Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice, Part Three

Part One here.  Part Two here.

The rain that earlier diluted a few thoughts in my journal failed to commit, but the overcast thickened. Light making it through the clouds fell flatly. Trees in the juniper forest through which we walked cast no shade that could be distinguished from cloud shadow. Below us on the creek’s banks, Fremont cottonwoods had lost most of their heart-shaped scales to autumn winds. Remaining leaves flapped on their stems, working free from the trees’ upper stories, winging back to their roots.  With the loss of the cottonwoods’ stands of verdure and the stalks of most of the other plants gone to straw, Crossfire’s green flames burned very low, deep inside the trees and in the ashes of the canyon’s seed-time. “Grey” was the word for the day. I guessed temperatures were hovering around 38 degrees, but high humidity accompanying the storm front whetted the chill.  The archaeologist is a light, slim man.  He wore no gloves and not much of a coat.  He remarked that he felt cold.

As we walked toward the tower through the forest’s half-light, we discovered a pile of black-flecked, cream-colored stones that threw off more light than the surrounding ground.  Obviously they had cultural character because they were not native to the sandstone bench, but they were not masonry, either. The archaeologist explained that the rocks were volcanic stone that had washed down from the igneous intrusions forming the mountains standing ten or twelve miles upstream.  Someone, he said, selected these rocks out of the streambed jumble and carried them up to that point on the bench.  Quite a few of these cairns were scattered about in the canyon, he said.  I asked what their cultural association might be.  “I don’t know,” he answered thoughtfully.  He documented the presence of the cairn, and we continued our search for the tower.

Fortunately, I was able to lead him right to it.  He remarked that he thought he’d seen this site from the rim, which is how I’d first found it.  From a few hundred feet above, its rubble, a complex texture against the ground, stood out from the tanglewood of sage and juniper and the rough-and-tumble look of rockfall.  It had caught my eye as I sat on a rim perch during one of my wanders along the canyon’s western edge.  Later, I walked the ground where I thought the rubble pile might be, following a roughly drawn map I’d crayoned into my mind on the rim.  I found the tower easily, though junipers ringed it where it stood, hiding it from view on the horizontal plane.

The archaeologist entered GPS coordinates then asked me to point to the rubble pile so he could snap a photo of it.  In my enthusiasm, I walked too far up on the stones.  “Don’t climb on it,” he urged.  “Sorry,” I said, backing down, realizing I should have known better.  “It’s all right,” he said.  “Go ahead and point at it with your stick.”  I did so then walked around the fallen tower’s east flank to discover an intact section of masonry, well-fitted, flat-planed, all the more articulated by the crumble around it.

It was the most fully expressed wall I’ve seen in the canyon, except for those remaining on the Anasazi structures packed into cracks in cliff faces like swallows’ mud nests.  But this wall had a completely different character from those of granaries and cliff dwellings. Its straight face was of the sort I imagined might be found on the exterior of a free-standing, four-cornered room block rather than on a round tower. The fitted stones were of regular cut, rectangular, larger than those that had been commonly mortared into cliff dwellings, studded with black and silver-green lichens, and, at least on this part of the structure, of solid, enduring workmanship. I couldn’t believe I’d missed this wall segment when I visited the site before.  It was beautiful, solidly set, supporting the weight of the tower and then bearing part of the load of its rubble for somewhere between 700-1000 years.  “There’s a great photo op over here,” I said.  Then I mused, “Maybe I’m wrong about this being a tower.”

The archaeologist walked around to where I stood and exclaimed over the wall.  He took a picture then said, “No, you might be right.”  Heading back to the rubble mound’s western side, he said, “Let me show you something, Patricia.  See that line of masonry?”  Extending from one side of the structure was a low-lying row of stones that the earth had swelled around.  Towers, he explained, were often built with a “wing wall,” and that decaying wall running out from the rubble pile insinuated itself as being a possible wing wall.

Following the wall’s backbone-like protrusion from the ground, his eye rested on a depression in the soil.  “Depressions are rarely natural,” he said.  “They’re generally an indication of cultural activity.”  He directed my eye to a possible semi-circular arrangement of stones suggesting that surface structures had stood around the depression.  I’d noticed the depression on an earlier visit, along with those stones that I’d supposed were cultural in some way, but I hadn’t drawn the connecting lines.

As the archaeologist guided my eye, the tower site and surrounding landscape took on deeper dimensions of character.  Like a scene in a movie where a superhero, monster, or person freed from a spell changes aspect, the face behind the face moving forward to assert its truer claim on appearances, the countenance of this place transfigured in the special FX department of my mind.

I mapped in all the newly discovered points of reference on the chart my brain busily keeps as I move about the canyon.  I drew connecting lines from rubble mound to rubble mound, from incised grooves to tower’s intact wall section, from cliff face to streambed, from volcanic whatnots gathered into a pile on the bench to streambed to laccolithic mountains miles away.  Me to here, through chronological strata of events in the canyon—a very loose connection, since I know so little.  But as Scott Momaday says in Man Made of Words, we don’t have to know what remnants like these mean to be involved in their meaning.  I dotted in lines connecting me more deeply into Now—at best, a transitory stance as I shuffled for new footing in the sudden turns my ideas about the canyon were taking.

