Margaret Randall is a poet, essayist, oral historian and photographer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Kee Tseel,” her account of a recent journey, is in three parts: a journal, a talk given at a Latin American Studies Association panel in Las Vegas, Nevada, and a poem.
SEPTEMBER 7, 2004
Keet Seel. Or Kee Tseel, as the Navajo people say its name. Meaning Scattered Shards. I have long dreamed of visiting this Anasazi ruin, the only explored one in the southwestern United States where no renovations have been made. Only a bit of necessary stabilization. Otherwise, the site is much as it was in 1895 when Richard Wetherill first reported it to white America. Perhaps much as it was in the late 13th century when it was last inhabited by those who built it. Later, of course, the Indian people of the Four Corners area—Navajo and Hopi, Paiute and Ute, knew of its existence. For the Navajo, who live in the immediate vicinity, visiting these ruins where the ancient peoples lived was considered off limits—something akin to entering a person’s house without permission. They believed that the people’s spirits remained, and they would be imposing. Yet today it is they who show the site to those intrepid enough to make the 18-mile roundtrip hike. Facing the inevitability of strangers, perhaps they know their negotiation allows for a sharing of this ancient place even as it keeps the secrets safe.
My dreams of hiking to Keet Seel didn’t seem likely to materialize. There is no potable water in this canyon, and so one must carry one’s own: a suggested gallon (eight pounds) per day. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to hike 18 miles in a day, I would have to make the trip in two—necessitating also carrying a sleeping bag, minimal food, rain gear, perhaps even a tent. At my age and with emphysema, unless I had help I wasn’t likely to realize my desire. This past spring, my dear friend Mark Behr and I were talking—I was telling him my dream—and without hesitation he offered to “carry my water to Keet Seel.” Of course he carried much more than only my water.
Based on Mark’s offer, some months back I made our reservation. Hikes to Keet Seel are scheduled from Memorial Day weekend to early or mid September, depending on interest. They allow up to 20 people a day to visit the site, 5 at a time to enter the ruin. The initial idea was that Mark, Barbara and I would do the hike together. But Barbara decided it was too much for her. Her first inclination was to stay home, but I prevailed upon her to accompany us: make another shorter hike or simply spend the two days resting and sketching. When I convinced her it didn’t have to be an either/or proposition, she agreed to come along. More recently, our two friends Peg Jennings and Shana Swiss decided to join us. Peg would hike to Keet Seel with Mark and me; Shana, who also didn’t feel up to such a strenuous endeavor, would spend the two days with Barbara.
Much of the summer I have been reading everything I could find about Keet Seel. It isn’t much. As relatively few people have visited the site, and fewer still are writers or moved to write about it, there isn’t much available. I liked best the few pages devoted to the place which appear in David Roberts’ Searching for the Old Ones.
Friday night Mark drove down from Santa Fe. We had dinner together, our excitement about the impending adventure mounting. He spent the night, and Peg and Shana arrived early Saturday morning. We caravanned to the Kayenta area, dropped our things at the Wetherill Inn in that small crossroads community, then continued on the additional 30 miles west to Navajo National Monument where we were required to attend an orientation meeting at 4 that afternoon. The country between Albuquerque and this part of northern Arizona is spectacular, but it rained almost continuously on our way up: a heavy and seemingly endless rain beneath a blackened sky which had us fearful of bad weather for our hike. We would luck out with two perfect days.
The orientation was interesting. Three other hikers attended it with us. A middle-aged park volunteer named John explained the rigors of the hike. A fairly good slide show gave us some idea of what the terrain would be like, how to follow the cairns along the route, and the protocol to observe when we arrived. We would drop our backpacks at the primitive camp ground, then continue for another quarter mile to a Hogan-shaped shack where a Navajo guide would be waiting. Observing Navajo manners, we would wait at the shack’s gate and make some sort of noise—a cough or other sound—to announce our presence. The guide would then usher us past the gate to a small two-table picnic area where we would wait for him to take us through the site.
John told us that we were special for attempting this hike. He said that since Keet Seel’s discovery by Wetherill in 1895 fewer people have been to the site than visit Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace in a single day. He warned us of the rugged terrain, told us to take at least a gallon of water per person per day (although the river was flowing and we would have to cross it many times, it has become so polluted by cattle and other animals that they do not even recommend purification or iodine tablets) and that we could leave some of it hidden along the route to be retrieved on our way out. Like most orientation meetings, though, this one did little to prepare us for the real difficulties we would face.
Sunday morning we all awoke electric with anticipation. Barbara and Shana had decided to make the shorter, six-mile roundtrip hike into Betatakin (the other ruin one can visit at Navajo National Monument). They would set off with a ranger and a group of 25 visitors around 8:30. Mark, Peg and I were free to start hiking as soon as it got light. We were on the trail by 7:30.
