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Throne of the To-when-an-ung-wa

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posted by Western Images And Light alias WesternImagesAndLight on Tuesday 30th of December 2014 12:00:10 AM

The soft hum of Jefferson Airplane’s melodic, acoustic instrumental song, Embryonic Journey, surfs on the spaces of air reserved for sound in my room. I have always figured Grace Slick’s tremendous voice to be capable of providing a gentle anthem for my ruminations and reflections. Some of my finest musings came from a comparable scene: a dark and open room filled with flickering light and jumping shadows which have been discarded by the atomic tangerine flames wavering in the fireplace beside me. The flames pop and jump, dancing to songs like Today or Comin’ Back to Me. Sometimes I wonder if the fire is listening to the words of the songs, the romantic strums of the guitar, or the beating drum. The fire is very much alive, as are the eroding mountains, the bleeding sandstone walls, the gliding and wild running rivers, the unbreakable rocks sleeping on the valley floors and the accumulating snow in the higher elevations. The desert air is daubed with a frigid shade of winter tonight. Maybe my memory has been selectively blurred by four years of patient study through countless textbooks, for I recall much warmer winter air blanketing the southwest landscape this time of year. Nevertheless, wintertime has arrived with a rush of brittle air and frosty temperatures across the American desert lands. Paralleling the winter season is the holiday season. From Hanukah to Christmas, Kwanza, Boxing Day, and even the Earth’s Winter Solstice, the shifting weather always seems to be enough reason to bring families together for large meals, gifts, and holiday cheer. We have a small and very untraditional family. At the end of the day it is just Greg, me, and little Miss Charlotte. Our extended families are spread from Oregon to Wisconsin, Texas, and even back East in Massachusetts. We typically spend the holiday season on the road, in the wild, with cameras, tents, and sleeping bags, but this year the weather required warmer lodging. The world is so much more discreet in the winter. The parks are not full; the roads in the higher elevations, those that are away from ski resorts and public commons, are typically empty. It is much more possible to be alone in a winter landscape in the Southwest than any other time of year. Our small trio requires silence and solitude—the nutrients of our souls. Fittingly so, this holiday season we escaped the city in search of that peaceful silence that our spirits were craving. We had no set destination. No determined or mapped out places. We spent a day cooking and dehydrating foods for the journey, packing winter clothing snow boots, camera gear and writing equipment. We looked at weather maps and forecasts without a decision of where to go. The following morning, on Christmas Eve, I folded a bronzed cashmere blanket around the floor of our miniature schnauzer’s dog kennel, grabbed her leash, and fastened her collar. Hester is a salt and pepper colored schnauzer. She’s a little over a year old and a terrifically happy puppy that loves to hike, travel, and run up and down sandstone canyons and mountain trails. She quickly made her way into the grey box where she travels. Greg positioned her in the backseat of the car, next to Charlotte. He secured the door and we sat in our own chairs, buckled seat belts, and then backed the car out of the garage. As we sat parked in the driveway, watching the garage door slowly seal the open air away from our home, Greg looked to me and asked, “Where are we heading?” I sat for a moment, thinking of the weather, our two young companions, and the time we had set aside for the trip and replied, “Utah. Let’s go to Utah”. Greg flashed his charming smile and backed out of the driveway. And as simple as that we were on our way. The highway led us through a maze of holiday shoppers and travelers. Las Vegas was bleeding with anxieties. Drivers flushed their rage by honking and screaming at one another, a far cry from the holiday cheer everyone talks about this time of year. On any average day there are about a hundred thousand or more tourists in the city. Yearly, about forty million visitors come to see the glitter in the Mojave. The holiday season sees a rush of travelers that pile in to this desert valley in such large amounts that on New Year’s Eve the strip is closed off to allow only foot traffic. Las Vegas is the glittering land of consumerism. Everything in this city is designed for the purchaser: the lavish restaurants and casinos, the shimmering lights of the strip that sing a song to visitors, asking them for coins and dollars or swipes of whatever type of plastic they have tucked away in their wallets. “Buy. Buy. Buy.” it sings. More money flows in this city during the course of half an hour than most people make in a year. You can find almost anything you could ever need or desire in this intensifying metropolis. Even dreams. Dreams are for sale in Las Vegas. With a simple bet and the ensuing pull of a lever it is possible, or so we are taught to think, to win a better life. That better life opens the door to more money which equates to more consumption and thus higher rates of environmental degradation. In an over-consumption culture, we seem to always overlook the connection of how our purchasing behavior and choices impact the world around us. According to National Geographic writer Hillary Mayell, “Approximately 1.7 billion people worldwide now belong to the “consumer class” –the group of people characterized by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods” (Mayell). As hard as it may be while living in an unsustainable city like Las Vegas, Greg and I strive to have sustainable living practices as much as possible. Fittingly so, this is one reason we rarely participate in the consumerism that gridlocks shopping malls and stores this time of year. Instead of spending hours in checkout lines, we find ourselves desperately seeking an escape from the reminder of how materialistic, acquisitive, and unsustainable our species continues to become. As shoppers raced to malls in search of last minute gifts, we were quickly racing out of the valley, leaving behind Las Vegas and the hectic urgency of Sin City. We drove over four hours, breaking away from society like prisoners absconding. We entered Utah and began our climb into the higher elevations. The temperature gauge on the dash slowly dipped below freezing as we ascended into the mountains. Rural Utah existed outside of my car window, flashing by with each stretch of mile, showcasing quaint and warm homes with smoke billowing out of the chimneys. Small stores were dark and flashed the word “CLOSED” in bright red lights, reminding travelers that consumerism was not as important as quiet time with family. There are still stores that close on Christmas Eve. Yes, they do exist. These places rightfully relieve employees of their occupational duties, encouraging them to embrace loved ones without interruption. They forego the monetary gains of staying open—gains achieved to promote over-consumption and quench the thirst of the hungry shopper. Greg and I discussed the relationship between story and sense of place as we drove through the countryside. Words are some of the most powerful tools we have in our human arsenal. More authoritative than any weapon ever created, words have the unique and contrasting ability to create peace and war. You see, we can sew them together to form the quilted patterns of oral and written narratives. They can facilitate others to understand the senses of place that are described in stories. Oral narratives existed long before written history tracked the patriarchal dominance of man over nature. Words have always been used by humans to communicate significant events, relationships between humans, and the significance of understanding the interconnectedness of all life forms. Ralph Waldo Emerson understood the significance of reflection and words. He said, “A man's power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss.” Thus we use our words to communicate the veracity of the natural world and in our photographic quest Greg and I seek to pair this truth with visual evidence to underline the significance of conservation, sustainability, and systems thinking. Storytelling is a gentle art that enlivens the land and forces each of us to acknowledge our roles in helping sustain it. The fire sitting next to me as I sit here this evening, writing this text, is just as alive as I am. It breathes and moves, dancing in the dark shadows of the evening. Its life is commanded by the availability of oxygen much like my own. Without oxygen we both die. It sustains us. Though we take different forms, me in my human body and fire in its ethereal and fluid figure, we are the same; two dependent life forms existing because of something else. My ancestors in the Muscogee Creek tribe explained the significance of fire through story. Their tale describes how the tribe enlisted the help of brave Rabbit to bring fire to their people. Fire was sent by Thunderbirds, through lightning, to a tree, on an island, filled with Weasels. The Weasels were stingy with the fire and refused to give it to any other animal. Their island was surrounded by water too deep for people to cross. The humans sat on their land watching the smoke rise from the Sycamore tree which caught the first sparks from the lightning. It was wintertime and the tribe suffered greatly from the cold. They spoke to the other animals around them, asking for support and aid in their quest to obtain fire from the Weasels. Knowing the violent nature of the Weasel, only one animal rose to the occasion. Rabbit was brave. He could swim and run faster than the Weasels and he recognized how his skills in dancing would be able to allow him to join the weasels in their nightly ritual of fire and dance. He covered himself in the sticky material produced by pine wood and quickly swam to the Weasel’s island. The Weasels welcomed the Rabbit and his beautiful gift