Sometimes the only way to survive is to leave.
I feel very fortunate to live near pueblo ruins. I thought of this when I awoke to a bright and peaceful morning here in Santa Fe as Hurricane Sandy was tearing toward New York.
I have family there, and they were fortunate. The New York Times reports today that officials are already meeting to plan infrastructure changes to “protect the city’s fragile shores and eight million residents from repeated disastrous damage.” After all, there was Hurricane Irene just last year, and scientists have repeatedly warned about rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns.
I am one who believes that these horrific events will become ever more common, and it’s a major reason why I have settled in Santa Fe. The clean air, the quality of light, the blue skies and the long views have a lot to do with it, but I was also drawn here like a creature migrating to sustain its species. (I have room for company.) Drought will be the issue in New Mexico, and that may be a manageable challenge over the short term—especially in a city so attuned to the concept of climate change.
There is also a heightened concept of time here, of the passage of eons in the visible geology and in the complete disappearance of civilizations that existed for thousands of years. It all reminds you that change happens, that it can be monumental, and that not every community will survive.
Quarai is one of my favorite teachers in this regard. It is one of the three pueblos of the Salinas Valley that were colonized by the Spanish late in the 1500s. Indian society subordinated the individual to the communal good; the Spaniards were driven, as historian Paul Horgan wrote in Great River, by a “belief in their own inherent greatness.” The ruins vividly illustrate the collision of radically different attitudes.
Great riches having proven elusive in the New World, the Spanish Crown decided to focus on conquering the pueblo Indians spiritually, and Franciscan friars were dispatched to Christianize them and build churches in each pueblo. The work detracted from the business of raising maize, beans, squash, and livestock and hunting rabbits, deer, and antelope simply to eat.
At the same time, the Spaniards imposed a tribute called the encomienda in exchange for “protecting” the pueblos. They also brought smallpox with them that decimated populations. The tipping point came with drought. The pueblo Indians had occasionally traded with neighboring Apaches, but now the latter attacked and raided relentlessly. The Indians who were not killed starved.
The Salinas pueblos thus experienced a series of reverses that we now think of as a “perfect storm.” The Spaniards had arrived around 1600; by the early 1670s the stone cities were completely abandoned. As Horgan put it, all those who could still walk, “crept away forever, leaving their magnificent churches, their clustered houses, and their lyric fields.” Some went to Socorro; some went all the way to El Paso where I grew up.
Not many people visit the three ruins in the Salinas Valley, and the quiet adds to their impact. There is a trail at Quarai that leads past the church and the remaining stone walls of dwellings into a grove of cottonwoods. A breeze seems to give the leaves of the trees a voice, and it speaks of all the life that came to an end here.
It reminds you how complex the elements of survival are, how many critical dynamics are afoot, and how the ways of the earth itself and its atmosphere will always have the last word. The Salinas Valley ruins have survived as such because it’s not always possible to rebuild. Sometimes the only way to survive is to leave.