At the Keet Seel parking lot we hoisted our packs and set off. Mark was carrying 60 pounds: all his gear plus my water, sleeping bag, and a tent for the three of us in case of rain. Peg carried 35, probably the minimum a person responsible for her own gear would have to carry. She took all our food, which I had prepared in Albuquerque. I hiked with a pitiful 20 pounds: my camera, about half my water, and a few personal items. A small pack, but at this point in my life pretty near the limit of my capabilities.
For the first mile, the trail (carved in the 1930s) follows the gentle ups and downs of a country road. Then one begins the descent into Tsegi (pronounced Say) Canyon: a thousand-foot drop over about another mile. This descent is particularly rugged—two series of steep switch-backs followed by a dramatic sand dune which, coming back up, proved to be infinitely more difficult than the switchbacks. At the canyon floor one immediately crosses the river—the first of hundreds of crossings avoiding large patches of treacherous quicksand and trying not to get one’s boots too full of red muddy water—and climbs the opposite bank to begin what I mistakenly believed would be the easier part of the hike.
Almost immediately one leaves Tsegi and enters Keet Seel Canyon. The trail, sometimes easy to follow and at other times requiring some trail-finding skill, moves back and forth across the river, alternating between sandy terrain and harder packed earth. There are many places where dramatic erosion has torn immense portions of the trail away, forcing alternate routes that are anything but easy. Sometimes one is climbing high up the banks on either side, sometimes along narrow ledges, always burdened by the weight of the pack and the relentless desert sun. We were actually quite fortunate with the weather. Aside from no rain, we enjoyed an average temperature of around 80 degrees, with a gentle cooling breeze and fairly long stretches of shade. This of course meant that we were drinking less water than anticipated. We ended up realizing we had carried a gallon per person per day, and only needed about half that.
At the orientation meeting we had been told that this hike can be made in three to four hours. It took us six—and seven coming out. Early on, a lone woman passed us. Judging from the fact that she carried only a small day pack, we knew she would be making the 18 miles in one day. Three more heavily-loaded hikers passed us at other times, two headed in our direction and one coming out. The latter stopped to chat a bit. He was from Tucson, he told us, and this was his fourth time to Keet Seel. He had a word of advice. About a mile and a half before our destination, he said, we would see a sign pointing us up to a high trail due to recent flooding and quicksand. We shouldn’t heed the sign, he advised, because the water level had gone down since the last rain and we’d find the river route shorter and easier. We’d have to scramble around a couple of water falls, but by walking in the river we could cut off about half a mile.
We decided to follow the Tucson man’s advice. After a stop to lunch on chicken, potato, cheese and chili poblano wraps, and a couple of other rest stops, we came to the aforementioned sign and made the decision to stay in the river instead of going up to the first mesa level. After an hour or so of sloshing through muddy water and zigzagging this way and that, we suddenly had no idea where the trail went. Mark left his pack and the two of us and set out on his own to investigate. I appreciated his wilderness skills, honed throughout his childhood in the southern African bush. Ten minutes or so later he returned, having found footprints leading up and over another few rises to the Gamble Oak grove where the primitive camp site was located.
We staggered up the last steep ascent, bone weary, the three of us. Removing our packs was sheer joy. Near the campsite a Phoenix Composting Toilet proved to be one of the most amazing amenities I’ve experienced in the wild: an absolutely spotless two cubicle structure with ample toilet paper, a non-water hand-washing device and a solar panel that kept it toasty well into late afternoon. There was no one else at the site when we arrived, so we chose a spot for our little group, dumped our packs, and wandered a bit further into the grove of trees. Suddenly, across the river, we caught our first glimpse of Keet Seel: just a corner of the ruin visible on the opposite side of the river in the near distance.
After sitting for a few moments, changing shoes and such, we ventured back down the steep hill and across the river to breach the additional quarter mile to the ranger’s shack. As advised, we waited politely at the gate until a thirty-something Navajo man emerged and waved us forward. He introduced himself as Tony Holiday, and welcomed us to the site. “Go on over and have a seat in the picnic area,” he said, “and I’ll be over in a little.”
Here my U.S. American 21st century time anxiety caught up with me and, although pretending patience on the outside, inside I wanted nothing more than to enter the ruin. After about ten minutes, Tony joined us at the picnic site. Here there was another Phoenix Composting Toilet, two wooden tables with their long benches, and a large wooden box to keep visitors’ packs from prying animals should anyone have brought his or hers this far. Tony sat with us in the Navajo way, inquiring about our hike and telling us—the second time in two days—how special we were for having braved this rugged terrain and come this far. After chatting for ten or fifteen minutes he said: “Well, if you’re ready let’s go.”
