Bryce Canyon National Park: 8000 feet.
Why is it that I feel haunted here? It is true that the rarified air brings memories of camping trips in the high country of Yosemite when my sons were young, of sipping black currant tea at the picnic table late afternoons while they napped in the camper. Yes, there is that uniqueness of the dry heat of midday trails and the pinch of cold at night around blazing campfires. The high country places demands on the body: at first, the great need for water, then rest to ward off headaches and nausea, and then, after two or three days, if you take it easy, the payoff: a coming ease of air in lungs and the experience of absolute lightness. It is an experience of following your body’s agenda!
My husband and I have come to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in preparation for a talk I am to give on environment and psyche at a Jung Institute event in December (Celebrating composer Messiaen’s Des Canyons Aux Etoiles ,“From the Canyons to the Stars”— more to come on this). Messiaen’s piece was inspired by both Bryce Canyon and Zion.
I have never been in these particular environments before. I am overcome with the feeling of companionship even as I hike alone. The feeling is close to nostalgia, and certainly the thin air and the sound of the wind through pine needles are familiar and bring happy memories. But something different is here too, a whisper that I cannot quite hear— and the hoodoos (tall towers of eroded rock so prevalent in Bryce Canyon) are otherworldly and strange. As I read the history of this land, which until the last century was Southern Paiute territory, I question: do I feel the ancestors of this land? Southern Paiute Clifford Jake said, “The rocks, they got a song in it, the traditional songs… The song comes from the murmur of the wind, the murmur of the trees and birds.”
Am I hearing a song? What song is in the rocks these days? There is so much grief— of ways of life ended; of languages forbidden, then forgotten; of ancestral lands taken by Mormons for building their own Kingdom of God, by miners for the gold and other minerals found here, by cowboys and the Navajo for rangeland.
Yet the song of holiness is here too. When people emerge from the lodge at Zion National Park, without exception, they reflexively look upward: up past the gigantic cottonwood that shelters picnicking families throughout the day, up the verticality of cliffs, and farther up, to the turquoise sky. In moments like this we feel our smallness. We feel the Divine. The maze of the canyons of Zion are unlike any I have experienced. They go on and on, mile after mile. You are dwarfed in beauty, for hours or days. Beauty, perceived by the heart, is a portal to the Divine, and the beauty here is relentless.
And this awe is in Bryce Canyon too. Scores of people gather before dawn on the rim to watch the sun appear over the mountain to the east and illuminate the awaiting hoodoos below.
I can only image the grief of those who knew these lands for centuries, or millennia, who depended on the places within these canyons for good water, to harvest grasses and piñon nuts, and hunt game. Southern Paiute territory was desert, extending over large parts of southern Utah, and into Nevada, California, and Arizona. In such a difficult desert environment, spiritual perspective became a necessity for survival of the soul. As Southern Paiute Kaibab Band Vivienne Caron-Jake puts it, “They each had a strong spiritual sense of self, rooted to their relationship to the land and all living things (Hebner, Southern Paiute: A Portrait, p. xii).
In this time of environmental crisis, there is much to learn from our Earth and from people who have revered it. Land that has been related to in sacred ways, glows. Zion and Bryce glow. In that soft goldenness, we are in the eternal present. Then we might feel that “touch” of something else, “hear” the ancestors speak and the songs the rock still knows. In this time of great earth change, perhaps they remind us that Heaven is in Earth, if only we slow down, accept even heartbreak of great loss, and walk the spiritual path of receptivity to that land which sustains us.