Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Bandelier National Monument

Before Thanksgiving I took a brief trip through the southwest, including visits to several sites with cliff dwellings. Bandelier National Monument was the first, and my first time seeing cliff dwellings. A lot of fun. I was perhaps expecting the buildings to be a little more intact than they were, but it’s a great place and I loved going up into the cavates, the little caves that had been carved into the cliffside. Climbing up the ladders and crouching to go through the openings took me back to that feeling when I first saw illustrations and read about them as a kid.

I hadn’t researched Bandelier ahead of time and I was expecting tighter stonework but it’s actually pretty crude. The joints are huge and the rock, a volcanic tuff, is only roughly shaped. A lot of the stones are stacked one on one and the walls are only the width of a single stone laid lengthwise, probably the two biggest taboos of stonework. Chaco Canyon, about a hundred miles away, has higher quality rock and much better craftsmanship. But, to be fair, Bandelier’s walls were originally covered with stucco; visiting stonemasons wouldn’t have seen these pecadilloes and spatially the structures are quite wonderful. The park service website has an animation of what the long house might have looked like, worth checking out.

Along with the long house, the pueblo had a cluster of buildings out a little ways from the cliffs. Landscape architecture training has taught me to make my shapes clean and identifiable, to use circles and ovals rather than flattening the curves, but I like how this form looks. It reminds me of a seed or a shell, and it’s interesting how the curve is made out of roughly rectangular rooms, layered together. The park service has a page with lots of great information about the structure.

But what I loved most about the site is the way the cliff shows the traces of the buildings that used to be built up against it, the holes carved into the cliff for the vigas and the notches where wall stones were keyed into the cliff. The pattern of notches is very evocative, somewhat like pin scars from a rock climb but also like something from the land art tradition. Vestiges laden with meaning; I feel like there must be a word for that but I can’t think of it.

Bandelier isn’t on the list of national monuments under review by the secretary of the interior, but it was demoralizing to read about the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante a week after visiting five wonderful national monuments. Anita and I went to Grand Staircase about ten years ago, and Bear’s Ears has some of the same kinds of cliff dwellings I admired so much during this recent trip. I was one of the millions of people who wrote to oppose the reduction of the monuments and was ignored, but now I’m not sure what else to do, except hope the lawsuit is successful or donate to the organizations signed onto it. Patagonia and Access Fund are two of the organizations supporting the lawsuit. There is a lot to protest these days, but hopefully there will be enough resistance and we can maintain the protection for these special places.

3 Responses to “Bandelier National Monument”

  1. December 13th, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Town Mouse says:

    Sounds like a wonderful trip altogether – and so interesting to see it from a stone worker’s point of view. Me, I wonder how small kids and old people made it up those ladders…. But maybe they just stayed up there, looking over the beautiful landscape.

  2. December 13th, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    Country Mouse says:

    Wow! And it’s so interesting to hear your informed and questioning comments on the stonework. I loved this thing you said: “Vestiges laden with meaning; I feel like there must be a word for that but I can’t think of it.” – and now I’m looking for that word too!! I had an oddly metaphoric moment a while back when I was looking at many flags where I’d planted flags and now there was no plant, but just the flag, and I thought – that has to be a metaphor for something! I’ve never been to cliff dwellings and loved your terrific photos.

  3. April 3rd, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Lorian Bartle says:

    Interesting insight into a wonderful area. The ancient Puebloans were certainly limited to the building materials they had in the area but its worth considering the aesthetics they were striving for.

    Lorian Bartle

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