Out West Part I : Crossing Over

Into the Desert

Into the Desert

If I had a blog, today I would write about the desert. My creative springs have been as dry as the grass here in Missouri. Its typical summer weather: Ungodly hot and droughty. I have trouble staying upbeat this time of the year, but one day, things will change and the rains will find their way home. In the meantime, I thought I would share my thoughts on life in the real desert, a barren, hot landscape that I love: The desert around Santa Fe.

If not for mystery writer Tony Hillerman, I might have missed seeing the desert. I have always been a lover of the North Woods: The cool, dark forests; the sparkling lakes and the chance to make medicine with the raven and the wolf had called me North every year. When Mom suggested we deviate from our usual vacation plans and go to the Southwest, I would have said, “No,” except for Mr. Hillerman. His mysteries that described the world of the Navajo enticed me to see that place, to see if that landscape has something to teach me, something the North did not know.

Cowboy Country

Cowboy Country

Mom and I headed west on June 20, 2007.  Late in the afternoon, we crossed from Oklahoma into Texas and I began to feel the spirit of the land reaching out to me. Before us stretched the great open spaces once known to cowboys and Indians. As a farmer and lover of cows, I have a soft spot in my heart for the cattlemen who drove the great herds across these plains. I plugged in my iPod and played the album, Cool Water, by The Sons of  the Pioneers. Mom and I sang along, “Empty saddles in the old corral, where do you ride tonight?” and “Come and sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu, but remember The Red River Valley and the cowboy that loved you so true.” I could almost see the dust raised by the cattle, hear the lowing of cows to their calves, interspersed with the banter of the cowboys as they rode the open range. This was a landscape with stories to tell; a place  of high-adventure and endless drudgery, a land of beginnings and endings, the stage that saw the rise of the American Dream and the last days of the Native American hope. I was full of emotion and we hadn’t even reached the desert. I began to suspect this was going to be more than just a vacation.

First Look at the Desert

First Look at the Desert

As the shadows lengthened, the landscape changed from flat, boundless prairie to gently rolling hills. We upped-and-downed for a number of miles, then, as we came to the top of a rather unremarkable rise, we were suddenly in the desert. Mesas appeared, glowing gold in the evening sun. The grass vanished, replaced by sage brush and cactus. The wind found us there, gusting to sixty miles an hour over the beautiful, barren land.

We stopped at a Wayside Rest near Tucumcari, New Mexico and were greeted by an intrepid raven who, in his search for tasty treats, had staked out the rest area as his own. He faced the rising gale, clinging to the picnic table next to us, croaking like a rusty hinge. I tossed him a couple of crackers with peanut butter and he downed them readily.  I wondered if he knew the ravens that greeted us when we arrived in Ely, Minnesota each fall. It was a comforting synchronicity and it made me think, maybe the desert wasn’t such a foreign place after all.

To Be Continued…

A Love As Old As Time

Bone Shards & Fossilized Deer Teeth

Bone Shards & Fossilized Deer Teeth

If I had a blog, today I would write about dinosaurs. I am currently reading a book called, “My Beloved Brontosaurus,” by Brian Switek. The author takes my dream trip around the world, visiting the sites where the most significant dinosaur discoveries were made, bringing us amateur paleontologists up to date on the latest finds. Sadly, to both myself and the author, Brontosaurus no longer exists. He has been reclassified as Apatosaurus, but I have to say, I love him still. It has been forty-plus years since I first entered the world of the “Thunder Lizard” and I find creatures prehistoric as fascinating today as I did back then.

Dinosaurs were my first true love. From the age of four, I was captivated by these ancient giants and, as always, I dove into my idée fixe  with heart and soul. My parents were more than supportive and I remember with great clarity my favorite dino toy: A Jurassic landscape, complete with plastic cliffs, swamp, and a multitude of plastic dinosaurs. Despite the fact that my diorama included cave-men, a fact that made me very upset, I spent hours arranging my Brontosaurus, T-Rex, stegosaurus, dimetradon, triceratops, pterodactyl, and other favorites as they went about their life of hunting and being hunted. Everyone in the family knew about my obsession, but they only asked once what my career path would be.

