Posts Tagged ‘Rock Art’


Sunday, August 26th, 2012


  Life has a way of inhabiting even the strangest of places. And in doing so, it makes those places themselves come alive, in a bigger way. As any artist knows, it is the small touches that make the larger artwork extraordinary. I was drawn to the pinnacles and cliffs of the desert the first time I saw them. It wasn’t just out of scientific curiosity, or an interest in a landscape different from the one with which I was familiar.

  It was that in many ways, the rocks themselves looked alive. They had colors of their own – yes – but superimposed upon those were abstract patterns and splotches of yellow, orange, green, and gray. And then there were the dripping streaks of brown and black, looking so much like dark chocolate frosting looks as it spills casually off the side of a layer cake.

  In some such places, and when I was alone, I would be still for a moment, let my mind calm, and just take in the view in front of me, without trying to analyze it. Detailed and complicated patterns would appear among the more readily apparent boulders and fractures, turning the scene into a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and figures. Jackson Pollock himself couldn’t have displayed more impressive works of art.

  A coating of life is what is responsible for that look – small life creates bigger life, so to speak. Growths of lichens, desert varnish, and moss are the “paints” upon the land. But they are not just “on” the rocks indifferently. They are connected to the rocks – the rocks give them life. Tourists from other climates ask me about the colors and patterns on the formations around the Valley of the Sun. Maybe we take it all for granted, but they notice them right away. I explain that they are living things, and they grow very, very slowly.

  The brightly colored patches and spots that look like “splatter” paintings are lichens. Lichens are actually two life forms living together: algae and fungi. There are many different “species” of lichens; hence there are many different hues and textures. The algal cells are enclosed in masses of fungal filaments, all in compact arrangements that clutch onto barren rock surfaces. The algae conduct photosynthesis and provide the fungi with nutrients, and the fungi provide the algae with protection. Neither could make it on its own in such a harsh environment.

  There is a budding science of lichenometry – the use of lichen growth as an age-dating technique – but it is still in an inexact stage, and there are many factors that influence growth rates. However, in Arizona, when you see a spot of lichen that is, say, several inches in diameter, you can probably assume that it is on the order of a few hundred to a few thousand years old or so.

  Desert varnish (or “rock varnish”, as it is sometimes called) is what we call the dark, surreal staining that cascades down rock cliffs and spires in our area, and it too, takes a long, long time to develop. The varnish is a very thin layer of manganese and iron oxides, together with clay particles.

  But the key to that covering’s existence is a community of tiny bacteria which live on the rock surface, and process the mineral compounds into a protective coating. By sheltering themselves with the minerals, they shield themselves from heat and drying-out, and intense sunlight. The dripping effect (on the landscape) is a result of their having an easier life where water occasionally flows, but desert varnish also coats many rocks just sitting out in the open. They look black and metallic in the sun’s glare.

  Ancient rock art all over the world owes a lot to those little one-celled creatures. Prehistoric humans systematically and artistically pecked through desert varnish on various rock surfaces to produce what we call petroglyphs. The thin, organically-caused patina masks the lighter color in the rock underneath, and it is that showing-through of the rock itself which forms the desired image.

  Moss is a plant that also grows in small communities on rocks, but you don’t see it in too many places in the desert, as it needs more water. Look for it in spots where the sun never shines, and where water can flow periodically. Most of the time it is a dark-gray or black, soft, puffy growth. The time to see it in its glory is right after a good rainfall, when it comes alive again, and is a bright, emerald green in color. It is also much softer to the touch, then.

  All of this life is part of the surface of the rocks. The next story will look at the life inside of the rocks, and, there is plenty of that, too.

A Fine Line

Monday, May 7th, 2012


  It was late afternoon, with the sun orange and low in the southwestern sky — one of those late December days when the air around Phoenix has sort of a drab look — somewhat dusty, layered, and gray. But it was also the Holiday Season, and I felt a bit like celebrating. I had been looking forward to my drive to this part of the Valley all day, as I hadn’t visited it before.

  Had the main reason for my anticipation been that it was another chance to get out and look at the landscape and rock formations? No, I have to confess. It was the thought of having an ice cold Martini, in the laid-back lounge of the Carefree area’s most elegant resort, that had gotten me going.

  I had just moved to Arizona, and I had read that this particular resort was a place not to be missed. That certainly proved out to be true. Rocks did get in the way that day, however, as they do so frequently in my life. Luckily for me, those interludes always make it interesting. They have a tendency to put things in perspective for me — they separate the little things of everyday life from the things of eternity, or at least the bigger picture, and the longer view.

