There is a terrible tragedy brewing in the area of the American Southwest called “The 4 Corners,” where the squared-off borders of 4 states come together, starting with Colorado in the northeast and moving clockwise to New Mexico in the southeast, Arizona to the southwest and Utah to the northwest.
The irreconcilable dispute between developers and conservators over the area radiating out from the Chaco Canyon in Northwestern New Mexico validates 2 different ways of looking at the meaning of tragedy.
The first focuses on the content of classical tragic drama, the conflict between 2 inescapably linked but opposing forces. The early 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is usually credited with the formulation: “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.”
The second view defines tragedy as the construct in opposition to comedy. Comedy lives in a timeless world in which any bad act can be redeemed and turned to good, to a happy ending. Tragedy, in this vision, is all about time, in which gives every action consequences that not only cannot be retro-actively reversed but which shape, or eradicate all options for the future.
So, what are the impending tragedies surrounding Chaco Canyon?
In the first instance, they are about the conflicting ways in which developing oil and gas extraction from the San Juan Basin can produce good jobs, and good economic returns for a region, and a mostly Native American population that desperately need both.
In opposition is the undeniable good of preserving and better understanding Chaco Canyon’s monumental expressions of the cultural, political and religious heritage of those same economically endangered Native Americans of the 4 Corners region.
In our real world, lived in real time, any resolution to the conflict will cause real and irreversible losses. Expanding the present 10-mile ring of protection farther from the hub of amazing Chaco Canyon building sites like Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl will eliminate energy industry jobs and revenues. Green-lighting construction of what the Federal Bureau of Land Management estimates to be a potential 4000 oil and gas wells would not only crush or bury hundreds of historic sites and cultural artifacts, it would enable the looting and vandalizing of many of the surviving marvels in the Chaco Canyon protected zone.
As the Acoma Pueblo archaeologist Theresa Pasqual put it: “Chaco left no written language. The history is written in the landscape. When we disturb the landscape, we erase the pages of the history book.”
The tragedy of the San Juan Basin, like all classics of that tradition, guarantees grievous damages in all directions, most consequentially, of course, through the damage done in the direction of the future.
Frank Clifford grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and received a BA in American Studies from Yale University.
He’s been writing and editing news articles for newspapers and magazines in the South and Southwest for 49 years, including a three-year stint at the Santa Fe Reporter.
Frank spent 26 years with the Los Angeles Times writing about politics, urban affairs and the environment. He won 2 Pulitzer Prizes, for editing a series on the degradation of the world’s oceans, and a series about California wild fires.
Clifford has written for The Smithsonian, National Geographic books, The American Prospect, Sierra magazine, The New Mexican and El Palacio.
He wrote the book “The Backbone of the World – A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide” (Broadway/Random House 2002)