hear it before we saw it arrive in the eyes of our speaker. We were situated in a hilltop
building. There was a wall of
windows behind the speaker, and, in the early afternoon, the cords of the
window blinds began to move in the wind. “Knock . . . knock.” The weights at the bottoms of the blind cords banged
against the window sills. “Knock .
. . knock.” Soon someone was
closing those windows to stop the distracting knocks, but blinds’ slits
revealed the changing sky.
The other side of the building, the side faced by our speaker, was open to hills of dried grasses. A breeze came through this open wall to cool our meeting as we proceeded through the day into the early afternoon.
We could see
the eyes of the speaker, a visitor from the East Coast, lift periodically above
the faces of the audience. Those
of us at the margin could follow her gaze to look out of the open wall. The blue sky of the morning had gone—it
had fuzzed and yellowed. The
yellow seemed almost amoeboid—as if it extended by pseudopods, thick and
round-tipped—as it rounded the hills.
Then the sky was gone. The
fuzz had thickened, obliterating the horizon, shortening vision. Sky and landscape had become one—a
dense, brownish yellow plasm.
stopped. She stared, gape-jawed at
the surrounding scrim. “So this is a dust storm!” the speaker exclaimed.
had been our weather forecast for the day. Fresh winds out of the west have caught the dust of
harvests, amassing it in dense, dark clouds. This is the season of dust.
A member of
the audience responded to the speaker:
“This is how the hills formed.”
Our hills came
from dust. It was a time near the end
of the last continental glaciation some ten thousand and more years ago. Stone scoured and ground by glaciers
poured as floury outwash from the melting glacial ice. As the outwash dried, the particles
lifted into the wind and fell here, where winds gain rainy weight as they rise
on the western side of the Northern Rocky Mountains. They created this place called the Palouse, a landscape of rolling
may have been formed by glacial milling, but the dust storms in our wind do not
tell a story of glaciation. Our
thick dust storms are a consequence of agriculture.
the Pleistocene glaciations, the soils of arid eastern Washington developed
thick cyptobiotic crusts that consisted of algae, fungi, and bacteria. These complex crusts became integral to
the ecological dynamics in which water and elemental nutrients moved from
atmosphere and soil through plants and animals.
For thousands of years, those cryptobiotic crusts kept the
thick, glacially tilled soil intact.
The crusts, disturbed by agricultural machinery, disappeared along with
native vegetation. The soil, once
held by the crusts, was released to the wind. It blows away by inches and feet. On calm days, the soil swirls and rises in isolated
twisters. On a windy day when the
wheat is being harvested—a day like today—the soil lifts like a yellow curtain,
obliterating the sky.
When I arrived at home this evening, I wiped my finger across the kitchen countertop. A thick smear of yellow grit covered my finger. A kind of ecological displacement has been at work. It is surely a disaster for the land. It is a cleaning disaster for the house.
[The photograph above was shot into the sun as I came home from work.]
After we have crossed the Red Desert and begun our drive north, we find a ridge, banded with white and pink strata, that runs east to west. We go east along this ridge through a plain of sagebrush and shadscale. Sand makes mini volcanoes around sagebrush. There are pale umbels of buckwheat flowers and tight yellow heads of Rabbitbrush flowers.
We stop at a
crooked finger of beige stone that points southward from the ridge. Shallow caves have been hollowed from
the base of the stone. On facets
of stone near these caves we find petroglyphs. We walk from facet to facet and most are crowded with
designs. Incised striations and
hatching or arches appear to be abstract, and, yet, a zig-zag line could be a mountain
range or string of days. Many
designs are doodle-like but others offer a story that even those us who emerge
from cars can read. There is a hunt scene. There are various animals—elk, deer, dog, and bear. There
are many humans. Stick
figures. All are composed of
deeply incised lines.
Little is left of the old Dewey Bridge, which burned on the 6th of April. That Sunday evening a 6-7 year old boy had crawled unwatched by his parents in the tamarisk along the Colorado River. The boy may have struck two or three matches from a matchbook. The dry brush of tamarisk caught quickly afire, and flames spread upriver to the old suspension bridge. It was not possible to save the isolated old bridge. It burned for nearly two hours before the first fire fighters arrived.
