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Pedernal from Kitchen Mesa, Ghost Ranch

Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

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Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

There is magic in this landscape when dawn comes to the high desert of Chama Basin northwest of Santa Fe. The soft light turns the land salmon pink, highlighting every fold and ravine in crystal clear transparency. A liberating sense of infinite space and visibility makes one feel like the only person on earth. Stunted pinions dotted the landscape, holding on the sandy soil in desperate attempt to suck up what little moisture that remains. Those that fail scatter like bleached skeletons of some grotesque creatures. Summer rain comes as violent thunderstorms that feed into Rio Chama. The river cuts through the topology like a serpent seeking low ground, a lifeline for all things living. Cottonwoods along its banks trace out a meandering green line on a pink canvas. To the east, rows of red cliffs and sandstone spires hide deep canyons with secret oases. To the west, the Jemez mountains form part of the Continental Divide that runs all the way to Canada. In the midst of all these is Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch turned retreat and education center. Across Rio Chama from the ranch stands Cerro Pedernal, the iconic landmark of what is often called the O’keeffe country.

 

In the summer of 1934, at the age of 47, Georgia O’keeffe first laid eyes on this landscape and was spell-bound by its natural beauty and raw power. She started spending summers at Ghost Ranch, and eventually moved from New York to make Abiquiu her home. The landscape that she saw – especially her favorite mountain Cerro Pedernal - ended up in many of her paintings. She loved that mountain so much that she once said if she painted it enough, God promised to give it to her. After her death, her ashes were spread on top of that mountain.

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Black Mesa   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

The scenic road NM-30 through the heart of the O’keeffe country passes by another iconic landmark called Black Mesa, an imposing volcanic rock towering over a small lonely chapel with a cemetery at its base.

 

In 1598, Juan de Oñate led 500 soldiers and settlers to New Mexico, imposing harsh Spanish rules on the Native people. On August 10, 1680, warriors from 19 pueblos carried out a coordinated attack on the Spanish colonists all over New Mexico, killing many and driving out most of the settlers to Mexico. The Puebloans’ independence and peace did not last long. When the new governor Diego de Vargas returned with an army in 1694, many of the Puebloans had fled to defensive villages on mesa tops. What followed was a series of bloody attacks to subjugate the Puebloans again. One of the last strongholds that resisted re-conquest was on Black Mesa, occupied by warriors from the nearby San Ildefonso pueblo. It finally fell after a month-long siege. Remnants of defensive walls and stockpiles of stone projectiles can still be found on top of the mesa today. To the Native people, Black Mesa, like many other iconic landmarks around the 'O’keeffe country', holds deeper significance.

On a hot summer day, Kuro-e was sitting at the edge of an isolated mesa directly facing Cerro Pedernal. Around her were remnants of a 13th-century ancestral pueblo settlement – the Tsi’pin ruin. Occupied between 1200 and 1325 AD, the pueblo once had up to 400 rooms and 16 kivas, one of the largest in its time. The location was chosen for defense, accessible via a narrow ridge that connected it with the main highland, its entrance guarded by a barricade of stacked volcanic rocks. The mesa top was littered with brick-size stones, remnants of room-blocks that once surrounded a central plaza with ceremonial kivas in the center. The kivas - complete with their ventilation air shafts - were carved out from the bedrocks, their timber roofs long gone. Stone steps led down a cliffside to a gully where there might be water after rains. The bedrock over that gully still bore a pair of parallel grooves, possibly worn down by a rope ladder that once hung over the cliff. Pottery shards littered the ground, some gray, others painted with black geometric patterns. Most interestingly, there was an abundance of sharp flints and stone cherts of an unusual white-and-burgundy color. 

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Pedernal cherts   Photo  Tim Wong

Watching some clouds drifting over Cerro Pedernal, Kuro-e tried to imagine what the inhabitants might have thought about while looking at the same view. Certainly, Georgia O’keeffe would not be in their vocabulary. That mountain was sacred to these people. Cerro Pedernal means ‘flint mountain’. It was where those distinctive white-and-burgundy Pedernal cherts came from, their source of tool-making materials essential for their daily living and survival. It would have been sacrilegious for any one person to claim that sacred mountain as his or her own.

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Pedernal  from Tsi’pin ruin

Photo  Tim Wong