After traveling on the Colorado Plateau for close to two months, I have begun to learn the ways of this place. I can predict with confidence which clouds bring rain, and which are empty. I can tell the hour of night by observing the position of the Big Dipper, its handle as accurate as the hands of a wristwatch. And I can determine the best locations in which to enter or exit a canyon by simply knowing the rock layers present. Despite all of this amassed knowledge, there remain deeper, more complex intricacies I do not yet understand. On the most recent section of the course, we visited numerous archaeological sites and learned of the ancestral Puebloans, the ancient culture that inhabited the modern-day four corners region. We visited innumerable ruins and rock art panels of this past civilization, but it was, and still is, challenging to relate to these people. We look on with awe at crumbling cliff dwellings and strange figures painted on the rock, but what is the greater meaning of these sights? What significance do the ancient ones have to us today? Moreover, how are we connected to these people, and how does this connection relate to the land, perhaps the greatest commonality between us all? There is no concrete answer to such challenges and questions, but there exist clues and insights. It was an early morning expedition to the Holly Ruin at Hovenweep National Monument that finally provided me with a strand of enlightenment, small but acute, on these ancient peoples’ relevance to my world.
I awake to a sky filled with unknown stars in unfamiliar positions. The half moon that accompanied me to sleep last night is nowhere to be seen, and dawn with its blood red fingers has yet to reach the stars perched on the eastern horizon. I search for familiar constellations with which to orient myself, but come up empty. Even the friendly Big Dipper remains hidden to me in my state of tired confusion. I am not usually awake at this hour. My deep, gentle sleep was interrupted a few minutes ago by the high pitched beeping of my watch alarm, but I only vaguely remember why I set it. The harsh, unfamiliar sound continues now, and seems to have a message – “Go now, or go never,” it suggests in distorted Morse code. Poised squarely on the threshold between inaction and initiative, I rise out of my sleeping bag, throw on sandals and backpack, and depart.
The first few minutes of my morning hike fall into a dream-like realm. Still drowsy from sleep, my senses become hyper attentive to my dark surroundings. In such a state, instinct overtakes consciousness. I know not why I follow one particularly thin path through the shin-high brush, but I naturally cling to it nonetheless. I descend into a maze of narrow fractures in the Dakota Sandstone and become disoriented, my bouncing headlamp distorting the passage walls into grotesque forms and figures. In a moment of blind faith I choose a particularly straight and narrow passage and squeeze through. Perhaps by chance, perhaps by dazed instinct, I am delivered at the bottom end to the foot of a large cairn. I follow the rediscovered route down through a web of boulders and juniper trunks and soon hit the wash bottom. Fully conscious of my surroundings at last, I take a deep breath. My day has finally begun.
As I walk down the wash, trying not to trip over scattered rocks and the occasional root, I cannot help but consider an ancestral Puebloan who perhaps made a similar journey 800 years ago. Traveling in the pre-dawn hours between the sites we now call Square Tower and Holly Ruin, this ancestral Puebloan probably maneuvered the landscape more deftly than I, the exact path cemented in his memory, his yucca sandal-clad feet accustomed to the jagged texture of the land. The cool air in the bottom of the wash brings me back to reality again. I exhale and watch the vapor as it ascends into the illumination of my headlamp.
The eastern horizon begins to glow in hues of gold and crimson. Hiking without my headlamp, I soon arrive at the Holly ruins, where square towers rise straight out of the rock. Many of these structures are built on jagged boulders, their symmetry clashing with the irregularity of the foundation. Though there is not yet direct sunlight, the warm glow of the morning has softly illuminated my surroundings. In a scene of such peace and serenity, I feel a twinge of the joy and gratitude that the ancestral Puebloans may have often felt when greeted by mornings like this. On a flat rock at my feet I find two potsherds; smoothly curved surfaces with rougher fractured edges. Both of these small potsherds have white backgrounds overlain by black designs, a common style. I walk over to the edge of the sandstone cliff and peer down on an overhanging boulder. Immediately underneath the overhang I discern two petroglyphs, both spirals. I sit and ponder the spirals: symbols of the cyclic nature of time, depictions of the infinite relationship between the giver and the recipient? I am unaware as to the significance of these petroglyphs, but I can appreciate their mystery and beauty.
At long last, the sun exits the realm of abstraction and greets my immediate surroundings with affirmation. The towers burn orange, the potsherds reflect the light from their smoothed surfaces, and the spirals glow against their rocky background, invigorated by the new day. Fifteen minutes at this site has suddenly become forty-five, and I struggle to pry myself from the scene, the moment. But depart for camp I must, for further travels await.
