2014 Annual Letter

Please help the Solstice Project to continue its unique documentation of the vast Chaco World and to protect it from the ravaging impacts of fracking. We need your support to soon complete our new film for PBS: Written on the Landscape: Mysteries Beyond Chaco Canyon, to be narrated by Robert Redford.

December 21, 2014

Dear Friends,

Once more we bring warm greetings at winter solstice, but this year we also have up-and-down news from our recent Chaco work — both disturbing, and in the scope of our new film production, profoundly inspiring. Most threatening to the Chaco heritage, fracking continues at a heightened pace in the Chaco region with little or no recognition of the invaluable cultural resources at stake.

The good news is that our greatly expanding new film — “Written on the Landscape: Mysteries Beyond Chaco Canyon” — is well into production and revealing the startling extent of the Chaco world — massive Great Houses and extensive “roads” that are the unique cultural heritage of the Chaco region. This complex archaeological world covers a region more than twice the size of Ireland.

In the words of Mike Eisenfeld, director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, whom we filmed last week in the Chaco region: “The Bureau of Land Management, which has the power to prevent unchecked fracking, insists that there’s nothing here, it’s a wasteland, its barren.“

This frames our challenge for the coming years. Many of the Chaco sites and “roads” are today extremely subtle and fragile. But in film they can be shown vividly and brought to the public’s awareness to act for their defense. In May we produced and distributed an energy alert video “Fracking Threatens Chaco’s Sacred American Heritage” and, because of our campaign, more than 160,000 people signed a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urging cessation of new leases until there is comprehensive assessment of the archaeological resources in the region. See our web site solsticeproject.org for a link to the video and please add your voice to the appeal.

We feel confident that the completion and PBS broadcast of our new hour film, to be narrated by Robert Redford, will make dramatically visible that the Chaco region is far from a “wasteland.” Seeing the extraordinary aerial footage by Adriel Heisey of 200 miles of Chaco “roads” — now thought to be ceremonial or symbolic corridors — and scores of massive Chaco Great Houses, the public will become aware of the treasures threatened by rapacious energy development. In the film, our computer-generated models of the original massive structures — 2 and 3 stories high, surrounded by enormous earthworks — will appear to rise from Adriel’s low aerial views of the ruins set in the surrounding landscape.

Time will turn back a thousand years to reveal the barely known works of the Chaco culture far from the protective walls of Chaco Canyon itself. In the words of archaeologist and Mayan scholar Chris Powell observing the elaborate Chaco buildings, “they are temple architecture.” He used a frame of reference unfamiliar to southwestern archaeology but well taken in view of the ritual features so prevalent in Chaco architecture: the great number of kivas, great kivas and even grand tower kivas.

Adriel’s fascination with the elusive mysteries of Chaco grew over many years in parallel with our own, and he now is helping to advance the work of the Solstice Project as he actively explores Chaco’s farther reaches. Living in Gallup, New Mexico, he flies his specially adapted plane to film as often as he can the “barren” landscape for the inspiration of seeing these pristine sites and recording them in starkly compelling light. Flying over the endless expanse of harsh land, and through the sometimes menacing skies of the Chaco region, he constantly wonders why people chose this forbidding place to develop their civilization. We have both come to consider that it had to be deliberate choice — perhaps for just that stark land with its immense skies as the perfect stage to observe the play of light and engage with the cycles of the sun and moon, their essential inspiration.

Adriel has also recorded the accelerating industrial encroachment in the landscape over recent years. In his interview he observes “the huge coal mines near the power plants close to the Four Corners are constantly spreading, just growing and growing….” and over the northern part of the San Juan Basin he describes “the expanding spider web of roads and drilling pads spreading across the prehistoric landscape.”

We filmed last week on the ground the ravages of many newly constructed roads, pipelines and well pads transforming the landscape east and north of Chaco Canyon. Some sites were within 15 miles of the canyon, where we found archaeological artifacts. On overcast nights the skies above this area are invaded by an eerie reddish glow from the fracking rigs.

There are numerous feeder pipelines planned or in construction leading to a main one, forming a total of 180 miles of pipeline transporting oil to a railroad depot planned for Milan, New Mexico. The planned pipe line will drive a wide course within a few miles of five great houses, two of which are World Heritage sites.

As oil and gas extraction expands in the Chaco region, sacred landscapes surrounding Chacoan Great Houses, including many fragile prehistoric “roads”, may well be erased forever. The Solstice Project is cooperating with other groups, such as the Society for American Archaeology, the WildEarth Guardians, the Western Environmental Law Center and the Chaco Alliance, to help ensure that the Federal agencies facilitating these developments meet their legal obligations. As we witness alarmingly destructive “segmentation” — a path of chaotic development in the region — we urgently call on the Department of Interior as a first step to preventing damage to conduct comprehensive archaeological surveys including lidar (aerial laser scanning) of the area of the Chaco region being considered for or actively being developed for energy extraction. See our “Urgent Proposal to Record Chaco’s Prehistoric Roads” on our web site solsticeproject.org

The Chaco people were astoundingly inter-related in their works: simultaneous changes in masonry, ceramics and architectural design took place in Great Houses 250 miles distant from each other. This coordination without writing and math, the beast of burden or the wheel, required unimaginable planning and communication. The entire land, and the cycles of the sun and moon, were of great importance and understood for their special nature in every aspect, allowing such a comprehensive unity of the culture. This world view is in sharp contrast to today’s ad hoc actions to extract oil, gas, coal and uranium from the very same region.

Govenor Madalena of Jemez Pueblo addressed Senator Udall with his concerns: “The fragile Chaco roads are in particular danger. The road connections to the landscape are marked by shrines that are alive to us today. This region and our history there are sacred to us. We return to this land in acknowledgement of that history and of our ancestors.”

We greatly appreciate your support of our efforts to document and protect Chaco, especially at this crucial time to raise awareness and motivate public actions to preserve its unique and irreplaceable heritage. Please mail your tax deductible donations to the Solstice Project, 222 East Marcy Street, Santa Fe, NM, 87501 or use our Paypal account on the Solstice Project web site: solsticeproject.org


Anna Sofaer
President, Solstice Project

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