Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Santa Fe NM - May 2006 part 2

There are many things in northern New Mexico that simply take your breath away - leaving you momentarily unsure as to whether your inability to inhale and exhale is a function of the oxygen-deprived high-altitude air, or the utter otherworldliness of the light and the sparse geography on which it shines.

Mars and I recently hiked in four such places - Tent Rocks National Monument on the Cochiti Pueblo, the Tsankawi Cave Dwellings and the Falls Trail (in two vastly different parts of Bandelier National Park), and the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains. It would be our first time at Tent Rocks and the Caldera, our second at Tsankawi, and we have walked all or part of the the Falls Trail more times than it is worth remembering.

In order to see things as if for the first time, we brought new eyes with us on each of the treks: our Friends Kyoko and Ron (visiting from Phoenix), Sandy who was vacationing with us, and Monica and Bram (our daughter-in-law and son who live in Santa Fe); and our own orbs, changed by intervening years and events and a new post-retirement outlook.

Of the four sites Tent Rocks (which we hiked with Kyoko, Ron and Sandy) was easily the most unearthly in appearance. Also known as hoodoos, the tent rocks are natural constructs formed from ash, pumice and tuff deposits that were generated seven million years ago by explosions at the Jemez volcanic field (resulting in the Valles Caldera). Some of the rocks are protected by erosion-resistant boulder caps made of sandstone or other hard materials that cause the softer lower portion to be worn away into a conical shape. The height of the tent rocks at Cochiti varies from a few to around ninety feet.

Hoodoo is also the name of a religious or magical practice brought to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by black slaves of Hausa origin. In America the word came to mean "to jinx or to cast a spell on someone" and ultimately to refer to any evil supernatural force or creature. In the mythologies of the Native Americans these tent rocks were evil giants who the Great Spirit had turned into rocks as punishment for their diabolical deeds. Non-indian settlers apparently translated this native American concept as "hoodoo".

Mars and I knew what to expect having seen photos of these rocks and heard descriptions from Monica and Bram. The trail at the National Monument is well marked and maintained. And we walked in the safe company of friends. It was a warm sunny day. We met other groups on the trail - including a large bused-in band of tourists two of whom we had met the day before on walking tour of Santa Fe.

Still, it was spooky.

At times I felt as if I were a tiny person wandering through labyrinths of maniacally sculpted sand, delicately balanced and ready to crumble at the slightest touch.

Or that I was walking inside an artfully designed high-desert terrarium with white rock walls decorated with pine trees and cactus carefully placed in impossible-to-grow locations.

But mostly I felt like I belonged here. Personally I am most at rest when I'm moving. And to me sculpture, architecture and nature are best experienced in motion among them.

Several years ago Mars and I visited Barcelona and Sagrada Famiglia church - the possibly never-to-be-finished attempt by the architect Antonio Gaudi to transubstantiate the organic shape of the world into a manmade monument to his God. The texture and shape of that edifice has been described as looking like melting wax or sculpted sand.


I doubt that Gaudi had ever seen hoodoos - I'm not sure that there are any in Europe and anyway the architect seemed not to have traveled too much beyond his native Catalan - but to me, now that I've viewed the tent rocks, the difference between these natural tuff constructs and the stone-masoned basilica spires is in the subtleties of the carved designs rather than the architectural effect of the conical columns. (Maybe in this case it's not the Devil that's in the details.) For me the feeling of supernaturalness was the same in both places and seemed to emanate from the over towering organically offbeat shapes that somehow manage to be both unsettling in their harshly atypical structure and at the same time comforting in their soft lines and colorless color.

This is not to say at all that I think Gaudi in any way failed. In fact, at least in the latter portions of my adult life, I find most ecclesiastical edifices to be almost uncomfortably assaulting with their size, darkness and mainstream iconic advertising. I feel this most strongly in the more formal churches, and least in the folk-art ones such as El Santuario de Chimayo and the San Geronimo Chapel at Taos Pueblo.

Sagrada Famiglia - a place that by its sheer overwhelming size should have made me feel more discomforted and maybe even a little afraid - is the only religious construct that I've been in lately that has generated that frisson of unease and simultaneous sense of belonging that I would call "spiritual".

Exactly the way I felt at Tent Rocks.

Of course to me and other twenty-first century people strolling through this relatively new National Monument, hoodoo is just a spooky sounding epithet rather than an omnipresent living, breathing threat. And nowadays colossal fiends turned to stone is a charming tale instead of a cautionary moral belief.

So it is truly a tribute to the power of the shapes themselves at Tent Rocks and Sagrada Famiglia that even if you are not a true believer you can still feel their power.

to be continued...

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