Foto Friday: Memories of Canyon de Chelly
Also: Energy Transition and Public Lands; Mining Monitor
When I was six maybe seven years old my mom and dad and brother and I piled into the old International Harvester pickup and headed southward out of Durango onto the Navajo Nation. I don’t remember the season, only that it was cold and rained almost constantly, meaning it must have been spring or autumn.
It was a family road trip, I guess, but also a work trip for my dad. My father was a freelance writer and journalist and in the late seventies and maybe early eighties he edited an annual magazine for the Durango Herald called Four Corners Country. I think it started out as sort of a tourist guide, but it became something else. It was on thick and glossier newsprint and had color photos and stories about the region and the people who called it home, most of which my dad wrote. He often took us along on reporting trips.
It wasn’t always pleasant. The pickup belonged to my grandparents and was meant to be a farm truck, not a long-distance travel vehicle, but it was all my family could afford. It had a bench seat with weathered blue vinyl and a gear stick that jutted up from the floor and vibrated hectically and a big, worn-down steering wheel with the iH logo in the middle. You had to add a quart of oil every time you filled up, but unlike other cars we owned or borrowed over the years, I don’t remember it ever breaking down or sliding into a ditch or otherwise stranding us somewhere.
On this particular journey we were going down to see the Black Mesa coal mines, Diné College in Tsaile, and so forth. My brother and I rode in the bed, our backs smushed up against the cab, buried in sleeping bags to stay warm. We stopped between Farmington and Shiprock for lunch in a diner, which was a rare treat: My dad was more of a sardines and Vienna sausages on the tailgate kind of guy, but my mom liked ice in her Pepsi so she must have won the argument this time.
The rain began a little later. We could have ridden up in the cab, but it leaked furiously via an enigmatic bolt in the ceiling and my parents both smoked besides. So we just pulled one of those plastic blue tarps up over us and hunkered down as we ground our way up Narbona Pass, down through Crystal, stopping at Window Rock before continuing onward through Hopi, Tuba City.
Sheets of rain poured down on the tarp and the red earth and the stone and the sage.
We arrived at our campsite in Navajo National Monument after dark. It was still raining as intensely as ever. The parents set up the tent, one of those cheap triangle things from K-Mart. I’m pretty sure it collapsed during the night.
Maybe by then I just wanted to go home. Instead, we went to Cañon de Chelly, in the heart of the Navajo Nation, where we spent a couple of days. The rain continued but I didn’t care. The place captivated me for reasons I still don’t understand. Maybe it was the smooth, steep walls, streaked with desert varnish, shooting up from the oddly level canyon bottom. Maybe it was the ancient cliff dwellings sitting above occupied homes and working farms. I shot a whole roll of film with the Hawkeye Instamatic my grandmother gave me. I cried when we left and continued to bawl for most of the drive home.
Nevertheless, in the four decades since, I’ve only visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument a couple of times, one of them in junior high with a school group. Going there and gazing down at the canyon and the farms from the viewpoints feels invasive — voyeuristic.
The shady establishment of the national monument and the lopsided relationship between the National Park Service and the people who live in the Canyon contributes to my unease. The national monument was established in 1931 on Navajo Nation land. Though the brand new tribal council signed off on the plan, many Canyon de Chelly locals resisted. The tribe retained title to the land, but the federal government took over administrative powers, while vaguely promising a co-management role for the tribe that hasn’t always been honored. Indeed, the government stole hundreds of sets of human remains over the years without permission.
And then there’s the deeper history. The network of canyons served as the Diné stronghold when, in the early 1860s, Brigadier General James Carleton launched his brutal effort to usurp land and resources for what he called the “great and advancing ocean of palefaces.”
Carleton enlisted Christopher “Kit” Carson to lead his campaign of terror against the Diné. Carson raided Navajo settlements, slaughtered their sheep and goats, and burned the corn, bean, and pumpkin fields, the inky smoke oozing into the hard blue sky. Then, in the depth of an especially cold winter, he invaded Canyon de Chelly and by spring had forced some 8,500 captives on the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, 300 miles away.
But Carson hadn’t captured or killed everyone, and the holdouts were said to be subsisting off of the peaches of Canyon de Chelly. So in July and August of 1864, just as the peaches were ripening, Captain John Thompson was sent into the canyons with 35 men to destroy the orchards.
