Film Transcript

Writer: John Grabowska

Filmmaker John Grabowska's film REMEMBERED EARTH is a captivating journey through a storied landscape of the American West, featuring spectacular landscape photography and a thoughtful interpretation of land ethics by Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday. Noted Indian actor Irene Bedard (Smoke Signals, Pocahontas) narrates the film. The haunting original orchestral score by Academy Award-winner Todd Boekelheide was recorded at Skywalker Sound.

Once in our lives we ought to concentrate our minds upon the Remembered Earth. We ought to give ourselves up to a particular landscape in our experience, to look at it from as many angles as we can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. We ought to imagine that we touch it with our hands at every season and listen to the sounds that are made upon it. We ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. We ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

This landscape has borne many names: Indian Country...The Big Empty...The High Dry...The Land of Room Enough and Time Enough. Within this immense land lie areas falling under more specific taxonomies, according to the mindset of those naming them: El Malpais...The Checkerboard Rez...The Sacred Turquoise Mountain...The Grants Mineral Belt.

Bounded by the Chuska Mountains, the San Juan River, the Sierra Nacimiento and the Mogollon Rim, Northwest New Mexico is a high desert plateau, bisected by the Continental Divide—all of it well over a mile high, and still gently rising. This vast expanse of plateaus and mesas, mountains and bluffs, cliffs and canyons presents an iconography of the American West, past, present, and future. It is so archetypal a landscape that Hollywood has used it almost as a character in dozens of Western films, burning these images into our collective memory.

HOLLYWOOD WESTERN CLIP: If I ever ran in my life, I’ve got to run now! I’ve got to cross those hills, and beat them into Cheelan!

For the European who came from a community of congestion and confinement, the West was beyond dreaming.

It must have inspired him to formulate an idea of the infinite. Here he could walk through Geologic Time.

If you stand on the edge of this valley and look across space to the great volcanic towers that stand away in the silence, you will understand how it is to grasp the notion of eternity. At some point along the line of your sight there is an end of time, and you see beyond into timelessness.

Scale is confounded in this fractal landscape, where the structural elements of the earth are exposed to the open sky. Geologists have assigned to the landscape a bewildering list of otherworldly names: diatremes, laccoliths, upwarps, maars, cinder cones. In the midst of this high desert, signs of water are evident in the evolution of rock. Red rock cliffs are the relics of massive sand dunes from the Jurassic. Sea life from ancient oceans transformed into limestone. Coastal plant life was pressed into seams of uranium and beds of coal.

Long after the oceans receded, volcanic power built up, and then blew the top off Mount Taylor. Through a less explosive process, volcanism also gave birth to the giant black lava flows stretching to the horizon, a jagged and twisted moonscape known as El Malpais. Subterranean lava flows created a labyrinthine cave system stretching for miles beneath the desert.

In such a geologic landscape, it often seems that life cannot find a foothold, that only rock is real.

HOLLYWOOD WESTERN CLIP: “Back home it all seemed so exciting—nurse for the railroad, new frontiers...I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you like your East better than the West...Like it? Why, there’s no comparison! All you’ve got here is rocks and sand, hills with no trees!...Oh, we’ve got a lot of...Rattlesnakes?!”

Northwest New Mexico is a land of dry wind and sun, and of little rain. It receives about ten inches of moisture per year, half in winter snowfall, half in summer thunderstorms.

Tinajas are naturally occurring basins in sandstone. Rainwater that collects in these potholes serves as an oasis for many high desert reptiles and insects. Plants and animals have developed ingenious methods of ensuring survival. In an arid land, leaves evolved into smooth, hard spines as a defense against evaporation. Throughout the American West, non-native, invasive trees like tamarisk, with its feathery leaves, have crowded out native cottonwood and willow, sucking many rivers and streams dry.

Animals adapt by conserving energy during the heat of the day. The scarcity of life in the desert is deceptive. Despite the wilderness of rock, there is a startling diversity in plant and animal species, granted a generous gift of space in this vast land. The reason for the biodiversity is elevation.

It was in the Desert Southwest that the concept of Life Zones was developed, the idea of a virtual journey from Mexico to Canada simply by going uphill, from desert floor to alpine peak. Isolated mountain ranges rise like islands from the desert sea below.

The character of the landscape changes from hour to hour, day to day, season to season. Nothing of the earth can be taken for granted; you feel that Creation is going on in your sight. You see things in the high air that you do not see farther down in the lowlands. In the high country all objects bear upon you, and you touch hard upon the earth. From my home I can see the huge, billowing clouds; they draw close upon me and merge with my life.

HOLLYWOOD WESTERN CLIP: “There’s our stop up ahead, right by Inscription Rock.”

The hand of humankind has been present in Northwest New Mexico for millennia, sometimes with a light and mysterious touch in a beautiful but grudging homeland. Chacoan Indians, Spanish missionaries, Hispano settlers, Anglo homesteaders: the merciless heat of the desert preserves the remains of every culture. The lost stories of nameless people are presented equally under the impassive sky.

In the desert, hardship becomes ordeal, and reality drives romance into full retreat. Even within protected areas and wilderness, this land is not pristine. It has been used, and used hard. Once a breadbasket of New Mexico, the Rio Puerco Valley has been described as a monument to overgrazing. The stream provides only six percent of the Rio Grande’s flow but more than half of its silt.

HOLLYWOOD WESTERN CLIP:“Commissioner, this is the valley I spoke of. Every sign indicates oil.”

The Four Corners region has been called a National Sacrifice Area to the nation’s power grid, supplying oil, gas, uranium and coal. The Zuni Mountains were once clear-cut for railroad ties. For many who live here, this land is sacred. Landscapes have histories which are uncovered not only in the traces of human life, but in the history of ways of seeing the land.

I am interested in the way that we look at a given landscape and take possession of it in our blood and brain. None of us lives apart from the land entirely; such an isolation is unimaginable. If we are to realize and maintain our humanity, we must come to a moral comprehension of earth and air as it is perceived in the long turn of seasons and of years.

The visitor to Northwest New Mexico sees a land of American myth and memory, of cowboys and Indians, canyons and rimrock, trains across the continent. That romance is real. A closer, longer, deeper examination reveals our role and responsibilities in a hard but fragile land.

The history of land use here has been one primarily of extraction. Is it possible to extract something more than the physical from this desert landscape? Can we come to see land itself as a community to which we belong? Perhaps, in the attempt to take possession of the land, we are in some way possessed by it, captivated by its history, and its future.

There is great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one’s life. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them, walked in them, lived in them, even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye.

They become indispensable to our well being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there.

It is here that I can concentrate my mind upon the Remembered Earth. It is here that I am most conscious of being, here that wonder comes upon my blood, here I want to live forever; and it is no matter that I must die.

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When to Watch

Remembered Earth: New Mexico's High Desert
premieres February 13, 2006

Check your local listings.