Winner | Terrain.org 1st Annual Contest in Nonfiction Selected by David Rothenberg
What does a sinuous petroglyph call to mind? I mean the pecked or carved line that curves beckoningly back and forth across the face of the rock, or the top of the boulder, or the shelf in the cliff where someone once crouched twenty feet or so above the canyon floor and hollowed out a small basin the depth of my own cupped hand, making this particular shape that snakes across the Cliff House sandstone I’ve slithered up in order to look out where Andy is measuring sightlines along the southern horizon. What does it look like, this petroglyph stilled in its hint of motion? What does it mean?
There, one analogy appeared effortlessly: snake.
Sometimes I think river or wash, side-winding across sandstone the way a watercourse wiggles along the alluvial plain. Or a journey across landscape, through time, a mapped record plotted on the stiff page of the cliff’s wall. A sine wave, sinus-oidal, the shape taken by my voice, calling back down to where Andy sits taking notes, or the light from the sun that keeps teasing from behind cloud cover, or, a thousand miles away, the waves of the Pacific that haven’t yet dragged into break and foam on the wet beach. Here is the sandstone, each quartz particle locked in conglomerate stasis or chafed into motion, sifting against the cliff where a loose bit of rock shifts under my foot, a wave of adrenalin rushing through me. Here is the figure, waves abraded into the cliff face.
But this week I’ve been reading about the evolution of the eye, the first molecular hints toward what would, hundreds of generations later, become vision, and so I think, opsins. These are the little proteins that snake in and out of the cell membrane of a photoreceptor, where, along with retinal, they facilitate a body’s chemical response to light. “Snake” is the word used in the article I was reading, and though I later came across illustrations I thought were more suggestive of the tight curls formed when you drag decorative ribbon across the scissors’ blade, “snake” spoke to my imagination.
I remembered: a snake in the sand, once, rattling its warning while I could hardly choke out my own constricted call of panic—look there, I shouted absurdly, as if English were not my native language, look right there. I remembered a tiny, finger-width creature I reached for in the spring-sunshine perch where it paused in a sapling. Its exquisite jaws closed on my finger, and I danced in the sand and cottonwood leaves, shaking it free while the man I love turned away, choking back his laughter. I recalled the story he told of an encounter with a black snake. When he stopped the van to get a better view of the creature in the dirt, as long tip-to-tail as a woman is tall, the snake slid beneath the vehicle and wrapped itself tightly around the axle, a muscled coil of snake-flesh. I remembered: submerged in a leaf-brown stream, only my head above water, my child self met a snake swimming toward me, inscribing ephemeral meanders on the current’s surface. Scaly and ancient-looking, it kept pace with the water, heading my way until I stood up shivering in my wet clothes and moved out of its realm, climbing the bank to go and tell my family.
There they are! Images of opsins carved in the sandstone, awaiting the dawn. How long they’ve been waiting, through the evolutionary eons that gave rise to my own startled glance and gaze. Like orthogenetic vestiges scratched, as if hopefully, into the rind of the rock, facing the future.
Andy is busy, undistracted by the whirl and flow of such ahistorical thoughts. A doctoral student in archaeoastronomy, he’s spending the week examining various locations in the canyon, taking readings by compass and theodolite, measuring azimuth and horizon, scanning the world we look out on. From this particular site, the horizon is subtle, with only a low murmur of minimalist features. John, Andy’s student assistant, is carefully sketching into a pocket-sized notebook the mesa’s curves and dips, labeling each perceived “notch” and “knob,” but I think the most prominent features are far more ephemeral, juniper trees like dark fuzzy spheres on the arid slope. Andy calls up to me.
