Category Archives: Walnut Canyon National Memorial

I Spy from Sky High

Aside from its 7000 foot elevation and lack of community garage sales (or garages, for that matter), it was still a different sort of neighborhood.  While I might glance across my street to admire lush landscaping or to see if the neighbor who occasionally rides to my lawn’s rescue on a John Deere lawnmower is headed my way, Walnut Canyon tenants watched the inhabitants of their cliff side community for more serious considerations.

The Sinagua people’s version of the neighborhood watch was an ongoing monitoring of cross-canyon villages.  Awareness lowered the probabilities of surprises in a place where the unexpected was unlikely to be a positive event.  A cliff side perch allowed for controlled access and a passive defense.  It was community living at arms length and with a roughly 600 foot drop-off in between.

Water could be found far below.  Sometimes.  Water storage was critical as the dry season was desert dry —the Spanish words sin and agua translate to “without water.”  Food was hunted, gathered and grown on the relatively fertile soil of the cliff rims above.  Observing the neighbors in 1125 AD was more about computing essential survival information than today’s mundane curb check to verify trash collection day.

The cliff dwellings: Sinagua Style Sky-boxes

The lifestyle: Just a Wild Guess?


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Sinagua Style Sky-Boxes

Narrow ledges served as both pathways and playgrounds for the Sinagua people during their 100 year stay in Walnut Canyon.  Walking to the neighbors on a starless night would have been quite an adventure as would have been managing a tottering toddler, but their homes, built into the recesses of Walnut Canyon’s cliffs, provided both protection (from the elements, wildlife and enemies) as well as access to essential food and water. From their cave homes, the Sinaguas could monitor and prepare for approaching strangers. Yet directly above them was the flatter land of the canyon rim where they could grow beans, squash and drought-resistant corn and hunt deer. Six hundred feet below, Walnut Creek provided precious water for part of the year. Good water conservation and storage, supplemented by snow melt in the winter allowed the Sinaguas to live in relative comfort in the semi-arid climate.

The cramped cliff residences brought to mind primitive arena style sky-boxes -minus the plush seating and catered meals. Built by the Sinagua women from limestone rocks and gold clay, the walled cave homes were finished with a clay plaster. Situated to insulate, shelter and shade, the rooms had differing purposes. The larger rooms were most likely housing, and the many smaller rooms would have been used for storage. Children probably didn’t need much prompting to “go outside and play” with such cramped living quarters.

Within 100 years of their arrival, the Sinaguas moved on, eventually integrating, it is thought, into the Hopi tribe. Why they left is addressed by theories ranging from the ecological to the religious. What they left behind is more tangible: it is essentially a cliff side memorial to the men, women and children who once made Walnut Canyon their home.

Updated from May 19, 2010.


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Just a Wild Guess?


Soon after Mother’s Day each year I plant a few chili pepper plants, cilantro and some basil in a small garden area by the garage. With enough pavement between the edibles and the woods to at least confuse the ravenous deer, we generally enjoy a partial harvest. There’s something elementally satisfying in adding fresh picked anything to your dinner plate. There’s also reassurance in knowing that these home-grown contributions are enhancements —not necessities, as anything palatable might have been to the Sinagua people of America’s Southwest.

In addition to planting cliff-top gardens of corn, beans and squash, the Sinagua people of Walnut Canyon (Arizona) made good use of wild growing native plants. The Gambel oak provided sweet acorns, a dietary staple. Fruit and flower petals from the banana yucca were also part of the Sinagua diet.

I always find myself wondering who went first. You know —who, for instance, popped a prickly pear cacti fruit in their mouth and survived, opening up a little more variety on the dinner menu? Who thought to pound the roots of a yucca plant to make shampoo (and when did daily life settle down enough to even put personal hygiene on the radar)? Which ancient first sampled the Mormon Tea plant (Ephedra viridis), discovering its stimulant qualities, and how much did people rely on the evergreen to stay alert to the dangers and opportunities in their world?

Establishing both the helpful and harmful plant life would have been fundamental to survival. It would have been precious knowledge, committed to memory and handed with care to succeeding generations.

But don’t you wonder about the brave souls who went first?  Without the approval of the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration)? I do.

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Updated from May 24, 2010

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