Letting go: Author Craig Childs says we can’t save everything from the past

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Best-selling author Craig Childs speaks at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez on March 26. Photo courtesy of KSJD

What should we do with pieces of the past? Do they belong to that past, to the present, or to the future? Should they be preserved or allowed to deteriorate and disappear?

Best-selling author Craig Childs raised those questions March 26 during a talk at the Sunflower Theatre, a new performing- arts venue in downtown Cortez. The sold-out event was a fundraiser for both the theatre and Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit in southern Utah.

The author of more than a dozen books about archaeology and the natural world, including “House of Rain,” “Finders Keepers,” “The Secret Knowledge of Water,” and most recently, “Apocalyptic Planet,” Childs now lives in San Miguel County, Colo., near Lone Cone and Norwood. He said the trip down Lizard Head Pass into Montezuma County is “powerful” to him because of landmarks such as Mesa Verde and the Sleeping Ute. The landscape is rich with ghosts, he said, and he enjoys thinking of all the stories that linger.

“How do we live with these ghosts?” he asked. “Because they’re all around us. I could feel it coming down here today.”

Living with ghosts – or, more particularly, with the artifacts they’ve left behind – has always been a thorny question in the Four Corners. It’s one that Childs addressed in “Finders Keepers,” and he revisited it during his talk in Cortez.

Although he describes himself as a “groupie to archaeologists,” he has qualms about the idea of excavating ancient sites and removing their contents, taking them to museums to be displayed or merely stored and studied. (It should be noted that modern-day archaeology is less intrusive than it used to be, and excavation can be done with non-invasive instruments that leave sites intact.)

He described being surrounded by pre-Columbian vessels during a visit to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. The curator told him they needed more space in order to display new things, and that the ceramics were going to be taken down and sent to smaller facilities around the Boston area. Childs found himself wondering, “Why are we gathering every little thing?”

People today, he said, act “as if history was all over” and we have reached the apex of human development. “We’re going to gather everything up as if this were the pinnacle of time. It’s not.”

Rather, he said, we are part of a continuum, and our stories will eventually blend with those of the people who came before us and be lost as new people create new stories.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, he said, he found an old building with broken windows, hardly better than a garage, hidden in the woods. Inside were stacked ancient totem poles owned by a museum. Again, he wondered, “What’s the plan here?”

He described a display at another museum in which two artifacts were housed carefully in a case in a drawer, each resting separately in a padded container. He asked the curator if he could pick them up and lay them across each other, because that was how they had been found when excavated, and the curator let him do it, but then they were returned to the drawer, contrary to their ancient ceremonial layout.

“The ceremony is now about Styrofoam and how they fit in a drawer,” Childs said. Museums are beautiful, he added, but at some point you wonder, what are we still trying to understand?

When he finds an artifact on one of his frequent expeditions into the desert, Childs prefers to leave it in place. This concept of the “outdoor museum” is one that has been discussed and advocated by many, including local author Fred Blackburn. However, it has its detractors.

An archaeologist in Phoenix told Childs that he was basically a vandal because he leaves important artifacts on site, “to be destroyed, stolen, whatever.”

“I get what he’s saying,” Childs said. “We’re trying to hold on because we lose so much. We lose stuff all the time. How many ancient sites will be lost in the next 10 years to bulldozers?”

And yet it isn’t possible to retain everything from the past. Childs said he likes the idea of things eventually vanishing, because that’s part of the natural process. “How long can you hold on to history?”

That’s a view that is shared by some Native tribes. For instance, when a petroglyph panel on Battleship Rock in Mesa Verde National Park was scorched during a wildfire more than a decade ago, the park consulted with tribal representatives about what to do. They said to leave it alone rather than attempt to restore it. The fire was part of nature.

Leaving artifacts on site to eventually break down and return to the earth is, of course, a far cry from looting sites and removing the artifacts for personal gain. Childs showed photos of intact Puebloan vessels illegally looted from two burial sites that were found among a Durango collector’s holdings. While it seems bizarre to him that people do such things, Childs said, he also understands the oldtimers in the area who say that artifacts were “like shells on a beach” across the Four Corners when they were young and that people used to carry shovels when they went on picnics.

“I totally understand that,” Childs said. “I still see a beautiful potsherd and the first thing I think is ‘mine’.”

But it’s best to leave things in their landscape, where the story they tell is part of a complete picture. He reminded the audience that most whole, intact jars are taken from burial sites, because any such jars left on the ground have likely been broken over the centuries.

“Why are we digging up burials to take objects that we will hold on to for the brief moment of our lives, when that thing has been in the ground for centuries?” Childs asked. “It’s us saying, ‘This is about us, now’.”

And what happens to the artifacts after they are removed? he added. “Collectors say, ‘Oh, our children are going to have this,’ but what’s the plan?. . .

“Once they’re out of the ground, the story changes. What is the right thing to do once you pull it out of the ground?”

There is no perfect answer to these questions, Childs said, and every policy has its drawbacks.

He told of finding a beautiful red seed jar beneath a boulder while hiking in the wilds of southern Utah a dozen years ago. He and his hiking companions debated furiously over whether to leave it – Childs’ idea – or notify authorities so it could be preserved. Eventually they left it.

Eleven years later, the public-radio program Radiolab persuaded them to hike back to the site to ascertain what had become of the jar. The story has an ironic ending that speaks to the inevitability of change. (It can be heard at http://www. radiolab.org/story/seed-jar/ )

Childs said to understand history, people need to get outdoors and move across the landscape to see how ancient peoples would have seen it. He embraces the idea that “time and space are the same – there is no difference between the ground underneath you and the time that has passed across that ground.”

The land around us is constantly telling stories. “Do you believe in time machines?” he asked. “For me, this is the time machine. . . this being able to move across the landscape, stepping through a thousand years in one instant.”

A time machine is not something with gears and bells, he said, “it’s your feet, your hands.”

Perhaps in keeping with the sentiment of walking across an area, Childs, in answer to a question, addressed the proposal to create a “Greater Canyonlands National Monument” surrounding Canyonlands National Park, something that has been pushed by conservationists as well as the outdoor-recreation industry.

Childs said Canyonlands is his “center” and that he has been a minor part of the movement to provide a “halo” of protection around it. There is a possibility of tar-sands development on some of that terrain, he said, and he would like to see the landscape kept from such destructive energy extraction.

However, he said, people need to realize that they are the ones driving the demand for more of these resources.

“We don’t want you to drill here – but we want a lot more oil, and cheaper,” he said. He’s finally decided that cutting off some areas from development will reduce the supply and force society to find alternatives to petroleum-based fuels.

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