“How many bumps do you count?” he asks, and I trace them in the air, one, two, then to the left of that juniper, three… I reach an uncertain five, which doesn’t concur neatly with John’s perception. Meanwhile Anne, Andy’s wife, is counting the curves in the petroglyph nearby—it really does look a lot like a snake, and its sinuous tally seems momentarily to chime with our bumps on the horizon, until only her voice is left still counting, the synchrony lost. We all agree, this is an unpromising horizon for calibrated monitoring the celestial course of the sun—or the moon, for that matter. From the cursory measurements, all tending toward the west, Andy points out that only sunsets, not sunrises, could have been glimpsed from here, and sunsets are much harder to actually watch, with the landscape features suddenly invisible in the sun’s sear and glare. Solstice sunset, he thinks, could have converged with one particular, low bump on the canyon’s south wall. Could have—he’ll have to check and recheck the numbers, he says. Meanwhile, John is shivering in his skinny-legged jeans and cotton jacket, and the overcast sky isn’t helping much. Snow isn’t forecast, but that’s little comfort when you’re standing still, losing the radiant heat from your blood to the wind.
If, as Andy is guessing, this is a sun watching station, designated and decorated a thousand years ago by someone who maybe ground a little corn meal, maybe put a little pollen out in the cold pre-dawn, we should pay attention not just to the rock art that catches our eye from below, but what would have caught his, or hers, seated with nearly half a compass dial’s worth of world within the gaze. Though there’s no mid-day light to brighten the stone, we can turn and scan—without squinting—the southern conjunction of land and sky.
But the perch itself! The far edge of the shelf tips a flat plane outward, marked with a spiral, a turkey foot, a few zig-zag lines. The back wall is peopled with figures. Yesterday the ranger told us that this one, arms lifted, knees bent, is a character recognizable to traditional Pueblo people today, Storyteller. There are smaller figures positioned as if balanced on her, or his, knees; a third is below the torso, between the legs. The first time I saw the image, I imagined it might be a woman, the representative embodiment of cyclic fertility despite her lean, stick-figure physique. A neat row of drilled holes runs along the horizontal line of her thigh, appearing from below as a series of dots, 26 of them, with four hatch marks above and four more dots below. There’s a larger, deeply-drilled dot to the right of those four. I did a little speculative arithmetic. Twenty-six plus four, that’s thirty, very close to the synodic month, the count of the nights through which the moon assumes all its phases, returning after 29.5 nights to the same visible position relative to the sun, and so the same shape in the sky. Twenty-six would be a little short of the sidereal month, the number of nights it takes the moon to return to the same place among the fixed stars—27.3. These numbers approach 28, an average menstrual period, but this is all speculation, cascading from that quick interpretation—woman and children—that I pulled from my mental cache of symbols.
Today, with the label “Storyteller” in mind, I study the figures carefully. On another part of the back wall the mythic eagle, Knife Wing, stands out, a bird fully abraded into the rock. (When I first saw this image, I thought the body shape suggested a song bird, maybe a bluebird, but, like the Storyteller, this Knife Wing has been identified by contemporary Puebloans who’ve visited the canyon.) Another figure holds some kind of crooked stick aloft, imagined by some scholars to be a kind of gnomen for tracing out shadows to determine directions. There’s a flute player neatly tucked near an angle in the stone. And another anthropomorph. (It’s a little amusing, I think, how art-jargon, or archaeologese, somehow tries to disguise the anthropocentric implications—like humans, like me—with the Greek shields and robes of scholarly etymology). This particular human-shape stands with arms raised but legs unbent, the stick-figure shanks meeting with remarkably knobby knees, enough to make one’s own joints ache with the power of suggestion: ow! It could, I guess, be a version of Two Horns, the Keeper of the Roads, another mythic character I’ve learned about recently. Mnemonic figures, perhaps, hinting at narrative?
Oh, just a little knowledge, a few details gathered and tucked into the crenellations of learning, and the mind strikes off across the slope of possibility. I keep following the twisting trail of associative thought, touching the figures with the mind’s immaterial reach and trace.
In the view of archaeologist Ruth Van Dyke, you can infer several basic principles of Ancestral Puebloan, or Anasazi culture from a careful study of actually being in the places they inhabited, walking from ruin to ruin, gazing out at the key landscape features and the remaining, melting walls. Directionality, visibility, balanced dualism, cyclical renewal, social memory—she identifies these key aspects of a worldview traceable back to the time of the pre-Puebloan ancestors 1,600 to 1,300 years ago. In her study of Chaco Canyon’s thousand-year-old ruins, she discusses “perceptions and representations,” exploring the ways the canyon’s great houses augment the sense of their own mass—located on slight rises, flanking their wings with extended low walls, funneling a person’s approach through limited access ways, suggesting importance and age with large trash middens out front. Sometimes these mounds of “trash” were artificial “social memory”—a heap of fill dirt instead of actual refuse, which she interprets as visual suggestions of much longer duration in place than the structures had actually experienced. I rake this idea out, sift it through a mesh screen of more accessible language: Fake trash. This would be, I suppose, like hanging antique photographs, handsomely framed, in your parlor, even if none of the faces gazing out are your own relatives.
