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Geological field guide explains the formation of O’Keeffe and Tewa country

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The eighth in the “High Desert Field Guides” series carries a title linking geology to art – “Abiquiu: The Geologic History of O’Keeffe Country.”

The invitation to geology is through Georgia O’Keeffe, perhaps the most famous female painter of the 20th century. Many of O’Keeffe’s stunning paintings in northern New Mexico were of the rock formations in the Abiquiú region of Rio Arriba County. The region includes Abiquiú and Ghost Ranch, where the artist had homes/studios.

The guide is not centrally about art or O’Keeffe; it’s about the region’s changing landscape over 300 million years of geologic time. The region – in particular the iconic Cerro Pedernal butte – is at the juncture of the Rio Grande Rift, the Colorado Plateau and the Jemez Mountains volcanic field, geologist Kirt Kempter writes in the guide’s helpful explanatory text.

“The older rocks of Abiquiú tell the story of past landscapes and environments very different from today, including subtropical oceans, vast sand dunes, and Mississippian-scale rivers,” Kempter explained.

The younger rocks tell of the tearing of New Mexico’s crust to form the Rio Grande Rift.

The guide’s visual centerpiece is a roadside geologic map produced by Dick Huelster, who collaborated with Kempter on the guide. The map and text are aimed at travelers, hikers and armchair geologists. Kempter said travelers could make a single-day trip from as far away as Albuquerque to view the diverse rock formations of this region.

Overlaid on the map is a red line representing a 25-mile section of U.S. Route 84 from the turnoff to Medanales and continuing northwest to Echo Amphitheater.

Kirt Kempter

Along that highway section the map’s text block has 21 geologic and non-geologic points of interest at designated mile markers. Among them are the archaeological site of the ancestral pueblo village of Poshuouinge, 1300-1450, with a view of the Rio Chama valley; after crossing a bridge over the Rio Chama, one sees Cerrito Blanco hilltop to the north, exposing the 25 million-year-old white Abiquiú Formation on the west and a younger pinkish-orange Tesuque Formation to the east. U.S. 84’s junction with New Mexico State Road 96 allows broad views of Piedra Lumbre valley and to the south Cerro Pedernal, which O’Keeffe adoringly painted and which has eight layers of rock strata capped by 8 million-year-old lava flows. Near Ghost Ranch was the 1947 discovery of a dinosaur quarry containing hundreds of Coelophysis skeletons. The Coelophysis was an early dinosaur in North America.

“I felt Georgia (O’Keeffe) was, in a way, a student of geology. Most of her (New Mexico) paintings are about erosion of rock, which is a huge process of geology,” Kempter said in a phone interview.

Besides his passion for geology, Kempter said he has “a love of the landscape aesthetic, the beauty and the story.”

Though he accepts UNM Press’ marketing the region “O’Keeffe Country,” he believes one should also understand the Native perspective. “It could also be called Tewa Country,” given the early puebloan presence in the Rio Chama valley, Kempter said.

In 1966 Alianza Federal de Mercedes staged a dramatic takeover of Echo Amphitheater. The takeover drew attention to the allegation that the U.S. Forest Service-managed amphitheater is actually part of a land grant given Hispanic families under terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico.

The “High Desert Field Guide,” the third one Kempter and Huelster collaborated on, is foldable, waterproof and tear-resistant. The earlier guides were about Valles Caldera National Preserve (2009) in the Jemez, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument (2007) near Cochiti Pueblo.

Kempter has in the works a guide to the geology of the Tularosa Basin.

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