My family spent some time today in Mesa Verde National Park. It’s my third or fourth trip here since my parents moved us to Colorado when I was in junior high school. I was excited to be there in part because it’s beautiful, in another part because it’s fascinating history, and in a third part because all of my children are old enough that they’ll remember the trip.
The last time I brought children to Mesa Verde, my oldest daughter, now thirteen, was under two, and she rode on my back as we made the trek from car to cliff dwellings to museum to souvenir stand to car again.
This time, we walked around the park and enjoyed the views and conversation with a ranger or two as we wondered together about the people of the past who built the spaces we were exploring.
You’ve got to love a good park ranger. And in my time, I’ve never met a bad one. They like people, they like learning, and they know all sorts of interesting stuff. And they’re passionate about all three.
The ranger on our guided tour today was no exception. As we sat on a rock under a cliff, looking out across to the Cliff Palace, one of the most elaborate cliff dwellings in the park, her comments turned for a moment to bigger things than how old the walls were and what the folks ate.
She framed our time together as an experience of people seeking knowledge, and then our faithful guide pivoted from the history of the place and into some essential wisdom around the history of archeology.
“Only rich white guys in power were allowed to be archeologists, to study other people without being studied in return,” she said. All fifty or so folks were with her, listening intently and in the palm of her hand as she calmly continued.
She went on to explain that several previous theories about who had lived in these places had been wrong, made up largely by those rich white guys who weren’t bothering to listen to the oral traditions of other people still in the area. People who, once they were heard, had plenty to teach the Park Service and the scientific community at large about the folks who’d been there before.
Those rich white guys had brought their own assumptions to the picnic, she told us, and because they didn’t have other voices in their conversation, they got led astray.
Science is better when everyone is at the table, and there are diverse voices and perspectives all challenging each other. We are better when we all explore together.
That’s what the park ranger said.
And then we wandered into the cliff dwellings and looked at nine hundred year old homes.
Her lesson unfinished, she ended our time together with a gaze into a kiva, the underground pit where many families performed religious and or social functions together.
As knowledge seekers, she reminded us, we have to remember that we don’t exactly know what happens in a culture other than our own. And that’s okay, because the people of a culture might not want their secrets shared with strangers, with others. And that’s something we, as seekers of knowledge, have to grapple with as we explore.
Park rangers, y’all.
I asked her after the tour if she was on script or not when she veered into those essential directions. She acknowledged that was her talking, and not necessarily her employer. I told her to keep it up.
I hope all of her comments are on the official script soon. My family will revisit them repeatedly in the weeks ahead as we continue to explore our world.
This month, the National Writing Project and the National Park Service have been doing a joint project around writing in our national parks. I love that these folks are friends. It just makes sense. I thought I’d jot a poem or two about my time in the park today. This felt more pressing and important. For now.