  I was passing Black Mountain, on its south side. I rolled down the window and tried to get a scent of the cool desert air, but there was none. Being new to Arizona, I only guessed that it must take heat to bring out the smell. The peak loomed high to the left; houses and various structures clinging to its barren slopes, interlaced by tiny roadways that snaked up through stands of tall Saguaro cacti, Palo Verde trees, and Jojoba bushes.

  Not cheap real estate, I figured. It would take a few more dollars in the old savings account before I could put something down on one of those. But the monetary “bottom line” separating me from a life of leisure and afternoons on a deck patio up there somewhere, was not what intrigued me. You guessed it — it was the rocks — and more precisely, a line through the rocks.

  From the south, Black Mountain looks neatly divided in half. The western half is all dark, fragmented rock, and the Saguaros must like it, because there is a thin forest of them there. The other side of the mountain, or its eastern flank, looks like a giant pile of beige rubble. There are fewer of the tall, exotic cacti. Granite boulders abound, and the tan rock is all broken and rounded into picturesque shapes and crags.

  I mentally noted that hiking up that side of the mountain would be a real chore. Making my way on down the road, the division through the rocks stuck with me. I knew right then that I would “get into” the geology behind that granite, which rises above the resort’s lodge, too.

  And that the adventure that afternoon would pay off in more ways than one.

  Why the stark division in those rocks? Why the strong contrast between the two sides of Black Mountain? I knew the hotel’s bar would be the perfect place to ponder those very questions. It did end up taking a little more research, and eventually even a hike up to the summit, to fully grasp it all.

  In other GeoStories™, I have discussed the great antiquity of many of the rock formations around the Valley of the Sun. I’ve also related how the Valley’s mountains themselves, which include Black Mountain, are mostly young — meaning only about 15 or 20 million years old (yes, that’s right, that’s geologically young). They are composed of older rock in much the same way as bricks from old buildings have been recycled and used to create new structures.

  In my GeoStory™, “Missing Time”, I discussed Camelback Mountain, where you can see two formations in contact with each other, the line between them representing a vanished past. In this case, however, on Black Mountain, the line running so neatly up and over its divided summit is a forced contact between two ancient rock types—one literally having intruded into the other.

  On the surface of the world about 1.7 billion years ago, where the places known as Cave Creek and Carefree now lie, sat thick formations of rocks laid down as sediments by vast, ancient river systems. Layers of rock, spewed out of nearby volcanoes, occasionally alternated throughout these. It was the landscape of a continent so old we can only speculate about its outlines. We know, though, that it was moving about the Earth’s surface, as all the continental rocks have done throughout history (and still are doing).

  Along with the movement, and its associated heat and pressure, the rock layers changed their nature a bit (this is called metamorphism). We know them now as slates and phyllites — the geologic names of the rocks of the western part of Black Mountain.

  Throughout the next few hundred million years, with this continental crust literally floating on the more dense, moving, plastic layers below, great crumpling forces caused the Earth to convulse and pulse. The energy drove its crust into long “belts” of distorted rock, that in this case actually stretched over a thousand miles to the northeast.

  This particular period of deformation is called the Mazatzal Orogeny (sounds sexy, doesn’t it?), and during its final throes an extremely hot, fluid body of rock, now described as 1.4 billion year old granite, pushed up and intruded into higher reaches of the older rocks. We see part of that intrusion today, the eastern side of the mountain, on the other side of the line dividing Black Mountain. The two rock formations, and the division between them, exist in other places in the Phoenix area, too, but they’re a little harder to see. They have all been exposed, for us to view now, by recent millions of years of weathering and erosion.

  How nice of those rocks, I thought, for they had once again made my day. That diversion was just what I had needed, and oh, by the way, the Martini was perfect.

A Hard Place

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

These ancient ruins cling to resistant vertical cliffs, either avoiding something, or in hope of something.

  You’ve all heard it before. You know, the line about how tough things are, the line about an impossible situation, about being “between a rock and a hard place”.

  It was a warm spring day, and I had just about had it with the climb up a steep, brushy, wooded slope, if you want to call it that. It was more like a tangled obstacle course, except that it seemed nearly vertical, and the loose soil beneath my feet made getting up through it even more frustrating, as it was two steps forward, slide back one.

  Annoying little bugs swarmed around my face and ears, but they kept me company and gave me something to yell at. They were the only creatures, I’m sure, that would have thought my sweat- soaked shirt and hat smelled nice. I was beginning to wonder if it was worth it, if all this work made any sense. It would be easier to turn around, and go back to the car, now miles down the deep canyon. My heart was pounding. I was trying to find some ruins.

