Tuff and Stone of Memory

Our lives course with a special kind of amnesia, a partial or total loss of memory for our ancient relationship with all that is other-than-human. As Rawlins wrote in the introduction to Nature and Madness, “ . . . our lives take on a manufactured sameness . . .” (quoted in Shepard, 1982, p. xiii) and we no longer recognize our “biological heritage of the deep past” (Shepard, 1982, p. xiv). It is my intent to describe how the landscape remembers itself, how humans remember themselves through the mnemonic of landscape, and remember one another while consciously embedded in the landscape. Since ecology is always “local, timely, and particular” (Cheetham, 2008), I will fulfill these intentions through a narrative of family ritual, a twice yearly hike at Tent Rocks in northern New Mexico.

We travel south-southwest along Interstate 25 from Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the rearview mirror, the Rio Grande Valley stretching as far as the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Ortiz Mountains to the southeast. The skin of this land is pocked with cactus and sagebrush, low-growing trees of Juniper and Pinon Pine. The sky, well, the sky goes on forever, a deep ocean of clear blue light. We, that is, my son, Max, and our dog, Pete, a seven-year old Corgi, and I head for Tent Rocks, now officially called Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument (Bureau of Land Management, 2001). “Kasha-Katuwe” means “white cliffs” in the traditional Keresan language of the people of the Pueblo de Cochiti. However we’ve always referred to it as “Tent Rocks” and will continue to do so.

The highway we motor south on is an asphalt rendition of the hundreds-year old El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro – the Royal Road to the Interior. Stretching from Mexico City and the port of Veracruz to the south and culminating in Santa Fe, this Royal Road delivered colonists from Mexico and Spain from 1598 until approximately 1885. Step by persevering step these adventurers and explorers claimed this new land for the Spanish Crown. Yet they were not the first to traverse these ligaments and sinews of rugged desert. “Surveys have recorded many archaeological sites reflecting human occupation spanning thousands of years” (Bureau of Land Management, 2001). Not only is this Interstate-25 the primary artery for commercial and leisure travel in the greater Southwest, it is also now a road to possibility for the hundreds of Mexicans searching for work and a better life. This Royal Road carries the memories of dreams and expectations of generations of the past, as well as the memories-yet-to-come for generations and generations of human beings of the future.

As Max and I approach Tent Rocks, our ritual hike of memories and memory-making, we imagine what the raven views from soaring above. From the trail head off BLM 1011/TR92 the Cave Loop Trail circles a total of 1.2 miles, leaning slightly easterly, off-center from due north. At the top of the Cave Loop Trail the Canyon Trail lies due north, arches westerly at the apex, and heads south again as it simultaneously ascends a switch-back trail to the top of the mesa. This mesa as well as this entire region is known as the Pajarito Plateau. “Firmly welded volcanic ash” (Chronic, 1991, p. 92) layers this plateau with residue from the explosion and collapse of a super-volcano approximately 1.2 million years ago. Of course, the raven is not interested in this trail or its shape; rather the raven is eyeing squirrels, rodents, rabbits, and lizards for a hefty lunch.

At first glance, anyone would see the tents made of tuff, pumice, and stone as masculine: phallic in shape, assertive, standing tall. Yet as we move among them, they feel feminine, like human, female breasts or multiple teats on a dog or sow. They welcome and embrace even in their upright and stoic posture. The path rises and falls in a tumbling flow of sand, ash, and tiny stones as we make our way to our cave. In fact, we search the path for these small stones, locally called Apache Tears, which are rounded, translucent obsidian fragments, volcanic glass, created by rapid cooling during the resulting pyroclastic flow of the Valles Caldera. (Bureau of Land Management, 2001) These “tears” are to remain for others to discover and enjoy and create untold mythologies. Yet, it must be told, Max and I have collected a small jar of them through the years. These black and variously shaped stones sit in a clear three-inch container on my writing desk, reminders of all of our treks, our stories, our imaginings. Someday they will grace Max’s writing desk and he will share our stories with his children; they with their children. Tiny stones of such large memories collected through lifetimes.

