A Newly Unfolding Story of an Older History: Part II

This post by David Taylor builds upon his previous one:

“An expansionist imperialist culture feels most comfortable when it is able to believe that the people it is exploiting are somehow less than human. When it begins to get some kind of feedback that these people might be human beings like themselves it becomes increasingly difficult.” (Gary Snyder, “The Politics of Ethnopoetics”)


I am still in the dark,

except for the stamp of a dry moon in the peach and turquoise morning sky

and the jagged imprint of the Sandia mountains to the west.

Here, in July, on this dawn, the monsoon flowers open themselves to light,

while the scent of piňon pitch bends itself around me

like a bracelet of water wave curls.

I am still dreaming of afternoon rains, not sure if I am awake,

making a way into the shape and buzz of sandstone, heat clouds, and rising colors here,

these distant edges.

I slept under the stars last night in my sleeping bag—as I told Steve, “to feel cold again.” Texas has been in the middle of a record-setting heat wave and drought. New Mexico, cool mountain nights seemed then exotic to me. Neither of us brought a cookstove, so we pack quickly and go in search of coffee. We pass the suburbs of Sante Fe and the promise of McDonalds or Hardee’s coffee to find a local coffee shop just outside of Taos. We take a few minutes to eavesdrop on locals and sample a green chile burrito with our coffee. Our route to Farmington would be through a 10,000’ pass in the San Juans, cool air and green, wet fields of flowers, over to Chama, and then into the drier, warmer clime of Farmington.

Along the way, we made our first stop at an Ancestral Puebloan site, Aztec Ruins, a National Park in Aztec, NM. The site is well organized and the self-guided tour allows visitors to roam relatively freely among the ruins. There is something a little odd about visiting Aztec Ruins—a little like you’ve stumbled into a backwater National Park—the kind of place they send the newbie rangers or interns without connections. The museum in the Visitor’s Center has the feel of an exhibit in need of an update—just too much dust on the diorama. The walls and doors of West Ruin have been rebuilt enough to allow us to walk through a maze of corridors. Steve shows me the ancient mortar lines vs. the restored work. We walk the courtyard and descend into the heavily restored/rebuilt Great Kiva. Earl Morris, a young archaeologist, was in charge of excavating, stabilizing and rebuilding the Great Kiva (completed in 1934). It is impressive to descend the stairs into a partially submerged, covered round room. The temp drops some fifteen to twenty degrees and sunlight comes in only from the hole and in the ceiling and the entrance and exit—though there is ambient artificial light. An ubiquitous soundtrack of drumming and chanting fills the space, and as my eyes adjust, I can see the neatly adobe-smoothed walls in colors which we are assured were the same as those Morris saw in the ruins. There is some debate about the height of the ceiling, currently at about 8’ above ground level, most archaeologists would say it is 4-6’ too high. Off to one side, two boys practice their balance walking along the raised foot drum rectangles as their mother watches for rangers. Steve and I shrug our shoulders and exit, and as we enter the light, ask each other about the experience. “I guess I wonder what’s authentic,” I say. “That’s a hard question,” Steve answers with an impish smile. We leave.

Steve talks about the difficulty archaeologists and the Park Service face, “How do you engage visitors in a site while preserving it to allow for future research?” A preserved site can mean one that looks like a pile of rubble to the average visitor, but is intact and full of research possibilities to the archaeologist. Also, what is respectful to the dignity of the site and those who are ancestors? Leave it totally untouched? Restore it to increase tourism? Somewhere in between?

We need to pick up Steve’s old friend from Minnesota, Steve Bardolph, our photographer on the trip, at the Farmington Airport. It is a nice, clean, small airport—we are handed Steve B’s checked bags through an open bay door to the tarmac. Steve B laughs that this is a weak link in Homeland Security; we agree Al Qaeda must never find out about Farmington. The drive to Cortez gives the two Steves a chance to catch up with each other—they’ve been friends since kindergarten. There’s lots of lowdown on living in Duluth, Brainerd, and surviving a winter in the Boundary Waters; the accuracy and stereotypes of the Cohen brothers’ Fargo; and, of course, what the heck we trying to pull together in this project—still in the process of definition, Steve explains. When we arrive at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, we meet up with Porter Swentzell, our Tewa Consultant. Porter will provide us a Puebloan cultural context to our project, but moreso, as I found, he’ll also provide a lot of thoughtful and comedic insight.

Immediately after our introductions, we invited to join a group of interns traveling to a local site, Yucca House. Yucca House is a National Monument site and is thus protected, but it is also remote and no road signs point to its location among private farms. As a Parks brochure states:

Today, Yucca House is surrounded by productive agricultural lands and has beautiful views across the Montezuma Valley. Although many archeological sites in the region have disappeared through urban development or have been irreparably damaged by vandalism, Yucca House National Monument will remain protected well into the future. The long-term preservation of Yucca House ensures that archeologists will be able to continue studying Ancestral Puebloan society and what caused them to migrate from this region in the late 1200s.

When we arrive at Yucca House we ascend a mound of rocks and dirt with an empty center; near and far I can see circular mounds of the same. It is a beautiful view with Mesa Verde in the east and monsoon clouds and rain covering the top. Yucca is preserved we’re told—research is on-going and will be because of its relatively undisturbed condition. Mark Varien, Research and Education Chair at Crow Canyon, offers us details and descriptions, helping us to deepen our vision of Yucca House beyond the rubble we are standing on. I wonder, though, if this isn’t part of project. How would I feel if I had lucked upon a note mentioning Yucca House, followed the map provided on the website, and walked my way to the top of this rubble mound alone? Would it be more authentic than what I felt leaving the great kiva at Aztec Ruins? Will I always need an interpreter/archeologist to make sense of and see the deeper story in the rubble?

Over Mesa Verde, the monsoon storm is slowly rolling off the western slope and beginning to move toward us. The story Mark is telling about Yucca House is so engaging we linger here as lightning strikes come closer. One finally hits no more than a mile away and breaks the trance of Mark’s words. We quickly scramble for the cars and drive home in a driving rain. Later, we hear of a tornado touching down not far from Yucca House, the first in this area in decades. Steve, Steve B, Porter and I roll out our sleeping bags under a porch covering at Crow Canyon because the rain is torrential. Having not seen rain in Texas for over two months, Steve and I rejoice in every part of it.


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