  I was well into the rugged Sierra Ancha (in Spanish, “wide mountains”), about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix. This remote range is one of the least explored archaeological areas in Arizona, and it is not hard to understand why. Deeply-incised canyons cut through massive layers of rock, and these in turn are coated with all kinds of thick vegetation – tall pine woods at the summit, right on down to the cactus-strewn canyon floors.

  Rattlesnakes abound, and who knows what other dangers, too – maybe the emotional ghosts of those who lived here and built my goal about 700 years ago. Whatever caused people to live in such a place must have been an intensely emotional thing, and I imagine that that emotion was fear.

  And then I saw them. Right above me was one of the most spectacular sets of cliff-dwellings I had ever seen, there literally clinging to the massive rock cliffs above. They looked like they had just grown there, right out of the stone. My mind flashed on the connection between life and rocks, and here was another example. Only here it was humans that grew this place in the rocks, and I knew there were more such spots around that area, too. The rocks offered protection.

  The Sierra Ancha are so rough and craggy because most of the rock there is very hard and tough, and consequently very resistant to erosion. In the area of these Anchan Culture cliff-dwellings, quartzite and limestone are the order of the day.

Massive quartzite in the Sierra Ancha.

  Quartzite is a metamorphic rock, meaning that the original stone has been changed by heat and pressure, in this case altering an old sandstone formation (left-over beach sands, possibly) into a much more durable rock unit.

  Limestone is a rock, also very unyielding, precipitated out of oceanic waters, and forms vertical cliffs in a lot of places where it occurs.

  Both of these rocks point to a time when this part of what we now call Arizona lay along the shores of ancient seas lying to the west and south. It was not North America then, and what we now see as our landscape would then have been around a billion years into the future.

  These rocks are collectively known to geologists as the Apache Group. Higher up in their section, you can also see layers of dark basalt, a volcanic rock that erupted way back then in various places, as the old setting went through some convulsive times.

  Equivalent rock formations are found in and below the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and there they are approximately 5000 feet lower in elevation than they are here, there near the Colorado River itself. Therefore, the rocks above that point, most all of those colorful layers now seen in the walls of the Grand Canyon, were once on top of the Sierra Ancha as well.

  Because of massive uplift of the region, the younger rocks are now gone, and the innards are exposed.

  You can see these same rocks when you wind your way up State Route 288 (also known as the Young Road) from the valley floor, near the Salt River and Roosevelt Lake, to the upper reaches of the Sierra Ancha, near Aztec Peak, on the way to the small town of Young. In this stretch, you are going up through time.

The Sierra Ancha, along the left skyline, appear deceptively gentle. Roosevelt Lake is in the foreground.

  My distress at the sweaty work-out turned to delight; my desperation turned to awe. Tough places, tough rocks, I mused. The Apache Group is still there because it is so hard to get at, and in turn, the dwellings of the ancients remain tucked within its depths, mostly untouched, for the same reason.

  That the inhabitants of these ruins chose to live, and die, between the difficulties of the nearly impassible terrain below and the sheer walls of stone, demonstrates the incredibly fine line of life to which they clung, and the tenacity of nature itself.

Name that Tune

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

  I moved to Phoenix about thirteen years ago, and as I drove around a bit back then and started learning my way around town, I took note of the various landforms surrounding us. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but South Mountain looked distinct to me — different from and more rounded than the other mountains that stick out of the relentless grid of asphalt and concrete that stretches on and on through the Valley of the Sun.

  I started looking into the reason, and one of the things I soon found out is that the rugged barrier at the south end of Central Avenue is correctly called the South Mountains (note the “s”). Where all the TV towers stand, and what most people refer to as “South Mountain”, is more properly named the Main Ridge. Looking south from the downtown area of Phoenix, you can also see a separate, smaller high point on the west end (right) of that rise. Its correct name is the Alta Ridge. Much lower, in front of it, and just next to the small town of Laveen, is the North Ridge.

