On a Turquoise Ledge

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A few months ago, I was engaged in thinking about Leslie Marmon Silko as a mountain travel author. Primarily through The Turquoise Ledge. Here are some notes from that time.

 

Seeing good places

for my hands

I grab the warm parts of the cliff

and feel the mountain as I climb.

 

Somewhere around here

yellow spotted snake is sleeping on his rock

in the sun.

 

So

please, I tell them

watch out,

don’t step on the spotted yellow snake

he lives here.

The mountain is his.[1]

 

The landscape of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico emerges with aching loveliness in the photographs of Lee Marmon. Cliffs, canyons, tabletops, and lavabeds; rain, sand, snow, and clouds; ruins, mission churches, doorways and cliff-dwellings. A changing land, the coming of the railroads, and a human presence in symbiosis with the land: horsemen and sheepherders, Laguna elders, girls at a clothesline, Eagle Dancers, Deer Dancers, Buffalo Dancers.[2] The photographs by her father give us something of the faces and geography of Leslie Marmon Silko’s intellectual and emotional inheritance. A long life of making the desert and sandstone mountains home comes together in this remarkable novelist, poet, and indigenous-rights activist’s lyrical memoir, The Turquoise Ledge. ‘My friend Bill Orzen taught me to speed walk on flat ground in town’, she opens, ‘but I prefer the hills to the city, so I adapted the speed walk to the steep rough terrain.’[3]

Over time, she walks into the knowledge of how the desert supported an entire population ‘The footpaths through the Tucson Mountains are ancient. Humans have lived in these hills and arroyos for thousands of years. The palo verde and mesquite trees give great quantities of beans in June and the saguaro fruit and prickly pear ripened at the same time; the small game and birds were easy to hunt. For the ancient people, these hills and arroyos held everything they might need for survival.’[4] She reclaims and rewrites the history of the land and its ancient people with an assured  wave aside of the European narrative. ‘The Pueblo people lived in the Laguna-Acoma area for thousands of years before the Europeans invaded, but the Spanish record-keepers made no mention of Laguna Pueblo, only Acoma. It was at Acoma that the Spaniards chopped off one hand and one foot of every captured Acoma man or boy over the age of seven, in retaliation for an Acoma victory over the Spanish troops in 1598. […] [T]he Kawaikameh, the Laguna people, had been living there by the lake on the Rio San José for thousands of years already when the rebels from the northern pueblos were brought there. Thus the Spaniards erroneously stated Laguna Pueblo wasn’t established until 1698. The error about the date of the founding of Laguna Pueblo was repeated in later histories. The Laguna Pueblo people didn’t bother to correct the error because it made no difference to their reckoning of the world.’[5] Silko argues for the connectedness of land with language as she argues for firm inheritance of Nahuatl and related Uto-Aztecan languages. ‘Linguistic diversity is integral to the cultural diversity that ensures some humans will survive in the event of one of the periodic global catastrophes. Local indigenous languages hold the keys to survival because they contain the nouns, the names of the plants, insects, birds and mammals important locally to human survival.’[6] She learns the names of flowers and plants, and gives snakes a home. And she continues to collect bits of turquoise pebble and to write about them as these flashes of compacted blue planet arrest her eyes and her thoughts.

The book is an ode to and entreaty for pacific and responsible survival as a species and as a people. In the desert, this is about dark peaks stopping and entertaining clouds to the point of rain. ‘Turquoise is the ritual colour of Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain.’ Her story about a group of Hopi traditionalists who decided, at the start of the eleventh year of a severe drought (2006), to undertake a sacred run from northern Arizona to Mexico City to the carved stone monolith of Tlaloc, is emblematic of her layered understanding of human place on our planet. ‘They’d been educated, as we all have,’ she says of the Hopi traditionalists with gentle irony, ‘to expect no miracles from Tlaloc. But in the Americas, the sacred surrounds us, no matter how damaged or changed a place may appear to be.’ Three months later, the rain clouds gathered, and broke, and pulled a writer away from her desk. ‘In Tucson where the drought had lasted so long even the desert vegetation was beginning to die, the rain smell was intoxicating—I couldn’t work on this manuscript.’[7]

 

Notes:

[1] ‘The Time We Climbed Snake Mountain’, Storyteller (New York: Seaver Books, 1981), pp. 76-77.

[2] See The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), and Lee Marmon and Tom Corbett, Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

[3], Leslie Marmon Silko, The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir (New York: Viking, 2010), p. 5.

[4] The Turquoise Ledge, p. 11.

[5] The Turquoise Ledge, pp. 20-21.

[6] The Turquoise Ledge, p. 46. In this breath, see also Robert Macfarlane’s magnificent word-hoarding in Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015). Long interested in the links between language and landscape, Macfarlane is spurred on by a collection of peat-land-specific place words to begin an ongoing project of ‘assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary–and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language.’ This rewilding is a project of joy and discovery and sadness and possibility, undertaken at a time when, as we learn, a junior dictionary makes place for ‘broadband’, but has no room for ‘bluebell’. ‘The Word-Hoard’, The Guardian, 27 February 2015.

[7] The Turquoise Ledge, pp. 144-146.

