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From Stardust to Sardine Cans: a guided walk in the Cerrillos Hills

One of the most common cultural artifacts found in the Cerrillos Hills

Consilience. That’s the word I suspect was trembling on the lips of our guide for the afternoon, Ranger Sarah Woods, as she led us for a walk with that eye-catching title, along a dusty, juniper-dotted trail in Cerrillos Hills State Park, Sunday afternoon. Consilience literally means a “jumping-together” of knowledge, and when you’re wanting to link stardust with rusty old sardine cans from late 1800’s, while standing in the arid hills of the oldest mining district in New Mexico, you need all the jumping together you can get.

The biologist E. O. Wilson revived that unusual word in his 1998 book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge“, and appropriately enough, Sarah’s background ┬áis ecology, one of those sciences that concerns itself with the way organisms relate to each other and their environment. Perfect for taking the big-picture, “how does this relate to that” viewpoints so necessary when you need to relate stardust to sardine cans. Or to turquoise, or bald-faced lying miners, or old holes in the ground, or State Parks in New Mexico, for that matter.

We met in the parking lot of the Cerrillos Hills State Park, about half an hour’s drive south of Santa Fe, just off the famous “Turquoise Trail“, NM Highway 14, the picturesque back way to Albuquerque from Santa Fe.

That's Sarah Wood, our ranger and guide for the afternoon

Cerrillos Hills State Park is the newest park in New Mexico’s state park system, and its network of trails is dotted with helpful interpretive signs. The park also features a remarkable calendar of guided walks with naturalists and historians for the daylight hours, and, for those of you wanting to explore the night sky, a dedicated ranger-astronomer with telescopes hosting frequent evening excursions into the Universe.

One of the new signs at Cerrillos Hills State Park

Soon we were off on the Jane Calvin Sanchez trail, up a dusty path of crumbling shale, the once-murky, muddy floor of an ancient sea, now baking in the New Mexico sun.

On our way

Sharp eyes can find marine fossils from the Cretaceous Period in these fragments of shale. And while these rocks are baking in the sun these days, it wasn’t long ago – geologically speaking – that they were broiling in the heat of violent intrusions of scalding magma, forced up from the lower crust as New Mexico began to decompress after all that “building the Rocky Mountains” business. I mean, 34 million years ago is the new 20, don’t you agree?

The forcefulness of these intrusive episodes can be gauged by the completely upended strata – shouldered aside by wedges of magma – that you see on your drive down to the park, at New Mexico’s little “Garden of the Gods”, on Highway 14 just before you get to the village of Cerrillos:

Colorful tilted strata along the edge of the Cerrillos Hills intrusive complex

These magmas carried up the traces of gold, silver, lead, copper, and other elements which gave birth to the Cerrillos Hills and Ortiz Mountain mining districts.

All of this is stardust, you know. Giant stars, bloated with hydrogen and contaminated with the 91 heavier elements born via long-acting and complex thermonuclear reactions, carry the seeds of their own destruction by virtue of their massive size (And we’re talking big – Sarah showed us pictures). When these stars finally implode/explode under their own stupendous, self-inflicted gravity, they fling these elements as dust and gas out into the universe. And in the course of time, some of this material is gathered into new stars and planets, among which is one system with a modest star and a planet we call home.

Peering at the Ortiz Mountains in the glare of our own little star

To find out what this has to do with rusty sardine cans littering the New Mexico desert, you’re going to have to go on Sarah’s walk, yourself. There are all sorts of fascinating side-tracks related to these cans, such as these holes in the hills:

A mineshaft dug into bleached rock in the Cerrillos Hills

And the presence of this rather attractive mineral:

Fragments of turquoise found in these hills - and mined for centuries

Plus it’s pleasant just to be out here, under the vast – turquoise – skies:

A walk in the Cerrillos Hills

So have a look at that calendar of events and choose something that piques your interest. It’s all related, one way or another. It all hangs together. Sarah quoted John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Muir also made this happy observation: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

And to that I say, Amen.

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