Thursday, September 09, 2010

An Absence Stronger Than Time

Out on the fringe of the little desert, you take a twisted path between two hills, arriving into a hidden, natural amphitheatre. There, up the slope to the right, you will find rocks arranged by the hand of man.

You see them, above, in the center of the photograph.

The rocks are placed in the fashion of a small fireplace. They are blackened on the interior, in a manner indicating many years of use; so many that even the wind and rain of those same years has not faded the fire's evidence.

The snap theory, subscribed to by local archaeologists who specialize in the romantic, immediately suggests this is an old Native American signal fire. The archaeologists speculate that native people used it to communicate with the low ridge across the way. If you subscribe to dianoetic explanations of what are fundamentally intuitive decisions, more power to you.

It is one thing to make determinations based on what is present, but quite another to make them based on what is absent.

I found this place four years ago, when I was out chasing rainbows in the back yard.  For some reason, the discovery struck me as singular. I did not think I had found a signal fire. I thought I had found a magical fire.

I revisited the site many times, and jumped through all the usual research hoops. These efforts failed to bring satisfaction. Finally, I did what anybody else would do. When spring came, I set up camp out there, and waited to hear what the earth might have to say.

Center stage at the Amphitheatre of the Winds

That spring seemed like a sad time in my life. A blue bird flew away into the blue sky. I was left behind, living inside that orange caterpillar you see in the photograph, cooking the same orange soup every night, for sixty nights in a row.

Well, it beats County.

When I look back now, I somehow think that spring was a grand time in my life. Discursive imputation works just that way. The show was over, the stage was empty, and there was no new booking that I knew of. You can't hold your breath expecting the dakinis to laugh. You have to give up expecting anything, and let them laugh when they want to.

I rang a bell, and tapped a drum, until ritual insulted righteousness. The spirits took over. You sit around long enough, stare at enough stones, and sip enough soup -- sooner or later, you relax into the instruction. You don't have any other choice. Everything dissolves into light. Know what I mean? The light that dissolves into you, right before you slip into a syllable from the first language, and dissolve yourself.

At night in this place, the winds are from all directions. This is a place carved by winter water, to be true, but it is polished by the winds of all seasons. In a way, it is like the winds are born here. I do not know how else to say this.

First, the wind comes from the west, circles around a few times, and escapes down the trail switching right, left, right. Then, after an interval, a north wind comes and does the same thing. This is followed by an east wind, and a south wind, after which there is silence.

In the spring, in this place, in the smallest hour of the night, after the winds of the primary directions have danced and the dance has been signed with silence, suddenly the winds of all directions burst simultaneously from the ground. They radiate into the sky, and then they return -- blasting at intervals down what was once a trail but is now a birth canal.

No, that was not a signal fire.

A group of Native Americans in the Mojave Desert region, circa 1871

We do not know much about the people who arranged those rocks. We call them the "Serrano," but that was not their name. We estimate that circa 1700 to 1800, there may have been around 1,500 of them.

Mission San Gabriel, circa late 1800s. It still stands.

In 1771, the Jesuit mission was founded at San Gabriel, and the following year Spanish explorers entered the territory. In 1812, the Serrano, together with the Cahuilla and Yuma revolted against the missions. Seven years later, the native peoples began internecine warfare -- too weak to reach their enemies, they turned upon themselves. By mid-century, when the first smallpox epidemic struck, most had been removed forcibly to the missions. The epidemic of 1840 was followed by another in 1860. In 1875, the survivors were placed on reservations.

In 1910, a census was conducted. There were 118 people left.

By the time ethnographers and anthropologists came, circa the early 1920s, the Serrano were gone. The scholastic artifacts we have are A.L. Kroeber's Handbook of the Indians of California, submitted to the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution in early 1919, and published in 1925; Ruth Fulton Benedict's "A Brief Sketch of Serrano Culture," reflecting field work done in 1922 with A.L. Kroeber, published in American Anthropologist, in 1924, and William Duncan Strong's Aboriginal Society in Southern California, published by the University of California, in 1929. I mention this because Kroeber, Benedict and Strong relied on the same informants, all Cahuilla. Their principal informant was a Cahuilla woman who had married into the Serrano. By 1922, nobody could find enough Serrano to put together a quorum.
"[A]ctual knowledge of the old conditions has almost disappeared."
                                                     --William Duncan Strong (1929)
I believe this is so sadly eloquent. What these anthropologists actually did was chronicle the death of the Serrano. I want to emphasize this, because this is in fact one of the reasons I am writing this narrative for you.

When you examine these works, you are seeing what it looks like when a spiritual tradition dies. You are reading the post mortem on the death of a culture.

