Seminole Canyon State on tableland between the in-flowing and Pecos Rivers, about 150 miles down the Rio Grande from Big Bend. This area, once forested grassland, was the epicenter of a cliff dwelling culture that flourished from perhaps. Overgrazed in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is today desert along the U.S./Mexico border. So you can easily make out the exposed Visitor Center, and even at a distance the building and its scar tissue generate a disappointing landscape, neither direct nor refined nor ruthless nor poetic nor minimal nor exuberant nor picturesque nor systematic. Up close the construction is only a little better. A curving stone-clad wall — part of a perfect circle — hides the utilitarian box into which the program is shoehorned, with the public spaces diagrammed into the space between the curve and the box. Budgets for these kinds of buildings are spare. You can imagine the architect having to fight for just that little gesture!

There’s actually a second construction visible in the aerial photograph of the site. Under the overhang in the foreground is one of the larger cliff dwellings in the area. All those millennia ago a particular conspiracy of environmental variables controlled which promising cliffs were appropriated for inhabitation. Here the curve of the stone bluff faces south-southeast, forming a solar bowl. In winter, when the sun’s arc across the sky is tight and low, the vertical rock surfaces under the overhang absorb the sun’s radiation to the greatest extent possible. As the air temperature drops on winter nights the cliff re-releases this stored heat, warming the shelter. In summer the same configuration and orientation keeps the direct sun — now tracing a broad, high arc — out almost entirely, and the dwelling is cooler than its exposed surroundings.

Better yet prevailing warm weather breezes from the south-southeast strike the cliff head-on while winter storms out of the northwest shunt over its shoulder. The year-round stream that carved the cliff obviously provided water but it also protected the inhabitants from marauders. The abruptness of the cliff helped with protection too though it served another purpose. Buffalo driven over the lip by fires set on the mesa plunged to their fate in the stream below, where they were readily butchered. Hides were cured on the stream side limestone boulders that, in dislodging, formed the overhang. Over time these boulders became impregnated, and still today they look slathered in lard.

The actual construction of the cliff dwelling rises from these buttery boulders to the underside of the overhang: a vast (mostly man-made) pile of rocks, dirt, organic matter, ash, flint cherts, and other detritus that formed a dry and habitable platform. This building, which negotiated between the existing topography of the site and the necessary topography of use, is known as the Fate Bell Shelter. It seems frequently the case at such constructions that environmental factors and site disposition work together so precisely to support human inhabitation that only powerful forces could be accountable. Is it surprising that in the shelter we see, painted on the walls and underside of the overhang, the fading and now fragmentary remains of enigmatic pictographs, often containing life-sized shamanistic figures, for which this ancient culture is noted.