From the arroyo bottom under the blazing sun of mid-morning, we see our cave ahead. Smiles spread across our faces. “There’s our cave!” And our gait picks up and carries us toward our space of silence, sharing, and knowing. Located seven or eight feet above the ground in a wall of light-colored, welded ash flow tuff with a layer of darker lava form cliffs above. We scramble the familiar, vertical face and drop onto the cave floor. This is not a difficult or lengthy climb, yet it is challenging with precarious toe- and finger-holds not so obvious until you’ve committed to the ascent. When Max was a small child I always boosted him ahead of me, my torso as a backdrop and my outstretched arms surrounding him. In order for him to have a sense of independence and accomplishment I never actually touched him as he climbed; I only provided a protective netting of human muscle and determination in case he slipped. Several years later, when Max was in his teens, we made our ritual hike. Yet because I was recovering from a several-years-long illness, I was frozen with fear and physical weakness at the base of the wall to the cave entrance. Max instinctively knew what to do. “You can do it, Mom. I’ll stand right behind you, place your feet in the toe-holds, and support you as you climb.” He remembered; he protected. Our life together had shifted from a unilateral protector/mother to a mutually protective relationship. It symbolized a right of passage for both of us, naturally embedded in the intentions, actions, and generosity of a lifetime.

Once inside the cave, we exhale in sacred space. Cool, spacious, quiet. The breeze with tunes of treble clef descant notes and the conversations of birds slipping into our space offered the only interruptions to our enveloping silence. As Rilke pictured: “The inner – what is it? If not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming” (quoted in Abram, 1996, p. 261). The cave, approximately eight feet wide, five feet high, and six feet deep feels like swaddling wrapped around us both for protection, safety, and comfort. Beginning when Max was only five years old, our ritual has always been, and continues to be, sitting in this cave in late May or early June to talk about all that happened during the preceding school year, and to fantasize about our plans for the summer. At summer’s end during late August, we always return to recount the activities, disappointments, and joys of the last several months, and to ready ourselves for the demands of the coming school year. We have sat in this cave for as little as 30 minutes and for as long as four hours at a time over the past 16 years. Somehow we know how long we need to stay and how long is enough. Once, as we looked out over the gentle waves of bright yellow Chamisa, Yucca, and Shrub Live Oak, when Max was eight or nine years old, out of the silence that held us both, he declared, “Mom, this is better than Super Nintendo and Game Boy combined.” And so memories steeped their way into the viscera and neural pathways of a young child, not by fiat, nor by parental declaration, rather by time and listening and companionship. As Cochran, in his paper, “Eros of Erosion,” speaks of the ineffable of place, so surely he spoke of this place, our cave:

To experience this place is to touch a devastating humbleness that betrays our hubris in a single yelp, our insignificance rings out suddenly, the twin resonance of fate and chance wavering our sense of control. We begin to realize we must settle ourselves into this immensity and find our place within its daunting sentience. This void waits while we distract ourselves; it is there through our prolific noise; it remains as we in society move in more frenetic speeds. This place where human psyche touches or is touched by the world soul is a slow infinite border called the void. . . . Psyche craves this space to stretch itself in, breathes itself into us like rarified air, so we bow our human heads in prayer realizing all that we are is unbearable ecological and intimately wild. (2005, p. 9)

We make our way out of the cave. I, first, then Max scoots Pete in my direction; I catch him with the confidence of years of practice; and, finally, Max jumps out of the cave from a seated start and lands proficiently on his feet. Continuing northerly, we connect with the Canyon Trail to eventually make our way to the summit, the mesa-top where we can view the world. We first pass the Ponderosa Pine on our right growing out of the alluvial fan at the entrance to the canyon. It towers thirty, maybe forty, feet above us, reaching toward the mesa top along the cliff wall. Its roots exposed from years and years of flooding waters rushing through the venturi-like canyon. Histories of floods and drought, freeze and plague are scribed in her rings and skin. Immediately we are drawn into the yawning canyon, ribboning lyrically through undulating cliff towers. It is here, in these walls, that memories of another place and another time are stored and displayed for remembering. The memory of the catastrophic eruption over one million years ago from the Valles Caldera which “ejected over 300 cubic kilometers of magma, sending glowing ash and pyroclastic flows across the entire landscape, likely obliterating all surface life” (Kempter & Huelster, 2007).

The Valles Caldera story, pieced together by geologists, begins 1.25 million years ago when the Big Bang of a catastrophic eruption ejected magma several kilometers into the stratosphere. “The powerfully ejected magma fragmented into particles (crystals and ash) and froth lumps (pumices) that cooled in the air before ‘raining’ back down on the landscape, depositing airfall layers of volcanic material” (Kempter & Huelster, 2007). This “rainfall” covered the Jemez Mountains, including this area today known as Tent Rocks, in up to two meters of ash, crystals, and pumice. As we hike between the canyon walls, we notice the layers of varied color and varied width strata of story upon story from the foot of the wall to the crown. This is not the two-dimensional creation of a virtual world viewed on the computer monitor; rather, this is the multi-dimensional narration of ancient world history held in the memory of tuff and stone.

