I recently had the opportunity to visit two places in New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the Very Large Array.
The Chaco Culture National Historical Park features now ruined pueblos that people built over a thousand years ago. Construction started on Pueblo Bonito, a structure that archaeologists believe contained over 600 rooms, around 850 AD! Additions and revisions occurred on Pueblo Bonito for the next two hundred years. There are ruins of other pueblos in the area; some of them are now crumbling walls that have succumbed to the eroding powers of the desert winds and blazing sun.
Petroglyphs and the orientation of these ruined pueblos suggest that the people who lived in or visited Chaco appreciated their relationship with the celestial universe. A sun dial, located on a butte that is no longer open to the public, reflects their observations of the equinoxes and solstices. People, then and now, witnessed the directional relationships the buildings have with the stars.
The Very Large Array, on the other hand, was constructed over forty years ago. The 27 enormous dish antennae, arranged in a Y configuration, sense radio waves coming in from the universe. These antennae function as a giant “eye” and funnel the signals they receive to a supercomputer. Scientists analyze data from this supercomputer to describe events that have occurred in the universe: Stars exploding, the birth of new stars, and the location of black holes.
The antennae are arranged in straight lines, which are in stark contrast to the curves and shapes of the surrounding mountains and clouds. Such straight lines do not occur in nature—even trees are not so rigid.
What if Chaco and the Very Large Array serve the same purpose?
What if Chaco was an effort to better understand the universe and what was in it? The Very Large Array gathers data from invisible radio waves; Chaco collected data from visible waves from the sun, moon, and stars.
If people excavate the Very Large Array a thousand years from now, what will they think? Will they look upon the Very Large Array with the same wonder that we feel when we look upon Chaco?
I have noted before that death is the great equalizer. It puts everything in perspective.
In a thousand years, who will know your name? That thing you’re worried about now: Will it matter in a thousand years? Your creations—children, music, writings, meals, home improvements, tweets, laws, relationships—what impact will they have in a thousand years?
To be clear, I am not saying that what we do now has no importance or value.
There are things we do now that have huge significance and meaning. Sure, that kind act you do today won’t enter the annals of history. However, that same kind act will make the world an easier place for someone who is suffering now. Maybe the melody of that song you wrote will fall silent once you die, though it brings joy now to someone who delights in music. What you do now may not last forever, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing those things. What you do matters.
And maybe the remnants of something you create will still be around a thousand years from now. If that is the case, consider how your creations can inspire and humble the people of the future. The mysteries that you want to understand now may still be mysteries hundreds of years from now.
Someone said this a thousand years ago, and someone else will say this a thousand years from now. This is a reminder for us all today.