On the Shape of Time

[Impressions from an April journey through Zion, the Mojave desert, Antelope Canyon and Grand Canyon].

It is not a place to be with people or little time on your hands. You need days and seasons and repeated visits to hear the time on those walls. You need to be willing to have perspective on human time and work, and you need to be able to feel reverence for something vaster than you are. These are not our known gods, their heft just that of our minds; our comprehension differs from the fact of their being as sound from syllable.

This is a post about a visit to Antelope Canyon, a visit made with family, but which impressed me in the midst of people with a vast loneliness of the soul and a dream to console me in sleep.

We visited Utah and Arizona this April, driving to Zion first and then to Antelope Canyon and the Grand Canyon. Zion was snowy at sunset. Red and remote stood the rocks, climbing to ringing silence. I was forced to turn away from the difference between domesticated horses with 8 feet of churned mud to live in and a few threatened deer with a year and the mountains to die in. On the way out we spotted a herd of elk close to the road, but an impatient driver honked at our stationary cars and the deer melted into shadows and silence. There seemed to be too many humans too close to the park, the mountains had receded into themselves long ago.

Antelope canyon was more alive. In the Upper Canyon a herd of people kicked up a dust storm, fighting over sunbeams. I watched streams of people file past each other, brandishing tripods and gear, intent on trophies. Humans added very little to the landscape.

We went into the Lower Canyon in the afternoon, just the two of us with our red shirted guide. He had long black hair and a flute on his back, and he leaped from rock to rock in familiarity and play, now hiding, now visible, now playing and singing in, I thought, Navajo. Sometimes I waited in one of the ‘rooms,’ just listening. The flute and sound were right for the place, despite his ironic caricature of the world’s ideas about his culture.

In the Upper Canyon we heard a different guide tell someone if they’d heard of Kokopelli. I smiled. Our guide didn’t remind me of Kokopelli after the first instant; that would be too easy a likeness; he was an in-between guy, comfortable in being of recent times and yet guarding something of the old. I admired his sure-footedness, and tried to dissuade him from showing us all the ‘money shots.’ He played the Navajo version of ‘Amazing Grace’ for us, and didn’t know why I didn’t respond with pleasure. I couldn’t say that I didn’t know and therefore didn’t like the tune and that, in alien places, tunes not close to the heart do not raise you above yourself. I should have explained I am not Christian. Perhaps I am not cosmopolitan enough.

At one point, another guide came loping down after us looking for two others photographers who had gone in at the same time. No one was allowed unsupervised there; whether the canyons are actually sacred or merely revered by the Navajos (a distinction to us but not perhaps to them), they demand that visitors respect it. I liked that, and wished my country had some to guard it similarly. Wind-pebble thought.

At one point one of the guides asked me, “So you’re the real Indians, huh?” I was sufficiently under the influence of the canyon to answer, “I guess we could each say that to the other?”

My accent sounded more British in there; was I trying to be un-American among the Natives?

Often our guide would take hold of our hands or shoulders and turn us to shapes and contours he knew and we could not see. I was skittish, preferring to be lost in that precious aloneness. My hands went cold rubbing the stone, trying to feel the stone.

And the light! The fire! The Years! You could see water and time in that arid canyon rock, flames standing tall in consecration. The upper canyon had long sloping rock lines, older and more stately, as well as more remote. It seemed the walls had receded from the traffic and transience, leaving behind only shapes as placeholders for themselves. Yet I thought something still lived in both: perhaps only Time without Man. I knew, knew exactly how to paint that still fire. Its voice was young yet.

On the way back to the gates to the Upper Canyon, the wind in the open truck at 30 miles an hour had our eyes streaming and our mouths full of sand. We needed our seat belts every second. I watched the pink nails of our guide-driver in the cab. She had small hands constantly playing with her Blackberry, and lovely black hair.

I had time to notice some sturdy cows along the dusty banks of the dry bed. They didn’t look as helpless, as bovine, as the ‘happy herds’ sold to us on television; their stupidity, flesh and milk could not be used to curse women. Priscilla said they belonged to her grandmother, who owned some of the land around the Canyons and had grazing rights to it. Navajo nation—not unlike many other nations, where the ground under their feet may be lost to them if they do not control mining or mineral rights, among other things.

Grand Canyon the next day brought some sense of elation to me at seeing something relatively untrammeled by human feet, something that would endure past human wars and lifetimes. We are nothing in geologic time, and it is a good thing to reminded of that as often as possible.

I looked long at the lie of the land, heard the mountains’ song again for the first time since the mountains above Bhutan in 2002. That time, they had prepared my mind for bereavement and loss.

Some people react to the vast open places of the world with a condition similar to the sickness of the horizons, the fever of the llanos. Given a release from the confines of human urban life and a chance to test their bodies and human mettle, they turn it into a celebration of endurance. Good for them, unless the sudden receding of the horizon makes them run until they die. Me, I did not wish to take pictures there or plan for a hike; my trek down Grand Canyon would be for solitude, if at all. I would rub the earth under my feet as the Maoris do in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and listen to the river and the red song of life. It would be a prayer and a supplication, a time to renew the soul.

Such places are not for consumption. We tend to try to bring back a material fragment of experience, retain a thing from a moment, as if we need magic stones to awaken the moments we might otherwise have forgotten and to transport us into them. But we lose them if we think we therefore preserve them through time. ‘It’ belongs to something greater and larger than us, and we do not ‘make’ or ‘mark’ it.

When I picked up a pebble in the Lower Canyon the guide told me it was a wind-pebble; ‘the wind made it and it belongs to the wind.’ How elegant a concept of ownership and place, I thought! How alien to our attenuated twenty-first century apparently globalized world where we preserve just what we should not: we keep close our dress and gods and food, but our souls and minds and cultures we cast to the wind.

I felt this most strongly at Glen Canyon Dam with its smart glass overlook and visitors’ facilities set in concrete. The fountain in front of the door seemed in poor taste in a desert, no matter if it splashed over a dam. I had been reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead on the trip, and all her words rose up to choke me there. She was not wrong.