“So you’re going to be an archaeologist?” a well-meaning relative would ask.

“No,” I would reply, with four-year-old indignation, “I am going to be a paleontologist. It’s quite different you know.” Enough said.

Crinoid Fossil

Crinoid Fossil

Down the years, my plans changed and I graduated college with a degree of psychology instead of paleontology. But nonetheless, my interest in dinosaurs remained. When my parents bought our farm on the Little Piney River, I did my research and found that the Missouri Ozarks is still rich in prehistoric remains. This part of the country was once an inland sea and rocks found in our creeks and rivers contain fossils of the ancient creatures who inhabited the watery world. After the seas receded and the ice-age ended, central Missouri was home to many prehistoric mammals: Horses, mammoths, great bears, and even sloths roamed field and forest. During the Middle and Late Woodland Periods (500-1000 CE), nomadic peoples roamed this area, subsisting as hunter-gatherers, making their temporary homes in the caves and limestone overhangs that are common in this area.

Fossilized Horse Tooth

Fossilized Horse Tooth

With loupes and geology picks in hand, Mom and I began searching for fossils along our stretch of the river. We may not have discovered a new species of dinosaur, but our efforts were soon rewarded. At first we found a multitude of fossils from small sea creatures called crinoids and snail-like mollusks called ammonites, which dwelt here more than 60 million years ago. My best find is the fossilized tooth of a paleo-horse, dated at over 2-million years old. Mom and I were thrilled at our discoveries, small as they were. Then we found the cave.

Shards of Cord-Marked Pottery

Shards of Cord-Marked Pottery

Up above our river is a small limestone overhang, typical of the kind used by the Woodland Indians. We checked with the USGS and found that the overhang had been excavated by the University of Missouri in the 1970s and pottery and other artifacts had been found. Now that the dig was complete, we were welcome to explore the area and keep any minor artifacts we might find – and find we did!

The cave, which we christened “Old Woman Cave” is a challenge to reach. We could only get through the underbrush in winter and even then the amount of bushwhacking needed was considerable. After climbing the near-vertical face of the hill in which the cave lies, we reached the entrance. The open area goes back about 50 yards, then constricts to a tunnel about 4′ in diameter. Since Mom and I are not spelunkers, we limited ourselves to the large part of the cave, but that was more than enough. We spent hours sitting in the fine, sandy soil of the cave floor, sifting through time. We found several nice shards of cord-marked pottery, deer bones and teeth, and river mollusk shells used as decoration. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Paleo-Trinkets

Paleo-Trinkets

Sitting in the silent darkness, I felt as though I had found a “thin place,” a place where planes of reality intersect and time becomes irrelevant. Holding a shard of pottery in my hand, I could feel the spirit of the women who created and used this pottery more than 1000 years ago. From their hand to mine, a gift across the millenia. I promised those spirits I would protect and honor their work and, one day, hand it on to another woman so she could tell the story of its making and of its journey through the ages.

In my recent search for fossils, I discovered my passion has more to do with connections than with fame or fortune. Of course, it would be great to discover an entirely new species of prehistoric beast or find a complete mammoth skeleton in our cave, but more than that I love the feeling of universal oneness I have when I touch an artifact so old. It is like weaving together the strands of time, making me part of a tapestry that exists outside of time, where all things truly are connected.

My Own Jurassic Park

My Own Jurassic Park

Once I began my new quest for ancient artifacts, my beloved dinorama came to mind at once. I knew it had not survived my childhood – played with until it fell to pieces – and I wished I could see it one more time. I knew it was a reach, but I plumbed the depths of eBay and one bright morning, I found it: A “Like New” incarnation of my favorite toy. I purchased it at once and the day it arrived I set it up in my bedroom and the years melted away until I was a four-year old with a Brontosaurus once again. All these ventures have brought me to the conclusion that Time is really just a human convention. We may not be able to go back to a moment and change our fate or jump ahead and alter the future, but the artifacts we collect and leave behind to be rediscovered give us a way to transcend the present and, for a moment, find our Universal past.

T.S. Eliot said it best when he wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploring, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Welcome home.