Handprints Upon the Stones
Like the simple beauty symbolized by a cairn, a thoughtfully stacked arrangement of stones, sitting quietly in nature is to find spiritual equilibrium and a sense of balance. The experience of visiting Red Rock Canyon brings us the restorative values inherent in the sights and sounds of the natural world. Retreat there and listen deeply to the whooshing of the desert breeze as it mysteriously moves through the canyons, the calls of the birds, the vibrant colors, and the shapes of the stones sculpted artfully by nature’s hand. Reflect also upon the lifeways of the Native American people who used to thrive there because they have much to teach us about living within the exquisite balance of nature. The Southern Paiutes were driven out of “eye voo vee”, (their name for Red Rock Canyon) over 100 years ago. Their lands were taken from them against their will, but traces of their ancient heritage still live on in the pictograms and petroglyphs that have graced the rugged cliff walls for millennia. By being mindful of the history and culture of those who inhabited Red Rock in ages past, we can apply that knowledge to our lives today, coming away with the new and more balanced ecological perspective that spending time in the refuge of the canyon can provide.
Begin your journey by descending into the wide valley of Red Rock canyon. Find a nice flat rock to sit on and take a deep breath. As if nestling down into Mother Earth, the red cliffs surround you are like welcoming arms. Close your eyes, open your ears and listen deeply to the dynamic symphony of nature. Like a pipe organ towering above an orchestra, the natural sounds of the canyon reverberate from the encircling stones, creating an “organic” chamber of music. Immerse yourself in the tones and timbres of the landscape. The rushing of the wind. The trilling of a far away white-throated swift. The high whine of insects in the brush. The buzzing of a fly darting about, investigating the appearance of this new being entering the scene. As was so eloquently described by author J. Allen Boone in his book Kinship with all Life, “We are members of a vast orchestra, in which each living instrument is essential to the complementary and harmonious playing of the whole world.” (Boone,1954)
Allowing nature’s song of the desert to recede into the background of your awareness, look up and gaze upon the majestic sight of the canyon’s fiery red pinnacles of stone that silhouette against the bright sky. Seeing the canyon from a new and balanced perspective also entails gaining an understanding of its history. Nestled back in the cliffs along Willow Springs trail in Red Rock canyon are ancient pictograms and petroglyphs, left behind thousands of years ago by the Anasazi. There are theories as to their meanings but, for now, the stories they tell remain inscrutable to us. The Red Rock Visitor Guide, by author and avid rock climber Tom Moulin, sheds some light on what is known about the Southern Paiutes, descendants of the early people of the area, who “recognized an interconnectedness between water flow, rock and soil, plants, animals and the cycles of life.” (Moulin, 2013) They also believed in puha, a creative energy force that inhabits all things. Shamans and elders of the tribe went to these sacred places for ritual ceremonies, initiations and to gather spiritual power.
Each and every rock formation had a name and a history, stories that were passed down from generation to generation. More than just a place to live, the land was their identity. With
the invasion of the white man, however, they were driven from their tribal homelands. “After 1872, Euro-Americans continued to encroach on lands Southern Paiutes had used for countless generations.” (Moulin, 2013) The Europeans and the Anglo-Americans began mining operations, built a railroad, and carved out roads into the canyon that brought livestock who ate all the vegetation. Left without clean water and a source of food, the Southern Paiutes were pushed further and further back into the mountains with no way to survive.
As we contemplate the tragedy that took place in the Native American homelands throughout the United States, it is appalling to think how inhumanely they were treated. Even worse, that it has been erased from the history books. Visitors to our national parks today have no idea of what really happened. It is just recently becoming more widely known that John Muir, lauded as the father of the national parks and founder of the Sierra Club, had a part in the disdain and ultimate dismissal of Native Americans from their lands. Ross Anderson, in his article “Seeing America’s Wilderness For What It Is” writes, “In the sweeping story Muir told about the landscapes that became national parks, America’s original inhabitants did not earn pride of place, or really any place.” (Anderson, 2021) Muir’s passion, first and foremost, was to preserve the landscape itself. He did not place value on the presence of “Indians” in the parks. In fact, he wrote that they marred the pristine beauty of the wilderness, deeming them unsuitable for the white tourists to see. He described the indigenous people as “hairy as bears and as crooked as summit pines, the strange creatures were sufficiently erect to belong to our own species...the first specimens I had seen, were mostly ugly, and some of them altogether hideous...Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape.” (Muir, 1894)
Although his views evolved over time, the anti-indigenous sentiment that was voiced by John Muir is a humiliation that Native Americans have endured ever since. Carolyn Merchant, American ecofeminist philosopher wrote in her article, Shades of Darkness, “Native Americans were removed from the lands they had managed for centuries, not only during settlement, as is well known, but during the creation of the national parks and national forests.” (Merchant, 2003) They were not included in the grand vision of the National Park Service, their treasured sacred spaces and the sustenance they derived from them forcibly taken away.
