Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice 2010, Part Five

Parts one, two, three, and four.

The mid-sized Ancestral Puebloan site sitting up on that “erosional layer of lower strata” (love that phrase) of Crossfire’s east cliffs is one of my favorites because of the serene view it offers down-canyon.  From what I’ve seen of that portion of Crossfire, including about a mile or so of what lies below the “No Drive Zone,” the farther south the canyon runs the wider it opens out and the higher the cliffs soar above its floor.  This Pueblo II-Pueblo III site’s impressive field of view takes in several of the canyon’s other ruins, including the first site across canyon that the archaeologist and I visited and, possibly, the tower. An ATV trail, badly eroded now as its illegality has come clear and nobody wants to risk keeping it up, crosses this site and runs onto the mesa east of Crossfire.  Sometimes I climb just above the ruin and sit on a flat rock jutting from the canyon wall out of which the trail was carved.  It’s nice up there, the size of the place intimates itself more deeply, and I feel the canyon’s inclusiveness fold me in.

As we stood on the site, I felt the wind picking up.  A knit sweater with two more layers beneath and an over-sized fleece jacket on top wrapped me up snugly.  I wore gloves earlier but took them off when my hands warmed up enough to bare them. Remembering the archaeologist’s comment about the cold when we were at the incised grooves site, I said, “It’s getting colder.”  “It is,” he replied as he glanced over documents and matched what he saw on paper against what showed through the ground around him—mounds and ragged lines of rubble, one depression, maybe more.  I found the midden (the site’s trash heap) on a steep, southeast-facing slope and explored it a little, inspecting pottery sherds and other remnants of occupants’ long-gone lives.

From time to time, as he completed his duty toward the site, he shifted his attention to the slope directly across from us, part of which we’d walked as we looked for the tower.  Our higher, across-canyon perspective revealed new information about the slump.  “That whole hillside is a rotational slump,” he said.

The terrace he’d pointed out earlier was just a breakaway from the main body of movement, the whole of which had crept on wheels of churning earth down toward the creek.  I know now that rotational slumps can be triggered by heavy, persistent rains; freeze-thaw effects; earthquake shocks; and undercutting of a slope (natural or man-caused).  The small terrace on which the four or five juniper trees stood is a typical stair-step formation that occurs when smaller blocks of ground break off the larger slipping mass.  The hillside that’s sloughing (stabilized, for the time being) is composed of a water-absorbing layer of sedimentary earth or rock sitting atop an impermeable tier—in this case, sandstone cliffs, I’m guessing, since that’s what seems native here, or maybe a stratum of clay.  Heavy rains or snowmelt, freeze-thaw, perhaps a bit of undercutting by the stream, or two, three, maybe all four of these conditions caused the water-besotted layer to roll off its bed, and the junipers caught the wave.

There are different types of slumps, all of which can be cataclysmically destructive.  In 1983, a slump in Spanish Fork Canyon plugged the Spanish Fork River and destroyed the picturesque town of Thistle, Utah as well as an important railroad line that connects Utah Valley to the mining town of Price.  The lake that formed behind the earthen dam submerged the erstwhile railroading settlement, rendering it a ghost town. From SR 6 through Spanish Fork Canyon, you can see Thistle’s bones lying along the receded lake’s abandoned shores.  Spanish Fork Canyon remains an active slide area, and the Thistle Slide has reactivated twice since its first big whump onto the canyon floor.

“People build on those,” the archaeologist said, indicating the rotational slump across from us.  He said they do it for the view.  Then they’re surprised to wake up one morning to view parts of their houses lying in a heap at the hill’s base.

His remark reminded me of something that happened in the northwestern Pennsylvanian town where I lived for a few years, a former boomtown called Oil City.  I told the archaeologist how the town had been built on the flood plain at the confluence of Oil Creek (bigger than many rivers in the West) and the mighty Allegheny River.  In the late 70s and 80s, while my family lived there, we witnessed winters where the river turned into a bank-to-bank traffic jam of slush and ice chunks.  During an especially cold winter in the early 80s, ice floes bob-bob-bobbing down the creek collided with ice traveling downriver.  The crush froze into a jam below the confluence, forcing water and ice from both waterways through walls and into the basements and ground floors of stores and houses built in low-lying sections of the city.*

The archaeologist nodded his familiarity with that sort of scenario. Meanwhile, his eyes continued scanning the opposite canyon bench.  He said, “See that rock over there?”  I looked.  Many rocks sat on the rotational slump across canyon, but by now my eye had begun to tune a bit to his way of seeing.  “The one with stuff on it?” I said, referring to a large, flat-topped boulder across from us but lower down, lying at an angle on the slope and sporting a jumble of some sort on its top.  “Stones,” he said.  “That’s possibly cultural.”

