Dedicated to the Memory of Rina Swentzell
When, through lack of vigilance, I allow modern life’s challenges and vicissitudes to ruffle my feathers, I quickly reach for my time-honored medicina. For nada will bring me back to center so effectively as a walk or run through the nearby montes and arroyos behind my home. At the end of the trail, the act of saying a few words of thanksgiving for our spectacular living planeta tierra and its continuous outpouring of gifts always deepens my experience of this self-prescribed ritual.
It also helps reawaken in me a profound recognition of the miraculous nature and incomparably grand scale of the place that we inhabit at both the micro- and macrocosmic levels. In speaking of the scarcely three-mile-thick layer of breathable atmosphere which envelops our planetary home, we routinely refer to it as “sky,” but rarely do we consciously and collectively sing its praises or honor it through ritual, ceremony or song, as many other culturas have done. True, modern astronomy, coupled with space missions equipped with highly sophisticated research tools, have been able to probe distant points of our galaxy and beyond. These have delivered back to us awesome images of celestial phenomena as well as an appreciation for the vastness of space and the minuteness of our planet in the grand scheme of things.
Given the great natural beauty and order through which I have the privilege of traversing on these forays into the land, I am unable to refrain from directing some form of gratitude to a nameless energy, force or inteligencia to help remind me of the many blessings that come with life in Nuevo México. Uppermost among them is our ability to roam freely along fantastically sculpted, natural amphitheaters of foothills, mesas and mountains. It is against these ancient geologic formations that the most spectacular rain and snowstorms occur, as well as the most formidable displays of light throughout the day, but especially en la madrugada y la tardecita.
From the highest points of our graduated landscape, the starry night sky comes alive in untold splendor and complexity, revealing an endless array of gleaming constellations such as Orion’s Belt or the Pleiades. It also reveals brilliant planets and stars such as Venus and Mars, as well as the forever on-the-go luna, in all of its subtle and sublime phases of waxing and waning. As magnificent as these celestial bodies are, none can compare with the visual impact produced by the long swath of millions of dust-like specks, which we know to be the estrellas that comprise the Via Lactea, the galaxy to which our solar system belongs.
The original Pueblo peoples, devoted observers of celestial phenomena and especially the errant rain-bearing clouds, utilized every tier of this landscape as the premier celestial observatory that it is. For them, it was also a landscape consisting of sacred lugares where they left offerings of cornmeal and prayer sticks to honor the great Misterio. The tops of hills and mesas afforded them grand vistas of distant horizons and cloud formations passing overhead, sometimes in the shape of giant creatures or plumes, billowing mountains of algodón, blankets of somber gray or, if the gods should be looking favorably upon the people, curtains of precious rain.
It was the ambulatory curtains of poeh that made them the happiest, especially when copious streams of transparent life-giving liquid dropped upon their thirsty fields. From these plots, the people gleaned, at times, abundant harvests of grains, fruits and vegetables. As much a gift of the sky as of the Earth, they shared these juicy foodstuffs with one another in the quiet recesses of their pueblos, multistoried configurations that mimicked the step-up formations of their beloved land.
The moon, stars and clouds are not the only protagonists of the luminous and dramatic cielos nuevo mexicanos. Given our region’s preponderance of clear sunny skies—as many as 300 per year—the hot burning sol del verano and the subdued solecito del invierno, in addition to receiving our ardent alabanzas, are frequently the object of our vehement protests. A friend from upstate New York recently told me that, when she moved to Nuevo México, she discovered for the first time in her life the powerful fiery sun. Before then, it had been but a faint disk in the sky, hiding behind the canyonesque streets of her bustling city or the dense, deciduous forests of the Northeast. Here, it was everything.
The rich mantle of royal blue that is our clear skies’ hallmark is also, for many, the object of intense wonderment. While our skies are among the most precious of the intangible gifts we enjoy, it is also clear that, with the passage of time and the accumulation of technological wizardry, we tend to progressively ignore and even debase them. Comfortably encapsulated in our automobiles moving north along busy Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe, we can scarcely pay attention to the sublime cosmic scene unfolding before our eyes of the snow-capped mountains and low hanging clouds of winter that progress from a rich, ruby red to violet at day’s end. We peer out of a corner of office windows to catch a glimpse of a rainbow.
Far from stirring a deep sense of wonder in our souls, increasingly, los cielos, are merely seen as convenient freeways for our fast-moving jets which leave behind signature contrails. The sky has also been relegated to serve as a reservoir for toxic emissions and greenhouse gases, much to our peril, as well as a dumping ground for space trash that sometimes makes its way back to Earth. Architecturally, we rarely do anything to enhance our appreciation for this source of light, beauty and inspiration as the Chacoans or the builders of Stonehenge had. Too often, we block our vecinos’ views of the mountains and skies with cell towers or big, unremarkable structures. Especially in urban areas, we eliminate all awareness of the workings of the heavens above by illuminating the night sky with our own artificial luz.
How is it that la humanidad, so engrossed with the toys of its own making, including countless missiles, bombs and machinery of every kind, can fail to pay atención to the grand cathedral of the sky, for some, the long-awaited eternal abode of our souls and the home to ancient gods and goddesses?
How do we in these early years of the 21st century, when we are staring over the edge of a precipice, regain a sense of awe and reverence for the heavens—or for anything? For us puny humanos, can the knowledge that the sky may be both the gateway to the entire cosmos and the source of the energies that first ignited the flicker of life on this fragile planeta convince us of its importance and of the imperative that it remain as pristine as possible?
If the cielo is allowed to express itself in such grand ways as it does to this day in Nuevo México, without getting much more polluted, then perhaps it may yet remain a powerful and unrivaled source, not only of sustainable weather patterns but also of deep spiritual inspiration and of a regenerative visión cósmica well into the distant futuro.
Alejandro López’s writing frequently combines his experience of growing up in rugged, rural, Spanish and Tewa-speaking northern New Mexico with an appreciation for the canons of English and American literature. His articles, at times, reflect the multicultural reality of this part of the world, shuttling back and forth between languages, as many native New Mexicans often do. López’ photography part of the permanent collection of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, The National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque and the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe.