Monday, August 26, 2013

Location, Location, Location

These ruins are all that's left of a small city now known as Gran Quivira where more than 2,000 people were living when Spanish missionaries came across it nearly 400 years ago.

It's on high ground overlooking vast surrounding expanses of rolling grassland dotted with piƱon shrubs. Driving up to it from Carrizozo to the south last week, Laurel and I could see a few cattle grazing here and there but not much else.

A couple of rattlesnakes basked on the warm pavement ahead of us, clearly confident they wouldn't be disturbed. A bony little kit fox burst suddenly from the brush beside the road with a kangaroo rat in her teeth and seemed so startled to see us that she forgot to get out of the way. I had to swerve to miss her.

Otherwise the country looked silent and empty, and it's hard to imagine why people would even have paused there on the way to someplace more promising, let alone settled and built. What could have sustained them in this austere place?

Even after you read the brochures that sketch the human history of the region, the answers aren't entirely clear.

There's no surface water, yet the people of Gran Quivira managed to catch enough rain in cisterns and basins not only to survive but to cultivate a variety of grains and other crops.

They rounded out their diet with hunting and gathering, and had enough energy left over to create ornamental pottery and to trade goods and even food surpluses with distant communities in every direction.

Century after century, the inhabitants of Gran Quivira seem to have lived on a razor's edge, their society subject to annihilation at any time by drought, famine, attacks from plains Indians to the east, and in its last years by an influx of Spanish-speaking mouths to feed.

Around 1670 it all fell apart and everybody left, decamping so suddenly that the Spanish didn't even finish the grander church they had begun a decade or so earlier to replace the chapel in which they had been converting Indians for a half century.

But forget the Spanish. A civilization that sprouted in one of the continent's least hospitable environments, yet thrived without any help from Spain for a thousand years or more, just evaporated overnight.

We got back in the car with a keener sense of how resilient, adaptable and vulnerable our species is, and got back on the road to Albuquerque. Located right beside the Rio Grande, its lease on life seems more secure than Gran Quevira's ever was.

But as the climate warms and the river's flow dwindles, who knows?

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