I spent yesterday exploring the cliff dwellings of the Ancient Pueblo peoples in Mesa Verde National Park.
The Native Americans that inhabited this region in SW Colorado had been living on the top of this mesa for hundreds of years before descending down into the cliffs to build permanent living structures.
Both the setting and the structures that have survived to today are impressive. In some ways it takes me back to my fort-building youth when I spent a few months sleeping underneath the bottom bed of a bunk that I shared with my brother. It also smacks of the discovery of the Lost City of Atlantis, this seemingly mythical place tucked away under the enormous slabs of sandstone rock.
The most interesting thing that I learned yesterday was that from the moment that the structures tucked into these cliffs started being built up until the time when those structures were abandoned, only eighty years had passed. That surprised me. When you see structures this old you expect to hear that they were inhabited for hundreds and hundreds of years. But not the case here. The best theory is that a regional drought forced the people living in these dwellings to move on and abandon what they had built.
I also learned that throughout those eighty years the Ancient Puebloans were constantly building, adding to the structures already in place and using the naturally-occurring formations, nooks, and crannies to create spaces that served a purpose in their day to day lives.
When you look out at these cliff dwellings (especially the larger ones such as Cliff Palace, shown in the picture above) you see various styles of architecture. You can judge the proficiency of the builder simply by nothing the precision with with the sandstone rocks and adobe mortar were laid and stacked to make one-, two-, and even three-story buildings.
The sides of some of the buildings are rough, with rocks of unequal size protruding an inch or two here and there from the mortared wall. Others contain sandstone bricks of such equal size layered so smoothly that it’s not hard to imagine the builder stepping back to admire the work upon completion.
Consider the possibility that those two structures, the one rough and the other refined, were built by the same person, just at different points in the history of the site. I imagined a young and inexperienced Puebloan building the first, and the very same person building the second years later, after the lessons learned from trial and error had solidified just as the mortar takes time to solidify around the sandstone rocks.
The Ancient Pueblo people that lived in these dwellings were breaking new ground, exploring new modes of architecture, and you can see the evolution as your eye moves from one structure to the next.
What struck me is how the people who built the structures at Mesa Verde used the constraints of their environment, and how they never stopped building, right up to the time that they were forced to abandon the site.
I like this example from history because it is easily relatable to the experience of any individual trying to build a life for themselves rather than simply passing through life with complacency.
You as an individual are constrained in various ways by whatever situation you currently find yourself in. But within the constraints of your life there are opportunities. Opportunities to build. And lucky for you, you’ve got more than one shot at building something you are proud of.
As you break new ground in your personal life to explore new ideas, new relationships, new hobbies, even new professions, understand that what you build at first will likely be rough around the edges and have the visible marks of a novice.
But if you continue building, and use the constraints of your situation to your advantage, then before long you’ll be able to step back from whatever it is you are creating and take pride in what you see.
You’ve got roughly 80 years before you’ll be forced to abandon this life. What will you build with those 80 years?