I admire her method, walking the landscape, observing the way certain features or ruins rise into view and then sink again into absence, the lift and fall of your own feet carrying you through the sequence of all you perceive. From here, a distant mesa—its muted colors and table-flat profile—suggests the proximity of the world-beyond-reach, at least the reach of your own two legs’ day-long travel. And yet from this other here, the same mesa vanishes, dropped beneath the intervening mass of cliff and plain. It is the body in motion, your own movement through time and across distance, which allows these different tableaux, peopled or unpeopled; your body brings you the visible sequence of the phenomenal world.
From the mesa atop the canyon’s north rim, you can look directly across the wash, through South Gap toward Hosta Butte. On a day in May, a late afternoon thunderstorm riding the winds down from the Chuska Mountains to the west, you might linger only briefly, jagged lightning flickering nearer in the lowering skyscape, before hurrying back down the trail, through the cliff-crack passage to the ruin of Kin Kletso below. If you hesitate, you’ll be racing the runoff, the water coursing its way over the sandstone lip and cascading downward, a chilled, speedy slither toward the wash. But on a clear mid-morning you can stand inside a ring of stones laid loosely on the ground and think at greater leisure about what it feels like to put oneself at the center of things. A stone circle, this kind of feature is called, though most of them are really ellipses, and there are several on both rims of the canyon. Archaeologists say that from these circles, kivas—the traditional subterranean rooms of ritual and ceremony—are always in sight. From this one you can see the enormous, level-floored ruin of Casa Rinconada, a stone bowl open to the sky. And through the Gap, the answering, wind-touched mound of the Butte.
In the wide vistas of New Mexico, the Ptolemaic concept of order is hard to shake off: by day and by night, we see the world as our surroundings—the horizon’s ring, the sun’s arc, the constellations’ wheel. We are, each of us, a tiny axis mundi, an upright observer around whom worlds upon worlds unwind. But of course, we also carry the corrective instrumentation of our education, centuries’ worth. The glimpsed realizations of Copernicus and Kepler, and far more recently the wonderful photographs beamed back from our artificial satellites. The image of Jupiter bombarded by a comet, the string of light as it followed its curved path toward spectacular impact. The dark-sky view of tiny moons like beads of light in orbit around the distant planet. The depicted disk of our own galaxy, the linear “Way” transformed to “Spiral,” both milky with profusion. Gaspingly de-centered in the vast span of existence, we’ve come to recognize the arrogance of centristic thinking, and the implied jostling for power in the simplest, most unconscious acts.
But when I sit in the spare stone circle atop North Mesa and gaze southward toward Hosta Butte, consciousness thrumming in my veins, I find I need to reconsider what “gaze” means. My education tells me it’s a matter of hierarchical positioning, as in the theory of Albert Memmi, who casts us all in the roles of either colonizer or colonized, grammatically and conceptually positioning ourselves, whenever we can, as observers of the objectified others on whom we train our gaze. Drill, baby, drill.
This particular mesa-top sightline centers the Butte within South Gap’s U-shaped frame. The built world of great house and kiva lie on the canyon floor below; I could certainly gaze down on anyone who happened to be moving about down there, though on this cold winter morning, no one is. Perhaps if someone were, I’d feel differently, but what’s overwhelming today is the sense of my own exposure, my tiny-but-exhilarated presence. Nothing about my experience of gazing suggests dominion or appropriation of the sloped sides and high, open mesa-top of Hosta Butte. Instead, there’s a little shiver along my skin, excitement, possibly tinged with the chill of anxiety’s shadow. And it’s not the victorious thrill of conquest, nor the shamed flush of subjugation that lifts each tiny, blond hair along the back of my neck and along my arms.