Peaches are native to China, were cultivated in the Middle East, and made their way to Spain via the Moors. The Spanish then brought them to New Mexico, where Pueblo farmers adopted them. After the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, some Hopi and Jemez Pueblo people, fearing reprisal for their roles in the revolt, took refuge in Canyon de Chelly, where their ancestors had once lived. They brought peach seeds with them, a gift to their Diné hosts. Soon the canyon bottom was covered in orchards, irrigated by the plentiful flow of water fed by Chuska Mountain snowmelt, and the peaches became a source of sustenance and currency for barter. They were also a target for war criminals.
Thompson kept a diary of his systematic slaughter, with entries like this: “On the 3d Moved Camp about 3 Miles to another Orchard. There I cut down 500 of the best Peach trees I have ever seen in the Country, everyone of them bearing Fruit. After this work of destruction had been perfected, I Marched through the Cañon a distance of 8 Miles to a Field of about 5 Acres of Corn which I had destroyed, and Encamped there that Night.” All in all he cut down more than 4,000 peach trees, leading to the surrender of hundreds more Diné, including leaders Barboncito and Manuelito.
The Diné returned to Canyon de Chelly after signing the Navajo Treaty of 1868. The people replanted the orchards when they returned home, and by the 1880s, the peach trees were back, and they’re still there today, growing in the sandy loam, their emerald green leaves dancing against burnished stone, the limbs hanging heavy come August with juicy, ripe fruit.
Energy Transition and Public Land Watch
You’ve all heard it — and many of you have said it — a million times: Instead of scraping away the desert to make way for industrial-scale solar installations, why not put photovoltaic on people’s roofs? It’s a compelling question. After all, there’s certainly enough residential roof-space in Los Angeles, alone, to generate oodles of energy.
Thing is, trying to work with a few hundred thousand individual homeowners to install panels on all those roofs is a lot more complicated and less efficient than just building a 100-megawatt plant in a fell swoop on a single piece of land. Residential rooftops are not a realistic alternative building site for utility-scale solar (though it would be great if all houses were built with solar panels as a standard feature).
But what about other spaces, like shopping mall or big box store rooftops? Even better, how about parking lots or irrigation canals? After all, an average Walmart Superstore’s rooftop is about 180,000 square feet — or four acres — of already level, easy-to-build-on space just begging for some solar generating juju. A shopping mall parking lot is even bigger. Farmington, New Mexico’s Animas Valley Mall’s rooftop + parking lot cover about 42 acres; combine it with a couple of adjacent vacant lots and you’ve got 111 acres primed for solar — equivalent to a decent-sized utility-scale installation.
So my question became, How much power could we generate by covering the big box and shopping mall rooftops and their parking lots with solar panels? High Country News put me on the task to rustle up the facts and figures and designer Luna Anna Archey used them to whip up a cool infographic displaying our finds.
The bad news is there is way too much space devoted to parking and large retail centers. The good news is, by covering up all that space with solar panels, you could not only provide shade for cars (and canals), but also generate a bunch of energy.
Installations on roofs and parking lots couldn’t provide one-to-one substitutes for utility-scale facilities on public land, which typically cover thousands of acres, have hundreds of megawatts of generating capacity, and send power to faraway places via high-voltage transmission lines. But by transforming the grid from a centralized generation model to one in which medium-scale generators are distributed across multiple parking lots and big box rooftops, this concept could work to offset at least some utility-scale installations on public lands.
Just as I finished working on the piece, news came out that Home Depot was covering its California stores with solar panels and that at least one KFC in California is putting a solar canopy over its drive thru. It’s a good start.
An update on Western Uranium and Vanadium’s plans to build a Utah uranium mill: Not long after our story on it ran, the company announced it hoped to build the facility just west of Green River, Utah. It would be on the site of the proposed and now defunct Blue Castle nuclear power plant. Remember that? Whether this bid suffers a similar fate remains to be seen.
Random Real Estate Room
Sweet Jesus. Anyone got $48 million lying around? That’s all it will take to buy the most expensive home listing in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, area right now.
You may be thinking there’s no way anyone would — or could — pay $48 million for a single family home. But last year, someone did just that for a 127-acre estate with a 13,300 sf home equipped with 10 fireplaces and 2 “powder rooms.” Meanwhile, the least expensive home on the Jackson Hole market is a 640 sf condo going for $650,000.
Headlines That Bug Me Column
I just invented this department to deal with a headline that kind of got my goat. Is that a real phrase or did I make that up? And what does it mean? Anyway, the headline is:
Sounds terrible, right? It would appear from this that climate-friendly Biden is even more fond of drill rigs than fossil fuel-loving Trump. Really?
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