House of Rain

No one writing about the American Southwest these days has wormed into the kernel of the place like Craig Childs, or been a biped across more of it. But I was dubious about the premise of his new House of Rain, simply because for most of us enthralled with the Southwest the “mystery” of the “vanished Anasazi” is no mystery at all. Or perhaps it’s a riddle on a par with strolling through a city like Mérida, in the Yucatán, surrounded by tens of thousands of Mayan Indians, and looking over their heads to wonder what in the world happened to the people who built the pyramids of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. What happened to the Anasazi? Well, forty or fifty of them offered to sell me turquoise jewelry on the plaza in downtown Santa Fe just yesterday.

Craig Childs knows this, and in a few places in House of Rain he does mention that among archeologists there is no real conundrum about a vanished people here. After mostly abandoning their Chacoan civilization a thousand years ago, and later fleeing the sequel world they created around Mesa Verde because of droughts, warfare, and some very grisly violence in the 1200s, many of these people moved to permanent water sources elsewhere in the region. They went on to become the Hopis, the Zunis, and the Puebloan villagers of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. (This clear continuity is one reason why the Pueblos and most archeologists nowadays want to retire the word Anasazi in favor of the term Ancestral Puebloans.) In his 1999 book, Anasazi America, David Stuart argued that at Chaco a thousand years ago the ancestors of today’s Pueblo peoples made many of the same mistakes we are making in the contemporary United States, and in the aftermath of Chacoan collapse they learned two great lessons: to reduce their population drastically, to 25 percent of what it had once been, and to avoid the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power that had eaten away at Chaco.

Though House of Rain is not interested in those lessons, we meet scores of archeologists in Childs’s treks across the Southwest, and he does engage the Hopis on several occasions in an effort to trace the Anasazi story. But for Childs, the most interesting Anasazi trail does not lead to today’s famous Pueblo villages in the United States, but ever southward — Mesa Verde to the southern end of Comb Wash Valley, then into the Kayenta and Antelope Mesa country of Arizona, and finally into Mexico and the Sierra Madre. Through his trademark technique of stashing water, he is able to walk the desert, talking to people, looking, and — sure enough, in the Sierra Madre canyons — finding apparent Anasazi ruins with hundreds of the T-shaped doorways so emblematic of their structures on the Colorado Plateau. Childs seems to prove that a southward migration of at least some Anasazis was very likely a real event.

Those who think of the Anasazi story in more holistic terms will argue that this is a little like trying to tell the history of the United States by focusing on, say, the Mormon migration from Missouri and Illinois to Utah. Yes, that’s an important story, but it’s only one. Yet despite its tangential feel, I finished House of Rain liking the book very much. Any writer who walks from Chaco Canyon to Mesa Verde, or down Chinle Wash in Arizona, tracking people living in this landscape ten centuries ago and then writes about his experiences as feelingly and well as Craig Childs does has me in his camp.

House of Rain, then, is part of a growing genre of American literary nonfiction where the reader learns about place, history, and science from a writer who goes into the world, experiences it, and weaves the whole into a readable adventure. Who among us can resist a journey like that, with a book this good?

Dan Flores teaches environmental history at the University of Montana in Missoula. His most recent book is The Natural West.