Monday, December 13, 2021

Ancestral Puebloans and Climate Migration


The Dollhouse Ruin in the Bear's Ears region.
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The U.S. desert southwest is remarkable in its concentration of archaeological sites, relics of the Ancestral Puebloans who occupied the Four Corners region until about 1300 AD when, somewhat mysteriously, they left. Anthropologists have pondered the abandonment of places like Cedar Mesa, Chaco Canyon, and Mesa Verde for over a century, and many theories have emerged to explain why these people abandoned elaborate structures and a well-developed civilization. The simplest explanation is that a “megadrought” in the late 1200s drove them out, but hypotheses are more nuanced, invoking resource depletion, violence from both within and outside, the breakdown of complex religious hierarchies, and increased vulnerability to environmental change caused by reliance on agriculture, to name a few. 


Reliance on corn may have been a mixed blessing for Ancestral Puebloans because of increased vulnerability to changes in climate. (Comb Ridge, October 2021).

A granary on Cedar Mesa used for storing corn. (October 2021)

There is general agreement that by 1300, most of the sites across the Four Corners were abandoned. Evidence suggests that the Ancestral Puebloans migrated south and integrated with Hopi and Zuni peoples and other groups in the Rio Grande drainages, though it is still unclear why they moved from one dry place to another. What is clear is that environmental pressure led to a breakdown in society that culminated in abandonment and migration.

Masterfully constructed structures at Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. Why were these built on boulders? (October 2021)

A ruin at Hovenweep as a storm builds in the distance. (October 2021)

While I was in the Southwest this fall, I read Douglas Preston’s book, Talking to the Ground, about a 400-mile horseback trip he and his family took in 1992 across the Navajo Reservation, tracing creation stories and talking with Navajo people along the way. In his 2019 epilogue, Preston espouses the idea that Chacoan power hierarchy depended on the belief that religious leaders controlled the rain, a strategy that worked well for them in wet years but not so well when multi-year drought inevitably arrived. This led to violence and the breaking of bonds holding geographically disparate groups together. Though theories continue to evolve, the gist remains the same—drought-caused stress catalyzed changes leading to abandonment of vast areas and dissolution of a well-developed civilization. Preston writes: 

“What we know is this: one thousand years ago, the Anasazi embarked on a great religious experiment at Chaco Canyon, an experiment based on the (illusory) control of nature. It was an experiment whose ultimate consequences the Anasazi did not foresee. And it failed.” (Preston pg. 261) 


Ruins at Chaco Canyon (June 2018).

The well-known Citadel ruin on Cedar Mesa. Did ruins become more defensive as resources became scarce? (March 2016)

2008 New York Times article by George Johnson acknowledges this idea but suggests that abandonment may have been less sudden, though still ultimately driven by changing environmental conditions. The article concludes:


“Amid the swirl of competing explanations, one thing is clear: The pueblo people didn’t just dry up and blow away like so much parched corn. They restructured their societies, tried to adapt and when all else failed they moved on.”


We still have marks on door trim in our house showing our daughter's height as she grew up. Maybe the handprints above this dwelling were the same. We think of ancient migrations in the abstract, but these were people like us whose lives were uprooted. (Cedar Mesa, March 2017)

Migrations in response to changing climate were not new, even in 1300. The populating of the Americas was mediated by the last ice age as people crossed the land bridge from Asia and walked southward. Further back, there is evidence that waves of migration of Homo sapiens from Africa into southern Europe beginning almost 100,000 years ago may have been driven by periodic climate changes that opened green corridors between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Humans have always moved to more favorable environments when they could.

In September (2021) on our way to SE Utah to camp, hike, and visit ruins, we drove along I-70 in Colorado through the heavy smoke of the 2021 fire season, entering Glenwood Canyon where an extensive wildfire the previous year had denuded the canyon walls of vegetation. Earlier in the summer, unusually heavy monsoon rains generated enormous landslides, trapping people in their cars, briefly damming the Colorado River, and decimating parts of the highway, which was still being repaired months later. We arrived in Utah during an unseasonable heat wave and sweltered for several weeks before it finally cooled down. These extremes—wildfires, torrential rain, landslides, heat—are signs of a changing climate, but unlike the changes in the 1200s, modern climate change is global, not regional. 

Even in 1995, Douglas Preston and the Navajo people he visited were aware of modern parallels to the Chacoans:


“As the twentieth century draws to a close, we find ourselves in a similar effort to control nature, only this time on a much larger scale. Our experiment is not based on ritual but on technology. We believe, as the Chacoans did before us, that we have gained a certain mastery over nature. Our God gave us dominion.


