In the beginning, the spirit dancers
came in person, they say.
In Shiwanna they still remember
how dangerous that was, the way
the women were always going crazy
for their devilishly good looks
& exotic costumes,
their power objects,
their dances, & every year
a few more would follow them
back to their homes under the waters
& drown. Until finally
the elders got fed up & told them–
these ancestors, these
not to come back except
as masks, as human dancers, & then
only at the proper times.
But one day in early March 1539
Marcos de Niza & Esteban de Dorantes
set out from Petetlán on the Río Fuerte
where they leave Marcos’ only
white companion–a lay brother
known as Honoratio–
to convalesce from a sudden
They explore northward along the coast
for the new viceroy
whose order of manumission
& a halt to slaving goes with them
like a parchment flag.
Since they left San Miguel de Culiacán
they’ve passed through a famished land.
In the river valleys the fields sprout weeds,
the irrigation ditches are blocked
with debris, the ghost towns only now
echoing with voices once again
as the news of their arrival spreads.
Armies & epidemics have rendered
some valleys in this northern cusp
of the Spanish realm uninhabitable,
so overpowering is the stench
of rotting flesh. From their brush-
walled huts in the hills, eyes bulging
in hunger-shrunk heads, the survivors
emerge. One last time
they assume their role in the game
of guest-&-host. Strangers, like all
dangerous beings, must be fed.
Petetlán on the Río Fuerte: My primary guide to the route and details of the Marcos/Esteban decubrimiento is the historical anthropologist Daniel T. Reff’s revisionist paper “Anthropological Analysis of Exploration Texts: Cultural Discourse and the Ethnological Import of Fray Marcos de Niza’s Journey to Cibola,” American Anthropologist 93:636-55 (1991). See also his book of the same year, Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764 (University of Utah Press).
After many days of relative quiet, my computer this morning is suddenly sounding hoarse. I wonder if the drop in temperature overnight might have had something to do with it? The floor is uninsulated; it could be pretty chilly down there. Perhaps it caught a virus. I resolve to type as softly as possible, and try to avoid the usually incessant finger-drumming and foot-tapping that helps me think.
Is there a peak in the Adirondacks called Mt. Somewherelse? That’s where my hiking buddy says we should go this spring: mid-May, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the mosquitoes travel about in dense, black clouds that can skeletonize a cow in thirty seconds. I said it sounded like an adventure.
Yesterday I walked down to the bottom to the hollow and ascended the knife-edge to the point of Sapsucker Ridge above Tyrone. If you can picture our end of Brush Mountain as a headless sphinx facing northeast, I was climbing the left paw, which splays inward to give Plummer’s Hollow a charmingly narrow entrance. The recent ice storm devastated the young woods all along the southeast-facing slope of this ridge, clear to the crest. In some places – depending on the scale you choose, of course – up to two-thirds of all trees are down.
But as I predicted based on a preliminary survey the day of the storm, the damage is highly selective. Virtually all the downed trees and most of the downed limbs and branches are maples, black cherry trees, ailanthus (an alien invasive – no loss there), black locust and black birch. I figured I’d be able to walk through the open oak woods on the far side of the ridge all the way back to our farm, which is located just short of the sphinx’s missing head, and I was right. I did see one toppled oak on the steep slope above the railroad, and a few other ridgetop oaks that had lost big limbs, but that was it.
The whole time I was climbing the knife-edge, though, I was thinking back to the way things used to look when we were kids, in the 1970s. We used to come home from school along the ridge crest sometimes, when we got bored of walking up the road, even though it added an extra half-hour to the walk. The first time I ever did it, with my big brother Steve leading the way, I must have been in second or third grade. I remember taking innumerable breaks to rest my heart and lungs, looking up the slope and thinking I would never make it, but he kept saying, “It’s just a little bit farther,” as a good hike leader should.
There were a lot more trees then, of all species. Both sides of the ridge had oaks, before the gypsy moth caterpillars and a succession of loggers conspired against them. We were, I suppose, what you might call poor, though we never thought of ourselves that way – the kind of kids who showed up in school every day wearing the same flood pants and shitkickers we’d worn the day before. My parents scraped together every penny they had to buy out the rapacious absentee owners of the hollow before they could log it down to the stream, otherwise using every legal trick in the book to stave them off. The whole agonizing process took over a decade, from 1979 to 1991, when they were finally able to buy the last hundred-acre section of the hollow – the old McHugh property – but only after 90 percent of it had already been logged.
