Updated: Jan 15, 2022
“Protect the Sacred,” posted in large, all capital blue letters on a billboard in a Utah town with an unknown name. This is the mission that Connor and I are on, though we have also found our experiences in darkness are shaping us in unexpected ways.
Today we went to Hovenweep National Monument, an archaeoastronomical site comprising of six Anasazi, Navajo for ancestral Puebloans, sites across a 20-mile canyon (Taylor 56). Though I suspect this is not a greatly visited location, it is most definitely one worth checking out. The ingenuity of the Puebloans that built and lived there is incredible to witness. The particular building we were most interested in seeing was Hovenweep Castle, famous for having alignments within windows and small openings in the structure for both the winter and summer solstice sunsets, as well as those for the equinox sunsets (Taylor 56).
These Anasazi were built right on the edges of steep cliffs with 40- to 60-foot drops. How is it that the Puebloans built here? Why did they build here? It was clear from standing next to Hovenweep castle that visibility was of key importance, as it is on one of the highest points of the canyon with clear lines of site to all the surrounding landscape.
It was also while visiting this sacred space that we had the pleasure of meeting Dan and Linda. Dan is a former professor of cellular biology at the University of Colorado, Denver and is now passionately studying astrobiology. He gave me several great book recommendations on the topic, and both he and Linda expressed a passion for preserving dark night skies. Living in the area, they are lucky to be away from any substantial emitters of light pollution and can appreciate the stars from home. I am grateful to have met such wonderful people at such an opportune time.
Later that evening, we were headed south. The stars were out. The moon was now more than half full. My eyes drifted up from the circle of light created by my headlights and onto the heavens above. I felt elated. Since some time ago, I have felt a general negative disposition towards being and traveling in the dark. This disposition has developed at times when you wake up late in the winter and feel like you have wasted your whole day sleeping, even though the cycle of our waking hours keeps us up until ten, eleven, or midnight. In a similar vein, I have felt this when out walking at night and seeing a figure disguised by shadow – you can’t help but feel a little suspicious.
Living in a perpetually lit environment has forced humanity’s focus back on itself. Lights at night are placed to protect property, and they therefore highlight what is human-made, and, supposedly, what is of value. Like mirrors, they reflect only what you put in front of them. Your view from them is constricted. So, when I saw those stars on that dark desert highway, I was so joyous to have temporarily freed myself from the anthropocentric point of view. I now hope to look upon every aspect of the landscape, from mother earth to father sky, with an undiscriminated gaze.
This paradigm shift is directly because of my recent experiences spending extending periods of time in dark environments. We are most afraid of what we don’t know, and the darkness creates a lot of unknowns. However, when you’re out there, you can see for yourself that the world does not descend into chaos and violence as dark approaches. Life still goes on, just at a different pace and in a different nature.
At this time too, I was pondering a question Connor’s father asked of us: “Do you think the people who live around such wonders become desensitized to them?” My suspicion is that our awe at the novelty of a vast desert mountain range or of a star filled sky transforms into an appreciation of the nuance that those landscapes hold and are waiting to be discovered. This is what I experienced driving under a starry sky, and what I imagine Dan and Linda experience each day and night living life in a relatively natural environment. Darkness becomes a part of the daily diurnal routine. Mystery and malice turn to magic.
Through the darkness, and after some getting lost on red dirt roads, we arrived at the home of Krissie in Monument Valley, Utah. Her property is tucked up near the Centennial mesa just a few miles north of the border to Arizona. Krissie’s family has been living on this property since the 1800s, and a nearby butte is named for her great, great grandfather – Gray Whiskers. Krissie was kind enough to share with Connor and I her expansive knowledge on the names and history of the surrounding buttes and mesas.
That night, accompanied by Krissie’s two lovely pups, Roxie and Kiki, we hiked along four-wheeler tracks into the moonlit desert. Again, even so near a town and highway lit with modest lighting, the stars shone brightly, though now becoming more and more washed out by the growing brightness of the moon. We stopped and admired the stoic mesa walls alongside the cosmos, and again it was still.
Above is Centennial Mesa.
From left to right: Eagle mesa, Sitting Hen, Sleeping Bear, Tombstone, King of the Throne, and Centennial mesa.