The question is: have we really achieved it? Could our mastery of nature be as much an illusion as the rain ceremonies of the Chacoans? Are we, like the Anasazi, headed for an environmental or technological disaster?” (Preston pgs. 261-262 of )


Today, Preston’s last question seems quaint. The answer is clear, but still we struggle to respond in a meaningful way to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gasses we spew into the thin film of atmosphere clinging to the earth.

Wildfire smoke during the Mullen Fire west of Laramie, Wyoming. Smoky summers are part of our lives now. Ten years ago they were the exception. (September 2020)

During his journey, Preston speaks with a Navajo man named Edsel Brown. The Navajo, who themselves once migrated from the northwestern North America to the desert, believe that the earth is a living relation rather than a “resource.” Edsel Brown tells Preston (emphasis at the end is mine):

“This cycle goes back to a long time ago. It goes back to the first invention that was created. It goes back to when the Bilagaana [white man] realized that they had the power to make things. They had the power to create things. And they started to look on the land as a resource. They didn’t look at the land as relatives, as living beings, which it is. And they made these inventions, electricity, dams, cars, bombs, pesticides, everything. They kept thinking that all these inventions would help them. And yet, they’re still not helping them. And now, today, things are starting not to work for them, and they have no place to go, and they have a hard time realizing what is happening.” (Quote from a Navajo man, Edsel Brown in Preston, pgs. 263-264)

It’s hard for us to see changes that happen over decades or centuries, but the effects of climate change are increasingly obvious. Are we creating our own ruins? Who will visit them?

Ruins and graffiti at an abandoned industrial site in Laramie (2011). Where will we migrate?



Friday, December 10, 2021

Mountain Biking: The White Rim

Looking out over the first part of the smoky, hot (90s) White Rim from the Shafer Overlook. 
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On the first of three nights spent on the White Rim Trail we camped at the exposed Airport site, and after dinner, the 90+ degree cloudless day gave way to violent wind and lightning. We did our best to hold our tents together. I plastered myself against the windward wall of our Big Agnes Copper Spur 2, while Ellen lay on her back supporting the poles with her feet and the opposite wall with her arms. One pole snapped and ripped through the fly, but we stayed mostly dry even as blowing sand filtered through netting onto our pillows and sleeping bags. After more than an hour of wind (60 mph? 70mph? more?) and just enough rain and hail to turn the dust to mud, the storm moved on, and we reunited in the dark with our friends to assess the damage, comb the desert downwind of camp for lost crap, and compare stories. Despite the violent storm, it never got even remotely cool.

The trip included eight of us from all over the West (Laramie, Boulder, Ft. Collins, Bisbee, Seattle). We mountain biked the route over four days in mid-September, when temperatures each day hovered in the 90s and low 100s, well above "normal" for that time of year, but not that unusual either. 90s and 100s are less ideal than other temperatures, but despite the heat and wildfire smoke, it was a very fun trip--much more fun, for example, than the plethora of pandemic-spawned Zoom meetings (graphic below) all of us have faced.

The world has changed since the last time I was on the White Rim decades ago. Mountain biking wasn't even a thing then, when, with no permit required, friends and I camped for a week in Taylor Canyon to climb Moses and Zeus (sandstone spires) and didn't see another soul. Moab, then relatively sleepy, is now a hellscape of ATVs, traffic, tourists, hotels, restaurants, and t-shirt stores; it's hotter and smokier in the West every year; covid rages; and mountain bikers (including us) are everywhere. Despite that, the White Rim remains beautiful and uncrowded. What a pleasure, even in the heat, to ride with good friends along the Colorado and Green Rivers, past Wingate cliffs with spires coming into view around every corner and good meals at every camp. 

Here are a few photos from our trip, and a little information follows on logistics. 

Daytime temperature on the White Rim vs. Enjoyment. (graph concept copied from

(L to R): Me, Ellen, Brian Collins, Larry Scritchfield, Allie Ruckman, Ben Leonard, Bret Ruckman, Judy Ruckman. We were barely sweating at all before we started riding.

Shafer Overlook: Larry looking down at the Shafer switchbacks--the descent route to the White Rim. 

Day 1: Bret pointing out Crow's Head Spire, a climbing destination. We camped on the rim near there after finishing the 4-day ride.

Day 1: White Rim sandstone capping mini-spires along the rim. 

