Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Secret Sandstone Caves of New Mexico



In fall 2011, my partner Kevin was working on a film called Blaze You Out.  One of the scenes took place in a carved sandstone cave located near Espanola, New Mexico, that is known as The Tree Cave.  Kevin took a bunch of photos of this amazing cave – one of which we blew up on canvas and have hanging in our dining room – and he also got the opportunity to talk briefly with Robert “Ra” Paulette, the artist who’d singlehandedly sculpted the cave out of soft, naturally occurring sandstone.  Ra shared how this was one of several caves he’d created in Northern New Mexico as a labor of love and a gift to his fellow New Mexicans.  He sees them as wilderness sanctuaries that can help modern humans connect with their innate emotions.


It’s a little hard to understand how a cave could do that unless you see one of Ra’s creations for yourself, which is exactly what I did last weekend.  After much build-up, we finally took a day trip to see The Tree Cave along with two friends.  One was a friend who’d inquired about the photo in our dining room and expressed a keen desire to visit the cave.  Another was a friend who grew up in Taos and was the only person thus far who had recognized the photo in our home and was familiar with The Tree Cave.  So the four of us headed out on our mission to experience or revisit this awe-inspiring work of art that’s unmarked, hidden and known only to those who, well, know. 


Hiking up to the cave from the road, you are surrounded on all sides by regal sandstone formations, all jagged and crumbling.  It becomes quite clear how Ra picked this spot, as the creamy-colored sandstone is incredibly soft and malleable.  (That’s what allowed him to dig out the cave, which he does all by himself until he gets tired.  Then, as he told Kevin, he gets some folks to help him cart away the excess sand.)  The first sign of something unusual is a cluster of skylights in the hillside far above, which illuminate the cave with light and shadows.  Then you see the long, narrow entrance, and after passing through, find yourself in a massive chamber with a huge “tree trunk” column in the center.  The ceiling is so high (20+ feet?) that you have the feeling – and acoustics – of a cathedral. 


But it’s really what’s on those ceilings and walls that I find hardest to describe (and thus I refer you to the photos).   Creeping tree branches are carved in fluid patterns and interlaced with hearts and flowers, the two secondary motifs of the cave.  There are also a number of carved benches and seating alcoves, allowing you to sit down or step into a more intimate space for reflection.  Wall niches occur throughout and have been decorated with candles and offerings from visitors, including rocks, flower petals, movie tickets and rosaries.  One has also been claimed by a resident bird for her nest. 


Sitting in one of the recessed benches, I noticed that my voice was magnified within the niche, despite talking in a whisper.  This is one of the many atmospheric elements of the cave, like its cool air and the way the skylights highlight various carvings as the sun moves.  Looking around, I felt the tree branches started to look more and more like the ribbing on the interior of a human’s intestines.  Perhaps this was because I felt enveloped in this magical experience.  Looking at the myriad hearts carved into the gritty walls, it felt like I was inside “the lower intestine of love.”  Unlike other art that you look at and witness, this is art you can walk around in, touch, live and breathe. Upon stepping back outside of it, you can't help but be transformed.  You walk out into the hot, bright day marveling at mankind’s potential to be truly loving and giving.


Now, I’m sure that makes me sound like a real new age New Mexican, but it’s proof that Ra’s goal of creating surprising emotions and thoughts with his caves is not that far-fetched.  The Tree Cave is a very, very special place, and I am humbled that I was able to experience it.  I’ve since learned more about Ra Paulette in an oral history I found online.  Surprisingly, however, this was one of only 10 results in my Google search for information about him.  (The only major media coverage I found was an LATimes article from the 90s.)  He is a professed hermit, and it seems he likes it that way. 


Initially, before I visited, I wondered why Ra didn’t lead tours or charge admission to the caves he’d spent years creating (for example, two to three years per cave), but now I understand how antithetical that idea is to his artistic philosophy.  He no more owns the caves than the private or public land they were built on.  They belong to New Mexico, and I only hope that future owners of the land will continue to honor that.  


