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Mesa Verde: Ladder, Sandstone, Sky

Excerpt from Part Two

Near Cedar Tree Tower, yellow bladderpods and bright blue flax bloom in shafts of sunlight along the path to an ancient farming site. I am surprised to see these plants—still dormant around my own home at 7,000 feet above sea level—in full bloom here.

Later I learn that Mesa Verde was a good place to raise crops despite its own lofty elevation, in part because it is sloped about seven degrees. Cold night air flows down such slopes rather than pooling and chilling the soil, and land inclined just one degree toward the equator receives as much sunshine as if it lay forty miles to the south. The slanting tableland of Mesa Verde collects as much solar warmth and light as if it were in southern New Mexico.

The path tips down along a steep draw where the Puebloan people of the past piled big, unworked rocks in sturdy walls to hold back soil and moisture. There are twenty-four thousand such “checkdams” at Mesa Verde, forming garden plots of just a few cubic yards. Wild onions, alum root, and purple asters bloom now where centuries ago grew neat gardens of corn, squash, beans, probably chilies and sunflowers, and other plants grown as foods, materials, and medicines. These little farms remind me of a remark I once made to a friend about how small Hopi corn fields are. “Well,” he replied, “we don’t plant more than we can take care of properly, talk to every day, touch…” He reached out and stroked an imaginary cornstalk. “That’s why when old people whose kids are gone ask me to plant for them, I only do it if I know they won’t leave the corn out there alone.”

Ethnobotanists study the relationships of traditional human cultures with the plant world, which means more than how various peoples use plants. What they always discover is a belief in reciprocity, in give as well as take, in mutualism rather than exploitation. Some natural philosophers lament the beginning of agriculture, believing that it gave humans an insatiable appetite for controlling the rest of nature. Perhaps in many cases they are right, but Puebloan tradition holds that farming taught people to see things from the plant’s point of view. In a way, we humans didn’t just domesticate plants; plants domesticated us. Crops may provide a measure of security against hunger but they must have human care, and so we settled down to look after them.

We usually think that any cultivated plant is entirely distinct from wild nature, but there is an in-between. Puebloan people have always encouraged some wild plants to live in their gardens and farms.   Beeweed is welcome, for example, because it can be eaten as spring greens or its sap concentrated for pottery paint. A scraggly wild composite known as cota is common around Pueblo doorways, where it is handy when needed as a medicinal tea or a golden dye for basketry.

Along with the relationships between people and plants (and animals including insects and birds), farms cultivate relationships among the people who tend them. Today, the terrace gardens around the Hopi village of Paaqavi are being restored and worked again. Grandparents are teaching their grandchildren not only the practical skills of cultivating plants but also the old stories of their culture and the virtues of gentleness, patience, and hope. As one member of the community put it: “We’re not just raising vegetables in these gardens. We’re raising kids.”