Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Echoes of the Anasazi

Imagine a house made of stone, nestled high against sheer sandstone walls, beautiful stonework framing T-shaped openings with smooth lintels, and all hand plastered in red/brown adobe. There are fingerprints pressed into the adobe around the opening, small and slender, and wooden vigas protrude from the wall. The ground is strewn with bits of corn, little brushes, copal, charcoal, and pottery, white pieces with black paint, black with red. The air is slightly pungent, not quite musty, and it is quiet. I am standing deep in a canyon that drains the eastern side of Cedar Mesa, miles from anyone or anyplace, and I am literally surrounded for hundreds of miles in either direction by houses like this. The surrounding landscape is riddled with canyons, and each canyon splits into countless side canyons like the branching of a tree or of some giant circulatory system. It makes you wonder how many sites like this are hidden away, in other canyons and tributaries that barely have a name. Who built this? Who lived here?

Much has been written and debated about the people called the “Anasazi”, the “Ancestral Puebloans”, the “Ancient Ones”, the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, and how many of the southwestern peoples. We have asked: Who were they? Where did they go? How did they live? People have devoted their lives to studying their pottery, their archeology, their pictographs, their astronomy, and still we ask – what do we know? They haunt us with these enigmatic ruins, perched on cliff walls, corn, fire pits and pots, still resting in their places inside silent walls of adobe, as if they simply walked on one day. Anyone who stands inside an old dwelling knows this feeling, the feeling that you expect these people to come back in the evening from their work day, to cook dinner, and light a fire under the stars.

These trails enmesh the four corners region of the southwestern US. Once you experience the mystery of a canyon or a mesa that was inhabited 800 years ago, yet still only yesterday, you want to return again and again. There are known ruins like Mesa Verde, and Chaco, and there are lesser known places, and still undiscovered places. The more time you spend in this land, you come to see that the ancestors were everywhere, hidden up canyons with hidden springs, places that no one knows exist, miles from nowhere, and yet there is a pot shard, an arrowhead, a masonry wall. And just when you thought you were alone, you can feel their presence.

There are many questions in life, and answers are hard to come by, and it seems with the great mysteries of life, most of the answers come when you stop asking the questions, and just start being in the presence. These thoughts came back to me again during a recent trip to Cedar Mesa, a magical space that was thoroughly inhabited by those who came before us. Each night in camp, as the stars began to appear in the jet-black sky, I would peer down into the countless canyons, imagining the campfires twinkling, and the sounds of dogs barking, and children playing. Sometimes it’s a heavy feeling, of another presence here, and sometimes its comforting knowing that others shared these remote spaces. As I stir the campfire, and stare into the glowing embers, I am transported to their landscape, their mindscape. And yes, the questions arise, it is our human nature to ask them, so we put them out into the blackness and see what comes back, like an echo off the canyon walls.

So we learn some things about the past – they ate corn, built stone houses, with T-shaped windows, painted and chipped art into rocks, we can see these things, we can see their pottery, their tools, their midden. But science leaves us feeling empty as to who they were, what they were doing, what they were thinking. Their direct descendants in the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of today, know more as they share similar rituals, beliefs and ideas, but these are well kept secrets, passed over generations. So what can we “know” as we sit under the same stars that these ancestors did thousands of years ago? We can know that they were fellow humans, in this vast, sometimes beautiful, sometimes lonely landscape – trying to survive as we do, looking for water, food, and shelter. And also that they saw these amazing stars, and marveled at how the earth was connected to the heavens, that they were a small part of a much larger picture, a picture composed of overlapping worlds and universes. They made beautiful bowls, and left their symbology on the rock walls, and even built their houses and cities to reflect the motions and interactions of the sun, moon, stars and planets.

Today, we share their questioning of the great mystery that surrounds us all, searching for some common ground that could provide some tether for us in this vastness. When we sit out there, and realize that people like us have gone before, and that they lived like us -we can sit in their kitchens and their homes and feel a bond as humans. This helps give us perspective in this place that is infinite and overwhelming, and give us some reassurance, if not answers, that we all share this space with those who came before, and those who will come. It gives us hope that we can evolve to understand a bigger picture of humanity’s place in the universe. Our common experience inspires compassion among fellow humans, who share our journey, that even though we are different, we are the same.