It’s unsettling to walk through land that’s been so devastated and still dimly recognize features of a landscape that only twenty years before had been like another world. For years I believed a tall tale Steve told me once about finding another hollow parallel to our own, just down off the ridge crest. It always seemed possible, and sometimes I went looking for it. That’s how thick and mysterious the woods seemed to me then. There was plenty of underbrush to thread one’s way through, logs to scramble over, and a few, small jungles of wild grape.
Years later, it occurred to me that I might simply have misunderstood, and that Steve might have been trying to describe the largest of the transverse ravines, which does indeed curve around until it nearly parallels the ridges. But even after coming to this conclusion, I continued to have dreams in which I’d be off wandering the mountain – four times its real size, of course – and suddenly stumble across another hollow, and even another old farm just like ours.
In one such dream, I actually walked in the house and met the lady who lived there. In this parallel universe, the Plummers had never sold the property out of the family, nor had they brought bulldozers in to plow under all the old orchards in the 1950s. Twenty-five acres of ancient, gnarled apple trees: I was beside myself with delight. Ms. Plummer was a woman of my mother’s age, unmarried as Margaret McHugh had been, but not half so paranoid and suspicious. She served me, I think, cookies and a milkshake, just as Mom would have done. The kitchen was a cheery shade of yellow.
Lost in reminiscences, I reached the point and paused to catch my breath. Three pileated woodpeckers flapped off in three different directions, laughing their insane clown laughter. A nuthatch yank-yanked, descending the trunk of a tree head-first, as usual, while a hundred feet away on another tree a brown creeper chirped its way up. A downy woodpecker called. I felt as if I’d just interrupted a party. From a woodpecker’s perspective, I guess there’s plenty to be excited about – things just took a dramatic turn for the better with this latest storm. To the bark gleaners, I guess, it’s all good.
I don’t come this way as often as I might if exercise were my primary aim. I started thinking about why this might be, and decided it’s because I like the hike so well. I don’t want to become so familiar with this stretch of ridge that I’d lose my excitement at seeing, at least on the northwest side, so many fine trees. Of course, I don’t look at them with a forester’s eye. I love the crooked ones and the ones with interesting hollows at least as much as those that are stout and tall, and some of my favorites are from species with no current timber value: sassafras and black gum. Though both trees are common on Laurel Ridge, too, it’s only here on the crest of Sapsucker Ridge that you can find really large specimens. I took mental snapshots of their deeply furrowed bark, looking at them as if they were landscapes viewed from overhead: the tupelo’s block-faulted ranges, higher on the north side of the trunk than on the south, and the sassafras’s long, braided ridges tinged a sunset red.
My computer is slowly quieting down as the house warms up, so maybe there’s something to my theory. For the last ten minutes, a ladybird beetle has been stumbling around the letters A and W, trying to extricate herself from the keypad. But I won’t pause in my typing, so she keeps falling back into the steep declivities between the keys. Yes, Virginia, there always is another hollow.
While in their kivas at Shiwanna
the medicine priests preserve
their most arcane chants
in a foreign language, songs
attributed to the ancient Founder
of the healing arts: a gambler,
a vagabond chased from town to town
by stone-throwing children,
disappearing at last into the invisible
realm of the spirit animals
in the mountains to the east:
Shipapulima, city of mists.
And the friar Marcos–by all accounts
a man with a wretched ear–
commissioned to search out
the Seven Cities, hears
in answer to his obsessive query
as he forges northeastward from
the Gulf of California: Cíbola.
A place of great riches, a fabled city
somehow linked to sevenfold
a site of pilgrimage for Indians
many leagues to the south,
who join his mission in droves:
the act of traversing the land
helps keep it young.
Toss cornmeal out before you,
straight, like every holy intention.
Smoke tobacco so prayers will have
their own road. Follow the sacred
transect running north.
Power is like water:
it flows where you want
only if you make a proper channel.
It has its own ideas.
Plant your prayer sticks
wherever you want it to slow,
wherever you want its fertile blessings
to sink into the parched earth.
