19 April 2010

A Sense of Place

I slowly climb the steep slope through the chaparral, picking my way carefully between the wait-a-bit thorns of the catclaw and the black spines of the agave, both tenaciously gripping the sparse and shallow soil in the open areas between the trunks of the Ponderosa pines. My boots are no match for them anymore, the heavy soles worn paper-thin and tied crudely to the tattered uppers with scraps of parachute cord. The thin air on the Mogollon is already warm in the late morning, the sun bright, high, and hot, reflecting off the south-facing outcrop back into my face like a heat lamp.

And then I notice something out of place. Uphill and 30 feet ahead of me on the sandstone lies a small piece of chert, its snowy whiteness a geologic error against the green and brown pine needles and the buff slickrock. The thick limestone a few hundred feet below me is full of chert nodules and lenses, but uphill from this sandstone is nothing but basalt and the clear blue sky. The chert is unnatural in this Place. There is no reason for it to be here.

I walk over to the chert and pick it up. And then I understand. It’s not a nodule after all. In my hand is a stone knife, a Neolithic scraper with a flaked edge the radius of an old silver dollar, and a carefully napped hilt. As I turn it in my hand, my thumb slides naturally into a larger percussion hollow, and then the knife slips into place, a perfect fit between my fingers, the first hand to hold it for centuries.

He was right-handed, too, I think to myself.

And I look up from the knife, and then the shapes shift, the light changes, and present time melts away in anticipation of the Visitor. I am in the same Place, but a different Time, one no longer bound by the small cutpoints marking the beginning and end of my own life. I share a moment out-of-time with a man dead for a thousand years, and see the world simultaneously through both his eyes and my own. The Ponderosas we stand under are the same, the clean brown sandstone and the Manzanita chaparral are the same, the view of sixty miles of open country to the south is the same. But it is a sameness shared across a gap of many lifetimes. The sameness attests to a shared experience of this Place, this little clearing, unchanged between the moment one passed by and misplaced a tool, and a different moment another passed by and picked it up.

The sense of timelessness passes on, and once again I am left alone in my own Place, in my own Time. I slip the stone knife into my frayed canvas belt pouch and continue uphill towards the basalt flows. Hours later I will discover that my rock hammer is missing, the steel ring in my belt empty. Instead, in my pouch is a stone knife, a trade I have made with the guardians of Time, a piece of his Place exchanged for a piece of mine, two hands reaching through the portal in opposite directions, making contact.

I’m occasionally granted a sense of place in this way, a privilege to see things, or at least to suddenly understand them in a way that is so clear that it becomes sensory. Usually the moments arrive in the form of a recognition, a sudden sense of the world that has always existed just beyond my understanding, just beyond a curtain. The Visits are usually in the form of a consciousness of a larger cosmos, the awareness of an actor observing himself on the stage, of footfalls fording a braided stream of places, events, lives, and deaths.

I think that the key isn’t so much in any particular knowledge as it is in a receptivity, a readiness to step out of one’s own time and see with different eyes, to hear with different ears. It can happen to anyone, and I read of the same experience that I have in the lives of others. The universe tells its stories to anyone who will take the time and trouble to listen. But so often we just don’t take that time and trouble, we’re just never ready, or we’re too busy to notice the Visitor.

In another Place, at another Time, I sit down on the dry grasses atop a little hill overlooking the creek bed and pull out my lunch of oaten cakes and cheese. My hands are still oily from the tetracycline patties I have just rolled into two truckloads of beehives, sitting in 30 neat clumps of four down in the tarweed and bluecurls below me, tiny children’s blocks from this elevation. The thinly-grassed hills to either side descend smoothly into the flat valley floor and disappear sleepily beneath the sediment, but the stream bed cuts a vertical-sided arroyo that wrenches from side to side, gouging a trench across the valley floor steep enough to break a cow’s leg. It’s not stable, I think, it doesn’t fit here. This topography is depositional, but the stream erodes. There’s no reason for this little prairie to be like this, I think to myself, not for the first time.

And then the shapes shift, the light changes, and again, present time melts away, and the Visitor returns. I look down the valley and see the same Place, but in a different Time. As I watch, the bright yellow tarweeds transform into thick grasses, and clumps of cattails appear. Water appears, the dry arroyo narrows to a clean and flowing rivulet, following a meandering course through the valley, overgrown to the sides with overhanging vegetation. The bare hillsides to either side suddenly sprout young pines, which rise to become forests. I no longer view a dry valley from the 20th century, but instead see an Ice Age landscape from a hilltop of another Time.

