Sunday, July 24, 2005

On alcove residences and Chaco Canyon

More than a millennium ago, Native American communities – those that are today referred to as the Anasazi or Pueblo – used a geological feature distinctive to the dry canyon country of the American Southwest to construct their houses. Though water was and still is a scarce commodity, run-offs from seasonal rainfalls and melted snow slowly permeate through the porous sandstone of canyon walls. Over hundreds of years and many seasons, the constant cycle of freeze and thaw causes exfoliation, or peeling off of the sandstone layer, leading to the formation of alcoves, located well above the base of the canyon. Usually, such high alcoves occur at the intersection of a sandstone layer and a solid impermeable layer of shale that eventually forms the base of the alcove.

I did not expect alcoves to be so big as to be the setting of an entire village until I saw a long-abandoned dwelling at the Navajo National Monument. It was a startling sight: a hundred or so box-like rooms, of the same color as that of canyon walls – as if the intent were to camouflage – and sloping precariously towards the edge. Since the alcove is gouged high in a canyon wall, it is accessed only by steep trails. The advantages of such a setting are immediately obvious: water seeping through sandstone meant the presence of an aquifer, though any supply of water from it could only have been meager; protection from the hot sun; and a natural vantage point from which to detect approaching danger.

There are many such abandoned alcove dwellings in the southwest, but the most famous ones are at Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado in the San Juan Mountains. The park was mentioned in some tour-book as the Disneyland of the Pueblo sites, and indeed, it seemed very much like a theme park when I visited it this summer: car doors slamming everywhere; large families; long lines of people waiting to reserve a spot for a ranger-guided tours of the alcove sites; and a crowded restaurant with a lunch buffet.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, by contrast, is a quiet spot in a remote part of northeastern New Mexico, accessed only by a dirt road with washboard bumps. Here, from the 8th to 10th centuries, the Puebloans constructed structures that are today called the Great Houses, massive complexes that were once four to five stories high, used possibly for ceremonial and religious purposes. The Great Houses are not alcove dwellings and represent a break from the past architecture of the Puebloans; they are indicative of the emergence of a stratified, hierarchical society, which might have been on of the reasons for its decline.

If you go to Chaco Canyon, do attend a 90-minute tour of park ranger Kirk Peterson, who will take you through Pueblo Bonito, one of the largest sites in the canyon. His tour touches on everything from the history of preservation of the site, to the ingenious construction techniques of the tenth century Chacoans, and why it might have been abandoned. Peterson readily acknowledges the shortcomings of attempting to understand an antiquated culture using such fields as anthropology or archaeology; his talk, therefore, is informed by a nuanced understanding of the worldviews of the present day Puebloan communities who consider themselves as descendents of Chacoans.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Colorado Plateau

The Colorado plateau is a physiographic region in the southwestern United States that spans the four states of Arizona, Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The plateau is named after the Colorado river (the state itself has little of the plateau), which has, along with its tributaries, side-streams, run-offs and other forces of nature formed the canyons the region is famous for: Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion and Bryce in Utah and hundreds of others, perhaps not as grand as these but just as beautiful. Why is the Colorado River such a great carver of canyons, while the Mississippi that runs longer is not? I overheard a ranger at the Grand Canyon National Park give a succinct answer: the Colorado has a sharp gradient owing to its descent from the Rockies, and also carries much grit – cutting power – in the form of rocks. The river runs into the elevated Colorado plateau that is brittle on account of its aridity, and cuts through it, chipping a little of the plateau every year. It has taken over five million years, a length of time too hard for us to imagine but that is not more than a blink of an eye in geological terms, for something of such magnificence as the Grand Canyon to form. There is, of course, much pooh-poohing of this theory – You’re telling me a river caused this? – and there should be, for even geologists do not concur on this topic, and theories do change over time, the newest ones overriding the existing ones.

Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix received more rain this spring than it usually does - which is not much at all. For the most part, the skies were gloomy and the rain wasn’t much more than a drizzle. And yet, it seemed excessive for the desert. Bushes with flat, many-lobed leaves that I had never seen before grew lush in places where water had accumulated: near fences, edges of roads, and signboards of plazas. The open space behind my apartment, fenced off possibly for new construction, was thick these bushes, weeds and grasses. On days that the sun shone brightly, the yellow and white flowers they spawned were resplendent.

Even the little hill next to the university that usually has a barren, brown look had a tinge of green to it. The trail to the top is winding and steep in places and ends at a rocky outcrop, just next to an assemblage of steel that serves as some sort of a receiving or transmitting station. On late afternoons, somewhat breathless from the strain of the ascent, I liked to rest at the summit and enjoy the view: the great suburban sprawl; the gloomy amber street lights that seemed to flicker; the harried rush of cars, toy-like from where I saw them on the tortuous freeways; the glimmer of the lake and the lighted bridge that arched over it; the mountain ranges and their jagged peaks that stretched in every direction. Sometimes I lingered to watch the approach of planes, now specks in the distance, now perilously close, banking this way and that, portholes clearly visible, as they aligned themselves to the parallel strips of blue light along the runway a few miles away.

A football stadium straddles the hill and a smaller adjacent butte. I like to think of it as saucer-shaped spaceship that has somehow forcefully wedged itself in the little space that there is between the hill and the butte. On many fall weekends, the sudden explosion of fireworks follows the roar of many thousands of fans at the stadium. Once, while walking up the hill, I stopped dead in my tracks, entranced by the fireworks that shot through the sky and burst in succession into plumes of smoke that, for the few seconds before they thinned into nothingness, matched convincingly the forms and shapes of the clouds scattered in the darkening sky.

Fire and trails of smoke have always had something about them: from my childhood, I remember being drawn to smoke curling from incense sticks, the crackle of matches, the glob of fire on the oil-dipped wicker of brass lamps, and long minutes on terraces observing the widening contrails of jet planes that sailed inaccessibly in the sky.