Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Trouble on Turtle Island

Americans, culturally, are mostly transplanted, deracinated Europeans.

Seems to me this gives us a lot of our freedoms, not exactly our political freedoms, which were the flowering of European ideas in a place where they could (until very recently at least) prosper, but a cultural freedom, the lifting of the dead hand of enforced custom. Our literature, our movies, our music and art, have been distinctive for that reason, I think. On the whole, that's been good.

But we see the down side of it in the belligerent ignorance and seething crackpot religiosity that grows freely in any direction except towards either genuine reverence or the light of reason, probably because reason, with its strict reality-demands, is perceived as intolerably restrictive, and reverence, of course, requires that you slow down a little.

We have had a lot of problems coming to terms with the place we live. The guilt of having killed or dispossessed the original inhabitants of America is, I think, a kind of unfinished psychic business for our people--a problem, like the guilt of slavery. I don't mean that in the sense of a personal guilt, which obviously many people do not feel at all (or at least so they insist), but a kind of un-atoned-for national sin that still unconsciously warps our behavior and perceptions. The biblical Greek word for sin actually means going astray. I don't think anyone would deny this about the legacy of slavery, but I think it is there with the Indians too.

I think part of the our aggressive love affair with the bulldozer and massive destruction and rearrangement of the landscape in the service of greed or grandiosity or practically any damn whim is an expression of that guilt.

Maybe I'm wrong, of course.

Anyway, these musings came about because I was going through some photographs that I took, over the years, of Native American "pre-historic" (that is, before Europeans got here) rock art. A colleague of Kay's requested some of these photographs for an article she is working on, and so I was looking through them.

We don't know what they are all about, for the most part. Originally I was quite careless in taking these pictures, and careless in viewing them. Over the years that changed. It's my feeling, now, that they should be viewed with great respect. This seems almost too obvious to say, but it was certainly not obvious to me when I first went out into the desert to seek them out. I think I have written in one or two other posts how it is to be out in the desert in the presence of these traces of the past.

But most of us don't ever go to the desert.


It's kind of like this. Suppose you buy a house, perfectly innocently. Then later you discover that the house was stolen (maybe by your own ancestors, maybe not) from people who are now long dead. Or maybe they have descendants, living elsewhere now. Either way. Later yet, suppose you discover, in the attic, some mementos, and letters in a language you can't read bound carefully in twine. These things must have been important. You deduce that, if nothing else, because they are hidden in a secret box.

What would you do? Would you throw them in the trash? Would you treat them as everyday objects? Would you forget about them? I don't think most people would. (A lot of people I guess would try to sell them.) For some, I think it would provide some possibility of communion with the dispossessed owners, and a greater sense of the total meaning of the house you are now living in. It might even be good to try to return them to the descendants of the first owners, if they could be found, but whether you do this or not, the letters become part of your life and history too.

I think I have pushed that analogy as far as it will go. But my point is that I have found these figures in the desert open up a sense that we live in a very old continent, and we are very recently, and (I am afraid) tenuously here. It seems to me a sense of reverence for place is the first thing that's required for living somewhere, anywhere, and if that is true, then this stuff is important.

Then again, maybe that's just me.

So, those were thoughts that arose when I was looking at these photos of paintings on the rock. I thought I would put a few here, prefaced in such a way so you can understand how I look at them now. Maybe you'll look at them that way too. I dunno.

This may represent a rain god. And I saw the same eyes once in a bullfrog looking at me from a pond in New Mexico. I'd say, from memory, that it's about 3 feet high.

No one knows what these figures are. They are carefully hidden in a rock shelter with difficult access. (So was the one above, by the way.)

This last one is out in plain view, but, strangely, few people see it dancing on the rock. I mentioned it in a story on my old web page about birdwatching at Hueco Tanks. It's maybe three feet tall.

All of the images above can be enlarged by clicking on them They are at Hueco Tanks, near El Paso, a beautiful outcropping of igneous rocks standing several hundred feet out of the aeolian sand around it. It is now a state park, unfortunately nearly engulfed, in the past decade, by expanding urban blight. When I first went there it still had the feeling of being remote. (The hidden caves and rock shelters with the images still feel remote.) The paintings were mostly done from 800 to 1200 AD by people archeologist call the Jornada Mogollon, who disappeared long ago. Some was done later by Apaches, and possibly other historic groups. Most of it is hidden, and hard to find. Nowadays, a park guide has to take you to see it.

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