Thursday, September 10, 2009

Neither here nor there

This land is old.

Of course, you say. Of course this land is old. Cabezon Peak, which you can’t see from your location at the foot of the bluff but which lies just to the northwest, is three million years old, formed during the Jemez volcanic period dating back 75 million years. What you can see is the spectacular eroded anticline and syncline pair scrambling the eroded hills near the small village of San Ysidro, where you ate that green chile hamburger before disappearing into the Ojito Wilderness. You’re standing at the junction of four significant physiological features, including the Colorado Plateau to the west, the Sierra Nacimiento uplift to the north, the Rio Grande rift to the east and, cutting across all of the above, the Jemez volcanic lineament. Of course it’s old. What were you thinking?

Actually, I was thinking of painted rocks and settlement. People, if you will. Geology.

And the two are—connected?

I think so. Consider Zia Pueblo, which we passed getting here, or the other pueblos of the area, Jemez and Santa Ana, Sandia and San Felipe. Can you imagine their adobe walls anywhere else in the world? There’s a sense of place that binds them to this region, a sense going back millennia, to the hunter-gatherers who etched stylized depictions of men, birds and horned creatures in the basaltic outcrops throughout the state of New Mexico. Their gods inhabit the skies and canyons; they consider the land sacred. Such a concept would be utterly foreign to the inhabitants of Kansas.

Conflicting somewhat with the prevailing Judeo-Christian belief system, I suppose. Land is a tool, something to be used, a means to an end. But hardly hallowed. And the gods, well, we can’t have that, now, can we?

Exactly. Having such a heritage, such an interdependence, with the land must be powerful. My people—Anglo-Saxons—can scarcely conceive of such a thing. After all, we’re little more than nomads.

Conquerors, some would say.

Or thieves. Depends on which side of the “conquering” you’re on.

The land where you live is just as old. It lay under the Permian Sea a respectable 300 million years in the past. The low hills above your home were carved by glaciers over a half-million years ago. Yet you don’t say your adopted homeground is old. What’s the difference?

Appearance? In northeastern Kansas everything is covered under a thin layer of vegetation stretched like a green hide over the underlying stones. Here, everything is raw and exposed, sun-bleached. The geologic forces that twisted, tugged, separated and dynamited this area are not just visible, they dominate. Likewise, it goes back to settlement. I was reading about how the first Spanish estancias were founded along the Rio Grande Valley around 1630. Albuquerque itself—originally known as Alcaldia de la Villa de Alburquerque—was settled in 1706. And the San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town was built the same year, and still holds weekly services. That kind of connection simply doesn’t exist where I now live.

Your county’s 150th anniversary pales in comparison, eh?


And yet there are Swedes, Germans, Czechs and others who settled your region in the mid-1800s and whose families still adhere to the land. Entire generations that know only the rolling swells of the Flint Hills. Isn’t that, in many ways, similar to the Spanish settlers of ancient Alburquerque?

I suppose so. For them, at least.

But you’re not one of them.


Who, then, is the nomad? Freud would take great delight in this dialog.

Maybe I need a shrink. But I like to think it’s something else. Displacement, perhaps. Homesickness. The inevitable letdown of coming home to work, bills, stress.

Which you wouldn’t have there?

Of course I would.

I suspect this is really about sense of place. Connection. Belonging, if you will.

Belonging. I like the term. But it goes much deeper than that. It’s not just place but the intimation, realization and recognition of who we are, which can only be established by an understanding of how place defines us. We are molded as much by place as we are by upbringing; the two are inseparable. Belonging is only part of it. Inhabiting must be the other half.

And when they’re separated—what then?

Feelings of loss. Confusion. Even regret, though regret is more about revisionism. As humans, we’re capable of distancing ourselves from a former sense of place—the past, if you will, or our childhood homeland—until it comes back to haunt us. Depending on our relationship to that place or time, the resulting reverberations are either insignificant or pivotal.

Perhaps you need to expand your boundaries.

What do you mean?

In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder wrote, “Home, of course, is as large as you make it.”

Ah. So I could, in effect, incorporate the greater Southwest into the grasslands of Kansas to form one true homeground? It sounds too simple.

Sometimes we needlessly complicate our lives.

Very well, then. I feel better already.

And the rock?

It feels—old.

I knew you’d say that.


Anonymous said...

For this essay "Neither here nor there" to pop up this Saturday night is very appropriate reading for me. I am leaving this Monday to visit a new town, in a new state for a new future. I plan to inhabit. That will be the easy half. The other half, belonging will be the hard part. The author you quoted had the two reversed, belonging and then inhabit. We think that we choose our role but the group assigns.

Tom Parker said...

And I think you're only partly correct. The group assigns, most definitely, but much can be done by you to position yourself favorably. For starters, get involved with organizations and play an active role. People will see you as one of them rather than an outsider if, and when, you meet them at their level. You are correct in saying that inhabitation comes first and then belonging in the case of relocation. Good luck on your next adventure!

shoreacres said...

When I had to get from Houston to Berkeley and back and was driving, New Mexico landed on my itinerary because of Georgia O'Keefe and Abiquiu.

I traveled mostly north and east of your route - the mountain road from Chimayo to Taos, Nambe, Apodaca, Truchas - but you are spot on when you say the adobe walls are unimaginable anywhere else in the world. Our buildings sit on the earth. The pueblos rise from the earth and remain an integral part of its life force.

When I moved to Liberia, one of the transformations that took place in my life was a result of living among people who are, as the saying goes, "animist". That is, they understand every tree, animal, plant, river, insect and rock to have a living spirit. If you're going to cross a stream, you'd better invoke the spirit of the stream or you're in for trouble. If it's necessary to kill a creature, an apology beforehand never hurts. You get the point.

Today, I still apologize to creatures I smack - like spiders - and have been known to pour a libation or two. It can't hurt.

When you speak of using the land as a tool, of conquering, I remember the first post I read here - about the loss of darkness, and the steady march of the communication towers across the land.

We civilized sorts seem to hate/fear both silence and darkness. What I've learned over the years is that in those "desolate" places, the silence is full of voices, and the darkness itself is benign. The people of the pueblos didn't precisely choose to be shaped by such a place, but they would understand making the choice.