Monday, November 30, 2015

From Mornings in a Cabin in the La Sal Mountains

The La Sals are one of a set of compact mountain ranges in southeastern Utah.  I'd always thought they were named because some of the snow-covered, volcanic peaks looked like they'd been dusted with salt.  However, the Escalante Expedition named them for the salty springs they discovered at the base.  The mountains are high for this part of the world, Mount Peel is 12,721 feet and the range, though relatively small, is rich with surprising glens and juniper forest.  The mountains also support populations of cougars and black bears.  I've been in a cabin in one of the deeper glens the last few days which included a highly localized but relatively heavy snow storm.  In the evenings I had the opportunity to finish Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places.  It's the kind of book that reads well in a high, remote place.  Much of it is formal anthropology and ethnography yet it's also the kind of book that implicitly asks you to look at your own life, culture and personal pursuits from a different kind of high and remote place.

As I first mentioned some months ago, Basso's narrative - I think I prefer the word "story" in this context and will use it in the sequel. One should not infer a loss of precision or objectivity from this choice of diction, quite the opposite - Basso's story, then, begins as a hunt to map Apache place names near Cibeque, Arizona, but becomes so much more, a cultural map of the creation and uses of stories in Apache culture and how they are associated with unique and particular places.  Hunting is a seminal metaphor for them.  Telling a story can be "shooting an arrow" at someone.  Places, (and implicitly the specific stories associated with them) can be said to be "stalking" someone.  Yet, for all that, their purpose is not aggressive, or antagonistic but rather to facilitate respectful communication, help the listener develop wisdom, weather a period of personal difficulty or develop perspective.  A place can become so identified with a story that it can serve as a short hand for telling the story.  In one remarkable section, Basso, formally reports the conversation of some Apache women, one of whom is distressed over the hospitalization of her brother, which, initially, is totally opaque.  The short conversation consists of each woman naming a particular place, followed by an appellation suggesting it's importance.  At first reading it seems like a nonsensical exchange of static non-sequiturs, something mischievously devised by a very dry-witted Apache Lewis Carroll.  However, it is nothing of the sort.  Each of the particular places mentioned has a story associated with it and by naming those places, each speaker is respectfully encouraging the distressed woman to call the story to her imagination and consider its pertinence to her particular situation.  As a result, she is comforted, strengthened and gains perspective.  Her short, apparently casual and mildly comic comment to a dog sitting in the sun nearby at the conclusion of the short conversation is validation that the conversation has been successful.  Such a short, formal exchange, is known as "speaking in places."

The book concludes with an exploration of the Apache concept of wisdom which is remarkably concrete and pragmatic.  One step in achieving it is schooling one’s intuition in the stories of such places.  At the heart of Basso’s book is the unspoken question of how our minds understand place and, perhaps, given the particular architecture of our intelligence, how our ability to associate story, emotion, perception with individual places can best be used for our and our culture’s greater good.

Modern life is flooded with narratives of all kinds.  Recent events in Paris are, among many other things, a grim reminder of how important it is to consciously and conscientiously make culture well.  The modern liberal tradition eschews canonical texts for all, yet the cruelty and alienation of the perpetrators of terrorism is nothing if not proof of the need for commonly known, life-shaping stories affirming basic values, such as respect for human life, independent of religion or creed and perhaps unchanging, physical reminders, i.e. natural places, bound to those stories.

One morning, after a snow storm that wasn’t forecast, our family descended to visit Arches and explore one of our favorite natural labyrinths, “The Fiery Furnace.”  As we were uncovering the cars, one of the members of our little expedition noted that “only fools forecast mountain weather.”  It’s an aphorism I quite like.  As for the Fiery Furnace itself, the snow had only dusted the high sandstone fins and narrow passages so that we had all the aesthetic benefits of snow with little additional danger or difficulty.  The walk and scramble through the maze was, perhaps, more fun than I remembered.  For decades it’s been a minor rite of passage in our family to learn the way through though it’s an accomplishment less appreciated these days.  No doubt there are numbers of photo documented maps instantly available on the web, though I haven’t looked.  I’m not in the least surprised that the Fiery Furnace Minotaur with his terrible sandstone colored bull’s head and hunger for sacrificial human flesh is, perhaps, glimpsed less often these days.

When I was a child my grandmother used to read the Greek myths to me as bedtime stories.  The mountain just east of where I lived was and still is named “Mount Olympus” and I naturally conflated it with the more famous promontory in Thessaly.  I completely believed the stories, in part because they were associated with a real place I could see.  Theseus and the Minotaur was a particular favorite, that, somewhat like the Fiery Furnace, has only improved with time.  The story of a hero who undertakes to fight a monstrous creature while lost in an unknowable maze with only his intelligence, a sword and a thread to guide him in order to save 12 innocents is, perhaps, one of those stories all should have at heart.

I feel like Basso’s book has given my intellect a good shaking and given me some new intellectual tools and perspectives.  As I return to Thomas Malory, I’m curious to see what effect it has on my view of Le Morte d’Arthur and the period of it’s probable composition.  Most certainly, I’ll be looking at Armstong and Hodges’ book Mapping Malory from a new critical perspective.

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