When my husband and I dug the foundations for our home in the Mimbres Valley of southwestern New Mexico, we found a metate – a large grinding stone – buried two feet deep. We had selected this building site, with its view of a distant mountain peak, because it was close to the Mimbres River but not close enough to be flooded in a rainy season. Now we knew that another family had made this same decision. Perhaps a thousand years ago, they too had chosen this place for their home.
In this valley, such experiences are not uncommon. Whenever I find myself standing and thinking, “I could live here,” I am probably echoing the thoughts of another man or woman who also stood and admired the Mimbres River below, its cottonwoods and willows lushly green against dry, rolling hills of grama grass, juniper, and scrub oak.
In particular, a group we know as the Mimbrenos lived and farmed beside this stream in A.D. 1000-1250. When a Mimbreno died, his or her family placed the body under the floor of their home, along with pottery and other grave goods. Just down the road from our house, a friend broke three ancient pots when he bulldozed a level spot for a new room. On the hill above us, a neighbor uncovered a human skeleton.
After my husband and I found the metate, we began to dig more carefully. We did not want to disturb a burial, especially since modern Native Americans consider these remains to be sacred. We never saw any other sign of a Mimbreno site, except for some manos, the hand-held stones used to grind corn against the surface of the metate.
On the rest of our twelve acres, however, we would eventually uncover a small museum of artifacts. After the Mimbrenos left this valley, the Apaches came, and then the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Americans. Along the way, they dropped all kinds of things: pot shards, arrowheads, spear points, bullets, baling wire, broken china, tin cans, and old Coke bottles – the bottom of the glass an inch thick. Many of these things are still where we found them, for our children to discover, and our children’s children.
My son is especially drawn to the arrowheads, which were probably made by Apache warriors and hunters. When David was six years old, he spotted in the dry yellow grama grass a half dozen small points, half-completed, imperfect, and rejected. All around us, tiny quartz flakes sparkled in the red dirt.
“Someone worked right here,” I guessed, “making arrows.”
“Geronimo?” my son asked.
His sister, three years older, laughed at his innocence.
In truth, that famous chief was born and raised in the mountains of the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness, the headwaters of the Mimbres River, only a few miles to the north.
“Maybe Geronimo’s wife,” I suggested, hoping to encourage feminism early. (And yes, women did make tools and weapons for their work around camp and their own hunting.)
This caught my daughter’s interest. She never tried to make an arrowhead. But over the years, we have cut yucca leaves for baskets and dug up clay for pots. The work involved amazes us both, especially when we look at our misshapen products.
On another afternoon, my husband and I were digging a hole for a pear tree in our irrigated field. Suddenly we struck something hard and strange three feet down. It wasn’t a big rock. It was a series of rocks made into a wall, turning a corner, and proceeding again. At the second corner, we found a piece of charcoal. For the next few days we abandoned fruit trees in favor of excavation.
My husband Peter imagined an entire village. Just a few miles away, one Mimbreno pueblo once had as many as four hundred rooms. But when Peter asked an archaeologist to visit our “site,” she shook her head doubtfully. This was probably an acequia or irrigation system, perhaps from the Spanish, one hundred and fifty years ago.
Neither Peter nor I were disappointed. We felt a pleasure in this discovery – this unearthing – and in each one that followed. They made us feel that we were on a continuum, part of something large called the past, as well as something mysterious called the future. I was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, a city disassociated from its own landscape, and my husband had been an Army kid, moving from military post to post. We came to this rural valley seeking roots. We built our home out of the very ground – adobe bricks, a magical transformation! Our daughter Maria was born in this bedroom, under pine vigas that glowed yellow. Outside, behind the house, we had a compost toilet, which meant that we saw the stars at night. We planted huge gardens and canned the harvest. We also commuted a lot, driving thirty miles to our jobs in the small mining town of Silver City and thirty miles back. We struggled with balancing livelihood, family, friends, and the naive dreams of the “simple” country life. In that struggle, amid our arguments and fears, we knew dimly what we wanted and what we needed was slowly happening. We were growing roots, growing down, wrapping around rock, anchoring into soil.
In those years, I read as much of this area’s history as I could. I talked to archaeologists and visited sites and came to know the past as part of the land, hidden under my fruit trees, sparkling in the grama grass. I wrote about what I learned because I am a writer and it is through writing that I learn best. (In one novel, I imagined the life of those hunters and gatherers who may have lived in the Mimbres Valley ten thousand years ago, along with mammoths and mastodons, camels, tiny horses, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and three-hundred-pound ground sloths.)
One morning, walking down to the garden, I found an unusually large pot shard, the size of my palm. On its slip of white paint were three black lines, impossibly thin and evenly spaced. Under their curve was the top of someone’s head, the face in profile painted black, the diamond-shaped eye left boldly white. I felt that nearly electric thrill. In part, this is the treasure-seeker’s glory – the excitement of finding the Easter egg. I also knew that I was looking at a face, a picture of someone, a story.
Mimbres pottery is full of stories. These large bowls with their black-on-white interiors are world-famous for their beauty and narrative complexity. Most archaeologists believe that the potters were women, and the women could be wild. They painted Escher-like designs and geometric swirls. They painted rabbits, quail, deer, fish, and insects. They painted fantastical creatures, part-crane, part-bighorn sheep. They painted a human dancer wearing a deer’s mask. They painted a dancing armadillo wearing a deer’s mask! They painted women hunting and giving birth. They painted a man with a penis that had a little face: on that face, they painted a little tongue, sticking out mischievously.
