The immense silence of vast, mostly unoccupied spaces rolls across the land as I step out of the vehicle into a time centuries past. The park is empty on this winter day, any other possible visitors nerved away by the weather (not that chilly), the roads (not that difficult to navigate), the forecast (snow flurries).
As I pace over the cold desert earth, every now and then I listen hard. The skip of a child’s running steps, the tease of laughter sneaking around the rock-tumbled cliffsides, the smell of food cooking and wood burning; all are sensations I push myself to imagine happening in this place, a thousand or more years ago.
An interest in the ancient native cultures of the American Southwest has been with me since I moved to Utah in 1999. To see in person the structures they built, to ghost my fingertips over their own prints left in the hardened clay, to sweep my gaze across mounds of dirt and wonder what other evidence of lives long past lies buried beneath–it’s such a tangible link to the very real people who walked this earth before me.
The skilled architecture is perhaps most breathtaking. The neatness of the walls, the dedication to every tiny detail, to every lean and slope, to the seasonal rays of the sun, to the meridian points so important to Chacoans, is such a testament to human ingenuity and patience it is no wonder people who see this place tend to leave in awe.
Beyond the mere impressiveness and history of the place, it struck a chord in me regarding all the current worries about indisputable climate change and how that leads to significant upheaval in human populations, let alone animal ones and of course the land itself. Many theories point to climate change prompting the ancient peoples in these areas to move on to more hospitable climes. Other factors worked in as well, of course, but the main thrust of the land itself becoming a less than welcoming place is offered up by many as the most important reason people eventually moved away from these stunning, complex, and long-built structures in a place they considered the very heart of their world. What must it have been like for those who were the first to recognize the necessity of migration? Those who were the very last ones to leave?
I have no answers for questions about ongoing damage to our whole damn world, the place we all claim as home, and the only one we know. What do I have is my voice and my words, which I try to use as a passionate advocate for this broad, beautiful, fragile place in the red rocks and canyons and river flows and once much loved but long since abandoned homes of other, equally as long-gone, people.
As I root myself happily and solidly and with a great sense of homeness into my own very dry, once occupied but for centuries abandoned landscape, the lonesome intensity of Chaco speaks to a future that may one day drape the earth right here in Torrey over which I walk and love and exult and cry and need so much it feels like my own heartbeat, my own blood flow.
The potential, eventual truth of such an empty barrenness only makes me love it that much harder.