CHACO: NOTES ON LIGHT AND DARKNESS

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A mysterious and magnificent canyon far out on a remote, high desert.

Submitted: November 10, 2011

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Submitted: November 10, 2011

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CHACO: NOTES ON LIGHT AND DARKNESS

 

On the high desert of New Mexico, far beyond towns and villages and the hum of trucks on their coast-to-coast runs, is a small canyon, filled with unexpected natural grace, artistic splendor, and the tracings of startling human drama.  There the bright sun probes red-orange bluffs, the glossy black beetle seeks shade, and clouds tumble soundlessly above distant green mountains.  What we call Chaco Canyon was for eight thousand years the home of people who left no written words, and no name for their canyon, a place of abiding stillness, watchful spirits, and enduring mystery. 

The canyon is a shallow, flat-bottomed cut in the earth that fingers out among the cliffs and tablelands of pastel-bleached sandstone.  Winds, the sun, and infrequent rains have split and honed the cliffs into sharp-edged facets and grooves that show different shapes and colors at each hour of the day.  Talus slopes start out from the rock faces, become lulled by the peacefulness, and soon play out among the desert scrub.  Sunk in the middle of the canyon, fifteen or twenty feet below its fragile vertical banks, is a small stream, barely moist most of the year.  Here and there among the gravel bars, rising from the stream banks, are craggy old cottonwoods, green-gray sentries on the lookout for water-thieves. 

In the dry-quiet air—only the buzz of a few itinerant insects … 

During the last thousand years Chacoans built complex structures in stone: many-roomed pueblos, giant sunken kivas, large public spaces, and cool dark chambers for the fruits of farming. Behind the buildings artists incised into the sandstone canyon walls hundreds of petroglyphs. Of many shapes and designs, some are familiar (big horn sheep, frogs, lightening bolts)—and some fantastical (strange beings or gods, intricate geometric patterns, repeated arrangements of dots and lines).  Their power compels attention.

The people of Chaco heard night songs and watched as the emerging moon, following orange and purple rays, outlined mesas and cliffs. Prayers and dances properly performed drew clouds and rain to the plateau above and to the mountains. Waters flowed down through natural and human-made channels in the warm rock, bringing life to the canyon. For generations, hands carried timbers from the mountains, shaped stones according to use, and constructed walls and rooms satisfying to the touch, comforting to the mind.

By the middle of our Twelfth Century, three centuries before the Apache and Navaho came from the north (and Columbus found his India) and eight centuries before others would proclaim the land New Mexico, something stopped the voices of Chaco. The masons built no longer.  The discarded sandal and the broken pot remained; the hands that made them disappeared.  For reasons lost to us, the Anasazi (“Ancient Enemies” in Navaho) abandoned Chaco. The sacred kivas slowly filled with sand and rabbitbrush, battles of frost and sun randomly toppled walls, and, during the long centuries of silence and abandonment, Chaco lay mostly forgotten—and feared. 

Today, the creators of new myths celebrate the canyon.  Behind a windshield and sunglasses, I clatter across many miles of dirt road and vengeful rock outcroppings. 

Upon arrival, I am enveloped by the repose of the canyon, and I need to touch the finely crafted walls and inspect, under the etching sun, surfaces natural and constructed.  The dark doorways breathe out smells of the earth, haunting me.  I listen to hear the tales in the stones, to discern the traces left by other lives, and to interpret the marks left by art. 

I ask questions of the wind, and study shards of pottery, seeking to know all that happened here.  I know of the spiral calendar carved into a rock ledge—high on a butte, inaccessible—that still announces with faultless dedication the stations of the sun and moon. I find the pictograph of a star, a crescent moon, and a red handprint, that commemorates the flaring of a supernova over Chaco in our year 1054.  I recall aerial photographs of long-disused pathways of unknown purpose radiating arrow-straight, like ice crystals in a winter pond, for great distances from Chaco. 

Yet some who study the rubble heaps underneath Chaco have come to see the beings on the rocks not as gods, but monsters.  There are in the canyon somber places hidden from the eye and the sun.  Under the crust of the canyon are human bones bearing knife cuts and polish from the stew pot, and petrified excrement riddled with human remains. 

Like the sound of Bach played in an extermination camp, the mixture cannot rest easily in my thoughts.  Amid the profound stillness of the canyon, many questions invade my mind.  Did subjugation and terror once reign inside these magnificent walls and advance along the radiating roads, and was the harmony and repose of the canyon shattered by the sounds of violence?  Was order imposed in Chaco by forces that eventually led to its destruction and abandonment?  And I think: Are infestations spreading under the bright and proud surfaces of our own constructions and within the heart of our hopeful myths?  Do decline, decay, and silence await us too—sooner than we may imagine?

During the day, the canyon crouches low under the sun, faded, its life somnolent. But in the distinct shadows and bold colors of the approaching evening, the ancients return. Feeling their presence, I turn quickly to catch them—but never succeed. They are just out of sight, but beyond all seeing.

The breeze of evening flows down the canyon, barely stirring the leaves of night-blooming plants; the sun, its power once more sufficiently demonstrated, touches the canyon rim.  Insects sing, grow quiet.  The departing light draws its shroud over both those who ask, and those who know, but cannot say.

In the star-filled hours until dawn, Chaco lies in deep and telling silence.


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