Dewey Bridge crossed the Colorado River downstream from the mouth of the Dolores River. It connected the Grand Valley and Cisco Desert to canyons of the Colorado. If you came from the east, it was on the best route to the most beautiful spot on Earth.
To cross Dewey Bridge, you pulled-in your mirrors and held your breath. Construction of the bridge, which was designed to support six horses, three wagons, and 9000 pounds of freight, was finished in 1916. I first crossed the bridge in the spring of 1978 on my first trip to the canyon country of Utah. The crossing evoked stories of school buses and weight worries among my companions, some of whom had been across the bridge many times over decades. After my first crossing of Dewey Bridge, I had many more, and after the new bridge was built I would usually stop for a few minutes to walk out on the wooden planks of the old bridge.
The wooden railings and planks that once formed the floor of Dewey Bridge are now a path of char that extends from the south tower pier to the edge of the Colorado River. Sooty suspension cables swoop over the river. The cylindrical metal suspenders that held the floor in place hang idly now from the suspension cables to swing in the breeze as if blackened timepieces. The burned tamarisk on the riverbank are like the foreboding souls encountered by Dante in the Inferno as he crossed the River Styx.
People gather at the south tower pier. Some of the visitors knew the old bridge and others do not. Those who had crossed Dewey Bridge tell stories and share their affection for the old conveyance. What remains is sadness and spans of cable that now hold no weight but memory.
* * *.
I have used for this post an article from the Grand Junction Daily Sentinal written by Gary Harmon that was published on 7 Apr 2008.
When I stepped from the back door a couple of days ago, my head was swarmed. While I should have just moved quickly onward, I didn’t - I waved my arms, trying to sweep the swarm away. The swarm pressed into my hair and tightened against me. Luckily, I was stung only once – the lobe of my right ear was pierced. It was wasps.
After I escaped the swarm I looked back to see that the wasps had constructed a nest on the bottom of my deck. The nest hung just two feet beyond and above the back door. It was an inopportune location for a bunch of anxious wasps as well as for me, the anxious home-owner who regularly walked below the nest.
Last night after the wasps were asleep, I sprayed their nest. I had purchased a can of wasp killer when I went to the grocery for a New York Times yesterday. I hated to destroy them. The nest was beautiful, a symmetrical, gray cone – if only they had built somewhere more distant from my door and my head. When I lifted the aerosol can toward the nest, I had expected a light spray; instead, it emerged with the force of a garden hose, recoiling my arm and blasting the nest. I backed-off to spray more. Two wasps zipped from the nest entrance, and I backed through the door. This morning I found a cluster of dead wasps, suspended together, hung from the opening of the nest. A horror. I have been their Hurricane Katrina. Forces of nature make us suffer our building choices.
The ruins have a paved parking lot. There were three cars when I arrived in the late afternoon. A young couple repacked their jeep as a man beside a van talked to them. I walked to the entrance signboard, where another man stood reading. I read enough over his shoulder to understand that the trail did not go to the ruins—I assumed it went to an overlook. The short trail curved among the pinyon pines and junipers, in the shade of which there were benches, then crossed open sandstone to a fenced overlook at the rim of the canyon. The wind gusted across the sandstone, making me cool in my anorak.
The splatter of a water trickle carried across the canyon. It came from a single-lashed eye: at its end the rim of the white stone canyon curved like an eyebrow above a deep socket, where there was a large ruin. All one could see from the overlook were fragments of walls and a network of foundations. Among the other alcoves near the end of the canyon, I saw that three others also held ruins, although none of the others were as complex as the one at the end.