  Speaking of names, the Pima Indian (Akimel O’odham) name for this set of peaks is “Muhadag Du’ag”, or “Greasy Mountain” — a take-off on the dark sheen of the rocks there, caused by a surface coloration known as “desert varnish”. If we really wanted to honor Native Americans, especially those who actually lived in the Valley, we would return its name to what they called it. We could have applied this line of thinking to certain other mountains around Phoenix as well, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

  More often than not, like everyone else in town, I also call this aggregate of lumps South Mountain. The big point here is the way it looks -a long, low dome-shaped rampart. There is one simple reason for that: the rocks of South Mountain were pushed up, basically through the crust of the Earth. Most of the other ranges around us traverse central Arizona for the opposite reason: the landscape is being pulled apart on a massive scale. They are left standing as evidence of that strain as the valleys between them, like our own, drop away slowly, surely over time. Gravity never sleeps.

  South Mountain is what is called in geology-speak a Metamorphic Core Complex, and I’ll spare you some of the technical details. That term, which from now on in this article I’ll refer to as “MCC”, is a great name to throw around at cocktail parties, and one to remember if you are ever to be on one of those TV “Question & Answer” shows with big prize money. There is a whole, albeit small, subset of humanity out there that seems to be fascinated by them, and they’re not just geologists.

  Don’t ask me why, but one time, on a whim, I typed the term into a music-sharing website, and was amazed that a song actually came up with that name. Somebody (artist unknown) had in fact named a song to honor one! I downloaded it immediately, of course, certain the musician would not have minded. It is a spacey-sounding instrumental (naturally, and gladly) — I am not sure what kind of lyrics you could put to the subject of plate tectonics.

  There is “belt” of MCC’s across western North America, running from British Columbia down into Mexico. They run right through central Arizona, and South Mountain is one of the best of them. They are thought to represent an early phase of the “pulling apart” of North America. Around 25 million years ago, the crust started to stretch in a northeast to southwest direction. As it did so, it thinned out, and lighter rocks, which were once more deeply situated, basically “bobbed up” (the pushing-up I mentioned above) as sort of dome-shaped wrinkles — the South Mountains are one such dome.

  Then, millions of years later, the crust actually started to fracture and break apart. As you might expect, the resulting cracks — called faults — run perpendicular to the orientation of the stretching. This force, then, gave us the big valleys we inhabit, and left in-between massive blocks of rock standing — these are the mountains (Camelback Mountain and Squaw / Piestewa Peak, for example) around that have weathered into jagged summits with a character unlike that of South Mountain.

  I am continually perplexed by the number of Phoenicians who have told me they’ve never been up onto the South Mountains! There is no better view of the Valley than what you can get from Dobbins Lookout (the most popular spot). When you go that viewpoint, look just to the east, at the canyon wall just below you. There you will see the rocks all stretched out, horizontally, with very gentle curves from side to side — visible testimony of the doming forces that created the South Mountains MCC (see photo). Once you see that evidence, you will notice the same rock fabric everywhere around in those peaks.

  For more on MCC’s, look at a string of six photos beginning with a view of Central Phoenix from South Mountain. The fifth view in the sequence is a view from the Space Shuttle Atlantis, looking directly down onto the subject of someone’s favorite song.


Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Ancient petroglyphs decorate a basalt boulder at the Deer Valley Rock Art Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

  Take take a look at the boulder in the picture above. You will notice that it is literally covered with markings and drawings. We call these “petroglyphs”, and they were created by pecking through the layer of desert varnish that coats many rocks in arid climates (as opposed to “pictographs”, which are painted onto rocks). Research has shown that petroglyphs in central Arizona were created between about 10,000 and 700 years ago, by peoples we now refer to as Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Hohokam.

  But, as those of you who read my GeoStories know by now, there is more than that about them that would interest me. What really arouses my curiosity is why they are there.

  They are found in various places around the Valley of the Sun. But why in one place and not another? There are plenty of rock faces and walls scattered around our area. Some have no markings, and others, like the boulders at the Deer Valley Rock Art Center, just off I-17, north of Phoenix, have hundreds or more. Operated by Arizona State University’s Department of Anthropology, this place alone preserves over 1500 such works of art.

  Here, a trail approximately .25 mile long, leads along the base of outcrops of Tertiary age basalt on the edge of the Hedgpeth Hills. This is some of the youngest rock in our area — only about 15 million years old.

  I first visited this place on a beautiful, warm, autumn day, and it seemed that I had it all to myself. The sweet, dry smell of the desert surrounded me with comfort. I was walking along this peaceful trail, looking up at the cascade of dark rocks from above, when I was startled by an abrupt, booming voice from the chaparral around.

  “Hello, sir! May I be of help to you?”

  Totally surprised, I quickly turned around, and saw a man wearing a ranger’s uniform coming towards me from out of the bushes. He was Native American, or Indian (which is the designation he later told me he preferred), stocky, strong looking, with graying hair and chiseled features, and somehow he just “beamed”.

