I came out here to help teach astronomy as part of the Night Sky program. Chaco Canyon pretty much started the Astronomy in Parks movement some years ago, and now many of the western parks have similar programs, helping interpret the incredible resource of the dark sky for park visitors. It gives campers staying in park grounds something to do in the evening, as well. They’re kind of a captive audience, why not help them to look up and wonder?
Last week, when I arrived, I was met with almost immediate disappointment. The campground was closed, and so the night sky program was seriously undermined; there was essentially no audience. Crestfallen, I stared out at the desolate landscape, imagined my wife and child in Slovakia where it’s green and lush, eating berries and cucumbers and peaches fresh from the garden, and wondered just what the heck I came out here for. I even wondered if I should stay. Sure, there were other ways I could help the park. I did some weeding, helped fix an errant wheel on the observatory dome. But my main goal was to work with the public.
Well, you do your best, I told myself, and you can’t control everything. I’m in a very special place, might as well make the best of it. Maybe the reason I thought I was coming here woudn’t be the reason, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t get something out of it. I just didn’t know what that was, and that was a bit disturbing.
My fears were mostly unjustified. We’ve had a few Night Sky programs and they have been attended…sparsely, but attended nonetheless. Jim, the other astronomy volunteer, spends time at Bryce Canyon doing outreach and he says they get sometimes 500 people a night. Personally I’d rather have 5 curious people and the time to really engage them in conversation than 500 elbowing each other for a glance into the telescope. Each night we’ve had people I’ve met very nice folks, and had a lot of time to tour the sky at a leisurely pace, explaining things as I go, taking detours to different topics.
Before last night’s program, I had GB, Jim and Amber over for dinner. All three of them work in one way or another with the dark sky program. We were talking movies, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, and I asked if any of them were Firefly fans. All of them were. That’s not such a common thing. It’s a trifling thing, affection for a somewhat obscure, prematurely truncated but completely excellent sci-fi TV series from auteur Joss Whedon, but it made me feel at home. Firefly is about people coming to a place together seemingly without reason, but finding that reason in an informal family and community. It’s a trifling thing, but I suddenly felt like I had come to the right place, and for the right reason, whether that was in focus or not.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a front-porch view like this, and I doubt I ever will again. I can hardly put it into words. Sometimes I lose track of it, take it for granted, and then look up from my book, computer, or food and go…wow. I live here. For a few weeks, at least.
Front and center is Fajada Butte, a shape that is hard for us Easterners to think of as natural. Mesas to the right and left outline the Butte’s stage, and the sky above is the other character, constantly changing itself and everything else. The hour around sunset is a show and a few nights already I’ve just stood at the railing of the long porch and just…watched.
The nature here is subtle, as I said. It grows on you. At first I felt it was empty, desolate. Then I started to see the changes the landscape takes on during the day. I started seeing more animals, more wildflowers. There are no big bursts of flowers or fields of color on the horizon like I remember from eastern Turkey. Just isolated bushes here and there, or plants low to the ground. You have to walk to see them.
Now, as I type, the clouds and star fields are taking turns. It’s the time of twilight when every moment brings newly-unveiled stars. High hum of crickets. The air is still. I’m overwhelmed by the subtle physical beauty of this place. In some ways, I wish I was camping here in a tent. The duplexes built by the Park Service are nice enough, lovely even and comfortable, but I enter the apartment and feel totally cut off from the nature outside. On the porch it’s better, but I can escape back inside whenever I want, plug in, check my email, watch a vid. Meanwhile there’s all this drama outside. I think people are funny; we’ve come a long way to be here but we huddle in a little compound at night, replicating the thick settlements we come from, united against the big dark empty.
I’ve seen all manner of bird here, and I should learn the names of them and make my daughter, Zora, proud; she’s quite the bird-watcher. I saw a bull snake the other day, slithering up a tree. Later on, I was told, the snake ate two wren chics out of a nest. There are at least two different species of lizards. One fast, skinny, stripped and lives in the lowlands, the other shorter, slower, and mutable in color that lives on the mesa tops. Lots of rabbits, about 25 per acre, and coyotes, though I have yet to see them, I have seen lots of tracks and droppings, some fresh, others dried and filled with rodent bones. There are these odd chipmonk-looking creatures that kind of hop. I have to find out what that is called as well. It’s funny that the official names of things are so important. I guess I could call them what I wanted to. I’d call those chipmonk hoppers “Kangaroo Squirrels.” I wouldn’t be wrong; they wouldn’t take offence. But then I’m not sure anyone else would know what the heck I was talking about. So we need those official names to communicate with each other. They’re placeholders. Like the names of stars. The things dear to us can have public names for communicability, and private names for contemplation and appreciation.
A lot of people find this place spiritual. The mystery of the ancient Chacoans who built all these Great Houses and then left after a few hundred years holds many in its spell. I am not one of those. The old masonry walls are beautiful, but they don’t really speak to me. For me the “mystery” is an intellectual challenge, and it’s more fascinating to examine what people think happened here than to actually figure out what did. Chaco Canyon, in this respect, is a like a closed gift box…we can only conject what is inside, maybe rattle it around a bit. Mostly we see what we want to see, either our worse fears (at the moment, that seems to be civilizational collapse because of environmental degradation) or our highest hopes (a spiritually enlightened, egalitarian and peaceful meeting place for people of all tribes to come together in seeking to better ourselves and gain wisdom, either individually or as a group.) But it’s fascinating to watch the process of making meaning, the way everyone who comes here, be they workers or visitors, struggles to define the essence of the place, and not just internally by socially…exactly what happened at Chaco Canyon 1000 years ago is a very live topic today, which is not something I can say for the rest of US society, where events even 15 years ago are rejected as irrelevant in our “constantly changing” world.