Moonrise Over Chimney Rock

Author: Elizabeth Dodd

When the moon first slides its slenderest rind of lit curvature above the stony crest where we’re all staring, it is almost invisible; for that precise moment, it is the essence of the ephemeral. Since we arrived some 15 minutes ago at the modern fire tower atop the mesa, we’ve been gazing at the point of high land just between Chimney Rock and its not-quite-shadow-shape, Companion Rock. Some of the assembled, volunteers and scholars who’ve been documenting this year’s lunar events, have really been watching for months.

It’s been just under two decades since researchers rediscovered the moon’s precise behavior here in southern Colorado, its celestial conjunction with the monumental world of uplift and erosion. Since midsummer 2006, the moon has risen once or twice each month between these sandstone uprights. It began in July with a tiny crescent appearance and, throughout the following half year, steadily grew in size, waxing its way toward tonight, the second of January, 2007, when it will be full as a moon can be as seen from Earth.

I envy these people, women and men who have been monitoring their local wonder and who come out tonight as guides for the visitors, people from Massachusetts, Kansas, California. One visitor said that more than 20 years ago he worked here as a volunteer, walking all over this landscape, but that was before anyone had recalculated the moon’s timely marvels here.

A ranger from Mesa Verde, Tammi Corchero, begins our visit in the late afternoon with a brief talk. First she tells us that the ancient people, the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans, built here two centuries before the more famous cliff dwellings were constructed at Mesa Verde to the west. Nearly a thousand years ago, those farmers would have noticed the bright conjunctions of that traveling moon with the stationary spire we call Chimney Rock.

It’s now believed they raised these buildings on the mesa to mark the patterns of celestial events, and perhaps thereby to house them, hold them, in communal space. Later, when worsening climate or other factors drove them from Chimney Rock in the 13th century, it’s likely that those migrants were among the builders of the more inaccessible Great Houses at Mesa Verde.

Corchero swings her arms in exuberant arcs as she describes the patterns of the far-ranging moon; how widely it ventures across the sky’s apparent dome. As the Earth shifts on its tilted axis to favor first one hemisphere, then the other with the sun’s more direct rays, we move through the seasons, counting our way with night and day until we reach the major midpoints of the year: the equinoxes, the solstices.

Though the moon is seen, from our earthbound perspective, to move across our sky from east to west each night, and to rise and set in shifting positions on the horizon, the patterns for repetition are more complicated than that. As the ranger talks, she makes spinning motions with her hands—first the Earth’s rotation, then the moon’s. We nod: we all have memories of classroom models where the planets spin out their own days and nights, circled by their own moons, while our own natural satellite swings its way around a facsimile Earth and its own pattern of rotation.

The lunar standstill

We’re here for what is called the major lunar standstill, when the moon is seen to rise in its northernmost position, 28 degrees above due east. Only every 18.6 years will moonrise mark this northern extreme, unlike the northern standstill of the sun, which happens annually and is called the summer solstice. It’s another neat variation on the repetition that this northern lunar standstill takes place in such nearly intimate proximity to the southern solar standstill that was the winter solstice, just over a week ago. If one has any proclivity at all for spotting significance, particularly the significance of what might come clothed as mere coincidence—well, the pieces are here assembled, and the world’s forms draw about, attentive and alert with potency.

When we first arrived, a prairie falcon was perched on Companion Rock; it lifted and circled, then flew between the dual spires to regain its seat. Through binoculars I can see that the bird, still perched in the day’s last, high-cast light, is gazing south and east, as if it, too, is watching the cusp of land at the spire’s base where the moon will rise. From the angle where I sit, the spires almost seem to face one another, the low bulge in Chimney Rock corresponding to a curving gap in Companion Rock. Higher up along the spires, the pattern is reversed, with a bulge in the Companion echoing a concave curve in the Chimney.

These correspondences remind me of when, in college, I gazed at maps of Africa and South America, wondering why there had ever been such skepticism when geologists first proposed the ancient shape of the once-fused continents, Pangaea. I like this point of comparison, even though it seems a little far-fetched since we’re looking at erosion, not sea-floor spreading, high above the edge of the Colorado Plateau. And I realize that’s part of what keeps the attention focused here, or anywhere, long enough to find whatever pattern is incipient or hidden or just now rising into illuminated view. There’s still a flush of pleasure, carried forward from earliest childhood, a visceral thrill when we say, Yes, I see it now. That’s it, exactly. That’s what it’s like.

This afternoon we all feel dazzled by fortuity; after two tremendous snowstorms along the Front Range and several days of overcast, the skies are brilliantly clear. Only a few long bands of cloud lie to the west, like fine scarves that turn from gray to fuchsia as the sun drops lower; to the east the air is only blue. Last night another group was gathered here, “and you couldn’t see a thing,” Joan, a local woman, tells me. Snow still clots the roads farther south, in New Mexico; more than one intended pilgrim hasn’t been able to get here at all. On the hike up, we stepped gingerly over the hard-packed trail, already icing over in places. Once we passed a small windbreak of juniper where deer had obviously bedded down, the bare ground free of snow where the animals’ warm bodies had lain companionably together.

It’s still several minutes before sunset, and the translucent moon could almost be a faint, thin cloud itself. A guide named Jerry has come to where we sit and urges us to move farther north. “You can’t see it very well from here,” he says. So I move out in front of the fire tower, nearer to where the photographers have set up tripods in the snow. One is perched on a stone outcrop, and I can see that he sits very still and seems to concentrate on his breathing, on staying in place.

The Ancestral Puebloans

The moon stays low, much lower than I had imagined, before it begins to slide behind the lowest bulge of Chimney Rock. It’s lower, too, than is depicted in a little illustration I’ve seen, an “artist’s rendition of Ancestral Puebloans” watching the moon as it seems to hang between the rocks. Three figures stand or squat there, one holding a torch aloft. They’re atop the highest promontory of the mesa, a flat-topped point just beyond where tonight’s photographers are clustered. Of course, I want to scramble out there for myself, to imagine the viewpoint as it was long before the Forest Service built the fire tower, even before the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans began lifting walls and roofs—now all in ruins—farther back along the mesa.

Those ancient builders’ cultural center at the time lay 90 miles to the south, in Chaco Canyon. Besides several Great Houses in the canyon itself, the social world of the people extended throughout 130 or so “outlier” communities scattered across the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau, an area spanning more than 77,000 square miles. This one, at Chimney Rock, had been in existence as a farming pueblo since about the year 1000. It was unusual, being a high-elevation, conifer woodland location, unlike the other outliers to the south and west. Apparently in response to drier, warmer conditions, the people had moved up from the lowlands along the Piedra River and its nearby tributaries. At higher elevation on the mesa’s slopes, they could rely on the winter’s snow pack, so that even in years with little growing-season rainfall, the beans, corn and squash could draw on that soil moisture.

The Great House on the mesa top seems to have undergone construction or addition twice in the 11th century: in 1076 and 1093 A.D., as indicated by tree-ring dating. Both these dates would have corresponded to major lunar standstill events like this one. Perhaps, when the sliver of moon first appeared in July, there was a flurry of activity in the woods beyond the fields and pueblos below. Perhaps it was even earlier, in the cold months after the solstice, though I imagine work would have been difficult in snow and ice. Surely noise and excitement echoed off Peterson Mesa, to the west, while workers hustled up the slopes with stone and wood to expand the Great House in time for visitors and residents alike to climb to the roof and watch the luminous rhythm of the moon’s return to its northern way station, its self-ceremonial announcement of another completed cycle in the celestial order.

Another fortunate circumstance of those decades has been revealed by tree-ring and pollen studies. The years when the astronomically aligned construction went on were unusually wet ones. According to Frank Eddy of the University of Colorado, during the entire period when Chimney Rock mesa was inhabited, more years were dry than were wet. However, an entire generation at the pueblo knew wetter-than-normal conditions from 1060 to 1090. With flourishing crops and surplus stored food, the people had sufficient time and energy to devote to their architectural projects and even took time off in the summer, usually their busiest season, to cut timbers used in the building.

This seems logical, and yet it’s the opposite pattern from what Robert Leonard and Heidi Reed have found for Chaco Canyon. There, the major building periods correspond to drought periods, suggesting that refugees or migrants came to the region’s cultural capital to pool their labor when climatic downturns meant smaller farming communities failed. And there were other remarkable astronomical events to celebrate, besides the lunar standstills.

Sunrise, supernova

As in other locations in the southwest where mesas and canyons create specific, textured horizon lines, people at Chimney Rock could have marked solsticial and equinoctial sunrises. One spot on the mesa holds a neat bowl shape carved into the bedrock, which researchers refer to as the “bedrock basin” or site 5AA88. From here, the double pinnacles of the rock formation are visible (though they’re not from just a few hundred feet away). And from this particular location, the summer solstice sunrise first appears along the north wall of Chimney Rock Pueblo, the largest architectural building on the mesa.

In addition to these annual conjunctions of sun and stone, in the middle of the century when the community flourished at the mesa, an unprecedented light appeared in the sky. In July 1054 a star appeared just before sunrise, brighter than any star should be. This was the supernova that became the Crab Nebula; in midsummer, midcentury, a millennium ago, it was a star bright enough to see in daylight for some three weeks. When it first appeared, the supernova would be seen to rise at the corner of the mesa extending from Chimney Rock itself, just south of where the sun rose shortly afterward. From the bedrock basin, the sight line to that heliacal point lies parallel with the wall inclosing the Pueblo’s kiva, its sanctum of religious ritual.

What an intriguing cluster of celestial events were seen to take place during those lucky, rain-blessed decades on the mesa top. Beauty, wonder and rarity might seem like reason enough to celebrate the sky through painstaking architecture, but that’s not what archaeologists suggest. Instead, they emphasize how important the predictive power was in establishing agricultural and ritual calendars. In a world where the frost-free growing season barely exceeded the minimum number of days needed for a corn plant to mature—by less than a week, most years—agricultural precision was deadly serious.

The spring equinox was an especially important date to get right, in order to begin counting carefully to planting time. And the psychological, emotional power of the sun’s concurrence with prediction, midwinter, would be a great comfort as cold gripped the dark, ill-heated rooms made of stone and plaster. Also, suggests the astrophysicist J. McKim Malville, for a region-wide culture to whom pilgrimage and ritual must have been important, as indicated by their celebratory architecture, “To arrive at a festival one day late means missing the essence of the experience.” He points out that this particular “outlier” community at the far northeastern border of the Chacoan world constructed the kind of public building that could have accommodated influxes of guests. In one room of the mesa-top Pueblo, he notes, 29 metates—stones used to grind grain or nuts—were “stockpiled,” suggesting “intensive food-preparation for festivals.”

What about the moon? It’s easy to see the fundamental importance of the solar calendar to these agricultural people, scratching out their existence with digging sticks in an arid world plagued by frequent droughts. And the ritual importance accorded to corn continues in the Chacoans’ distant descendants, today’s Pueblo Indians. But despite the many other astronomical elements of the Chimney Rock Pueblo, it seems that the major building periods coincide with the lunar events, those northern standstills that took place only once a generation, or maybe twice in the memories of the few surviving grandparents. Why was keeping track of the moon so important to agricultural people?

Lunar cycles

Well, counting by the moon is important to women. Or, throughout earlier times, was important to women. Menses, menstruation and month all derive from the same Latin root as moon—they are all words whose etymology says, “measure.” Though most modern women likely see no conjunction between their periods and the lunar cycles, that may be because we live in such artificially lit environments. Even my parents, who live in the Appalachian countryside and whose electric lines to the house are buried in the soil, have installed bright security lights and rarely see the stars.

All this light pollution may have confused our inner photoreceptive patterns, which in times of darker skies would likely have kept us in far better time with the moon as well as the sun. Humans’ diurnal rhythms keep us active in daylight and quiet at night (though teenage boys seem especially reluctant to embrace their diurnal heritage). When the days grow shorter in winter, I find myself wanting to go to bed progressively earlier, while the early light of high summer draws me more quickly from sleep. The hormone melatonin helps establish this photoperiodicity in our circadian rhythm. Secreted by the pineal gland, melatonin helps induce sleep, and its release is, logically enough, prompted by darkness.

Beyond its role in establishing sleep, melatonin is also associated with the menstrual cycle: its levels peak during menstruation and drop during ovulation. Among Scandinavian women, melatonin levels are especially high during winter, when daylight hours are countable on just one hand.

Researchers have found that the likelihood for women to fail to ovulate during a cycle increases during the winter months, and that women living above the Arctic Circle may ovulate more than once a month during the light-filled summer. Birth records suggest connection between the lunar cycle and women’s reproductive cycles. Significantly higher numbers of births have been found to occur around the time of the full moon, even in modern New York City hospitals. In contrast, very few were observed to coincide with the new moon. Researchers concluded that these results point backward to the time of ovulation and conception. Not only did the birth itself occur with a full moon, it suggested that nine months before, the ovulation which resulted in that particular baby also took place at the time of the full moon’s light.

About time

The concept of time, the ability to imagine the future—these are hallmarks of human cognition and are generally thought to distinguish human from animal intelligence. But when I think of the basic phenomena of cyclicality, I’m struck by the link between units with which we measure time and the events that carry on utterly independent of us, like those theoretical trees that, crashing to earth, send out sounds heard by no one. A month, a year—both are measurements of biological time.

All this leads me to think of William James’ famous statement, “The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes,” but I see a pun gleaming its subversive-toothed grin from behind the masculine pronouns. Conception—that conceptual order—is embedded deep within the perceptual realm.

Once, in talking about the luxurious time I sometimes take to travel in the American West, dogging the steps of scientists or following the published path of other scholars, I laughed together with my father. “You’re living the life of someone wealthy in the 19th century, or even earlier,” he exclaimed.

“Yes. A 19th-century man,” I told him. Though I can tick off a few examples of women adventurers, I realize with a shock which shouldn’t be quite so pronounced that even here in the 21st century it’s still true: part of the circumference I’m calling luxury, which rings me even now with its broad bands of light and leisure, is in fact an absence. I have no children. While men of many centuries would sally forth in search of boundaries, borders and what lay beyond them, returning later (or not at all) to their children and the mothers who were engaged in raising them, women have held the bonds of family tightly in their fingers’ grip.

Because I’m no one’s mother, I can assume the greater freedom of motion that has been, perhaps since time immemorial, the prerogative of women’s brothers. My friend Susan talks wistfully, conflictedly, of the times she travels without her three children and her husband—she misses them with the sharpness of the body’s close attachment but also craves the time alone.

Oh, I feel connected to my loved ones, even when I roam alone. By phone or letter or email, we stay in touch—a person can be off the grid for only so long, after all, before she comes back for a hot bath and a good chat. But because I’m a daughter, a sister, a man’s beloved, but not a mother, the gravitational pull of others is less diurnal, less insistent in its rhythms of their needs.

In the new year, I can stand in snow some 700 miles from home, the day’s last light brightening the planet’s crusted surface, while the fine, translucent-looking moon takes its appointed place between the Chimney spires. The moon is a traveler, too, I think, one of the most obvious sky-journeyers. Each night she moves from east to west along the familiar ecliptic, the same arc traced in daylight by the sun. Her motion is less complicated in its apparent wanderings than the visible planets, which sometimes seem to reverse their direction, doubling back before they move forward once again. She travels through the field of the so-called fixed stars, which appear to pass above us in unchanged relations, as if attached to the once-theorized Celestial Dome.

Shifting widely, assuredly, in her precise rhythms of highest and lowest declination, north and south of the celestial equator, the moon moves, counting time month by month as she goes. I wonder how she figured in the thoughts and self-imaginings of women standing on this mesa 1,000 years ago. I wonder how many such women might have walked, for several days, maybe, to come to the lunar festivals at the mesa-top. Did they come with their children, the entire family making the pilgrimage? Or was this a journey for the young, the childless, to bring them closer to the moon’s quicksilver power, to stand still beneath her bright ascendency and coax forth their own fertility, an astro-biological call and response?

By now the moon has arced and lifted from the narrow foresights of the towers, and continued rising in the darkening sky. It is surprising how fast this motion is, measured against the stationary objects of our near horizon. Look away for a moment, and that moment has gone. I don’t see any stars yet, though within minutes one or two will begin to appear in the deepening evening. In the meantime, the moon has left the terrestrial niche appointed as her northern home, and now moves brightly, unfalteringly, along her own invisible path.

Elizabeth Dodd teaches creative writing and literature at Kansas State University. Her most recent book is Prospect: Journeys & Landscapes, winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Award for nonfiction.