited supplies of water –and disputes about ownership– that underpins the conflict with the Palestinians, afflicts negotiations with Syria, and poses some of the hardest challenges to peace in the Middle East. Israel has the highest per capita water consumption in the region and uses far more than it produces. Since the war of 1967 it has drawn the most water from the occupied territories while restricting Palestinian access. Israel’s coastal and mountain aquifers are almost empty, and the Sea of Galilee’s level is lower than ever. Nevertheless kibbutz settlers keep colonizing the desert. Israel’s holy cow, agriculture, consumes two thirds of Israel’s water while contributing to no more than 2.5% of its national product. The Palestinians are paying the price, for more than 80% of the water from their West Bank goes to Israel. Palestinian villages and farms are monitored by Israel for use and punished for overuse. Not so the Israeli farms and settlers, who not only steal the water, but also pollute it by –often deliberately– pumping raw sewage into the streams of neighboring Palestinian villages. So what is all that antagonism and fighting really about?
In Mexico City, the underground aquifers are collapsing. Rivers of sewage flow through poor neighborhoods. The city loses half of its water in leaks. Millions depend on water trucks, or pipas, to meet their basic need for water. As in New Mexico’s Río Arriba County, in Mexico City neighbors clash as people steal water from each other. In Mexico City they often clash violently. And 40% of the people of Mexico City do not receive or do not pay their water bills. It is not much different in Río Arriba County – but here there are abundant rivers and creeks, and aquifers that are still alive and spouting, and they only need to provide for 40,000 people anyway, not millions and millions living on top of each other. Yet a couple of years of drought in a row, and wells in Río Arriba County fall dry, a small city like Santa Fe is suffering, and Albuquerque is screaming for water to be delivered. Water privatization, so highly acclaimed a ‘solution’ in the past, after becoming a proven failure is already going into reverse in many of the poorer parts of the world, not that this brightens their prospects.
I am not a pessimist. I am an optimist with great belief in the future of culture (not necessarily our culture), yet what neocolonialism and dollar-globalism under the guise of freedom and democracy are creating, crushes all positive thinking.
Is this what the Chacoans experienced when shortly before the conquistadores arrived on the scene their well organized civilization, after growing too much too fast and surpassing the boundaries of effective control, could not cope with such external threats as severe drought (that same bloody ‘D’ word again!), and invading hordes (terrorists!), and cheap labor from elsewhere (outbidding their own work force in much the same way as Chinamen do to us now!), and over-consumption (call it decadence), and a crumbling barter currency (like the US$, which like a hot air balloon is losing fast to the euro, and in the future also to the RMB yuan)? Is this why the Anasazi from Chaco left their sanctuary, to try and recreate the good life elsewhere, on the mesas and plains along the Río Grande? Is this why they crossed the Piedra Lumbre? Where they built these flagstone walls that keep boggling my mind – was it to pray to the gods of the universe, pray to be saved?
Which reminds me that we, unlike they, do not have any safe haven left to go to and start afresh. We children of the industrial and the post industrial age managed to destroy practically all other environments before even considering moving to them. That is the power of our splendidly inventive civilization, to demolish not just what is ours but also what could have brought health and prosperity –culture!– to our grandchildren. Instead what they will get may resemble the worst of what generations of Africans have experienced already. Trading in other men’s futures, isn’t this what these guys on New York’s Wall Street prefer to do?
Space and time are the coordinates that lie the most. All over the world Europeans and Anglo-Americans have joked at indigenous people for worshiping the sun, the moon, the rain clouds, the mountains, the trees. But now, as most of the trees are cut and most of the animals are killed and most of the water is dirtied or used up, the white people are getting scared because they do not know where to go or what to use up and pollute next. There is no safe perch left for anyone. The ancient prophecies that predicted the arrival of the invaders also said that gradually all traces of them will disappear from America and that, at long last, the patient descendants of the Old Ones will retake the land. Mother Earth will punish those who defiled and spoiled her. Fierce, hot winds will drive away the rain clouds. Irrigation wells will go dry. Plants and animals will wither away. Only a few humans will survive. Surely the survivors will not include those Indians who are the builders and managers of pueblo and reservation casinos, or shall they?
