Touching Chaco

Confront the lessons of the past and consider the course of the future

On the fall equinox, at the tail end of monsoon season two years ago, dense, dark clouds rumbled into a quadrant of Northern New Mexico’s pale blue sky. Above the two- and three-story ruins at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the skies were still bright. But the clouds, followed by virga and then by rain, meant the long drive out—14 of the 20 miles back to the highway are unpaved—would be a tricky one.

Until then, we would watch the sky. And walk among the remains of the people who dwelled here in the San Juan Basin during ancient times. Between AD 850 and 1250, thousands lived in Chaco Canyon. They built deep, round kivas underground and monumentally tall structures, with sandstone pieces so elaborately chinked and fitted together that mud mortar has kept them standing for centuries.

In his book Anasazi America, University of New Mexico archaeologist David Stuart writes of how the Chacoan people inhabited 40,000 square miles of the Four Corners region. He explains that the "vast and powerful alliance" between the 10,000 to 20,000 small farming villages and almost 100 district towns or "great houses" was reinforced by economic and religious ties. Hundreds of miles of well-worn ancient pathways, as wide as roads, are still visible from the sky.

The people who lived here also celebrated and mourned. Fell in love, argued with one another and stared up at the stars at night. Their feet touched the warm sandstone. They drew water from a running river and watched sticks burn to coals in their cooking fires.

Like now, there were good days and bad days—until the drought of 1090, when the bad days began outnumbering the good. According to archaeologists, during the second century, children under 5 comprised between a quarter and a half of all burials. The farming districts around Chaco—which supplied the great houses and also had the highest child mortality rates—began faltering. By the late 1000s, writes Stuart, firewood, clean water, game and wild plant food had all become scarce.

It had taken the pre-Puebloan people more than 700 years to "lay the agricultural, organizational, and technological groundwork" that created the Chacoan culture, writes Stuart. The classic period, meanwhile, lasted only 200 years—and collapsed "spectacularly" within 40.

Before leaving, we walked along a trail near the base of a tall sandstone cliff. Near the ruin of Pueblo Bonito, the iconic structure that most people snap pictures of when visiting the park, seven or eight birds delighted in the waves of air from the stormy sky. They would dive from the top of the cliff, twirl around one another, and pull up just above the ground. They were turkey vultures, the vee of their wings distinct against the sky. I'd never seen those big, serious birds act that way. As we continued walking toward the great house, we stepped into their game. They flew so close above us we could hear the air through the feathers of their wings. Carrion eaters, the vultures are good reminders of mortality.

The clouds darkened the remainder of the sky. And the turkey vultures retired to a cottonwood in the wash nearby. We left and made it home, grateful for the rain that blessed our own hard drought.

But the same thing that delivered us to the canyon—my gasoline-powered pickup truck whose four-wheel drive also got us out that day—contributes to the destruction of cultural artifacts and threatens the future of the people who still live in small, tight-knit communities throughout the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico.

Today, there are 22,000 natural gas wells in the region, some dating back to the mid-20th century. And as companies have sought to glean oil from the tightly packed Mancos Shale thousands of feet below Earth's surface, the federal government has started approving oil wells, too. If you've taken NM 550 in the past few months and driven north of Cuba, you've seen the trucks and rigs, the newer wells flaring 30- or 50-foot flames into the air.

There's no doubt that the park is worth protecting from the press of oil and natural gas wells; Chaco Culture National Historical Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And as a former archaeologist, I appreciate the connections between the past and the present and how we can learn from the past to better plan for the future.

But it says something about our culture today—right here in New Mexico, at this moment—that it's so much easier for people to connect with stone and story than with flesh and blood.

Just about a year after that stormy equinox, I join a handful of reporters and then-Councilman Mark Martinez, of the Pueblo of Zuni, to fly above Chaco Canyon in a six-seater Cessna 210.

