Mimbres Pottery

Although we think of the west as new, it’s only new to the United States. Many native cultures and the Spanish Empire traipsed across the Southwest for centuries and millennia before it was the American frontier, and their legacy remains. As an easterner, nowhere I’ve ever lived had that depth of surviving history. I still have a lot to learn.

 

The Mogollon (roughly pronounced MUH-guh-yun) Culture was one of three ancient cultures in the southwest, along with the Pueblo and the Hohokam. The Mimbres branch of the Mogollon lived in southwest New Mexico. The people of the Gila Cliff Dwellings only lived there for about a generation, likely driven there by desperation. Compared to Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, the Gila Cliff Dwellings are quite small. The culture disappeared from the region shortly thereafter. But their pottery remains influential today, over 500 years after the culture that produced it collapsed.

Mimbres pottery is astonishing. Many southwestern cultures have beautiful pottery with rich design and symbolism. Mimbres pottery is different. It depicts compelling geometric abstractions of animals and people, employing artistic devices not seen in European art until this century.

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque has a nice collection; I picked up a great book of designs in the gift shop, Mimbres Classic Mysteries by Tom Steinbach Jr. Most books about Mimbres pottery show photographs of the works. This book shows the designs themselves, which are brilliant. All images in this post are from that book.

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Sandhill crane design, almost like something from the art deco movement.

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Humorous design featuring a great blue heron, with the fishes hiding in the one place the heron’s neck cannot reach.

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Intertwined ram’s heads

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Man/crane design. The author suggests it looks like a Picasso. I am struck by the use of negative space.

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Bat design

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Exploring New Mexican Names: Mount Taylor

Mount Taylor is a volcano 80 miles west of Albuquerque, the most prominent feature in the western panorama looking from the foothills of the Sandias. It was named in 1849 for then-President Zachary Taylor. The Navajo call it “Tsoodził” (don’t ask me to pronounce that), and the mountain is important in the beliefs of the Navajo and local pueblo peoples. The mountain is rich in uranium, and was a mine until 1990. In nearby Grants, you can visit a mock uranium mine. Mount Taylor is also the site of the grueling-sounding Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, featuring biking, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. 

Zachary Taylor was the second and last Whig to be elected to the presidency. Both he and William Henry Harrison were generals, and both died early in their presidential terms. Taylor was mostly apolitical; the presidency was his first elected office. He fought in the War of 1812, against the Black Hawk Indians in what is now Minnesota, and against the Seminoles in Florida. He became known as “old rough and ready.” His daughter married future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, but she died three months into the marriage.

Taylor came to national prominence during the Mexican-American War. This war eventually brought the territory of New Mexico into the union, and is detailed in Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War. Taylor won famous victories in the Battle of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista. The war was initially popular, and Taylor became correspondingly popular after his victories. Taylor privately opposed the war from its beginning, calling an early troop movement “injudicious in policy and wicked in fact.”

Democratic president James K. Polk (1845-1849), who had almost single-handedly created the war, grew frustrated that Taylor, a whig, was getting credit for what Polk considered democratic achievements. Before the Battle of Buena Vista, Polk stripped Taylor of a portion of his troops, leaving Taylor and his troops more vulnerable to attack from the army of Mexican general Santa Anna. Santa Anna was a busy boy in early Mexican history; he was president 11 nonconsecutive times, and he was the leader of the Mexican forces at the Battle of the Alamo in the Texas revolution. As time passed, the war grew unpopular, and so did Polk. After the invasion of Mexico City, the war stagnated, with US forces harassed by guerrilla warfare. US troops committed atrocities, such as the Agua Nueva Massacre. Polk wanted to annex all of Mexico, and some wealthy individuals in Mexico preferred this to the constant coups that plagued early Mexico. But would this territory permit slavery? And how would dreaded dark skinned Catholics be allowed to become citizens? Eventually, the upper one-third of Mexico’s territory was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (a treaty that Polk opposed, but grudgingly accepted).

Taylor never saw Mount Taylor nor set foot in New Mexico, as far as I can tell. But he made his mark on the modern state of New Mexico in a couple of ways. The Mexican-American War brought most of the territory of New Mexico into the United States. And during his brief presidency, Taylor opposed Texas’ claims to the eastern half of New Mexico. Thanks in part to President Taylor, I live in New Mexico and not Texas.

