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Book News Monthly

by Willa Sibert Cather

From Book News Monthly,  (January 1916):  214.

A Visit to the Mesa Verde

ANY approach to the Mesa Verde is impressive, but one must always think with envy of the entrada of Richard Wetherill, the first white man who discovered the ruins in its canyons forty odd years ago. Until that time the Mesa was entirely unexplored, and was known only as a troublesome place into which cattle wandered off, and from which they never came back. All the country about it was open range. The Wetherills had a ranch west of Mancos. One December day a boy brought word to the ranch house that a bunch of cattle had got away and gone up into the Mesa. The same thing had happened before, and young Richard Wetherill said that this time he was going after his beasts. He rode off with one of his cow men and they entered the Mesa by a deep canyon from the Mancos River, which flows at its base. They followed the canyon toward the heart of the Mesa until they could go no farther with horses. They tied their mounts and went on foot up a side canyon, now called Cliff Canyon. After a long stretch of hard climbing young Wetherill happened to glance up at the great cliffs above him, and there, through a veil of lightly falling snow, he saw practically as it stands to-day and as it had stood for eight hundred years before, the Cliff Palace—not a cliff dwelling, but a cliff village: houses, courts, terraces and towers, a place large enough to house three hundred people, lying in a natural archway let back into the cliff. It stood as if it had been deserted yesterday; undisturbed and undesecrated, preserved by the dry atmosphere and by its great inaccessibility.

That is what the Mesa Verde means; its ruins are the highest achievement of stone-age man—preserved in bright, dry sunshine, like a fly in amber—sheltered by great canyon walls, and hidden away in a difficult mesa into which no one had ever found a trail. When Wetherill rode in after his cattle no later civilization blurred the outlines there. Life had been extinct upon the Mesa since the days of the Cliff Dwellers. Not only their buildings, but their pottery, linen cloth, feather cloth, sandals, stone and bone tools, dried pumpkins, corn and onions, remained as they had been left. There were even a few well-preserved mummies—not many, for the Cliff Dwellers cremated their dead.

Although only three groups of buildings have been excavated and made easily accessible to travelers, there are ruins everywhere—perched about like swallows' nests. The whole Mesa, indeed, is one vast ruin. Eight hundred years ago the Mesa was hung with villages, as the hills above Amalfi are to-day. There must have been about ten thousand people living there. The villages were all built back in these gracious natural arches in the cliffs; with such an outlook, such a setting, as men have never found for their dwellings anywhere else in the world. The architecture is like that of most southern countries—of Palestine, northern Africa, southern Spain—absolutely harmonious with its site and setting. On the way from New York to the Montezuma valley one goes through hundreds of ugly little American towns, but when you once reach the Mesa, all that is behind you. The stone villages in the cliff arches are a successful evasion of ugliness—perhaps an indolent evasion. Color, simplicity, space, an absence of clutter; the houses of the Pueblo Indians to-day and of their ancestors on the Mesa Verde are a reproach to the messiness in which we live.

Everything in the Cliff Dweller villages points to a tempered, settled, ritualistic life, where generations went on gravely and reverently repeating the past, rather than battling for anything new. Their lives were so full of ritual and symbolism that all their common actions were ceremonial—planting, harvesting, hunting, feasting, fasting. The great drama of the weather and the seasons occupied their minds a good deal, and they seem to have ordered their behavior according to the moon and sun and stars. The windows in the towers were arranged with regard for astronomical observations. Their strong habitations, their settled mode of living, their satisfying ritual, seem to have made this people conservative and aristocratic. The most plausible theory as to their extinction is that the dwellers on the Mesa Verde were routed and driven out by their vulgar, pushing neighbors of the plains, who were less comfortable, less satisfied, and consequently more energetic.

The Mesa people may have been somewhat enslaved by their strongholds, and their temper may have been softened by their comparative comfort and their attention to order and detail. They worked out a mode of life which satisfied them, and they were absolutely unenterprising in the modern American sense. Their architecture and their religion were their National Purpose. Their religion was largely a personal recognition and interpretation of nature. They seem not to have struggled to overcome their environment. They accommodated themselves to it, interpreted it and made it personal; lived in a dignified relation with it. In more senses than one they built themselves into it. They lived by hurrying and concentrating natural conditions and processes just a little. They supplemented the ruin of all by building reservoirs and irrigating. House building, in those great natural arches of stone, was but carrying out a suggestion that stared them in the face; often they used a great rock that had fallen down into the archway as a corner-stone and anchor for their own lighter masonry. When they felled cedars with stone axes they were but accelerating a natural process; the ends of their roof-rafters look as if they had been gnawed through by a beaver.

Dr. Johnson declared that man is an historical animal. Certainly it is the human record, however slight, that stirs us most deeply, and a country without such a record is dumb, no matter how beautiful. The Mesa Verde is not, as many people think, an inconveniently situated museum. It is the story of an early race, of the social and religious life of a people indigenous to that soil and to its rocky splendors. It is the human expression of that land of sharp contours, brutal contrasts, glorious color and blinding light. The human consciousness, as we know it to-day, dwelt there, and a feeling for beauty and order was certainly not absent. There are in those stone villages no suggestions revolting to our sensibilities. No sinister ideas lurk in the sun-drenched ruins hung among the crags. One has only to go down into Hopiland to find the same life going on to-day on other mesa-tops; houses like these, kivas like these, ceremonial and religious implements like these—every detail preserved with the utmost fidelity. When you see those ancient, pyramidal pueblos once more brought nearer by the sunset light that beats on them like gold-beaters' hammers, when the aromatic pinon smoke begins to curl up in the still air and the boys bring in the cattle and the old Indians come out in their white burnouses and take their accustomed grave positions upon the housetops, you begin to feel that custom, ritual, integrity of tradition have a reality that goes deeper than the bustling business of the world.