Review of ‘Talking to the Ground and Cathedrals of the Spirit’

Talking to the Ground
Douglas Preston
Simon & Schuster

Cathedrals of the Spirit
T. C. McLuhan
Harper Perennial

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.

Preston's trail companions, his fiancée, Christine, and her daughter, Selene, give this book a sense of intimacy that makes the landscape seem more real. As the trio heads back out of Navajo country, riding toward home, there is this exchange:

"'I can hardly remember what it's like to live a normal life anymore,' Selene says.

"'It's like we're starting life over again,' Christine said. 'On a new planet.'

"'Let's call it Selene's planet,' Selene says. 'Where everything is magical, and ghosts and witches exist but aren't mean, and there are dark forests and beautiful streams and the animals talk just like people, and where there are no televisions or malls.'" The sacred landscape has left its mark on her, and on the reader as well.

In T. C. McLuhan's Cathedrals of the Spirit the text is itself a kind of landscape that you get to know after many visits; there are passages you may return to again and again, and others that may seem cloudy on one reading, but full of illumination on the next. McLuhan sees sacred landscapes as places of inspiration where human consciousness is temporarily set free. Her accounts range from the spiritual and mystic to the down-to-earth and scientific; in McLuhan's landscape you may come across a Persian mystic, a Hindu ascetic or a Buddhist philosopher, but you are as likely to encounter Charles Darwin, or the British botanist David Bellamy, who says of the yew tree, "A yew is just as important as Durham Cathedral, and a hell of a sight older."

There is so much variety to this collection that a review can hardly encapsulate it. But perhaps the spirit of the book is expressed by one of my favorite entries, environmentalist Edward Abbey's confession: "I sometimes choose to think that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun . . . belief? What do I believe in? I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock."

Reviewer Paul Trachtman writes from rural New Mexico.

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