of dance by dancing around a huge fire. As they danced around the fire, the Weasel’s would approach the fire, bow, and then back away from it. The eager Weasel’s beckoned the Rabbit to lead them in the dance and he followed suit, leading the ritualized movement, coming closer to the fire. Rabbit bowed low as he got close to the fire and suddenly the pine tar on his hair exploded in flames. He escaped with the fire clinging to his head. The Weasel’s realized that they had been tricked and angrily chased after him but the Rabbit was too quick. He outran them and then jumped in the water, swimming his way to the people with his head on fire. Furiously the Weasels summoned the Thunderbirds to bring rain so the fire stole fire would be killed. The Thunderbirds answered the call and spread rain upon the Earth for three days. Rabbit protected the fire from the rain by building a fire in the embrace of an old hollow tree. After the rain ceased he brought the fire to the people. From then forward the Creeks housed fire in their homes when it rained. They protected the fire’s life much like the fire guarded them from the cold. Stories can show us the significance of life and the importance of understanding how things like fire and mountains, valleys, and rivers sustain us and the responsibilities we have to protect them from harm. We are interconnected with everything around us. The landscapes that flashed by my window as we drove that cold night, the rivers we crossed, the snowflakes that began to fall silently against the lonely road before us. Everything is connected you see. Our journey into the cold winter countryside of southern Utah was intent on reminding us of that connection. I told the story of the Rabbit and Fire to Charlotte during our drive. She likes stories and always fills journals with many of her own creations. Storytelling has been a part of our family since long before she or I were ever born and it is something we attempt to continue in our own way. As we turned down the road to Bryce Canyon National Park, the sun was coming to a rest on the Western horizon. We pulled into Ruby’s Inn, a nice old lodge located outside Bryce Canyon National Park and look around at the empty surrounding area. Stores and most of the hotels in the area were closed for the season. The quiet of the park was appreciated and paired well with the cold airs of winter that chilled the upper elevations. The first few flakes of a winter storm began falling as we unloaded our photography gear, food, and clothing from our vehicle into our room. The familiar, “I’m hungry”, cry from my nine year old daughter came soon after we shut the door of our rented abode. My stomach agreed with her plea and I went to the ice chest to prepare our Christmas Eve dinner. We do not eat processed or junk/fast foods. Restaurant eating is met with hesitation these days since we have cleansed our diets to more sustainable practices. We travel with our own homemade yummies for each meal and snacks in between. This allows us to have control over what we’re putting into our bodies, it helps us save money, and it ensures that we’re getting the right nutrients we need. Road food is rarely a good idea for our crew. Instead, bringing our own food allows us to control our environmental impact. We refuse to contribute to the growing mass of landfill waste created by fast-food consumers. Greg and I had made a vegetarian farrow and bean winter stew the day before our trip. It was a robust stew filled with a homemade herbed broth, the stewed tomatoes we had frozen from our fall harvest, heirloom carrots, and a medley of organic veggies including new potatoes, celery, onions, cabbage and dinosaur kale. We heated the soup on our Coleman stove, scooped a ladle full into individual bowls and then garnished them with freshly grated parmesan and a splash of olive oil. I heated a few southern buttermilk biscuits and handed one to Greg, tearing apart another to split between Charlotte and myself. We sat under a dim light in the motel room, enjoying the hearty stew and biscuits, celebrating our love and togetherness that Christmas Eve. It was quiet and peaceful—exactly what we wanted when we left the city. Later that evening, we enjoyed a chocolate bottom oatmeal pie for desert and drank some hot tea before bed. The morning came quick and our alarm clock sung us awake at 6:00am. We dressed in layers. I had three pairs of pants on, three shirts and two jackets. Living in the Midwest on the shores of Lake Michigan had prepared me for the coldness of winter in any situation. Cold climate living provides residents with a knowledge that can only be gained from suffering through biting wind chills due to lack of preparation and proper dress. You only do that once in the Midwest and then forever afterward you arrive to cold situations over-dressed and over-prepared, realizing that it’s easier to lose a layer or two rather than being on the other end of the spectrum and needing another layer or two. Even with the layered clothing and preparation for the cold temperatures, sitting at 9,100 feet in the mountains, Bryce