We followed Tony along a narrow path leading from the picnic area to the ruin. In less than 100 feet the trees—also Gamble Oaks—cleared and it was there before us: a great alcove in the canyon wall filled with more than 160 living rooms, grain storage places, and kivas on several different levels. Contrary to other Anasazi sites in the area, this one gives the impression that the people only just left. Original pottery, utensils, yucca rope, grinding stones and corn husks are all right there where once they were the items of daily life. Some 150 people lived at Keet Seel for a single generation: approximately 50 years between 1230 and 1286. Then, like the other Anasazi in the area, they vanished. Most theories believe they became the modern-day Pueblo Indians.
At the base of the great ruin we stood and talked for a while. Tony indicated the small amount of land rent by a large ravine that extended out from the front of the site. The ravine was due to recent erosion, he said; this small delta was where the people once farmed—as well as on the mesa top. They would have cultivated corn, beans, squash and other crops. I began to imagine them going about their daily lives, farming their food, crafting the implements they needed, caring for their children, interacting with one another. His words hit the alcove walls, forming a series of echoes that gave them a strange resonance.
Tony explained that he has worked in several of the area’s parks, but that this is his favorite site. He was born and grew up in Monument Valley, just to the north. His grandparents still live there. Traditionalists, they didn’t want him to take visitors into Keet Seel. But eventually his grandfather came to understand his love of this place and his desire to share it with those brave enough to make the pilgrimage. At the beginning of each summer season, he does a ceremony for his grandson, aimed at informing the spirits who still inhabit this place that he and his guests mean them no harm. That they will enter respectfully and leave everything as they found it. At the end of the season another ceremony is performed, to make sure nothing negative comes with him back to his family and others living now.
We entered respectfully. The ascent into the ruin itself is by way of a 70-foot ladder bolted to the rock: one of the very few renovations and necessary to allow those of us unable to navigate foot- and hand-holds on an almost vertical rock face. Even with the ladder, the entrance for me (and also for Mark, as it turns out) was extremely difficult. Mark sky dives without a problem, but suffers fear of heights and vertigo in man-made structures of such a nature. I too suffer from fear of heights and vertigo. I made my way up that ladder one foot at a time, my eyes riveted on the rung and the wall, refusing to look either up or down. Having come this far, I wasn’t about to let fear defeat me. Coming down was even more difficult, as keeping my eyes on each rung necessarily meant that I caught sight of the ground far below. Tony of course scampered up, perfectly upright and without using his hands. Later, when we descended, he did so faced forward—as if he were running down a flight of stairs.
At the ladder’s top one had to make a small leap onto the packed earth path that fronted the length of the ruin. One very long white fir log had been left across the entrance of the ruin proper; perhaps left by the last family to depart, perhaps left by Wetherill, no one really knows. Tony told us that white fir don’t grow in the vicinity, and that the tree-ring dating on this particular log didn’t match the master chart for the area. On our hike out, though, we noticed a large white fir tree dead but still in the ground, leaning against the canyon wall. (One book describes this log as Douglas Fir, but it is really White Fir.) So who knows from where they brought this giant trunk. One of the unique features of this ruin is the fairly wide “avenue” or path that fronts the entire alcove.
Here we were in the ruin itself. Intact rooms showed signs of cooking fires. Beautifully crafted pots sat atop a low wall. Strange pictographs—like none I have seen before—were painted in dark blue, brown, red and cream low on a ceiling to our left. One portrays a man or woman in flight. Others depict birds I later understood must be turkeys. Original timbers formed room corners. Beautifully designed lintels graced doors and windows. Pot shards lay everywhere: hundreds or thousands of them. Some were large, giving one a fairly good idea of the vessel from which it came. Other implements abounded as well: arrow heads, grinding stones, even rope. Piles of human excrement have even been found at Kee Tseel, and have been processed to determine what these people ate. One room still has its original roof: timber, twigs, mud, straw. Eight hundred years half covering the room below.
Tony’s narrative was careful and admiring. Although he leads as many tours a day as there are groups of up to five visitors to the site, and surely includes the same basic information in all, at no time did he seem to be speaking from a script. He answered our questions and encouraged us to ask all we wished. When faced with questions about specifics, he emphasized the fact that the only way to know who these people were and how they lived would have been to have been here when they inhabited this place. All speculation is simply that: speculation.
We spent a couple of hours at the site, climbing other shorter ladders, entering rooms, gazing in admiration at the things these people made and left. I have never felt so close to the Anasazi culture. Keet Seel has a very different feel about it than the reconstructed ruins at Chaco, Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Salmon, and along the San Juan River.
After we had experienced the ruin, we thanked Tony for his time and recrossed the river to the camp ground where we had left our packs. It was late afternoon by now. We were dead tired. We set up Mark’s small tent just in case it rained during the night, spread our pads and sleeping bags out on the ground beside it, and ate an early dinner: more wraps, some lemon bars, dried fruit and nuts. We didn’t think our remaining wraps would be safe to eat the following day—having been in our packs and thus lacking refrigeration all this time—so Mark gathered up a small offering of unneeded food and took it back to Tony’s Hogan: half generosity, half wanting to get rid of any unnecessary weight.
That night I slept well. Even getting up to go to the Phoenix Composting toilet my usual couple of times during the night was not a problem. Through the oak canopy the sky was dotted with stars, bright as they are far from city lights. The moon was half full. The temperature descended to around 38 or 40, but I was warm in my sleeping bag. Although we’d hoped to get a 6 a.m. start out the following morning, it was 6:45 when we woke. We packed up the tent and the rest of our gear, and began the long trek out of the canyons.
This time we decided to try the high trail rather than slosh through the river our first mile and a half. At the beginning, this choice seemed easier. But we soon came to a long stretch that had only recently eroded, forcing us higher onto a makeshift path that wound its way up and over and up again and over, quickly wearing us all out. Finally the detour rejoined the original trail and we were on solid footing once more. On and on we walked, counting off the half-miles each time we’d come to a slender white marker. The river level had gone down a bit, but the crossings were still numerous and chancy. The fields were alive with wild flowers: mostly great expanses of a shoulder-high plant covered with brilliant yellow flowers; also white morning primroses, red blossoms and purple. Sage and wild grasses mixed with the flowers. Red cliffs rose on either side of the river.
We saw many different kinds of tracks in the soft mud: lots of deer, some small cats, and rodents of different types. Coming in we had spotted a fox high on some rocks above us. Cows grazed throughout both canyons, sometimes high on the criss-cross of animal trails in search of grass. The calls of a number of birds—juncos and towhees–echoed between the canyon walls.
About an hour out we stopped to breakfast on granola, powdered milk, water and dried fruit. Relief from the weight of the packs. A short rest. And then on again. Occasionally another hiker would pass us, but once again we felt virtually alone in these canyons. The sense of isolation was amazing… and deeply moving.
In some ways the hike out was easier than the hike in. We recognized landmarks, picked up our stashed water bottles, made steady progress. And then we left Keet Seel Canyon, crossed the river into Tsegi Canyon, and started the long uphill ascent. Mark and Peg decided to take a real rest before going up. I opted to go on ahead, knowing I would make the uphill hike much more slowly than they would, even burdened as they were with far heavier weight. Not wanting to slow them down, I thought I might continue and make some progress before they caught up with me.
Never in all my years of hiking have I faced the kind of challenge that ascent presented. It’s only about a mile all told, but the first third is over a dramatically steep sand dune that just goes up and up and up. The sand is soft. And deep. Relentless. No relief at all. I hadn’t remembered this as a particularly difficult part of the hike—because coming down it hadn’t been. By the time I neared the top of this stretch I was staggering from the small shade of one isolated tree to the next, ragged with exhaustion. Still, I pushed on. Soon after the dune come the two stretches of switchbacks. Here the going is a bit easier, because there is at least a modicum of level ground between each raised step. It’s still painfully difficult, though, and by this time I was stopping every two or three minutes, gulping water and then an electrolyte balancer, grateful for each brief stretch of progress.
I looked back and could see no sign of Mark or Peg. So I just continued on, gasping for breath by now, the sweat pouring off my body. I realized that I was hiking almost bent double, the weight of my puny pack a real burden. At one point I finished the electrolyte balancer in the small bottle in which I carried it, and even continuing to carry the empty bottle seemed like too much. I almost left it standing on a flat rock by the side of the trail, assuming Mark or Peg would recognize it and pick it up. Then I realized if they found it they might think I had fallen off the trail. So I carried it on.
Mark and Peg caught up with me not far from the end of the ascent. They had decided to take a really long rest down below; Mark had washed his sore feet and changed his shoes for the hike out. They too had been looking ahead for a sight of me. And when they didn’t see me as near as they assumed I would be they began to worry. When we finally caught sight of each other, they were staggering slowly upward… and I was almost at a standstill. Mark shouted up for me to stay where I was. When he overtook me, he begged me to let him carry my pack on his chest. The weight of his own much heavier pack was harder for him than he could have imagined, and I didn’t want to add the weight of mine. But when Peg—also struggling hard—caught up with us she said she thought I was overtaxing my lungs and heart. She urged me to relinquish my pack for the brief remainder of the ascent, and I did.