* * * *
chants in a foreign language: Keresan, the language spoken by Zuni’s nearest neighbors to the east, in Acoma and Luguna Pueblos. The Gambler story seems to originate there, as well, and some historical anthropologists see it as a mythologized account of the rise and fall of the Anasazi culture centered in Chaco Canyon, not far to the northeast of Zuni.
mountains to the east: The Sandia mountains, a low, southern extension of the Sangre de Christos, where members of medicine societies are reincarnated as animals of the same species as the tutelary spirit of their society. This is one of several afterlife destinations of Zunis, reflecting perhaps their tribe’s origin as a melting pot of several different cultures. Rain Priests and Bow Priests are reborn as anthropomorphic spirits in the sacred lake of the ancestors, to the west.
Cíbola: The word first appears in Marcos’ account of his and Esteban’s 1539 journey, and in the writings of contemporaries after Marcos’ return to Mexico City. The suggestion that it might derive from Shipapu(lima), instead of – or in confusion with – Shiwanna, is entirely my own guess. Subsequent explorers, beginning with the conquistator Coronado the following year, applied the name Cíbola to the Zuni confederation, whether or not that was in fact what Marcos thought he “discovered.”
plant your prayer sticks: The homology between prayer sticks (basically, effigies for the petitioner) and the sticks used to channel flash floods in desert farming is, again, something I came up with on my own. I could be mistaken.
The statistically average American family, consisting I suppose of motherfather, nemesister, brotherape, each in their separate seedpod of distraction, inhabit a house without a single active verb to keep them warm. They are all learning how to be outcome-oriented. If time weren’t still lurking among the flowerpots in the kitchen window, their lives would become joined in one vast wound, I wrote, standing on the stone bridge over the stream. The sound of water: something I used to think of often when I sat in classrooms waiting for the bell to bring us back to our senses. I always pictured a clearing deep in the forest where a spring welled up, unseen by anyone including myself. Later on, this favorite image symbolizing something like hope gave way to the cry of a night bird – a black-crowned night heron, a wild goose. I gave chase without avail. That cry offered the promise of shade in a land too brightly lit, like dark foliage in a 15th-century illuminated manuscript with hardly any blank space left in the margins. I hadn’t thought about this for many years, until the other night when I stood in the road looking back at my own house. It was all dark except for one window, dimly lit by the glow of the computer monitor – though to anyone who didn’t know this it might have seemed to emanate from the pilot flame on a gas stove, or a florescent nightlight. I stood outside in the darkness wondering what it might be like to have that statistically average family, wife and however many kids, remembering computer-generated images based on averages from hundreds of different, real faces. Male or female, such average features always turn out to possess uncommon beauty.
When you are hidden, count me among the infidels;
When you appear, count me among the faithful.
What possessions do I have, apart from what you have given?
What are you after, thrusting your hands in my pockets?
Writing about it – even just thinking about it – chases it away. That’s the problem. And there’s nothing you can say that hasn’t been said countless times before, sometimes even by people who knew what they were talking about. The only way to get at it in a halfway authentic manner is to approach it obliquely, without trying – hell, without meaning to. Write about something you saw on a walk, the lint in your own or somebody else’s navel, or maybe the idea of redemption – pretty much anything, so long as it isn’t self-indulgent. Because if this is going to work, you have to care about these things for their own sake, both in an aesthetic and an ethical way (where “ethical” means “hospitable and respectful”).
–Can’t I just issue a blanket repudiation of everything I have written and will ever write?
–Sure, but this is America. People expect other people to say what they mean and mean what they say. 1 If you keep going the way you’re going, by far the largest proportion of Via Negativa’s readers will forever continue to be transients, people who drop in from god knows where, read for a few minutes or a couple weeks and leave again, vowing never to come back. Can you blame them for feeling used? I mean, what the fuck?!
–Okay, so I’d better just keep the link to that so-called Apologia in place. I mean, I haven’t read it in many months. I don’t want to. I’m sure it’s a whole lot of nothing. But at least it’s there, so people who like to think of themselves as smart and reasonably well-educated can read it and say “Ho-ho!” in a knowing sort of way, like Piglet’s imagined Heffalump, and proceed to plow through a number of posts with relative equanimity, secure in the belief that they know where this is all trending.
Remember, Small was only found after they gave up looking. He ended up somehow in the Heffalump Trap. 2
1. Which somehow makes us the most gullible people on the planet, not only tolerating the pitch and the spin, but actually begging to be lied to and happily paying for the privilege. But that’s a topic for another day.
