MAPPING MORE THAN GEOGRAPHY

I had no knowledge of the streams of quiet rebels who experience divinity directly, thanks, in part, to the map of their heritage as they work with the soil and their own bodies. These days, they resist as best they can the manufactured desires beaming from satellites or television airwaves, even while they watch many of their children succumb to these temptations. They could tell us about Elijah or Jeremiah, the Babylonian captivity, or the Maccabees’ war of independence, in addition to my own ancestors’ sufferings recorded in The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians or Joseph Besse’s A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers, for the Testimony of a Good Conscience. When, at last, I reclaim this legacy, piecemeal, I ask, “So whose story are you telling, anyhow? Which grandparents are yours?” Opening their maps, I follow their footsteps, even in a strange land. Well made cartography includes supplications and blessings, as well as warnings.

My own homeland once included many woodlands well into my grandfather’s childhood. A balance of forest, with its firewood and construction timber, and farm fields and pastures. So much so, in fact, that people could travel dozens of miles on roads that never left forest between cities. By my own childhood, however, most of the trees had been leveled, and even the woodlot on an uncle’s farm doubled as pasture for hogs and cattle. In winter, the countryside was a stubble wasteland.

Similarly, a prairie denuded of buffalo is impoverished. How much poorer is a suburban lot occupied by restless greed? Here I am, dwelling in desert I consider healthier and more vibrant than the construction I see overrunning the lands around cities and towns. “Rebuild at the core,” I urge the wind. “Repent!” Turn about! Bring back the buffalo and the buffalo nickel, as well as amicable urban neighborhoods. There are all kinds of communities, and humans are only part of the equation. There is land, there is sky, there is water and flowing. To say nothing of what exists beneath them.

A person who comprehends maps will appreciate history as well. Perhaps even musical scores, as another kind of map with a dimension of time.

I listen to my wife and learn of the mental maps many women carry. The ones of kitchens or gardens. Others leading to childbirth and parenting, or even away.

I, meanwhile, come here for a taste of primeval wilderness — a hope to experience a timeless reality that holds humanity in a state of awe rather than arrogance. Just look to the mountains for salvation. Look as well to dreams, each one having one foot in your past and the other in your present.

Carried to an intelligence that daylight conceals, I sense that within many rapidly fading distinctions I’ve scorned are important markers; these ranged from where to harvest wild berries and their uses as food and medicine to my own ancestors’ hymns and religious teachings. To be creative means building on what’s come before, rather than entering a new universe. The path on the map goes from one place to another. Respect is essential — another way of honoring one’s fathers and mothers. There’s still time to cultivate individuality and character in the field. Sometimes, even where homogeneity is perceived, a people can differ as sharply among themselves as they do from others. Ponder Polish Catholics in Chicago, Congregationalists in Ohio’s once-Yankee Western Reserve, and fire-breathing Baptists and Pentecostals in Detroit and what they might do to enhance each other’s heritage, rather than striving for some common denominator. That’s another way of lifting up mountains, rather than leveling. Even on flat land, each body leaves a hidden stamp on its soil. Learn to read vibrations of an environment, and you identify communities dwelling therein, sometimes a century or two after their departure. Through the news and entertainment media, I grew up knowing more of Manhattan and Capitol Hill, though they were only incidentally closer geographically than Kansas City or Minneapolis, supposedly within my Midwestern realm. I knew more, too, of Hollywood back lots and Beverly Hills. Indeed, not until much later had I recognized the Midwest I’d considered so conservative and culturally backward was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a hotbed of radical politics and organized labor. Many of its cities elected Socialist mayors only to replace them with Ku Klux Klan within the decade. Talk about upheaval! In the front parlors of homes in many small towns across the Plains, the latest wave of European high culture was performed; three of the nation’s oldest handful of symphony orchestras were organized (St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati). In the machine shops of isolated barns and backyard stables of small-town entrepreneurs, curious Midwestern farm boys tinkered perfecting the automobile and a thousand other industrial marvels. Kite-flying bicycle-building brothers put men in the air.

Much of this I did not understand or appreciate when dreaming only of escape. Only now did I come to see what remains of a once rich and varied heritage. In those days I looked off to the limits of a world; fixes like Boston and Seattle as strands of Utopia. What I encountered instead was a step beyond the anticipated. Of the neighborhoods I would come to call home, none quite fit what people expect of East Coast, Midwest, or Pacific Northwest, either.

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

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