So Mark carried his own pack and mine the remaining fifteen minutes or so. Free of any weight, I had a much easier time finishing this rough ascent. By the time we had all made it to the top, we were physically devastated, exuberant, joyful, almost in tears. Also in awe of our accomplishment and feeing deeply privileged at what we had experienced. From the top of the ascent we had another mile and a half to go. But this was fairly easy level terrain. About a quarter mile from the trail head we suddenly saw Shana walking towards us. She and Barbara, who had spent the morning at Monument Valley, had decided to come and meet us at the end of the hike. Barbara, who wasn’t feeling well, had waited on the other side of the closed trail gate. Shana, unmindful of the sign warning anyone without a permit to stay out, couldn’t resist the urge to meet our ascent. A couple of hikers about an hour and a half ahead of us had told them we were on our way.
It was wonderful seeing Barbara and Shana, and being able to share the delight of our experience. We were tired, filthy, hungry but possessed of a great feeling of accomplishment. Back in Kayenta at the motel Barbara drew me a hot bath. I removed my mud-caked hiking shoes and peeled off my sweat-soaked clothes. We all rested a while, then went over to the only acceptable (just barely acceptable) place to eat: Kayenta’s Holiday Inn.
Barbara, it turned out, had come down with the 24-hour stomach flu I had a couple of weeks back. So this morning Mark and I drove back to Albuquerque, Peg and Shana following in their car. Our new edition of The Hidden Southwest announced a nice-sounding bakery in Farmington, where we stopped for stuffed croissants and coffee. We were home by 3 p.m.
The Living Silence of a Place like Kee Tseel: Notes for a Latin American Studies Association Panel
In pondering my Latin American work-the oral history, essays, and some of the poetry-the first thing that comes to mind is how different the world in which I worked back then was from the one we inhabit today. Then my life and work were cradled in hope; more than just hope, the absolute conviction that I was part of a movement that was creating a better, more just world.
A pervasive discouragement now characterizes my world. This is not merely the result of those understandings and complexities that come with age. It is a product of these times’ appalling restriction of freedoms, narrowing of opportunity; a response to the fact that so much power is concentrated in the hands of such arch criminals, and that the field of action for those working for positive change has been so drastically reduced.
Our world is more violent, more dangerous, and a future of justice so much less palpable than it was when the Civil Rights Movement achieved its initial goals, U.S. citizens helped stop the war in Vietnam, or I was living and working in revolutionary Cuba or Nicaragua.
We are faced with an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand some of our struggles have clearly borne fruit. Among these are the increased expectations and possibilities for women’s lives, more acceptance of and respect for peoples who are "different," important advances in what we know about how to teach and learn, a more in-depth understanding of the mind/body connection, a broader more inclusive vision of history, and a recognition of the vital centrality of stories.
On the other, our struggles seem to stagnate beneath the weight of greed and recklessness. Our children’s is the first generation that cannot expect to live better than their parents. And our government is devastating the lives of innocent people throughout the world. I am not only speaking economically, but morally as well.
Class inequities are, if anything, more entrenched than they were 30 or 40 years ago. The gap between the obscenely wealthy and the miserably poor has widened. Race issues have shown themselves to be many-layered and more complex than we once imagined. Fundamentalist extremists within all the major religious conformations have spawned an ignorance and violence that permeate the relationships between men and women, adults and children, powerful nations and those most vulnerable to their designs.
After my return to the United States in 1984, retrieved memories of incest led me to understand that the invasion of a child’s body by a perpetrator with power over his victim has everything to do with the invasion of a small nation by one that is stronger and more powerful. A world in which a single country or system dominates has produced horrific policies such as that of the preemptive strike. And the cover-ups are ever more blatant. State terrorism has achieved levels unimaginable even a few years back. Vast numbers of people are manipulated through fear. And we are poisoning our nest past the point where we may be able to reclaim it.
Most of my work in Latin American oral history-the books about women’s lives, the poetry and essays written between the mid 1960s and late 1980s-was created in an atmosphere of genuine possibility. I believed in the socialist alternative. I lived its promise, first in Cuba and then in Nicaragua. Additionally, feminism gave me the tools with which I began to decipher issues of power.
Mine was the privilege of involvement, of daily participation, of constant discussion and the energy that comes from having victory in one’s sight. Even as I began to challenge some of the premises, even when I questioned certain interpretations and/or the motives of some of those doing the interpreting, what we sought seemed right to me. Not only right, but possible. I might almost say inevitable. This atmosphere of confidence and hope produced work that was daring, sometimes somewhat one-dimensional, but always honest and inspired by that vision of justice that is, for me, still very much an ideal.