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Of the Place Now Called Victoria

I shall write about the stimulating experience of my first DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute) in a bit, but today’s post, in inadequate phone pictures, is about the loveliness of the southern part of Vancouver Island. There is also a sadness to it that I cannot find words for. You too might see, if you visit, what this land was to the peoples who lived here long before European arrival. (And most of us, we must understand, are visitors. Whether or not we live there now, our power to do so is a separate matter from our right to do so.) It is important to understand, too, that the magnificent curatorial achievements of something like the First Nations Collections are markers as much of voice and resilience as of silencing and continued violence. On the eve of #Canada150, the question mark in #Canada150? is more important than ever.

(My thanks to Ashley Morford, through whom I came to know Christi Belcourt’s poem.)

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Contours of Light

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Two girls stand against a clear sky and flying wisps of clouds–and against a clothesline. There is a bit of wind in the uplift of the new wash and the girls’ hair and clothes. But most importantly, there is light caught in the sky and the very earth the girls are standing on. I think this is one of my very favourite photographs anywhere.

Last year, while reading Leslie Marmon Silko‘s gorgeous memoir The Turquoise Ledge, I started looking at the photographic work of Lee Marmon, Silko’s father. It was a revelation, together with the sharp sadness of not having known this magnificent body of work earlier. I have since picked up and spent time with two books that bring some of this remarkable work to codex print: The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), and the recent Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico press, 2015). Little Girls at Clothesline is reproduced from its online presence at the Lee Marmon Gallery–although I should mention that you cannot see anything of its luminosity and detail in this limited-resolution reproduction. I realize too that what I have seen so far is a very small fraction of Marmon’s work. Some day, I should love to look in on the University of New Mexico’s Lee Marmon Pictorial Collection to spend more time among these contours of light.

Man’s Best Friend, 5.7, 2 pitches of different colours

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Simplicity itself you might say

Feel reach balance handhold

foothold stepup joy

But in the warmth of a winter sun

the antiquity of a desert upthrust

and the patient sculpture of wind

An old music in the quiet

of a belay stance

Life and death of lizards joshua trees

turtles creosotes yuccas snakes

under a vaulting sky

of cracks beneath my hands

White sand then red

piled upon piled still warm

wonders everywhere

English 124, The Literature of Wilderness and Exploration

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to my students

 

We live our lives increasingly removed from nature

It’s like we’ve lost touch

Unnatural lives

Come on, human nature is not unnatural

I agree, but surely we can do better

 

If every lion ate only just as many squirrels as he needed to eat,

wouldn’t that be good for both the lion population and the squirrel population?

Yes, but there are always some greedy lions, right?

 

***

 

It’s not perfect, but the Wilderness Act does its job

I’d still revise it

I would too

I’d change the definition of ‘wilderness’ in the Act

I’d dismantle it completely—it only gives us a cop out, like a permission

to trash what is outside its boundaries

Yes, if we didn’t have ‘wilderness’ to fall back upon, we’d take better care of our wilderness

 

Isn’t it strange, these Native Americans saying they have no word for wilderness?

Why should they? It’s home

I think it bothers them, an idea of wilderness that defines itself by separation from the human

In their place, it would bother me too

 

***

 

I don’t want to talk about anything today

I don’t understand how this happened

I was watching the results with my boyfriend and his friend—I had to get up and leave when I heard the reasons why his friend was celebrating

My roommate slept through the night and woke up and asked me who won—I cannot even put into words how much privilege that is, to not care who won

I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t sleep all night

My friend knows a bunch of people who voted third party—because they could!

I don’t see how anything I’m doing matters anymore—what is the point of college?

Yeah, I don’t know who will even hire me when I graduate

Will I graduate?

His policies will stop my scholarship, and I have no other opportunities

He basically wants to electrocute me until I’m straight

Look, we cannot let this define us, we just can’t

 

‘Atomic Dawn’

‘The day I first climbed Mt. St. Helens was August 13, 1945 […] “By

the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight

against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to

use it, for all my life.”’

 

He thought the world really was ending, didn’t he?

And he used it

His anger

And his sadness

How old is he now?

He’s still writing

 

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

 

I mean, these are such clichés—but they…

Yes, they work, don’t they?

 

***

 

Eighteen young people in a classroom

in a town travelling into winter

Tomorrow, remember that you had these conversations

Remember your youth, your compassion, your energy

Remember your willingness to stand in a different pair of shoes

and walk in them

A River Runs Through It

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I see that I have started calling it my river. As though a river could belong to any one.

Even if it could, mine is many oceans away. It always fills me with joy and sadness in equal measure to think of it. I have walked along my river in my city, Kolkata, just before it met the Bay of Bengal. And I have walked with my river past Benaras and Haridwar and Rishikesh and Gangotri and right on to the massive Gangotri Glacier. You might not believe the colours of the rock and the moraines and the ice piled on snow piled on scree–unless you had seen them. As for the colour of the sky at those many thousands of feet, let me not even try to describe. Only imagine a lift deep in your lungs. And a terrific sharpness of the senses. That is what I remember. More loveliness than I ever knew what to do with.

But maybe the waters of the globe constitute a thread of continuity. And here, in Ann Arbor, I do sometimes call the Huron mine. I then catch myself. Could I have with any other river in the world what I have with the Ganga? But the affection and even gratitude are real. As though to clinch it, there are flowers by the water almost all year long, just as soon as the snow is gone.