Reaching Keet Seel: Ruin’s Echo and the Anasazi. Reg Saner. 1998. ISBN 0874805538
Over more than a dozen summers, with an occasional autumn thrown in, I have fed my pleasure on the ruins, the canyons and mesas of this book, as other work permitted. “Points along the way” were both places and stops toward answering two deceptively simple questions: “Why do I find these things so strangely moving?” and “What are they trying to tell us?”
If biblical minds agreed on one thing, it was that desert is demonic. To efface it utterly was to praise the Lord.
Odd that in this universe where maybe nothing is divine except what’s missing, our last few desert places seem profoundly blessed by what isn’t there. We now feel that truly to bring forth the fruit of such terrain is to agree that its silence and space are unimprovable. We say so any time we answer its hush with an attentive stillness, one wide and deep as respect.
Even assuming that religious emotions are indeed illusory, is human life possible without them? Their impulses seem so universal as to be innate, as if encoded genetically. Are they evolution’s protection against what evolution itself has created, reason’s analytical habit?
Any sacred building’s layout and symbols offer alignment, orientation. They give directions without saying a word.
Christianity, especially, identifies the sacred with “good,” whereas ancient Greeks and Pueblos – to cite parallel extremes – conceived the sacred in ways making “good” irrelevant, even absurd.
By projecting a secularized sacrality onto nature as a sort of benign whiff exuded from forests, vernal woods, or whitewater streams, we may forget that sacred power is traditionally grounded in the supernatural, whereas, and by definition, nature is natural. Yet a Hope leader could say, “The Hopi land is the Hopi religion,” because to Pueblos nature is never only natural.
All the same, though “bleak” should name my mood, it doesn’t. “Emptiness,” yes, and one I’m well content to sit quietly filled with. Its slight sadness feels like wisdom, as if that’s what I, too, had come to Chaco for.
No lands feel more desolate than those of the Hopi, no religion more beautiful or complex. That very desolation must have begotten such beauty and complexity. Encircled by utter indifference in every empty direction, you could feel yourself the least of beings, the merest speck; or you could sense yourself as the focus of spirits and sacred powers – without ceasing, however, to realize that in such vastitudes everyone’s daily affairs hither and yon around your tiny pueblo count for no more than the trickles of ant people busily seething round their anthill.
… is the sacred really self-love echoed back to sound like a call? A circular transaction? For me, its “place” exists anytime we stand at a center, the center of a moment: our own widest awareness of, and agreement to be, who and where we are.
Haven’t the gods always been made of our own limitations? No god has qualities a human wouldn’t find useful.
For most of humankind, wonders merely natural aren’t quite enough – as if our species sorely needs religious emotion to restore what analytical reason makes away with.
There are places you go, simply to be there. In the old days, such going toward was called pilgrimage.
Just as we living ones need the dead to remember us and help us with our lives, the gods rely on us mortals to sustain them.
If you believe there’s such a thing as desecration, you believe in the sacred.
Lots of rock, lots of sand, lots of wind, and very little rain can make juniper stands growing there, at the far end of possibility, an outpost of marginalized eccentrics.
There amid the deranged and violent I also discovered “good” trees battening on the same rimrock; witnessed all the living optimism, all the hurt joy that can scuffle upward out of such rock and suffer openly. In wresting a living from limestone’s long famines of rain, they must sometimes have felt that enduring there was next to impossible, but endure they had.
Mountains echo whatever you tell them, but desert space is always a listener, its only voice a quiet so unbroken it hushes you, thereby making you fit to enter.
Primitive? Yes, but wouldn’t it feel good to regress, to live among townsfolk where nobody had a job? Where instead of jobs, everybody has a life, and every life a clear purpose?
… an escape from self, the “me”. From the incessantly mumbling, grumbling, scheming, blithering first-person singular. It’s a brief but soothing release.
As for a New Mexico, Arizona, or Utah evening, your mood there can invest time’s barest necessities with an allure so narcotic you feel on the verge of understanding things no one will ever understand.
Questing toward some imagined Grand Happiness, we find it rarely if ever; meanwhile, a few blessed moments find us. They’re not anything we’d know how to look for. Besides, that’s not how it works. The blessed moments aren’t targetable. They just happen. Years later, merely recollecting them can summon us back to our best selves, but only if when they come, we’re not too busy to see them for what they are.
If you live long enough, you begin having days when it seems you may actually be getting some sense. How to act, how to see, what to care about. What truly matters.
Now comes the twist that makes endless questing for knowledge problematic. We assume that to know what, where, and why we are is a good thing. Is it? When ignorance is bliss, the proverb reminds us, “tis folly to be wise.” Despite such sayings, don’t we claim to follow “truth” wherever it leads? Or is that only a flattering mirage?
Even at a standstill you can feel it inside you: the road as verge, as threshold, making “destination” a mere pretext for the real business of going to meet it.
But for many of us four-wheeled, non-Native Americans, isn’t it true that our “center” and best mode of being is motion? Whose aim is less a place than simply the horizon.
A people who’ve survived desert conditions for ages are realists. You haven’t a choice. In desert, you become either a realist or a set of bleached bones. Paradoxically, you also come into kinship with a world of realities they eye has not seen …