Life on the Rocks: One Woman's Adventures in Petroglyph Preservation
by Katherine Wells


University of New Mexico Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8263-4671-1.
Reviewed by Susan Cummins Miller
Posted on 07/16/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir

In 1992, Southern California artist and teacher, Katherine Wells, and her partner, Lloyd Dennis, began looking for a retirement property in northern New Mexico. Their quest to find the perfect lot ended when they visited a 188-acre parcel on Mesa Prieta, near Espanola. The Rio Grande meandered by in the valley. The Sangre de Cristos dominated the eastern sky. And the basalt outcrops and talus of the mesa were covered with petroglyphs dating from the Archaic, Pueblo IV (aka, Ancestral Puebloan or Anasazi), and Historic eras. Wells, who'd been intrigued by "rock art" for thirty years, had found her heartland.

Wells' memoir, Life on the Rocks, reads like a three-act play. Act One provides background, details the search for a place to call home, and describes the Wells/Dennis adjustment to living in close quarters (a 30-foot Silver Streak travel trailer parked on the property) with an assortment of adopted stray dogs. Think outdoor composting toilet (an upgrade from their original open-pit latrine), spit baths, and freezing temperatures. Add to the mix the fact that Wells and Dennis had only known each other for a year when they embarked on this adventure. You get the picture. Not a recipe for an idyllic existence.

Act Two focuses on the building of straw-bale structures—Wells' studio and small house, Dennis' hogan, and a large main house, the latter constructed while Dennis battled prostate cancer. Act Three follows Wells' burgeoning social activism. Her desire to record and protect the petroglyphs for posterity evolves (or devolves) quickly into a crusade to foil a wealthy businessman bent on mining the mesa—with or without the proper clearance—and the government agencies that granted him mining permits. Eventually, Wells' struggles lead to confrontations at the highest levels of state government. They also lead to successes, small and large. Mining on the mesa stops, at least for a time. The petroglyphs are recorded. And Wells donates much of her property and establishes a foundation to protect the petroglyphs in perpetuity.

The stressful existence exposed cracks in the players' relationship. Though mesa life was Wells' heartland, it was not Dennis'. Yet, they stuck together, accommodating each other's needs well enough. Dennis, once the initial structures were built, would take long sailing trips in the Pacific. Somehow they made it work.

Wells interleaves the separate but related Mesa dramas with interesting digressions into her art forms. For me, however, the most appealing aspects of the memoir are her petroglyph drawings—mysterious, quirky, detailed, and hauntingly beautiful. They illustrate the importance of the site and why Wells was determined to preserve them. And they made me want to be first in line for a guided tour.


Katherine Wells is a mixed-media artist and founder of the Vecinos del Rio Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project. After many years of work to protect the petroglyphs on Mesa Prieta, Wells recently gave the land described in Life on the Rocks to the Archaeological Conservancy. In 2005, she was awarded the Conservation and Preservation Award by the American Rock Art Research Association.

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