If the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty could join me here, to contemplate the significance of ancient lines of sight, he might concur with these non-colonial musings about the gaze. In Visible and Invisible, he admits that “there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision” since the person who sees “is caught up in what he sees”—thus, the philosopher reasons, “it is still himself [that] he sees.” Yet this narcissism is only a corollary to Merleau-Ponty’s thought, despite that ponderous adjective, “fundamental.” What really interests him is the mutuality, the interchangeability of perception. To be a perceiver in the world is, ever and always, to be perceivable within it, and this, too, is a fundamental part of existence.
“I feel myself looked at by the things, my activity is equally passivity,” he continues, insisting that “finally one cannot say whether it is the look or if it is the things that command.” How can that be so? Because, he argues, Descartes was wrong. It is not the mind that is the cornerstone, the fundament, the threshold to our own existence. No, he urges, “We have to reject the age-old assumptions that put the body in the world and the seer in the body, or, conversely, the world and the body in the seer as in a box.”
And so he topples the bedrock Cogito; now it’s just another weathered boulder in the daylight of our thought, dust swirling and collecting on its lea-ward side.
In the bright, dry air, the surrounding landscape extending toward the point of temporary disappearance we call horizon, Merleau-Ponty’s ideas seem more accessible than they do when puzzled out beneath fluorescent light in the windowless box of a library carrel or the office where the desk faces the white-tiled hall. One can even work up the courage to try out his concept of the flesh, la chair—the experience of Being whereby “the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.” He explains that “the flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term ‘element,’ in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle.” (Frankly, “Incarnate Principle” sounds to me like the name of a shade of paint—variations on the theme of mauve—devised by some humanities graduate working, to her great surprise, for Sherwin-Williams instead of a New York publishing firm. It might well be the name that gets her fired.) In his notes to himself, Merleau-Ponty muses that “vision is question and response”—and that’s the phrase that suddenly pricks a frisson of understanding for me.
It’s this sensation of mute conversation that I most eagerly seek in the out-of-doors, whether mountain or mesa or prairie. There’s a level of bodily alertness, awareness, that I suppose must somehow involve hormonal transactions deep within my flesh. Wouldn’t it be interesting to measure, say, the levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter usually associated with social bonding and sensuality? I imagine a tiny, poorly-funded research team, parking the dented state-owned vehicle at some trailhead, slamming the doors repeatedly before they catch, and then striking off across the landscape, clipboards clanking in the daypacks. Oh, it’s a risky study design: in order to eliminate the possibility of hiking-partner bonds, at least some of the sampling would have to be done alone—a person could become confused otherwise, distracted by attraction to the fellow-researcher perched nearby in the glorious sunlight. Assuming the simultaneous roles of investigator and subject, each would have to spend quite some time away from the others, sitting in the wildflower tundra beside a high-mountain tarn, or at an overlook clearing in old-growth woods, or here, for example, cross-legged on a mesa, all that sandstone and sparse, short grass extending as far as you—I—can see.
In my little research fantasy, I select sampling destinations that might be called, in the language of road signs, scenic vistas. That’s in part because I like such places and it’s my fantasy, but also because I’m interested in both the literal and figurative implications of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh. “The flesh we are speaking of,” he reminds us, “is not matter. It is the coiling over of the visible upon the seeing body, of the tangible upon the touching body … this bursting forth of the mass of the body toward the things, which makes a vibration of my skin become the sleek and the rough, makes me follow with my eyes the movements and the contours of the things themselves.” There it is—the coiling over, the bursting forth. This is the language of viscosity or surface tension—the curl of the crest, the frenzy of foam. But in his diction, the world also lays its hand over ours as we reach back, responsive bodies in the circumambient world. It’s love that we’re after here, continuing love of the world, and the hint that it might just love us back—catching our eye, tracing our skin. He describes this phenomenon as a “magical relation, this pact between [the things] and me according to which I lend them my body in order that they inscribe upon it and give me their resemblance.” The recursive nature of his idea evidently demands a similarly recursive syntax, and, clause upon clause, he continues to explore the “magical relation” as “this fold, this central cavity of the visible which is my vision.”
