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