I walked back to the parking lot and down toward the canyon, where its walls were low. There was a rudimentary trail in a gully to the wash bottom, which looked swampy. The rushes of the bottom were flattened; all pointed downstream. There had recently been a large volume of water moving quickly, forcefully through this canyon—something much more than the trickle that I heard falling over its head eye. Rather than walk up the bottom, with its thatch and fallen branches, as well as pools and streams of water, I crossed it and climbed the opposite sand bank, still following a rudimentary trail. I wound across a terrace thick with sagebrush and went upward into scrub oak and then mountain mahogeny. The maneuvering was not easy—I pushed through and dodged the stiff branches, which at least were not yet in leaf, providing me sight lines to pick my way. The margins of the sandy terrace had subsided badly—I reached a cross-cutting gully, where I stepped and slid down its sandy sides and then climbed back up the opposite side. Soon there was another deep gully, but here I followed its edge upward, passing behind the junipers that continued to stabilize its upper end, and then clambered over small boulders to a sandstone ledge, along which I backtracked to the first alcove. Here was a two-room dwelling that had beautiful masonry. The dwelling’s walls were made of large flat rocks, each only a few inches thick, placed horizontally, giving the wall a thickness of about eight inches, but there were also layers of small stones that gave the wall the appearance of having decorative threads. The outer surfaces of all of the stones were flush in the same plane and smoothly mortared. In one of the rooms, the floor and alcove ceiling were fire scarred, darkened by the smudge of smoke.
I tried to continue up canyon along the ledge that extended from the first alcove, but it dropped away to sheer cliff; I backtracked, going down the boulders where I had come up, back down to the terrace of scrub oak and mountain mahogany. At the next gully, I wasn’t sure that I could go any further. There was cliff above me, and I couldn’t see any access spots on the terrace across the gully, although I again decided that the way up could be at the head of the gully. I checked the time; it was after 5.00 p.m., giving me an hour of reasonable light.
The sandstone beyond the vegetation of the sand terrace had a steep pitch, but it was lined by sturdy junipers. I stepped behind them across the sandstone slope to an alcove. No ruins. I followed a ledge forward then up slightly to another alcove, but again there were no ruins, only a fire-smudged ceiling. I climbed back down to the ledge and took it up canyon, moving slowly, watching the rock facets for petroglyphs and pictographs. The stone wall curved and ahead I saw a huge vertical crack at a sharp corner in the canyon. The crack extended from the vertical wall horizontally across my ledge, which had widened to about twelve feet in width, and then down to the bottom of the wash. The corner formed an angle of about 40 degrees. Across the crack, which was open, the ledge was narrower, about two feet wide. At least it was flat, I thought, although the surface was cobbles. This was a point of decision and, actually, not the first. I’m clumsy and scared of heights and vertical exposures—even photographs of plunges give me sweaty palms.
I took the ledge. Watch your steps, I told myself. The ledge wasn’t bad and around a corner it widened to a broader terrace, although this comfort didn’t last long. The terrace ended in a shoulder, a round edge with nothing ahead but space. Just short of the lip, behind a juniper, were two rocks and above them the slope wasn’t too bad. I stepped behind the juniper, around the first stone, and onto the second, where I leaned to the sandstone and took two steps up to the next ledge. Here I climbed to another alcove—again, there were no ruins although there were fire marks on the ceiling. I walked across the edge of the alcove to go down the other side, but it was too exposed. I went back to the side where I came up, then stopped to consider my options. I’m cautious—I stay well within my safety limits—partly because it can be easy to go up or forward to places from which I would not be able to come back. Fortunately, I’m easily satisfied by the thrills of books, which I can enjoy in comfortable, safe chairs—I don’t need foolish challenges on cliffs, where my high, wobbly center of gravity sends me off kilter.
The big alcove with its large ruin lay just ahead. The sandstone slope ahead of me was spanned by a couple of small ridges, each a lip an inch or two wide—enough to give a boot extra purchase. I stepped out, carefully, and walked across, until, nearing the far side, my rock lip ended, I stepped down to the next lower lip, and stepped forward, then recognized the steepness of the approaching downward slope—this was unwelcome, and I began quickly the decision-making about how to go back, for getting turned around, when I saw the steps that had been chiseled into the stone. Chiseled, of course, would be the wrong word for what someone did some 800 years ago with a stone tool. I took the steps to a broad ledge where my comfort returned. The nearest alcove had a small ruin in it, but it was getting late so I followed the ledge around to the large ruin.