Day 1: Musselman Arch. Walking across it is prohibited, but rumor has it that it's been traversed by ATVs (and probably motorcycles). 

Day 1: One of many enticing canyons cut into the White Rim. The heat kept us from getting too enticed though. 

Camp 1: Not so ominous (we thought) storm clouds gather near our first camp at the exposed Airport site. After we retired for the night, the storm unleashed 60-70 mph wind and rain, hail, and lightning for over an hour, during which we all fought private battles to keep our tents from being tattered and rolled across the desert. It was engaging and amusing.

Camp 1: Larry (R) and Brian (L) set up their tents at the Airport site. Unlike some of us, they had the wisdom to attach their tent flies BEFORE the wind reached tropical storm force.

Camp 1 (morning): The next morning, Ellen (L) and Judy (R) compare notes on how to hold a tent up with your feet in 60+ mph wind.

Camp 1 (morning): The storm-battered crew prepares for the second day of riding. 

Day 2: Bret riding with Monster and Washer Woman Towers in the background.

Day 2: Allie and Judy share the shade of an umbrella. My umbrella self-destructed at our first rest stop on day 1 ($5.99 just doesn't buy the quality it used to), so I was left with only my hat for shade.

Day 2: Bret standing on the rim of an enormous alcove undercutting the road/trail.

Day 2: 90s? 100s? Shade?

Day 2: Ellen approaching the steep climb to Murphy's Hogback near the end of the second day of riding.

Danny McGee, our sag driver. He works occasionally for Rim Tours, a Moab outfitter. Rim Tours was great to work with, and Danny was incredibly accommodating and patient as we wobbled along in the heat. He's a climber and knew Bret from Boulder, so there was an immediate connection.  

Camp 2 - Murphy Hogback: We camped on top of the Murphy Hogback after walking our bikes up the steep hill that leads up it. We enjoyed great views from the camp and no more storms.

Camp 2: Bret organizing his and Judy's tent on Murphy's Hogback as the sun set. 

Day 3: Watching freshwater shrimp in a pothole at Black Crack. Black Crack is a deep fissure that runs parallel to the rim for hundreds of meters where a part of the White Rim sandstone is separating from the rim.

Day 3: Brian taking refuge in a rare spot of shade on a day when a passing 4WD group told us it was 103 degrees. 

Day 3: Lunchtime in the shade where the trail crosses the Holeman Slot. After lunch, we descended partway down the slot, which was shady and full of pools of water. 

Day 3: Bret spotting Judy on a downclimb in the slot. With muddy feet, The slab below him was the crux of the climb out on our return.

Day 3: Fixing a flat tire in the shadeless desert.

Camp 3: Sundown at Hardscrabble Bottom on the Green River, our last camp. After a day of riding in 100+ degree blazing sun, we lowered our body temperatures in the Green River and sat in the shade of an awning drinking beer.

Camp 3: Bret with bacon! Breakfast on our last day.

Day 4: Sunrise. Hardscrabble Bottom.

Day 4: Allie and Ben ride along the Green with youthful enthusiasm on the last day. Morning shade made youthful and oldful enthusiasm more achievable.

Day 4: Back to the car shuttle at the top of Mineral Bottom.

Camp -- post trip: Crow's Head Spire from the rim (see earlier picture). Ellen and I camped with Bret, Judy, Allie, and Ben near here before we all headed off in different directions.


We rode from Shafer to Mineral Bottom, which seemed good, but people ride the other way too. 

There's no shortage of information online about the White Rim (see links below). The challenge is reserving well-spaced campsites along the way; our strategy was for 3 of us to hover over our keyboards on the day they opened up reservations for the time slot we wanted. The camps we got (Airport, Murphy's Hogback, Hardscrabble) were pretty good--Murphy's was great. White Crack seems to be the camp everyone wants to get, but we weren’t fast or lucky enough to grab it. 

We paid Rim Tours to sag our trip so that all of us could ride every day and to save our own vehicles from the rough road. Most of the road was good, but the climbs up Murphy’s Hogback and Hardscrabble Hill seemed a little gnarly, and there were some deep mud holes on the last day. Presumably, the road gets graded now and then (??), but I was glad we didn’t drive it ourselves. 

We bought food as a group and took turns cooking and cleaning up. That worked well on our trip, but required a lot of planning with a big group. The alternative would be for everyone to buy their own food and cook for themselves. That choice is just a matter of group preference. 

