I have called this place home for the better part of the past 20 years, and am always amazed by the complexities of the land and the people here. Last week, I explored the Caja del Rio, just west of Santa Fe for the first time. I was blown away by the innumerable petroglyphs, the vast, dry plateau, the looming 400 plus foot cliffs, and the long winding riverbed leading to the Rio Grande. I couldn’t believe all of this was just 15 minutes from Santa Fe and that I hadn’t explored it before.
My day at Caja del Rio was filled with a sense of awe about these lands, paired with seemingly endless reminders of the fragility and importance of the ecosystem. My supervisor Charlotte and I met for the first time in-person. We went to see some stunning petroglyphs on the south side of the plateau. They were a beautiful, stark reminder of the troubling history of the land we live on. A reminder that this land was stolen from the tribes and pueblos who have long called it their home. This land was used for spiritual gatherings by the Cochiti, Santo Domingo, Tesuque, Pojoaque, Jemez, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, San Felipe, Sandia, Santa Ana, and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos. There is also evidence of Navajo, Apache and even Comanche historic use in the area. This land holds enormous cultural significance so it was troubling to see graffiti on the walls of the petroglyphs and clear signs that some had been stolen from the site.
I am writing this just the day after seeing the images of the racist vandalism on the Birthing Panel just outside Moab, and it brings me both a deep sadness for the increase in hate crimes seen in this country, as well as a renewed sense of urgency to ensure that the same terrible things that happened in Utah don’t continue to happen here in the Caja del Rio.
After visiting the petroglyphs, Charlotte and I met with Garrett from NM Wild and Julian, a Santa Fe local whose family has lived in New Mexico for centuries, to hike through Diablo Canyon, down the riverbed, all the way to the Rio Grande. This walk was particularly beautiful, with the sheer canyon walls, the gusting wind, and the red-tailed hawk that flew above us from one side of the canyon to the other. The hawk was a reminder of the importance of the Caja del Rio as a wildlife corridor, especially for migratory birds. Charles Post, a filmmaker and wildlife biologist once told me that seeing a bird of prey was always a good sign for the biodiversity of the land. While walking through the canyon, we listened in on Julian’s incredible stories about his family’s connection and love for the land and wildlife there.
As we continued along the riverbed, I kept noticing that the views were incredible, but also that the land was in trouble. There were tire tracks in the riverbed, signs of new trails being created in restricted areas by Jeep tours driving off trail, and lots of graffiti on the canyon walls. Seeing this filled me with mixed emotions of happiness to be out in the land, and frustration about the recklessness with which people treat it. When we reached the river, we sat back and enjoyed a picnic together before walking back to our cars.
Charlotte and I then drove back to the southern side of the Caja where we followed a road up the plateau to see a beautiful mesa with hilly grasslands littered with trash that people drove up there to dump. It was heartbreaking. For the Caja del Rio to thrive, we need passionate stewards caring for it, and more resources and information for the public on how to enjoy and appreciate the land without harming it. The desert holds a special place in my heart. It represents life, toughness, growth, and the ability to adapt. As tough and beautiful the desert is, it also is very fragile. The land here is all deeply interconnected, and life here depends on the ability of these complex ecosystems to stay intact.