Talking to the Ground
Simon & Schuster, $24
Cathedrals of the Spirit
T. C. McLuhan
Harper Perennial, $20
There are many ways to look at a landscape. Where a rancher sees rangeland for livestock, the environmentalist may see ravaged nature in need of preservation. A landscape tells different stories to different people, and what we see may say as much about us as about the earth. Much of what we see and read about our landscape, these days, reflects a growing uneasiness about how we live and how we use the earth. The media take us from one natural disaster to the next; scientists debate the meaning of the ozone hole and global warming; endangered species such as the spotted owl cause schisms that rival those of the medieval church.
Two recent books, however, offer a very different perspective: in exploring the sacred nature of landscape, they offer a chance to refresh our own spirit. In Talking to the Ground, Douglas Preston leads us on horseback across the sacred land of the Navajos, in some of the remotest parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Preston is accompanied by his fiancée and her 9-year-old daughter; this book is as much about the creation of their new family as about the land and legends of the Navajo creation story.
While Preston roams mountains and deserts, T. C. McLuhan, in her Cathedrals of the Spirit, takes refuge in the vast resources of the New York Public Library, from which she has extracted a remarkable collection of words about sacred places, ancient and modern, from many cultures and many parts of the world. By different routes, both Preston and McLuhan take us to places where the landscape is a state of mind.
Preston has ridden across remote parts of the Southwest before, and has written about his trips in Smithsonian and in previous books. For this journey, he decided to retrace the steps of a Navajo god, Monster Slayer, who cleared the earth of alien gods and gave the Navajos a homeland where they could live in harmony and beauty. The path of Monster Slayer is marked by sacred mountain peaks, mesas, springs, canyons and caves that are the petrified remains of his battlegrounds and defeated foes. Thus to the Navajos the land is the story of their life.
In Navajo legend, it was First Man and First Woman who embellished the land Monster Slayer had given them, by creating the sun and the moon, and raising the sky to rest on the peaks of their four sacred mountains. Then they laid out bits of mica on a blanket, and First Man began carefully placing them in the night sky to create the stars. But Coyote became impatient, flung the blanket skyward and blew: the stars flew upward and stuck all over the sky in a haphazard fashion. Some of the stars fell back to earth and became a cluster of buttes, which are today called the Sonsela (Stars Strung Out) Buttes lying across the border of Arizona and New Mexico in the Chuska Mountains.
Along with its legends, the history of this land is written in ruins, the pueblos of Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, and other settlements of the Navajos' predecessors here, the Anasazi.
At Chaco Canyon, around a.d. 950, the Anasazi built the magnificent Pueblo Bonito, four stories high with 650 rooms. According to one archaeologist, it was not equaled on this continent until 1882, when the Spanish Flats apartment building was erected at the corner of 59th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. But in building their society, the Anasazi clear-cut forests, over-irrigated and over-farmed their land, depleted the wildlife and in general indulged in the illusion that they had gained control over nature.
According to the Navajos, the Anasazi civilization disappeared because the people turned to witchcraft, thereby growing out of harmony with nature and offending the gods, which is also how the Navajos view contemporary white civilization. As Preston explains, when the traditional Navajos look on our great works they see ski resorts, logging roads and toxic waste dumps being placed on or about the four sacred mountains. They see the white man doing what the Anasazi did.