Friday, March 9, 2007

Call from the Canyon

Reflections on 21st Century America In the Midst of an Ancient Land

After many seasonal rounds of dwelling in the land of the Navajo Indians - within the physical and spiritual presence of glorious Canyon de Chelly - I have come to understand a few things about myself, our culture and this world.

Living amid the powerful rhythms of nature yet still in touch with the human-formed world, I have come to see with clearer eyes how we stand unsteadily at a critical crossroads in our modern lives.

While having been birthed by Nature, our lives have become increasingly abstracted from it. This mounting estrangement from the basic ground of being surely lies at the root of that gnawing disaffection afflicting so many people in today's world. Henry David Thoreau gave voice to such disenchantment, already endemic in his rapidly-industrializing America of the nineteenth century, with the words: "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Fortunately, here in Native American reality there is a powerful antidote to this collective dis-ease. It continues to vouchsafe the lives of many indigenous peoples, here and worldwide, despite the daunting challenges they face in personal and cultural survival. It derives from the understanding that we are each holographic expressions of Nature - that wherever we may be, we are never apart from its influences, sustenance, lessons and blessings.

The powerful presence of Nature permeates the human being on every level - from the sensed to the most subtle. As such, it is within our power to revitalize our connection with this essential source of inspiration and nurture. This is possible by making a fundamental shift in how we view our place in its movements and greater web of being.

Like the Navajo, we denizens of modernity are ultimately capable of directly benefiting from a relationship with that ineffable wholeness underlying our daily lives - by marrying ourselves to its spirit and creative renewalness all alround us. In the doing we may re-find life-sustaining wisdom and joy, which are rarely encountered anymore in the maelstrom of contemporary life.

The Native American already knows what the "newly-Native American" in us has just begun to perceive: that the infinite vastness we call Nature is an all-living, all-pervasive, all-encompassing state of being, both without and within, and not some object or process from which we are set apart.

The English visionary poet, William Wordsworth understood this Nature as: “a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things/all objects of all thought/and rolls through all things.” Wordsworth's insight was powerfully validated for me by a Hopi Indian poet and friend who, on reading these words for the first time, remarked avidly: "why that's what our spiritual beings, the katsinas, are all about!"

Over the past years I have been fortunate to live amid great natural vitality and indigenous wisdom. I have resided in a ceremonially-consecrated hoghan - the Navajos' "home-sweet-home." An eight-sided log cabin with a conical roof, with a smokehole for a woodstove’s pipe and a stone-covered earthen floor (that is carpet-covered as in a Mongolian yurt), its doorway customarily faces the east and the rising dawn’s light.

Living thusly in the round, facing the dawning, nooning, dusking and darkening of the day with feet on the earth and eyes drawn upward toward the revolving nighttime sky through the skylight, is a profound experience, deeply affecting one's view of the world.

The name, hoghan, reveals its universal significance. Ho refers to the greater environment, the cosmos-at-large, while ghan is a dwelling or home. The hoghan is the terrestrial embodiment of the cosmos in its dynamic state of order and harmony, which the Navajo call hozho, "beauty." As in the Navajo benediction: “in beauty all around me, I dwell,” indeed, I dwell.

Here, by Canyon de Chelly, America’s second largest and most sublime canyon, which has seen well over seven thousand years of human habitation in its ruins and through its rock art, the phrase rings deep and true. As I look out from my doorway onto the beauty of green growth amid red rocks and deep blue sky, I also gaze outward through the mind's inner eye to see even further - over hundreds of miles, over the vast and powerful Colorado Plateau. It spreads beautifully in all directions at the heart of the high southwest.

Still, I'm literally across the road from the works and trappings of "civilization." There, in a well-landscaped lodge and friendly campground, waves of people come from all over the world to pass a few days in quiet awe of the presence and power of Nature.

They look in curiosity at the exotic-looking Navajo, who know implicitly that their flesh, blood, life force and mind are of the very nature of this place. Like the nearby lodge, I too have electricity, internet and telephone service in my dwelling. And, should I want it, cable TV is available on the pole right outside my door. Useful though these amenities can be, they are possessed of a certain irrelevance in the face of the real world and of the perennial ways of living surrounding me.

As I watch the world materialize, as if in slow motion before my eyes, and behold the eternal journey of the sun, moon and stars through the vault of sky, I am constantly reminded of what is real.

“I want what is real/I want what is real/don’t deceive me,” sang an Indian in the face of the 19th century's inexorable European tide. And, despite the omnipresence - even here - of the 21st century, I am beginning to know, to really know, what is real - to see the real in everything.

No words can adequately describe it. They can only hint at the open secret: that one is fully in nature and of the spirit, wherever one may be. And that is the real world.

The reciprocity of the experience of life with the earth, with nature,
with the places where the planet rests, is natural.

And in those places where life is deeply altered,
where the quality of life is directed to other horizons,
nature becomes shy;
not because she has impoverished herself,
not because she has lost herself.
Nature becomes shy because of our lack of care.
Nature becomes shy because of our lack of attention.

When people open their hearts and turn their attention
(not the intellectual attention, but the one of the spirit)
to a sun's ray that crosses the sky and touches the ground,
they are restoring a subtle level of contact with life and nature.
When the heart starts to beat again in unison
with the cycle of the winds, the rain, the moon,
this spiritual reintegration of the man
with the place where he dwells
starts to unveil again
and starts to run vividly
inward and outwardly.

- Ailton Krenak -
Indigenous Brazilian


A. Olson said...


I am warmed by the account of your home there in the Canyon, and the connection it affords you on a daily basis. Today, as I struggled with some of the complexities of our 'modern' world, I am reminded that long ago, as a 12 year old, I designed and built a replica of a round house; my dream house, with the skylight in the center of the roof. Little did I know that I'd designed basically, a hoghan. Your description of the Canyon, and the beauty and power it yields, washed over me with a healing vision. We humans need this kind of connection in our lives. It is life source. Thank you.

A. Olson

Jay River said...

Here is a film clip laced with history from Canyon De Chelly:

It's from a dvd on Edward S. Curtis, which bears on other Indian lands as well.

More info:

ES Curtis Film Clip

The Indian Picture Opera


Amazon link:

The Indian Picture Opera