So, sometimes you talk to people, get their thoughts on a subject or a problem, and try to write something compelling, revealing, interesting.
That can be a column.
Or, sometimes, you can hear something so revelatory and riveting that maybe the best thing to do is simply transcribe the tape and notes and let the sources say it themselves.
And there it is today.
Subject: Precious national treasures on our public lands — specifically, Bandelier National Monument and La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs. In 2022, both have experienced the kind of man-made destruction that turns the stomach of anyone who believes knowledge is power and decency, not idiocy, should be the human condition.
In the case of Bandelier, Cave Kiva was defaced, courtesy of a set of people who evidently thought scratching their names into living history was a way to be remembered. In the aftermath, the area has been closed, a penalty to the 99-something percent of visitors who simply want to enjoy, not destroy.
Bandelier isn’t Cerrillos Road. It’s not a freeway overpass between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It’s a diorama of the past 11,000 years — a you-are-there touchstone to how Native people in this area lived, thrived, survived.
Eleven thousand years. In a lot of ways, it’s hard to believe the Native tribes and the National Park Service hadn’t surrounded the thing in bubble wrap ages ago.
I called the superintendent of Bandelier, Patrick Suddath, who, to hear him tell it, got the chance of a lifetime when he was named to head the monument. His career has taken him from Alaska to Pennsylvania, but this is home: He grew up in Albuquerque. And this is Bandelier; a living piece of history that almost makes the Smithsonian look like a Dollar General.
I asked him about his frustration over the vandalism (more on that word later) and the words tumbled out.
“I look at a place like Bandelier and I hope … I feel like some people come in here and they think they’re going to someplace like Disneyland; some sort of manufactured environment,” he said. “Or someplace where it’s novel and it’s just there for their taking and their consumption. And that’s the wrong idea completely.
“These resources, they’re finite and they’re scarce, and they’re so important to so many people and so many generations upon generations upon generations who lived here way before there was any colonization happening. These connections, these roots, go so, so, so deep. To treat it like it’s some attraction or some ride that we would go to — like it’s some large ball of string on the highway or a big ball of tinfoil, to me that’s so disrespectful.
“And it [vandalism] really does erase the centuries of cultural connections and the struggles through Spanish colonization through the Pueblo Revolt through the American expansion … through all of these things that these cultures struggled through and survived through and actually ended up turning around and literally shaping the way our nation identifies itself.
“It’s not just that they survived,” Suddath continued, referring to those who lived at Bandelier all those generations ago. “It’s that they’re an integral part of who we are as a nation. Once we erase that and once it goes away, like I said, these resources are finite. When they go away, they go away. They’re not building any more of them for us. When they’re gone, they’re gone. And that to me, is just tragedy beyond tragedy.”
In January, about six months before the mess at Bandelier, another Mensa candidate and his or her friends decided to create racist graffiti on La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs in Santa Fe County. The Bureau of Land Management soon will be awarding a contract to help restore the area, said Pamela Mathis, who heads the BLM Taos Field Office.
Mathis was as eloquent and quotable as Suddath, speaking with reverence about what the petroglyphs, which go back perhaps 8,000 years, can teach today’s society. And she detailed a variety of things the bureau is trying to do to prevent similar acts of stupidity, ranging from working with nearby homeowners’ associations to surveillance to noting the potential jail time for someone convicted of such destruction.
I used the word “vandalism” in our conversation. She corrected me.
What happened at La Cieneguilla, she said, is “desecration.”
“That’s the proper word to demonstrate and to convey what has happened,” she said.
OK, so this is the place where you put a bow tie on a column — a snappy little kicker that, well, gets the last word. This time, I’m turning it over to Suddath.
“Every time I see something here that is erased or washed away, or it’s vandalized and damaged beyond recognition, you know it is never going to be the same again,” he said. “You’ve taken that opportunity away from your children. You’ve taken it away from your grandchildren. You’ve taken it away from every generation that is going to follow you, just because you feel you’ve got to write your name somewhere.”