On a clear October morning, we take off from the Farmington airport, flying over the San Juan River and the Navajo Nation's thousands of acres of irrigated lands. In the distance, I can see Shiprock and also the lumpy heft and steaming towers of a coal-fired power plant. Banking away from the city, we headed south. Bruce Gordon, the pilot and executive director of ecoFlight, points out the remains of ancient roads and buildings.

When I'm driving through the San Juan Basin, the desert scrub seems to stretch into nothingness. From the air, I see hogans and trailers at the ends of long, straight roads. Or round corrals adjacent to a few venerated green cottonwoods surrounded by brown.

The washes and arroyos that rarely merit a second glance from ground level are from the sky squiggly and magnificent. The badlands are rust and orange, white, gray and black.

Then we spot the well pads and tanks, the natural gas drilling rigs and waste ponds. From above, it looks as though someone's fired a giant paintball gun. Globs of industrial development are strung together with roads like cobwebs.

I'm almost embarrassed to recall all the times I've driven out to Chaco, using the trip as an escape from cell phones and computers, the city's noise and the dull demands of 21st century life. Meanwhile, it's that development all across the basin that makes my modern life convenient and leisurely.

That long (sometimes mucky) road into the park does indeed preserve that feel of returning to earlier times. Out at Chaco, it's quiet. And at night, it's very dark. The driving loop within the park is paved. But just walk away from the road, stare at the sky and the ruins, and you will feel entirely alone.

From the air, I realize what a fantasy that is. For centuries, this landscape has yielded what people needed. Once it was corn and beans, clean water, sandstone and timber. Then came the drought. There were wars and conquests. And in the past half-century, while the San Juan River irrigates thousands of desert acres, we've also forced the land to surrender coal and uranium, oil and gas.

My forehead pressed against the glass of the Cessna, I wonder how long it will last this time.

After landing back in Farmington, Martinez talks about what the flight meant to him. People at Zuni, particularly the religious people, are worried about development approaching the ruins. He'd been told that another 1,500 oil wells could be drilled in the basin within the next 15 to 20 years.

Chaco is sacred to not just his Zuni people but to many Native cultures, he says.

For Native people, the land isn't an escape. It's a return.

"We call that our spiritual place and (it's) part of our umbilical cord to our migration route. So that's very important to us, and we've never left those homelands. They're part of our spirits," he says, standing on the tarmac. "Our ancestors still live upon the lands. Every time we visit, we do offerings to greet them. Even though we don't see them, they're still in existence."

When non-Native people visit the park, he imagines them wondering about the people who lived there. They seem to miss the people who still live here, their far descendants—the ones who really feel forgotten.

Since that flight last fall, the US Bureau of Land Management has temporarily deferred approval on oil leases close to the park's boundary. Activists celebrated. But of course, political whim could reopen the process.

And the Chacoan landscape isn't only about the park.

"It's also about the larger landscape," says Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, who had a 17-year career as an archaeologist in New Mexico and Arizona. Now she's an attorney for WildEarth Guardians. She explains that the 53-square-mile area currently within the park's boundaries was the center of a larger community extending as far north as Mesa Verde in Colorado and to the south of Interstate 40. All of those sites together, she says, tell a story.

Allowing development up to the boundaries of the park creates something "almost like a little playground," she says. "You don't get that sense that there was a living community occupying that landscape and the descendants of the community are still there."

Today, that living community includes the Diné, or Navajo people, who have homes on the reservation and on allotments, private lands deeded to individual families in the 19th century.

In mid-December, Lori Goodman arrives outside the Counselor Chapter House on the Navajo Nation. A handful of people, mostly women, stand in the dirt lot, soaking in the New Mexico sun on a day that probably should have been a dozen degrees colder.

"Quite a sight, huh?" asks Goodman, who volunteers with the nonprofit organization Diné CARE—or Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment.

She's talking about the oil rigs we had all passed to get here. In this area, the BLM has approved about 100 new oil wells, some of which popped up alongside the unpaved roads that run through Counselor and south of the highway toward Ojo Encino.

