It’s good to be back at the computer now after having been away for a couple of weeks. Last week I took a trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located in northeastern New Mexico. The trip was one of the Sierra Club’s service trips that help local areas promote some aspect of good environmental practice. I’ve been on several of these service trips, but this was my first trip to Chaco.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a National Park, and is run by the US Park Service. The park includes many ruins of complex buildings built and inhabited between 850 and 1150 AD by a civilization known as the Chaco people, the forerunners of the current Pueblo peoples of northern New Mexico. The ruins are located in or near Chaco Canyon, a narrow strip of desert land between sheer cliffs of sandstone. Many of the ruins, sometimes called “pueblos” themselves–and not to be confused with the currently inhabited pueblos in this area–were built at the base of the cliffs, possibly for protection (against what I can’t say).
Our job at Chaco wasn’t so lofty as to investigate the ruins themselves; that’s left to archeologists more knowledgeable in the history of those people than those of us on the trip (there were about twenty on the Sierra Club trip). Our job was much more prosaic, and was directed more toward making the experience of visitors to the park more enjoyable. We cleaned brush from natural water drainage areas, seeded natural plant life around areas that visitors might come in contact with, cleaned some of the kivas at some of the ruins, and made signs that help direct visitors to certain areas of the park. All in all, a good week’s work.
But underneath the work and our brief attempts to explore areas of the canyon where ruins lie, I found myself wondering about these people who built these great buildings. They arrived around 850 AD, and began to build. But why? Why would they build in such a dry, forbidding place? No one seems to know. There is some evidence that the canyon was cooler and wetter then than it is now, and that may have made it more habitable. But, still… Today, the canyon is a true desert, with low scrub vegetation, including tumbleweeds, very few trees, and hot, dry weather. Really hot dry weather. The sun blazes down in a vast fusillade of fire, and sunscreen is the order of the day. An arroyo runs the length of the canyon, but when we were there, it was drier than the proverbial bone, and that just makes the ruins seem even more out-of-place now. It’s hard to put yourself in the place of the people of the Chaco. We know so little about them, we’re guessing on almost every point.
One interesting fact that has come from studies of the ruins is the presence of astronomical sites. These are places, built into the buildings at the time of their construction, that show the position of the sun at solstice or the spring or autumnal equinox. There are several places around the canyon that can be–by our interpretation today–used to demonstrate these events. Even the famous “Sun Dagger,” first described about twenty years ago, is present at Chaco. (It’s off-limits to visitors without permission because it’s considered sacred by the Pueblo people today, so don’t go to Chaco with the idea in mind that you’ll be able to see it.) The problem with the astronomical sites is that there are so many of them that it’s hard not to wonder if we’re just reading something into some of these sites that isn’t really there simply because they happen to line up with the sun at a certain time of the year. Some at the park today truly wonder if that isn’t so.
But all things considered, it was a good week. I got several ideas for the novel I’m writing, and plan to use them first chance I get.