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Tuesday, October 25, 2011


AfterImage Series

Post 7

Petrographs, Petroglyphs, and Rock Art

One biting-bitter afternoon I walked over to the Grand Canyon archives. It was about 18 F and the inside of my nose froze. It was worth it, though. Mike Quinn, the Canyon's official photographer, has photographed nearly all of the rock paintings and petroglyphs--rock carvings or engravings--in the Park and the surrounding area. Mike said he wanted to live in a place that tilted toward nature rather than people. And that he hoped his images would help get word out to others that it's still possible to come to a place like the Grand Canyon and have an epiphany moment. To find that supra-human perspective on time and space. 

We talked about our kind's age-old desire to fuse the human and the lithic. My wedding of the "snapshot moment" captured in photographic memory to the "near eternity" of stone, and Native Americans' use of the Canyon walls as a palette that they worked with brushes and knives. Anytime any of us uses stone for artistic expression, it's an acknowledgement of our mortality. Our marks will be here after us; stone makes communication possible across time and acknowledges heartbreak, simultaneously. Stone borrows its emotion from us.

 I had a look at the archive and made some sketches. I love the fat man in a panic.

While I was there Kim, one of the archivists, showed me some things that were supposed to be ephemeral but thanks to the Canyon's dry heat, turned out to have some eternity to them. These split-twig figurines are between 3-5000 years old. They were new when Stonehenge was going up.

After my archives trip I visited the Desert Watch Tower, a structure based on Hopi architecture of the Southwest, built by architect Mary Colter in 1933. Colter asked artist Fred Greer to copy some of the regions petroglyphs and rock paintings inside the tower walls. The image that starts off this entry is one of Greer's beautiful copies. Climbing the tower was like being inside an animist otherworld wedged inside a conch shell.

Despite all that painted whimsy, what I remembered at night was this image of a petroglyph, photographed by Mike Quinn:

It looks to me like an image carved on the moon. I lay in bed thinking of it several nights in a row--mainly because I couldn't sleep. Altitude sickness showed up in me as insomnia. Here's my journal entry on "Sleeplessness." I've chosen the image above as my personal pictograph--my own ideogram--of Me in My Canyon Nights.

Thursday 3 February 2011

            Day and night have more ying and yang at the Canyon than they do in Massachusetts.

By day there is not only light but near-biblical Illumination. Bright, unclouded light streams into the apartment, revealing tiny cracks that the dry air pries open in my skin, around my eyes.  It pries the Canyon open, too, and fills it with color and form and distance and ravens.

But at night the Canyon becomes a hole—a black hole that wouldn’t even exist without memory’s help. Around 6:30 each evening, after 5 beeps—the alarm setting itself—the last of the shop keepers leaves, and after that there’s no sound but the clock and the wind. Sometimes I play music, but even Bruce-up-loud fills only a corner of the dark black silence. He sounds like a kid whistling to himself on a lonely road.

So this is what electricity is for. I put small lights on in the bedroom and kitchen, marking my trail. The living room is well lit until I go to bed. Bedtime is more sport than activity. It’s like training for an endurance event—long-distance running, maybe—that you approach with fondness, dread, weariness, and a little excitement. You have your rituals, you stretch and prep, and once you get started you hope you’ll find your stride.

I enjoy sitting in bed reading. Books always compete with their surroundings, but in the absence of almost everything they win hands down. Reading at the Canyon is a vivid, holistic experience. I’m drawn wholly into the text. But at the same time I’m not entirely at ease. When I stop reading and look over the top of the spine, I see a double of the bed, the red cloth that hangs behind it to block the window, and a woman in bed reading. It’s the reflection in the studio window, two rooms away on the far side of the apartment, and without my glasses it’s only the suggestion of a reflection.

I’m drawn to it but in a wary way. I wait for it to do something I’m not doing. Or for something to appear that has no match in my room. That I can’t really see it makes this monitoring challenging. It’s pointless, yet irrationally essential.

Reading and looking are preludes to sleep, and sleep is the sport itself.  I don’t sleep well here and I don’t know why. After the lights go out I seem to leave the human realm and enter an older, more primitive state. Like an animal whose wellbeing depends on non-stop sensory input, I can’t entirely shut my antennae off. I crave knowledge of what’s going on in the absence of activity and light and company.

There are two sounds: the wind howling—how loud depends on how far I’ve opened the canyon-side window—and the gurgling of the humidifier. The only humidifier on earth that jets out icy-cold steam.

I do sleep. I want to sleep, that’s why I’m in bed. To do so, however, I’ve had to gnaw off the corners of sleeping pills and hope for the best. I fill my mind with imaged static. One night I catalogued my clothes. Another I shopped at Hopi House. The best strategy is talking to the pup, stroking her head as she licks my nose and saying like a mantra, “P knows. P nose. P loves Tenby. P knows.” That often works. I wonder if she feels my touch 3000 miles away, at home.

I wake often, and each time try to claw my way back to my human self so I can retract my antenna. How rested I am in the morning depends on how well I succeed. (Note: I’ve since discovered that sleeplessness is a common response to high altitude. At 7000 ft., the altitude is high and sleep is not forthcoming…)




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