Today-older, aware of the complexities of my own history and with many more questions, inhabiting a different world with a vastly different correlation of forces-I am deeply discouraged. Not depressed, but discouraged. I still believe in the ideals for which we struggled throughout the last half of the twentieth century, those ideals for which so many died and for which many of us continue to struggle today. I still envision a world in which justice reigns, in which men of obscene greed are no longer permitted to murder and maim at will, in which education and art and the health of our planet are cherished rather than obliterated.
But the brave experiments aimed at securing such a world have mostly been trampled by forces of such perverse and pervasive criminality that what would have been unacceptable even ten years back is today seen as inevitable or "normal." I am not by nature a depressive person, but I would be out of touch with reality not to feel acute discouragement.
All of which is not to say that I do not continue to subscribe to the struggles for peace and justice, the efforts towards economic and racial and sexual and cultural equalities, the desperate need to effect a change in U.S. foreign and domestic policies, a turnabout to the rampant contamination of earth, air, water and what we put into our bodies. I have come to understand incest and the sexual abuse of children as intimately linked to the manipulation and abuse of whole communities and nations, and continue to imbue my work with this understanding. The silences and lies corrode integrity as much in one scenario as in the other.
Making these connections and others has made my work richer. But the work itself no longer draws on the energy of hope. Today I struggle because it is morally imperative, not because I expect success.
Gathering Rage: The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda , my 1992 book about the Left’s inability to embrace feminist principles, broached issues and realities I could no longer ignore. Many of the ideas in that book were taken further, and validated, by the women who told me their stories in Sandino’s Daughters Revisited: Feminism in Nicaragua (1994). When the latter was translated into Spanish and became available to the women whose stories it included, it provoked gratitude, profound turmoil and further exploration.
But the work in which this crisis is most palpable, both in the process of the writing and in the product itself, is When I Look Into the Mirror and See You: Women, Terror, and Resistance. Although I began the interviews and research in 1996, the book wouldn’t see publication until 2003. During those seven years I several times believed I would not be able to continue. I felt paralyzed. For a time, finishing seemed utterly beyond my grasp. The story I knew I must tell was infinitely more complex than those I had grappled with before. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was experiencing the culmination of the political/emotional crisis which has affected so many of us over the past two decades.
It wasn’t only a changed world that required a different approach. I myself had changed. While my core beliefs remain solid, my understanding of how we may be able to move from point A to point B-or fail to do so-is more nuanced, takes into account a range of variables, and seems more difficult on a variety of levels. Because I value process over product, because I deeply believe in sharing the unfinished and the imperfect, I managed to readdress the challenge. By the time When I Look Into the Mirror and See You was published it had become-for me and for others-an important piece on our ongoing conversation about power, memory, personal and public space, ends and means.
It is not only the story’s two protagonists who are revealed in the mirror of human reflection this book presents, but the author as well. In this book I am more present, more exposed, more vulnerable and more questioning: left raw by the unspeakable crimes and deeply courageous responses of our times.
And here is where I would like to speak about a strange turn my interests have taken. Of great refuge for me, since I returned to the United States in 1984, have been the ancient ruins and rock art left by those who preceded us upon this land. Living in the southwestern part of the United States, I am surrounded by the remnants of several cultures: the so-called Anasazi, Fremont and Mogollón, the unnamed nomads who roamed these lands ten thousand years ago, even peoples from further south who interacted and traded with those who inhabited the canyons and cave alcoves of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
As in my own life’s journey, the border dividing the northern and southern land masses of our continent has been irrelevant, malleable, ultimately fictitious.
At first, visits to Chaco, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, Hovenweep, Wupatki, Betatakin, Bandelier, Pecos, Puyé and other such sites were pleasure outings, times of relaxation and delight. They remain so. But they have acquired an added immediacy, a relevance to my life and thought I could not have imagined some years back. If it did not conjure such religious or clichéd connotations, I would be inclined to use the word pilgrimage.
It was on a recent hike to the less accessible ruin called Kee Tseel, in the extreme north central part of Arizona, that I first began to equate the experience of listening for the echoes of long-silent voices to the experience of seeking out and recording the voices of the women in many of my books on Latin America. The same interactive give and take of openness and reception, observation and voice, listening and recording, interpretation and recreation are involved. It is as if it is happening all over again, but the raw material is so much more tenuous, the results less tangible or specific, the lessons embryonic in form. This time around, there is a space that was missing then.
It is a space that would appear to be empty.
It is not.
And here I will digress for a moment to tell a story I hope may clarify my approach to this sort of space, its hidden attributes and the meaning it holds for me.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. I recently returned from Mexico, where commemorations of her life and work abound. One of these struck me as particularly intriguing.
