On a Turquoise Ledge

turquoise ledge

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.

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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