Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Gila Cliff Dwellings: The Original Rooftop Gardens?

In the mountains of western New Mexico, just east of the Continental Divide, we park our bikes for the day and catch a ride up to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

The caves are a natural formation caused by water dripping through rock.
So far, as we pedaled from Oregon down the Pacific Coast and east into Arizona, we have focused our attention on organic farms, food co-ops, community gardens and heirloom seeds. But to really understand what sustainable living would look like in the Southwest, we needed to travel back in time.
When we arrive at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, on a cold but sunny day in February, we know we have found what we were looking for.
Seven hundred years ago, the Mogollan (pronounced Mo-gee-yon) people, the earliest known inhabitants of these high desert mountains, built dwellings inside natural cliffs near the life-giving waters of the Gila River. Today, amazed tourists like us can still wander inside the caves and see the living spaces of one of the Mogollans' largest communities - just 8-10 families.

The Mogollans built structures inside the caves - some private family areas but mostly large common-use rooms. The rooms originally had roofs on them but these were destroyed in the 19th century.
Even more amazing to us is how the Mogollan people found sustenance in this harsh climate. We knew that they must have relied heavily on the three sisters - corn, beans and squash - but when you live on a cliff, where can you grow your food?

Denis, our tour guide, Mike, our driver, and Hannah

We pose the question to our tour guide, Denis, a weathered and patient cave-explorer who looks like he came straight out of a Western film. He points to the top of the mesa directly across the canyon from the cliff dwellings. There.

About 1,000 feet below us, the trickling stream creates a fertile riparian environment. But how did the Mogollans get water to their sky-high gardens? Easy. They simply caught whatever fell from the sky and stored it in large clay pots on the mesa top. The crops they cultivated would have been selected for their ability to survive on little water.
Corn cobs on display in one of the store rooms inside the cave.
The three sisters grow extremely well together - beans add nitrogen to the soil, and corn needs lots of nitrogen. The viney bean plants can grow right up the corn stalks, while the sprawling, leafy squash plants cover the soil and help keep it cool and moist.
In addition to the three sisters, the Mogollans grew sunflowers, and when deer and rabbit ventured close to the crops, they were harvested as well. Their meat was smoked for winter storage. Twenty-four species of wild plants, including piƱon pine, agave, pigweed and prickly pear cactus, rounded out the traditional diet.

Looking out from the entrance to the cliff dwellings, Denis pointed out each of these plants, and though the gardens of the sunny mesa were long abandoned, it was easy to imagine them there. Suddenly, what appeared to be a relatively lifeless desert became a landscape of food.
We disagreed with Denis on one point, however. If the best place for the garden was on top of the mesa, why wouldn't the Mogollans simply used the mesa above their cliff dwellings? The cliff was a bit steeper than the one across the canyon, but with a ladder woven of yucca fibers, the climb would have been a quick one. Definitely easier than climbing down to the river and then up the other side to pick a fresh ear of corn or snag a rabbit for dinner.

Either way, the Mogollans lived in the region - in caves all over these mountains - for 1,000 years without depleting the resources offered by their environment or relying on outside inputs to survive. Now that's a good example of sustainability.
Today, in many urban areas, rooftop gardens are coming back into style. We wonder what the Mogollans would have thought of our civilization, and what they could teach us today about living well and living local.
We left the mountains of New Mexico wistfully, half wishing that our trip back in time could have lasted a little longer - like, forever. On the other hand, it's easy to idealize the lifestyles of peoples long gone. The Mogollans may have lived richly, but at least we get to travel widely and live richly when we can. Thankfully, the desert plants are still as they were 1,000 years ago, and we're not worried about starving as we enter some of the more remote desert regions of Texas. Stay tuned for prickly pear recipes!

The Apaches moved into the region after the Mogollans disappeared, but they didn't occupy the caves because they wouldn't have wanted to disturb the existing spirits. Today the tourists and spirits seem to coexist peacefully.

A modern-day rooftop garden as seen in the New York Times. Rooftops are a great place to grow a few potted herbs or go crazy with multiple raised beds, no matter what climate you're in!

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