Merchant contrasts Muir’s writings with those of Mary Austin, another early environmentalist author. Austin also wrote about the beauty of the rural American southwest desert where she had lived for many years of her life. In her book, The Land of Little Rain, she described the desert terrain, the plants, and the wildlife in glowing terms such as “rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring,...land of cloud-nourished trees and wild things that live without drink.” (Austin, 1903) Based on her experiences with the indigenous people of the Mojave, she considered them to be an integral part of the environment, having survived and adapted over thousands of years to the harsh conditions. She was an advocate for Native Americans and wrote with admiration for the “Indians” and the familiarity of their relationship to the desert environment. “Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders.” (Austin, 1903)
The words of Mary Austin are still relevant for us today. David Treuer, writer, critic, and member of the Ojibwe Tribe, wrote about the true history of the National Parks and the place of Native Americans within them in his article “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” for The Atlantic. “For many Americans, our wild spaces are a solace, a refuge—cathedrals indeed. America has succeeded in becoming more Indian over the past 245 years rather than the other way around.” (Treuer, 2021) Clearly, there is much to learn from the native people who thrived for millennium, living sustainably and in natural balance with the wilderness.
A prophecy of the Hopi people warned of the disastrous results that will occur as humans take freely of natural resources without replenishing them. “If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.” "Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.” "A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.” (Koyaanisqatsi,1983)
Everything in that prophecy is currently coming to pass. Our relationship to nature is becoming more and more unsustainable and unbalanced. Like a “container of ashes thrown from the sky,” the burning of fossil fuels that had remained buried in the earth for millions of years has released carbon dioxide into the air, creating the global warming that is now a recognized scientific fact. This was stunningly portrayed in the revolutionary 1983 environmental art film, Koyaanisqatsi by director Godfrey Reggio.
Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word that can be translated to mean “a life out of balance.” The movie begins with footage showing pre-historic petroglyphs that were carved into the desert canyon walls of the southwest. There are no people populating the spacious panorama and the scenes of nature are raw and powerful. The music, written by composer Phillip Glass, begins slowly with the low, ominous rumble of a pipe organ. A deep bass voice repeatedly drones the warning chant,“Koyaanisqasi.”
As the movie progresses, the scenes begin to show bulldozers tearing up the land and other machinery of all kinds causing destruction. As the face of the earth is being transformed by human intervention and the ecology destroyed, the pace becomes increasingly frenzied. Many cities are shown from the air, depicting a massive grid of freeways with cars zipping through in time-lapse photography. Las Vegas is depicted as a place where hoards of consumers, emerging from noise-filled casinos, are mindlessly roaming the streets searching for their next temporary escape into some form of vapid entertainment.
Echoing John Muir’s opinion of the native tribes as “hideous,” the message of Reggio’s dystopian view also seems to be that the earth would be better off if there were no people around to clutter the pristine landscape. Although it has been extolled as one of the all-time top ten environmental films, it was panned by Roger Ebert because there was no solution offered. “It has been hailed as a vast and sorrowful vision, but to what end? If the people in all those cars on all those expressways are indeed living crazy lives... perhaps social facts such as unemployment, crime, racism, drug abuse and illiteracy -- issues so complicated that a return to nature seems like an elitist joke at their expense.” (Ebert, 1983)
Indeed, wiping nature clean of all our messiness by visualizing a world without people is not a viable answer. It is generally agreed that the declensionist narrative needs to be balanced with more positive and productive ideas. “The ‘wilderness area’ mentality invariably advocates deep-freezing an ecology... as it was before the first Kleenex was dropped. But neither atavism nor prettification will cope with the ecologic crisis of our time.” (White, 1967) So, in these times of uncertainty, how can we learn to live in ecological balance?