Canyon National Park becomes a frigid ice box once the mountain winds start howling. As we arrived at twilight to our first shooting spot for the morning, Hester and Charlotte cuddled between blankets in the back of the car. Charlotte sipped her breakfast tea and munched on some sheep milk yogurt, dehydrated berries and homemade nonfat granola. Greg and I surveyed our surroundings, looking for compositions and safe areas to set up our tripods. A tapestry of snow had fallen during our nighttime sleep, accumulating from 4-10 inches in different areas of the park. Being the first people in the canyon provided us with a carpet of untouched, shimmering, new snow. The winds were relentless, stinging the naked skin on my cheeks and nose and burning through the flesh on my lips. I wore my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the bitter gusts. Frost bite was a real concern that morning considering the strength and persistence of the cold winds. The wind chill wavered from 0 – 6 F and I pulled my outer winter jacket around my face attempting to protect it from the cold. Hours later my cheeks and nose would burn red with the kiss of winter and wind. We stood outside in the soundless park, facing the blustering cold as the sun began to wake for the day. The snowy cloudbank muted the light from the sun’s rising, creating a subtle yellow orb in the sky with no streaking lights to fill the pillars in the canyon. A flat winter light imperceptibly illuminated the ground before us but it did not cause the snow to shimmer or the salmon colored rock to glow. The light wasn’t right. The temperatures stayed well below freezing even as the sun began to rise in the sky. This is always a risk that photographers take as they face extreme temperatures in search of the light. Light is never certain and predicting how the weather will be comes down to good fortune more times than not. It was Christmas Day and we were treated with a white Christmas in the canyon that morning. We went out again in the early afternoon in hopes of catching some rays of light in the canyon. The soft, white palette of snow contrasted the red hues of Bryce Canyon’s towering columns of limestone. Each season has its principal color and each color sings a different story. Spring is decorated with a rainbow of flowers but overwhelmingly the Earth bleeds with green hues. Summertime is filled with straw colored grasses, overheated trees, and the golden rays of a hot desert sun. Fall is awakened by the reds of ivies and the soft amber saturation of falling leaves in front of a stormy sky. But winter holds the purest color in its white precipitation. As I stood and looked at the formations in the canyon I thought about the meaning of their color, the language that is used to describe them, and the stories that have encapsulated their essence. I was reminded of a story the Paiute tribe told about Bryce Canyon and how it came to be. In 1936, a Paiute Elder named Indian Dick narrated the legend of canyon: "Before there were any Indians, the Legend People, To-when-an-ung-wa, lived in that place. There were many of them. They were of many kinds – birds, animals, lizards and such things, but they looked like people. They were not people. They had power to make themselves look that way. For some reason the Legend People in that place were bad; they did something that was not good, perhaps a fight, perhaps some stole something….the tale is not clear at this point. Because they were bad, Coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces, with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks. The name of that place is Angka-ku-wass-a-wits (red painted faces). This is the story the people tell." (USNPS) Charlotte stood beside me, munching on a homemade granola bar as I repeated the words of the story. We looked at the red hoodoos and imagined the legend coming to life. The Coyote, standing on the overlook at Sunrise Point, as a powerful trickster he turns the To-when-an-ung-wa people into stone for their bad deeds. According to Kevin Poe, Chief of Interpretation at the park, the To-when-an-ung-wa peoples “were notorious for living too heavily upon the land” (Robert & Poe). This is why they were punished. Their unsustainable behaviors and lack of appreciation for the interconnected and systemic nature of the natural world caused their demise. Poe states, “They would drink up all these streams and the rivers in the springtime so there would be no water left for all the other creatures come summer” (NPR). And in the fall Poe describes how they would eat all of the pine nuts, leaving none for the survival of other animals during the frigid winter. The shameless overconsumption of the resource forced the rest of the animals in the area to bring the injustices to the attention of Coyote. Tricking the To-when-an-ung-wa people, Coyote invited them to a lavish banquet to feast for an entire day. They accepted his invitation and arrived adorned in war paint and fantastically colored clothing. As they sat at Coyote’s table, Poe says the Coyote cast a spell that turned them to stone. “The