While researching my historical-fiction novel Wolf Catcher, I found myself immersed in volcanoes. The reason? The Sunset Crater Volcano. Today the vast cinder cone that rests outside of Flagstaff, Arizona is a National Monument.
A cinder cone volcano is one of several types all of which form differently. In the case of the Sunset Crater Volcano, scientists believe it began erupting about 900 years ago. Had we been on hand for the big event, we would have noticed the ground shaking on and off in the weeks leading up to the eruption. Then the earth would have split open, emitting steam, and fire, and a cloud of ash that rose five miles into sky. As lightning zigged and zagged above the high desert, ash rained down on 800-square miles of land. After several weeks, or months, the cone grew to about 1,000 feet high, a loosely-packed amalgam of volcanic ash and reddish basalt cinders.
While today we understand the geological forces that birth a volcano, ancient people could only guess about what was happening beneath the earth. Luckily, The Sunset Crater Volcano has a modern-day sister who gave us a look into how witnesses might have assessed the eruption.
Paricutín is a cinder cone volcano just like the one at Sunset Crater. But this volcano, near the west coast of Mexico in the southern half of the country, erupted on and off between 1943 and 1952, in full view of the terrified inhabitants of the area. These documented reactions helped scientists studying the Sunset Crater Volcano discern how the Native Americans who peopled the high plateau may have reacted upon witnessing the event.
Here I will let some of the characters from Wolf Catcher explain.
“They were the same kind of volcanoes, right?” Cooper asked.
Marty nodded. “They are both cinder cones and they both gave the people ample warning that something was happening. No one in Paricutín died as a direct result of the eruption, and from what they’ve discovered so far, probably no one died here either. But let’s backtrack a little. It’s easy to know what happened at Paricutín. We have eyewitnesses. We know exactly when the eruption occurred. But at Sunset Crater, for a long time, there was no foolproof way to determine when the big event happened.”
“Is there now?” Kate asked.
“Well, that depends on who you talk to. I can tell you this. Before a Sinagua pithouse was discovered buried in the cinders, scientists had no idea the volcano was so young. They were able to date the pithouse using tree-rings and the pottery they found, and concluded that the eruption happened sometime in the late eleventh century. The ash from Sunset Crater fell over an area of nearly eight hundred square miles. In some places, just an inch, in others, it was fifteen feet deep. Just to give you a good idea of what that means, four inches of ash, especially if it’s wet, is enough to collapse a modern-day roof.”
“So, if you were caught up in the ash fall you were dead?” Cooper said.
“Theoretically, but as I explained, we haven’t found any bodies. And if we use the Paricutín model, we assume the people escaped in time. What we also know is that in Mexico the people were sure there was an angry god under the ground. In fact, they erected a row of big white Christian crosses in front of the lava flow to protect their villages from the creature.”
“Did it help?” Kate smiled.
Marty laughed. “I’m afraid the crosses did no good at all. Five villages were damaged, some destroyed, by the lava and ash.“
It’s not much of a stretch to assume that the ancestors of the Hopi who occupied the area around Sunset Carter Volcano may have, like the people at Paricutín, believed angry gods were at work, and that some appeasement was in order.
What we do know is that the ash fall proved a benefit to those villages situated in just the right places, locations that received a few inches of ash, enough to fortify the soil and grow crops, while others lost their homes completely when many feet of ash destroyed the productivity of their land. Those forced from their homes might have fought desperately with those who benefitted from the eruption in order to survive.
Then there were those who were lured to the area in search of religious understanding. Who was the god? Why was he angry? What could the people do to pacify him? The Sunset Carter Volcano might have become a place of sacred pilgrimage.
It is into this fractured landscape that the man I call Wolf Catcher arrived.
The past and present collide when a tenacious reporter seeks information on an eleventh century magician…and uncovers more than she bargained for.
February 2, 2022
In 1939, archeologists uncovered a tomb at the Northern Arizona site called Ridge Ruin. The man, bedecked in fine turquoise jewelry and intricate bead work, was surrounded by wooden swords with handles carved into animal hooves and human hands. The Hopi workers stepped back from the grave, knowing what the Moochiwimi sticks meant. This man, buried nine hundred years earlier, was a magician.
Former television journalist Kate Butler hangs on to her investigative reporting career by writing freelance magazine articles. Her research on The Magician shows he bore some European facial characteristics and physical qualities that made him different from the people who buried him. Her quest to discover The Magician’s origin carries her back to a time when the high desert world was shattered by the birth of a volcano and into the present-day dangers of archeological looting where black market sales of antiquities can lead to murder.
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