About a forty minute drive from where I live in Colorado is a relatively small patch of land that for years has been called the “Paint Mines”. I don’t know what the land was called before it was called the Paint Mines, but Native American artifacts dating as far back as 9,000 years have been found near the site, and so the land must have had other names once. Likely, hundreds of names.
In some sense, the land is most noticeable for its colorful clays capped by soft sandstones. Native Americans used the clays to make ceremonial paints and pottery. Until a couple generations ago, European Settlers mined the same clays to make bricks and paint pigments. Those economic uses of the land have been important to both Natives and Settlers in identifying and defining the Paint Mines. But perhaps other things define the land, too. Things just as important in their own ways as the uses to which we have at times put it.
I’ve noticed during my visits to the Paint Mines that there the wind and sky dominate the land as much as do the clays. The Paint Mines are located on the High Plains and, as you might expect, the sky is huge and the wind is nearly relentless. But what you might not expect, if you have never been on the Plains before, is how astonishingly quiet the land is.
I have sometimes thought the wind stole the sounds you would hear anywhere else. But I really don’t know why the Plains are so quiet. The quiet, however, is often great enough to drive your thoughts back on themselves so that they seem amplified.
I once startled a friend of mine — an native of Colorado — when I suggested that standing on the High Plains gave me an overwhelming feeling of being in a masculine landscape, while being up among the mountains gave me quite another feeling — one of femininity. She looked at me taken aback, and then protested the mountains seemed very masculine to her.
We weren’t arguing, of course. We were just sharing our differing emotions. And she understood where I was coming from as soon as I explained it to her. The closer you are to a mountain, the more it seems to enclose you. To be in some valleys between mountains is doubly enclosing. I’ve found the experience at times to feel protective, even womb-like, and secretive. But the open Plains are another story.
When I have stood out on the High Plains beneath a huge sky, I have felt naked to the constant wind, openly revealed by the land and the vast horizon — even stripped of all the secrets of my self. Although the Paint Mines are gullies or miniature canyons carved down below the level of the surrounding Plains, they have always given me that same sense of masculine openness that seems at times to be as much a part of the Plains as the yellow grasses. So, for me, the Paint Mines are defined as much by their relationship to the Plains as by their clays and sandstones.
But would you feel the same sense of masculinity as I have? Of course, I don’t know, and neither do you, unless you’ve been to the Mines. These Mines have had hundreds of names, have been identified and defined in so many ways — perhaps in the end, each of us is responsible to define them for ourselves.
The clays and sandstones were laid down over 55 million years ago.
Some of the formations are surreal. The land here is very soft and fragile. It erodes quickly.
In places, the colors are so intense, the clay itself seems to be bleeding.
All the photos in this post were recently taken by my friend Don. Don’s religion is nature. He prefers the smell of leather to most other religions, and a good hike better than the rest.