Book review — Canyon Gardens: The Ancient Pueblo Landscapes of the American Southwest

Article published in Indian Country Today in May 2007.

Past is prologue in Canyon Gardens: The Ancient Pueblo Landscapes of the American Southwest (University of New Mexico Press: 2006). Editors V.B. Price and Baker H. Morrow have assembled 15 essays on the millennium-old Puebloan landscape. Leading archaeologists, architects, landscape designers, paleoethnobotanists and others offer nuanced commentary on its history and find lessons for today. The most important lesson, writes Price in his introduction, “is that it is possible to ‘design with nature’ … while at the same time altering natural flows and engineering landscapes to better serve human needs.”

Architectural historian Rina Swentzell, Santa Clara Pueblo, shows what happens when this teaching is disregarded or even quashed. In the chapter “Conflicting Landscape Values,” she compares the psychological consequences of two physical settings. One place is Santa Clara Pueblo itself, in a valley and oriented around the people’s emergence place. Children felt safe there, writes Swentzell, and able to explore their world with “tremendous confidence and an unquestioning sense of belonging within the natural ordering of the cosmos. Learning happened easily.”

Swentzell contrasts this with the rigid discomfort of the Santa Clara Day School, built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1890s with the idea of assimilating the Pueblo’s children. Surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and set on a denuded five-acre tract, the school emphasized the value of things from other places and other cultures — things found in books, not in the immediate community and landscape. The result for students, writes Swentzell, was “lack of confidence and feelings of inadequacy.”

In the chapter “Landscape and Survival,” Price decries another way in which the old lessons are ignored. He writes that modern developers despoil land and water, as they scatter energy- and water-guzzling housing across the arid West with a “ham-fisted” approach. He worries as a conservationist that mainstream builders will never understand the sensitivity to place apparent in both old and contemporary Puebloan landscapes.

In his essay, Price distinguishes between the ancestral survival philosophy, in which humans use simple, elegant means to adapt to nature’s requirements, and today’s less forgiving “sustainability,” in which humans push nature just to the point where it can still regenerate whatever resources have been stripped away. Sooner or later, the true character of the land catches up with you, Price says, warning that “development in the West is digging its own grave.”

Though mainstream culture has largely discounted Pueblo knowledge, the reverse is not necessarily true. In “Zuni Maize,” Mary Beath describes Zuni use of scientific analyses to help repair destruction to the community’s traditional agricultural landscape by off-reservation clear-cutting and the construction of large dams. The scientific information is less a departure than an extension of what the Zuni have been doing all along, says Beath: “Much as they cultivated with the topography, the soils, the wind, the rain, the heat and the cold, they were trying to work with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with science, and not be swallowed.”

Debunking old saws of Southwestern scholarship is another concern of Canyon Gardens. An essay by archaeologist Stephen H. Lekson takes on the concept of “permanence” in Pueblo settlements, popularized by Ruth Benedict in her influential 1934 work, Patterns of Culture. Benedict’s idea caught on, theorizes Lekson, because the idea of a people who stayed put provided a comforting sense of continuity to an immigrant nation.

However, that stasis was an illusion, Lekson says. Instead, Pueblo communities ranged widely, with a few eventually deciding they’d found the destination they were seeking. Most, however, were halted in their peregrinations by the arrival of the conquistadors and the confinement of the Pueblos to land grants awarded by the Spanish crown. When the United States took over, it honored the relatively small tracts, while benefiting from the notions that Pueblo homelands were diminutive and that Puebloans had no relationship to their previous homes, which had been abandoned.

In the chapter “Tewa Fields, Tewa Traditions,” archaeologist Kurt Anschuetz looks beyond the large-village studies so common in Southwestern archaeology to the surrounding land in which the people “made their living,” in his terminology. From this perspective, Anschuetz confirms that architecture is not what is permanent in the Pueblo world but rather the very idea of movement. By way of example, he notes that the Tewa visited and reoccupied old home sites and fields and did not, in fact, abandon them. Indeed, the residential instability — and the resulting fallowing of fields — may well have been a more productive strategy for survival across the generations than staying put would have been.

Moreover, Anschuetz says, the Tewa were creative managers of their fields: continually adapting their agricultural methods to cope with short- and long-term environmental change. He describes a diverse range of fields, tailored to local conditions and functioning year-round: Thanks to snowmelt trapped in winter by gravel mulches, during the warm months the beds supported cultivated food plants, along with useful non-domesticated ones. The ongoing manipulations of water had spiritual connotations, he adds, and reaffirmed “the interdependency of people and their cultigens, especially maize.”

The issues explored in Canyon Gardens have implications for federal, state and local land- and water-management planning, said Anschuetz in a separate interview: “These policies could serve all the people more appropriately if they drew from traditional-community knowledge and understood, as it does, that humans are an integral part of the landscape — not outside it.”

Implementing the lessons of the Puebloan terrain is a challenge for all of us. Morrow, in his epilogue to Canyon Gardens, concludes that the subtle ancestral landscape “will tell us its story if we can sit quietly and listen.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard, taken at a site that did not figure in the book.

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