The big alcove had a fringe of grass where clumps of the wooly loco Astragalus mollissimus grew as if in a garden, although at the end of this gray afternoon their flowers were shadowy, appearing a monotonous dull purple. There were two round kivas at the front of the ruin. Kivas first appear in ruins dated to about 1300 years ago—somewhat before the time to which this ruin has been dated. The historical Hopi, who are among the descendants of the ancient people who lived in the cliff dwellings of the Colorado Plateau, used kivas as places where men gathered and sacred ceremonies were performed. This ruin had four kivas—three round, but one with a square foundation, which is the form found further south in Arizona but is untypical of this part of the Colorado Plateau. The number of kivas made me curious about the number of people who must have lived in these alcoves at the end of the canyon. Should the number of kivas tell us something of the diversity of the group—its range of clans or other unions? There were numerous foundations of what could have been dwellings, some were high enough to indicate possibly two storeys. I guessed that 30 people might have lived in these tight quarters. I didn’t stay long—didn’t dream myself into the life of the alcove; the light was leaving, and I didn’t want to be caught on the ledges in the dark. I began walking back, crossing the moist rocks, where water dripping from the canyon rim above splattered, and I slipped.
I camped this weekend on old flood plain, just outside of the riparian thicket, of the San Juan River in southern Utah. The cliff behind me was a gallery of art. Pecked and painted images were thick on the rock, where the surface was smooth and the patina dark, providing a once favored canvas.
The San Juan and its broad valley must have been a thoroughfare as well as a good place to live 2000 years ago, even a few thousand years before that and for several hundred after. The area is rich in cultural sites for the people known mostly today as Anasazi. Their rich material culture, cliff dwellings, granaries, stone tools, pottery, and art, compels one’s imagination into those earlier lives.
Despite my will to understand, their old artwork, aside from the hunting scenes, remains obscure. The abstracted anthropomorphs in a mix of other symbols remind me of Jackson Pollock’s art before he began to drip or the paintings of Willem de Kooning before he became rich and, then, senile. What Pollock and de Kooning pitched from psyches primed by Freud, the early human cultures of the San Juan must have drawn from psyches pitched by nature. Their anthropomorphs can be surrounded by sustaining plants and animals. They can appear to dance ecstatically. They can be half bighorn sheep and play a flute. Be half lizard. Be the mask of what must have been myths.
The artwork on the wall where I camped was jammed together. Ages and genres overlapped—like stories learned and changed, retold for new meaning.
Since this is America, much of the artwork has been damaged by gunfire. To be American seems to require transformation by gun, through the experience of the hunt, the power of death, the threat of power, or marring by a few well-placed bullet holes.
At the site where the photograph at the top of the post was made, I sensed, one person could have made the relatively few images of the panel. The gravelly sand before the cliff was littered by small fragments of pottery, which had smooth inner surfaces and outer coils ornamented with indentations. A homestead. A small creek lay just downslope to the east, providing easy access to water. The broad floodplain to the river would have provided a place for fields.
To return north, I took a dirt road below a long escarpment. There was a narrow band of plain between the cliff and a winding wash; beyond the wash there were orange hogbacks that rose to Cedar Mesa. The plain was largely flat, with only shallow gullies, for most of its length and must have once provided a good route away from the San Juan. I tried while driving to watch the cliff face, especially where it had broad, darkened facets, for artwork. Often I would stop to scan the cliffs with binoculars, but if ancient people used this route to walk north I expected it would be boulders at the foot of the talus slopes that would have pecked images; so I also scanned the flat-faced boulders. Eventually, I spotted light-colored patterns on a prominent boulder that had tumbled away from the talus slope. I checked it again with binoculars when closer and could see clearly the designs: birds, bighorns, snake, and anthropomorphs made as stick-figures and with trapezoidal torsos. A few miles further north, I found with the binoculars another boulder with art. Here, a jumble of rocks had fallen together to form an enclosure with a stone ceiling. Images had been pecked into the inner as well as outer walls of the enclosure. The northward passage on this narrow plain was only 20 miles, but the road was seldom close enough to the cliff and slopes to examine it carefully for artwork. My urge was to return to walk it.