Sheryl Clough has worked as a teacher, editor, whitewater river guide, paralegal, and egg packer in an Alaskan salmon cannery. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she designed and taught UAF’s first writing course linked to environmental literature. Her poems, stories and essays have appeared in Spindrift, Explorations, Storyboard, Sierra, Travelers Tales, Soundings Review and many others. Recent honors include a creative nonfiction prize from Jane’s Stories Press Foundation and the William Stafford Award from Washington Poets Association. In February 2013, Sheryl gave a featured reading at the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, which awarded first prize to her chapbook Ring of Fire, Sea of Stone. You can reach her at Scatchetpoet@gmail.com.
Under Sand and Shadow
Early morning rousts the Sedona, Arizona desert, where I have come to hike in Boynton Canyon, one of the “power vortexes” revered by New Age religions. I want to experience the sensations reported by the faithful: voices and visions at least, spiritual rebirth at best. I come prepared to disbelieve, but maybe this exercise can vindicate the pride I take in keeping an open mind.
As I stuff the voices of cynicism back into their brain cavities, desert shadows retreat, changing the landscape from a purple place to a rage of red. Under rising light, scarlet sandstone cliffs leap nearer to the observer’s face. Millions of quartz inclusions, some no larger than the punctures made by hawk talons, reflect in the gathering sun and blind the eye with collective glitter. Along the cliff tops, hoodoos strut. Their fantastic shapes suffer from over-used comparisons: giant punctuation marks; guardians of the desert; chess pieces. What many formations really resemble is erect penises, red shafts jutting up to overhanging limestone rims shaped by centuries of dripping moisture. In the jumbled priapic landscape, another desert day begins.
Twenty years of relentless Catholic indoctrination have spawned a healthy body of suspicion through which to view Boynton Canyon. Specifically, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception kicked my adolescent rebellion into high gear. I remember standing in the choir loft of St. Mary’s Church between the Holbein sisters, Eileen and Nancy, singing the Latin Mass. We three, plus my sister and the oldest Holbein, Judith, made up the whole choir, plus Flo, the curly-haired organist who was as much a fixture in that church as the sculpted Stations of the Cross that lined the walls and seemed to have been forever in place. A child interested in things scientific, I had been trying to work out in my brain the mechanics of the Immaculate Conception. I failed, and the illogic struck me mid-phrase while singing et cum spiritu tuo: if conception without intercourse equals immaculate, then any other conception equals not immaculate, equals dirty. I was thirteen and didn’t know much about any kind of intercourse, but that thought struck me like a high-speed fist between my eyebrows.
Once planted in fertile adolescent soil, the doubt seedling sprouted many branches. Endless questions pestered my mind, presenting themselves at random times during my daily routine: while riding my bike to the store, or feeding the cat, or walking over to my best friend Joanne’s house. Was the Communion wafer really the body of Christ, and the wine His blood? Could our sins actually be forgiven by something so painless as reciting ten rosaries? Why eat fish on Fridays? Why couldn’t Catholic kids go to our non-Catholic friends’ churches? How come I can’t be a Rainbow Girl? (This was especially galling, because all the most popular girls in school belonged to Rainbow, an offshoot of the mysterious Masons.) What was wrong with the movies on the infamous “Condemned” list, anyway? I became convinced that only by eating forbidden fruit could I attain any real knowledge, and felt great pride when I managed to sneak into the old Avalon Theater on Monroe’s Main Street for a screening of “The Millionairess,” one of the films listed as Condemned. Thirty years later, all I can remember is a scene in which a slinky robe slides to floor to reveal a woman’s bare back. So much for “real knowledge.”