This difficult question must be answered soon. As was predicted by the Hopi centuries ago, the proverbial sky is falling and time is running out. What has always been inherent in the way of life of the Native American people is a deep sense of gratitude, responsibility and reverence for the Earth. A possible reason for the refusal of American white culture to accept the native people’s worldview, which places humans as an integral part of the ecosystem, may be explained by examining a concept that is intrinsic to Christianity. Unlike any other religion before it, Christianity supports the idea that man is superior to anything else on earth and has dominion over all of it. Historian Lynn White wrote,“ In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit.... By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” The belief that “God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule” (White, 1967 ) has been interpreted for centuries to meaning that everything the earth has to offer is just there for the taking.
On the other hand, Catholic author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton is quoted as saying “We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” (Merton, 1955 p. 127) Americans, along with citizens in the industrialized nations the world over, are starting to realize the necessity of utilizing the Earth’s limited resources in a sustainable way, embracing the role of environmental stewardship, and recognizing the importance of slowing down order to harmonize our balance in relationship to nature. By spending time in open spaces, we can experience a sense of wholeness, relief from stress, and reduce the conditioned response to overconsume in an effort to find happiness through instant gratification.
As you sit upon a rock, so seemingly still, the planet is revolving...a fragile, sapphire ball that we call Earth, balancing in space. To the west, the sun begins to touch the tops of the cliffs and the park will soon close for the day. Stand up, turn around and look behind you, taking in
another new perspective. To the east is the smog-covered skyline of Las Vegas. People are breathing in the polluted air, bombarded by the din of noise from the rush of traffic, but the adverse impacts of modern industry on our physical health is not the only problem. Because we are interrelated with everything around us, our inner mental ecology is also disrupted. The minds of the general public are tainted by false advertising which constantly reinforces daily habits embedded in consumerism. People are so entrenched in this life out of balance that what appears upright is, in truth, tilting off-center on the verge of collapse. We remain determined to live in excess of our needs, with all the comforts and conveniences that we have become accustomed to, without regard for the mounting external costs to the environment. Our carbon footprint in the United States, at 16 tons per capita, is second only to China, yet the debate about alternative energy sources goes on. Meanwhile, housing developments and infrastructure are rapidly encroaching ever closer upon the irreplaceable ecosystem and priceless pre-historic artwork of the Mojave desert.
Returning home from your sojourn in the canyon, you can bring with you not only a sense of equanimity but also a sense of purpose. The choices that we make as individuals to live responsibly do make a difference. There is hope. Balance can be found. Philosopher and environmental activist John Nolt wrote, “The most promising justification for duties to respect natural goods...lies in the value to human beings of self-transcendence.” (Nolt, 2009) We can help preserve the natural goodness of Red Rock, a refuge of balance, for ourselves and for the generations that will come after us. In doing so, we are fulfilling our ethical responsibility to be effective stewards of the environment. The writings and the handprints are still on the wall.
Works Cited Anderson, Ross. 2021. “Seeing America’s Wilderness For What It Is.” The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/introducing-who-owns-americas-wilderness/ 618550/. Accessed 5/20/21
Austin, Mary, 1868-1934. The Land of Little Rain. New York: published in co-operation with the American Museum of Natural History/Doubleday & Co. 1961 Boone, Allen. 1954. Kinship with All Life (Harper and Row, 1954; HarperCollins, 1976, ISBN 0-06-060912-5)
Ebert, Roger. Koyaaniqatsi. 1983. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/koyaanisqatsi-1983. Accessed 5/20/21
Merchant, Carol. “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History.” Environmental History, Jul., 2003, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jul., 2003), pp. 380-394. Oxford University Press on behalf of Forest History Society and American Society for Environmental History. Merton, Thomas. "Chapter 7: Being and Doing." No Man Is an Island. St Anthony Messenger, 2007. 127. Print.
Moulin, Tom. Red Rock Canyon Visitor Guide. Snell Pr, January 1, 2013 Muir, John. The Mountains of California. New York: The Century Co, 1894. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/rc01000874/.
Nolt, John. "The Move from Is to Good in Environmental Ethics" Environmental Ethics Vol. 31 Iss. 2. 2009. http://works.bepress.com/john_nolt/1/
Treuer, David. “Return the National Parks to the Tribes.” The Atlantic. April 12, 2021. White, Lynn Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 10 Mar 1967: Vol. 155, Issue 3767, pp. 1203-1207
Website References NOAA U.S. Department of Commerce. Stewardship Definitions. https://www.noaa.gov/resource- collections/common-measures-definitions/stewardship-definitions. Accessed 5/21/21
Opar, Alisa. Jan 15, 2010. Audubon. “All-time Top 10 Environmental Films.” www.audubon.org/news/all-time-top-10-environmental-films.Accessed 5/20/21