2. Only the illustration leads us, rather arbitrarily, to believe that Small was a large beetle. Nowhere in the text is his identity spelled out, beyond saying that he was one of Rabbit’s innumerable friends-and-relations. Which is, of course, tantamount to saying that he is that Friend who stands in the same relation to every seeker.
In the cities on the lake
in Mexico, too, the Aztecs
wax nostalgic for a fabled past–
a story they may have stolen,
like everything else, from those
they sought to surpass: how
their fathers once inhabited
seven caves far to the north
& half the tribe remains there
while the rest wander southward,
shunned by everyone.
When they rise to power
they strip the chronicles of all
competing accounts. This world
needs to be flayed. But in
the songs, the Flower World
beckons from every horizon,
true home of jaguar & eagle.
The knife-winged vulture
casts one eye
toward its former haunts.
Flower World: The chromatic, flower-laden spirit world in pre-Cortezian and 17th-century Nahuatl poetry. Versions of the Flower World also occur in oral literatures in many other Uto-Aztecan languages, including Huichol, Yaqui, Piman (O’odham) and Hopi, as well as some of their neighbors, including Zuni.
jaguar & eagle: Totems of the two, main warrior societies of the Aztecs.
knife-winged vulture – Knife-wing, in Zuni cosmology, is the guardian of the Zenith.
YAH: Almost everything you’ve written here is wrong – or at least, seriously misleading and lacking essential elements of context. No one will read it.
MOSES: Can’t we just dispense with the text and go straight to the commentary?
YAH: The Oral Torah concept? Yeah, but remember: the devil is in the details. Basically, everything you think you know is wrong.
MOSES: Wrongness, then, would seem to be an existential attribute of – um, I mean, the unavoidable condition of Your creatures, correct me if I’m wrong.
YAH: I will, trust me. Generally speaking, to be wrong is to be consumed – by burning, say. Though just once, I would like to feel that myself. It’s hell to be right all the time.
MOSES: I think if we want to write a real bestseller here, we have to put in a lot more angels. Tell me about the seraphim.
YAH: Beetles! I never tire of them, their hard & shiny outer wings, the way those diaphanous inner wings unfold, their way with flowers, dung or carrion. Their almost infinite variety.
MOSES: O.K., maybe I’d better stick with violence and begetting, then. But something you just said made me wonder: philosophically speaking, would it be fair to say that Creation is the only escape from tautology?
YAH: Stop trying to pin me down! I ain’t no beetle! Despite what some Egyptians might have told you.
MOSES: But I heard that you gave Abraham something called Sefer Yetzirah, The Book of Creation – like the Chicago Manual of Style for the cosmos. Where can I get a copy?
YAH: That was just a test, like the Binding of Isaac – which he failed miserably, by the way. What a tool he turned out to be! A cog in search of cogma. Haven’t spoken to him since.
MOSES: “Teaching to the test” is wrong, though, isn’t it?
YAH: He was supposed to figure that out on his own. That was the test. This is not a test! I don’t play dice.
MOSES: But, I mean, is it really possible to create new life forms by combining and recombining the letters of Your name, over and over, in precise and non-intuitive sequences?
YAH: Genetic engineering? Yes, but it’s a waste of time – and leads, of course, to hubris and atheism.
MOSES: Suppose, however – just suppose! – there were a need…
YAH: Look at the way unrelated species come to resemble each other, so-called convergent evolution. What are they converging toward? Look at how species co-evolve – the flower and its pollinator, an intricate pas de deux for which it took billions of years and a couple supernovas to set the stage. Beautiful, yes? But let me tell you, Moe: It’s all in the smiting.
MOSES: O.K., but let’s think of our target audience. The priests are going to want to know: how can we be holy, as You are holy? I mean, that is what you said you wanted to communicate, right? In a nutshell?
YAH: As some German Christian heretic will say in the fullness of time: “If you want the kernel, you must break the shell!” Tell the priesthood to suck on your left nut.
MOSES: That’s not very constructive.
YAH: Then tell them to pay attention. That’s it!
MOSES: What is?
YAH: PAYING ATTENTION! What Adam and Eve had such a hard time with. You know, “the only escape from tautology.” Or solipsism, to look at it from My point-of-view, for once.
MOSES: Come again?
YAH: Bugger off, tablet boy!