I trace my finger along the printed page, counting the appositives. One, two, three, four, five, six, and then I’m lost for a moment. How did he move from predicate to complement? Where did we cross from one watershed to another, from moving uphill to down?
Ecstatic, I want to name his mood, but that can’t be right; he’s so thoroughly invested in the body. Excited, anyway. “He before whom the horizon opens is caught up, included within it. His body and the distances participate in one same corporeity or visibility in general, which reigns between them and it, and even beyond the horizon, beneath his skin, unto the depths of being.”
And I am, too.
Another, clearer day, a small group of us climb to a particular shallow alcove, a hike and a climb away from any of the ruined great houses clustered in the canyon. We crunch over the frozen dust and sage, then scramble-and-pant to the lofted spot just below the mesa’s rim. From here, we have a great view of the southwestern horizon, Fajada Butte lifting its step-shelfed sedimentary layers and talus-slope skirt from the canyon floor. Last week’s snow still stipples the bunchgrass; in the afternoon sun Fajada presents its shadow-side to us, a cloak of contrast. A pair of red-tailed hawks spiral above us in lazy-looking loops of rise and glide. In the sun-warmed shelter, out of the wind, we gaze across the distance, watching the angle of the sun’s descent. From here, in the year’s solsticial pause, we should see the sun set directly behind the Butte, just where a rounded boulder stands free of the remaining top-most layer of stone.
John has carried up the theodolite, a particularly heavy and unwieldy burden strapped to his pack like a bag of tent poles. Patrick, a professional photographer, plans to record the sunset, capturing precisely the appearance of disk and butte, while Andy plans to plot the horizon. Anne and I dawdle behind the others to admire the rock art, an enormous panel some yards from the alcove where the others are setting up equipment. I snap digital photos with the fist-sized camera I fish from my pocket.
In a fine horizontal flourish, a line extends, trough after wave, across the rock face. Nine cycles, I count. The image is quite dark, no paler than the surrounding rock, which suggests it’s been there a very long time. Also chipped into this panel are the ubiquitous spirals, some bird tracks, human footprints, what might be a poorly shaped handprint (five slender, identical fingers, but no opposable thumb). At the panel’s bottom, another line snakes up, as if from the underside of the rock; curving and recurving it traces a shape that circles back on itself before there’s an abrupt stop where some of the image seems to have been lost to rock fall. Any journey can demand a retracing of steps, retrograde motion, but in the bright afternoon, my down coat unzipped, I think of a particular illustration I once saw, suggesting the pathways light takes through the sphere of the sun. Through the density of a star-body, the energy shed by nuclear fusion must stagger and weave like a punch-drunk boxer, perhaps some ten thousand years’ worth of irregular travel till it reaches the surface and can, at light’s speed, make its wave-length’s way through the slack vacuum of space.
But this panel is only a prelude for the site we’re investigating. In the alcove itself rests a section of fallen stone about the size of a car’s dashboard, with intriguing figures carved on the back side, facing the cliff and so invisible to anyone passing by. You need to sit behind the rock, like someone at a work station, in order to see both the art and the Butte.
And when you do that?
On the right edge of the panel is a large, clockwise spiral, nine complete turns. On the left edge, its mirror image makes nine turns counter clockwise. In between rest two roughly-carved figures that invite one to guess their identity. The smaller seems to be just a head and a torso—square head, thick neck and abbreviated arms, the mere suggestion of the body’s trunk. Abstraction, abbreviation, yet to the eye it signals person, position: sit here, your legs hidden in the shadow behind the stone. To its left, larger and a bit more carefully carved, is a stick figure. A round, abraded head, bent knees, stick torso, flexed arms raised aloft.
The Storyteller? And what, one wonders, I wonder, looking out, might be the intended tale?
