Monthly Archives: July 2015

Long of the Earth

I have been on a family road/camping trip through the American Southwest the last couple

Rock art near Moab, UT.

Rock art near Moab, UT.

weeks. Throughout I have been consistently amazed at the un-ignorable evidence of those who came before. Ruins and rock art are not hard to find—and not only because contemporary land management in these states makes every effort to preserve and share them with the public—it is because there are literally thousands of them, sprinkled throughout the Colorado Plateau.

Millennia-old wall near New River, AZ.

Millennia-old wall near New River, AZ.

One simply cannot live in these lands and be totally ignorant of the peoples who preceded them.

This is not so much the situation in my native Denver, Colorado, nor of the region where the Songs take place, in eastern Kansas. The pre-historic and pre-European colonization peoples in these short- and tall-grass prairies produced different dwellings and art, which did not survive the tests of time as well. The Kanza, Pawnee, Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne (to name a few) lived in dwellings of hide, wood, mud, and other materials that decay in decades, and their textile, bead, and painted art shared that fate. But the rock dwellings and art of the ancestral Puebloans, Hohokam, Yavapai, Navajo and Hopi has weathered many centuries. Obviously, these societies were using the most sensible resources, and despite vast trade networks and relative settled versus more nomadic tendencies I believe we underestimate and of which we have limited understanding of to this day, conspicuous evidence of their existence varies.

And yet, I believe all these peoples had lasting, if not semi-permanent effects on the lands they once inhabited. (As far as “permanent” goes, for nothing truly is—I was reminded of this last night watching an old family wedding video with my aunt, in which the youth of my grandparents and of those we’ve since lost was painfully clear—we are not long of this earth). Still, something of our lives seems to poke through the barriers of time and mortality. To me, this is part of what magical realism attempts to express; all art, really, including the art of the ancients.

Rock art in Arizona.

Rock art in Arizona.

In the Songs I deal with this in part through characters—both human and inhuman. I think they somehow embody the land and its past, including peoples who have since moved on, either in place or in time. The Kanza, who populated eastern Kansas in the centuries before the novels take place, did indeed leave physical evidence in the form of mounds and some other structures, but they’ve largely faded into memory (often at the hands of amateur “archaeologists” in the 19th century). But their more lasting impact on us is in their stories, creation myths, and contemporary Americans’ stories about them in turn, and the myths we tell ourselves of the West and American history in turn. Any American knows this, feels it—we are somehow the inheritors, at least in part, and certainly not by the free will of our benefactors, of the magic of Native peoples. Without question we destroyed much of what we may have learned, and we pay the price every day. But I believe we imbibed some wisdom, and it is never too late to learn more. The direct ancestors of these tribes, of course, are still with us. Reparations and greater inclusiveness of their cultures would do America well.

But rock walls and just public policy are not what I mean. I mean that when you sit, quietly, mindfully, in the woods or mountains, by rivers or streams, you can feel it—the magic of those who came before. People and animals, the earth itself. its wisdom, teeming within you, within all of us and within all things.

And in this mortality is breached, and we are somehow actually long of the earth.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2015) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

Rocky Mountain Writer Podcast

Hrmfw-bannerad a great time chatting the other day with Mark Stevens about Song, writing, and family. It’s quite flattering to be interviewed by such an accomplished author!

We also spoke about myths in history, and how they relate to current events, such as the recent massacre in South Carolina. A wealth of writers have approached this issue far better than I ever could, one excellent editorial concluding, “A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.” I’m afraid this does seem true to me; I remember teaching a high school class some years ago, and somehow a conversation led to the Civil War, and somehow I learned the students not only had no idea in what century it was fought, but didn’t even know the combatants, much less the underlying causes. For a nation that was supposedly forged by this war to do such a poor job of educating its children about it in a few generations means something is rotten in the state(s).

Another editorial puts it best: we are confused about the Civil War and meaning of the Confederate Flag “not because the history is unclear, but because neo-Confederates still wielded considerable influence in our culture and our Congress…” The history is indeed very clear: Lincoln’s platform to stop the expansion of slavery and intimations that slavery must someday end altogether (think “a house divided”) was all it took for South Carolina to succeed. The war was about slavery. And indeed, inheritors of Confederate power structures remain in power today, and we have since engaged in 150 years of apologist history that has obfuscated the causes for which so many died.  And that only serves to undermine our own culture and its future.

But the myths don’t stop there. Even when we do get the history right–and say that slavery was the root of the Civil War–we simplify it to extents that make it impossible for us to empathize, and thereby, impossible to see ignorance in ourselves. The narrative I grew up with, as a Westerner, portrayed Northers as somehow enlightened, compassionate beings wiling to sacrifice their lives for the good of fellow humans; and Southerners as horrible monsters. In some cases these reputations are certainly deserved. But the truth is most white Americans in the 19th century were very racist, and there comparatively few actual slave-holders. Even fewer believed in the equality of races, or of genders–and most were willing to fight because they felt their homes, families, property, and other interests were somehow threatened. Yes, many fought and died because they could not longer stand for a system so brutal, and they should be lauded for this. But they were also, oftentimes, in it for themselves; not so much for actual equality under the eyes of the law.

I do not intend that as a criticism, necessarily. Selfishness is human. Humans are selfish. I believe it is in this that history, and historical fiction, can help make the world a better place–in helping us empathize with previous generations and historical figures so we may attain greater understanding of our own motivations. To say to ourselves, “it wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights,” blinds us to the fact that slavery was a huge part of American society and it still has enormous impacts on us. But it is also blind to say to ourselves, “the South were slave-holding racists, the North were enlightened liberators.” It localizes the blame. It fails to recognize that all white Americans bear the inheritance of that horrible past. Maybe not in equal measure, but certainly, it is something of an original sin for which must all seek absolution.

If we can get this part of history right, then, I believe, we can take that next step and empathize. How did American slavery come into being in the first place? How and why did it exist for so long after much of the rest of the world had long since decided it was detestable? Why was it only abolished through war, and, could there have been more peaceful ways of eliminating it? What political structures, economic incentives, or enlightened leaders, would have been needed for a diplomatic solution? When we ask ourselves those questions, and see 19th century Americans as human beings, we are able to uncover greater realities about them, and about us. We see how their views on race, gender, religion, honor, power, and justice–how their base feeling of fear and love and sacrifice–all worked intricately together to create a strong rationalization of something terrible.

And then we can ask ourselves: are we too rationalizing any injustices? Are we telling ourselves any myths so we can justify something we shouldn’t? Do our notions of ourselves, and one another; of God and Justice and Truth, Good and Evil; of wealth and patriotism, globalization and the environment; inhibit our ability to find love and compassion?

Myths and symbols can be strong conveyors of universal truths. But they can also delude and blind us not only from historical fact, but present-day fact, and hamper our ability to build a just future.

Because the real horror lies in the fact that evil people do not do these things. People do these things. Just…people.