Taylor assumed the presidency in March of 1849. Perhaps Polk resented this, but not for long; he had the shortest retirement of any president, dying just three months after leaving office. In the 1800s, presidents took office on March 4th after the election. Because March 4th, 1849 fell on a Sunday, Taylor refused to be sworn in. This led to “President for a Day” David Rice Atchison, who is slightly famous in my home state of Missouri. Taylor lacked specific policies and history considers him to be in the worst 25% of presidents. On July 4th, 1850, President Taylor ate some fruit and milk at a Fourth of July celebration. He became ill and died on July 9th, leaving Vice President Millard Fillmore, who is rated even worse than Taylor, historically. Polk, incidentally, is rated 10th best president, a ranking I suspect the author of A Wicked War disagrees with.

Perhaps someday I will learn how to pronounce Tsoodził, what it means, and the names and meanings of Mount Taylor in the Puebloan languages. Until then, I suppose Old Rough and Ready will have to do. He seems like the sort of person one makes do with.

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Bacigalupi’s “Water Knife” revisited: Considering “Cadillac Desert” and “Collapse”

A few months ago I read and reviewed Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. It’s a semi-apocalyptic view of water shortages in the not-too-distant future American west. Although I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t buy into the central crisis of the book—a water crisis severe enough to send states practically to war with one another. Then again, I’ve lived most of my life in Missouri, New York, and Virginia; I knew nothing about water scarcity. After The Water Knife piqued my interest, I read two nonfiction books about societal collapse and the history of water rights: Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

The Water Knife is clearly a call to action. It begs the reader to read Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here). The 1986 Cadillac Desert (with a 1993 addendum) details water-related shenanigans too absurd for science fiction. It details the construction of the LA aqueduct using mules; it reveals the snail darter controversy as a boondoggle of an evil bureaucracy; it details the pissing contest between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Did you know that our largest desalination plant is far from any coast? The Yuma Desalination Plant on the Colorado River ensures that the water we send on to Mexico satisfies international treaty. Thousands of miles of irrigation makes the water almost toxically saline by the time it reaches the border. It’s hard to pick the most breathtaking farce detailed in Cadillac Desert—is it the river sent over a 2,000 foot mountain to reach southern California? Is it the Teton Dam, which collapsed immediately and eliminated several towns because the engineers chose not to worry about the caves in the rock next to the dam?

I read The Water Knife wondering all the while how plausible its central conflict was. The Water Knife provides none of the lurid water history that Cadillac Desert did, just a strong message to go read that book. Usually I resist exposition in fiction, but The Water Knife ended up feeling ungrounded to me without more education. Its insistent references to Cadillac Desert were an appeal to an authority I lacked any knowledge of. Most of the United States population lives in wet parts of the country without knowledge of water rationing. After reading Cadillac Desert, the lack of detail felt even more disappointing. Many of the tales of that book, especially of the CAP (Central Arizona Project), would have provided easy fodder. Books about Mars colonies explain how colonists find oxygen with some scientific exposition; The Water Knife should have included a little exposition to orient us naive easterners.

Cadillac Desert expounds upon the ecological damage, financial waste, and altogether pointlessness of many western water projects, but it doesn’t speak much of pending disaster. It showed me how absurd and illogical the western water structure is, a point that The Water Knife relies upon. The book I read next contained a vivid reminder of the fragility of the American west. That fragility has ruined lives and cities before.

Jared Diamond’s Collapse details why a variety of civilizations collapsed, including the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico. Diamond explains how deforestation in the fragile desert ecosystem combined with a drought eventually led to widespread collapse of the civilization. I visited Chaco Canyon three months ago. It’s a strange place—a dozen massive ruins in a remote desert canyon. One can’t help but wonder how or why anyone lived there. Again and again, Diamond details how civilizations over exploit their natural resources, face adversity, and often collapse in the face of that adversity.

I don’t know if I believe that the southwest will collapse into a post-apocalyptic hellhole in the nearish future. As a new transplant to the west, The Water Knife strikes a frightening tone. But like the book about colonists on Mars, it need not be literally possible or true, it tells a fun story and kindles the imagination about the future of the American west. I enjoyed The Water Knife. But I was better able to feel its message after  supplemental nonfiction reading. I think The Water Knife would have affected me more if it supplied more of that information within the book. And to any other reader of The Water Knife patient enough to add another 1000 pages of reading to their list, Cadillac Desert and Collapse are excellent supplementals to The Water Knife.

 

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Great Pop-up books

Last week, I wrote about my own pop-up work. I’ve admired pop-ups since I was a kid, although I had only one pop-up book throughout my childhood. It was called Les Dinosaures and it was in French. I don’t read a word of French, but I examined the book until I shredded it. I suppose after my parents saw the wreck I made of that book, I never got another one until I started buying my own in adulthood. Below are a few of my favorites. As you can see, pop-ups cover any topic, from the literary to the historic to the nerdy. Pop-ups convey wonder and humor. I’d love to hear pop-up suggestions, too!

