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A Smoldering Interest in New Mexico

Thursday, 13 March 2003
written by Teresa

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument commemorates a difficult period in the history of New Mexico. The arrival of the Spaniards, looking for wealth and treasures, spelt bad news for the people of the pueblos who lived a finely balanced life in the desert conditions. Experts of dry farming, they produced enough surplus to either store corn for the lean years or to trade in the good, and had a well developed culture and spiritual system centred around the importance of the group rather than the individual and the belief that all of nature, from the trees to the winds to the rocks, was sentient. Quarai Church interior Evidence suggests that they were highly adaptable, able to incorporate new ideas and methods brought in from outside but the onslaught of the conquistadores and the Franciscans proved too much.

The Spaniards did not find their anticipated riches and came very close to withdrawing from the area but for the perception by the church that riches in the form of pagan souls were crying out to be converted to the one and true faith. Missions were set up attached to the pueblos diverting resources away from the survival of the group and hence weakening it's position. The priests eventually forbade the practice of pueblo spirituality seeing it as devil worship, demanding obedience to the monotheism of the catholic church. These stresses were exacerbated by European diseases against which the pueblo people had no defence and finally by drought resulting in famine, widespread death and abandonment of the pueblos themselves.

The National Monument comprises three sites of former pueblos and their attached missions. Archaeological excavation at these sites was halted some decades ago partly as a means of preserving the buildings and partly in an attempt to avoid stirring further antagonism with the Native American population who see it as a violation of their ancestors. At both Quarai and Gran Quivira the remains of the churches tower over the tiny pueblo rooms and must have appeared gargantuan to a people familiar with a more compact building style. In hindsight, it's possible to see the churches as overbearing, both physically and as symbols of the dogma they represented.

Sotol & Pahoehoe From Gran Quivira, the road took us to a developed BLM area known as the Valley of Fires where a campground sits on a kipuka, a small hill surrounded by the Carrizozo lava flow. This is one of the youngest lava flows in the continental US dating from a thousand to fifteen hundred years ago. The trail across the lava field gives a glimpse into another world. The washed out colours of New Mexico give way to the black rock thrown up from the dark reaches of the earth. The very movement of the lava is captured in the ripples, wrinkles, bubbles and cracks while the sudden edge of the field looks frozen as if in obedience to an unseen traffic light. The red will change to green at any instant and the movement will slowly regather momentum rolling forward over the dry paleness of this high plain. Numerous shades of green pepper the lava, growing from the most unlikely looking cracks and fissures. Yucca-like Sotol send a single stem thrusting skywards, cacti in many forms cling to the apparently bare rock while the Walking Stick cholla grows up in it's haphazard shapes and juniper find and create sufficient soil to support healthy crops of mistletoe. The overhangs created by burst lava bubbles offer sanctuary to colonies of bats and during daylight hours the fluting song of the meadowlark cascades with a startling clarity.

Smokey's Grave Climbing back into the tree covered mountains we came into the realm of Smokey Bear, icon of the Forest Service and of all America. Cardboard cut outs of the illustrious mammal appear on the roadside dressed in blue jeans, sporting a ranger type hat and holding a fire fighter's shovel. His job is to remind people of the dangers of wildfires started through careless action and his work life has been longer than many. He first appeared on posters in 1944, and in 1950 a very young black bear cub was found orphaned in the aftermath of the Capitan Gap wild fire in Lincoln National Forest. He was adopted as the mascot of the Fire Service, lived his life out in The National Zoo in Washington DC and was returned to the town of Capitan to be buried. Here he lies in a state historical park and quite frankly, it is a considerable fuss over a dead bear. I suspect that the Forest Service themselves recognised this as they disposed of Smokey's replacement, Smokey II, with little ceremony, and somewhat ironically, cremating him. In these slightly more enlightened times, there has been no Smokey III but the legend lives on.

Coming down from the mountains we came into the fresh greens of spring. Pink blossom heralds the turn of the season, the trees are in leaf, the birds are frisking up, carrying nest building material and trying out their most fluent and melodious songs in an attempt to interest a likely partner. The sun is putting in some serious effort, the factor 45 has emerged from its winter hibernation and the white legs from their seasonal coverings. The solar panels are producing more electrons than we know what to do with and the need for an air conditioner might well become pressing in the next week or so. It's as though we passed into another dimension somewhere not far from Roswell.

Roswell Alien Life Form (not the green one) Roswell prides itself on having been the centre of much attention in July 1947 when the local Air Force Base announced to the world that they had recovered a crashed UFO. The fact that they quickly retracted their statement claiming it was some sort of weather device did little to quiet the immense interest and simply fuelled the on-going controversy over whether there were little green men, a flying saucer and a government cover-up.

The International UFO Museum and Research Center is housed on Main Street. The walls are covered in sworn affidavits from people attesting to what they did or did not see, hear or otherwise experience. There are statements from people confirming that a certain facsimile is based on the recollection of so and so who held the original artefact in his hands as an eleven year old, half a century earlier. Such astounding testimonies are bound to sway you, one way or the other but the absence of any aliens to answer questions from the public is a little disappointing. However, it offered a good photo op for our own little green friend who seemed to blend right in and maybe this is in some ways telling. If he's kidnapped by aliens, we'll let you know.

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