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Into the Phoenix Zone

Column by George Sibley

Water – May 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES is the cruelest season: melting followed by freezing, short bursts of sun routed by volleys of snow, all staged around dirty piles of pushed-up snow melting down to an even layer of assorted trash.

In short, it’s a good time to get out of Gunnison if you can. Thus, my partner and I recently headed out for a week. Our ostensible purpose was to visit her sister in Tucson, but we took meandering routes there and back, in a 2,200-mile desert tour of what I think of as America’s “phœnix-zone.”

The phœnix, you recall, is a mythical Arabian one-of-a-kind bird that, every 500 years, sets fire to its own nest and is consumed. But then it’s reborn out of its own ashes to repeat the cycle of life and death.

Central to America’s Sonoran “phœnix-zone” is the city named Phœnix, after the mythic bird, because the founders of the city were aware that they were building on or around the ruins of a previous city, or at least some large towns interconnected by a complex system of irrigation canals — some of which the new Phnicians unearthed and used again.

This is a common thing around the world: Human societies move into deserts, in the vicinity of rivers running through (or just under) the parched land; once there they develop the social and technological infrastructure necessary to turn the river out into the desert, in order to turn the desert into a garden. Those societies generally last a few hundred years, then they more or less consume themselves (or their resource base) and disappear — until the next human society, feeling its young muscle and lured by the logic of turning the river out into the desert to turn the desert into a garden, moves in and builds a new city on the ruins.

The most famous example is the so-called Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Asia Minor, where Western Civilization supposedly began and may soon end. But North America’s phœnix-zone is interesting too, down in the Sonora Desert and up on the orthographic desert of the Colorado Plateau, where we are not the first people.

Our first real stop was Boulder City, Nevada, a modest planned town in the process of being overrun by the thoroughly unplanned Las Vegas. Boulder City’s reason for coming into being was Hoover Dam on the nearby Colorado River; it was designed and built for the thousands of people who converged on that forbidding desert place from all over the country. If there was one place, one event, where the nation started to wade out of the Great Depression, it was Hoover Dam. The dam was already in process under President Hoover when Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, but that ambitious project was immediately co-opted by Roosevelt as a cornerstone of the New Deal.

Whatever your intellectual feeling about dams, it is hard not to be moved by Hoover Dam and the story it tells — a desperate nation that, unlike Germany and Italy, opted for internal change over imperial expansion (then, not now), a consortium of creative contractors (since gone on to exploit the globe), a disorganized labor assemblage which amassed there to become a labor force, all working on the biggest effort to “organize nature” yet engineered. All those combined hopes and fears still gust around that dark canyon, with its bland white monolith disciplining nature to stand in and push rather than cut and run.

BUT AS YOU TRAVEL on through the desert to Phœnix and Tucson, that magic starts to fade. Was this agglomeration of strip malls the vision that infused the thousands who worked on the dam? The connection between Phœnix and Tucson and Hoover Dam is direct; the cities grew on the promise of water from the Colorado River, and the water now goes into the big Central Arizona Project aqueduct. But there is not enough water, of course, there will never be enough, and a lot of it is literally being poured into the desert to recharge the aquifers the cities are pumping ever lower.

The Phnicians today have preserved the phœnix-zone ruins of the earlier “civilization” there — the people today’s O’otham Indians call the “Hohokam,” “those who used it up.” Not far from downtown Phœnix is Pueblo Grande, a preserved ruin dwarfed by the surrounding modern city; a little south and east is Casa Grande, another Hohokam ruin marked by a four-story “Great House,” home of “the cruel man who looked at the sky,” according to O’otham history.

But a more interesting phœnix-zone “artifact” is about sixty miles north of Phœnix (maybe only fifty miles by the time you read this). Arcosanti, a futuristic “pueblo” is being built by Paolo Soleri, an architect who came to the phœnix-zone to study with Frank Lloyd Wright at another interesting “artifact,” Taliesin West, Wright’s school in the hills east of Scottsdale (now surrounded by the sprawling sub-urb).

Soleri stayed with Wright only a few months, but has stayed with the desert ever since. Where Wright tended toward the low flat buildings that begat the condition we call “sprawl” today, Soleri looked at the saguaro and barrel cactus on the land and decided that was the way to build in the desert: dense, inward, and up. His Arcosanti project up on the Agua Fria is a small but growing collection of intriguing sunwashed concrete “apses” and other structures that are about five percent of what will be, if Soleri finds some money, a set of inward-arching apartments and businesses 20 stories high for 5,000 people who will be fed from the surround of greenhouses and fields which complete his “arcology.”

It is vastly ambitious. But his logic is good. If we are going to continue to live in the phœnix-zone in ever increasing numbers, this may be the only way. But for now, it is basically a “ruin from the future,” and the hippies of all ages who haunt it — making the beautiful ceramic and brass bells that are sold to raise money for the next pieces of it — are a lot like the Indians who live today near the great ruins built by their Hohokam ancestors.

Our last phœnix-zone visit was one of the sad beautiful places of the Colorado Plateau , Canyon de Chelly, carved by the Chinle Wash in the great spaces of Navajo Country and originally inhabited by the Anasazi. You drive for hours over flat dull steppe; then suddenly there is this incredible canyon carved down into the Plateau sandstones, wide enough for a lot of flat farming land at the bottom.

WE HIKED DOWN to the White House ruin, a pueblo nestled forty or fifty feet up in a niche eroded out of a sandstone cliff that towers another 400-500 feet above it. Beneath the cliff pueblo ruin is a valley-level pueblo ruin. Current thinking about these dwellings is that they are probably late Anasazi (another word like “Hohokam” for those who are gone), and that the pueblo at the base of the cliff was from the time when the Indians had a vast interconnected trading culture based around Chaco Canyon to the east. But the pueblo up in the cliff niche is presumed to be from the time when, due to drought, overpopulation, “energy crisis” (no wood), or all the above, that “Chaco Interaction Sphere” broke down, and the people had to build defenses against each other in what may have become a “post-urban” nightmare that ended in abandonment and dispersion, probably accompanied by a considerable die-off.

So, here we are now, back in post-urban Gunnison, up on the high edge of America’s phœnix-zone, our small piece of the “Global Interaction Sphere.” To modify an old cowboy phrase, “I’ve seen the elephant in the room” — that big thing nobody wants to talk about. Well, that’s what vacations are for; now, head down and back to work.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he also teaches at Western State College.