Later we drive deeper into the reservation and then climb atop a pine-covered hill to look out at the landscape. A small ranch, marked by a windmill and a few barking dogs, spreads out beneath us. The air is warm and smells like sage or pine, depending on which direction the wind is blowing.

From behind the mesa that flanks the ranch, we spot a flame. Then another farther to the right. Below us is a well pad with big green storage tanks. Turning again, we see another flare.

Here, on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, there are about 900,000 acres of allotments—and this is where most of the current oil drilling and proposed leasing is occurring. For a one-time payment, sometimes as much as $100,000, hundreds of individual families have signed agreements with drilling companies. Yet with the money come lasting effects.

"People that we've been meeting with, they're telling us how this intense development has really interfered with their lives and livelihood," says Goodman as we walk back down the hill. "Numerous roads have been built, just in this rush to get the oil out. And so regular roads that were just to people's homes are now truck roads. The amount of traffic going by—it's scary. We were driving in a small car, and these huge semi trucks were passing us, and we kept pulling off the road because we're little and they're huge."

Even though I'm just a reporter covering this issue from the outside, a lot of it feels like familiar ground.

And so, a confession is necessary: What's been happening, as Chaco Canyon has become a rallying point to stave off new oil development, awakens in me the deep discomfort I felt as a young archaeologist on my first field project in New Mexico.

From our motel in Gallup, our crew would drive about 45 minutes to where we were excavating sites alongside a road that was being widened. On that drive, sleepy each morning and sunburned each evening, we'd pass thin-walled trailers, rez dogs dead or dying on the edge of the road and worn-looking men stumbling along the way.

In retrospect at least, most of my time working on field projects was stunning. We'd spend weeks and months getting to know not just the archaeology of the project area but also the plants and weather patterns. That work electrified me physically, intellectually and emotionally.

Yet, I'd often feel uneasy at the end of the day.

Contracted by governmental agencies mandated to comply with federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, we contract archaeologists—also called consultants—worked in tandem with developers to ensure dams and pipelines, highway projects and cell phone towers were completed.

As I learned more about the federal laws, spent more time on the ground and met people whose families have lived here for centuries, I wondered: As a society, why do we seek knowledge of those who died centuries ago while failing to listen to those who are still living?

There are a lot of answers to that question: It's critically important to learn about the past. The dead deserve more than to have their bones crushed beneath bulldozers. Knowledge of the past helps us understand who we all are today and what we might do to survive tomorrow.

But there's another answer that's harder to admit: The dead are easier to objectify and manipulate.

Consider this like a long-distance relationship. It's easier to adore—even defend—someone from afar, building the entire narrative yourself by stitching together finite moments, of passion or joy, without having to live with the hurts and injustices, annoyances and abuses of reality.

During the second century, when the rains and snows stopped arriving with regularity in the Four Corners, I imagine that people felt some combination of hope and helplessness. Hope that next season would be better, that the stores of food could be renewed again after this one tough year. Hope that gods would answer prayers. Then helplessness as more children died. As water became scarce and wild game disappeared. As crops failed to survive the dry summer and the walk for firewood became too long.

Today, most Americans have at least a cursory understanding that the greenhouse gases—including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases—we release into the air when burning fossil fuels are changing the planet's climate.

Many also understand that those changes are increasing global surface temperatures, melting polar ice and causing sea levels to rise. Despite that knowledge and the technologies we've developed, we still hover between hope and helplessness.

Yet, I hear the same mantra again and again, from farmers, water managers and neighbors: Let's hope that next year's snowpack will be better and that when it melts, reservoir levels will rise again. Let's hope that this year's monsoon season will bring enough rain to sustain the season's crops. Let's hope things get better.

Less publicly, people will admit feeling helpless: How do we stop the entire planet from going to hell?