Space and time are the coordinates that lie the most. This being said, the lauded Southwest may be nothing but a vague notion, for it is imaginary as much as geographical or historical. I am borrowing from Ian Buruma who at the time (in ‘The Missionary and the Libertine’) is not writing about the American Southwest but about Asia, the Far East. Is this what Mendes, when talking about Africa, is also saying? The whole world a stage for fantasies and tricks and manipulations and nightmares and, not to forget, lies? What appears to happen, does not. What happens is not seen. Where it happens, does not exist anymore. Has it ever? Maybe it just changed. Tomorrow it will change again. Or the day after tomorrow. But the change will alter the location, too, and even our perception of its past. Life as a vague notion – and I am not talking about the U.S. Presidency at work.
Or is it I who is getting confused? That is what hiking in the Piedra Lumbre does to one. It changes perceptions, not to mention heartbeats, it alters distances, it manipulates time. This is not a lie, certainly not. This, finally, is reality, if not ‘the’ reality, then at least my reality.
A year later. Much has happened, not only to the larger world. Iraq’s mess is called democracy now, tsunami became a household word, the French and the Dutch said ‘non!’ and ‘nee’ to the European constitution, and –imagine!– oil dignitary Sir Ron Oxburgh, chairman of Shell in the UK, warned at a meeting in Wales that the earth has no more than roughly 45 years left (‘And if we start now, not in 10 or 15 years’ time, we have a chance… But we’ve got to start now. We have no time to lose’). Sir Ron a follower of the Old Ones? I wonder if Oxburgh will be attending the next Oil Barons’ Ball. Dick Cheney will be invited, no doubt about it.
Much happened also in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Christmas Eve, 2003. Just before darkness I stumble onto a small piece of land for sale in nearby Barranca, go for a closer look, and fall in love within two seconds. Most of 2004 is spent designing and building a house. Its location is magnificent. My three-quarter acre of desert is bordered on three sides by Santa Fe National Forest, while the fourth side is pastureland all the way to the Chama River. My hiking nowadays starts steps away from my own house. In my backyard, which leads all the way to Los Alamos (20 miles) and Cuba (50 miles as the crow flies), I find badlands in different stages of formation, natural sandstone bridges, mazes, steep cliffs, petroglyphs, caves, and abundant high mesas. The tablelands rise up through Alpine pastures to Polvadera Peak. Halfway up its slopes, at 8,600 feet, two natural springs send water into a creek. This Arroyo de los Frijoles (named after the old bean field in the foothills along its stream) descends 2,600 feet before reaching my house. When hiking, I often return along the creek, to find some coolness near the water and even shade under a few cottonwood trees, and to give the dogs a chance to drink from and play in the stream. I learn that to follow a creek is indeed, as Peter Steinhart said, to seek a new acquaintance with life. Some serious waterfalls are within an hour’s walking distance from my house. Many more must be higher up – I still have a lot of exploring to do.
Living close to the creek and not far from the river has its advantages. When drilling the well, or noria, I hit water at 35 feet. I continue drilling until, at 135 feet, I find really good water. The well supplies me with close to nine gallons a minute, which is truly excellent for the high desert. I know people in the Abiquiu area who, after investing thousands and thousands of dollars, have to manage with not even one gallon a minute; then I know others who could not find water before their money ran out and are trucking it in. Or they collect all the raindrops, Antoine Mizauld’s round globules, they can catch in storage tanks. With New Mexico having so many dry spells, they are worrying about water levels most of the time. Meanwhile I am listening to the dancing brook, music for the soul. It is the place where many small birds as well as coyotes, jack rabbits, mountain lions, lizards, ravens, hawks and baldheaded eagles come for a drink. I find the tracks of elk also, but so far have not managed to get a live one in sight, only bones. A river and a mountain are the best of neighbors, George Herbert said. I am living on a mountain, on a stream, ‘by shallow waters to whose falls melodious birds sing madrigals.’ I wish all roads were rivers and creeks.
Arroyo de los Frijoles is the main water supply for a couple of ranches in the Abiquiu and Barranca area. The larger properties are owned by Seledon Garcia and Alfonso Martinez, both from old, old local families. They are related, like practically everyone of Hispanic background in Abiquiu is. Also they, and a few others with smaller properties than theirs, are not on the best of terms. This is old New Mexico, so water is a big thing. Their families have been disagreeing on repartimiento de agua, water issues, for longer than anyone can remember. Seledon always wants to dam the creek and lead the water to his pastures at the same time that Alfonso decides to open up his ditch and irrigate his pastures. And vice versa. I think, when I see either of them at work with a shovel: ‘Here they are, irritating again.’
Most times there is just a little mumbling and grumbling to be heard, but once in a while one of the ranchers has had enough and decides to make a couple of angry phone calls. The next day I see government trucks and SUVs drive up to the Forest Service corral. Forest rangers, Río Arriba County sheriff’s deputies, New Mexico State Police officers, and FBI special agents (for the creek is on federal land) have a congregation, take a stroll to check out the (long familiar) situation, with the wind in their back take a piss, shrug and roll their shoulders, scratch their heads, adjust their hats or caps, and drive off one after the other, each vehicle kicking up a lot of dust. Until the next time. The problems will never be solved. No conciliacíon, no informal settling of ditch disputes. This is old, old New Mexico, indeed.
Meanwhile I have the pleasure of looking at Seledon’s and Alfonso’s cattle and horses grazing in front of my house from October through May. At the end of spring, they take their cattle up into the mountains where they own or lease grazing lands, Seledon near Coyote, Alfonso on Polvadera. The cattle roam all over the high country. At the end of summer, the ranchers drive up with their horses already saddled up in their trailers and try to round their cattle up. This may take a full week, or six or seven weekends in a row. The cattle are guided into corrals, and in October they return to the river valley to spend the winter out of the cold. Alfonso sends his cattle off into a canyon high on Polvadera and they graze themselves down slowly to the Forest Service corral near my house, some twenty miles of winding trail descending a couple of thousand feet. Cattle are smart as long as it comes to reusing old trails, although they never learn to understand that these lead straight to the slaughter. I am not trying to educate them – for someday Alfonso will drive up with half a grass-fed calf in the bed of his Chevy truck to cut to pieces and freezer wrap on my kitchen table. There is no juicier steak, there is no better tasting liver or kidneys. Only sometimes a few cattle get lost on their way down. As late as December, I may hear some mooing in the middle of the night, and in the morning find a stray cow and two calves at the corral, eager to be let in. See, they never learn.
A few times I join Alfonso on a round-up. Two hours of a backbreaking ride in his truck on a bad dirt road. Slow progress into the high plains, crossing Abiquiu land grant property, then reentering the Santa Fe National Forest. That the horses do not get crazy or angry in that bouncing trailer, I do not understand.
Up on the mountain, we unload the horses and get ready for the ride. I am far from being an accomplished horseman, but I am not afraid either. It is okay as long as we are searching –slowly down steep cliffs, up high slopes, through bushes, through creeks, into ravines– for the ranch horses are experienced and do the right thing before I can think of it. I just have to lean forward or backward, go with the flow. Then we find traces of cattle–hoof prints, dung, freshly broken branches– and ultimately we find some cattle. Yihaa! Then the shit hits the fan, for the lazy beasts start to run and they are not all running in the same direction either. Alfonso and I are galloping after them and trying to herd them in the right direction. Straying is not allowed – and luckily the trained ranch horses sense when a calf is merely dreaming of turning away from the herd, and they are there to send it back before I know what is happening. While bouncing up and down in the saddle, I have to try and avoid sweeping branches. Up a steep incline. Down into what appears to have the depth of a gorge, and immediately up again – surely a backbreaking moment. I am not complaining, not at all, for days like these are the best days of my life. I am the Marlboro Man, even if I am not smoking that relaxing cigaret after finding safety out of the saddle, with the cattle locked up and taking a breather in the corral. I drink a few Tecate beers, though, to balance out my lightheadedness. I am tired, I am content, I am alive and kicking, I am in love with the earth, I wanna kiss its maker. But my horse looks at me as if saying, ‘You dumb son of a bitch, you city slicker, you show-off, you let me do all of the work.’ I thank him kindly for granting me the experience and getting me back in one piece.