  He introduced himself, and I could see he was “official” by the badge on his uniform.

  In a very amiable manner, he immediately started dispensing information about the Rock Art Center, its history, and of course, the petroglyphs. But I was still trying to figure out why I had not seen him at first, how I had missed noticing him as I walked along that trail. After all, the chaparral there is not that thick or tall. And it seemed that he just “didn’t fit”; as if he had just materialized on the spot. I even had the thought that he was just posing as a ranger! I liked him at once.

  We stood in or near that same place for quite some time, talking about all sorts of things — his background, American Indians, history, artwork on stone that he produces on the side — it was fascinating. I never even made it to the end of the trail! I had to leave, as it was getting late, and I had another appointment. I apologized for having to end our enlightening conversation.

  Then one thing occurred to me strongly. I felt that I had finally met someone who really knew what the petroglyphs there, and elsewhere, were really about. I mean, what were those Indians really up to with all these drawings? I know, I’ve read all the ideas posited by present-day researchers about the markings being religious art, communication symbols, or maybe just plain graffiti.

  But why, in places like this? Why, in some places and not others? What was it about this rubbly, remote (in ancient times), harsh location that inspired people for thousands of years to spend a huge amount of energy creating all these drawings?

  Finally, here was someone who knew.

  So, before turning back along the trail, I explained to my guide my quandary. Those of you familiar with my other writings know where I am going with this: what is it about the rocks that energized the ancients here?

  “I am searching for that answer,” I pleaded, “and maybe you, being a knowledgeable Indian, and an artist, can tell me.”

  His answer was, to say the least, totally unexpected, and it came without hesitation: “Perhaps, sir, what you are really searching for is your own spirituality.”


  If you want to do some “searching” along your own path, this is one place to begin. Go out there, and see what you feel in this special place. Take the Deer Valley Road Exit off I-17, and follow the signs, going west for several miles. The Center is closed on Mondays, and hours during the rest of the week vary with the season and day. You can get more information by calling 623-582-8007.

On Cloud 9

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Ancient petroglyphs on a basalt boulder in Phoenix, Arizona.

  The first time I walked up the trail on Shaw Butte, I didn’t even notice them.

  It took another trip, and a little exploring, and then I found what I had been looking for: a set of ancient ruins, and some people think, a prehistoric solar observatory. Actually, there is a sign there, posted by the City of Phoenix, asking visitors to respect these antiquities. Just behind a bush, it’s not easily noticeable from the trail, almost as if it had been planned that way. Like, “now that you’ve found this secret spot, please don’t damage it!”

  Just having read my opening lines here, you might already think you know where I am going with this article—another description of some of the Hohokam ruins for which the Phoenix area is famous.

  There is more than that, however, to this saga. These ruins are just part of a bigger picture that I want to present to you. Geology is not just something we study. Geology is something we are. By that, I mean that humans are inextricably connected to planet Earth and are part of its organic evolution.

  Those who think that nature is here for us to use, that it is at our disposal, have it all wrong. We are part of it. We are all one thing.

  For those of you not familiar with which of the peaks around Phoenix is Shaw Butte, you do know it. When traveling down I-17 from the north, it is the mountain on your left as you drive into the Valley of the Sun, just before you get to what we call Central Phoenix. The butte has a grove of tall metallic towers on its summit, and sort of a looming shape that to me has always suggested, “Welcome to Phoenix.” If you drive north on Fifteenth Avenue from, let’s say, Northern Avenue, you will run right into it.

  If you go around to the north side of the mountain, which some would call the “back” side, and look up, you will see a lot of black, rubbly-looking rock. Much of the north side of Shaw Butte is covered with this rock, known as basalt, or here, officially, the “Moon Hill Basalt”. It flowed up and out of volcanic vents around 20 to 15 million years ago. That sounds like a long time back, but actually these are some of the youngest rocks around the Phoenix area. You can see other areas of basalt around the Valley, too, and along the freeway to Flagstaff.

  When you look up at the Moon, the dark areas you see that form the “Man in the Moon” are basalt. Maybe that’s where the name of nearby “Moon Hill” came from.

  Those of you that have studied geology — even just the basics — know the three types of rocks: Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic. The above-mentioned basalt is an igneous rock, once molten.

  “New thinking” scientists now name a fourth rock-type —”Anthropic” rocks — rocks made, modified, or moved by humans. This new classificatory scheme now takes into account what should have been obvious all along.