It was a cienega, I think to myself. Of course.

The secret of the valley is clear to me now. In the presence of the Visitor, the eroded and gullied valley now tells a story of deposition, of clear-flowing creeks bringing rich soils and minerals from the glaucophane hills above down into the floor with every rain, slowly burying the ever-rising marsh, home of sloths and elk, voles and jumping mice, food for the foxes, wolves, and bear.

Again, I am granted a vision of continuity, a sense of Place and of Time, of my own role as a player in a small scene within an eternally unrolling tapestry, a piece of an immense canvas, one much older, but much younger than myself. I see my own story of wintering my bees here in the tarweed as one chapter of many taking place in this valley, not the first, and not to be the last. The lush Pleistocene valley is written in the meandering stream course, in the thick alluvium, while the hot and dry desert of present time is disclosed by the dry hills, by the vertical stream banks, and the excavation of the rich sediment from another Time, in this same Place. For a little while I see both lifetimes of this Place, and then, as always, the sense of timelessness recedes into shadows again. After a little while, I stand to finish my work among the bees.

Elsewhere, in another Place, at another Time, I lie on my back on the weathered clay and gravel, gazing into the scattered blue light of the sky, the familiar tiny flecks of light wiggling across my field of vision, the countless scintilla that no ophthalmologist has ever been able to explain. Beyond this small mystery in my vision ride the greater mysteries above me, the moon one day past new, a narrow white smile pasted high into the sky, and the sun setting yellow and cheerfully over the mountains in the cool spring evening. I lie on the clay, oriented north and south, and visualize the arc of the sun’s path as it rises on my right and curves to the left, followed a few hours later by the waxing moon. The bodies are unmysterious, as well known to me as the robin that sings in the nearby junipers, amiable companions on my journey through this life, often present, but seldom consciously observed or even thought about.

And then the shapes shift, the light changes, and again, present time melts away in anticipation of the Visitor. The ground heaves under the great circle beneath my back, rotates through a quarter, and reappears as an immense planetary body in a strange and unfamiliar form. I adhere to the vertical side of a slowly spinning sphere, an immeasurably small mote clinging to a colossal ball of heavy metals, aluminosilicates, and gases, itself only transiently held together by the same forces that pin me to its surface. My point of view wheels up and through the atmosphere, and the blue sky fades to the deep black of hard light in the airlessness above.

The flat crescent moon grows in my vision and fills out into another sphere, the reflected light from behind me resolving the complete body in shades of cratered brown and black, illuminated harshly sunward and dimly by earth and starlight on its other half, clearly visible to me now. Against the darkness, the sun hangs in flames at the center of the enormous cosmic dance, tiny balls of heavy elements like the one clutching at my back whirling in huge ellipses around its vastly greater center of mass. Without pause, my vision races farther out still, until the sun and its system of satellites shrink to a miniscule orrery within a seemingly limitless universe composed of countless other systems, some smaller, some larger, but adding up by the thousands, by millions, of suns, and planets, and then of galaxies. And close at hand the stars hang in the Heavens, their fusion furnaces blazing in ecstasy. I see the candles of the Lord sing together, the sons of God shout for joy, in celebration of the beauty and wonder of Creation, the messengers hurtling outwards at immense speed with the good news.

And as quickly as I ascended, I am thrown back to the surface of the earth, the gravel again sharp against my back as the blue curtain of the sky is drawn over the black and infinite Heavens. The stars recede into the distance, and the song of the robin returns. Above me the smiling moon still serenely trails the sun towards the sunset, drawing the terminator ever closer, the edge of darkness that trails the Light.

A sense of Place is a humbling thing, but not humbling in any way that implies diminution, of a loss of value or purpose. The Visits come and go at their own schedule and their own purposes, but are always meaningful, always instructive. For me, the visitations provide a context, a view of who and what I am that enables me to become more fully attuned to my own role in the cosmic dance, a more sensitive participant, one more deeply aware of my assigned steps. And one day, of course, the Visitor will return, and take me away with it when it goes. I have no fear of that day, for nothing in its arrivals or departures hints of animosity or indifference. Instead, the lessons are personal gifts—generous and welcoming previews of a greater and deeper sense of place that one day won’t fade and retreat, but will remain with me forever.


Michelle-ozark crafter said...

That, my friend, was a very wonderful post to read. i did so enjoy it! God bless you and yours!

kevin roberts said...

Hello Michelle!

Those three events were fifteen years apart, the last one three days ago. The moon is in first quarter, now.

Take care

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