by Jnana Hodson

Knowing how far to go — and when to turn back, to the best effect — are difficult matters. The wise traveler relies on those who have gone there already and returned. You hope they speak truthfully. Often your life will depend on their directions. Even knowing what to pack and what to omit may be based on their counsel. Mountains and rivers are only the beginning.

When there’s too much to remember, a map begins forming. That or a guidebook. But the map presents more possibilities than the book, with its linear narrative confined to one route at a time — even maps with vast portions blank or missing. Take two points on a map and connect them, this way or that. Add a third. And then a fourth.

I never would have arrived in this desert without maps. The airliner’s navigation charts, of course. And then the highway atlas. Many others, as well, become useful. Those that show back roads. Others, topography. Still others, property divisions — including the Indian reservation and Army artillery range, both declared off-limits. Maps of emotions, economies, explorations. Maps of oceans, weather, the heavens.

Disembark and you go to work filling in details and then connecting points like a spider. What’s around that corner? What’s over that ridge? Where will we stay, and what’s the best way to get there? A single map is only an blueprint. The particulars never quite fit. Especially in two dimensions. A breeze lifts the web. Coyote walks through it.

Each one distorts — some far more than others, and rarely by intention. Who made the map in your hands? And to what purpose? Some were mathematicians of few words. Others were empire builders or real estate developers. Some weave the directions into the stories they tell beside the campfire. Some ignore shadows. Fail to repent, ask forgiveness, extend blessing. Others know survival, as well as play, requires definition and decision. Obligates searching within, as well as around, in fullest candor. Some even deceptively point you away from your destination (why should they reveal their secrets?).

Those who were born and raised here know it in a different way from those who have migrated. Magpie will tell you one thing; a Canada goose, another. Same goes for where they’re positioned. Jackrabbit and dragonfly take separate pathways, as does beaver. You simply log where they cross and hope to find meaning.

I had thought maps were the essence of geography. Now the definitions spill over into history, geology, meteorology, political science, psychology, and much more. Because many misunderstandings afflict each life, there are bound to be collisions. Sometimes you move into a thorn that pierces consciousness, but even that rarely brings clarity. You see there’s endless discord among individuals, clans, tribes, nations, denominations — all to be traversed and mapped in the search for ways out and back safely. In this knowledge, jobs, aspirations, faiths, possessions, social standing are merely reflections of fundamental conflicts between human consumption and the good earth itself. No one can dwell anywhere without disturbing the whole; individuals and collectivities distort and contort to their own ends, some more benignly than others. The lines on the page do not hold their place. Without a divinity as a guide knowing these connecting pathways, then, there’s no return to full measure and health. The breath people exhale, fires they build, grains and flesh they devour are diverted to their chosen applications. “Tell us something better,” I implore. “Teach us the highest way.” Where anyone takes it from here is another matter.

Sadly, whether this transformation’s harmonious and renewing, guiding individuals as merciful stewards and co-creators with the divine, or self-centered and destructive as thieves, is rarely considered. Just observe how communities rationalize, arguing that the welfare of their women and children comes first, even as they bankrupt the farm to support worldwide armies or strip timberlands in a rutting for coal and iron.

You could perceive many aspects of this in these orchards within desert. While the choice of irrigating and producing fruit sustains many more humans than the arid range would, also ponder the long-term impact of the poisons applied through each season. Kill harmful insects and molds, but what else? And how soon before it seeps into the groundwater and household wells? It’s all an interplay of good and evil, which I observed through a giant spider web. As a practice within my spiritual discipline, the Dedicated Laborious Quest, I place maps atop other maps and find they are drawn to different scales. Many of the words require translation, which introduces its own misunderstandings. Some of the maps are even of places far from here, landscapes in memory.

Too many details and the sheet becomes a scribble. Maybe that’s why here, at an extremity of the continental United States, I now comprehend the American Midwest of my childhood and early adult years as something other than a uniformly Protestant corn belt. Even overlooking ecological differences between woodlands and prairies, or between the Great Lakes and the Missouri or Ohio river valleys, I reconsider its varied ethnic traditions and the hidden cost of the melting-pot focus. Speaking with other exiles like myself, I become aware of unique distinctions some of our ancestors resolutely upheld, at the cost of their own lives, if necessary. There were strains of Scandinavian Lutherans in the Dakotas, Russian Mennonites in Kansas, and Scottish Presbyterians in Iowa, whose distinct cultures were eroding like the topsoil itself. You would hear, too, why so many had fled. Some, desperately hoping to forget forever their terrors or shame, buried the evidence as best they could. Others, however, defiantly kept it aloft as a reminder of their liberation and a warning.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.