9 comments:

Anonymous said...

You saw this, didn't you Amy?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4sfj9rKXDo

I was tempted to drive up there while you and Kevin were in Taos. I actually found how to get there online. Oh well... maybe next time!
-Jeannette

Brent Morris said...

Beautiful rendering of the spot.... We were lucky to have experienced that cave and his artistry.

Brent Morris

Anonymous said...

hi, I came across your post while trying to look for places to visit since I'm going to be traveling to T or C, NM. How do I get to this magnificent place? any directions from t or c? hope you can help.
Alejandra, ELP, TX

Eli Martinez said...

No Outsiders If U don't know Where it @ Then Ur Fu#@ed Private Property Meaning U Could End Up With A Buck Shot In Ur Ass

middlezen said...

Exactly the message conveyed here..."stay the fu@& out!!" ..... For real? Well, an attempt to honor BOTH THE ego (Eli Martinez) AND THE SPIRIT (outsiders) of the ever curious human~ seek and ye shall find... Don't give up personal discovery for lack of direction! Charge on, go beyond the path, and look in the shadows. It's usually just under ur nose. Don't listen to d$&k-boy telling u to stay out, he' s just one of the ugly gate-keepers, all bark, no bite. Just calmly walk on by... Happy discovering folks!!!! America! LAND OF THE FREE!!!!!

Mark Bustos said...

So it doesnt sound like anyone has found the second cave? the smaller cave near this one? Not sure what it is called but it is very pretty, I actually like the smaller one more than this larger tree cave.

Anonymous said...

Just saw the segment about Rob on CBS Sunday Morning. I assume that others like myself will be attempting to visit these caves. What advice for us beyond what has been written here?

"Miss Wanderlust" said...

It's been amazing how many people have found this blog post and contacted me about the Tree Cave. I knew the secret was no longer a secret when Jeffrey Karoff’s acclaimed documentary short about Ra Paulette (titled “Cavedigger”) was nominated for an Oscar. While I'm pleased about Ra's growing profile, as well as the increasing recognition of his artistry and achievements, it's presented a bit of a conundrum for me. You see, everyone wants directions to the Tree Cave, and the straightforward answer is that I cannot in good conscience provide directions on my blog or to anyone that emails me.

There are several reasons for this: 1) the Tree Cave is located on private property, and without permission, you are technically trespassing 2) the unwritten code amongst Espanola locals and those who know where the Tree Cave is located is that you should never give directions, but only take people there personally, so as to minimize the risk of vandalism, people getting lost or the property owners getting upset and 3) even if it were kosher to give directions, it’s quite tricky to do so, because the Tree Cave is not visible from the road, unmarked in every sense and just not that easy to find.

So I apologize for the inherent tease of this blog post, but my responsibility is to protect the Tree Cave from being vandalized, mobbed by visitors or closed off by the property owners. Thus, I cannot provide directions under any circumstance. What I can do is offer folks the opportunity to vicariously experience the Tree Cave via the Cavedigger documentary, which is available for download on Vimeo, iTunes and Amazon. Go here for details and downloads: http://cavediggerdocumentary.com/see_the_film.html

And finally, thanks to all for reading my blog! I hope to crank out some new posts soon.

"Miss Wanderlust" said...

One more thing. I see that Ra now has a website that offers a virtual tour of the Tree Cave, which he calls the "Tree of Kindness." You can find it here: http://www.racavedigger.com/racavedigger.com/Virtual_Cave_Tour.html.
Also, this New Mexico Magazine article explains why Ra and associates (including the documentary's director Jeffrey Karoff) guard the cave locations, and it touches on the safety and liability issues should thousands of people try to visit Ra's caves, which were not built for mass consumption: http://www.nmmagazine.com/article/?aid=84628#.U5C0rGJdWCr.