Humorous, bawdy, serious, ceremonial, these men and women didn’t seem that different from me. Like me, they enjoyed the warm sun on their skin, they worried about their children, they waged war against squash bugs. (More than one Mimbres bowl is devoted to some garden pest.) I didn’t idealize their country life, just as I had learned not to idealize mine. I did believe that their most basic desires – for harmony in the tribe, for joy and peace – were my desires too. Mainly I just enjoyed their presence, another dimension of the land.
All morning I carried that pot shard, holding it carefully, looking at that face. Then I put it back under a scrub oak tree, exactly where I had found it.
A few years later, after fifteen years of living in the Mimbres Valley, my husband and I moved to Silver City. We bought a brick house built in the 1920s of locally-made brick, in the middle of town where we could walk everywhere. We did this for the usual reasons: Our two children were growing up and we wanted to be closer to Little League ball games, Friday night dances, and a good high school. I missed the quiet and beauty of the country. But I didn’t feel uprooted. By now I had claimed this entire bioregion, a huge stretch of juniper and piñon pine, as well as the desert grasslands below Silver City and the spruce trees high in the Gila Forest.
Unsurprisingly, my bioregion matched closely with that of the Mimbrenos, who also moved around when necessary.
Now that my family lives in town, our visits to the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness have become increasingly important. One of our favorite places to go is the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, about thirty miles north of Silver City. Set high in a pink bluff, the forty-room ruin looks cunningly like a doll’s house. Here, in the thirteenth century, a small group of farmers and hunters lived for about a generation.
The trail to the top ascends an eclectic canyon of walnut, sycamore, wild grape, Virginia creeper, columbine, and prickly-pear. As we walk through the ruins, my son is bored, peering into tiny rooms with smoke-smudged ceilings and the smell of decay. His sister has just started to babysit. She stands on a ledge that leads from one room to the next. “Wouldn’t the kids fall down a lot?” she asks. “Imagine taking care of a two-year-old!”
We hike the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Sunlight bounces up from the rippling water. In the rocks above our heads, a dipper skims into its nest. My son gives a shout. He has found another dwelling, a single room at the bottom of these cliffs. Its entrance is a small black hole in a crumbling wall of chinked stone. Suddenly my son is also connected.
“I could live here,” he muses. I can see him begin to make his plans. There is no need now to finish the fourth grade. He will live in this little room and fish and hunt and visit us on the weekends.
Sometimes we go south to the petroglyphs, pictures chipped in stone, at PonyHills and Massacre Peak. We scramble around some boulders in the desert until we see the shape of a fluteplayer, or the outline of a scarlet macaw, or some squiggly lines that might be a lizard. In the rocks are dozens of grinding holes more than a foot deep.
“The women sat here grinding seeds,” I tell my daughter.
She gives a sigh. This is too obvious for words – or too dumb to care about. She is thirteen.
“Mother and daughter, working side by side,” I say sweetly.
Recently I went adventuring with a woman friend to a site prosaically called Indian Hill, a twenty minute drive out of town, then a two hour walk. My friend doesn’t much like archaeology. “Well, I’m an Aquarian,” she says, “and Aquarians aren’t very interested in the past.” Also, she admits that as a child she stumbled into a few bad museums – those stupid dioramas of “primitive” people. What did they have to talk about?
Appalled I rush to give her an education. She listens with the grace of a good woman friend. Actually I prefer her irreverence to nostalgia or sentimentality. The ancient history of America is exciting to me not because I am “interested” in the past but because I want to live more fully in the present. I want a happy tribal life. I want to define words like harmony and human and home. I am greedy for connections everywhere. I explain all this with great eloquence.
Naturally we get lost. Perhaps I am talking too much.
When we do find the site, we are grumpy and tired. That mood lifts as we walk uphill, pausing often and exclaiming, staring down at a ground littered with pot shards. Most of these are from brown, everyday cooking pots. Some have the corrugated surface or burnished red color that archaeologists relate to the time when people lived in pit houses – circular homes ten to twelve feet in diameter, two to five feet deep, covered by a brush roof. Some shards show a red on white design, an innovation seen after A.D. 800, when families started to build surface rooms of stone and mud. A few shards are the classic Mimbreno black on white. Thousands of shards dot these two or three acres, along with unretouched tools, half-flaked arrowheads, and other debris. I can see the sunken holes of a dozen pit houses, grown over now with alligator juniper and ponderosa pine. This was a good-sized village. I can almost see the women talking together, making pots, cooking with pots, hauling water in pots. Children run past me. A man calls out.
My friend and I eat lunch as we look at the view. Indian Hill drops quickly into a dry creek bed. Then the land rises and falls into more juniper-covered hills and valleys, before flattening out to a grassy plain reaching all the way to Mexico. Near our picnic site, we see a large pile of coyote droppings, and so we know that a certain coyote also comes here to look at the view, perhaps to watch for ravens that might signal a kill. My friend has brought her sketchbook and begins to draw. I wander away to take a nap.
The ground here is sandy, not too hard, warm from the sun. Strong gusts of wind are blowing in the tops of the trees, and as the wind moves, it sounds like an animal moving hugely in the sky, from tree to tree. There are no ants or pesky flies. Nothing is tickling me. I have rarely felt so comfortable outside.
For the first time ever, drifting into sleep, I understand why some Native Americans imagine this continent to be the back of a turtle. Gratefully I feel that I am also lying on someone’s back, someone warm and alive, moving slowly forward. I am not in a hurry, no, not at all. I have a thousand years. I have ten thousand years. I am part of all this.
My friend finishes her sketch, and we walk to my car and head back to town. I can still feel the solid earth under me and hear that wind moving in the trees. I live here, I think as I leave the Gila National Forest, pass the copper mines, stop at a traffic light, and drive into Silver City.
I live right here.