See the following for more info:


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Photographing Autumn in the Shadow of Eliot Porter


Maple Canyon, Utah. October 2021 
(Click on photos to view larger versions)

Eliot Porter's (1901-1990) photographs evoked his love of the natural world, and his work has influenced photographers for decades. He was an early advocate for color in fine art photography, an innovation resisted by photographers and critics who saw color photography as purely documentary even into the 1980s. In black and white prints they insisted, colors are rendered as tones at the discretion of the photographer, and these choices are the basis of art. In the book, Eliot Porter, he reported that Walker Evans, another influential photographer, once griped, " I suspect a reckless, not-to-be-quoted moment, that color is vulgar, nature is trivial, and beauty is not important."1 Porter believed just the opposite.

Eliot Porter photographed intimate details in natural scenes rather than grand landscapes. Layers of texture and pattern combined to fill his frames, which were at once simple and complex. Weston Naef, in the Afterword of the folio, Intimate Landscapes that accompanied a 1979 exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, observed that:

"His strongest compositions have the look of carefully planned randomness in which the surface is a tapestry of uniformly significant elements arrayed from one edge of the picture to the other." (pg. 126)2

Eight years later, Martha Sandweiss, a curator at the Amon Carter Museum, in the foreword to the book, Eliot Porter, documenting her museum's 1987 exhibit of his photographs, echoed this view:

"Porter's pictures are generally composed without a single eye-catching focus. Each is carefully laid out from edge to edge, and the picture frame feels full" (pg. 8)1

While the arrangements of elements in natural scenes are deterministic, the result of their interactions can appear random. Over time, Porter became increasingly aware of the paradox of random processes creating harmonious compositions. In the preface to Intimate Landscapes, he says, 

"In mixed woods of pine and maple, the needles of pines drop throughout the year, building jackstraw mats of thin brown bundles on which, at the time of the fall of the leaf, the bright maple leaves settle at random, arranging themselves in harmonious patterns that defy improvement as though placed there intentionally." (page 11) 2

And he notices, not without awe, that: 

"The details of geologic formations exhibit the most extraordinary combination of shapes and colors...and the haphazard occurrence of fractures can be discovered in harmonious arrangements that seem to defy the chance working of natural forces" (pgs. 11-12)2

His fascination with the paradox of harmony in randomness led eventually to a collaboration with James Gleick, who made chaos theory accessible in his book, Chaos: Making a New Science.4 Gleick and Porter published Nature's Chaos in 1990 with text by Gleick and a selection of images by Porter. In the forward to that book, Porter reflected that:

"Although I was aware that it was possible to select and photograph fragments of nature that expressed the idea that nature was an orderly process, I began to realize that my photographs also emphasized the random chaos of the natural world--a world of endless variety where nothing was ever the same." (pg. 6)3

In Intimate Landscapes, Porter succinctly describes the challenge of photographing randomness in a way that highlights harmony:

"In the broadest sense of the term, an optical image is an abstraction from the natural world--a selected and isolated fragment that stands before the camera." (pg. 11)2

This is much more difficult than it sounds, but over his 50-year career, Porter relied on a practiced intuition that resulted in an unmatched body of work. 

Freed from teaching, I spent much of the fall traveling in the West, grateful to wander, watching the seasons and the leaves change. Faced with hillsides and canyons awash in yellow, red, and green foliage; punctuated by aspen, oak, maple, and cottonwood trunks; interrupted by deadfall; fragmented by meshes of bare branches; and all draped over topography and geology, it seemed impossible not to limp along in Porter's footsteps. 

Central Oregon. September 2021

Central Oregon. September 2021

Central Oregon. September 2021

Central Oregon. September 2021

Chuckanut Mountains, Western Washington. September 2021

Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah (Rt. 31). October 2021

Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah (Rt. 31). October 2021

Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah (Rt. 31). October 2021

Maple Canyon, Utah. October 2021

Todie Canyon, Utah. October 2021

Blue Jay and yellow leaves, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. October 2021

Juniper berries, Comb Ridge, Utah. October 2021.


1Eliot Porter: Photographs and Text by Eliot Porter. 1987. Published by New York Graphics Society Books, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, in association with the Amon Carter Museum. 

2Intimate Landscapes: Photographs by Eliot Porter. 1979. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. E.P. Dutton. 

3Natures Chaos. 1990. By James Gleick and Eliot Porter. Viking Penguin. Penguin Books, New York. 

4Gleick, James. 1987. Chaos: Making a New Science. Penguin Books, New York.