First-rate writers and books keep emerging from the American West and delineating the Western experience in smart, edgy ways. Lately there have been Judy Blunt, a memoirist who tells of leaving the constraints of ranch life in the vicinity of Montana's Fort Peck Reservoir in "Breaking Clean," and novelist Judith Freeman, who, in "Red Water," depicts the haunting results of violence following Utah's Mountain Meadows Massacre.
And there's also Craig Childs, a younger writer focused on natural history. Childs tells stories of scientific discovery and adventure in the field. His special competence lies in close, accurate and evocative descriptions of the natural processes that shape evolving life in the American Southwest. Childs is a fountain of confirmed-on-the-ground, often surprising knowledge when it comes to understanding interwoven biological complexity. And he's not afraid to tell us what he thinks it all means.
In 2000's "The Secret Knowledge of Water," Childs tells of hiring out to research the availability of ground water in Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, parking his pickup truck and walking off into the most arid territory in North America. He followed bees and other insects and found thunderstorm water in stone pockets called tinajas. Lots of it. "The canyon narrowed into a resistant rock, a hardened volcanic slurry that turned soft in its eroded shapes. The narrows burrowed down so that the walls became curved rather than sharp, squeezing until they revealed a disk of water fifteen feet across. Two thousand fifty-three gallons of rainwater."
That find, amid thousands of square miles of aridity, was "overpowering, like coming across blood on the snow." He found toads 70 miles from the nearest permanent springs and water fleas "hardly visible to the naked eye." Under a hand lens, a flea was "as fine and crystalline as an ornament of blown glass, its body almost invisible except for faint shadows of internal organs." Examined under a powerful microscope, the water from that tinaja and others that were ranged above it in that canyon, each overflowing into the one below, "appeared as if full of broken slivers of glass, countless fragile organisms." So an exercise in seeing accurately revealed evolving insect communities that were utterly dependent on random thunderstorms. The news seems to be that life survives where water goes, so long as our planet isn't burned to an utterly dry cinder.
On a weeks-long hike into the Grand Canyon described in "Soul of Nowhere," visiting the springs the Hopi and Zuni claim as their tribal emergence sites, places from which their ancestors came out onto the surface of the Earth, Childs and a friend climb onto a cliff in wetsuits. They venture into a cave from which a "fire hose" flow of water emerges to free-fall 40 stories and they "walk inside of a spring." They want, his friend says, "to pierce the veil."
"The rock, a hard limestone, was sharpened into small thorns and razors," Childs writes. "If I were to lose my grip I would be hamburgered before getting another hold, before getting washed out of the waterfall." A "quarter mile into that desert cliff," in "the belly of the mother," they climb into a domed, utterly lightless chamber their headlamps reveal to be a "garden of waterfalls and pools." Beginning to suffer hypothermia, Childs faces a silent dripping chamber at the end of this cave and tells himself to "remember the silence." A cave -- alive with rushing water and life-threatening adventure, significance inside secrecy, a weave of circumstance -- generates metaphor and meaning.
In "Soul of Nowhere," Childs tells of a precipitous route down from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River. It had been used by the Anasazi almost 1,000 years earlier, forgotten and rediscovered by a legendary canyon explorer, mathematician George Steck. How the Anasazi found the route, which works along cliffs into a cave explorers called "the wormhole," Childs says, "is difficult to imagine." It was "a major feat of relationship with the land." How Steck rediscovered it is also difficult to imagine.
When Childs' party of climbers entered the cave, they found "the ceiling above streaked black with smoke scars. It was easy to imagine a procession of Anasazi doing the same, carrying torches of wrapped juniper bark and pine pitch, lighting their way toward the wormhole."
"Back in total darkness was a hole, hardly as wide as my hips. It was a trap door in the floor. The rest of the limestone in the cave was sharp and broken, but here, leading into the hole, it was smooth as porcelain. This was the wormhole. The limestone had been burnished by the passage of human skin. Anasazi skin." Childs and his friends scooted down the wormhole and emerged on a balustrade hanging over a cliff. Below, the Anasazi had set a sequence of ladders. "The Grand Canyon is so immense," Childs says, "and yet this is what it comes to, a hole barely big enough to fit through."
At the entrance to yet another forgotten, rediscovered route, Childs finds "a field of thumbprints dabbed on a wall with ochre and white paint in the shape of a giant abacus." There were 900 such thumbprints, and their presence resonates.
If there's a problem in this book, it has to do with naming the ineffable. Writing that attempts naming qualities like the "soul" of a natural place is semi-impossible to bring off. The ineffable -- for instance, the feelings generated by a sexual orgasm or powder snow skiing -- is by nature indescribable and not nameable even though readers can easily be incited to imagine it for themselves. But Childs gives the naming a shot, and he pays for it by occasionally floundering off into abstract rhapsodizing. Writing about natural systems as if they were creatures, for instance, speaking of "staring directly into the eyes" of a place, is a subset of the same thing. I wish he'd cut out the anthropomorphizing. But such complaints are small potatoes.
As he blends a continuously interwoven skein of metaphor about our relationship to what we call "natural," Childs is part of an ancient tradition: interest in "the sublime," which dates at least to Middle Eastern Christian mystics known as the Desert Fathers, who saw that contact with wildness generated an aesthetic and spiritual idea implied by vastnesses -- the mountains, deserts, seascapes and starry skies -- essentially an impression of limitless powers that transcend understanding and are indifferent to human enterprises.
Around AD 200, in the essay "On the Sublime," attributed to the Greek Longinus, the sublime was defined as a reminder of human frailty and insignificance. Cowed and awed by the same phenomena, we're reminded that it's a good idea to stay humble. Confronting 900 thumbprints left by unknown Anasazi, humans with souls like ours, or eyeing drifting sands, we contemplate the unknowable and our own situation and find solace in the fact that we are part of everything. It follows that in taking care of complexities both biological and otherwise, we care for our homelands, neighborhoods, families and selves.
The sublime is a concept that's been a mainstay of poets from Virgil to Wordsworth and particularly of artists confronting the spectacular in the American West, painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran in the 19th century, 20th century figures like Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico and the photographer Ansel Adams in Yosemite and writers like my particular heroes, Mari Sandoz, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey and Leslie Marmon Silko.
Childs, as he tells us in detail about how his world works and of his doubts, joys, fears and discoveries, is finding his way in that tradition, and his willingness to risk naming the ineffable can be seen as a virtue. He seems so far to be the real item, a useful artist, given to reaching, to opening doors.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun