Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Beauty, danger, eagles, and the art of the desert

In the 1970's, when I lived in El Paso, I was acquainted with this smiling Greek-American named Alex, a performer, a charming guy, who blew into town one day from California, out of a job, who possessed nothing but the smooth voice of a daytime radio talk show host. He was an amateur archaeologist, and miraculously out of the wreckage of some past career in broadcasting had made a new life for himself in El Paso, eventually finding a place for himself as director of the city's small new archaeological museum. He was the kind of guy who always lands on his feet.
He was quite a raconteur and his stories were often extravagant. Sometimes I did not believe them.
He and his girlfriend occasionally had Kay and me as guests over at their old house in downtown El Paso, and one day I was there when he mentioned that he had some Mexican prehistoric artifacts. He brought them out. The only one I remember was a discolored figurine of an eagle. It was about the size of a man's fist.
"What is it?" I asked.
"An eagle whistle. The Aztec priests blew it when they cut out the victim's heart on the pyramid."
"Yeah, right, Alex. Give me a break."
"No, really. It's authentic. Blow it."
I took the figurine, which was a crude ocarina, I guess, and blew mightily into the mouthpiece.
The room was filled with the most hideous noise I have ever heard, before or since, absolute guttural human agony and the scream of an eagle perfectly blended in the shriek of sacrifice.
I felt like a man who opens a closet and a corpse falls out.
Vindicated by the shocked silence, Alex wrapped up his eagle whistle in white tissue paper and put it back in its shoe box.

From El Paso you can sometimes see the granite turrets of Candelaria mountain, blue and hazy like a ship over the horizon, 60 miles south in Mexico, an inaccessible mass of slumping igneous boulders piled up two or three thousand feet above the desert floor. The Sierra de la Candelaria rises from the desert across a wide valley of sand dunes from its twin, the Sierra de la Rancheria. Up close these two mountains look like giant ruined castles. They are full of eagles and white-thorn acacia and rattlesnakes.

Few Americans have any reason to go there. Those of us who did thought it beautiful. There are some springs in the mountains and around them are trees, juniper and oak and the Mexican buckeye. The mountains have long been a favored locale for human habitation, but they are less visited now than at any time since humans have lived on this continent; they have become a desolate place in our time. Victorio's Apaches a century ago were the last people to live there.

We camped out in those mountains, Kay and I and some other people, amid the boned and cougared ledges and crags of the site of Victorio's battleground, and late one night we awoke and saw, 15 miles away, a strange train on the rails that follow the old Spanish mule track that went from Nueva Biscaya to Santa Fe; a short train running with flashing red lights at both ends. Next day on the radio we heard that it was a special train with several charred corpses being taken to Juárez, people burned to death when the autovía express from Chihuahua City hit a gasoline truck at a crossing about ten miles from the lovely and quiet old waterhole where we had made our camp; the accident had happened as we climbed among the shallow caves and overhangs and poked in the cinders of thousand year old hearths, the brittle sherds of uncountable broken Indian pots crunching underfoot. We were gazing at old Indian paintings on the rockshelter walls. We had seen the crude and vigorous horned horsemen painted by the Apaches. We found some old shell casings and arrowheads there where Victorio’s mixed band of Chiricahuas and Mescaleros, nearly the last of the uncaptured Apaches, had fought a battle with Mexican militiamen from Carrizal, killing thirty of them. That was in 1879. All the women of Carrizal wore black the rest of their lives. Travelers remarked on it. We would have seen the smoke from our own day's tragedy, but we were directly on the opposite side of the mountains from it. It had been a very quiet day at our camp at Victorio Spring.

Before going to sleep that night I lay awake out in the black igneous rocks whose specks of quartz glittered minutely with the reflections of stars, stars violently bright, as they can only be seen on new moon desert nights; Orion risen and the flowing whisper of the Milky Way a bright and cold diagonal down the night sky, Jupiter huge in Gemini and the Taurid meteor shower in full swing. I saw two fireballs that evening in the demented brilliance of the sky. The dervish stars danced all night, Algol and Aldebaran.

One of the things we noticed is that there were no small mammals there, almost none of the rabbits and rodents that abound in the deserts and rocks on the American side of the river. I cannot say why this was so. There were few people living around there, and few hunters. It was well known that there were mountains lions and bobcats and all manner of predators still prowling the rocks, possibly even a few bears, so I imagine that what we took to be an unnatural silence and absence of small animals is in fact a natural and balanced state of predation, and that our abundance of rodents and rabbits is unnatural.

But the bighorn sheep are gone. One of the Indian paintings that we had come to see, very ancient, showed recumbent hunters holding their long spears to their sides and mountain sheep running around them; it is near other paintings depicting other hunters spearing other sheep; I think the reason the men are lying down is that the painting shows a dream, a magic vision of bighorn sheep. Hunters' dreams. The figures are small and painted very delicately. You have to crawl on your elbows under a rock slab and turn over and look up while holding a flashlight to see them, a foot above your head.
Once at the end of summer I went for a climb up a branch of Fusselman Canyon in El Paso’s Franklin Mountains. The canyon was named after Marshal Fusselman, who was killed there in a gunfight with rustlers. I was trespassing. The land belonged to the Army, which had formerly used it as an artillery firing range. There was supposedly a danger of detonating old unexploded projectiles.

I found some blood-red sage flowers of a species I had never seen before in the recesses of a high sheer cliff above the grapevines festooning the silktassel trees and hackberries of the spring that for a hundred yards or so turns a dry wash into a bright clear running brook, overarched by cottonwoods clamoring in the sun. The stream disappears into the gravel below this grove which probably was the place where the bandits camped who waylaid the marshal; he was tracking the cows they had stolen and were driving over the pass through the mountains. There is faint inscrutable Indian rock art on the cliffs above the spring. Most of it is tapped into the rock with a hammerstone, almost invisibly-ancient circles and spirals, but in a small, smoke-blackened shelter above the spring I spied a streak of red paint, hard to see because it was darkened by fire. It was a part of a painted design left there by Indians, who knows how many centuries before?

At that moment I felt the first stirrings of an unease that I was trespassing, but not against the Army.

I climbed down to the spring, where I found myself face to face with a big red-tailed hawk maybe 20 feet away, swaying on a sotol stalk and looking very severe like the old Indian chiefs in the frock-coat daguerreotypes of their captivity. We looked at each other a long time, then I moved and he flew.

On the way back to my car I heard a rattlesnake, invisible, a warning sound like lead shot poured into a sugar bowl.

I may have been crazy, and not known it, but I got where I believed the deserted canyons of the mountains around El Paso were full of lost memories searching for new owners. I encountered many of them, in the form of the vivid emotions that belonged to other people, that could not possibly have been mine, including an unreasoning panic that could have belonged to marshal Fusselman in his last moments.
And I left many memories of my own in deserted canyons, where they may still be wandering around 25 years later.

Out there in the desert, I acquired a feeling of walking at the edge of the habitable world, but I also got a feel for why desert hermits think that somewhere under a prickly pear or in a cleft in the rock they will find some key to the scrolls of secret doctrine they see all around them.

From smoke-darkened rocks at the south end of the Franklin Mountains, overlooking the freeway and the railroad, and beyond it the gorge of the river, you could look out over the city and across at Mt. Cristo Rey, Mt Christ the King, a rocky peak topped by a somber stone statue of Christ 20 feet high with outstretched arms, carved by an Italian sculptor many years ago.

The mountain appeared small in the perspective of the foreground smokestacks of the Asarco copper smelter. Asarco excited in the hearts of local environmental activists the same feeling that Anaconda Copper did among Peruvian Communists; the Satanic Mill, poisoning little children in nearby settlements with fumes of lead, mercury, and arsenic. Right across the river from the stacks were the slums of Juarez, in Mexico, which are pretty to look at, adobe huts painted faded yellow or pink or blue sprawled across the flaming gravelly hills and washes where the river breaks through the actual pass between the mountains, the narrow rock canyon the city gets its name from. Juarez is the original El Paso del Norte, where the Spanish priests said their first mass before Jamestown was founded.

The children of those slums breathed mercury vapor while they splashed in the shallow river. Once I was looking down at them and once I heard a faint cry above me and looked up and saw a hawk drifting through the defile of the canyon, 50 feet overhead, gazing down also, at the slums across the river.

And as long as I lived in the desert I kept hearing echoes of Alex’s eagle whistle.

No comments: