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history and mystery in the new mexico landscape

by | Oct 7, 2022 | Uncategorized

History and mystery in the New Mexico landscape: Mid-September, looking south at sunrise on the trail to the Cieneguilla petroglyphs. Photo by artist Dawn Chandler.

My friend was incredulous. You’ve never been to La Cieneguilla?
No, I replied. I’d never even heard of it.
I can’t believe you’ve never been there!

Two months later I had a similar exchange with another friend.
You’ve never been to La Cieneguilla?! Oh my God, DAWN! I can’t believe that!

My reputation of being an aware outdoorswoman made it inconceivable that La Cieneguilla wasn’t on my radar.

A few months ago when I finally did get there, my reaction was the same as my friends: I can’t believe I’ve never been here!

For, in the nearly three decades that I’ve lived in New Mexico, I’d driven by La Cieneguilla hundreds of times. Yet I was utterly oblivious to the trove of history and mystery hidden before me. That’s because from the distance and whiz of nearby roads, the area of La Cieneguilla seemed to me an inhospitable landscape: Barren, desolate mesa country, jagged with brown rock and sun-bleached grasses and juniper — like so many New Mexico hills. Remarkably unremarkable. Nothing about it beckoned to me or even hinted that there might be something extraordinary hiding there. Always I sped by on my way to somewhere else.

Looking across the arid Caja del Rio in New Mexico in early June - a season of extraordinary drought. Photo by Dawn Chandler.

Oh, but what I’d missed all those years zooming by.

La Cieneguilla is part of a larger area known as the Caja — the Caja del Rio plateau, an area that stretches from La Bajada in the south, Santa Fe to the east, Bandelier to the west, and Pojoaque to the north — some 100,000+ acres between the Rio Grande and Santa Fe River. From I-25 it’s that area to the northwest of La Bajada Hill that to my naive eye always seemed uninteresting and void of life.

Looking across the arid Caja del Rio in New Mexico in early June - a season of extraordinary drought. Photo by Dawn Chandler.

I was completely ignorant of the Truth of this land. That in reality not only is it an area exquisite in its ecological variety, but one which for centuries has been a critical thoroughfare for beings of all kinds. Peruse the rocks at La Cieneguilla and this becomes clear. For in the jumble of geology is story upon story of long ago humans and animals passing through the Caja. Their stories are etched in the most tremendous and vivid array of petroglyphs I think I’ve ever seen. My friends told me the carvings were incredible in their volume and variety, but I couldn’t grasp the awe in their telling until I saw the petroglyphs for myself. As I scrambled along the rocks, I was blown over by the sheer number of etched snakes, birds, fish and deer, handprints and human forms, masks and swirls and mysterious symbols that cover the rocks. Every turn in the trail reveals yet more carvings peering out from the shadows and sunlight. And all of this just a few minutes from my front door!

A closer look of an array of Cieneguilla petroglyphs of the Caja del Rio in early morning light. Photo by artist Dawn Chandler.
History and mystery in the New Mexico landscape: Petroglyphs dappled in shade and sunlight at Cieneguilla in the Caja del Rio, New Mexico. Photo by artist Dawn Chandler.
Yet more petroglyphs dappled in shade and sunlight at Cieneguilla in the Caja del Rio, New Mexico. Photo by artist Dawn Chandler.

The ease of access to this storied land is an extraordinary and unique gift to those of us who live nearby. But it turns out it’s also a problem: Poaching, indiscriminate shooting, illegal dumping and vandalism are frequent abuses on the Caja. I was heartbroken upon my initial visit to see an assault of purple paint sprayed across a rock face like a violent wound — the result of a graffiti attack from earlier this year, when swastikas and other ugly symbols were found on the petroglyphs. I learned that this was the third defacement in 12 months. Currently care of the Caja is shared by the Santa Fe National Forest and BLM, yet they are too thinly stretched in resources to protect the area well.

History and mystery in the New Mexico landscape: Looking out from the Cieneguilla petroglyphs to the distant Sandia Mountains. Photo by Dawn Chandler.

I’m therefore relieved to learn that there’s a growing coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to securing better protection of the Caja. Among them county, city, tribal, cultural, environmental and community entities have passed resent resolutions in support of protecting the Caja. Hope now is that with their support the Caja will gain further federal protection and funding, perhaps through the America the Beautiful initiative.

My first visit to the Caja was in June when one of those friends who had been shocked by my ignorance of the Caja invited me to tag along on an Audubon tour of the petroglyphs. The group’s guide, Andrew Black, was such an eloquent, bright and powerful speaker, that I felt compelled to tell him afterward how much I valued his knowledge and how impressed I was by his public speaking skills. Only later did I learn that not only is he is a Santa Fe native and local pastor with a law degree, but he’s also the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands field director. No wonder he speaks well! Good thing, too, for the Caja needs as many eloquent, persuasive voices as it can get. In Black’s own words,

Still more petroglyphs at Cieneguilla in the Caja del Rio, New Mexico. Photo by artist Dawn Chandler.

I have seen how our public lands not only drive our economy, bring diverse communities together, and provide critical wildlife habitat, but also how they ground our sacred traditions and lend depth and meaning to America’s rich cultural heritage…. As a spiritual leader, I have also seen how our public lands offer healing and transformation, and I recognize that we have a sacred duty to be good stewards of these lands for future generations.

History and mystery in the New Mexico landscape: Mid-September, looking toward Santa Fe and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Cieneguilla in the Caja del Rio. Photo by Dawn Chandler.

I’m humbled to realize that this landscape that once seemed so unremarkable is now filled with allure for me. It makes me wonder how many other landscapes rich in history and mystery have I overlooked? Even one is too many. Yet from the first moment I looked up and saw a wall of beautiful centuries-old silent voices whispering from the rocks of the Caja, I knew that my perception of this land — and I along with it — had been forever transformed.

History and mystery in the New Mexico landscape: Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos from the Cieneguilla petroglyphs in the Caja del Rio. Photo by Dawn Chandler.

For more information explore these links:

Caja del Rio

La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs

Grand Vision: The ambitious America the Beautiful plan seeks to conserve and restore 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 — The National Wildlife Federation.

Momentum Grows for Permanent Protections for Caja Del Rio — US News & World Report

Petroglyphs defaced outside of Santa Fe — Albuquerque Journal

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Thanks for finding your way here. 

Stay safe. Be kind.

Peace on Earth.

~ Dawn Chandler

Santa Fe , New Mexico
Free from social media since 2020