The Blue Mesa
I’ve never been to Mesa Verde (the Green Mesa or Table) in Colorado – but I have recently been to the Blue Mesa (a fictional version of Mesa Verde) in Willa Cather’s novel The Professor’s House. Like the actual Mesa Verde (which is now a national park) Cather’s Blue Mesa was a prominent feature of the flat landscape of the Southwest. It jutted up, “a pile of purple rock, all broken out with red sumach and yellow aspens up in the high crevices of the cliffs.” Thus it appeared to a young cowpoke named Tom Outland and his sidekick as they grazed cattle in the region over several months. “The mesa was our only neighbor (he wrote), and the closer we got to it, the more tantalizing it was.” Even their cattle were seduced by it – for other cattle had crossed over to it in the past to become permanent strays amid its upper recesses.
He goes on to write: “It was light up there long before it was with us . . . the mesa top would be red with sunrise, and all the slim cedars along the rocks would be gold – metallic, like tarnished gold-foil.” As evening approached “the sunset color would begin to stream up from behind it. Then the mesa was like one great black-ink rock against a sky on fire. No wonder the thing bothered us and tempted us; it was always before us, and was always changing. Black thunder-storms used to roll up from behind it and pounce on us like a panther without warning. The lightning would play round it and jab into it . . . I’ve never heard thunder so loud as it was there. The cliffs threw it back at us, and we thought the mesa itself, though it seemed solid, must be full of deep canyons and caverns, to account for the . . . growl and rumble that followed each crash of thunder.” It makes you understand why God drew the ancient Israelites into the Sinai desert to snap them out of their nostalgia for the fleshpots of Egypt.
But that was not all. Tom went climbing into the canyons of the mesa. “I was soon in a warm sweat . . . In stopping to take a breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall. I wish I could tell you what I saw there, just as I saw it . . . through a veil of lightly falling snow. Far above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was like a sculpture . . . pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other . . . narrow windows . . . a round tower.” It was red in color – or like winter oak-leaves. Silent, in immortal repose. The village “sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity.”
Soon Tom, his companion and a friend named Father Duchene studied the place – found artifacts spanning perhaps 800 years of habitation, which revealed the inhabitants (according to Fr. Duchene) to have been a provident people. “There is evidence on every hand that they lived for something more than food and shelter . . . I see them here making their mesa more and more worthy to be a home for man, purifying life by religious ceremonies . . . entertaining some feelings of affection and sentiment for this stronghold . . .” Indeed, says the priest, as they advanced as human beings they “declined in the arts of war, in brute strength and ferocity.” (Could that be why they disappeared a thousand years ago?) Willa Cather became an Episcopalian in her mature years and was sympathetic to Catholicism – so that I wouldn’t be surprised if for her the novel’s Blue Mesa were a metaphor of the Church in some ideal way – a nest within which a sane, productive, creative humanity might grow – at least in its innermost recesses. Even today – in that sense of a sane, peaceful humanity nurtured upon the grace of God – it seems hidden to many people behind a formidable façade. But to those of us, who share Tom Outland’s curiosity about its innermost recesses, the arduous trek to its grottoed City of God continues to entice us.