By 1980 or so, I had discarded the dead leaves of my Catholic training, and had not filled the resulting spiritual abyss in any consistent way. Still no hard-boiled skeptic, though, I occasionally considered other philosophies ranging from the well-established to half-baked. On a friend’s recommendation, I read Dick Sutphen’s book about the vortexes around Sedona. He quoted many people retelling their spiritual experiences at the four alleged power centers. They reported visions of Indian people, “The Ancients,” thought probably descended from Lemurians, the aliens who took up residence in the caverns deep within northern California’s Mount Shasta. Other believers heard voices advising them to quit their jobs, move to other cities, or change occupations. Still others saw auras, often around Bell Rock, a high desert outcrop noted as an especially fertile place for UFO sightings. According to New Age theory, Bell Rock serves as a communications beacon vortex that transmits signals to other intelligent beings within our galaxy. As a diehard Star Trek fan, this appealed to me.
These tangled thought vines entwined my brain as I stopped my rental car on the way to Boynton, stepped onto a Sedona grocery store’s weathered wood porch, and bought cheese, bread, and grape juice for my day of solo hiking, all the while telling my rational self not to expect any of the purported psychic phenomena to happen to me. Still, the romantic part of me felt receptive, eager, and ready to believe that the famous four psychic energy vortexes held special opportunities for spiritual advancement, new chances to fill the vacuum that religious Nature abhors.
First stop: Boynton Canyon, an electromagnetic power center that combines the best of male and female energy into a perfect balance. Believed to revitalize the pilgrim who is able to properly attune to her surroundings, Boynton Canyon opens from a trailhead surrounded by beautiful red sandstone cliffs on three sides, a landscape reminiscent of the Olga Mountains in the Red Center of Australia, another landscape held sacred by its original people. I climb up and over the first ridge, to escape the sight of cars on the highway. Traffic noise is still audible.
Halfway down the other side on an outcrop, I note a healthy lichen community, drinking dewdrops before they evaporate under intensifying sun. The symbiotic weaving of fungus and algae sprawls over the red sandy face, pitted with a great number of small holes which, judging from the material composing the edges, were recently filled with quartz crystals. These inclusions appear to have been of granitic composition. Scraping the edges with my thumbnail, I dislodge tiny fragments of plagioclase and quartz, smaller than heads on straight pins. I suspect the quartz cultists have been here and dug out these beautiful stones, leaving spaces in the sandstone matrix as ugly as pits remaining after a teenager squeezes out zits.
Which goes to show what happens when a common mineral in the earth’s crust is elevated by pop culture to the status of healant and magical element. New Age magazines publish full page color pictures of the “patient” laid out on a floor or tabletop, with garnets, amethysts, and quartz chunks aligned along limbs, clavicle, forehead. Everybody now wants to possess stones that a few years ago were just pretty rocks; one consequence is this still beautiful but ravaged outcrop. I am sure the diggers are excavating the quartz for their own ends, because most of the missing crystals are not big enough to bring any money in the crystal shops. Some pits are smaller across than the surface of a dime, which is more than a shopkeeper would pay for one.
Descending to the valley floor, I allow the serenity of the Canyon to lead me. I stroll along feeling a sense of peace, without thinking about whether I am on a trail. I’m tempted to ascribe this serene feeling to the psychic properties of the Canyon, but the sterner half reminds me I associate this serenity with being outdoors anywhere. I unzip my pack, take out a juice bottle, and tilt my head back for a drink. An unexpected gift glides overhead in the shape of a red-tailed hawk.
In half a mile I spy a medicine wheel. A recent craze of the New Agers, this idea is appropriated from Native American culture. The builders pile desert stones into large circles and place stone peace symbols within their circumferences. Some wheels are as large as thirty feet across. Among the stones, the faithful place tokens of personal spiritual significance: flowers, crystals, teddy bears, even battered cook pots from backpacking trips.
My personal bias runs to “no trace camping” as the appropriate manifestation of spiritual respect for landscape. From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, unless the old cook pot has a hole in the bottom in which case it should be recycled, leaving it out in the desert would be wasteful. Seems to me these medicine wheels typify our human inability to travel through a place without depositing hard evidence of our passage. Other forms this inability takes: initials hacked into tree trunks; horse packers’ “furniture” left to rot; stone fire rings, often containing metal and plastic garbage; spikes driven into the living flesh of ancient trees to tether horses; plastic bags of trash partially buried; glass wine bottles (too heavy to pack out but not to bring in) left behind as candle holders.
