(CONTINUED FROM BLOG POST, “Toward a Sense of Place 1“)
(See the photograph full screen: Click Here.)
By Philip Hyde
From Navajo Wildlands: As Long As The Rivers Shall Run
Sierra Club—Ballantine Books 1967
*Note: Beware of using this as a travel guide. The areas where people are allowed and the approaches to them may have changed since 1965. Also, the politically correct term for the native people now is their own word, “Dineh,” in its various spellings, rather than the Spanish word in common practice then, “Navajo.”
Toward A Sense of Place (Continued)
In the Spring of 1965, when heavy runoff in the canyons kept even the Park Service vehicles out, many of the Navajo men walked into the canyons to start their spring plowing and planting. There are more horse-drawn wagons in the Canyon de Chelly region than almost anywhere else, with good reason—they still rely on dependable foot power in traveling the canyon bottoms.
The best way really to feel the country is to visit it in many seasons and to know something about it beforehand. In a region where so much geology is laid bare, a smattering of geology is illuminating, and of prehistory, for the evidences of ancient occupation a searching eye will discover. The petroglyphs and pictographs fascinate me. We were delighted by the humor in a petroglyph some eight centuries old—with its wonderful incised figures of Kokopeli, lying on his back with one knee up, playing the flute. Some of the pictographs in Canyon de Chelly are sheer drama. The Ute Fight Mural, a Navajo charcoal drawing of about a hundred years ago, portrays a battle between Navajos and Utes. A short distance farther up the same canyon is a drawing depicting the coming of Spaniards on horseback.
The pictographers knew with assurance what they wanted to record. My own processes in deciding what a photographer should report were less sure. I started out with several ideas, rejected them, and reluctantly concluded that I should emphasize the land, not the people. I had read more about the country, been exposed more to it. I found the Navajos fascinating and beautiful. They fit their land far better than whites fit theirs. Yet, I felt that emphasis on the people would preclude the sense of place, a sense that I think the Navajos themselves feel strongly.
They also value highly their personal privacy. One can try to make grab shots, which violate that sense of privacy, or spend enough years living and working with the people to know how not to violate. I would not do the former and couldn’t do the latter. I hoped that the absence of a human figure would not suggest the absence of a human eye, and that mine would be sensitive enough to the Navajo’s own sensitivity to his land. This hope was the basic challenge. There were other challenges.
Some Navajo areas are nationally known and celebrated; others are neither. I wanted both. Photographers must also fuss with logistics, and I would try to do my share. They also need intuition and luck. I rarely wait for something to happen. I haven’t the patience, and besides, there are usually too many things around already happening. So I hoped to be in the right places when the light said now!
(See the photograph full screen: Click Here.)
I remember a storm-lit view of Canyon de Chelly. It had just stopped raining heavily when my wife came charging into the back office of the Visitor Center and said, “Come out and see what’s happening over on the rim.” Together we grabbed camera and gear and ran half a mile or more to the edge of the canyon. A shaft of sharp yellow light was burning its way through a rent in the clouds. Still breathing heard, I managed to set up the camera, calculate the exposure, and release the shutter. Thirty seconds later the clouds closed, and the light was gone.
I begin to see when I leave the car behind. The immensity of the Navajo country, however, made working with the car essential in many places. Nevertheless, the times I remember with most pleasure are those when we were walking around Navajo Mountain into the canyons of the Rainbow Plateau, or backpacking to Keet Seel. These were the wilderness experiences, and the others are pale. For more on wilderness see the blog post, “Wallace Stegner: The Wilderness Idea.”
Navajo Mountain was another adventure, thanks again to the primitiveness of a road. There is something exciting about a rough dirt road into new country, particularly if its remoteness is famous. At Rainbow Lodge Trading Post, you are about as far from pavement as a Navajo can get. Kayenta once had such remoteness, as did Monument Valley. Remoteness vanished when the high-standard paved highway came.
We arrived at the Rainbow Post in late afternoon to find Myles Headrick, the trader, busy with several groups of customers. We sat on grain sacks piled against the wall and we watched the trading process. We couldn’t understand the soft exchange of words in Navajo, but we could watch facial expressions and gestures, hear the modulations and occasional chuckles. We spent an hour or more cultivating what Sally Carrighar, in Moonlight at Midday, calls the Quiet Mind. She speaks of it as an Eskimo trait, but the Navajos share it. I think we could expect to find it in any individual or any people who have kept touch with what the land is saying and who lack the benefits of instant dissemination of the human troubles that make news.
Relaxed and willing, we waited out four days of rain before starting our descent into the canyons of the Rainbow Plateau. But first we had to go down about four miles to our Navajo packer’s Hogan. We navigated more than drove, for the road was all too often a sea of mud. Somehow we made it down to the sandy flat below the Mountain’s shoulder, and found our way among the maze of tracks to the Hogan. We were pleased to be asked in, but the darkness that had begun while we visited was not too reassuring when we left the hogan’s snugness. How would you put on film our apprehension of that slippery slide to Rainbow Lodge? Or how we kept moving, foot by foot, grateful for the rocky places that had once worried our tires? Or how time was suspended in our concentration until, an infinity later, our headlights found the Trading Post? This is the kind of adventure that highway engineers seem determined to wipe out, and what diminishes this diminishes me. Whom does an overtamed world serve?
Our Navajo Mountain adventure took on a new aspect two mornings later when our packer brought up his retinue of three horses, four people, and two dogs….
(CONTINUED IN BLOG POST, “Toward a Sense of Place 3“)