New Mexico solstice as a way to see time


The first thing that occurred to me, driving my family toward Santa Fe across a vast landscape, rocky and rose-colored and inhospitable to vegetation, was that living out here must make you consider, at least periodically, the smallness of your own life, as measured against geological time. Perhaps you get inured to it. I would hope not.

No place more sharply evokes this sense of smallness amidst vastness than the Rio Grande River Gorge. Some 650 feet below us below us as we walked the bridge on a clear winter solstice, the river appeared no wider than a ribbon, winding through a broad, vertiginous trench of jagged rock formations.

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How long must it have taken for the steady pressure of flowing water to carve through that depth of earth? It wasn’t exactly like that, as it happens. The valley came first. At least 29 million years ago, as the earth’s crust extended, the Rio Grande Rift opened up. At various points along the rift, water pooled into basins. Over millions of years, the water cut through the volcanic basalt and ash, connecting basin to basin. The southernmost basin, a large, shallow lake, in the region of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, broke out of its bounds a mere 750,000 years ago to create an opening to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Taos Indians are among the ancient peoples who settled along the northern Rio Grande; Taos Pueblo dates back over a thousand years. Its proximity to the river put it directly on the path of successive Spanish incursions. Beginning in 1620, with the construction of the first Catholic church in the pueblo, the Taoans resisted. By 1660, they had killed the priest and destroyed the church, and thus began decades of open conflict, conciliation, and more conflict.

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Taos Pueblo is associated with two major battles for freedom. From Taos, the religious leader Po’pay led an uprising that overthrew the Spanish forces that had held the Indian peoples in thrall for eight decades. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was the most successful act of resistance by native Americans ever waged against a European force. Twenty-five hundred Indian warriors sacked and burned the colonial headquarters in Santa Fe, ultimately killing more than 400 Spanish soldiers and civilians.

The Spanish retreated to Mexico, not to return for twelve years. When they did return, they moved more carefully, coopting many Indians with promises of clemency and protection; critically this time, they allowed the Indians to practice their traditional religion. The 1892 reconquest is thus considered peaceful, although violent flare-ups continued for several years.

Almost 200 years later, Mexico ceded the New Mexican territory to the United States. The Indians and some of the Mexicans made common cause against this new conqueror, and another revolt broke out in Taos Pueblo. The rebels managed to kill the New Mexican governor, but they were finally brought to heel. The San Geronimo Mission Church in the pueblo, where they sought sanctuary, failed to protect them. American troops bombarded the church, leaving nothing behind but the church tower.

We heard this story, passionately related, from a native tour guide on our continued solstice wanderings. We stood before the ruins of the church, now reduced to the outline of a stone building, its interior converted into a cemetery. It’s at capacity now, but the old wooden crosses are regularly refreshed with new ones. Here time is measured not in millennia, or even in centuries, but in generations, and the ancestors remain very close.

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In the middle of Santa Fe stands the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Attached to the sanctuary is a small adobe chapel, the focal point of which is an icon of the Madonna. Having been brought to Santa Fe in 1625, she returned south with the fleeing Spanish during the Pueblo Revolt. And she came back with them when they returned. According to the Cathedral’s interpretation, “She is credited with answering the prayers of the Spanish to take back New Mexico peacefully and although the reconquest was not altogether peaceful it was less conflicting than it could have been.”

She is called La Conquistadora, or as rendered in English, Our Lady of Peace.

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So the Lady Conquistador is Our Lady of Peace? What Orwellian doublespeak is this?

Susan Sontag has a theory:

It seems to me that what most people mean by “peace” is victory. The victory of their side. That’s what “peace” means to them, while to the others peace means defeat… Peace becomes a space people no longer know how to inhabit.

Dueling narratives of peace and conflict clashed openly in January 1998, as the state of New Mexico kicked off a year of celebrating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first of the Spanish conquistadors, Juan de Onate. Revered by Hispanic New Mexicans, Onate is still remembered by Pueblo Indians as the brutal colonizer who, after defeating the Indians at Acoma in 1599, ordered that the right foot of every Acoman male above age 25 be cut off. In the town of Alcalde, an Indian commando group took an electric saw and severed the right foot of a statue of Onate.

At nearby Los Alamos, time is measured in fractions of a second: an atomic bomb explodes 0.025 seconds after detonation. Today, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s most critical mission is to ensure the reliability of an aging nuclear stockpile. Since the cessation of underground nuclear testing in 1992, much of this work has been accomplished with the use of the world’s most powerful x-ray machine, the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility.

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The DARHT test involves a mockup of a non-nuclear weapon. Encased in thick metal, the weapon is bombarded from 90-degree angles with multiple x-ray pulses to produce radiographic images of the bomb as it implodes. These images enable scientists to ensure that the detonation process works. In order to penetrate the bomb’s metal casing, the x-rays travel at speeds of less than a millionth of a second.

[UPDATE 12/28: Experts worry that under new leadership from Rick Perry as head of the DOE, underground nuclear testing could resume, with alarming implications for the nuclear world order.]

Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb,” understood as well as anyone how his accomplishment had put humanity in a space it no longer knew how to inhabit.

All of these stories will be with us tomorrow as we retrace our route to Albuquerque and then home. We will marvel again at the vastness of the landscape, still foreign to our eastern eyes but now more burdened with our common, still unsettled, history.

          Squint awhile. The distant fenceposts seem to move, become
          a line of stragglers lost out of battle and gone
                    west, oh west, to tell
                    over the one campfire and ashes of dawn
                    November’s tale: the bell in the blood,
                    the bright maps of birds, the world unhooded
                    in gunmetal light.
                                                   How nobody won.

–Betty Adcock, “East Texas Autumn as a Way to See Time”

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