Back in olden times, when I was a good Catholic girl, I would kneel weekly in a darkened confessional and recite my sins to a priest whose face I could not see. He would assign penance in the form of a certain number of Hail Marys, or even whole Rosaries. I hated that, because saying the entire Rosary took too much time away from the important work of childhood: riding my bike or building a fort with my brothers. As an adult, I have escaped the interminable rote prayers, but still have a need for penance, to atone for the perceived sins of our species against nature. Nowadays the penance takes the form of carrying away, via kayak, bags of garbage stacked at maritime cabins, or breaking apart stone fire rings in alpine country, heaving the rocks over cliffs and scattering ashes to the high winds.
Today in this canyon, I turn to look behind, to check what marks I might have made. There are footprints, of course, which will be blown away by wind or washed out by rain. I search the sands for gum wrappers and cigarette butts to pack out, a self-imposed price of admission to this beautiful canyon. The need to perform atonement bugs me; reminds me that as far departed as Catholicism should be by now, it lurks like spotted tick eggs under a hiker’s skin, awaiting optimal hatching conditions.
Thinking about human markers, memories of Uluru (Ayers Rock, Australia) flood over me. There, a hike around the base reveals deteriorating but discernible cave paintings made by the aborigines. Modern anthropologists and art scholars speculate as to why these paintings were made. Theories include assertions of the art as maps, ritual markers, storyboards, and portraits of spirit beings from the Dreamtime. For example, a Melbourne art museum guide interprets “The Gar-fish,” a picture made of earth pigments on bark which represents a cave painting in western Arnhem Land, like this: Kunwinjku people believe the fish “left their underground home, painted their images on the rock face, then jumped onto the plain below, creating the Oenpelli lagoon. These cave paintings are believed to be the actual bodies of the two fish.”
Many students agree the figures served purposes greater than mere decoration or evidence of human presence. Whatever the uses served by these old markers, the materials used to make them belong to the landscape as surely as lichen belongs to rock. Plants generated the red, white and black dyes; human saliva mixed them; the creation surfaces were rock and bark, sometimes sand. The paintings weather and fade from one season to the next, pigment and substrate gradually blending together, beginning and ending zones indistinct. The painted Gar-fish of Oenpelli will fade and blend into their cave wall, just as the original creatures have long since disintegrated into the red sands of their landscape.
Circling back past the false claims laid out by Boynton’s medicine wheels, a couple hours later I reach my beginning outcrop and climb back to the trailhead side. Disappointed but still determined, I hike out to the car and drive to the Airport Mesa vortex, described by Sutphen as an electric (yang or male) power center. The short trail to the top passes through ground-hugging prickly pear and the occasional medicine wheel. On the summit, I recline against a pine trunk and begin deep breathing, to achieve the altered state recommended by Sutphen for experiencing vortex phenomena. Within minutes I see shifting cloud patterns, jet trails, and colored cloud edges where the sun slants through. Just as you would see anywhere, says my sterner brain. I shift into lotus position and try to breathe more deeply. This time I hear tinkling bells, ethereal, their sound seeming to float up from the valley floor. The soft peals continue for perhaps thirty seconds. Impressed with this psychic achievement, I stifle the self that suggests there must be bells ringing somewhere down in the town of Sedona. That self wins, the damn cynic. It is already too late. Whatever spark may have existed for spiritual rekindling as I entered Boynton Canyon is now extinguished, bulldozed under the hot sand to lie suffocated in medicine wheels, plastic bags and cigarette butts.
I descend through advancing shadows, flinging the shards of New Age belief and Western religious thought back into their rightful places among the teddy bears and cook pots in desert medicine wheels: arbitrary artifacts, mindless, impractical, and unconnected to the landscapes they inhabit. Today’s wanderings have reinforced for me that human existence on earth has as much stability as aboriginal sand paintings, existing at the pleasure of environment and weather, and as easily obliterated. Digging for religion in the desert is as futile as digging for health within crystal matrixes. Like the stone fish of Oenpelli Lagoon, I will weather and fade, my saliva mixing with dust, my spiritual questions unanswered.