Shamanize or Die

Last night I dreamt of a bobcat.

At first light, I saw bent grasses where deer had lain turned a cerulean blue by the heavy frost; the long tongue-like leaves of yerba santa (Eriodictyon Californica) were rimed with white and nearby the intense pink flowers of wand buckwheat, apparently untouched by the cold, pierced the grey, green and white of this chaparral winter morning.

Yesterday evening I was reading about the influence of shamanism on the poetry of Ted Hughes (1930-1998), while Lorrie sat beside me in front of an oak fire watching Werner Hertzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams on her lap top. We talked about the film, in the (cave-like) dark when we awoke, just before dawn. Later, but in the still early morning, I watched the second half of Six Generations, Paul Goldsmith's film on a Santa Barbara Chumash family. This is how my imaginative life is made - of which this blog attempts a flickering reflection. Reflections, it must be said, that become, recursively, part of my life.

I had not thought about Ted Hughes since sometime in 1964 (except in the moments that he was linked, journalistically, to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) whose suicide-enhanced celebrity shelf-life has thus far eclipsed her husband's) until I wrote the words "in a white, 1960's 3.8 Jag Mk. II" (Ghostburb) which put me in mind of the Hughes' poem  O, White Elite Lotus.

In 1964, at Farnham Grammar School (founded in 1560 during the reign of Elizabeth 1), there was a rare moment when the upper sixth car and motorcycle junkies came together with the English lit. aesthetes to celebrate both the car and the poem. I was, not quite uniquely, a member of both cliques, and for a few weeks, Ted Hughes was The Man, a great contemporary poet with an eye for winsome American girls and beautiful, racy, English cars.

During our final two years of high-school, with most of our fellow students having left at age sixteen, we specialized in three or four subjects and each of us had different schedules - only coming together in the upper-sixth study when the day began and ended. In this small room, with space for about fifteen desks we chatted, across disciplines as it were, about our shared passions. While I studied English Literature, History and Studio Art, I also joined with my fellows, and the lower sixth, several afternoons a week when we ran, jumped and threw javelin, discus and shot-put and chased, propelled and sometimes caught balls of different size, color and shape through the seasons (but in my memory, almost always in muddy fields).

Away from our studies and games, in those few weeks, when most of the world was focused on Vietnam, the Beatles or Martin Luther King being awarded the Nobel Peace prize, we spent time in our study, or the library, and continued our parsing of,

"Steel, glass-ghost
Of a predator's mid-air body conjured
Into a sort of bottle.
Flimsy-light, like a squid's funeral bone,
Or a surgical model
Of the uterus of The Great Mother of The Gods."

and so on......

Yes, we thought, that was about as good an explanation as we were going to get of the strange affinity between pressed sheet metal and the great mysteries of sex, the divine and the natural world - connections which we instinctively understood but were anxious to have confirmed. Thus we young Romantics and tender gearheads could, for a moment, gather around a single icon - Colin Chapman's completely unattainable and totally desirable little Lotus Elite.

A couple of months ago, in a room of similar size to the upper sixth's study, but in an institution of higher learning - UCLA - I met the film-maker Paul Goldsmith after a lapse of some twenty five years. He and his wife Peta had been our first architectural clients after Lorrie and I graduated from Architecture School. Scrunched into a basement room in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, where I was gathered with Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg and a half dozen other Rock Art volunteers involved in the publication of The Rock Art of Little Lake, An Ancient Crossroads in the California Desert,  Paul arrived to discuss the possibility of including our work in his upcoming film on Alan Garfinkel's research in the Cosos. He left us with a DVD of his last film, Six Generations, shown recently on KCET, a copy of which sits in my iBook G4.

Six Generations is a singularly touching record of a contemporary Santa Barbaran woman, Ernestine De Soto, whose family history reaches back to the time of first contact between Europeans and Native Californians. She has chosen to assume a contemporary Chumash identity and in her telling, privileges the Native American fragments of her history; in a similar manner I could trace my roots back to that ancient Briton, Boadiccea. Nevertheless, this is a genuine and heartfelt channeling of lives who, from cradle to grave, fill the historical space of the colonial occupation and genocide and her story is sensitively presented by Paul.

His new work with Garfinkel will tell another story. In the world of Californian archaeology Garfinkel is a reactionary, yet he has staked out the biggest archaeological prize in the State, the Coso Rock Art Monument at China Lake (Things fall Apart). Paul, knowingly or not, is now a party to the promotion of the Garfinkel ideology.

My introduction to California rock art was through David S. Whitley's The Art of the Shaman, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2000 - a title that tells you all you need to know about Whitley's understanding of the provenance of rock art production. Garfinkel has returned to an older, largely discredited theory that maintains that the production of big horn sheep imagery is an example of an 'increase ritual' whereby good fortune in hunting is assured through the serial production of the prey's graven image. As Garfinkel coyly notes in his Paradigm Shifts, Rock Art Studies, and the “Coso Sheep Cult” of Eastern California, in North American Archaeologist, Spring 2007, "These glyphs have played a prominent role in attempts to understand forager religious iconography". He goes on to admit this 'hunting magic' hypothesis has become marginalized by the now prevailing view that sees most rock art as an expression of individual shamanistic endeavor, then goes on to attempt the older theory's resuscitation.

We at Little Lake have largely signed on to the prevailing wisdom and while there is no preponderance of big-horn sheep imagery around the lake, there are literally hundreds of atlatl motifs (images of weighted, spear throwing sticks) pecked into the basalt cliff that rises in the south east corner of the lake - motifs that are almost certainly connected with coming of age rituals overseen by the priestly class, the shamans. We have not, therefore, fully embraced Whitley's notion that these glyphs are uniquely a product of shamanic vision quests - lithic jottings as astral plane reportage; but equally, we have not regressed to Garfinkel's quaint position. We take a nuanced, wide-ranging view that admits the complex motivations for rock art production over the last ten thousand years or more.

It is, of course, the shamanic tradition that is at the root of my interest in petroglyphs. These wizards and magicians (Strange Land) are the human sinew that connect the material and spiritual planes. A role, perhaps, that poets now play. Ted Hughes explicitly links the poetic and shamanic experience and regards both as being nurtured by the romantic temperament. The shaman is usually called to duty by dreaming of an animal, often an eagle, that then becomes a 'familiar' acting as the dreamer's liason with the spirit world (Eliade). The crisis Hughes believed shaman-poets had to deal with was, as he called his essay on Eliot, The Convulsive Desacralization of the West. Once the shaman (or poet) hears the call, Hughes writes, he must "shamanize or die".

I am mindful of  Hughes' admonition: but the odd appearance of a bobcat in a dream does not, I believe, rise to the level of a call.

1 comment:

  1. I've yet to see Coso unfortunately. When I'm looking at petroglyphs I usually find myself looking for stylized centipedes (death and magic). One of the things that amazes me is how far certain stylized symbols spread - that certain living things are given such prominence and represented in the same stylized way strongly suggests that the style had spread, rather than being multiple independent reinventions. Case in point, you can find those centipedes at least as far north as Modoc territory on the CA-OR line, and east across the Colorado. It doesn't seem that petroglyph-drawing was common enough to have been a part of everyone's life and certainly not the first piece of information people would have exchanged during trade, which is exactly why it's so interesting.