Features & Stories


Story and photos by Trudy Frisk

Canyon Country

In 1888, on a cold December day, ranchers Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason rode along Mesa Verde searching for cattle which had strayed from the Alamo ranch. They dismounted and followed tracks to the mesa’s edge. To their amazement, in the opposite wall of the canyon, they saw an ancient city of the Anasazi. There were over two hundred rooms. The cattle could wait. The two men used their lariats and nearby dead trees to fashion a rough ladder with which they descended the cliff. They made their way across the canyon floor and scrambled up the other side to inspect the ruin. Mightily impressed,

Wetherill and Mason climbed back up onto Mesa Verde to search for more sites. They found one, which they named Spruce Tree House, just as dusk was falling, and another, Square Tower House, they called it, the next morning. Today Cliff Palace, the first site glimpsed from Mesa Verde by the two ranchers, is one of the most famous ruins in the world.

The discovery changed their lives. The Wetherill brothers, respected Colorado ranchers, became dedicated, mostly self-taught archaeologists, renowned for their exploration of Anasazi sites. There is no record of the fate of those missing cattle, but they certainly played their part.

Lost cities have always perplexed me. How is it possible to lose a city? Surely a family wouldn’t head out for a busy day of hunting and gathering without making a note of the way home? Dropping a trail of pine nuts or something. You can’t always count on a pair of bovine-tracking cowboys to come along and rediscover the place.

Yet, for centuries, explorers have been stumbling back from jungles, deserts, and lava beds gasping that a city, an entire city was just over that ridge, or past the third row of banyan trees. This always seemed news to the locals. (To be fair, neighbouring Utes, knew about Anasazi ruins and had shown some to the Wetherills.) But, in general, the lost city was as much a surprise to nearby communities as it was to the explorers. I couldn’t understand it. Misplacing, then forgetting, a whole city seemed sheer carelessness.

This spring I’ve decided I’ve been too harsh on the ancient ones. In spring things grow. Rapidly. The flowering plum reaches out a tentative branch to the pyramidal cedar four feet away. Just a few lax weeks and the homeowner will need jungle training to fight through the shrubbery to the water tap and garden hose hidden behind it.

I discovered a flower cage up to its knees in goutweed, putting up a brave but losing battle, between the spirea and oriental poppies. There ought to be two other cages. But, where? The goutweed’s not talking.

Small garden sprinklers stare in terror at clumps of clematis and golden elder. "Get lost in there, and it’d be all over until the archaeologists started digging!" I can hear them thinking. "Don’t drop me! I don’t want to be an artifact five hundred years from now!"

You’d be forgiven for assuming that plants only want to eradicate all traces of garden tools which keep them trim, except that they’re just as harsh to each other. A vague stare round the side flower bed for the columbine reveals a few left over seed pods beside a salvia smirking and flexing its fronds. The ‘law of the jungle’ likely originated with vines and creepers, not leopards and jaguars.

Bird Feeder 1998

Bit by bit, leaf by leaf, stronger plants take over. When the tulip bed, which used to be in the sunny center of the lawn, features tulips with a predominant eastward slant from reaching for the light, it’s time to be firm with the towering white lilac behind it. Trimming the lilac will also free the bird feeder, which hasn’t been seen since the winter of 1998, from its leafy prison

It might take a few years to eliminate all traces of a dwelling, but given time and absence of pruning shears, it could be done. The summer my family went on a cross-Canada camping trip, we hired a gardener to take care of the half-acre yard. He quit the second week. But, we didn’t know that till a month later when we pulled into our driveway and stared in horror at the Concord grape vines from the trellis in the back. They’d climbed up and over the roof and were well on their way to transforming the whole house into a local version of Sleeping Beauty’s palace.

You turn your back on plants at your peril. None of them are really tame; in fact, the ‘domestic’ ones are the worst. Native plants have usually worked out an equitable balance with their surroundings. Domestic ones want to run wild just for the fun of it. They long for one feral season out on the hills, beating up the sagebrush and showing the saskatoon who’s boss.

Like some of us, they yearn for the freedom beyond their artificial boundaries.

If Nature put its undisturbed mind to it, it could hide a city. Small tendrils here, dust there, new plants taking root in wind-blown soil. A decade or two and you’ve got Angkor Wat.

I’m not relaxing in any lawn chair without sharp, strong snippers within arm’s reach. And, cowboys, keep a watchful eye. You may find more than wandering cattle.


Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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