Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Four-Cornered Falcon by Reg Saner - Excerpts

The Four-Cornered Falcon: Essays on the Interior West and the Natural Scene. Reg Saner. 1994. ISBN 1-56836-049-5


The journal was private, and yet – like all journals – it secretly hoped for a reader.

Western terrain had long stirred in me a fairly passionate impulse to witness. There were also abiding curiosities that had wanted satisfying. That meant going to look. In turn, that meant taking time which – or so my conscience kept hinting – should’ve been spent on less grandiose enterprises than trying to see what I was part of. On the other hand, a lifetime has always seemed too rare, too surreal an opportunity to throw away on success.

A ravenous hawk; a slightly ludicrous bag of fat fur. Appetites that have learned how to repeat themselves. To what end? None that any living creature – now or to come – ever will know. To be. Each to do its kind.

We survive by not believing what we know. Is that because our unconscious knows something truer than fact? Maybe it knows that what we most admire can’t die, including the best of ourselves – which we don’t invent, merely inherit or borrow. And which, like the world, is nobody’s possession.

Daily dutiful habit is our way of keeping possibilities small.

When we take a person into our memory his dying doesn’t in any way evict him.

I’m here now perhaps because as a Midwestern boy I’d have loved it but couldn’t. Had no idea. By just hiking here I amaze him.

Heady pine-scent from trees leading the hardest of lives makes me wonder why so much of humanity’s smell is sorrow.

We admire wild places because their forests and mountains meet us as exactly what they meant to be; blessedly forlorn, among many strange ways in which the world keeps its promise.

Sharp as a blade, distant skyline meets the eye through miles of thin air. I listen. A soundlessness whose smallest effect is awe; hermetically pure, a speaking stillness. Like good composers, mountains never play the same silence twice.

Strange – this nostalgia for ourselves as inanimate mater, of which my brain consists, enlivened for a while by some solar quirk.

Against one’s own brain, what defense comes to more than a shrug?

Any “This, Here, Now” so entirely taken with being exactly itself can’t help arresting a lone skier, just as any mind that arrives there takes one look and stops mumbling. Stops cluttering itself with thoughts. Hasn’t a name, isn’t anyone. Becomes what it hears: mountain snowfall in which silence ripens.

Why should raw bigness summon the deepest, oldest feelings we life forms can have? Perhaps by the very size of indifference. Because mountains scorn the astonishments they give rise to, because they pretend to live entirely within the limits of the visible, because they despise our memories, we respect the hugeness of their refusal to confide. Which awes us.

Among fellow humans we’re merely superfluous at best; at worst, part of the competition. But winter mountains enlarge the needle’s eye of our tiny brains and their labyrinthine trivialities. Thanks to the rude unity of winter’s fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, we feel our insignificance expand like a strange prestige – which makes being alive a kind of magic, easy as being not quite real. Small wonder that wherever terrain permits, primitives go around filling their habits with mountain gods.

“Where are our sacred places?” None natural, I think, none untouched. Instead, all human-centered; a battle, a birthplace, a document. Well and good, as far as humankind goes. But where not one natural space is held sacred, what gods will be found?

… in humankind’s continuous heart the impulse to sow the landscape with gods may be our one oldest urge.

“Daily you have to pump gods back into the scenery; so you can breathe. You can’t breathe just scrub woodlands and yucca and cactus and rock.”

From juniper, as from many another life that water takes on in deserts, I learn the trick of surviving even technology: “Be a tree not worth cutting down.”

Meanwhile I tried very hard to learn every which way a Douglas fir might grow that a white fir couldn’t mimic. And vice versa. It was a process teaching me how much of what we call eyesight is wanting to see. Small wonder that, cytologically speaking, retinal tissue and brain tissue are cousins. Eyes seem to be the mind leaning forward.

Worldwide, in fact, various myths reflect the feeling that a thing can’t fully and properly exist without its name.

More important perhaps than a name’s cover-up of details is its blurring of the fact that each thing is really an event, thus a confluence of forces still in motion; forces traceable – if we’ve time to reflect that far – back toward the time our solar system was fog, the sun not yet resolved to a focus with hydrogen fusion at heart. To see beyond language may be to receive flashes of a luminous whole; to feel an obsidian chip, for example, change into its molten past or vaporized forever even as the sperm and egg we once were stoop to pick it up.

Fear is often the threshold of knowledge, but the rate at which our species dares to know itself seems brachiopodally slow.

The ruckus we kicked up over being blood cousins to apes and monkeys was the strident denial of a six-year-old whose playmates have just told him how babies are really made.

… the truth: nature as one self-sufficient machine where anything that can die is called “life”, and ourselves the losses we agree to live out. It’s as if the atmosphere suddenly vanished. Without a vapor of illusion to absorb its lethal radiations, the sun pours down a ruthless clarity denying everything I’d like to be true.

Desert canyons at night are anything but voiceless. Yet peaceful, supremely. In such canyons your own presence can feel like the human race down to one person – which is to exist more actually than any other way I know.

An even greater poverty than seeing “mystery” where there is none might be not seeing it where there is.

… the more carefully I look at specific conifers, the less apt to their individualities become syllables like “spruce” or “pine” or “fir”.

As children we wondered, “What am I doing? And why am I doing it here?” We couldn’t guess, then, how wide these questions were, or that merely to ask them was to be more than merely ourselves.

Thus on a peak whose shattered granite is indeed blunt as ruin, I clamber around gazing off into all points of the compass, then lunch with no other company than the stones’ rude stares – their way of asking, “Why breathe? Why bother? Why come?” … Proud of their mindless immortalities – compared with anything married to oxygen – the massive slabs seem bored with human pretensions.

Unfortunately, the very adaptability that made us human may be our most lethal gift. Our shifty species is supple enough to call anything “home sweet home”, no matter how befouled. Thus adaptability, having made Homo sapiens boss of all vertebrates, may undo us. What blight can’t we get used to, project ourselves into, and love? Our progeny will call desolation “nature” if that’s all they’ve known.

A deer god? “How could an animal the Anasazi killed and ate be a deity?” A few generations ago this seemed credulity fit only for primitives; and seemed especially so to high-toned Christian people who killed their god very year on Good Friday, then ate him.

Vaguely we sense that those ruins are related not only to us but also to what we’re doing here, and have been doing for days: trying to see the life now passing through us, as it has through those who once lived.

… that’s the High Southwest. Colored distances like nowhere else I know, unbroken by any made thing. And skies that change you to a person worth being there.

The question every victim asks of its destroyer is “Why?” The answer varies endlessly yet is always the same, “Because I can.” Pollution: a display of power. Negligence: disregard of what’s sacred; refusal to connect one thing with another.

Our grand Western spaces are, instead, an empty plentitude. On the thoughtful person they confer depths beyond any thing humans can ever put there. The middle of nowhere is a power, a moving unity of spirit in us, one that habitation can only break up, never enhance.

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The Four-Cornered Falcon: Essays on the Interior West and the Natural Scene (Kodansha Globe)

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