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Nambe Badlands I   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Badlands
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

Twenty miles north of Santa Fe is a vast convoluted labyrinth of eroded arroyos and towering spires, called the Nambe Badlands. Kuro-e has driven past the area many times along the ‘High Road to Taos’ and admired the blush-pink landscape peppered with juniper and pinyon, wondering what was inside this sandstone maze.

March 1, 2022.  Russia started a war invading its neighbor Ukraine a week ago. Kuro-e watches in horror and disgust the images of killing and brutality. She needs a sanctuary, a peaceful place for reflection. On this sunny day, she leaves her car by the side of the road and walks into the maze. Following a sandy trail, she climbs to the top of a ridge with a 360-degree view. To the east, the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo range looms; in the west, Jemez Mountain forms part of the backbone of the Continental Divide, stretching from here to Canada. She inhales lungful of fresh air, trying to shake off the images of deaths and suffering. A faint trail snakes along the long ridgeline encircling a juniper-dotted basin. She follows it till it drops down into a dry wash. The wash meanders through the basin among pinyon and juniper. Here and there, coyote left their droppings. She follows their tracks to the mouth of a box canyon guarded by an imposing sandstone buttress. A solitary pinnacle stands atop like a sentry. The buttress is poked with holes that hold pieces of twigs. Birds have nested in those cavities. A good place to take a rest. She puts down her pack and finds a comfortable rock to sit under a shady pinyon. She knows this place has given more than peace and solitude.

Bathmodon elephantopus skull

Bathmodon elephantopus Cope

collected by Edward D. Cope

in New Mexico, 1874

Natural Museum of Natural History

Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

August 10, 1874.  Paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) made a simple entry in his field notes: ‘Obtained Bathmodon tooth at Rito’. That entry marked the discovery of Eocene fossils from 34-56 million years ago in New Mexico. The following week, Cope collected more fossils representing important Eocene mammals from the ‘badlands across Pojoague’ (present-day Nambe Badlands). Early mammals were mostly small plant- or insect-eaters, as they literally lived under the shadows of dinosaurs. Only after extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago could larger mammals begin to appear. Pantolambda Bathmodon, about the size of a sheep, was one of the larger mammals that inherited the world during the Eocene period. These animals could shed light on how present-day animals including humans came to be. At the time, Cope was in bitter competition with Professor Othniel Marsh of Yale University for fossil discovery. Both men made significant contributions in paleontology; but at the end, their unprofessional vicious feud disgraced themselves, and left a bad taste among their peers and their field. Cope died a poor man in 1897 at age 56; Marsh followed suit a few years later at 67.

Study of paleontology should humble anyone. Dinosaurs ruled the world for 175 million years. After their extinction, it took almost another 65 million years before Homosapien appeared, merely 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. In evolution time, the entire human history is a blink of an eye. Had dinosaurs not been wiped out by the fluke trajectory of an asteroid, humans would not have existed at all. Moreover, among myriad contenders that are stronger, faster, and fiercer, humans end up dominating the world. How incredibly improbable our existence, and how truly grateful we should be!

 

While Kuro-e is pondering over this, a flock of pinyon jays swoop down into the canyon. The birds flitter about on the ground, looking for their food caches. Pinyon jays feed on pinyon seeds and store them underground over winter. The irony does not escape Kuro-e. Here, a late-comer in the evolution time scale is watching the sole descendants of dinosaurs that left the whole world for her kind. She wants to say thank you. And yet, she knows some of her own species do not seem to treasure what they have so fortunately inherited. Some even insist on waging wars and destroying humanity at this very moment. What a tragedy!  Suddenly, the birds lift off in unison. Kuro-e watches them disappearing over the mesa. She silently mouth the words ‘Thank you… and sorry.’

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Nambe Badlands II   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano