Saturday, March 24, 2018

On a Very Strange Book



 

 

 

At the Chicago Institute of Art, the gift shop at the main entry is crammed with scarves, framed reproductions, coffee cups imprinted with iconic images by Van Gogh or Rembrandt, knick-knacks of various kinds, bookmarks, shawls, racks of post-cards, and stacks of exhibition catalogues for whatever show is featured in the museum. Books are not much in evidence and, indeed, the bibliophile must walk to the rear of the store and, then, take a hard left to reach an alcove companionably lined with volumes for sale. Gift shops are a major source of revenue for museums of all stripe and, now, they mostly offer pretty objects for sale – books are compact and easily displayed but, apparently, not very popular. In Chicago, at least, you have to hike to find the books and, then, the selection is a little less impressive than the scope and majesty of the museum warrants.

One author whose books are always on offer at the Chicago museum is James Elkins, a professor at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. I have purchased several of Elkins’ book when visiting the museum and enjoy his writing. Elkins is a garrulous and unpretentious writer – in keeping with Art Institute that he serves, his work is egalitarian and, often, invokes common sense. His orientation toward art is directed toward a sensitive reading of how the work of art affects viewers. In this regard, he is apt to take his own responses as a metric of the work’s importance or meaning. I gather from his writing that he teaches studio courses – the Art Institute has always been very "hands-on" – and his educated response to his student’s work, I suppose, informs their development as artists.

One of his books, Pictures and Tears is about paintings that have literally moved people to tears. It’s a fascinating book. In one passage, a Western art critic goes to a show in Tokyo featuring a single ancient picture, a panel of wood on which there is painted a silvery thread of a waterfall plunging from cliffs in a pine forest. The art critic observes everyone in the gallery is silently weeping. When the critic asks about this reaction, he is told that the painting is a Shinto object of veneration – the painting is not about a divinity in nature, that is, not about a waterfall, although the image does represent a real cascade; rather, the bemused art critic is assured that the painting itself is the God. There are many other interesting anecdotes about people weeping in the presence of art and, characteristically for Elkins, the book ends with the rather dispiriting notion that the audience least likely to shed tears in the presence of a great art work is one comprised of professional art historians and critics.

Elkins’ advice is generally that one should approach art from a warmly generous phenomonological perspective – that is, we should first ask ourselves when looking at a painting how the picture acts upon us. What emotions does the painting elicit? What feelings do we have in the presence of the work of art? Then, we may, perhaps, seek to ascertain the technical basis for those emotions. Only after we have honestly assessed our reaction to the painting and, then, assessed how the picture’s technical execution has created these reactions, do we consider the subject matter of the image Elkins interest in iconography and the history (and transmission) of images is minimal.

This approach to art has much to recommend it – it makes us all critics of a kind. But we can also be mislead profoundly about a picture’s meaning if we defer too long an assessment of its iconography. Generally, knowing what a picture is about, and the occasion or economic setting in which it was created, are also important to understanding art. Thus, there are weaknesses in Elkins’ chatty and pragmatic approach to art criticism. These weaknesses, as well as some of the strengths in Elkins’ methodology are evident in his new book What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Worless Book (2017).

In What Heaven Looks Like, Elkins provides commentary on 52 images painted in water-color in a slender mildew-colored book identified as MS Ferguson 115 at the University of Glasgow. The images in the book are circular and they vary from 11 to 13 centimeters in diameter. (Elkins’ volume reproduced all pictures at a uniform size of 12 centimenters.) The volume is wordless except for a flourish of Latin calligraphy on the title page. Elkins translates those words as Opera (work) of Natural Magic in which the Miracles of Pneumo-cosmic Nature are Painted with a Brush. Fully engraved by an Ape of Nature, following Nature’s universal Catholic Prototype, and dedicated to the eternal memory of the King.

The pictures in the book are peculiar. In the majority of the images, the edges of the circular pictorial field are dark and annular. In many instances, the annular rings around the edge of the picture are painted as worm-like snakes – the snake-worms are abstract and, often, just daubs of dark paint. Generally, the center of the picture represents a kind of clearing where there appears to be enough light to dimly display either figures or landscapes or peculiar creatures inhabiting hazy landscapes. The images are not exactly impressionistic – rather, they are stylized and seem to be viewed through a lense of murky fluid of some kind or possibly through a fog of fumes. Elkins’ believes that he can descry sequences among the paintings. I am agnostic on that point. Some of the circular pictures are almost entirely abstract – the brownish green annular rings enclose glowing voids where perhaps a bevy of clouds shines radiantly. Some of the pictures are so dark that it is hard to detect their subject matter although close study shows that the gloom is swarming with tiny figures, little creatures falling or rising on columns of dark vapor. The anthropomorphic figures are mostly faceless – we see a turban and, maybe, an eye like a egg staring out at us, but he rest of the face is buried in shadow. Images of dragons or lambs are sometimes pulled like taffy to comprise annular rings themselves.

My description of three of the pictures, taken more or less at random, will have to suffice to provide the reader with a sense of the book’s elegant strangeness. In the first picture, the color scheme is either dark-reddish brown along the edges of the round frame with similarly dark strokes radiating away from a bubble-shaped yellow-brown center. In the lighter center of the picture, we can see sepia images of two men dressed in elaborate, somewhat theatrical oriental costumes – the men look a bit like some of the Asian magi that we see in Tiepolo’s engravings: the men stand side-by-side wearing turbans and elaborate sashes and one of them leans operatically on a staff. The features comprising the two Magi’s faces can not be discerned. In the second painting, we are looking into a circular shaft full of fluid from which limpid-looking bubbles are rising. The annular rings around the edge of the painting are clotted with swarms of dark, fat worms or daubs of paint that the artist (who likes to limn snakes and worms) would have us construe as worms. The dark, turd-colored vortex has an unpleasant blue center were little larva-like tadpoles seem to swim. The center of the image looks like an eye damaged by cataracts. In the third painting, the color scheme is again uremic and brown: a graceful faceless figure, shown as a pale cloud against a dark cloak of brown pigment seems to point her feature head down toward a blob lying on the curved bottom of the round disk. The blob is hard to see, but could be a giant toad, about the size of a good-sized lamb, turned over on its back – the creature shows an eye and a pale belly, but doesn’t seem to have any limbs. To the right of the supine toad, a column of fumes seems to coalesce as it rises and curves to ring the right side of the picture. Where the brown smoke column seems most congested with can see a face like a teddy bear and single arm raised in a sort of Fascist salute. (Elkins calls this figure "a Panda person.")

The most notable aspect of these pictures is that the images are almost never clearly delineated. Rather, they are pareidolic –that is, many of the forms are abstract: the eye and mind, working to make meaning from them, shapes these cloudy blurs into figures. The effect is like looking at clouds drifting across a blue sky – our imaginations find profiles, mythical beasts, and palaces in the white smudges moving from horizon to horizon; the images, themselves, are comprised of shifting, uncertain smudgles and daubs – it’s our imagination that crafts them into pictures. Think of the way that a scramble of shadow and light glimpsed in a dark corridor might suddenly seem to be a menacing figure or a beast crouched to spring upon us. At least half of the images suggested by the round paintings in the Glasgow book have this character – they are smudges that we can interpret as faces and forms.

This recognition leads us to the strangest aspect of the book. Quite clearly, the unknown artist examined cross-sections of logs, seeking inspiration in the patterns of annular rings, knots, and cracks in the wood. The pareidolic imagery seems to be derived from naturally existing marks on the cross-sections of these logs, all of them apparently cut to a uniform size most likely to supply fuel for a fire of some kind. In several of the pictures, divinities seem to wield white lightning bolts. These bolts are self-evidently suggested by cracks in the section of wood. In other instances, knots or irregularities in the log cross-section seem to have inspired the artist to imagine those anomalies of the eyes of creatures looking in the wood’s grain. This feature intrinsic to the artwork is peculiar – I’ve never heard of another series of images so resolutely devoted to wresting pictures from vague naturally occurring Rorschach blots embedded in some substance. There are, of course, equivalents in some contemporary artist’s practice – for instance, Anselm Kiefer pours molten lead onto his canvases and uses blow-torches to harry the surface of his huge constructions; his processes, which he describes as "alchemical" in nature, lead to strange islets of char and clotted matter that can be imagined to represent human or bestial profiles or strange deities. But, so far as I know, the specific praxis used by the unknown Glasgow artist to create this manuscript is unique.

Elkins goes wrong, I think, by exercising his not inconsiderable imagination to surmise an artist and, then, draws conclusions from this imaginary artist that he sometimes seems to forget that he has created. For reasons not explained, Elkins posits that the book was created by an "irredeemably lonely" woman, a widow whose children live apart from her. This widow, Elkins thinks, is literate and has read Milton’s Paradise Lost: she was formerly pious but now no longer knows "what the stories in the Bible mean." Her work arises from close contemplation of sawn logs and she made the watercolors in the book when the renaissance had lost it’s authority, but before the Enlightenment – that is, during the Baroque period, probably around 1680. Elkins intuits these things from the book but never explains the basis for his speculation and, so, this biography of the unknown artist must be regarded as sheer fantasy. The question, of course, is whether this fantasy adds anything to our appreciation of the art or simply confounds understanding the images.

On this point, Elkins’ fantasy biography seems curiously irrelevant because wholly arbitrary. Elkins’ imagines the artist to be some sort of proto-log-lady. (The "log lady," readers will recall, is continuing character in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – the woman appears always cradling a log which she imagines as uttering vatic prophecies to her. At first, a figure of mild comedy, a harmless eccentric, the log-lady morphs into a more pathetic figure, even tragic in dimension. And, in the second series, the log lady’s tragedy is accentuated by being conflated with the actress’ mortality: the woman playing the log lady was dying when Lynch filmed the second series and, in fact, perished before the show was aired – several episodes are dedicated to her and her obvious frailty (she’s bald and uses oxygen) contribute to the uncanny aspect of her appearances.) Elkins doesn’t give us any basis for his weird speculation – perhaps, he was watching the return to Twin Peaks like everyone else. But his speculations, which seem to have a trendy element of imputing "gender" to the images, are beside the point – he might as well ascribe the paintings to an escaped Haitian slave working in Boston or an Italian mortician dying from tertiary syphilis or an infinite variety of other characters. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know who made the images.

Further, Elkins’ analysis is complicated by errors in his brief text, mistakes relating to some oddly obvious factual matters. First, his translation of the Latin title to the book contains two "howlers" – he translates "catholical" for the world "chaotic" and "king" for "thing". (David Duncan, a hostile critic writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, points out these errors – they are embarrassing to Elkins but don’t really made much difference and don’t necessarily undercut most of his interpretations.) More problematically, he ignores watermark evidence on the paper comprising the book establishing that the volume was made sometime after 1750. On this point, Elkins’ error in dating the work also doesn’t seem to me to necessarily impeach his other conclusions about the work.

Duncan in his review next condemns Elkins for failing to tell his readers that the images in the book, representing "natural magic" (Opus Magiae Naturalis) are alchemical emblems. Duncan goes so far as to argue that the bizarre figures depicted in the circular panels are "conventional images", alchemical emblems that would have been immediately meaningful to "the self-elected elite" of natural magicians (proto-chemists). Duncan says that "the same images can be found in vast number of alchemical works produced "from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century." The pictures don’t show us "patterns in a log but reactions in a flask."

Obviously, there is something about Glasgow manuscript MS Ferguson 115 that seduces commentators in grievous error. Duncan’s points are well made and helpful, but they are also quite obviously, more or less, wrong. I am convinced that Duncan is right that the book has something to do with alchemy. But there is equally no doubt that the book has a lot to do with pareidolia – that is, seeing things in the sawn cross-grains of firewood. Duncan is blind if he can’t see this aspect of the work just as Elkins blinds himself with his self-indulgent fantasy of an "irredeemably lonely" widow peering morosely into her augeries of cut firewood. Clearly, the book is related in some way to alchemy and, also, has as its program some sort of divination involving examining the annular grain and wood knots in sawn logs. There’s no reason why the book can’t have both aspects and Duncan, in his way, is just as wrong-headed as Elkins.

Duncan contends that the bizarre figures in the manuscript pictures are conventional "alchemical emblems" – the emblems look odd to us simply because we have forgotten this branch of pseudo-science and the peculiar notation that early "natural magicians" used to memorialize their work. This is partly true, but a review of published images from alchemical treatises demonstrates that Duncan is completely wrong when he claims that the images in the round pictures "can be found in a vast number of alchemical works". Here Duncan is running a bluff. He is assuming that his readers don’t have access to the extremely recondite tomes to which he makes reference and, so, can’t check his confident (over-confident, in fact) assertion.

But there is an excellent volume exactly on this subject, another extremely strange book, The Golden Game – Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century by Stanilas Klossowski de Rola (Thames and Hudson. 1988). Klossowski’s book contains 533 engravings illustrating leading alchemical treatises published between 1600 and 1682 (Jacob Boehme’s Theosophical Wercke). The sheer number of images in The Golden Game provide us with a basis to test Duncan’s assertion that "a vast number of alchemical works" contain pictures similar to those in Glasgow MS 115. The truth of the matter is that the majority of the images in MS 115 bear almost no resemblance to classical alchemical emblems. Although I am convinced that MS 115 is some kind of alchemical diary, the author certainly employs a very idiosyncratic vocabulary of pictures and the pareidolic aspects of the manuscript are wholly foreign to the rather crisp and heavily allegorical syntax of imagery used by the famous alchemists.

An aside about Stansilas Klossowski de Rola is in order. Klossowski, who was a fixture of the "swinging sixties" scene in London, famously associated with Mick Jagger and the Beatles, is the son of Pierre Klossowski. Pierre Klossowski is a Polish nobleman who wrote a number of highly influential books – he was based in Paris and an associate of Georges Bataille and Deleuze. (Klossowski is famous in French literature for his monograph on Nietzsche, another study, affectionately titled, Sade, my Neighbor, a bizarre text about the Knights Templar (The Baphomet) and three erotic novels generally called Roberte ce soir.) Recently, the elder Klossowski, now long dead, has had a number of gallery shows of his pornographic paintings, mostly illustrations for Roberte ce soir. Pierre Klossowski is the younger brother of the artist known as Balthus. Balthus is notorious, of course, for his paintings of pre-pubescent girls – his work, some of it hanging now in the Louvre, would likely be considered an upscale version of child pornography today. Several of Balthus’ great paintings can be seen in this country including a very creepy and large image at the Museum of Modern Art called "The Street" and another huge canvas showing hikers near a ragged defile in the Alps -- I think it’s called "The Mountain" (Metropolitan Museum of Art). I mention these paintings because the work of the two Klossowski brothers seems, sometimes, to be allegorical – that is, the paintings are comprised of mysterious emblems. The Golden Game’s author, Stanislas Klossowski or "Stash" Klossowski, Pierre’s son, is still alive – you can see YouTube videos in which he holds forth. Elkins told me that he spoke with Stash Klossowski about alchemy – Klossowski was friendly and ended the conversation with a remark that he was going to study Ovid’s Metamophosis "in his octagonal room at his palace in Sri Lanka."

In any event, a quick survey of Klossowski’s compilation shows some features similar to MS Ferguson 115. The forty of so volumes that Klossowski surveys all have baroque and portentous titles that similar to the calligraphic inscription on 115. Generally, title pages, however, bear an engraving of the author or an elaborate allegorical emblem – 115 has an ornamental flourish inscribed on it’s first page but that is all. (The rather elaborate title to MS 115 suggests that, perhaps, the unknown author was using watercolors and pareidolic imagery to elaborate on an already existing volume and may have copied that text’s name – pure speculation, of course.) A number of the books in The Golden Game are wordless – indeed, one of them is called Mutus Liber (The Mute or Dumb Book). This feature is not surprising – alchemical manuals were intended for adepts; the power that they contained was hermetic and not to be disseminated beyond an elite group of researchers. Some alchemists may have thought it vulgar and, even, dangerous to publish manuals of chemical reactions as if they were recipes for cakes and sauces. (There is a good reason for such reticence – some of the reactions produce noxious or toxic fumes or may be explosive. Only adepts had the discipline to study natural magic without risk of harm to themselves and others.) Some of the books format their emblems in circular medallions. Indeed, at least one book shows the allegorical emblems – little sun and moon-headed Kings and Queens, crowned lions and snakes – within round alembic vessels. This would be consistent with Duncan’s assertion that the book shows "reactions in a flask" – although the volume that uses this convention, Mylius’ Anatomia Auri (1628) is very explicit in providing the reader with not only textual material but clearly delineated alchemical apparatus. Some figures shown in MS 115 appear in engravings in Klossowski’s book. From The Golden Game, I speculate that when MS 115 shows snakes or worms, the artist is portraying a process involving dissolution of a chemical in a fluid – "dissolved" substances are, often, represented by the worm Ouroboros or snakes. Dragons may represent noxious fumes – that is, potentially asphyxiating smoke and fumes. Some of the more abstract plates in MS 115, discs glowing with orange and yellowish light, probably represent the application of Calor, or the ardent energy of heat, to a substance. Several of MS 115's watercolors show oddly elongated lambs – these pictures seem to derive from representations of the "golden fleece" an emblem for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Klossowski’s arcana were all published in the 17th century – that is between 1600 and 1700. One curious aspect of MS 115 is that the watermarked pages show that the manuscript was compiled after 1750. This factor itself suggests that we should be skeptical of Duncan’s easy explanation that the book is a conventional alchemical manual. By 1750, the Enlightenment was underway and the murky world of the alchemists, who were partly religious visionaries, partly chemists, and, often, confidence men, had faded into the past. Why would someone seek to reinvigorate alchemy when, in fact, natural scientists or philosophers had assumed authority over the field? This factor alone suggests that the meaning and intent of MS 115 is more complex than Duncan asserts – the book was made too late. It’s an account of a philosophical practice superseded by more modern science. On that basis, MS 115 seems even more hermetic, more idiosyncratic, than the volumes on which it seems to have been modeled – in a sense, the book seems to appropriate the imagery of alchemy for some other wholly different purpose.

The private, secretive aspect of the watercolor sequence is also manifest when Duncan’s claim that the imagery in MS 115 is comprised of standard alchemical emblems is considered. Alchemical handbooks in the 17th century contain schematic human figures, often nude, and crowned. The figures carry swords or scales. Naked figures copulate – this is coagula: coming together to form a new substance. There are corpses, skeletons, spiders. Dolphins and lions crowned with diadems or laurel garlands disport themselves in the pages of these books. There are strange cocks and hens, men with their hair aflame, salamanders basking in fire and pilgrims forlornly standing outside of closed gardens. A two headed man is roasted on a sort of grill while a crowned king drowns in a wide expanse of water. These images are lucidly engraved – there is little chiaroscuro and, certainly, none of the pervasive fog and gloom embodied in the watercolors in MS 115. There is nothing approaching the sheer strangeness of many of the images in the Glasgow book: in one picture, seven men work together to strenuously drive a pole up the rectum of a donkey; in another image, three naked women seen from behind (one of them has the head of a dog) sit in the mouth of a cave, apparently, attempting to seduce three vaguely Hellenic gods. Very few of the pictures in MS 115 have any clear correlate to any of the imagery gathered Klossowski in his book. Therefore, if Duncan claims these pictures are generic alchemical emblems, he is apparently looking at books very different from the 40 volumes that The Golden Game samples.

In fact, the chief difference between the alchemical emblems and the pictures in MS 115 can be characterized in these terms: the watercolors are finished works and ends in themselves; in other words, they are art works. The various emblems Klossowski shows in The Golden Game don’t have this characteristic – they are not self-sufficient art works. Rather, these emblems are bluntly utilitarian, the means to an ulterior end.

My theory is that the person who made the Glasgow book is adapting hermetic alchemical imagery from some other text for private purposes. I think the book is an alchemical diary, an account of a 52 week research in which uniform-sized logs were cut and used to heat the substances studied. I believe that the author of the illustrations used pareidolic imagery found within the grain of the fire wood gathered to heat his or her alembics and other alchemical vessels. The purpose of the inquiry, probably, had something to so with the "Golden Fleece" – that is the meaning of the lambs pulled like saltwater taffy on some of the book’s pages. In my estimation, the book is the idiosyncratic fusion between pareidolia using chunks of fire wood, some other treatise, and the author’s diary representations of what he or she saw or felt as this year-long study progressed.

This is rank speculation to be sure. But it’s all that we have.

Friday, March 16, 2018

On Good Governance in the City



 

 

1.

The sun wounds the banks of snow at the edges of sidewalks. The snow bleeds water onto the pavement. Night freezes the water solid into ice and the covers the slippery surface of the remnant snow with crystals the color of dirty quartz.

No one wants to be slain by the last bullet in the last battle of the war. Similarly, I don’t want to be thrown to the ground and hurt by a nondescript puddle of ice that will not survive the week. Extra caution is required when I walk my dog. Spring is still some weeks away but the sun has already altered the landscape and, so, the peril, because inconspicuous, is greater.

 

2.

Because late afternoon is warmer, I encounter children playing outside. My dog sniffs the air and wags her tail when she scents them.

A little girl has two identical buckets beside her on the sidewalk. With a trowel, she fills one bucket with dirty snow. She is filling the other bucket with slimy water dark with an ooze of mud. Her hands and forearms are black to the elbow.

A few blocks away, I encounter five kids, all of them coatless, prancing around in an alleyway and backyard. An eight year old girl wearing tight, elaborately patterned stretch-pants is condensing in her fist a snowball. A couple of small kids in the alley way, apparently under her supervision, are stomping around in a pothole filled with muddy water. A fourth kid stands along the chain-link fence in the backyard, enigmatic under a heavy coat and hooded sweat shirt. A boy stands on the redwood porch jutting from the back of the house waving a cell-phone in his hand.

"There!" he cries. "There! I’ve dialed 911."

The girl in the stretch pants laughs and cries out: "Good! Good!" She pitches the ice-ball at the boy on the porch, missing him.

The girl in the alley is dancing with joy. She jumps up and down and wiggles her ass.

"Go ahead and call!" the girl yells.

"I’m gonna get a restraining order," the little boy says, "I will get a restraining order on you."

"Go ahead," the girl laughs.

Dogs in adjacent backyards are intrigued by the ruckus and they bark enthusiastically.

3.

Not just one robin, but six storm a tree, perching amidst the leafless branches. The birds sound shrill warlike cries. With their red breasts, the robins look armored like Saint Michael. They are equipped with pewter-colored breastplates.

The robins have come to restore justice to the world. Their sharp beaks are like sword points.

 

4.

At the end of the quattrocento, Lorenzetti painted the mural sequence known now as "Good and Bad Governance in the City." The paintings adorn the walls of the City Hall in Siena.

The most famous of these paintings, "Good governance in the City," shows an intricate wall of buildings stretching from one end of the surface to another. The buildings support many chimneys rising up into a sky that is incongruously pitch-black. The city itself is lit with an uniform white radiance that casts no shadows. The buildings are salmon-colored, blue-grey, and russet-red, all interlocked like pieces of a puzzle or like the adobe and brick cells comprising an Indian pueblo. There is no path through this thicket of buildings. To the right, a castellated pink wall, a mere membrane the width of a piece of cardboard defends the city from the outside world.

Gaily dressed people are promenading in front of their city. There is a bright proscenium in front of city backdrop, also brightly lit so as to banish all shadow. At the center of the fresco, four women clad a bit like the goddesses in Botticelli’s Primavera are dancing in a ring – each young woman takes the hand of her sister and all of them face inward. Five similarly clad women, all of them facing outward perform a similar ring dance next to them. Between the two groups of dancers, a woman in green holds her head up as if seeking inspiration from the invisible source of light illumining the city. The stately woman in green holds a sort tambourine. All of them women wear golden garlands in their hair. Scholars think the women are the Muses dancing to music made by Venus. Other critics argue that the dancing women represent celestial bodies moving in dignified orbits both pro- and retrograde in geocentric patterns surrounding Venus. Thus, the order of the heavens is reflected by the civic order shown in the mural.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Under the Mogollon Rim



 

1.

AFTER THE FIRE took down the center of Patio, the bare lots and abandoned alleyways between burnt shacks and stables sluiced water off the mountain with such force that the rest of the neighborhood was undercut and slid downhill. When the monsoon rains ended in September, the hillside where Patio had been located was denuded – even the vegetable gardens where the people grew beans and gourds and chilis had been washed away and the wreckage of the little shanties huddled in the valley at the base of the mountain. The Mexican Protestant Church, built on a knuckle of hill apart from the main slope survived with its choir of dark cypresses shading its squat clapboard steep, but the rest of the neighborhood was gone and the people had moved to stay with their relatives in the valley. It had always been true that everyone in Patio had kin living on the valley-floor and so, after the fires and floods, the people moved to live with them and, after a few years, even built homes in the Latino quarters of Clarksdale and Cottonwood. Although the bigger buildings, many of them made with mortar and brick, higher on the mountain remained, nothing remained of Patio except terraces where scattered gravel remained from the roads, a few cellars dug into the side of the mountain, and some brick and concrete steps connecting one vacant terrace with the another.

Even before the destruction of their neighborhood, the Latino children living in Patio attended public school in the basin, at the Clarksdale - Cottonwood - Jerome consolidated school. So fire and flood didn’t much change things for them. In fact, the school bus routes were shorter and didn’t require arduous ascents up and down the mountain. Jesus and Maria owned a single-wide in Prescott in which Maria’s mother had lived until her death. They had the trailer hauled to the Latino quarter of Clarksdale and put the single-wide on a gravel-strewn ledge overlooking the huge crater of the open-cut copper mine. There were bullies in the neighborhood and so Maria walked her little girls from their trailer past the miner’s boarding houses and to the edge of the cactus-park where the bus stopped. It was a cold and blustery day in early March and there was snow whitening the dark top of Cleopatra Hill on which Jerome was built. Across the valley where cottonwoods and sycamore lined the bed of the Verde River, the red spires at Sedona were also fringed with snow.

The sky was clear and so it was strange to see the great orange cloud towering over the north part of the valley. The cloud surged and churned and the children waiting at the bus stop pointed at the orange escarpment toppling toward them. The flag on the nearby post-office whipped to attention and, then, stood forth, straight as a board, with the wind blowing off the approaching dust-storm. A couple blocks away, the old yellow school bus limped forward. The dust-cloud was bright orange, the color of the eyes of a predatory cat. When the bus was a half-block away, the storm shut off the lights and the children stood in a howling cloud of stinging, pelting particles. The bus’ headlights cut through the gloom and the bus ground to a stop next to the park where the little boys and girls were squatting with their backs to the main thrust of the wind. Brakes protested and, then, the bus was beside them, rocking like a cradle with the punches thrown by the wind. The kids squealed and climbed into the shelter. Then, the bus transmission ground loudly for a moment as the vehicle debated its option – stay or go? – before resolving to roll forward skittishly in the heart of the orange-yellow whirlwind.

Maria covered her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse. Then, with her head bent forward, she groped her way back to the trailer.

NINE SALOONS and 14 Chinese restaurants...

 

THE JAVELINA was shaped like a big bristly torpedo. He was an old male and solitary and he ambled across the old hill road to Flagstaff neither looking to his right nor left.

On the slope above the old hill road, a rich man had built a chateau and there was a motorized gate on the switchbacked driveway climbing to the home. The javelina loped along the rich man’s fence to a ravine where the barrier had been washed-away and, then, climbed the dry gulch to ascend the mountain.

On the other side of the road, the slope dropped toward the creek where snow-melt sent smooth, translucent surges of water sliding over the red-rock slabs in the river-bed. An ashram occupied the willow-shaded terrace above the creek and there were some lean-tos propped against a long, white-washed building with an elongated porch. On a small mound, a plump-looking stupa had been built and it lifted skyward a house-high splinter of red and green and blue stained glass. The stupa marked the outlet of an earth vortex from which energy spiraled and coursed upward into the blue sky.

The old javelina made his way through fallen brush in the gulch. Sometimes, he paused to rub his rump against low-set wild fig trees or smooth boulders – he was scenting his path so that others would know that he had been there. The old javelina had been a National Rifle Association director in an earlier life but he was now trying to do better and achieve a more favorable re-birth although this incarnation, truth to tell, wasn’t that bad. He used his tusk-like canine teeth to root up a few moist tubers which he ate. Under the bower of a creosote bush, he found a dead rat. The rat was very tasty.

 

 

2.

BETWEEN JEROME AND SEDONA, Arizona, the Verde valley is 17 miles wide. The Verde river flows under the brow of the range on the valley’s west side, braiding its way through a broad and sandy watercourse that runs generally north - south. On the east side of the valley, the famous red rocks of Sedona tower over box canyons in the Mogollon Rim, the escarpment on the south edge of the Colorado plateau. Oak Creek slides down from the plateau and the San Francisco Peaks, a group of snow-covered and cone-shaped volcanoes rising above Flagstaff, the stream flows at the foot of the red rocks until becoming lost in the desert. On a clear day, a hiker on a hillside under the flanks of a great red sandstone pillar can look from Sedona and see, if you know where to train your eyes, the glint of glass and chrome half-way up Cleopatra Hill across the valley – this is the mining town of Jerome, precariously perched on the sheer mountain slope. Conversely, a person walking on the sidewalk in Jerome can see across the valley to the black and evergreen heights of the Mogollon rim where there is a thousand-foot high band of pink and salmon-colored cliffs – these are the mystic red rocks at Sedona.

For some reason, early Spanish explorers named the Colorado plateau around the San Francisco Peaks as Sierra sin agua ("mountains without water"). The Indians living in the area were dubbed "sin agua" Indians, later shortened to the Sinagua ("the waterless people"). Between the middle of the 10th century until about 1325, pueblos flourished in the Verde valley – there were innumerable small villages, mesa-top conclaves of pit-houses, cliff dwelling sanctuaries, and larger towns, some of them built as 300 room complexes in the middle of elaborately irrigated agricultural fields. We have no idea what these people called themselves and scant understanding of the language that they spoke. The modern-day Hopi regard them as ancestors and claim that these people occupied the Verde valley for 300 years as a way-station during their migration north and east to the three parallel mesas where their villages are presently situated. The Hopi regard the migration of the ancestral people, called Sinagua, as highly intentional – their trek obeyed certain specific historical prerogatives and was supervised by the gods and the people’s wanderings ended at old Oraibi, a pueblo complex on the Third Mesa said to have been founded about 1100.

It is a small irony, but poignant: the Sinagua Indians living in the canyons under the Mogollon Rim built their pueblos in one of the few places in Arizona where there is abundant water all year round. The Verde river is robust, surrounded in places by bird-haunted marshes, and there are innumerable springs and seeps in the valley.

I drove up to the pueblo ruins called Tuzigoot near Clarksdale in a snow storm. Large, puffy flakes dangled deliriously from low grey clouds skimming across the chaparral. The flakes dissolved on the desert pavement but where there was green grass growing, or little pale grey leaves on the mesquite and palo verde trees, the snow clung to the vegetation and persisted, putting white eyelashes on everything. The Verde river was crossed by a old steel frame bridge set a bit precariously on concrete piers and a sign warned people to not dive from the bridge and that fishing from the span was also forbidden. An insolent shot-gun blast had pierced the sign and rendered it partly illegible. Yellow frothy-looking cottonwoods graced the river bank and there were willows, good for basket-weaving, as well standing on the low dike-like banks.

Twenty-five miles away, a deep natural well is scooped out of a low hill beside the Verde River. If you are fortunate, a snake will come from a hollow place beneath a rock and guide you to this portal into the underworld. The well has crumbling limestone sides and looks a bit like a shallow cenote. The country is dry and there is no vegetation dangling down into the elliptical crater. The well cups a lake that is about a 100 yards long, a pool of limpid, clear water translucent over emerald fronds of weed just below the surface. Early settlers thought the lake was bottomless, but like all bodies of water bearing that appellation, the pool, in fact, is about 30 feet deep. On its bottom, a fine, powdery sand writhes as if infested with burrowing animals – this is where the spring water rises from underground through the white sand to make the lake. Along the rim of the crater, cliff overhangs are walled with ancient masonry – granaries, perhaps, and, even, a kind of low watchtower brooding over the small, still pond.

The water in the lake has been isolated from the beginning of time, or, at least, several hundred thousand years, and so there peculiar snails on the submerged stones, creatures known only in this place an nowhere else in the world. Vast numbers of fresh-water leeches swarm the water and a kind of primitive water scorpion hunts them, the shepherd of the cold depths, an elongated creature that looks like a half-dozen twigs improbably hitched together. The water in the crater is always 74 degrees. Pioneer ranchers used to come to the lake for their Fourth of July celebrations and local museums (for instance, the Douglas Mansion in Jerome) display black-and-white panoramic pictures taken at the crater – picnickers in cowboy hats and bonnets, sitting on the boulders where one of the cliff walls had partially collapsed, a tiny rowboat with a couple sitting together adrift on the pond’s surface, the ancient Indian ruins overlooking the scene with the dour anthropomorphic visage always presented by abandoned buildings: empty eye-sockets, as if in a skull, glaring down at the pioneers dressed in their best Sunday duds.

A subterranean channel pulses water from the lake bottom downslope to the Verde river a couple hundred yards away. The spring emerges from a stony shambles of collapsed rock and a huge Arizona sycamore tree, roots embedded laterally in the cliff overlooking the river thrusts out over the stream, the tree growing to its immense height entirely at 30 degree angle so that it bridges the stream and sheds the leaves of its crown on the other side of the stream. The tree’s bark is smooth and pale – it is like the fallen column of a Greek temple.

The ancient people channeled the spring water in stone troughs that run parallel to the stream and, then, branch sideways into the low fields surrounding the river where it emerges from the little gorge. Archaeologists have identified more than seven miles of irrigation ditch in this system, much of its still intact as a series of stone-lined canals. Water flowing through these channels contains high concentrations of dissolved lime. This lime has been deposited on the stones funneling the water into the field creating canals that seem to made from concrete – linear troughs bearing water into the fields. A sign notes that the dissolved minerals contain a high levels of zinc and that the bones of the ancient Indians showed signs of zinc poisoning.

Some fat trout lounge in the shallows of the Verde river. A sedan-sized boulder fallen into the stream shimmers with the reflection of sun on the current. It’s a peaceful place, a landscape that invites dwelling. The sky is so blue that it makes your eyes ache.

 

 

3.

THE MINGUS MOUNTAIN ROAD, otherwise known as 89A, from high chaparral through dry foothills into steep and wooded mountains. The road doesn’t really ascend a canyon, as is the case with most mountain roads, but, instead, curves around the sides of high hills, climbing diagonally through shadowy cleft valleys to a nondescript pass about 7000 feet. On the day that I drove the road, the north-facing hillsides were flecked with snow between the douglas fir and ponderosa pine. A road, particularly one that traverses mountains, is like the plot of a movie or a novel, a sequence of terrains that has a beginning, middle, and end, and, so, I hasten to observe that my account of this highway should bear a spoiler alert – this trip has, one might say, a "trick ending."

From the wet pasture at the crest, the highway dives down a notch in the range and becomes a canyon road with a steep drop-off down to tumbling stream several hundred feet below on the right side. After a mile or so tracking the canyon downhill, the notch opens to a vista of the basin below – it’s an airplane perspective, a vast expanse of brown chaparral, here and there, complicated with villages, criss-cross patterns from this aerial view that are dull-green with trees, the valley-floor itself tilted downward to the gold and green furrow of vegetation hiding the Verde River. The town closest to the foot of the mountain must be Jerome and, so, I saluted the place, waving my hand at the street grid at the opening of the canyon a half-mile below. The road steepens and, across the canyon, some concrete foundations make a kind of balcony on the cliff – this is the remains of a mine. Below the concrete balcony, a huge vertical apron of tailings droops down to the shadowy bottom of the gorge. The tailings have a peculiar tint – they are bluish and moss-green. On the left side of the road, a few yards uphill, there are two big boxy structures – they look like tin-roofed two-story dormitories, concrete steps tilted up to reach the buildings clinging to the hillside. Some smaller concrete and brick structures of uncertain function stand alongside the road on the right as the highway curves around the out-thrust mountain. Beyond the curve, the road spans a half-dozen deep, shaft-like ravines and, between the ravines, there are large buildings, some of them a half-block long lining the lane. Some steep, jeep-tracks lead up the hill to a row of wooden houses perched overhead. This improbable assembly of structures clinging to the vertical side of the mountain is Jerome, the old and, once, marvelously wealthy, mining town. The grids of village in the valley are Cottonwood and Clarksdale.

Jerome’s physiognomy is astonishing: the town now consists of three main streets linked by sheer plummeting curves stacked atop one another on a 60 degree slope of the mountain. It’s a popular place with tourists, although there is limited parking as one might imagine, and a number of the larger, more ornate buildings offer "ghost tours." People are picking their way through the town, a little like the way that someone might pick through a garbage heap – some of the buildings are shuttered and seem in imminent danger of collapse, but other structures strung like pearls tightly along the roadway are businesses that are still operating, mostly bars, it seems, souvenir places, and restaurants. It’s not easy to drive the town and you shouldn’t take the your eyes off the road, but, if you do scan the upper slopes, you will see larger and more ostentatious buildings there as well as the vanished brick and mortar edifices represented only by retaining walls, cement stairs to nowhere, dug-out stone cellars like quarries in the side of Cleopatra Hill. A grand hotel with many peaked gables frowns down on the switchbacked main street – the building was formerly a hospital, then, abandoned, then, reopened as a lodging place. About midway down the mountain, a terrace extends outward – it’s a bit like an armrest on a throne-like chair. The terrace stands apart from the town, connected to it by a thin ridge or rock and where that ridge broadens into a L-shaped bluff, some mine-workings are heaped around a pit, old ore-cars and a rusting head-frame. At the prominence of the terrace-bluff offset from the mountain, a three-story mansion made from raw concrete surveys the valley and, also, opens villa-windows upward toward the scraggly whiskers of the town on the jutting jaw of the mountain. This is the mansion of the mine-owning family – the Douglas clan.

The mansion is now a State Park and, if you travel to Jerome, it is inevitable that you will find yourself parking there and walking through the somewhat chilly and barren halls of the manor. On the day that Julie and I came to that place, a wedding was underway, a solemn-looking group of men in black cowboy clothes sitting on folding chairs on the scuffed and dusty front lawn of the house, a promontory overlooking the valley floor 800 feet below, a steep drop down through rubble-filled ravines and fluted cliffs to the grey chaparral where a big cement factory stood among its rays of driveways, lanes vaguely shaped like a star for loading ready-mix trucks, four-story metal hoppers arrayed around a central gravel pit, white as an eye occluded by cataracts. On the other side of the promontory, the land drops below the driveway steeply as well and the bluff-hill faces old Patio, the Mexican quarter of Jerome that has now been burned and washed away. After the wedding, the guests entered the mansion and the pastor signed the marriage license using the park ranger as a witness and bride, in her white gown swept through the chilly rooms with their concrete walls and stone floors like a kind of ghost.

The home was built at the height of the mining boom, around 1915, when there were 15,000 people in Jerome. The Douglas family came from Scotland about 75 years earlier, the patriarch of the tribe a medical doctor who had to leave foggy Edinburgh with some alacrity because of a contretemps involving grave robbery. His sons were prospectors and, then, land investors and they built the mines around Jerome, as well as the mines south on the Mexican border at Bisbee. Indeed, one of the Douglas family members was responsible for the famous deportation of I.W.W. union members from Bisbee – more than a thousand men rounded up by an equal number of armed, deputized thugs, tortured for an afternoon and threatened with mass execution, but, then, loaded on trains, locked in cattle cars and simply sent into the deserts of New Mexico where they were released several hundred miles away. This same Douglas, perhaps, repenting of the savagery at Bisbee, later authorized unionization of the mines around Jerome. In fact, at one time, the Jerome pits had no fewer than three labor unions representing the workers, a middle-of-the road collective bargaining unit, a group "Wobblies" associated with the I. W. W. and, at last, the Mexican miner’s union – probably, old man Douglas, sometimes, called "Rawhide" Douglas had figured out a way to set the unions against one another and, in that way, rule by a principle of divide and conquer. Old photographs showed the mansion and people playing croquet on its little tilted lawn and the Douglas men with their colossal whiskers and their wives and daughters with their small, pale, and pinched faces and slender white throats.

Copper mining waxed and waned. The town’s population slipped from 15,000 in the twenties when there were innumerable brothels on the hill as well as nine saloons and 14 Chinese restaurants. By 1930, the population was less than ten-thousand, then, less than five-thousand, then, 500, 400, 300, 200, and, at last, around 1960 only 100 souls remaining on the side of the mountain. Both the deep-shaft mines and the big open pit operations – a mountainside gouged-out on the lower side of the town – were closed for many years. In the fifties, the town sponsored an uphill car race so the summit of Mingus Mountain – old films show jerry-built vehicles careening around tight curves, often sliding sideways to knock down spectators or smash up against the buildings closely shadowing the tight bends in the pockmarked asphalt leading through town. Crashes were frequent and part of the appeal of the road race which attracted many spectators. But, in fact, the route was too dangerous and there were too many casualties and, after three or four years, the road race was banned.

An ashram occupied the Jerome heights in the mid-sixties. A picture shows about 400 earnest-looking young people, all of them with long hair, seated on the steps of the abandoned public school building. The people are wearing levis and have bandanas tied in their hair and the women are dressed classically, like sylphs in a Greco-Roman masque. The assembly of ashram participants seems completely humorless – no one cracks a smile. And, yet, they are all handsome young men and women and vigorous, it seems, their bodies coiled with instinctive energy. Near the front of the group of youths at the ashram, long now gone as well, there is a lanky young man with a blonde beard and penetrating eyes with shoulder-length hair – the young man looks like a more rugged version of Jesus Christ as he is conventionally portrayed in American iconography. The man seems familiar to me and, then, it occurs to me that I saw him seated near the front of the group of people attending the wedding – his beard now gone white and his shoulder-length hair also silver, but still handsome, slender, powerfully built with a gunfighter’s ice-blue eyes. I am looking at a display of florescent minerals. The Christ of the ashram is behind me in the hall, shaking the hand of the bald, inert-looking groom. Although the ashram failed, its Christ remained here on the mountain. I think he occupies a studio on the hillside where the blows glass and makes pottery.

On the terrace in front of the Douglas Mansion, two Latino men were quietly folding up the steel chairs where the wedding had been performed. Several white balloons were tied to the chairs on both ends of the front row. Looking up the mountain, I saw the big boarding houses and saloons in Jerome like belt girdling the mountain. The letter "J" was marked in chalk stone on the brow of Cleopatra Hill. To the north, the mountains had been shredded by open-pit copper mines. The valley below was looked dry and wrinkled with low brown hills rolling across the basin to the bands of bright pink and red rock at Sedona. As one of the Latino men bent to untie the balloons from the first row, I heard someone laughing. I looked around. The two workers paused and, also, cocked their heads. The laughter sounded somewhere below in one of the flash-flood flumes incising the steep hillside. It was derisory laughter, hard, inhuman, and metallic-sounding. The man let the balloons free. They were not inflated with helium (or their helium was exhausted) and they simply slumped down onto the grass.



ON THE PYRAMID-SHAPED TOP OF THE HILL, a tight scatter of irregularly shaped rocks suggested, only very faintly, the possibility of a fallen wall. The hill was high and shadeless and, even, the cattle and sheep in the valley didn’t venture up there because the sun was too bright and the slopes leading to the top of the knoll were too steep and slippery with fist-sized stones. There was, of course, no reason to climb that hill, located a quarter mile from the incised clay canyon of the Verde river – the hill-top, in fact, was identical except for the tight scatter of brick-sized rock, with a hundred other knolls and hill-crests in the valley.

But when it rained, a little wash below the hill-top sometimes filled up with pale, bone-colored pottery sherds and there was really only one place from which they could be coming and, so, at last a couple of anthropologists from the north, Ohio or Pennsylvania, hiked up to the top of the pyramidal shaped mound and found many bits of ceramic protruding from the soil and, even, the corner of a wall poking through an eroded hillside. And, so, an excavation was undertaken and a 150 room pueblo was unearthed riding the very summit of the hill and, since it was the Depression, and work was scarce, local residents were hired to rebuild the main walls of the pueblo and use mortar to stiffen them and, at the base of the hill, a fortress-like visitor center, also made from rubble gathered in the fields was erected to greet the tourists attracted to the place. This is now Tuzigoot National Monument, close to Jerome, the hill village’s twinkling lights hanging over the old ruins, like a strange constellation atop Cleopatra mountain. The monument is also adjacent to old Clarksdale and older Cottonwood, the basin villages to which most of the population of Jerome retreated when the mines in the mountains played -out.



DARK, DENSE CLOUDS scudded over the ruins on the hill-top. The museum at the foot of the knoll was dark and gloomy, a little like someone’s cellar. The exhibits in the cases looked a little dusty and the huge grey pots skulking under the tables were like big, sleeping hounds. A picture framed on the wall showed a terrifying dust-storm towering over the Civilian Conservation Corps. stone walls of the museum building. A caption said that throughout the fifties the Verde Valley was prone to savage dust storms that lifted into the sky the toxic tailings from the open pit copper mines. The blowing sand was said to be bright orange. Conservation measures in the sixties ended those kinds of sandstorms.

On the trail outside the museum, I walked uphill. Big, puffy snowflakes suddenly filled the air. In an enclosure surrounded by chest-high reconstructed walls, a trough-shaped metate (or grinding stone) cradled some of the huge, feathery flakes.

At the crest of the hill, I saw a red flicker. The color was momentary, a sudden scarlet flutter atop the parapet wall. I assumed it was someone’s stocking cap or mittened hand. But when I reached the tower at the pinnacle of the hill, it was deserted. No one was there.

 

4.

AT THE DESERT BOTANICAL GARDEN, near Papago Park in Phoenix, you can see plants that have adapted to this stony and waterless land. Among the anthropomorphic saguaro, a horde of men and women metamorphosed into sentinel cactus, are chollo plants, creosote and mesquite bushes with dusty grey leaves, green-barked palo verde trees, also with minute dusty-green leaves, creeping devil which is a cactus growing laterally in the gravel, the blind prickly pear and compass barrel cactus, squat jojoba and ironwood trees, bear-grass for weaving baskets, the purple prickly pear and the turk’s head barrel cactus, blue elf aloe, lechuguila, candelilo with its wax for making candles, the fish hook barrel cactus and some enormous old cottonwoods towering over the willows that surround a seep of spring water. Plaques remark upon "convergent evolution" – this means that plants and animals, although taxonomically remote from one another, will evolve similar responses to challenges in their environment. Climate and landscape mold very different species into shapes that are similar to one another.

A classical example of this sort of evolutionary processes is the convergence of the forms of African Euphorbias and the New World cacti. Both old and new world plants began as vegetation with broad deciduous leaves. But leaves of this sort are maladapted to hot conditions, hemorrhaging vital water through their porous surfaces. Thus, the leaves evolve into spines, an example of convergent evolution in that both the old and new world plants are thorny. Even the thorns develop convergent shapes. Some Old World Euphorbia have hooked spines, designed to catch in the fur of passing animals and transmit seeds in that way. Similarly, the Turk’s head barrel cactus and the fishhook cactus have developed virtually identical spines, even though the plants are not related to one another. Economy requires that all available space on the desert plant be devoted to production of chlorophyll – for this reason, both Euphorbia and Cacti have green trunks. Similarly, even deciduous trees found in this environment generate sugars on the surface of their trunks – the Palo Verde trees, for instance, have tiny greyish leaves but their sinuous, smooth trunks are bright green.

 

ANOTHER OLD JAVELINA, a matriarch with a family group of fifteen or so smaller animals, lives in a thorny ravine at the edge of the desert botanical garden. Javelina are peccaries, that is, animals with rodent-like forebears. They are not related to pigs, although they have a porcine appearance. The javelina is an example of convergent evolution – the desert ecosystem has a niche for a herbivorous rooting animal: this niche is filled by the javelina, a beast that looks like a feral pig. When explorers penetrated the heart of Tasmania’s rain-forests, they discovered a ferocious quadruped with pointed ears and fish-hook tail and a jaw that the animal could dislocate to create a gaping yawn. This was Tasmania’s apex predator, the melancholy Tasmanian Tiger, a creature that is now, apparently, extinct. The Tasmanian Tiger looks almost exactly like a wolf, but it is, in fact, a marsupial.

When you walk the perimeter of the Desert Botanical gardening be alert in all your senses. You may hear the peccary rooting-up stones in a dry gulch in search of ants and worms. Look closely, a tusked shadow flees away from you – that is, the mama javelina.

 

 

5.

THE SKY PEOPLE live in the sky beyond the clouds. The dead go underground to the sources of water. Snakes are their guides. Human beings dwell on the earth’s surface, a domain that is porous to the worlds above and below.

Before first light, when the birds sound like a stream rippling over rocks, a spirit bids you arise. It is warm and dark where you have been sleeping in a cell in the stone-house. Some pale light slants through the opening overhead, the round hole through which the old wooden ladder protrudes, propped against stone and mud mortar. The ladder is white itself, bleached like bones, and made from a kind of wood that becomes only harder and more impenetrable as it ages.

The light draws you upward, onto the terraces. Other people climb onto the tops of the rooms, although here the notion of a "roof" or a "top" doesn’t exist. The people are coming from the dim, small cells in the structure into the light that sweeps the surface of things. They rise from underground to the surface which is built up in step-like terraces, each of them pierced with round openings through which the ladders penetrate. People reposition some lighter ladders so there are ways down from the terraces onto another walled enclosure, this place large enough to hold a dozen or more people, women carrying embers to light flame in open hearths sculpted into the masonry, old men glaring at the sky for weather signs, children disdaining the ladders to leap down off walls into the bear-grass around the structure, elders borne upward on shoulders and, then, gently lifted through the round cavities so that their faces and old limbs can be warmed in the sunlight that is now pouring up over the horizon of the world, a place where the sun himself climbs a ladder that is invisible because burned away each morning by his rays, the sun ascending the sky from the underground cavern where he has been hidden, sleeping and dreaming, curled up in a fetal position on a hard clay floor until the time of his appointed coming. The space between the edge of the horizon and the sun is where some have seen the shadow of the sun’s ladder but if you look in that direction, the radiance will blind you and what others have called the ladder of the sun appears merely behind closed eyelids as a bruise made by the light within your eyes.

So the day progresses and the sun visits the sky people and, perhaps, thunder will mutter above the mountains. Women grind corn and weave baskets and clothing. Old men nap in the sunshine. The girls have gone down to the stream to carry water up to where their families dwell. Men are making weapons and children chase rabbits without catching them while dogs bark. Young men with good eyes are assigned sentinel duty at the summit of the clay and stone and mud structure shaped like a mountain. From their vantage, the watchers can see into the valley and, even, pick out another citadel on a sloping hill faraway, discernible because of threads of wood smoke rising from its hearths. That citadel, which the people visit from time to time, possesses a vantage on other villages built beside the river and, so, the prospect passes from eye to eye, along an unbroken line of sight that draws all the villages with their fields of squash and beans and corn together, knitting all of the clans together through a relay of watching eyes.

Then, the sky darkens and the moon dips down from overhead and, one by one, the people find the openings in the structure, and climb down the ladders to go underground to where dreams await, dead children and maidens buried under the floors, the memories of the people whispered back and forth in the shadowy place that smells, if only very faintly, of death. In the hollows of the structure, the corpses are awake now and can be heard rustling in sealed-off chambers and, so, it is time to sleep and, thereby, enter the underworld where water seeps and memories shiver together like old people around a fire in the winter.

In the entire pueblo, comprised of more than 100 rooms, there is only one lateral entry into the structure, a tee-shaped crawl way that enters a storage tunnel from the plaza below the lookout tower. The individual rooms within the building separate cells, isolated from one another, without passageways or corridors and all of them entered from above. This way of building is thought to have something to do with the ancient people’s model of their universe: three levels of existence stacked vertically – a surface under a sky intelligent with the action of the Kachinas and, then, openings into the underground where the treasures are hidden, turquoise and the brilliant feathers of the scarlet macaw, and where the dead mingle with the living in dreams and memories. We sleep in the womb of the earth and rise from our graves each morning to greet the sun that is similarly rising from his grave.



EVERY SECOND GENERATION must re-invent the craft of its social sciences. This is the curse and promise of the Humanities. A generation rebels against the theory governing its predecessor or paternal generation: some new consensus is forged. The second generation follows, and exhausts, the possibilities intrinsic in the previous generation’s innovations. Then, the stage is set for the cycle to repeat itself. (This process is not applicable to "hard sciences" such as physics and chemistry; these disciplines are subject to incremental development, often accelerated, and periods of "catastrophe" – that is, scientific revolutions of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn.)

Anthropologists (and ethnographers) use the term "thick description" to denote a practice that was described by the great Clifford Geertz in the late sixties. (The concept of "thick description" was broadly disseminated by essays published in 1973 in Geertz’s book The Interpretation of Cultures). "Thick description" means identifying and closely defining a characteristic observed in a culture and, then, developing a context that explores how the characteristic evolved, why it is significant, and what it means to persons within the culture framework in which the characteristic (or practice) is observed. "Thin description", if accurate, is valuable to preserve ethnographic findings: a "thin description" of the ancestral Hopi way of building would be to state that enclosed domestic spaces are always accessed from an opening in the ceiling of that space. This a useful observation but limited. "Thick description" might assert that ancestral Hopi living spaces are vertically oriented and accessed via ladders on the basis of certain cosmological and religious beliefs held by the people – that is, the universe consists of vertically stacked regions: the sky above is full sky-people including the powerful water and vegetation divinities represented by the Kachinas, the middle realm is where people dwell, the watery underworld is the domain of the dead and ancestral spirits. Thus, "thick description" would apply an understanding of this cosmology and vision of reality to the ancestral Hopi pueblos and particularly their modes of access. Such "thick description" might also be fortified by describing practical aspects of the environment, kinship and family structures, linguistic data, and defensive strategies that equally inform the practice of using ladders to access rooms through overhead openings. (For that matter, someone should explore the significance of ladders as a technology among the pueblo-dwelling people of the Four Corners region and the Colorado plateau – to hogan-dwelling Apache and the nomadic Comanches, pueblos were primarily characterized by their elaborate systems of ladders. The Apache called Montezuma’s Castle, a beautiful, almost perfectly preserved cliff dwelling in the Verde Valley with words that meant "Place of the Long Ladders." I am suggesting, accordingly, another type of "thick description" of Hopi architectural practice – maybe, to some extent, the ceiling openings exist for the sake of the ladders and not vice-versa.)

Inevitably, a reaction ensues with respect to any sociological theory that gains wide consensus. Geertz’ notion of "thick description" can be considered as an ideology associated with those ethnographers and anthropologists that came of age in 1970. In the Humanities, a generation spans about 20 years. Thus, beginning in the first decade of the new millenium, some theorists began to question the idea of "thick description". Exemplary of this tendency is an essay by Sherry Ortner first published in 1995 as "Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal." Ortner’s critique of "thick description" arises as an application of some of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s late ideas. Wittgenstein developed the notion of "language games" as structures of meaning that operate according to certain arbitrary, but generally accepted rules. Ortner and others like her apply this analysis to ethnographic studies. Ethnographers identify "games" that cultures endorse as normative. These "games" have both explicit and implicit rules. But rules exist to be broken. Therefore, opposed to "thick description" is the notion of "process" anthropology. "Process" anthropology posits that cultures are governed by sets of rules that organize the "games" that the group agrees to play. These rules are normative but not necessarily controlling and can, indeed, be broken. "Thick description" embeds cultural practices in a matrix of such densely intertwined causation as to deprive members of the culture under analysis of any agency. Under the rubric of "thick description," a cultural practice is so overdetermined – that is, so deeply immured in "context" – that the practice appears as a "fate" or necessary destiny. The "practice" anthropologists argue that this is inconsistent with most people’s perception of reality on a fundamental existential level. People believe that they have agency. They believe that the rules that they follow can be revised, amended, or, if need be, abrogated and ignored. Thus, cultural norms must be always regarded as subject to human agency.

The idea of "process anthropology" arises in the context of feminism and queer studies. Societies have norms with respect to gender roles. But experience teaches us that individuals, even in very traditional society, have ways of evading those gender roles if they prove to be particularly onerous in some specific case. Medieval women were supposed to be wives and mothers. But significant numbers of them joined religious orders as nuns, opting out of the cultural norm presumably broadly applicable to them. Similarly, we can configure a deep "thick description" basis for ancestral Hopi ladders and ceiling entry into enclosed domestic living spaces. But at Tuzigoot, someone violated that norm when he or she built a lateral, floor-level T-shaped opening from the plaza into the storage granaries. Rules are not "natural" or instinctive; they are human-made principles that can be amended, revised, or ignored entirely.

Ortner in her essay described Geertz’s "thick description" with the somewhat derisive phrase, now well-known among anthropologists, as "another pot from old Oraibi." An analysis of the pot that embeds the artifact in religious, cosmological, political, and social contexts in Hopi society is "thick description" – that is, ignoring human agency in favor of the naive notion that every culture, but our own, is a tangled web of often illogical and, even, perverse characteristics that assume the form of irrevocable rules. In my experience, most archaeologists and ethnographers publishing work in the last fifteen years subscribe to a pro-agency, "process" anthropology that asserts that for every aesthetic and cultural "rule", there is a counter-rule or no rule at all that may be sometimes applicable to describe human conduct.

 

 

THE ROAD TO ARCOSANTI is rutted, big stones exposed in the desert pavement that jam their fists into the undercarriage of your car and rock you back and forth on your upholstered seats. Paolo Soleri’s utopian community is located about 2 miles from Cordes Junction on a plateau above the Agua Fria basin. The dirt road passes through a congregation of silent sphinx-like semi-trailers and tractors, abandoned (or, perhaps, awaiting repair) among some small, derelict-looking pole barns and heaps of discarded tires.

The plateau top is completely flat and featureless, without any vegetation to speak of. Arcosanti appears procession of squat-looking concrete domes. From afar, the utopian community is nondescript-looking. The parking lot is crowded with vehicles, something that seems incongruous given the location and endless empty horizons in all directions. Visitors access the community center by crossing a concrete walkway bridging a pit where the ravine into which the city-state has been excavated has eroded. Beyond the walkway, a brutalist tower of raw prestressed concrete offers steps that lead into a hot atrium. The air smells of pastry and coffee and voices sound in the atrium – some sort of concert is underway with round tables where middle-aged men and woman are earnestly listening to teenaged folksingers. Above the atrium, at a gift shop, bronze wind-chimes in various shapes and timbre are for sale as well as architectural tracts printed like broadsides on big cardboard stock – the tracts have abstract names: Being and Building, An Urban Linear City in the Desert, Arcology, City in the Image of Man and so on.

Paolo Soleri, the architect who designed this place, came to the United States in 1946 where he studied as an apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright both at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and at Taliesin West on the outskirts of Scottsdale. After completing his apprenticeship, Soleri returned to Italy where designed a ceramics factory and, in fact, managed the production of ceramics. He returned to Scottsdale and worked as an architect in the Phoenix basin until 1970 when he went to Cordes Junction to commence building Arcosanti, an "urban laboratory" as it was called by the critic Ada Louisa Huxtable. The settlement consists of a row of concrete structures dug into the side of a sixty-foot deep dry gulch. Most of the buildings are either domed studios of one sort or another, house-sized structures about the size of a bandshell that one might see in a small-town public square, or flat, linear bunkers that seem to be dormitories. There is a small amphitheater under the bower of another concrete arch and many of the buildings seem to be mere shells, half-open to the elements. Banks of brittle-looking gun-metal blue sun-panels shadow some of the winding stone paths that twist through the site. The place doesn’t look much like a city, nor does it appear to be a community – rather, the site has the feel of someone’s house, eccentrically revised and enlarged over the decades, and much of the premises is clearly still under construction. It’s too late in the day for a tour and the sidewalks are barred with fences indicating that no one is to enter without a guide and so I have to inspect the buildings ranged along the side of the ravine from a distance. A couple of workmen are mounting a large metal beam in a stanchion and there is a cement mixer standing by them. When I was much younger, Arcosanti was praised by Stewart Brand, the editor of the Whole World Catalogue (who recalls that publication nowadays?) and a number of the tracts for sale in the atrium gift shop could also be ordered via that publication. I recall looking at the images of Arcosanti with interest – it was an example of a utopian community, a way of building in accord with the two great natures, human nature and the natural world. The image of the community as shown in Brand’s catalogue can’t really be seen from the village itself. Rather, you would have to cross the ravine and, then, photograph the row of grey concrete structures from the other side of the gulch. I buy a postcard of the place, photographed from the desert across the ravine and showing its best, and most glamorous, profile. In the picture, the row of arches and domes is punctuated by the narrow flame-like green of old cypress trees.

This is a "thin description" of Arcosanti, a mere wafer of words. A "thick description" would require residency in the commune, something that can be accomplished for a few thousand dollars "tuition." I’m not sure to what extent a "thick description" of the community would be viable: Soleri died in 2013 and I don’t know if anyone even lives at the place year-around. Certainly, there’s not much evidence of activity here. Can there be a "thick description" of someone’s private fantasy?

Just a few months ago, Solari’s youngest daughter, Daniello, published an article in several newspapers in Phoenix condemning her father for sexually molesting her for years. Daniello claimed that Soleri attempted to rape her when she was 17. Arcosanti is disfigured, Daniello argues, by Paolo Soleri’s abuse – it’s not a monument, as far as she is concerned, to a better way to dwell in community. Rather, she asserts that, as far as she is concerned, the place must be viewed as a monument to her father’s hubris, narcissism, and his sexual abuse of his own daughter. I suppose the choice to see the utopian settlement in this light is evidence of Daniello’s free-will, an example of her agency, and, therefore, should be construed as a sort of "process"approach to the ruins of Arcosanti.

 

6.

A SCARLET MACAW lived once in the pueblo on the hilltop now called Tuzigoot. The birds wing-bones were found with its skeleton, neatly interred with some chips of turquoise in the floor of one of the rooms in the pueblo.

Small pimple-shaped osteophytic lesions mar the upper edges of the macaw’s wing. A macaw’s brilliant red wing feathers are rooted in bone and, when a feather is plucked, the bird is wounded. The lesions mark the places where red wing feathers were harvested from the living animal. The people who lived in the pueblo probably regarded the bird as a divine messenger. Later, Hopi art shows sky-god Kachinas brandishing living scarlet macaws like hand-grenades in their fists.

Macaws are indigenous to the jungles of south-eastern Tamaulipas state in Mexico as well as the Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and the equatorial forests of northern South America. This bird, accordingly, was very far from home – at least 1250 miles. Further, macaws are extremely intelligent and aggressive birds, temperamental and difficult to sustain in captivity. What was it doing in north-central Arizona.

Various clues cast light on this puzzle. Wupatki National Monument preserves several large pueblos erected on barren, if commanding, prominences in the lava plains north of the San Francisco peaks. In one of those ruins, skeletal remains were unearthed comprising bones from 53 scarlet macaws (ara macao). In addition, the bones of four large thick-billed parrots, spectacular creatures with emerald green wings and scarlet forehead feathers, were discovered. At a place called Grasshopper Pueblo, a macaw and small child were interred in a common grave. In several other pueblos, macaws seem to have been buried with ceremony, committed to the earth with tiny turquoise trinkets. The center of the pueblo universe was the vast ritual center at Chaco Canyon, enormous brooding pueblos occupying a shallow dry rift in the featureless desert – there are no midden heaps next to these towering structures and, so, it seems that no one ever really lived in the huge walled compounds. Hundreds of ceremonial roads radiate away from Chaco Canyon, pathways razored into the plateaus and running in absolutely straight lines for dozens of miles across the landscape. In one of the rooms in Pueblo Bonita, the largest compound in the canyon, a guano deposit averaging 25 centimeters deep was discovered – testing showed that this was the excrement of scarlet macaws that had been hand-raised in the structure. Twelve macaw skeletons were also found floor-buried in this place, room 38. All of the birds showed evidence of depilatory procedures used to harvest wing feathers. A number of the birds showed healed skeletal injuries or had damaged beaks, possibly due to fighting with other macaws. This evidence established that the birds had been carefully handled and provided with attentive care – a bird with a shattered beak would have required feeding from the mouth of a keeper who had pre-chewed the animal’s ration of seed and nuts.

In 1954, explorers in a cave in Utah’s remote Lavender Canyon found a perfectly preserved sash made from dozens of interwoven scarlet macaw feathers. In the center of the sash, bright blue feathers, presumably from another exotic tropical parrot, form the shape of a thunderbird. (This spectacular object can be seen in the collection of Edge of the Cedars Museum located at Blandings, Utah.) From these discoveries, it is clear that the Indians living in north central Arizona and New Mexico were in contact with traders who exchanged live scarlet macaws (and other exotic parrots) with the pueblos in exchange for turquoise. This trade in turquoise and exotic birds lasted for, at least, four-hundred years – that is, between 900 and 1300 AD (when the pueblos were abandoned and the people migrated to the Hopi mesas). An intermediary way-station has been found at Paquime or Casa Grande, a big archaeological site 120 miles south of the Arizona border in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. At Casa Grande, actual dovecotes or small adobe bird houses have been found where scarlet macaws and other trade parrots were housed and, possibly, even bred. There are more than 500 macaw burials at Paquime, almost all of them accompanied with some kind of grave goods.

According to Hopi tradition, scarlet macaws were thought to be messengers to and from the sky people. They were beloved by the Kachinas. At the Spring equinox, an important Hopi festival, scarlet macaws were said to have been sacrificed to the Kachinas.

The birds were among the most valuable of all commodities in the pueblo world. A community that owned one precious scarlet macaw was considered wealthy compared with the villages that couldn’t afford such an animal.

 

FIRE HAD LOST ITS HEAT and become so weak that it could scarcely blister the fingers of a small child. Even a large blaze was slow to bring water to a boil: several hours were required. In the winter-time, the hearths burned low and cool and the people shivered in the icy shadows of their little rooms. Even sex couldn’t keep them warm and, when they rubbed their bodies together, it was as if cadavers were making love to one another. Meat stews simmered all day long and, yet, were still lukewarm when they eaten in late afternoon.

The sun was weaker as well and its light faded. The world had lost most of its color. Food was without savor. The flutes sounding in the night made a lonely lament for what the world had lost. The notes sounded weak and brittle and did not embed themselves in the memory and the old men and women, when they told their tales, lost the thread of the narrative and became confused. The stars seemed less numerous and shadows scarred the face of the moon.

The fire, dispersed from ancestral hearths, and always kept burning, was exhausted and had lost its vitality. And, so, the world was in decline: women were less beautiful than they had been when the fire was fresh and young. The night wasn’t as long as people recalled and it was not as dark – indeed, some parts of the night were quite white, opalescent, and the hazy as if with the smoke from many dying fires. Dawn was lackluster and the summer heat, although still suffocating, no longer cut like a knife – rather it was a dull ache. The people’s pottery was mostly clay colored and the glazes were dull, yellowish, with faded white figures. Winter wasn’t as cold as old men recalled from their youth and, even, the sweet water had lost some of its instinct for gaiety – streams still flowed but no longer merrily, diving and leaping from stone to stone.

The only brightness left in the world was in the wings of the birds brought from the south and guarded night and day on the roosts where they were tethered. The birds were feathered with wings the color of blood. Other birds had wings that were the color of crystals in caves: quartz and amethyst and emerald -green. The priests that cared for the birds said that they had the power of speech. Some of them laughed like human beings except that it was a hard, derisory, mirthless laugh.

The scarlet birds told the priests to extinguish every fire in every village and to spend a cold Spring night without the flames in the hearth burning. The fire was old and exhausted and lost its efficacy and, so, it was best extinguished. Then, at dawn, several birds were killed and their feathers carefully detached from their carcasses. Before the birds were killed, they spoke in their harsh, mocking voices and told the priests to make new fire and, thereby, rejuvenate the world. And, after the new fire was made, the priests said that it was to be carried with them as they left their villages and migrated to the north and east, trekking over lava fields and mountains, to the three high and black mesas standing stark against the sky and the sun-colored village of old Oraibi.

So the fire recovered its strength and color returned to the world and the people living in the great valley left their villages and granaries and their cliffside citadels, abandoned the springs and fields where corn and squash were grown and went into the canyons and mesas to join the Hopi who had been informed of their coming by winged beings and welcomed them.



THE BRIGHT RED MACAWS were too delicate to survive without being carefully tended by their human keepers. Furthermore, harvest of flight feathers weakened their wings and made the birds flightless. If a macaw escaped its basket or little adobe pen, it would be promptly eaten by coyotes or, even, javelinas or plucked off the desert floor by a big red-tailed hawk.

The larger thick-billed parrots were more robust and, when they escaped, they could survive in the wild and, in fact, after a few years, there were several flocks of these birds living in the canyons and by the springs and streams flowing over the eroded rocks. The parrots were the color of emerald emblazoned with bright red above their beaks and they made a sharp, derisive laughing cry that disconcerted those who heard it.

Prospectors said that the beautifully colored parrots knew where there was gold and silver buried in veins in the earth. The parrots were said to roost near outcropped rocks suffused with pay-dirt. It was propitious to hear one of these birds seeming to mock a sun-blasted and lost prospector. That mocking cry meant that precious metals were nearby.

A small flock of thick-billed green parrots was seen in a remote gorge in the Superstition Mountains in 1938 –however, people saw lots of strange things in the Superstitions and later expeditions didn’t encounter the birds. The animals, not indigenous to the desert southwest in any event, were thought to be extinct. But in 1964 hikers encountered another half-dozen brightly caparisoned parrots on a trail in northern New Mexico.

Since that time, there have been a few sightings of a large, ornately colored green parrot in the wilderness but no one has been able to confirm that the species still exists in the wild. People sometimes hear sinister laughter when they are alone in the desert wilderness – but this could be anything.

 

 

7.

IT WAS A PERFECT GAME, the fifth in the World Series, Don Larsen pitching to Yogi Berra. Not many people had TV and reception in the Verde Valley was problematic in any event – the place was too remote from the transmission towers in Phoenix and the metals in the soil, particularly on Cleopatra Hill, were thought to obscure images and turn them into ghosts of themselves. But the game was broadcast loud and clear on the radio and the Prescott newspaper featured photographs, including the iconic image of the pitcher held upright in the air by his catcher after the final strike thrown in the no-hitter. People were still talking about the game when the big orange dust storm swept down from the mountains that had been torn open for their copper ore, a mile-high wall of flying sand and copper tailings that darkened the skies and made morning midnight.

The park ranger lived in a field-stone and shingle house about a quarter-mile from the Visitor Center and the ruins at Tuzigoot. The house stood in a sheltered place, an ash and pumice hollow in the terrace above the river. The kids on the bus were starvelings from what was left of Jerome, wiry little boys and girls in ragged clothes, sunburnt and, it seemed, part Mexican, part Chinese. One of the Clarksdale buses was housed high on the hill in the garage at what had once been the Douglas Mansion, although now the building with its turquoise fascia and concrete-formed vigas was owned by the County. That bus picked up kids from cabins on Mingus Mountain all the way down to Jerome and, then, descended the hillside past the ruins of Patio, a few shacks still remaining in that neighborhood to pick-up the rangers’ kids at their home near the ruin and, then, reversing direction to skirt the big pits of the copper mines at Clarksdale to reach the public school in town. There were sometimes fights on the bus and, always bickering and so the ranger’s wife stood outdoors, her son and daughter ready for school, in the shade of a couple of big cottonwoods all soft and foamy with bright yellow leaves. And, it was while waiting for the bus that the Ranger’s wife saw the sandstorm approaching, an orange escarpment of billowing dust approaching from the northwest, a vast turbulent moving shadow that canceled out the landscape behind it.

Who knew what was in that approaching tempest? Certainly, there was rust from the red rocks and, with equal certainty, a tincture of copper that colored the sand cloud orange as it devoured the earth falling within its shadow. And, in addition, the darkness was compounded of lime dust from the cement plant, now hidden in the folds of the storm, choking alkali, therefore, and, also, salt from a playa to the north, cyanide and arsenic particles from the solutions used to precipitate valuable ore from its sulfides and, of course, sulphur, as well, marigold-yellow and silica sand that lodges in the lungs and asbestos and ground pumice from the ash fields, cinders and soot, and bone-dust from innumerable skeletons lodged in the earth, coyote and javelina and mule-deer and human skat, whole colonies of ants blown into the sky and flying scorpions and knots of leeches from the well east of Prescott, veins of gold and silver blown in the wind, all of these compounds and poisons and elixirs and byproducts raging together in the sandstorm.

The storm’s winds cast a shadow and, at the fringes of the approaching storm, little dust-devils swirled and danced skittering like daddy-long-legs spiders in front of the orange wall of blowing sand. It wasn’t clear to the Ranger’s wife whether the wall of orange blowing sand or the orange bus would reach them first. Taking her children by hand, she backed away from the bus stop and, then, turned to dash toward the house. The sandstorm was pumpkin-colored, doom-colored, death-colored. The Ranger’s wife glanced over her shoulder and, in the middle of the lurid vortex, saw a bright red wing. Then, the darkness was upon them.

 

THE OLD CROATIAN MINER sat on his porch drinking coffee. He lived alone in a cottage above Jerome’s serpentine Main Street. There were other cottages dug into the hillside where he lived with ladder-like stairs leading to them, but those homes were abandoned: the wooden steps had collapsed the way an accordion is squeezed between two hands and lay in tense, coiled piles under the dilapidated buildings; cement-cast steps specked the hillside – stairs that led to nowhere. A tin roof like a big, broken bird was crouched on the hillside, blown down from one of the lost neighborhoods higher on the hill.

It was only an hour or so after dawn but already the heat rising from the valley was vast and impassive. The couple school kids still living with their parents on the hill had been picked by the bus that wound its way down the hill to the Clarksdale School. A cult occupied the old J. C. Penney’s building but the water lines to that structure no longer functioned. (It was always either drought or flood on mountainside). A couple women emerged from the building wearing black leotards and carrying buckets toward the big blue plastic tank where water was stored beside the structure. The old Croatian miner finished his coffee and set aside his newspaper and watched the women filling their vessels with water. He had wagered a little money on the Series game and would have to toddle over to the saloon later to pay a debt that he owed.

The wind picked up and some caustic dust flew through the air and, then, old miner saw the sandstorm advancing across the basin. The dust clouds were orange and flailed spastically as the front of the storm advanced toward Clarksdale.

Sometimes, the old Croatian miner spoke to his wife although she had been dead for a decade. "I’m sure glad that I’m not living down there in front of that sandstorm," the miner said. The edges of the storm were caught in the trees uphill at the cemetery. A plume of dust wriggled like a snake’s tail on the hill below his cottage. The nearer portion of the basin was occupied with the writhing furry orange mass of the dust-storm. The red canyons at Sedona on the other side of the basin shone in the warm sunlight – the storm didn’t obscure them and, indeed, seemed to create a lens effect magnifying the red rocks.

"See," the miner said to no one in particular, "it’s best – it’s always been best to live up here, high on the hill."

There was no answer but the wind.

 


March 9, 2018


Friday, January 26, 2018

On a Doornail



 

 

Memorably enough, Dickens decrees that Marley is dead: "dead as a doornail." Hence, the first paragraph of Charles Dickens 1844 A Christmas Carol. But what is a "doornail" and how is it "dead"?

I have known certain devout Christians to wear about their necks, rough-looking nails crudely welded together to form the "X" of a cross. Doors are thresholds marking the intersection of worlds. Accordingly, I have always thought of a "doornail" as liminal, that is, the sentry guarding the threshold between the inside, that is life, and the ultimate outside, icy and forlorn death. To me, nails are cruel, inert, cold – iron instruments intended to pierce. Accordingly, I associate the phrase "dead as a doornail" with Christ’s crucifixion and the shivery threshold between the living and dead – the door in Dickens is a passage through which dead Jacob Marley appears, first, I think, as a face superimposed on the knocker on the door itself. Dickens himself questions the simile on his very first page: he acknowledges that "coffin nails" are dead, but why a "doornail"? Without answering the question, the author defers to the ancient "wisdom of the race", that is the intelligence in the English language from which this peculiar phrase originates.

The earliest source for the phrase is, possibly, William Langland’s Piers Plowman. In that Middle English text, Langland notes that "Fey withouten fait febelose than nought / And ded as a dor-nayl."

This sentence (derived from the Epistle of James at 2:20) may be translated that "Faith without works (feats) is more feeble than nothing/ And dead as a door-nail." A roughly contemporaneous source tells us that "For but I have bote of mi bale...I am ded as a dore-nail." – that is, "Unless I have benefit from my suffering...I am dead as a door-nail." A French romance, Guillaume de Polerne, translated into English within a decade before or after these sources, describes a character’s demise "Dede as a dore nayl doun was he fallen" – that is, "he fell down dead as a door-nail." William of Polerne, as the French romance was called in translation, is an early werewolf story, one of the primordial sources for the story of Beauty and the Beast.

The appearance of the phrase "dead as a door-nail" in the first half of the 14th century suggests a previous tradition unknown to us. At least by 1325, the phrase has something like its modern meaning and is fully established in the vernacular.

But we still don’t know how the phrase originated? Researchers on this subject, it seems, have examined medieval wooden doors to learn what a "door-nail" looks like. Medieval doors are typically made from a combination of vertical planks overlaid with horizontal "stretcher" boards. A long spike is pounded through both the vertical and horizontal pieces of wood. Door-nails were long enough that several inches of the spike protruded from the opposite side of the door assembly. These nail points had be "deadened" – that is, pounded flat against the wood surface. In medieval carpentry, a nail was said to be "dead" when it could not be pulled out and used again. (Hand-forged nails were costly and, if possible, retrieved from earlier construction to be used in later buildings.) A door-spike with protruding tip pounded flat against the wood surface was, therefore, a "dead’ nail with respect to, at least, two aspects: the tip of the nail was flattened and lying horizontally on the wood, therefore assuming a "dead" habitus or posture; second, the nail was "dead" because it could not be extracted from the boards and re-used. Inspection of pictures of medieval doors, indeed, shows that some of them have quasi-ornamental patterns of dead spike-points flattened into the wood surface on their interior surfaces.

Around the time that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the phrase "dead as a door-nail" had migrated into nautical argot. In the decade before the Civil War, writers began to mention "sea ditties" or "sea shanties" – these were work songs intended to enhance the efficiency of sailors laboring on ships. (Melville’s Moby Dick contains references to oarsmen "singing out" and, similarly, Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast published in 1842 mentions songs of this kind.) Scholars of the merchant marine industry observe that crews were required to work with a greater degree of precision and efficiency in the years between the War of 1812 and the innovation of steam-powered engines that monopolized sea-faring after 1870. The golden age of sail navigation involved heavy labor at the capstan as well as prodigious amounts of rowing in smaller vessels. In this context, rhythmic sea chants, known as sea shanties, developed to coordinate human muscle-power required in sailing. During this same period, intercontinental trade in slaves exposed merchant marines to African call-and-response songs. African singing techniques, accordingly, also influenced these types of "sea ditties" or "shanties."

Mechanical steam power put an end to sea shanty singing. Nostalgic antiquarians began to collect "sea shanties" around 1914 and the texts of these chants were published in folklore collections. The Smithsonian began recording sea shanties in the 1930's at a time when the practice of singing these tunes on the high-seas had ended. Influential collections of transcribed sea shanties were published in the United Kingdom as early as 1890, and continued in full spate through the twenties. One poet who was interested in these songs was W. H. Auden. In Auden’s 1937 Oxford Book of Light Verse, a number of sea shanties are transcribed, presumably snatched from earlier published sources. One such shanty is entitled "Old Joe". The shanty seems to have a mixed African and merchant marine source.

"Old Joe is dead and gone to hell," the shanty begins. There is a refrain between each line:

"Oh we say so and we hope so." This is the response to the Blues’ call. Each stanza consists of a new line, the refrain, a repeat of the new line, and the refrain also repeated. The additional new lines are: "The ship did sail and the seas did roar" and, then, "He’s as dead as a nail in the lamp-room door" and, finally, "He won’t come hazing us no more." There are many variants to this shanty. Many of the longer versions refer to "horses" and, then, drowning the "horses" so that the nefarious "Old Joe" won’t "come hazing us no more."

The poem refers to the practice of hazing new seamen during their first month under sail. During his first month on the sea, the new sailor was compelled to act as a servant to the more seasoned crew – noisome jobs were assigned to the "green" sailors and they were forced to perform menial and useless tasks, for instance, shinnying up the main mast over and over again or laboriously picking apart rope. Each fresh seaman was called a "horse". Experienced sailors whittled primitive horses to represent each new man. At the end of the first month at sea, the new sailor’s horses were gathered together, harnessed to ropes, and "drowned" in the ocean – a sign that the "hazing" period was completed and that the new men were now fully fledged sailors.

"Old Joe" the seasoned sailor "hazing" the new men "dies" at the end of the first month under sail. The horses are drowned and the new men are recognized as members of the fraternity of the sea. A "lamp-room" is a place where lamps are kept. Presumably, it could refer to a part of sailing ship but the more likely reference is to the "lamp room" of a lighthouse. The big reflectors and fresnel amplifying lenses in 19th century light houses are atop the brick column of a light-house in the so-called "lamp-room."

Here, we must acknowledge, that poetic sensibility exercises dominion over the words in the shanty. The brilliant guardian light emitted by the light-house is exactly the opposite of the sullen, inert, and heavy black iron used for door-nails. The place from which emerges the sweeping beam of salvific radiance is protected by door-nails pounded dead into the door atop the high spiral staircase leading to lamp-room. The wild and dark waves rage around the shoal of rocks where the lighthouse stands guard and a mild, even sweet, beam of radiance illumines the elemental chaos, guiding and protecting the sailors "in peril on the sea". We can imagine these door-nails as heavy, dense, brutal as the spikes that pierced Christ’s hands and feet. They are dead and immobile in the "lamp-room door", pounded flat. "Dead as a doornail" alliterates with the two plosive "d" sounds – each represents the crash of a hammer on a nail, the sound of pounding, and, then, the tortured wail in the howl of s word "nail."

John Henry Newman, before he was Cardinal Newman, experienced the beam of a lighthouse guiding a ship at sea:

"Lead, kindly light, lead...amid the encircling gloom" are the words to hymn that he penned.