Connections

Hiking New Mexico

Pottery sherds scattered on volcanic Pajarito Plateau

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.
– John Muir

On my first visit to New Mexico, my new husband squired me out to Bandelier National Monument where we hiked down into Frijoles Canyon. I recently ran across the snapshot prints from that trip, the brightest green unfurling leaves against the rock of the canyon walls near Upper Falls.

I learned a word that day: “maar”, which is a type of volcano that erupts violently in contact with water. The beautiful banded layers in the canyon walls which I so admired then were the result of a maar about two miles in diameter.

The walls of Frijoles Canyon near Upper Falls viewed from above.  Layers from the top: Bandelier tuff, basalt, maar deposits.  Click for a larger image.

The walls of Frijoles Canyon near Upper Falls viewed from above. Layers from the top: Bandelier tuff, basalt, maar deposits. Click for a larger image.

In the past three or four years, I’ve cycled back around to places I had visited some time ago–sometimes decades–and have enjoyed seeing those places again with fresh eyes. Not only the beauty of these places (which was apparent at the first visit), but how very rich these places are and the ways in which they connect with the surrounding geology, history, and ecology. It has taken me nearly thirty years of observing to appreciate some of those connections.

For example, the volcanics in Bandelier Monument don’t begin and end with the Valles Caldera, the very large volcano which resulted in the “swiss-cheese” tuff layers. But the Pueblo people who lived in that area from about 1100 A.D. through 1500 A.D. certainly did make use of that layer : the block houses against the cliffs were always in Bandelier tuff. Yet they also made use of basalt (for axes and scrapers) from lava flows closer to the Rio Grande, and volcanic glass (for arrowheads) from other eruptions. Highly favored garden areas were where volcanic pumice “mulched” the soil and helped retain precious moisture. Over the years, I’ve hiked over the mesas all around the Caldera and had the opportunity to see evidence of these uses and the sites where the materials originated. Indeed, were it not for all the types of volcanic products from all the different volcanoes, would there have been the adoption of agriculture and settling of so many Native people in this part of the Rio Grande valley?

Likewise, a simple native plant like yucca is no longer just an elegant-looking plant–it was food and cordage for early human inhabitants, is symbiotic with its pollinator moth, makes the fine-fibered brush for painting intricate designs on modern Pueblo pottery, and is an integral part of its home territory upon which a number of other creatures depend.

I sometimes wonder : if all the connections in our landscape present and past were made visible, would seeing that web help us in making decisions about its future?

And can we see those connections before it’s too late?

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