Instantly, I felt intrigued.  My brain began mapping in the rock’s relationship to the tower, to the creek, and to the site where we stood.  I wanted to commit its location to memory so that I could visit it at another time.

“When I’m done here, I think I’ll go over and take a quick look at that,” he said.

As quickly as I felt intrigued, I felt torn.  The fare on my “responsibility to family” meter was running up.  Following the archaeologist back across canyon would add another thirty minutes or so of hiking to the current debt of attention I now owed my household.  My “feeding time” bell had begun ringing shrilly.  My disabled daughter is completely dependent upon me to meet her needs punctually.  The longer I delayed, the more likely it was I’d arrive home to upset and added work.  Many mothers know this dynamic, the “You play, you pay” toll that comes with parenthood.

Furthermore, I was playing out.  No breakfast, unplanned-for up-and-down traipsing.  My legs had begun expressing their doubts, and I had yet to make the hike up-canyon and climb the steep ATV trail I use to reach home.  Earlier, I’d told the archaeologist about a camp of some kind located beneath a venerable cottonwood.  This place had puzzled me since I’d found it, and I hoped that the archaeologist could shed some light on its nature.  I’d been calling it a cowboy camp, but I really didn’t know what it was.  I asked if he’d mind telling me what he thought about it before he went to check out the rock.  He asked where it was, and, learning it was right below us (more or less), he agreed to have a look.

Right about then, a woman’s disembodied voice spoke.  “Ring, ring,” it said.  “Ring, ring.”

I looked at the archaeologist, who was reaching for his cell phone.  “Uh-oh,” he said.  “Someone wants to talk to me.”

“I guess so,” I said.  The sudden piping up of the voice of someone not physically present in the canyon felt surreal.  And yet, because her voice produced sound waves that our ears registered and our brains interpreted, she was physically present—sort of.  And perhaps she was present by virtue of relationship in the same way I felt my family’s presence with me.  Not wanting to intrude, I said, “I’ll head down and meet you at the bottom.”

I cut straight down the hillside, picked up the ATV trail, and followed its runoff-roughed-up path down to the sage flat located on an especially deep deposit of sand that the creek had piled up in a previous lifetime.  Often, I walk this stretch just to see what record of presence the sand has kept since my last visit.  Days before last fall’s general deer hunt, a well-defined set of bear tracks showed up there—just a little bear, heading north to the mountains.  This year, too, at about the same time of year, I found another set of bear tracks, much larger, imprinted in the creek bed—again, heading north.  Always good to know with whom you’re sharing the trail, and when.

The archaeologist appeared and I pointed out the tree a few hundred feet away.  “That’s it there.  After this, we’ll part company,” I said.  “I need to go home and feed my disabled daughter.”

In cottonwood years, the double-trunked tree must be ancient, a remainder of an older generation now dying out.  Growing near it on the creek bank is the only other cottonwood of comparable size along this section, possibly a sibling.  That tree, growing from a single trunk, stands straight, except for a slight tilt to the northeast visible in its upper branches.  Root to treetop, it reaches a height of approximately 80 feet.  The double-trunked tree leans toward this straight-trunked one, looking as if it’s bowing or maybe bending down to pack a snowball to throw at its friend. Its huge limbs spread up, soar out on the horizontal plane, then some of the largest branches drop down to hang very low.  In places, they drag the ground.  This over-story creates an unusually dense umbrella that during the summertime when the tree is fully leafed casts some of the heaviest shade in the canyon.  Even with most of its leaves gone and a cloud ceiling dimming the sun, the tree’s leaning trunks and thick tangle of limbs toss a dark blanket of shadow onto the ground.

Someone had taken advantage of the cottonwood’s lowest-hanging limbs to weave a lattice of sagebrush trunks and fallen branches between the ends of the tree’s limbs and the ground, enclosing the space so that it resembles a corral.  The project took considerable effort.  The lattice extends the entire width of the tree’s southern exposure then sweeps around the west end, bends to the north, and there meets other heavy branches obstructing passage and a bank from the talus that slopes down more or less into the back of the tree and around its north side. A couple of horses could be stabled within the enclosure.  A plush carpet of leaf molt partly covers a fire ring built near the trunk-end of the enclosure.  This camp—whatever it is—is a magical place.  I’ve taken refuge there from the sun or gone in simply to bask in the cottonwood’s ambiance.  The summer before last, someone tucked fresh sage branches into the latticework, further camouflaging the camp’s presence and insulating it from the rest of the world.

The archaeologist thought the site unique and made a note of its existence but doubted it was a cowboy camp.  More likely “nature lovers, kids.”  He pointed out that the ground had recently changed—it had acquired a “younger surface.”  Heavy rains had carried in new sand.  I noticed that one of the cottonwood’s limbs actually plunged into the ground like a snake into a hole then doubled back up and became airborne again.  I hadn’t inspected that branch so closely before and thought it just to be resting on the ground.  But no—part of it has gone subterranean.  We speculated on the chance of its having planted itself and produced roots, and this led to a discussion about the innards of cottonwoods.  The archaeologist explained that cottonwood leaves produce sugar, which increases the water pressure in the leaves.