JAG return to New Mexico. They work three more weeks in the Abiquiu area. On this trip they also leave Abiquiu and go to work at White Sands National Monument in South- Central New Mexico, at the Bosque de Apache Wildlife Refuge, and in the Malpais area, where they take pictures of the lava fields in the Valley of Fires State Park. Is there any greater diversity of landscape so close together anywhere on earth? The blinding whiteness of the Sahara-like sand dunes that hardly leaves an impression on film. The fertile wetlands of the bosque along the Río Grande. The black and rough and dead, dead volcanic deposits of the badlands – not that there is not any life to photograph, for after a wet winter an astonishing amount of fresh green is sprouting from, and from in between, the bad rock. If one needs proof of the life force of water, a springtime like this puts it on the table. As said Loren Eiseley: ‘If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.’
In this spring, the New Mexico creeks are gushing. Arroyos dry since the first automobile hit the road are temporarily transformed to stream beds, the lakes and reservoirs are full, the rivers are running wild, and I see cacti blooming in May, three months before they ordinarily would. The high desert is green as never before. Even the cruel Río Grande gorge changes its appearance with the black basalt covered under an ever so soft green shimmering.
Gerco comes with his kite, of course, but also with a small blimp. An experiment. To see if he can continue working during the absence of winds, or on days when the winds are a little too unpredictable. He can. Therefore he is able to shoot an astonishing amount of pictures, most of which turn out well. Jeroen, meanwhile, hikes all over Abiquiu, explores the land, takes notes and pictures from close up, and soaks up information about the land and its practices through conversations with mayordomos, scientists at UNM Albuquerque, and the like. Anne with her beautiful smile never leaving her face is right on target and feverishly keeps collecting dirt and clay. She has been experimenting with clay ever since she graduated from the same Breda, Holland, arts academy in the same year Jeroen did. Her contribution leads to a truly fascinating micro and macro look at the same land Gerco photographs from a few hundred feet up.
As a consequence, lately I hike equipped with plastic envelopes and a little scoop and on Anne’s command collect more or less unique dirt specimens. Europeans visiting us in Abiquiu act as couriers, as conduits. They deliver to Anne’s Antwerp studio many a bagged key of high desert dirt. Or they hand over the bags in a parking lot, or at a café terrace. Almost sneaky. I do not know how they make it through Customs, for the fine dirt resembles the highest quality of dope, indeed.
JAG come, Ron Cox is away on a journey, anthropologist Phylo Thompson leaves. Alas, she leaves to go and live in humid Tennessee on a sweating, swampy river plain before I am able to take her out to look at ‘my’ walls in the Piedra Lumbre. Their mystery remains unsolved. Or if we solved it, there remain many questions unanswered.
Stubborn Jeroen takes a yet closer look this time; once more he walks the lines, he investigates the structures, and, ever the technocrat, concludes cold-heartedly that the walls were created mainly for water conservation purposes. His final verdict. Jeroen receives unexpected support from India (Jeroen is smart, he knows whom to consult, whom not). His letter to Parth Shah, an architect connected to the School of Architecture in Navarangpura who graduated in Water Resources Management and recently spent some time at the university of Enschede, in Jeroen’s home town, to study hydrology, says roughly: ‘This is about the (flag)stone lines in the Piedra Lumbre, a plain between table mountains that used to be an ocean bottom with a few volcanos, with lime and sand sediments containing a lot of minerals, iron oxides mainly. Flagstones were not found nearby but at least 15 miles from where they were put into the ground (vertically). (…) The ways a wash is dammed and a ditch is dug with sluices made from locally found rock (and iron wire) suggest that there has been a second use of the lines already there. (…) The dam in the wash must have been demolished at the first flash flood, leaving the builders disillusioned, for they abandoned the place. All this is theory, because nobody seems to know about these lines or why they are there. I can tell that they seem to follow altitude lines. They do slow down water coming from the bordering table mountains as you can see in some of my pictures. (…) The stone lines had done their work over the centuries during which the area had been left alone, and the plain was found to be relatively grassy and green. It still is.’
