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Eagle's Nest   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Spirit of the Eagle
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

“Anyone here has a fear of height, this is a good time to speak up now!” The Ute guide Raymond Tom announced as Kuro-e stood with a dozen people from around the country in front of a long wooden ladder leaning against the 3-story tall cliff. Nobody spoke. The woman from Texas tied her small dog to a tree. Raymond proceeded to climb to the top of the cliff and held the ladder with one hand to prevent it from tipping over. The group followed and all landed unscathed on the rock shelf above. From there, a narrow ledge wound around the cliff towards Eagle’s Nest, the Anasazi ruin hanging in mid-air under an alcove streaked with beautiful desert varnish.

Built between the 12th and early 13th century when Anasazi around the Chapin Mesa moved en masse from mesa tops into highly defensive cliff dwellings. Many of their spectacular cliff dwellings are located in remote canyons on present day Ute land. In 1981, Ute Mountain Tribal Park was established to open the ruins for public tours. Kuro-e decided to visit the park as soon as she learned about it.

Raymond led the group past the narrow ledge, ducking under a low overhang. He stopped in front of an isolated room before the main ruin and kneeled down next to a small hole on the ground. “This is probably the priest’s room, the priest usually lived separately,” he explained while demonstrating how the hole might be used for grinding herbs. He then took the group through a doorway, where they found themselves on the second floor of the main ruin.


Eagle's Nest kiva   Photo  Tim Wong

In the narrow confine of that ruin, the former inhabitants had built a circular kiva, using part of the alcove as the back wall. Unlike the perfectly restored ruins in Mesa Verde National Park, this ruin was left in the condition when it was found, giving one the impression of being the first to see it since abandonment. Part of the original white plaster on the wall still remained. A stone deflector protected the fire pit from draft from the air shaft. Two small holes on the ground served as sipapus. Seven pilasters around the kiva used to support the original roof and second floor. “Notice the three triangles on both sides of the air shaft,” said Raymond, pointing to the kiva wall, “they represent mountains, painted black on this side and their tops white on the other side, representing summer and winter.”


From a niche, Raymond retrieved something he had previously found to show the group, a length of frayed Anasazi string, twisted into the yucca fibers was a long black human hair! The group moved to the edge of the ruin. Peering down the side of the cliff, Raymond pointed out the row of wood beams which used to support an airy balcony over the chasm. Someone asked about the pock-mark dots on the ceiling of the alcove, looking like lumps of clay were thrown up there. Raymond offered with a laugh, “I guess while adults were busy building the kiva, their kids were having fun throwing wet clay!”

Before leaving the ruin, Raymond told a legend in his low mellow voice: 

There once lived an orphan boy in a pueblo. When he turned 16, he had to take part in a rite of passage. The elders instructed him to travel into the wilderness and bring back an eagle. The boy took his bow and arrows, and journeyed into the desert. Along the way, he spotted a rabbit and shot it with an arrow. That evening, he dug a deep hole in the ground, and concealed it with some bushes. He tied the rabbit on top and hid himself in the hole. There he slept. 

The next morning, he saw an eagle circling high above. He waited patiently. When the eagle swooped down and pounced on the rabbit, he grabbed the eagle by its leg. The powerful eagle flapped its wings and pecked at the boy’s arm, but he hung on. Finally, the eagle calmed down and spoke, “I mean you no harm, why do you catch me?” The boy explained that he did that to be accepted by his clan. The eagle said, “If you let me go, I promise to help you in the future.” After some thoughts, the boy set the eagle free.

When the boy returned to his village, the elders were furious that he came back without the eagle. No member in his clan had ever failed this test, they told the boy to leave and never come back. The heart-broken boy left the village and walked back into the desert. He walked on and on until he was exhausted, he lied down and fell asleep. When he woke up, the eagle was by his side. It asked, “What happened, why are you so sad?” The boy told the eagle what had happened. The eagle said, “Don’t be sad, follow me.” Then it flew ahead and led the boy to a tall mesa. It landed in its nest on a ledge. The boy climbed up to join the eagle. 

They sat in silence on the ledge for a long time, looking out into the desert. When the sun hung low over the horizon, the eagle spoke, “Pull a long feather from each of my wings and hold it tight in each hand.” The boy did as he was told. “Now, close your eyes and jump off!” Without hesitation, the boy launched himself off the cliff. He felt the wind rushing past faster and faster; at the last moment, he opened his eyes and spread out his arms like wings and turned into an eagle. The pair flew away together towards the setting sun.

Kuro-e was lost in thoughts listening to the story. She imagined families living in a place like Eagle's Nest, raising their young. She thought about ancient hermits in China and Japan who lived in cliff houses for different reasons. It gave them isolation and a sense of security and protection. As children, we all love to play in tree-houses and make-believe shelters. Perhaps we still carry primordial DNA from a time when our ancestors lived in trees and caves for security and protection.

When Kuro-e drove past Chimney Rock along the dirt road leaving the park, she looked up and saw something that brought a smile to her - a pair of golden eagles, soaring in the wind. She gave them a wave, "Take care you two!"


Chimney Rock   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

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