Pyramid Power

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

A field of flowers is a powerful thing. Heading up the hill, my vision was filled with the miniature pointillism of the alpine meadow that rose up before me. For a moment, I was lost in the celestial matrix that the tiny flowers described. Asters, phlox, and stonecrop, it seemed, reflected some heavenly order, as though in floral reification of the ancient cabalist's dictum of as above so below.

On this field of flowers there was no sign of its medieval accompaniment, the Unicorn, but once up on the ridge and heading over bitter brush (Purshia tridentata) and sage (Artemesia tridentata), the foundational shrubs of these high prairie grasslands, I saw a female pronghorn antelope and its tiny calf scamper down the track.

Alert Reader, you may have the feeling we're not in California anymore.......

The trails over the 100,000 acre ranch where Lorrie's family holds its annual retreat, are maintained primarily for the benefit of horse and rider. Searching out wildflowers involves both the recurring stench of horse manure and the proliferation of Canadian thistles spread by the horses, for whom the seed head of this noxious weed is a favorite treat.

Buffalo still graze these pastures, but as a domesticated breed rather than the rampaging herds of yesteryear. Cattle have negatively impacted the grasslands because of the constancy of their grazing within fenced boundaries; wild herds of Bison, by contrast, were nomadic over vast areas - grazing, fertilizing and breaking up the soil crust in one area before moving on, and rarely visiting one particular spot more than once in a year. The wild buffalo, despite the density of their herds, tended to have a beneficial impact on the native flora by cropping, enriching the soil and enabling water penetration.

A few short centuries ago, the high prairies were home to vast herds of these animals that, over their entire North American range, may have numbered up to 60 million. Buffalo numbers, swelled by the reduction of the native population (their lone predator) through introduced disease and systematic annihilation, were then brought close to zero after the Civil War in a frenzy of industrial-scale killing by Anglo-American 'sportsmen'.

The horse, closely associated with Plains Indians of the historic era and with ranching (and thus with our notions of the Old West), like the cow, is a non-native species, although it's remote ancestor Eohippus evolved some 50 million years ago in the woodlands of North America. It's extinction on this continent occurred about 10,000 B.C.E. suspiciously close to the arrival of north-eastern Asians bearing Clovis flint points capable of downing the mega-fauna that still roamed the land (despite the stresses of climate change at the end of the Ice Age). The horse, by then of something approaching modern-day size, was collateral damage in this slaughter, but it survived on the steppes of Eurasia and was re-introduced by the Spanish in the sixteenth century to become emblematic of the roaming cowboy lifestyle.

Now, the smaller of the above-mentioned meat bearing ungulates and the horse continue to be both the real and mythic underpinnings of the guest-ranch where the Brown family were quartered early this June in what was once the south west tip of the Archean era Wyoming Craton, formed about 2.5 Billion years ago, and which constituted the initial core of the continental crust of North America.

The passageways, over earth and through sky, in which I journeyed between Upper Ojai and this ancient, seed pearl Craton, were experienced as placeless, dead zones: Sargasso Seas wherein float the hectoring detritus of corporate America. By plane (Boeing 737) and rental car (Hyundai Accent) I voyaged across the heartland wrapped in a civilizational membrane which held me in a state of fecklessness, helpless before the assault of the meretricious and the ribbon-like erasures of Eisenhower’s Interstates: except for a moment when increasing sleepiness forced me to pull off the highway. Escaping the cocoon, I ventured where landscape and memory went unbranded, to a memorial which time had forgot - a memorial to a passageway from the past, the nineteenth century Transcontinental Railway.

Along a mile of dirt road, urged on by signage proclaiming an historic monument, the pyramid that rears up on the featureless plain is almost alien in its red-rock, Martian adumbrations. It retains, in its two-stepped form, an echo of its formal progenitor, the ziggurat. On each of its eastern and western faces, midway on the upper tier, “a shattered visage lies" and thus the monument inevitably (for me) references the collapsed edifice in the boundless desert sands of Egypt, conjured by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem of 1818, and on which is inscribed,

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The land in which we voyaged was genuinely “Antique” (Interstate 80 had already broached the mighty Craton) and truly,

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

What, I wondered, was the source of this double-headed exercise in egregious hubris? Helpful plaques provided by Wyoming State Parks were at hand. Built in the 1880's a few years after the death of both of the Ames brothers whose bullet pocked faces adorn the upper reaches of the pyramid, and designed by the noted architect H.H. Richardson, it was financed by the Union Pacific Railway to restore the reputations of the brothers who, while achieving the goal of building the Transcontinental Railroad (originally at Lincoln's behest), did so while inflating the costs, bribing half of Congress and cheating the taxpayer.

But the relevance of what was intended to be an enduring monument beloved of those who traveled the Transcontinental Railway (it was built close to the high point of the iron road) was cut short In the 1890's when Union Pacific went broke, the railway was re-routed to the south, and the tourist town that had sprung up around the memorial withered and died. The monument itself was thus left in the almost perfect isolation in which I stumbled across it - a memorial to a proto-modern passageway, little more engaging of the world, perhaps, than today's equivalents, but uniquely capable, in the late nineteenth century, of providing a moving platform from which buffalo might be shot.

At the Ranch, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of cousins-by-marriage about Urban Wildland - both the blog and the house in the chaparral where is lived the life upon which it is loosely based. I mentioned in passing that some find the blog pieces indigestible. I have since come across a far better description of this project in lines that Virginia Woolf used to slam James Joyce after reading Ulysses ("an illiterate, underbred book") in which she characterizes the work as that "of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating"......Well, I do try.

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