You should understand The way it was Back then, Because it is the same Even now — Leslie Marmon Silko, from Storyteller
This is an invocation of the Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna writer who draws on the oral tradition of the Keresan language spoken in her pueblo. In one tale, she invokes Yellow woman and Buffalo Man, a being who is enormously attractive, a katchina-spirit from the wild mountains. In the presence of his sensuality, anyone could lose her self, and become, for a time, the archetypal Woman carried away by Desire. In some of the stories, it’s the sun who is her lover, who comes to find Yellow Woman at the time of the autumn equinox,
When the light from the autumn edge of the sky touched only the north canyon walls (south walls in shadow) when day balanced once more with night. — Leslie Marmon Silko, from Storyteller
Kochinininako, Yellow Woman, “had to find the place / before the winter constellations / closed around the sky forever.”
Timeless, the seasons convene in the animate landscape, rustling the cottonwood leaves in the wash, scenting the air with senescence or resurgence. These stories, I think, are all another way of describing la chair, the ultimate sensuality of our experience with the world.
After his four and a half years among the Zuni people, from 1879 to 1884, Frank Hamilton Cushing believed he had secured a unique perspective for understanding the Puebloan world view, which he emphasized was far different from that of Euro-Americans. In a letter sent back to the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian, he told his supervisor, “I do not count myself a man of as much ability as those who preceded me; but my method must succeed. I live among the Indians, I eat their food, and sleep in their houses.” Earning this inside view, learning of their ancient migration routes that coursed across the canyoned landscape of the four-corners region, he told his colleagues back in Washington, “As gradually their language dawns upon my intellect, not the significance of things alone but many other dark things are lighted up by its morning. In their language is told the strange history of these heretofore mysterious cities, each one of which has its definite name and story in their lore. The hand marks on the rock faces, and the ‘Pictographs of a “Primitive Civilization”’ in the light of this language and tradition thus reveal their mysteries….”
Cushing, or as the Zunis named him, Tenatsali, Medicine Flower, observed that “theirs is a science of appearances and a philosophy of analogies.” Culturally conservative descendents of the Ancestral Puebloans, Zuni people offer lenses through which to gaze back while thinking about rock art throughout the San Juan basin. Of course, hundreds of years have passed, and the rise of the katchina cults is believed to have marked the end of what archaeologists call “the Chaco phenomenon.” But it’s quite possible to trace connections, observe continuities. The Village of the Great Kivas, the ruins of which lie in the current reservation boundaries, dates to the flourishing of Chaco Canyon, and it’s considered an “outpost” of the canyon culture. Some of the artwork there closely resembles images found around Chaco and elsewhere throughout the northern Anasazi inhabited landscape. Open to wind and sun, dry desert air and sudden, explosive downpours from monsoon thunderstorms, here too are the spirals, the handprints, the fluteplayer, the meanders. “Rock art characteristically brings together both the power of place and the power of imagery, juxtaposing the natural world with the human creative world,” Young observes. And in Puebloan thought, people, being the most nearly “finished” beings, are among the least powerful, and so need to associate themselves with, or draw upon, the greater power held by less “finished”—more “raw”—beings, from animals to clouds to landscape features.
Cushing viewed this principle of classification as a highly graduated sense of hierarchy among the “raw” and the “cooked,” and suggested an etymology for the categories. K’ia-pin-á-hâ-i, he said, referred to raw (k’ia-pin-na) beings (á-hâ-i) and included “water-wanting beings” (k’iä-shem-á-hâ-i), prey beings (wé-ma-á-hâ-i), game animals (k’ia-pin-á-hâ-i, again). Then there was poor ak-na-á-hâ-i, which he translated as “done, cooked, or baked, ripe…the Done Beings, referring to mankind.” All beings, he emphasized, “whether deistic and supernatural, or animistic and mortal, are regarded as belonging to one system,” indicated by the particle plural á combined with há-i: Life, he translated the compound—“the Beings.” “[T]he sun, moon, and stars, the sky, earth, and sea, in all their phenomena and elements; and all inanimate objects, as well as plants, animals, and men … belong to one great system of all-conscious and interrelated life.” Yet, Cushing took pains to explain, “In this system of life,” human beings are “the lowest organism; at least, the lowest because most dependent and least mysterious.” He even wrote of a conceptual “confusion of the subjective with the objective” among the Zunis.