To-when-an-ung-wa tried to flee up over the top of the canyon rim, and in so doing –almost like a scene from the “Titanic” - you see them trampling on top of each other, writhing bodies trying to escape over the edge of the canyon, and clustered right on the brink” (Robert & Poe). In this version of the story, it was the unsustainable practices of the To-when-an-ung-wa peoples that instigated their rocky fate. At first glimpse these stories seem to provide a simple moral on the importance of sustainability practices and good behavior. What fascinates me about these tales is that they move beyond simple moral narratives, reinforcing the significance of calling a place by its true name. The Paitue elder and Kevin Poe both referred to the structures of the canyon as people, naming them “To-when-an-ung-wa”. Saying that name in a whisper on the rim of the canyon, I was reminded of the significance this landscape held to the Paiute peoples. This canyon was not named Bryce. The tribe that lived in harmony with this landscape had called it “Anga-ku-wass-a-wits”, naming it aptly for the red painted faces of the unsustainable “To-when-an-ung-wa” peoples that now stand silently in the canyon. “Anga-ku-wass-a-wits” is an endonym, a name for a geographical feature or place that is used by the people who originate from the area. “Bryce Canyon” then is an exonym, or a name that is used by outsiders to reference a certain area. I strongly believe in calling a landscape by its real name by using the languages from first peoples and try to find the appropriate endonyms and stories about each location we visit. My mother named me after the romantic Russian love story “Dr. Zhivago” written by Boris Pasternak. I have read the story countless times and even fallen in love with the film version. One of my favorite parts of the story is documented in the following quote. It has resonated with me for as long as I can remember and has helped inspire me to call each thing by its right name and to inspire my own child to bear witness to the remarkable beauties our world has to offer. “Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.” ― Boris Pasternak The visit to Anga-ku-wass-a-wits was the first part of our winter journey. We photographed in the cold of the canyon studying how snow storms moved across the landscape and how shadows and light danced together on the hundreds of hoodoo-people that stand as reminders of the importance of sustainability practices. The light never quite took off the way we had imagined it would, but at the end of the day, Greg and I both are satisfied with the images we made and the time we spent in the canyon, as a family, on Christmas day. It definitely was not a typical American holiday, but then again, we strive to be anything other than normal. We celebrated the holiday with living trees that were decorated in a delicate arrangement of snowflakes that had fallen during our visit. These trees were alive like you and I. They were alive like the flickering fire that sits beside me in my study this evening. This is the same fire that Rabbit stole from the Weasels and brought to my people to protect. We respected the trees and honored the canyon and the Paiute peoples who walked on the trails long ago. The gifts we gave to each other bore no resemblance to the material goods of common culture. We gave each other time, thoughtful discourse, and love. What more could anyone ask for from the people they love during the holidays? We gifted ourselves another experience in a lonely landscape and it was because of this remarkable present that we became closer to the lands of southern Utah and were better able to understand their unique stories and the disappearing languages that should been used to describe them. It is my hope that this tale of our winter journey serves a similar purpose to those who find themselves navigating through the words of my text. I hope that it inspires you to find a lonely landscape and to learn its history and stories. Speak the rightful names of the areas you visit and try to connect their history to your own experiences. In doing so, you will be more capable of translating the language of the land. This act of translation guides us on our own journey, chasing the light. My teacup is empty and I am afraid morning again will come quickly. I am retiring for the evening, but do rest assure there will be more to come later… References: Drink Starbucks? Wake Up And Smell The Chemicals! (2014, September 2). Retrieved December 29, 2014, from Kaye, L. (2013, May 23). Starbucks Is in a Unique Position To Push Consumers To Waste Less. Will It? Retrieved December 29, 2014, from Mayell, Hillary. "As Consumerism Spreads, Earth Suffers, Study Says." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 12 Jan. 2004. Web. 28 Dec. 2014. Siegel, Robert, and Kevin Poe. "A Paiute Take On Bryce Canyon's Hoodoos." NPR. NPR, 1 July 2008. Web. 29 Dec. 2014. . United States National Park Service. "American Indian History." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.

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