  Think about how much of the Earth is covered with asphalt, concrete, bricks, shaped stones, and stones transported long distances (like maybe the counter tops in your kitchen). Even little gemstones are rocks which have been cut and modified by humans.

  We are transforming the surface of our planet in ways that other natural processes have never done, and in record speed! Like coral colonies in the sea which build colossal reefs, humans on their own scale add their signature to the world.

  I sat down in the musty dirt, in the middle of what is left of an 800 or 900 year old Hohokam room to ponder this concept, snacking from a bag of “Corn Nuts”, one of my favorite hiking foods. (Not that I’m really into “going native”, but these are very similar to what the Hohokam actually ate back then — roasted corn. How appropriate.)

  It had rained a few days before, and the desert still had that pungent, “wet-bushes” smell to it. The brittlebush all around glowed yellow in the low sunlight. I was all alone, and it was quiet except for the very dull roar of the suburban city stretching off below — traffic noise, occasional dogs barking, a yelled voice here or there, telling the dogs to shut up. I could see far into the distance, miles of human construction laid out everywhere.

  Black boulders surrounded me. They had been piled up to form walls, and pathways, and some sort of arrangement to guide the learned as to when to plant crops, when to get ready for the colder days of the year, when to celebrate whatever. Spiral petroglyphs had been etched into some surfaces. We will never know the exact purposes of this structure.

  Anthropic rocks. Shapes amidst geology, caused and formed by humans.   Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of time to linger there. It was an afternoon hike, just a break from work, and I had much more to do that day. I picked up my pack and walked on, past the summit, through who-knows-what-kind-of-radiation blasting out from the gigantic antennas above me.

  Then I found some more ruins, and an even better view.


  It was when I walked up into another set of crumbling walls, down through an old staircase, and out onto a weathered concrete floor that the concept of Anthropic rocks — rocks made, modified, or moved by humans — really sank in.

Downtown Phoenix, Arizona, from the ruins of Cloud Nine.

  The view of Phoenix was grand. I was standing on a semicircular deck, looking out onto a valley below, filled with roadways and houses, and tall buildings in the distance. It was like an immense green carpet laid out there, the look of a garden amongst the barren rocky peaks.

  I had come across the ridge from the Hohokam ruins I had found earlier, and discovered this!

  I tried for a moment to put myself into the mindset of some Hohokam hiker, out for a day’s stroll from the solar observatory I had just visited. You know, like one of those old “Twilight Zone” episodes, where some lonely traveler rounds a bend in a remote road, only to find himself in some future setting, filled with strange structures, the purposes of which are unknown.

  As such, I tried to let my mind just view the scene, without judging it. In the distance, long silvery objects with wings were lifting up, out, and away from near the middle of the sprawl, while others glided down into it.

  My “Hohokam mind” wondered what had happened to the valley I knew, with its low adobe buildings, vast green fields, and long sinuous canals, rippling with life-giving water. My memories recalled how small columns of smoke rose here and there from the flats — signs of cooking, and warmth. There was no roar.

  It had been replaced by this! So similar, yet, so different in its look. There were long straight streets, the patches of greenery laid out in neat square blocks, and I could still see a canal or two. The fields? They were mostly gone, and gleaming buildings of all kinds were everywhere. There were what seemed like thousands and thousands of metallic objects rolling along on the roadways. I could hear distant sounds from them like I had never heard before, like the buzz of insects, but stronger and lower in tone.

  I snapped back to reality. I had once heard of this site where I stood — it was called Cloud Nine. I was standing on the floor of a classy old restaurant which had been named “Cloud Nine”, and it must have been quite a place before it burned down in 1964. A narrow, difficult road had once brought its guests up to this point high on Shaw Butte, where they could gaze out over Phoenix in style.

  You can see this spot today from I-17, as you drive by the mountain. Standing between what are left of its walls, I tried to imagine being there in days gone by, with maybe Sinatra or Sarah Vaughn on the jukebox, the lights of the city just coming on. At one table sat two businessmen talking up a deal; at another, in a dimly lit corner, a couple plotting infidelity over a couple of drinks. I could almost hear the plates rattling, the clink of glasses, and the sizzle of grilling steaks. They smelled delicious.

  Now, all that is left are these decrepit walls and flooring. If it weren’t for the City of Phoenix Park System, these would be gone, too. But here they have been preserved, not out of choice I presume, but because they are too difficult (i.e., expensive) to get at and remove, the land not being open for commercial development. What a great set of ruins!

  I hope the City leaves them alone forever. They have as much character as the older Hohokam ones, with every bit as much right to stay on the mountain. You just need to look at them with new eyes, that’s all.

