--2 History, Moistened
         
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History, Moistened

January 14, 2009, 12:00 am
By SFR Staff
House of Rain
By Craig Childs
Back Bay Books, 445 pages, $14.99
Available at Garcia Street Books

When I moved to Santa Fe, I came from the suburbs of New Jersey. The home I'd known for 18 years, 20 miles west of New York City, had all the requisite Revolutionary War landmarks, school field trips where we built Iroquois longhouses out of nylon tarps, and a bed-and-breakfast in my hometown whose claim to fame was that, apparently, George Washington once spent a night there. But this new place I'd come to, and its concept of history, was something different entirely.

My initial experience in New Mexico was largely shaped by a class I took as a freshman at the College of Santa Fe. An ecology professor would load the entire class into vans and take us on adventures – one of which was to Tsankawi, a largely unexcavated Anasazi settlement that is part of Bandeleir National Monument. Coming from the most densely populated state in the country, to have a spot of desert that was blanketed with thousand-year-old pottery shards, a spot that had been greatly untouched by modern civilization, absolutely blew my mind.

We wandered around Tsankawi, picking up and dropping again pieces of ancient clay painted with black and white lines. We stood in the foundations of kivas and climbed in and out of cliff dwellings. One of the most striking photographs I took that day was of a classmate perched on a rock outcropping carved with footholds, the ground dropping off beneath her. I couldn't believe that this was class.

Craig Childs' House of Rain brings to mind the wonder I felt as I stepped down six-inch-wide paths through rock outcroppings at Tsankawi. The book opens on Childs canoeing down a river on the Colorado plateau and stopping to investigate an isolated Anasazi dwelling. The reader accompanies Childs as he hikes hundreds of miles at a time, gets swept away in flash floods, and nearly falls to his death off a cliff in southeastern Utah.



But the lively narrative is a Trojan Horse for a more unique talking point: what really happened to the Anasazi. It has long been believed by the masses that the tribe just mysteriously vanished one day. Ladles were left in soup bowls, half-painted pottery left unfinished. Some theorized that a drought drove the people from their homes; others took stock of burned ceiling beams of massive kivas and decided that great violence killed off or frightened away the Anasazi. Childs rebukes both these ideas with unique insight steadied against ideas from many other archaeologists.

As he builds a case against the idea that the Anasazi just “vanished,” he paints a picture of the Anasazi as a mobile, somewhat nomadic people. They are different from other nomads, however, in that they built permanent structures and came and went on a cycle that spanned centuries.

There was not one grand way that all of the Anasazi disappeared, however, Childs writes: “[Susan] Ryan has dug into a site [in the high Mesa Verde region] that had been formally abandoned, its rooms prepared for departure like a body bathed and dressed for the grave, artifacts neatly arranged on the kiva floors before the roofs had been set on fire. The more valuable vessels had been carried away as the people had left on their migrations. The residents of Sand Canyon and Castle Rock had no such opportunity. They had been caught unaware, leaving everything in its place” (158).

When studying ancient civilizations, I've always felt myself separate from them. Ancient people felt like they were of a different species, another planet, a civilization that I looked in on from above. It is clear that Childs doesn't feel this way about the Anasazi. He views them as fellow humans, people who felt and lived and walked almost exactly like we do, only with different amenities and a different set of ideals, perhaps.

With House of Rain, gone is the notion of historical nonfiction being dry; Childs' inspired prose communicates this connection he feels, and makes the textbook-thick tome a thoroughly enjoyable read.

House of Rain
By Craig Childs
Back Bay Books, 445 pages, $14.99
Available at Garcia Street Books

 

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