All posts tagged New Mexico
Posted by DougReilly on August 14, 2009
Page, Arizona: It’s strange to see a town planned and built in the 1950s. There’s a turn in the road where every church is lined up in a row.The next turn, motels. I saw my friend Cristina’s band “Native Country” there. They’re a Navajo country and western band. That’s right, Indians have become cowboys, buried the hatchet and wallow together in the twangy blues. It was really wild, but I don’t have the time to write about it at length. In the meanwhile, here’s a story about Rez bands in general.
Lake Powell: (1957-2019) Failed attempt at hydroelectric and tourist development by damning (sic) the Colorado River at the south end of Glen Canyon. In spite of monumental efforts to redress the damage, the canyon ecosystem is not expected to reach its pre-dam state until early in the next century.
Valley of the Gods, Utah: Valley of the Gods is BLM land, which means you can pretty much camp anywhere, although there are customary sites where people usually camp. It’s free. There’s usually nobody around. For miles. And miles. I looked out over the horizon and could see neither the glow of any nearby community’s light pollution, nor the tell-tale lights of isolated houses. I saw one campfire, far far in the distance. Much of the earth probably looked like this to people. It’s beautiful, but for an Easterner who’s never more than a stone’s throw from someone else, it’s disconcerting.
The No-Shoulder Phenomenon: Quasi-Hallucinatory State. Here’re the symptoms: An Easterner spends his life driving through forests. The horizon is always shaped like the tops of deciduous and coniferous trees, and it’s always close at hand. If there are open spaces, there are inevitably the lights of houses to circumscribe the space. In the Southwest, more often than not, the horizon is flat, jagged or mesa-shaped, and usually far away. There’re no streetlights and there are large areas where nobody lives. When one drives at night on many roads, one only sees the short bit of road ahead; the rest is the encroaching Nothing. My brain adjusts to this by manufacturing the feeling that, just outside of the cone of the headlights, there’s a forest on either side of me. I swear I can see wisps of forest shapes in the dark void. It’s very disconcerting.
Posted by DougReilly on July 28, 2009
I’ve made a big deal of people’s reactions to their first view of celestial objects through a telescope. There’s several reasons for this, the most obvious being the thrill of thrilling other people with just a few mirrors and lenses and a bit of know-how, and the energy and excitement generated that keeps me going and fuels future observing sessions.
The other reasons are no less important, though I never considered them until I met a group of people who offered none of the verbal feedback I was accustomed to. Tuesday, an ex-seasonal ranger turned local school technologist named Brandon brought out a van full of Navajo teens and children to the Night Sky Program.
The night was vaguely promising. Lots of clouds but a good clear hole overhead that seemed to be getting bigger. It was the largest group this month, at 22 people. About half of them were Navajo, the other half were, for lack of a better word, white park visitors.
The hole in the sky opened up, the sun remembered the cue it learned in pre-show blocking and exited stage west. Saturn was visible and I turned the 17.5” Dobsonian over to it. It was low to the horizon, and so we were viewing it through a lot more air (read: turbulence, pollution, gunk) than if it were overhead. So it was a bit boily and not all that sharp. Still, the ring was clear across it, as was one of the planet’s largest and brightest moons, Titan.
The Navajo kids and teens waited patiently in line. The first little girl climbed up the ladder and peered into the eyepiece. I waited. Silence. I waited. Silence. “Do you…see it?” I finally asked.
“Yes.” The little girl got down. The next person, a teenager, bent her head to the eyepiece. I waited. Silence. I waited. Silence.
“Does it…look sharp to you? If not, you can focus it.”
“It’s sharp.” She got down and joined her friends. It went like this. It was very strange, though I didn’t reflect on it until later. I just knew something was different. The evening didn’t flow like I was used to. Albireo didn’t elicit a wow. Nor did the Ring Nebula. Nor did M13, the great Hercules Cluster. This was like meeting Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of the planet Pluta, and saying “Oh, hi…” under your breath while looking at the ground.
Since I can’t look through the telescope at the same time, or indeed, see what another viewer can see, the verbal feedback I’m used to receiving helps me pace my presentation, gauge its effect, and also provides valuable feedback on the critical issue of focus. Since everyone’s eyes are different, what’s in focus for me may not be so much for you. How do I know? How do you know? Maybe Saturn always looks that fuzzy.
With our Navajo guests, I was adrift with none of those clues, and didn’t even know that was what was happening. Something just felt “off” to me. Even the white guests seemed more subdued than I was expecting. Group dynamics is a sensitive thing; the Navajos’ reticence could have rubbed off on the group.
The sky didn’t last long. A big blanket of murk took over from the west and wiped away all the glittering points of lights and the hazy meander of the Milky Way. Everyone left, and as GB, Jack , Jim and I were breaking down the telescopes, I voiced my observation.
Jack thought that perhaps they were simply being reflective, overwhelmed by the experience. I liked that thought, but didn’t think it likely to explain such consistent results. GB thought it was cultural. In conversations since, other more familiar observers of the Navajo language and culture have agreed with GB’s analysis and filled in some details. Navajo will seldom ask questions when they tour Chaco’s ruins, for example. It’s an expression of respect on the one hand and a generally less demonstrative language on the other. To further innumerate this, I was told that Navajo don’t use please and thank you (rather, the Navajo versions of these phrases) as frequently as white people do, and that the standard greeting when you enter a store from the clerk is “What do you want?” And that’s not rude at all. It’s polite and direct.
I don’t want to overstate this case. Lots of damage can be done in this territory of oversimplifying cultures and languages. Tonight’s Night Sky program may reveal a dozen completely demonstrative Navajo youth and I’ll be forced to yank this blog entry. Maybe it was just the one group, or perhaps it was the fact that they were in a mixed group with lots of white people that kept them quiet. There’s a complex relationship there that I can’t begin to tease out, and several ways I could imagine that history of power encouraging them to keep quiet. Not least of which is truly linguistic: it was an English-speaking event. They may not have felt free to react to what they saw in Navajo, and may not have felt confident to translate it. Upon reflection, the possible explanations are numerous and impossible to tease out. All I know is what I sensed (or didn’t sense) and how it made me feel, and how it led me to think about this complex relationship between people, languages and power.
I wish I knew what they thought of what they saw, but I have to respect their right not to speak. I hope it stirred something within them. Brandon said that they are always pestering him to take out his telescope to show them things, which leads me to think that I should learn how to interpret silence as a way of communicating appreciation for the natural off-world.
Posted by DougReilly on July 18, 2009
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.
Posted by DougReilly on July 13, 2009