The flush of connection ran another direction, too—from me in the canyon to home a mile or so away, where my family, always slightly anxious about my venturing alone, watched for my return.  To my eighteen-year-old disabled daughter, whose brain had been attacked by a virus while I was still pregnant with her and when she had no immune system in place to repel the invaders.  She would be waking soon and beginning to feel hungry.  Three times a day I sit down with her and enter into an arrangement shaped of both of us, a two-bodied configuration we’ve developed together over the years for providing her nourishment.  After nearly two decades of this behavior,  feeding her at certain times during the day is something my body remembers as mealtime hours approach.  Down in the canyon, immersed in other thoughts, I was feeling that tickle of kinetic reminder. In its ability to get my attention, it prompts something like the discomforts of engorgement or the buzz of milk letdown I felt when I breastfed her years ago.

I thought also of my husband, walking new ground of his own as he works to make something of the illuminating flash the bolt of the hemorrhagic stoke he suffered provided of conditions in his brain.  Dozens of malformed blood vessels–“cavernous malformations”–exist in his cerebral environment. It is a physiological fettle with which he’d lived 54 years, having no knowledge of it until it asserted itself in a set of symptoms that swept aside what we thought we knew.  Life, we realized separately, together, and once again, is never, ever, what we think it to be.  There’s always more going on than we can gather up in our imaginings—downpours and flashfloods of existence, phenomena and epiphenomena, catching us up.  Like the knife-sharpening grooves and other artifacts of presence, we don’t need to understand them to be swept up in their meaning.  The New Testament advises us not to build our houses in wadis (the Southwest desert equivalent would be arroyos).  Experience suggests to me that the world is one, big, giant floodplain.  There seems to be no high, dry ground for our fondest expectations.  Only, it appears to me, our ability to let go of what we have settled upon and to find in each episode of deluge some way to enter into the fluid imagination of this still very wild, very active creation and assume greater fullness of our part in it.  Um … somehow.

In just a couple of hours, the canyon’s ethos had changed for me, though as an environment exterior to me it had barely moved.  Living at its own speed, the place was pretty much the same as it had been when I’d entered, give or take, perhaps, hundreds more leaves falling, and factoring in shifts in the wind’s velocity, a few stones shearing off cliffs, ambient air temperature bumping up or down a few degrees, freeze-thaw in the soil, rocks being muscled along in the creek’s current, my footprints coming and going, etc., etc.  But the funk in which I’d entered the canyon was dispersed completely.  New features had appeared on my inner landscape, gathering me up in their sudden appearance.  I’d become more deeply involved.  What in, I didn’t know.  I didn’t need to know, not exactly—not in the sense of fixing meaning in my thinking with safety pins of confidence but without the release mechanisms of questions.  I like not-knowing, because it

… tastes like eternal youth,
… smells like rising from the dead,
… feels like leaving Jerusalem for the wilderness

and I can’t get enough.  It’s my bliss.

It also accounts for my nearly constant weariness these days, and that bit of a nervous tick of looking over my shoulder that I’ve developed.

All photos and GPS coordinates entered, we left the tower and headed east, seeking a way down off the bench.  The archaeologist led the way.  Our next destination was a larger Pueblo II-Pueblo III site across the canyon situated just below the base of its eastern cliffs on an “erosional remnant of lower strata,” as the archaeologist put it.  But first, we had a creek to cross.

To be continued …

8 thoughts on “Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice, Part Three”

  1. Patricia, I was going to wait until the series was over to say something, but I can’t help myself. This is magical. The writing, the adventure, everything. Thank you so much for sharing this. From the lunar eclipse, to your crossing the creek, his has been wonderful. I look forward to the next one . . .

  2. Thank you, Steve, for following this series. I deeply appreciate your taking time to read it through–no small feat, and I know people’s time is valuable.

    “Magical”–yeah, that pretty much describes how I felt the transformational qualities of this wander with a complete stranger as a guide. And he seemed completely settled about my accompanying him–I picked up no hint that I was intruding upon his solitude. Very gracious.

    Hopefully, I can put up the next (and last, I think) segment tomorrow. If not, then next week.

    Again, thanks.

  3. I love your description of life as constantly changing, of there being no real safe foundation for building your comfort zone and expectations. It’s so true, and yet it’s something completely out of my reach. I have a very difficult time when I feel the ground shifting beneath my own feet. This is a great set of insights… I think I’ll come back and read it in a week or two, when my family is dealing with the aftereffects of our impending uproot.

    I admire your ability to take circumstances that can be frightening and make them into something reflective and productive.

  4. In his very useful but often-misses-the-point work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell talks about the nature of a kind of dance through life, referencing Nietzsche:

    The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest.

    This kind of light-footedness could come in very handy on shifting terrain.

    Campbell also speaks to the matter of how, viewed from one side, the watchers that guard the thresholds of various rites of passage appear as hideous hags and monsters, but after you pass through the gate, you see them as harmless.

    Me, I’ve felt plenty of frustration, fear, even panic, at the various flashfloods that have washed down upon my family. But ultimately, experience has taught me that there’s a flip side: If I meet the current head-on, with full-feeling, with even a dim sense for the needs of others on the trip with me, letting go of control–of trying to keep things nice and neat–and working myself into the current, then the revelation comes. Not always easy, and never finished, that meeting.

    At least, that’s what my experience suggests. At this time.

  5. Patricia, like Steve, I’ve waited to thank you. But seeing him stop waiting, I decided I should too. As always, your writing is careful and right. Thanks.

  6. Hi, Jim! Thanks for reading. Writing gets dissed sometimes as being less authentic and energizing than, say, a recitation in the oral tradition. But I think that written language can be as engaging a field for encounter and adventure as any. I’m still learning how to respect and explore language’s possibilities. But it’s nice to know that I’m not making people who taught me cringe.

    At least, not much.

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