For Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest today, chaco refers both to tilled and irrigated land near a village and to an expanse of country cross-seamed by small watercourses that sustain swamps and lakes. A related Spanish word, charco, means puddle or pool; charca, the feminine form, commonly refers to a pond. Chaco Canyon, the site of an abandoned Anasazi pueblo in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, is a conspicuously dry desert valley with an apparently anomalous name. It’s a shallow cañón to some, a broad wash to others, bounded by a set of low-lying, gapped mesas, the most southwesterly of which is called Charca Mesa. The area might have been named after the remnant evidence of a once vital agriculture, or for something else. El Gran Chaco, a vast swampland shared by Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, is a landscape from which people are absent. One feels a similar absence at Chaco Canyon. The ghostly kivas, the five-story house walls, and the scattered potsherds, which still bear the fingerprints of their vanished makers, enhance a sensation of suspended time. It’s a place where one inhales the pungent smell of plant resins, released by the first desert rains to follow on a dry spell, with an unusual degree of appreciation.

Terry Tempest Williams