In the warm afternoon sun, we take turns sitting at what someone refers to jokingly as “the Console:” the small stone like a low stool; the larger, with its intriguing images, like a table or work station, and the canyon opening out beyond. Spirals have been said by various Puebloan groups to suggest the wind (in the shape of the whirlwind, potential energy is locked in its graven coil); water, or creatures powerfully associated with water, like the snail coiled in its shell; the migrations of the people across the landscape, searching for the center place. In Zuni, the winter and summer solstices are called “the Center”—‘itiwana. And that’s when we’re here; the very day of the solstice.
When I sit at the Console, I count four centers. Spiral on the left of me, spiral on the right, each a metaphoric center; the literal middle of the rock, where the stick figures and I all locate ourselves; and, in the distance, the cleft of Fajada, where the solstice sunset should appear in a few hours’ time, the actual ‘itiwana. So we have gathered to associate ourselves with this adorned niche in the landscape, to be present to watch, and, I imagine, to present ourselves to the descending sun. I feel unfinished, caught in the midst of my own being, though “uncooked” isn’t the language I’d reach for.
For contemporary Zuni people, daylight, tek’ohannanne, can be used as a synonym for life. And traditionally, infants are presented to the sun for their naming ceremony only on the tenth day after birth—after, writes Cushing, the passage of nine days analogous to the nine months spent in the dark of the womb, during which the tender infant becomes gradually accustomed to life in “the world of daylight.” Presentation: seeing and being seen. Light meaning life.
“Landscape,” according to Silko, “has similarities with dreams. Both have the power to seize terrifying feelings and deep instincts and translate them into images—visual, aural, tactile.” This is a claim worth puzzling over for all its implications of analogy. What I consider to be the inner working of the mind—potent, even personally revelatory, but utterly immaterial—is set beside the durability of cliff and slope. More startling, though, is the notion of the animate landscape reaching into the cache of the subconscious to take hold of what’s hidden there and forcibly draw what’s inchoate and unspoken into the world of forms. In English, “feelings” is traceable back to a Sanskrit root, the word for hand. I have no clear picture in mind for this powerful mode of seizing, but keep trying to feature it—the world, taking our fingerling hearts in its palmless grasp. And I think of rock art I’ve puzzled over—five-fingered lizard-hands, grasping the rock face from which they emerge. Frog song, maybe, in silent, sedimentary bas relief.
Silko is interested in the ameliorative results of such moments of ingress. Brought out from the depths, rendered “concrete,” she explains, these “terrifying feelings or powerful emotions” can be transferred into “rituals and narratives which reassure the individual while reaffirming the cherished values of the group… The terror of facing the world alone is extinguished.” Cushing touches on similar ideas when he describes the anticipation of the winter solstice and the great ceremony with which the pueblo would mark its arrival. In November, he writes, “just as the red sun had set behind heavy black-bordered clouds at the western edge of the plain of Zuni, and the wind was wildly rushing to the opposite end, with its heavy freightage of sand, dead corn-leaves, and dried grasses, that the herald of Zuni and I were walking . . . My companion turned to me with a pleasant smile…. ‘Little brother, make your heart glad,’ said he, ‘a great festival is now everyone’s thought. Eighteen days more, and from the west will come the Sha’-la-k’o; it welcomes the return of the Ka-ka and speeds the departure of the Sun. Make your heart glad, for you shall see it too.”
And yet, it seems to me, many of the archaeological sites in the Ancestral Puebloan world deliberately framed places for “facing the world alone”—the narrow ledges and hidden niches tattooed with rock art are removed from the great buildings or open plazas where the group could gather for encouragement through fellowship. I don’t doubt the importance of these reinforcements of group belonging, but there’s not enough physical space in such places for more than a few individuals. Today we take turns positioning ourselves on the small stool-of-a-stone until we all cede the place to Patrick and his camera. Then we’re superfluous in the indicated space; we stand around, delighted to be here but without designated stations of our own.
The day wanes down. At this latitude, sunrise to sunset lasts some nine and a half hours—not the great extremes seen much farther north, but a far cry still from the fifteen or so illuminated hours that mark the height of summer. Today we’ve traced the trail along the cliff’s jagged and meandering edge. We’ve lifted our bodies, step by step, from the canyon floor, picked our way carefully along the exposed erosional shelf, past panels of petroglyphs and slickrock along the cliff, to reach this one spot looking outward at the great beyond.