This is not only the history of rock and ash held in memory by geologic formations, this is also the storied history of peoples as far back as the Paleo-Indian Period some 13,000 to 9,000 years ago. “They probably arrived here at the end of the last Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago” (Kempter & Huelster, 2007). The only remaining evidence thus far found of their existence is in the “occasional discovery of a finely-crafted spear or dart point” (Kempter & Huelster, 2007). For obvious reasons the climate was cooler and wetter during this time just after the Ice Age. During the next 10,500 years, hunter-gatherers populated the region, and yet “domesticated plants became gradually more important” (Kempter & Huelster, 2007). Shepard highlights the embedded life of the hunter with the land: “The hunter seemed to inhabit the land body like a blood corpuscle . . . “ (1982, p. 24). These people were the early ancestors to the inhabitants of current day pueblos throughout New Mexico. Living structures were first built as above-ground shelters beginning around 600 C.E. and later developed into larger and more elaborate multi-story, multi-roomed facilities for habitation and food storage. The only peoples to inhabit the Pajarito Plateau during this early phase were divided by the Frijoles Canyon in the Jemez Mountains. “The Keres linguistic group south of the Rito Frijoles” became the Cochiti among others (Kempter & Huelster, 2007). And then, as noted above, the Spanish and Mexican entourages began their impactful journeys north into what is today known as New Mexico.

Once Max and I have triumphed to the top of the mesa, in addition to the vast horizon of sharp and zigzagging lines, we notice what is not there. The elevations of Tent Rocks ranges from 5,570 feet to 6,760 feet above sea level. And where tented spires and cliff walls now stand, there is also a vast emptiness where the debris from the Valles Caldera eruption once lay across the entire landscape. Thousands of years of wind and rain have worn the site into the formations we see today. What stories and memories have been lost to this virulent wearing away from nature’s dance? As Cochran so beautifully describes our own eroding and weathering, we can reflect on a more vast and not so narcissistic vantage.

The fact is we are born with these primary cracks, cleavages, our fault lines, our fractional crystalline structure, just like any stone, igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic, we are marked by strata, vesicles, textures (just look at our labyrinthine brains) and these portals and pathways lead into our deep cavernous interiors, with unrecognized fossils, generations of petroglyphs, symbols of old, our clandestine chambers full of passionate magma, our ancient water pockets, veins mineralized by silver, tungsten, copper, or flakes or gold . . . these ways in allow erosion to carve and expose us causing our soul’s secrets to stand out like cinder cones, monuments, mesas and cliff faces – landmarks for others to encounter. Somehow through weathering we become more visible. We are seen. (2005, p. 4)

Through these shared land- and human-scapes we have a chance to tell our stories, an opportunity to be heard, an opening to reveal our memories, and even, possibly, uncover shared memories with both others and other-than-human. “By allowing its presence, we let erosion come to life” (p. 2). And Cochran continues, ". . . through its erosion we may begin to work our way back down through the surface cracks, fissures and joints to travel into the bone marrow of the earth. Here is a pathway back into a grounded witnessing that recognizes denial and the forgetting we have forgotten." (Cochran, 2005, p. 1-2)

As we’ve remembered how the stone and pumice and tuff hold the memory of the heated rupture of long ago, how even what is gone, what is eroded reminds us of the dynamic past, how tree trunk and Royal Roads hold memories, and how a mother and son create, repeat, and re-create memory upon memory, “we feel ourselves enveloped, immersed, caught up within the sensuous world” (Abram, 1996, p. 260). And yet, there remains “an astonishing dissociation – a monumental forgetting of our human inherence in a more-than-human world” (p. 260) There remains, and twists in on itself, an amnesia of our relationship to place, and especially our relationship to wild places. Even in this often disastrous forgetting, Shepard suggests with much hope and belief in the human species, that “an ecologically harmonious sense of self and world . . . is the inherent possession of everyone; it is latent in the organism” (1982, p. 128).

Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-
human world. New York: Pantheon.

Bureau of Land Management. (2001). Trail guide: Kasha-Katuwe tent rock national
monument. [brochure]. New Mexico: Bureau of Land Management.

Cheetham, T. (2008). Ecopsychology II. Unpublished lecture presented at Pacifica
Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.

Chronic, H. (1991). Roadside geology of New Mexico. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press
Publishing Company.

Cochran, M. (2005). The eros of erosion: Archetypal geology and elemental force as a
liberation ecology. Unpublished paper for course requirement at Pacifica Graduate
Institute, Carpinteria, CA.

Kempter, K. & Huelster, D. (2007). Valles Caldera: Map and geologic history of the
southwest’s youngest caldera. [brochure/map]. Santa Fe, NM: High Desert Field

Shepard, P. (1982). Nature and madness. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.


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