Essays and Articles

Under the Stars

ImageAs a child I remember seeing a mano and a metate, a dark metamorphic rock quern (grind stone),  near the back door of my grandfather’s home. When he replaced the dirt-floored cabin where my mother was born with a more solid brick house, he was still on the fringes of the American West. I remember hearing stories of how my mother, as a young girl, interrupted transient Navajo laborers as they attempted to casually “share” the goods of a neighbor who was not home. My mother’s presence scared off the would-be thieves before they were able to steal anything. Of course, during the Depression, the only thing there was to steal was food. These stories were always made more real when I saw the grind stone by my grandparents’ backdoor.

Later in life when I lived in Italy, people used to ask me about my native country. I began to realize how very little I really understood about the pre-Columbian times in America and how one-sided many of the black-and-white Saturday morning television programs I had seen as a child had been. For example, the John Wayne hero movie, Fort Apache, was filmed around the Kayenta area (with the great standing mittens of Monument Valley). Today this area is part of the Navajo Reservation near the Four Corners, the common boundary between Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Except for the scenes in this movie, I have never heard of Apaches living this far north.

As a child I remember seeing a mano and a metate, a dark metamorphic rock quern (grind stone), near the back door of my grandfather’s home. When he replaced the dirt-floored cabin where my mother was born with a more solid brick house, he was still on the fringes of the American West. I remember hearing stories of how my mother, as a young girl, interrupted transient Navajo laborers as they attempted to casually “share” the goods of a neighbor who was not home. My mother’s presence scared off the would-be thieves before they were able to steal anything. Of course, during the Depression, the only thing to steal was food. These stories were always made more real when I saw the grind stone by my grandparents’ backdoor.

Later in life when I lived in Italy, people used to ask me about my native country. I began to realize how very little I really understood about the pre-Columbian times in America and how one-sided many of the black-and-white Saturday morning television programs I had seen as a child had been. For example, the John Wayne hero movie, Fort Apache, was filmed around the Kayenta area (with the great standing mittens of Monument Valley). Today this area is part of the Navajo Reservation near the Four Corners, the common boundary between Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Except for the scenes in this movie, I have never heard of Apaches living this far north. My parents honeymooned in Bryce Canyon during the blizzard of early 1949. My father loved red rocks. While snowed-in, my parents found novel methods of keeping warm. That’s how I got here. Thus, I have always thought that the remote Americana of this region was in my blood and a fundamental part of my heritage. Later in life, I hiked, backpacked, and camped in these red-rocked lands and gained some insight into the difficulties that the native peoples faced just to find and move water. City slickers today just turn on a tap, and out it comes. But back in these remote lands, even today, every drop is precious. Natives to this region would never let the water run while brushing their teeth. To get hot water, one would never pour gallons down the drain until it got warm. Conservation is a way of life that seeps into the soul of people who are more connected to the land.

People living in this region have gained immense practical local knowledge. The more time I spent in this part of the world, the more I realized that there is much more to know. I learned where to set up a tent in the wet season, which was usually in the summer when the torrents of rain could have swept you away in a flash. I learned not to site a tent on top of a hill because the lightning there is powerful and appears to have its own life; a Native American Zeus incarnate.

My contemplations of early Native Americans are rooted in these experiences that are now a bit distant from my daily life. When I think about the religions and all of the mythology of early man and how it is related to the constellations, I remember fondly how many sleepless nights I spent watching the stars shine overhead. If my visits into red rock regions were timed correctly, say in August, I might even see the Perseid meteor showers, or what my dad called “shooting stars,” raining from the constellation Perseus. Wow! What a show overhead. Back in the city, however, it is easy to lose sight of the stars; they are eclipsed by the bright lights and reflective distractions of city life. It is far too easy to forget the beauty and wonder that glows overhead while driving on the freeway talking on a cell phone. For those lucky enough to have lived before electricity, the cosmos was the big show, the main event. And just as my daughter today knows every episode of Gilmore Girls, ancient man knew every constellation and every stellar movement. Man created personalities and stories about all natural elements around him just as we do now when we carry on conversations with our cat or dog.

ImageI try to remember that some of my most peaceful moments have been those spent isolated from the built environment that I helped to construct. When out in remote areas for a while, your eyes naturally begin to focus on the cloud movements. After a little bit longer, your nose, believe it or not, may even be able to sense water, a joyous and singular smell. Dirt becomes a perfume. What you normally value may seem less important while simple things start to take on a great life. A small camp fire, the black void, and billions of interstellar beauties overhead shaped a new meaning to life. It takes very little imagination to understand that the sky cultivated man’s spiritual need to return to the heavens.

My European friends did me a great favor asking of my American past, and I wonderfully have much to learn. In an increasingly crowded Southern California area, conservation, understanding, and protection of our desert environment are concepts that get lost in abundant supplies of imported water. Meanwhile, coal-fired and oil-fired electricity has become more important than ever. A civilization, called the Anasazi, lived in a distant desert in a time before the Navajo. The Anasazi built wonderful places, but then abandoned their dwellings in the early thirteenth century. Specialists suspect that the Anasazi civilization failed because they overextended their demands on the land amid a climatic shift. Today, we are over taxing the land, and the climate is certainly changing, either naturally or with man’s help. We must learn from the past, and hopefully not become relics of the past lingering beside a door. Perhaps we could each use a few nights taking in the beauty of the stars in a more remote area where the sky still shines brighter than streetlights.

A personal view by Donald Gardner

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