“So that sticky glaze I see late summer on cottonwood leaves is sugar?” I wondered.  “That the leaves produce?”

“Aphids cause that.  The sugar the leaves produce increases the water pressure in the leaves and pushes the sugar through the aphids,” he said.

What an interesting way to put it.  He explained a little about how the phloem—the cottonwood’s inner bark—conducts the sugar that the leaves produce.  Xylem transports water from the roots.  Phloem and xylem—these are words I hadn’t heard for decades.  An old memory or maybe a metaphoric image flashed up of a middle school, mimeographed, fill-in-the-blank test, what is the name for the woody tissue in plants that conducts water, what is the name for the tissue that conducts nutrients in plants.   There’s a lot more to this whole tree business, including the finer points of photosynthesis, one of the most wonderful natural processes in the world, but time for lessons had run out and the time to turn my attention to other matters had arrived.

We exchanged names, this time spelling them out for each other.  He needed mine to note my presence in the photos.  I thanked him for the lovely, turnaround morning.  “It’s been a pleasure,” I said, reaching for his hand.  When my hand grasped his, the depth of its coldness shocked me: like a stone.  I couldn’t detect a stitch of warmth in him. “You are cold!” I said, a bit concerned.  Well, he said, he’d had his hands out writing and handling papers the whole time.  He said,  “I think I’ll leave my backpack here while I go have a quick look at that rock.” We walked out from beneath the cottonwood tree, back through the deep sand, and headed toward the trail.

“Well, I have to get home,” I said at last.  “My family’ll be worrying about me.”  I turned to walk away.

“It’s good to be worried about,” he said.

This plain language surprised me and shifted my thinking, spoken as the  words were in an isolated location that has more than a few worrying elements to it.  And while the language did appear plain, its facets showed depths of clarity.  I liked how naturally the words reflected on others we were apart from.  And yet not apart from.  The remark struck me a bit like his skyrockets announcement—out of the blue, yet revelatory of here, now, and the unseen always latent in the immediate moment.

“Yes,” I said.

“I mean, it’s good to be loved enough to be worried about,” he said.

Again I agreed: Yes, it is good to be loved enough to be worried about.  At the same time, I acknowledged to myself that it isn’t so good to be the one doing the worrying. Been there, done that, over and over—always a relief when worry lifts.  Nevertheless, these were gentle words offered in warm voice. They fit the canyon—itself a web of relations—and lit the terrain of our previous exchanges.  They joined the environment of the canyon more intimately to our family surrounds. They allowed what he and I shared as family folk.  Like other aspects of our conversations, they contained active qualities of orienteering, the finding of one’s way.  I had been feeling bothered about having to break from the pleasures of the morning to return to my high maintenance household.  The archaeologist’s words helped me turn myself around to face the way I needed to go.

My much-disparaged neighbors—disparaged by some activists and others seeking to profit by such language—have often spoken in turn disparaging words about the BLM, declaring them to be uncaring.

Yeah, these BLM guys, they don’t care about anything, I joked as the archaeologist’s mildly transformational words worked their effects on me all the way up the trail, out of the canyon, down the country road leading to my home and then through the door of my household. They have since maintained presence in my family, with my thirteen-year-old daughter quoting them just the other day as she hurried after me through the door to hand me items I normally carry with me when I leave the house.  “I was worried you’d forgotten them,” she said.  “It’s good to be loved enough to be worried about.”

“Yes it is,” I replied.  “It. Is.”

As for the fate of the trail—whether it’ll be reopened to OHV travel or remain closed—I had already decided that if the trail is reopened, I’ll go in peace, though I might devise a different route for myself, perhaps based on my wanderings that day with the archaeologist.  And if the trail is not reopened to ATV traffic, I’ll go in peace.   My encounter with the archaeologist that day further anchored that resolve.

And another thing: I’m never, ever going into that canyon again without carrying at least a few handfuls of trail mix on my person.  The next time adventure calls, I’ll be better provisioned.

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*To see if I’d described the flood to the archaeologist accurately, I did some follow-up research.  I learned that before the episode in the early 80s, ice jam flooding plagued Oil City from the 1880s to the early 1980s.  The flood that occurred in 1982 caused $4 million in damage to the downtown district.  An ice boom installed on the river in 1982-1983 has effectively prevented flooding of the town since its construction.  The Pittsburgh District of the Corp of Engineers built another ice control device on Oil Creek in 1989 to further reduce ice jams, and particularly to curtail the formation of frazil ice that causes them. In spite of these structures, engineers acknowledge that destructive ice jams at the confluence remain a possibility.

Cool frazil ice video.