When Frida died her husband, Diego Rivera, locked the bathroom off her bedroom and ordered it never to be opened. It is presumed that Frida died in that bathroom. Close family friend Dolores Olmedo became the director of the house where Frida was born and lived with Diego-the blue house in Coyoacán that would become the Frida Kahlo Museum. She obeyed Diego’s wishes. But this past year Olmedo herself died, and a new museum director was named. She immediately asked "what’s behind that door," and when told commanded it be opened.
Inside the bathroom were literally hundreds of indigenous huipiles, artfully embroidered cotton shifts like the one I am wearing today. The bathtub was filled with them. Frida’s jewels, her makeup, even her prosthesis (they had had to amputate her leg in the last months of her life, and she briefly wore an artificial one) were there. The writer Elena Poniatowska, in an article for La Jornada de México, says there were outfits enough so that the artist could have worn a different one every day for sixth months. The contents of that bathroom are now being cleaned and mended by experts, are gradually being put on display.
Mexico is enthralled with this revelation. But it is not the contents of that bathroom that interest me. I am powerfully intrigued by the space: off-limits for half a century and now-because of an order given and taken-become part of the public domain. As I entered the part of Frida’s bedroom to which the public has access I could see the door to the bathroom standing slightly ajar. I strained to be able to see through its narrow opening. My eyes traveled to the amorphous shapes visible as splotches of color behind the opaque glass brick that forms the bathroom’s corner wall. I glimpsed a row of shapes hanging from what I assumed might be a shower curtain rod.
What does it mean that this space has suddenly been opened, made accessible? Is there such a thing as sacred space? If so, under what circumstances may space be transformed? I speak from a totally secular point of view; perhaps I should use the word living rather than sacred. Yes, space that is alive.
Is there an energy or some other tangible physical attribute that indicates to us that the nature of a space has changed? If so, are all or only some of us privy to its existence? Does the place itself change, or does our perception of it change as a result of what happened there and what that means to us?
As regards the bathroom in the Blue House in Coyoacán, are we who enter that previously forbidden place and repossess the painter’s personal items intruding upon Frida’s life or Diego’s? What, besides huipiles and a prosthetic leg, lived in that locked room? What did its walls hide, what mysteries did it embrace? What can its being made available mean to us now-or to them then? Is time only linear?
I am fascinated by spaces once used for one purpose being opened to another. In ways I find difficult to articulate, the opening of Frida Kahlo’s bathroom bears a profound relevance to the act of stepping into an ancient ruin, a space where people once worked and slept and cooked and ate and played. There is a similar retrieval of objects once everyday utensils of the living become legacies from the dead. A similar discourse asks that we contemplate, question, decipher. We are presented with a similar desdoblamiento: an unfolding, splitting off from or dividing from itself.
I had no training in oral history when I began, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to interview, research and write what would become Cuban Women Now, Cuban Women Twenty Years Later, Spirit of the People: Vietnamese Women Two Years from the Geneva Accords, El pueblo no sólo es testigo: la historia to Dominga, Sueños y realidades de un guajiricantor, Inside the Nicaraguan Revolution: The Story of Doris Tijerino, Sandino’s Daughters, Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution and Risking a Somersault in the Air, among other books. I learned through trial and error as I went along.
Today, as I stand in the silence of a place like Kee Tseel, listening for the voices of peoples long disappeared, I am acutely aware that I have no formal training in anthropology or archeology. My life experience has taught me how dangerous it is to impose our twentieth and twenty-first century cultural biases on others (anthropologists referring to one of the large anthropomorphic renditions on the rock wall in Horseshoe Canyon as "the Holy Ghost figure" comes to mind). I possess neither the theory, glossary of terms, physical strength nor presumption to be an "expert" on these forebears and their lives.
Instead, I bring to such sites a poet’s tools, an artist’s eye, the sensibility of a woman-identified woman, a reverence for life in all its forms, a healthy skepticism of all the reductionist theory that has kept us from seeing life’s overall patterns, and the conviction that justice and equality are not outmoded concepts. I am respectful of the beliefs and feelings of those direct descendants-the Hopi and Pueblo peoples who inherit and in their daily practice refer back to those legacies left in rock-and of the Navajo who are today’s caretakers of the ruin.
My root knowledge comes from years of experience with people who have nothing to lose but their oppression. It comes from exploring cultural as well as personal memory; from struggling to divest myself of the classism, racism, sexism and homophobia with which all who come up in a society like ours are burdened; from an ongoing exploration of power and a passion for the language that describes-as precisely as possible-its uses and abuses. My knowledge comes from learning to touch, listen, see.
