This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary and as the National Park Foundation said, “the Centennial is more than a birthday. We want people everywhere to embrace the opportunities to explore, learn, be inspired or simply have fun in their 407 national parks….” UNP asked its authors to write about their favorite National Park to contribute to the #FindYourPark campaign on social media.
The following contribution is from Elizabeth Dodd, author of Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World (Nebraska, 2012) and In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Animate World (Nebraska, 2008).
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
If you’re not here now,
You will not be there then.
Take a breath; look around.
Don’t. Miss. This.
Don’t miss this.
Walking along the trail to Wijiji, I learned this song from the woman who wrote it. After dinner she led a group of us through the evening light, the gentling of the day’s heat. I love this composition’s simplicity and balance, the one-syllable words she animated with a score of breathing, notes and rhythm etching the sentences with space. I’m a writer. Stuff like this delights me. I still sing that song to myself, often when I’m walking, lots of different places.
But it was contextually perfect, that day in early summer. In Chaco Canyon. The sense of time and inhabitation infuse that place. Quite literally, history and culture are inscribed on the rocks and buried in the earth. Petroglyphs on the canyon walls reflect the thoughts and understandings of the people who incised them hundreds of years ago; they’re like mirrors reflecting back starlight from the not-so-distant past. We are stardust, all of us, every being that is and has ever been. We are the sunlight first gathered into the planet’s economy of energy by each day’s photosynthesis and spiraled outward though everything that eats. We are here. We are the now.
And we were ringed by the canyon’s history of timekeeping, the rock art and the famous great houses and the cliff-top notches that embody counting; counting the days forward, counting the years back. Most visitors come to the park to see the ancient stone great houses: Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, Pueblo Arroyo. Wijiji, the youngest of the structures, but still centuries old. Some of them, like Casa Rinconada, house great kivas cupped below ground level—once, people descended to the fire box, the benches, the storytelling or rituals or music that would fill that space. Some of them stand beneath elaborate panels of rock art carved by the ancestors of today’s Puebloan people, then by Navajos, sometimes by white settlers or cowboys moving through the canyon’s space.
Time lives there, and you can see it. Along the horizon you can watch the sun move through the year, year after year, from what Puebloan people call “the sun’s summer home,” the northernmost location of sunrise and sunset in the longest days of the year, and “the sun’s winter home,” which shows the inherent balance of short days marked by the sun’s rise and set in the southern sky. Sometimes the rock art is a reliable “predictor site”—if a person sat in a spot marked by a petroglyph several days in a row to watch the sunrise, she’d get confirmation of how to count the days to the solstice, or maybe the equinox. Sitting there, she’d see the sun lift over a particular bump on the far horizon, or emerge from a particular cleft in the canyon wall, and know for certain: six more days till spring equinox. From then, it’s 61 days before you can plant corn without danger of frost. She knew because the sunwatcher before her had said so: he had kept count for years before he died. He’d taken her there the first time she saw for herself.
This is the cultural knowledge and care that still inhabit the place, even though no one lives in any of the ancient buildings. And that’s what I love best about Chaco Canyon: everything about the landscape maintains a kind of faithfulness to the attention that Ancient Puebloan people paid to every cleft in the cliffs, each angle of every rock face, each moonrise, each season. Everything—it seems they took note of everything. I love the way, being there, I step out of my normal sense of days. I leave behind the calendar on my computer that mostly tells me which round of meetings I need to prepare for or when my friends’ birthdays arrive. I say that I’m going off the grid. I step away from my self-centered technology and try to notice everything I can about the way nature also inhabits the canyon. How phenomenal, to have a sense of every day’s visible presence in the play of shadow on rock art, of light entering windows so well engineered that they still collect the sunrise precisely on the solstice mornings. How spectacular, and yet here’s the evidence—how ordinary, a matter of daily attention. Being present.
In Chaco I wake to bird song. I walk under the flutter of cottonwood leaves. I watch the shadow cast by a raven before I hear its call rasping overhead. After sunset I watch stars appear above the tent. Just a handful. Then more. Their appearance is silent, of course, even though when I stir the fire the familiar crackling sound rises along with the sparks. If there’s a night program at the observatory, I try to pick my way there without a flashlight, under the enormous glister of the Milky Way. I learn a new constellation even though I know that back home I might not be able to pick it out again. I hike the trail to the cliff top and watch clouds roll in, waiting, waiting, until I finally decide it’s time to scurry back down while thunder moves closer and I count the seconds after the lightning’s flash. I stand muffled in long johns and snow pants and socks and a hat and a hood, waiting for sunrise at 4 degrees Fahrenheit. I love this place.
Becky Reardon gave us the song that day in early summer. We sang it in rounds, we tried out harmony. After the last person in the round finished the final line we were silent. We walked out to where the trail ended and then we walked back. Don’t. Miss. This. Don’t miss this.
Elizabeth Dodd writes more about her experiences in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Horizon’s Lens.