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On the day Pope Francis released his encyclical on the fate of the Earth, I was struggling to climb a near vertical cliff on the Parajito Plateau of northern New Mexico. My fingers gripped tightly to handholds notched into the rocks hundreds of years ago by Ancestral Puebloans, the anodyne phrase now used by modern anthropologists to describe the people once known as the Anasazi. The day was a scorcher and the volcanic rocks were so hot they blistered my hands and knees. Even my guide, Elijah, a young member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, confessed that the heat radiating off the basalt had made him feel faint, although perhaps he was simply trying to make me feel less like a weather wimp.
When we finally hurled ourselves over the rimrock to the top of the little mesa, the ruins of the old city of Puyé spread before us. Amid purple blooms of cholla cactus, piñon pines and sagebrush, two watchtowers rose above the narrow spine of the mesa top, guarding the crumbling walls of houses that once sheltered more than 1,500 people. I was immediately struck by the defensive nature of the site: an acropolis set high above the corn, squash and bean fields in the valley below; a city fortified against the inevitable outbreaks turbulence and violence unleashed by periods of prolonged scarcity.
The ground sparkled with potsherds, the shattered remnants of exquisitely crafted bowls and jars, all featuring dazzling polychromatic glazes. Some had been used to haul water up the cliffs of the mesa, an arduous and risky daily ordeal that surely would only have been undertaken during a time of extreme environmental and cultural stress. How did the people end up here? Where did they come from? What were they fleeing?
“They came here after the lights went out at Chaco,” Elijah tells me. He’s referring to the great houses of Chaco Canyon, now besieged by big oil. Chaco, the imperial city of the Anasazi, was ruled for four hundred years by a stern hierarchy of astronomer-priests until it was swiftly abandoned around 1250 AD.
“Why did they leave?” I asked.
“Something bad happened, after the waters ran out.” He won’t go any further and I don’t press him.
The ruins of Puyé, now part of the Santa Clara Pueblo, sit in the blue shadow of the Jemez Mountains. A few miles to the north, in the stark labs of Los Alamos, scientists are still at work calculating the dark equations of global destruction down to the last decimal point.
This magnificent complex of towers, multi-story dwellings, plazas, granaries, kivas and cave dwellings was itself abandoned suddenly around 1500. Its Tewa-speaking residents moved off the cliffs and mesas to the flatlands along the Rio Grande ten miles to the east, near the site of the current Santa Clara (St. Clair) Pueblo. A few decades later they would encounter an invading force beyond their worst nightmare: Coronado and his metal-plated conquistadors.
Again, it was a prolonged drought that forced the deeply egalitarian people of Puyé — the place where the rabbits gather — from their mesa-top fortress. “The elders say that the people knew it was time to move when they saw the black bears leaving the canyon,” Elijah told me.
Elijah is a descendent of one of the great heroes of Santa Clara Pueblo: Domingo Naranjo, a leader of the one true American Revolution, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which drove the Spanish out of New Mexico. Naranjo was half-Tewa and half-black, the son of an escaped slave of the Spanish. That glorious rebellion largely targeted the brutal policies of the Franciscan missionaries, who had tortured, enslaved and butchered the native people of the Rio Grande Valley for nearly 100 years. As the Spanish friars fled, Naranjo supervised the razing of the Church the Franciscans had erected — using slave labor – in the plaza of Santa Clara Pueblo.
Now the hope of the world may reside in the persuasive powers of a Franciscan, the Hippie Pope, whose Druidic encyclical, Laudato Si’, reads like a tract from the Deep Ecology movement of the 1980s, only more lucidly and urgently written. Pope Francis depicts the ecological commons of the planet being sacrificed for a “throwaway culture” that is driven by a deranged economic system whose only goal is “quick and easy profit.” As the supreme baptizer, Francis places a special emphasis on the planet’s imperiled waters, both the dwindling reserves of freshwater and the inexorable rise of acidic oceans, heading like a slow-motion tsunami toward a coast near you.
Climate change has gone metastatic and we are all weather wimps under the new dispensation. Consider that Hell on Earth: Phoenix, Arizona, a city whose water greed has breached any rational limit. Its 1.5 million residents, neatly arranged in spiraling cul-de-sacs, meekly await a reckoning with the Great Thirst, as if Dante himself had supervised the zoning plans. The Phoenix of the future seems destined to resemble the ruins of Chaco, with crappier architecture.
I am writing this column in the basement of our house in Oregon City, which offers only slight relief from the oppressive heat outside. The temperature has topped 100 degrees again. It hasn’t rained in 40 days and 40 nights. We are reaching the end of something. Perhaps it has already occurred. Even non-believers are left to heed the warnings of the Pope and follow the example of the bears of the Jemez.
Yet now there is no hidden refuge to move toward. There is only a final movement left to build, a global rebellion against the forces of greed and extinction. One way or another, it will either be a long time coming or a long time gone.