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White Sands National Park painting

White Sands   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

White Sands
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

Kuro-e arrived one afternoon in the dead of winter and found the place deserted. The picnic area was empty, row of picnic shelters lined up across a barren landscape. She loaded an extra bottle of water into her backpack and set off over the sand towards some dunes. The sand was such a brilliant white it looked like snow. Here and there, patches of thin grass hung on to the arid land, flattened by the wind. Soon, she was swallowed into a surreal world divided by color into two halves, the upper half deep blue, the lower, an infinite ocean of white.

White Sands picnic shelters

White Sands Picnic Shelters   Photo   Tim Wong

White Sands National Park in New Mexico is the world’s largest gypsum dune-field. Gypsum, the stuff white plaster is made from, dissolves readily in water and normally gets washed away by rain. Here in the Tularosa Basin, there is no outlet for water. Gypsum crystalizes and accumulates in the basin, blown by persistent southwesterly wind into large dunes covering an area of 275 square miles.


Until recently, White Sands was best known for an event that had transformed human history. In the morning of July 16, 1945, in a remote corner of the desert, a plutonium device was detonated, sending a huge mushroom cloud over a wide area. It was the first nuclear bomb test, the cumulation of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during the Second World War. Three weeks later, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, followed three days later by a second bomb on Nagasaki, leading to the ending the war. Today, the only reminder of the nuclear test is a pyramid-shape stone marker at the site called Trinity.


South of the Trinity site, long hidden unseen beneath the sand, were fascinating pages of human history. In 2009, park manager David Bustos first noticed fossilized footprints in the sedimentary layers under the white sand. Subsequent excavation revealed hundreds of well-preserved animal and human footprints. Radiocarbon dating of grass seeds in those layers showed the prints were made between 18,000 to 23,000 years ago, far older than the previous dates humans were thought to have set foot on the New World. Twenty thousand years ago, when much of the northern hemisphere was still under a thick sheet of ice, this place was a lush grassland surrounding a large body of water called Lake Otero. Herbivores browsing along the shore attracted predators and hunters, who left footprints on the mud flats that tell stories of life in the late Pleistocene when humans tried to carve out a living among megafaunas. There were footprints of woolly mammoths, camels, giant sloths, dire wolves. One set of overlapping footprints showed several humans stalking a giant sloth. The animal appeared to rear up on its hind legs and turned to face the pursuers, leaving swirling footprints on the mud. Another set showed a lone woman walking briskly, weighed down by a load on one side. Every hundred yards or so, tiny footprints of a toddler appeared next to hers, suggesting the woman carrying a toddler briefly set the child down to rest her arms.


Kuro-e scrambled up the lee side of a dune to the crest. On the other side, an ocean of dunes swelled like waves towards San Andres Mountains to the west 15 or 20 miles away. Late afternoon light accentuated the sensuous forms. Gypsum crystals sparkled like a million diamonds. She sat down on the sand holding her knees, watching the sun slowly dip behind the distant mountains. The sky turned orange, magenta, then a deepening purple. Just when the colors faded away, her world was transformed. In the twilight, she saw woolly mammoths and camels strolling along the shore of a shimmering lake in the distance. Over there, the silhouette of a lone yucca swaying in the wind had turned into a young woman, carrying her baby, walking off to some unknowable destination. The woman stopped and set her child down while looking around warily for dangerous animals, dire wolf, or perhaps saber-tooth tiger. She could not have imagined that she was making indelible marks on human history, and her own kind was on the way to becoming the most dangerous animal on earth.


Footprints on Sand   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

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