So fragile, you know? In less than a century they dwindled to nothing, and then they were gone; their language the first thing to die. As I read these works, Ce qu'il reste de nous kept running through my mind: what happened to the Serrano in the 19th century is essentially what is happening to the Tibetans in the 21st century.

So, then -- what remained of them --

"Rather than time or no time,
measurement of time now redundant,
a single unbroken flow,
without beginning, middle, or end..."

We have the scholastic works, just mentioned; as to their reliability, nobody can judge. We have didactic stones: petroglyphs, and blackened rocks. We have our shared humanity. We have our own hearts. We have the landscape of spirits.

We have a birthplace for the winds.

About a hundred yards or so southwest of the fireplace, outside of the amphitheatre proper, I came upon another man-made arrangement. While the rocks seem to be the same vintage as those of the fireplace, and while they do show some slight evidence of burning, it is impossible to say with any precision when they were stacked, or why. Out here, when you see a stack of rocks, it doesn't necessarily have to be Native Americans. It can be -- and more often than not actually is -- their nemesis, the miner. However, the stones stacked by miners have their own logic. They are used as monuments on claims, and follow a particular pattern. No such pattern is in evidence here.

When you go to ground level, you see that the monument is on a line due west of a promontory on that near ridge visible in the photograph above. That promontory is called Chimney Rock, now commemorated as the site of the last Indian battle in Southern California, in the winter of 1867.

It was a bad winter. The native peoples were starving, denied their own lands in the mountains. About sixty of them set out to pillage. They not only shot horses, they ate them on the spot.  They let go of a lot of rage, burning cabins, and barns. They shot men with guns and arrows. If a hell being is a sentient being, then where do his sins in hell send him? When measurement of time becomes redundant, how long can he stay?

A posse of white men mounted a thirty-two day punitive campaign, in reprisal for the raids, and it came to conclusion at Chimney Rock. Actually, the real fighting took place on the other side of that ridge, in a dry lake. The contest ended when both sides lost heart. The posse turned around and went home. The native peoples dispersed over that ridge, headed in the direction of this monument. After that, they would fight no more.

I already said that I found this place one day when I saw a rainbow in the hills. Naturally, I went over to see the terminus, and found the rock fireplace instead. After a time, I found the rock monument. It just happened that way.

Perhaps you will recall I also said that it is one thing to make determinations based on what is present, but something else to make them based on what is absent.

Now I want to say that there comes a time when you run out of virtue and you run out of vice. For whatever reason, things that once seemed so important, don't seem important anymore. One minute you can be holed up in the hills, trading shots with the posse, sweat on your brow. The next minute you put up your gun, and walk away on the pathless path to the holy ground. That, in itself, ought to be accomplishment enough for anybody. Virtue doesn't improve on perfection, and vice can't injure it either. When you take yourself out of any given equation, and appreciate the way the wind dances without trying to solve anything, everything gets solved right then and there.

You can stack up rocks out in the desert, and maybe burn some sage. There are enough rocks and enough sage to do it over and over. If the only one place you know to do it is where the wind dances, then that is because you believe this is where it belongs.

Do not give up this place to go find another place.

Do not define this place by what you find here.

Understand it by what is not here at all.

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8 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

Pardon me, out of topic:

a strange colony of rabbits in the center of Paris :)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the absence of native american people in real life, that the spirit carries on, you are sensitive enough to sense the past in the present!

Dechen said...

I don't think this article is about rocks or Indians. I think this article is an illustrative commentary on the Dzogchen principle of "absence" as expressed by Longchenpa, and very beautifully written at that. It is as if Rinpoche has taken us by the hand and very slowly walked with us, pointing out the things we miss. So wonderful!

O said...

and then there was the naked instruction of

descend with the view and ascend with the conduct, as before one runs out of vice it is rather solid
and still oscillates even when spent as does the more transparent virture

the natives around here are still speaking their languages and some still possess all of their ceremonies

question is as to the demise of the tibetans is how effective are the chinese schools??? here it was a catholic inspired holi-caust after cortez's rape of the women and murder of all children and men and over then 50% of the students in those early boarding schools did not make it to third grade alive in those schools or so old rumors go... nothing like yamantaka wrapping himself in the skin of a child...
emptiness with a sting.

Don said...

See the fifth photo down in This Post
for more rocks in the Desert.

TENPA said...

Similar situation.

mindyourmind said...

I hate to sound like a sixteen year old fanboy, but this site has just become so important to me. I have to visit it even as the first coffee of the morning is brewing.

"Thank you" doesn't quite get there, but it's all I have at this stage.

An article like this one .... let me rather shut up.

Anonymous said...

This is an extraordinary article that seems almost like inner outer and secret being expressed all at the same time. Some people say there is no treasure in America but there is and Tenpa Rinpoche has found it.