Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: The Cosmos and Mystery at Chaco

“ After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.”
― Richard Dawkins
Night is a special time...yet in normal life we tend to hold the night at bay, to drive it away with light, whether in our own rooms, or with the glow of vast cities, or with a fire if we are stuck in the back of beyond somewhere.

We keep the night at bay, and in doing so we shrink our existence to the size of the room, the city, or the ring of light around the fire. What are we scared of? I guess throughout human history there was plenty to be scared of...animal attacks, attacks by rival humans, getting lost, and in modern days, muggings. But when I am out in the Colorado Plateau, the embracing the darkness is one of the most special experiences I can have.

Our trip through the Abandoned Lands had been on the road for a week, and for a multitude of reasons, I was exhausted by the end of the day and had not really spent much time looking at the night-time sky. We arrived at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and I made a point of the exploring the darkness. I sat and watched the stars sweeping across the sky, and made a brief effort at capturing a bit of the night in a photo (above). I guess it was pretty late because only one tent in the camp was still lit up.

The ancients gazed at the sky and invented patterns. If you know your stars, you've probably already figured out the constellation that fills the center of the photo (you can click it for a larger view). People invented stories to go with the images and the stories involved heroes and legends and eventually gods. At some point the gods became more important than understanding the lights themselves, and the skies began to lose their significance.

In the case of the night-time sky, religious explanations settled matters for most people, and they longer had any other reason to look to the heavens, except to keep times and seasons. I look at the sky and I can still see Scorpio (I outlined it in the picture below if you don't know the constellations well), but because of science, I have a lot more to see. I've learned that each of those points of light is  star like our sun, and that most of the stars out there probably have planets. The cloudy dim light that we call the Milky Way is made of so many stars our eyes cannot distinguish them. Other points of light out there are other galaxies beyond our own, made up of billions of more stars.  And there are billions of galaxies. The vastness of the Universe is far beyond our comprehension, but we want to comprehend, so we try to invent new ways to explore. That's the magic to me of science. I don't know what the future will bring on our human journey, but I try to imagine sometimes how quaint our ideas of the cosmos will seem to whoever follows us.
On the other hand, there are places that unsettle me. There are plenty of mysteries right here on planet Earth, and the night-time brings out all kinds of journeys of the mind. You are allowed to camp among some of the ruins at Chaco Canyon, allowed to sleep among the ghosts of centuries past.
I don't think of ghosts in the sense of spooky spirits and the like, but more the echos of past lives left behind in the ruins adjacent to our campsite. I was looking at pictures of my long-gone grandparents the other day, and I felt the same spiritual echos. Lives were lived and some legacy exists of their brief existence, those of the Ancestral Puebloans in their ruins and artifacts, and my grandparents in an emulsion film on photographic paper.

We also hear echos of the past because everything we are is a legacy of those who preceded us. The DNA in our cells is a genetic road map that leads through our parents, our grandparents, and all who came before. Our responses to the environment we live in today were shaped by those who survived in the past.

But our responses are also influenced by something unique in all of human history: scientific knowledge. We now know the causes of diseases; we understand chemical reactions and the predictions made by physics; we know of the history of the Earth and the history of our species far beyond the stories handed down by our ancestors. We have an inking of our true place in the cosmos in a way that no humans have ever been able perceive it before. I am thankful to be living in a day and age when the sum total of all human knowledge is available to us in a book, a laptop or a smartphone.
It was a moonless night in Chaco this year. In previous years I've wandered along the road outside camp in the moonlight with a camera, as you can see in the photo above. I've also walked in the darkness at White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (below). Spooky? Not really. Mysterious? Absolutely. In the darkness you aren't just visiting or touring, you are experiencing a place more fully, as one notices the sounds and odors more keenly. Your eyes may not be able to see things clearly, but the mind is able to construct things that might be there, or might not.
It was June 20th, the summer solstice, the point in the year when the days are longest and the sun is highest in the northern sky. Along with the vernal and autumnal equinox, the solstice was one of the more important days of the year to the Ancestral Puebloans. At Chaco Canyon there are petroglyphs that record these moments, most memorably the Sun Dagger (I would love to say that I've seen it and have pictures, but it is off limits, having already been damaged by too much visitation). It seemed to me that not only did I want to experience the night, but I wanted to see the sunrise as well.

Whatever demons may exist in the darkness, they are chased away by the light...
The rays of the solstice sun reached Fajada Butte, and presumably at this moment, the Sun Dagger was pointing to the center of the spiral petroglyph. Camp was beginning to stir and equipment was being packed. We were going to explore what seems to have been the center of Ancestral Puebloan existence for hundreds of years.
A night-time pop quiz for you if you've made it this far: what the phase of the moon right now???


Gaelyn said...

What a great experience. I don't get out under the stars near enough. But I did see a meteor the other night.

Celia Lewis said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with us all, Garry. I love the writing, and the photos. And the Dawkins quote is now on a card in front of me on my desk. Wonderful. Thanks again.

Hollis said...

waxing crescent, I believe it's called (saw it set yesterday evening)