Sometimes, we comfort ourselves with small actions: clicking "like" on the Facebook post of an outraged friend, ignoring the fact that our phones and computers are charged with electricity from a coal-fired power plant; driving to a public meeting to proclaim our opposition to fracking, while stopping to buy a tank of gasoline on the way; casting corporations and oil field workers as the enemies—the angry villains who have inflicted this travesty of energy development and subsequent climate change upon us—while feeling helpless to change the habits that are condemning us to hopelessness.

Towns like Farmington and Aztec, or even Lybrook and Counselor, aren't cleverly planned and marketed, the way charming and historic Santa Fe is. But if there's a place in New Mexico to confront the lessons of the past and consider the course of the future, it's the Four Corners.

Our addiction to fossil fuels is most obvious here in the southwest, says Mike Eisenfeld, energy coordinator for the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance. In addition to the tens of thousands of wells, the region has coal mines and coal-fired power plants. And whether it's from coal, oil and gas or uranium development, the air and water pollution in the San Juan Basin serve as proof, he says, of "our continued inability to think about ways to create electricity other than from burning stuff."

It's a shame, he says, that the Four Corners is considered a sacrifice zone—a place where America's pursuit of energy independence always comes home.

"My experience here is this is a tremendous living community, full of history and vitality, and it's just a shame that some of these monikers have stuck," he says. "The current president's 'all of everything' energy policy is not well-thought-out at all—because the areas that have been impacted for years and years by oil and gas and coal and uranium and other schemes and shenanigans are going to just be constantly hit with the idea that we need to be relied on for more and more and more."

Despite the changing climate and the energy challenges, humans keep plugging away, doing things the same way we always did. And even when we do create new technologies that increase energy efficiency or draw power from renewable resources, we don't apply them rapidly or often enough.

Eisenfeld mentions how the oil wells near Lybrook on the eastern Navajo Nation are flaring off nitrogen and natural gas: "It seems so wasteful and so poorly conceived and heartbreaking that as a society, we're willing to squander things that have environmental problems and economic value," he says. "I don't think, until you live in a community like this—where there are well pads in every park and well pads in your communities and well pads next to your schools, and compressor stations and processing and central delivery points.

"I think in my mind, I thought that like natural gas just came out of the ground clean and wasn't really that big of a deal. My opinion has changed a lot."

It's frustrating, he says, to not know what to do about the way humans have fundamentally altered our natural systems. He's not just talking about the landscape of an ancient civilization pocked with wells and mines. He's referring to the hand New Mexicans have in altering the entire planet's climate.

Last year, NASA revealed that a giant plume of methane, a greenhouse gas, is seeping from the Four Corners region. The data, from 2003-2009, showed that coalbed methane seams and oil and gas infrastructure in the area have created the largest "methane hot spot" in the United States.

When our fall comes—as the Southwest continues to warm, surface water supplies decline and the evidence of our actions is visible even from space—we won't leave behind remains as beautiful as those at Chaco. We'll leave behind seeping gases and rusting pump jacks, poisoned wells and crackling pavement.

A few months after talking in Farmington, Eisenfeld drives the back roads around Counselor, trying to grasp the scale of the new oil development. I follow behind him as he rushes to see one more well pad, one more rig, before darkness descends completely.

After sunset, we park at a cleared, flat spot. It seems like an old natural gas well pad, but I can't quite make out the infrastructure in the darkness. He's stopped here to watch the flare from an oil well. It's about a quarter-mile away, but we're talking loud over its roar.

Then, without warning, Eisenfeld hops back in his truck and takes off again.

As he pulls away, a great horned owl sweeps up, landing on a pole atop an elevated metal tank.

My heart's still thumping from the surprise of the bird's giant wings. I want to watch this owl forever. Or as long as my eyes can see through the dark. But I need to get moving. I don't know the route back to the highway.

As his taillights disappear down the gravel road and around a corner, I remember what he'd said to me a few months earlier. I remember his urgency.

"I'm 52, and I'm kind of going, 'All right, what's going to happen in my lifetime? And what kind of planet are we leaving our kids?'"

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