A little more than a month ago two friends and I hiked the nine miles into Kee Tseel. We stood among its rooms and surveyed the evidence of a ceramic pot seemingly just about to be refilled with river or rain water, ears of corn as if only just a moment ago struck clean of their kernels, a broken wisp of yucca rope, bits of flint tools and the perch-poles that only 800 years ago hosted brightly-feathered Macaws traded from these people’s neighbors to the south. The stories-the history-entered my pores in much the same way as those I collected from the Cuban and Nicaraguan women whose words I once gathered into my books.
My days of listening to women’s stories, interpreting those stories and offering them in book form may be over. Or maybe not. What I know is that my curiosity and need move now in another direction: towards cultures that preceded by millennia this era of misplaced power and consumer violence. Stillness and intuition are once more called upon to suggest answers only very partially revealed. Learning to look, wait, and listen again becomes a necessity.
Just as there were those a quarter century ago who trivialized my books of oral history because they were not impartial, or because most of them included only women’s voices, or because they often veered from whatever academic line happened to be in favor at the time, there will be those today who do not see a connection between the threats to our survival and a hundred or so people who built and inhabited and then disappeared from a site that astounds us with its stunning mystery.
The Kayenta Anasazi of Kee Tseel lived in their 160-room alcove a mere 50 years (1230-1286). They left sophisticated tools, utensils and an art that speaks to us of what their lives may have been like. Yet there is no language holding clues to who they were, no written code to be deciphered, scant road signs by which we may see beyond the landscape that is to the landscape that was, few mechanisms for bridging the distance of time.
We cannot read the answers to our questions, but must look for them in wind, soil, rock, plant and animal life, and in our own imagination. And for our imagination to offer up those clues we seek, we must of course have spent time-perhaps a lifetime-exploring the dialectical relationship between reason and intuition, science and creativity, evidence and that which evidence so often obscures.
We can no longer live only in a world of "fact," for fact has today been twisted beyond recognition. Neither can we hide in a world of poetic license, flights of fancy, the intuitive as the only reality there is. To truly inhabit, feel comfortable in and use that space that appears empty but is not, we must keep on fighting against the current of hypnotizing manipulation and seek the connections those who would keep on heaping death upon this earth hope we will never find.
I touch this space in ruins long abandoned, but vibrant with life.
September 2004 .
At the edge of this city
my fingers brush the incised circle
still visible on cliffs of cured basalt.
Depiction of sun, moon, year.
Opening to another world
or to the body,
power perhaps, or the beginning.
being any point along a circle.
Soon a road
will blaspheme this land
where twelve hundred years ago
chipped these images
into fallen rock.
Evidence of experience,
what was seen, thought, known
and returns in needful question.
At Chaco’s northernmost reach
two towers catch moonrise
in the perfect balance of their subtle notch.
speaking to future.
Once every 18.6 years
the lunar standstill
cycled from Pueblo Bonito’s priests
to our astonished witness.
At Kee Tseel
we find no timepieces
among ceramic shards,
no minute or second hands,
no Calendar Stone
adorns the kiva
or anywhere else in this alcove
where bits of yucca rope
wait to be retrieved
by hands that weave and knot,
tie turkey feathers
fix handle to obsidian blade.
does timelessness exist?
Recent, yes, and long ago.
When we were young
but not five minutes from now.
Seasons and moons,
growth and hungers
pronounce these meanings
we must fashion to such accurate degree.
No steady ticking clock
to guide all other clocks.
No ringing of bells
at any hour.
No Greenwich Mean, no zones
unfolding as they circle
a planet known to be round.
unfurling before today.
Only a time of cold. A time of rain.
A time of balm
against your grateful skin.
It wouldn’t have been our
ten in the morning,
birthday or anniversary.
Noon yes, sun directly above,
dusk or dawn as signifiers,
seasons to plant and reap,
days not burdened
by these divisions
we use to punish or reward.
Walking without pedometer.
where we privilege accuracy,
time management, date book.
unfettered by resting heart rate.
Not recipe but taste.
more than this arbitrated passage
killing as it goes.
Syncopated drip from the spring
at the back of the cave,
its measured sound accompanying
heartbeat and footstep
as it layers or peels away
the cache of memory
inhabiting hand and breast.
Show me directionality:
or beyond imagination.
where count met breath for you.
I know your working hands
understood this mirror
traveling from my time to yours,
asking the questions
cluttering my mouth.
When the last family
let the great log fall
between stone walls
across entrance or exit,
when this place was abandoned
in—now we can reckon it—1286
the only date was a place
no longer bountiful, the need
to find home somewhere else.
Time spills through my hands
like the beating of a great heart,
slow as consciousness,
by this fitful memory
coiling in my throat,
reaching my mouth,
jolting my pulse
in grateful recognition.
Albuquerque, Oct. 19, 2004. Photographs by Margaret Randall.