The now-deserted deck of Cloud Nine, in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.

  Though not with the original artwork, of course, the remaining walls are intricately decorated — some actually completely covered — with all colors of spray-painted symbols, slogans, and initials left by those intent on leaving their mark in the world. In their own way, those would-be artists came here on pilgrimages, whether to celebrate some event in their lives, to make some statement, or just to take in the magnificent view. I thought again about the petroglyphs I had just seen, on the boulders, over on the other side of the mountain.

  And here is where it all “clicked” for me — the subject of Anthropic rocks, I mean. I have always been very wary of “development”. I have always looked at the continual encroachment of human structures onto the natural world as a negative thing. And many times it is, to be sure. But here I realized that it is also a natural thing — a part of nature.

  As I said above, we are part of geology. Humans are modifying the surface of the Earth in drastic ways, and in big fashion. Cities, dams, highway systems, and canals are just a few examples. We are changing the nature of planet Earth faster than any other force. Whether in the form of Hohokam observatories or Cloud Nine ruins; whether in the form of ancient Hohokam cities or our modern-day metropolis, we are geology.

  What the Hohokam called their “city” we will never know. It was a human-made work of geology, situated in the Salt River Valley — a patch of structure on Earth’s surface. We call its new incarnation (appropriately) Phoenix — it too, a work of geological change, much more massive. What further will grow here in the future we can only guess about, and I have a feeling our vision will be way off.

  It’s hard to imagine 80 years into the future, let alone another 800.


Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Chimney Rocks

  Rocks are my passion. Anyone who looks at my website will realize that.

  But they will also see that my world of rocks spans everything from little ones, like gemstones, to really big ones, like the moon and planets in the sky above. Rock types that cover that whole spectrum are right up my alley.

  And the aspects of rocks that intrigue me the most are not their chemical characteristics, or their economic values, but their relationships with us. It is the “bridge”, so to speak, between rocks and other forms of life, that continuously presents new terrain to explore, and new material for thought.

  This may sound a little strange at first, but when you start to realize how much of your everyday life somehow involves rocks, those seemingly inanimate, cold, hard substances that form our world become a lot more meaningful.

  I was driving south through the Four Corners area a month or so ago, in that part of Colorado where the high peaks of the Rockies just start to open up down into and out onto the Colorado Plateau.

  Golden aspens and land that is more vertical than horizontal gives way there to red rocks and wide open spaces, punctuated by spires and pinnacles of stone, each one with an individual personality. It is where the rivers cease their tumbling and roaring, where they begin to broaden and slow, and where cattle now come to their banks for liquid refreshment. Even the smell in the air changes from cold, mountain, and evergreen, to warm, organic, grasses and desert.

  It is also where you become aware that these are more habitable lands. And they have been that way for quite some time. When you start looking around, you realize, too, that there are ruins everywhere – ancient ruins of homes and structures and temples that mystify us, for you have entered a part of the world where very little is known about the former occupants and why they came and went.

  One such set of ruins towered above me along that road: Chimney Rocks. I had read about it and studied what is known about it before I had started out on that venture, of course. But, as I’ve found is usual with such locales, its countenance and its setting was again more striking than I had expected. And here, too, not only were the ruins of the prehistoric village amazing, their placement was really integral with the rocks. They were put here because of the rocks, and not just the scenic view of them, either.

  Native Americans considered the land inseparable from culture. Temples and sacred spots were not sited in places of convenience, but in places with spiritual connection to the Earth. It’s as if such places “grew out of the Earth”.

  Chimney Rock Pueblo is one such site if I ever saw one. Alongside the rushing Rio Piedra (“stone river”), it sits along a high, steep, constricted ridge of gray and tan Cretaceous-age sandstone, and there is not much room for anything else. To its east are two great pinnacles of rock, looking like two big smokestacks might have looked jutting up from one of those old, long, Titanic-era steamships, when viewed from the side. No smoke emanating, here, however.

  And when seen from the distance below, the village is unnoticeable. It’s only when you get up to it, and walk among its crumbling stone walls and kivas, does the perspective shift. The two towers then look nearly side-by-side, and because there is a gap in the ridge between them and the pueblo, they seem to “float” above the ruins.

Chimney Rock Pueblo

  “Why here?” you might ask yourself. “Why, when all the water is a thousand feet below, would they choose to live here?” Many people and scholars have asked that very same question. There are countless archaeological remains all over the Southwest that puzzle academicians equally. Some such locations appear to be defensive. Some appear to be sited where they were for communications purposes. Some were maybe even situated for upland farming.