Reflection on such glimpses into a prehistoric culture is not easy. But the sheer quantity of novel insights should not obscure the individuality of the experience. Holly Ruin: a mere name to me, but an actual place to others before. For a few ancestral Puebloans, this place was home – a place of shelter, work, family, celebration, and struggle. For a people so strongly tied to the land, this place must have held special importance, a place regarded as highly as life itself. Without this land – without the mesas to grow corn, the springs to obtain water, and the canyons to travel – these people would not have been a people at all. Their agrarian livelihoods were so heavily dependent on the land that they could not have survived distanced from the place they inhabited. As such, place must have been synonymous with opportunity, prosperity, and endurance. Perhaps the ancestral Puebloans shared a connection with place that is stronger than we will ever know. But it is here that we can relate to these people – which is, I suppose, one of the points of visiting these ruins in the first place.
Just like the ancestral Puebloans, we are dependent upon the land around us; we need it for water, food, and other materials. We are therefore ultimately connected to the land, though we may fail to recognize this connection’s breadth as fully as did the people of Hovenweep. Despite a globalized economy, unimaginably convoluted transportation networks, and the overall disconnect of modern society, we humans still depend on Mother Earth and Father Sky for our livelihoods. This makes us a part of the giant Earth system, the same system in which the ancestral Puebloans were active participants. We are thus similar to the ancestral Puebloans, but with one major exception: our lifestyles. We eat food produced thousands of miles away, we travel across the continent in mere hours aboard massive jetliners, and we return home each night to electricity, running water, and warmth that we have unquestioningly come to expect. The ancestral Puebloans were more rooted in place, and what few hard-earned luxuries they enjoyed were the result of pure toil. I would submit that it is easier to lose that which is free and unearned rather than that which is paid for in sweat and labor. Hence, the ancestral Puebloans appreciated and took care of the limited luxuries and advantages that they had eked out of the land, ensuring that the fertile soil established from years of crop rotation did not degrade and that springs were not contaminated or altered. In a word, the ancestral Puebloans lived more resilient lives, as they were not inclined to so easily lose the basic commodities and comforts for which they worked so hard. The challenges that these people faced were overcome by a strong desire to protect what they had established, to preserve what they had gained.
I fear that, though all benefits must be fundamentally earned from the land, the disconnect in modern society between the services and commodities we enjoy and their respective sources has decreased our resilience to future challenges. Namely, the pretense that all resources are free and limitless – that water will always come out of the faucet, that there will always be fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, that there will always be gas at the gas station – has led to the degradation of our appreciation for these commodities that have become essential to our daily existence. And when appreciation wanes, so too does our willingness to protect and sustain these resources. If we shallowly believe that no matter what there will always be produce in the grocery store, why should we care about preserving soil health and guarding against the perpetuation of monocropping practices? With no direct contact to the land there is no appreciation for the land, and with no appreciation for the land we are more susceptible to loosing that which we depend on.
So should we all leave our homes and stake out a place along the cliff face to live in the exact manner of the ancestral Puebloans in order to make ourselves and the systems we rely on more resilient? I do not see this as necessary or feasible in our current situation. We have become too reliant on order, government, and a global economy to suddenly transition to isolated agricultural outposts in the desert. Furthermore, there are many more people inhabiting the Colorado Plateau today than there were 800 years ago, and this population pressure on resources may preclude the establishment of a society as resilient as was the ancestral Puebloans.’ What we can do is make deliberate efforts to live closer to the land and bridge the gap of disconnect. We can get our hands dirty volunteering at a local farm, participate in a watershed inventory to gauge the health of local water sources, and take a walk up a logging road to discover where our timber originates. These are all small measures, but together they can give an individual a better sense of where the daily necessities originate and how these necessities are finite and vulnerable. If enough individuals gain such a perspective, there is a chance that larger societal institutions, such as industry, the economy, and the education system, will begin to place a greater importance on the protection of the land resources on which we rely. This change will occur if the enlightened few make conscious choices about where they shop, what they buy, and where they send their children to school; choices that can directly affect the health and success of these large institutions. Through a ripple effect of sorts, if enough individuals make these choices, then the large and powerful institutions of society are likely to change in order to preserve their own vitality. This, then, is an equation for enacting change, a means by which modern society may come to appreciate the land that enables its preservation. By making such changes, we will be living in a manner more closely to that of our brothers and sisters from the past, which is a more resilient approach as evidenced by the hundreds of years that ancestral Puebloan society persisted. Though these ancient peoples lived in a time far before ours under conditions that seem foreign to us, they relied wholly on the land upon which they lived for survival. We today are identical in that we need the land and its yields to endure future challenges.
It is thus that such big thoughts lead back to a simple design, one observation in a morning of insights. The spiral pecked into the overhung boulder, perhaps a symbol of the infinite; forever approaching, but never reaching, an inner convergence. Humans sprung forth from the land, plunging toward an only abstractly attainable commonality. We may be in a different position in the spiral than the ancestral Puebloans – our ways distinct, our thoughts separate – but we are on the same line. In fact, there is only one line, one tortuously bent, divinely narrow, path of essence – a path forever following the contours of the land.