The White House: A Pop-Up of our Nation’s Home

Hot off the presses, a 2016 pop-up book. In my favorite page, opening a tab opens a curtain, but a photo would hardly do it justice. Little delights abound in this book. I found my copy at the LBJ presidential library in Austin, Texas.

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Moby Dick

I found this lovely pop-up at the Kansas City Art Museum. Their gift shop had dozens of pop-ups, and in a frenzy, I had to choose one. This book has ships with riggings, pull tabs, and twisting whirlpools. It’s cartoonish and I love it.

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Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy

I have a habit of finding my pop-up books in strange places; my Star Wars pop-up book came from the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys. The museum contains numerous lovely dollhouses, historic and modern, in southwestern styles, Victorian styles, and more. It’s also full of Star War toys. This pop-up book is so jammed full it can be hard to open. The back panel features Luke and Vader facing off with lightsabers, which light when the page is opened. My favorite page shows Anakin Skywalker in the Vader mask–as you open the page, his face disappears into the mask. A true nerd’s pop-up book.

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America’s National Parks: A Pop-Up Book

Perfect for the 100th Anniversary of the Park System, it’s the National Park pop-up book. This book alternates between pop-up pages and flat pages, which is a great way to fit a little more information into the book. The Yellowstone geyser page is lovely, but so tall it was tough to capture photographically. Appropriately, I got this book at Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Popping up again

I love pop-up books and cards. They join art and engineering in a way that tickles my brain. I love collecting books, and I love designing too.

That love of design has led me to reopen my Etsy store, ViroBooks. My shop has posters, pop-up cards, and hand-bound books.

My latest project is a set of four greeting cards: Cats dreaming of mischief. The cover shows a cat curled in sleep, and four different interiors show different kinds of idyllic kitty mayhem.

I had such fun designing and assembling these cards. I am brimming with inspiration, so look to see some future works related to New Mexico, Albuquerque, science, and more!

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Sports photography: Great fun, great challenge

I love the Olympics. It’s the best time to view water polo and women’s sports. I marvel at the myriad body shapes and talents. I love the history of the events. I am an Olympics nerd, and this time every four years I watch a LOT of TV.

The beautiful HD video that streams into our homes every day masks the difficulty that is sports photography. Sports photography is the most challenging type of photography I’ve encountered. Subjects move quickly, and you can’t always get very close to them. For indoor events, available light is limited, strange in color, or multi-colored. The subject can approach quickly making depth-of-field an issue. My favorite sports, water sports, have a couple extra layers of difficulty: the camera dislikes water, and half the game happens under it. I’m still not as good at sports photography as I’d like to be.

Below are a few of my favorite sports images from over the years. Some are very old and maybe not as good as newer ones, but I remember the feeling I got capturing them. I remember how I fought for good images with my low-ISO camera and my poor-quality zoom. I spent hours in post-processing working to get what I could.

If you’re interested in sports photography, college events are great practice grounds. You can often get closer than at pro events and catch unusual sports too. Be aware of the camera policies in place, however. When I moved to Virginia, I was dismayed to find that the ACC allows no lenses over 3 inches in length, at least for football. If you can get close to the action, beware for your body and your camera. I developed a great reflex for shielding the camera from splashes during water polo games.

And without further ado, some of my favorite sports images.

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Art Deco Posters: Water Polo, the gentleman’s game

The Olympics are coming up! It’s that rare time when non-professional sports get to shine! As a lover and player of water polo, I get so inspired watching the amazing men and women of the world expressing their mutual disdain through grabbing, elbowing, and splashing in the big pool. Water polo is GREAT.

As I type this, I nurse a bruise from a deliberate kick in the back, some mystery bruises on my arm, and a sprained thumb. I can only hope I gave as good as I got. But really, one of the wonderful things about water polo is the intensity of the violence compared to the mildness of injury. You cannot fall down or run into a wall, and any underwater shenanigans are dissipated by the water. As I have often said, water polo enables to player to express all of the intent, but little of the impact. That’s perfect!

As I have demonstrated again and again, I love art deco design. I love old art deco Olympic posters; they’ve inspired my water polo art before. Water polo is a niche sport, and there isn’t a ton of art out there for it. Additionally, I enjoy contrasting the gentility of art deco design with the brutal public image of water polo. The soft civility of art deco posters in many way jives with how the game feels as a participant—it’s like a big tea party with all of my scantily-clad friends.

So, as we near these (hopefully sewage free but probably not) Olympics, I hope you’ll enjoy my water polo posters. I got inspired when the Olympic Trials were on TV a few months ago, so you can only imagine how much I’ll enjoy the Olympics.

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