  But here, the latest thinking is that besides possibly having elements of the above-mentioned reasons, Chimney Rock Pueblo (or whatever they called it) was, and still is, for that matter, a monumental celestial observatory. It was a means to chart movements of heavenly bodies within the sky, and hence determine the pulse of the seasons.

  Given that, its rulers and inhabitants would have had some pretty valuable information, indeed. With apparently no paper at the time with which to do some figuring, and no timekeeping machines, they nevertheless had developed a system by which they could predict cycles of time – a chart within and of the rocks, so to speak, and their understanding of the skies was far ahead of what most people on the street today could tell you.

  As I write this, we are approaching the Winter Solstice. We also have a Summer Solstice every year, and it usually makes the news or weather report, too. Astronomical terms such as solstice, equinox, and standstill get thrown around a lot. But how many of you actually know what they mean?

  We have so little exposure to the cycles of nature in today’s world that people have lost an appreciation of what is in the sky above. Most of us live in large cities now, and those that even bother to look up at night usually see only a few stars. I get the feeling that many think of them as little lights on a domed ceiling high above – like the sparkles overhead in some kind of giant, worldly discotheque.

  While he was attending one of my stargazing sessions one time, I actually had a surgeon (after I had made a comment about where some star was in the sky at that moment, as if we could see it below the horizon) ask me, in all seriousness, “You mean that the stars go all the way around the world?”

  After all of the science, chemistry, and physics classes, and rigors of medical school that he must have gone through, he had apparently not grasped until that moment, that Earth is indeed a planet in space, and the stars lie in every direction. Only the blue haze of the daytime sky prevents us from seeing them all of the time.

  The ancient peoples of the world, especially their priests and shamans, knew all about the placement of the stars. They lived their lives with a constant knowledge of the heavens, and the solstices, equinoxes, and standstills ruled their calendars.

  Chimney Rock Pueblo is a place (and there are probably many in the Southwest) that was almost certainly sited because of astronomical events. The twin rock pinnacles form an ideal, gigantic “notch”, through which at various times, the risings of the sun and the moon could be observed from the pueblo.


  Like at its man-made, older counterpart, Stonehenge (in England), only on certain days of the year would such events happen. By careful observation over many years, the Puebloans noted that such risings could be used to predict when the seasons would change, when to plant crops, and when to start getting ready for winter.

  As for the terms I mentioned above, following are some brief explanations (and my discussion here pertains only to the Northern Hemisphere). First of all, the beginning of Winter has nothing to do with the fact that it starts to get cold out, per se.

  Because the Earth is tilted on its axis of rotation, relative to its plane of orbit around the Sun, it sometimes is fully tilted away from the Sun, and sometimes fully tilted towards it. When it is tilted fully away, the Sun appears as far south as it can in the sky, and this occurs actually at a precise moment, time-wise.

  Then Earth starts to rock back the other way. That furthest south position can most easily be noted by observing where the Sun rises on the horizon from day to day. If you watched every morning, you would see that on one particular day of the year, it would stop rising farther south than on the previous day, and that on the day following that, it would start rising to the north again.

  That position, and its corresponding time, would be called a standstill, as the Sun’s march would appear to “stand still” for a day, on the horizon, before reversing its direction. In Latin, “solstice” means “stand still”. “Winter” is the name we give to the one-fourth of the year following that astronomical moment. The beginning of “Summer” has a similar, but reversed instant, when the Sun is farthest north.

  The equinoxes are the positions exactly in between the solstice positions (as there are only two solstice positions during the year, there are also only two equinox positions). They have the names Vernal and Autumnal, and mark the beginnings of Spring and Fall, respectively. On those days, the Sun rises directly in the East, and sets directly in the West, and day and night are of equal length (hence “equinox”). The points where the Sun rises and sets on those days are also points on the horizon, likewise marked and noted by megaliths and rocks of the ancients.

  The term “standstill”, when used as such, apart from my explanations here, usually applies to the movements (risings and settings) of the Moon, which goes through similar rhythms.

  Observing celestial events from day to day, and night to night, makes the heavens come alive. For everything is moving, and some of the patterns repeat – predictably so. Watch, and you can see it too. Appreciating the sky will make you appreciate the Earth and the rocks beneath your feet. It’s almost as if the path of the stars ultimately leads one home.

  The Winter Solstice, or December Solstice (to be fair and PC to those in the Southern Hemisphere), occurs on or about December 21, every year. From that moment on, Summer is on its way.