The late rays slant across our faces. Patrick’s camera snaps quietly at two-minute intervals. He’s brought a solar filter, too, and passes it among us so that, taking hasty turns between the scheduled photo-shots, we can watch the perfect orb of the sun, a pale melon ball, it looks like, closing in on its conjunction with Fajada Butte. I look—somehow, in the slightly amber hue of the filter, the world seems nearly tropical, with the weird sun lowering, glareless, through the darkened sky. I hand it back, stand near the Petroglyph Console still looking toward the southwest. A great sweep of thin clouds curves through the sky, their bend encircling the Butte’s vertical promontory. The sun, disappearing in the center of Fajada’s crest, casts those star-like rays outward, yet far longer than the twinkle of any night-time star.
We’re mostly silent. There’s very little activity in the canyon today, and we’re around the bend and out of sight from the road through the park. A feeling of privacy, intimacy, has settled on our little group. But just above, on the very top of the mesa facing Fajada, lies a spot unsheltered by alcove, untucked behind panels. Open to the sky a single flat slab of sandstone rests against a low stone outcrop, sturdily propped with other rocks. I remember there were similar signposts set on the mesa top above the Storyteller petroglyphs—three, in that case, knee-high piles of sandstone mounded into cairns. Those are the places where, standing or sitting, the would-be observer is most easily seen, a momentary bump of mutability, the flesh flushed with the occasion of its own presence. Of presentation to the animate air.
Here in the slight concave of the alcove, Patrick sits where others once sat, watching the pattern play out on the horizon. I recall a poem from Emily Dickinson, where she calls the regular motions of the personified moon and stars “punctual.” And that’s what the solstice sunset presents, as well: punctuality—the permanence behind the daily changes as time inscribes its passage, each notch or knob of conjunction. I imagine the figures carved on the stone as an archetypal symbol of participation: the smaller torso indicates where the would-be observer should take her, or his, place; the larger figure, the Storyteller, indicates one’s participation in the mythic, repetitive pattern, since time immemorial. There it is, the sun’s winter home. Make your heart glad.
How suddenly the chill washes over our skin, once the sun’s behind the Butte. In the cool, bluish light of dusk, we repack our equipment—Did you drop your pencil, Anne asks me, and yes, of course it’s mine. Andy has already folded the theodolite—an old model, probably not too different from the one Cushing mentioned from an exchange with an older man. The Zuni named the item in a long mouthful, a near-sentence of a noun. “The heights of the world progressively measuring stick” was Cushing’s English translation, which I like a lot. This one, painted in governmental green, is strapped again to the synthetic fabric of John’s pack.
And so from the heights of the world on this side of the canyon, we make our descent. It’s a circuitous route, meandering along the cliff’s upper face and switchbacking on the steep, eroded slope. John dallies behind awhile, and loses the way down. We see him backtracking, trying to locate a safe passage. Anne is motherly: she wants to call up to him as we watch from below, but we think the wind would take our voices and he’d never hear us urging no, no, that way, go back behind that spur. But there, now, he’s got it, on his own.
The jeep track in the canyon is a straight, white line more clearly defined by the recent snowfall. By the time we’re all together, dusk has gathered its cool cloak around us, while bushes and boulders begin to fade into the general shadow. I feel myself disappearing in the coming night, as if only my footprints will still exist, light abrasions in the dry, thin skin of snow, signifying something about time, and me, and the as-if-miracle of every moment.
Nonfiction judge David Rothenberg says…
“Sinuous” really impresses me, with its movement from the direct experience of a snake-shaped petroglyph to a whole history of engagement from archeology, legend, tradition, and literature right into the moment of our attempt to look straight at an ancient image and try to make contemporary sense of it, finding the signal in the noise of history, record, and information. It is always hard to combine writing based on raw personal experience of something mysterious and magical with all the reading we can do to offer experts’ visions of what our own encounter might actually mean. This author has combined these two elements seamlessly, so it is to this piece that I award this year’s first prize.