Under the Sun
Pueblo high-rises hold cautions for modern life
IT WAS a day like no other, when the feeling of being alive sizzled through skin and muscle and veins, when each breath fed movement of limbs quickened by the sight of an immense black cloud furious with lightning.
Behind me, a benign sky playfully sent white whiskers across an astonishing blue no trick of human hand through artificial light or pigment can duplicate.
Turning in a circle, a panorama of atmospheric contrasts stunned me for a few moments, until survival instinct roused me. The top of a treeless mesa in northwestern New Mexico's Chaco Canyon is nowhere to be when lightning's in the air.
Dust devils hurled grit and pebbles against my legs. The smell of rain huffed in on oddly alternating cool and hot bursts of wind that seemed timed to the bright flashes and muttering thunder racing nearer and nearer.
Ahead lay the possibility of shelter, the remains of a stone building, its broken peach-tan-brown walls a darkening, irregular silhouette against the coming storm.
I reached it as a scattering of fat raindrops pocked the dirt around me. Huddled in the lee of a wall, I pitched away my metal hiking stick, afraid it might attract a bolt even though I knew without a roof overhead, lightning could just as well strike me.
I became intimately familiar with that stretch of wall against which I pressed face and as much body as I could.
It had been constructed of slabs of rock laid flatly one atop another, fitted and chinked with smaller pieces by an ancient people who had perfected masonry techniques for elaborate, multi-storied buildings, sited in view of each other.
The people lived in the canyon along hovering cliffs and on the mesas from around A.D. 850 to 1250. Besides developing architecture, they apparently farmed irrigated drylands, created art evidenced by intricately decorated pottery and engineered wide roads in spokes, their civilization at the hub. Petroglyphs and cliff paintings attest to an attempt to record their times and history. Structures aligned to coincide with seasonal appearances of stars and positions of the sun and the moon suggest an understanding and knowledge of the natural world.
But no one can say for sure if they did. The great houses of stone were abandoned and a culture that prospered for 400 years faded away. Though several Puebloan tribes and nations descend from Chaco's inhabitants, why the original people left remains a mystery.
Some believe social or religious strife caused people to go. Others say drought, climate changes or overpopulation and resource depletion eventually forced people to quit the canyon for less crushing locales.
All sound plausible, considering our own resource- exhausting, smothering occupation of small islands.
As I hunkered next to that wall, I thought about the people who had designed the complex buildings, who cut, hauled and piled the stones, then pushed smaller shards between them to hold them together. Could they have imagined that centuries later, enough of their handiwork would still stand to give shelter? Can we today imagine what we might leave in our wake, what the remains of our days will be?
The sullen cloud never did release its terrible menace, dropping rain for a few minutes before scudding away. Time has dimmed the fears of that late fall afternoon, but not the extravagant beauty left in the traces of a people long gone, nor the form, textures, lines and colors of the vast surrounding landscape. Can we, too, give refuge to natural proportions?
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org