Jeroen adds, ‘This is one explanation, but Ton Haak believes that the early flagstone walls or lines form a design of (half) circles and snakelike mythical figures, and they might. I mean, water is sacred to arid cultures, so why not create the technology to catch water in a metaphysical design? We have taken some photos with the kite, but we never got high enough to have a full areal overview. For now I am more in favor of seeing the lines as an enormous effort of a basic technology that failed twice, after which they had to be abandoned and were forgotten. That is until an expatriate Dutchman and his visiting artist friends discovered these beautiful lines in this stunning landscape.’
From Navarangpura comes a delayed response (‘Mafi,’ writes Parth Shah, which is Gujarati for ‘Excuse me!’). He had been traveling and visiting first the desert of Kutch and then Ahmedabad. He sends stunning pictures of surprisingly similar lines in the arid Indian landscape.
‘I do agree,’ says Parth Shah, ‘that the water can have been channeled for collection in dry spells. Contour binding and trenching has been practiced in various parts of the world since time immemorial.’ In India, these waterworks were given ceremonial status. They were like temples dedicated to the water gods, places to worship the gods. ‘Aren’t we all afraid of them? Why not try to please the elements?’
Water conservation – fear of the elements – religious beliefs – ceremony. Each time this is where the discussion leads us. But Gerco sends his kite and blimp up and is able to get clearer pictures than before of at least a few hundreds of yards of the flagstone lines. Gerco, after developing his film, takes the fresh standpoint that one time, long ago, the Piedra Lumbre was the great creator’s sketchbook for his or her rough design of the earth. I like Gerco’s solution much better than Jeroen’s ‘best of both worlds.’ Moreover, Gerco sends proof. He shows me kite photographs in which the flagstone walls are clearly visible to be formed exactly, yes precisely, like the so characteristic Dutch and Belgian coast line. No doubt about it. I knew it was not coincidence that brought us lowlanders to Abiquiu’s high desert.
The high desert. Where la chasse au bonheur continues, never
stops, because pleased and gratified
as we may be, there seems to be no end to our inquisitiveness and dreams, JAG’s
and mine. As Alan Cark, brilliant Tory Minister
under Margaret Thatcher, in all his
condescending seriousness once remarked: ‘How fortunate are the contented bourgeoisie.’ Aren’t we indeed?
Textures the arid air
In a circular pattern
Around devotional posture.
Slicks blushing silk
To the thinnest defense
Against ooh-ooh desert.
The heat savors sweet
And the eternal
Silence of this infinite
Frighten me at all.
From the happy Abiquiu valley.
Ever so softly
Turning with a pirouette.
No whirligig rotation
But under the spell
Yet never envious
Home at last
(Abiquiu, New Mexico)
Found me a new home in a
Yet in an unknown place
Stunningly empty like the
Corner of a planet light-years A
way from home.
Surrounded by landscape
From a storybook I now
Live in the scenery from
Countless Westerns with
America Deserta my
Where I have made my new
Home I find the past truly
Accessible as a present
Fact. Makes me feel like a
Discoverer seeing the land
For the first time.
So, travel no longer makes
Sense, road trips lose their
Attraction, for no sooner have I
Left home then I want to get
Back. A fantasy prepared me
For the reality of
Spending my life in an
Anasazi and Pueblo and
Hispanic galaxy light-years
Away from home. I found
My black hole, I stepped
Into my soul.
Many sincere thanks to JAG for taking me in tow.
Thanks for the amazing images: Gerco de Ruijter, Rotterdam (the Netherlands) Originally published in the book Desert Passage, 2006