In the past few weeks I’ve experienced the eerie synchronicity that visits the writer in research mode. I’ve been taking a virtual tour upriver on the Nile River in three different centuries at once, while learning about the sacred rivers in my immediate neighborhood, the Mississippi and the Minnesota. A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of accompanying a Dakota History and Culture class on a brief tour of well-known Dakota sacred sites in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. I learned that people held ceremonies and gatherings in these places of power, connected with both the above-ground and underground river systems, but did not settle there. I also heard about the Kafkaesque business of documenting traditional use of such places, when “documentation” typically means “written documents.”
When I returned to the photographs of the massive temples on the Nile, a ghostly voice in my head said, “It looks like a junkyard.”
There is practice and experience on the one hand, and then there are monuments and marks on the landscape. In thinking about the timeline of human experience in North America, my sense of time shifted; 5000 years is an eye-blink, really, for all that it comprises nearly the entire experience of settled agriculture and so-called civilization. Nearly all of the sources I’m reading glorify empires and their works, although empire, indeed living in cities, is an experiment of very short duration. Living in the same place for millennia, people learn things that aren’t obvious at first glance: the rhythm of the seasons, the flow of the underground rivers, which places are healthy in which seasons, what things are good to eat and how to gather them without driving them to extinction. The civilizations about which I am reading had begun to alter their environment 2000 years ago; the biblical cedars of Lebanon subsist now on the scale of bonsai. The logic of empire is the logic of cancer: steady growth and increasing consumption.
When I was twelve years old, my parents drove from Ohio to North Carolina and thence to Texas to visit my father’s far-flung family. I remember looking at nineteenth-century structures in Wilmington, North Carolina and thinking, “That was built by slave labor.” (In fact, with justice the same can be said of twentieth-century structures as well, given the actual practice of convict labor which served to extend the de facto term of slavery in the United States into my lifetime.)
Now I’m thinking about the grave robbers who took the treasures of the Great Pyramid, against all the cleverness of the builders and within their lifetimes. It must have been an inside job, I think. I wonder how well it sat with those builders and workers, the notion that the boss would continue to be the boss in the world beyond the grave.
And that’s another story.