ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II

Landscape with words in foreground

by N. Scott Momaday

From Old Southwest, new Southwest: Essays on a region and its literature, ed. Judy Nolte Lensink. Tucson: Tucson Public Library, 1987. Reprinted by permission of the author.

By means of the title above I wish to indicate a certain equation that has become more and more important to me. I wish to suggest painting as well as writing as a clear reflection of the deepest reality of the Southwest, for I am a painter as well as a writer. These two expressions of my spirit, painting and writing, are not unrelated, I believe. As a matter of fact, I have come to believe that they are so closely related as to be indivisible.

One of the definitions—perhaps the most basic of all—of the word "write" is this: "to draw or form by scoring or incising a surface." Imagine somewhere in the prehistoric distance a man. He holds up in his hand a crude instrument, a brand, perhaps, or something like a daub or a broom, bearing pigment, and he fixes the wonderful image in his mind's eye to a wall of rock. In that instant he accomplishes really and symbolically the beginning of art. That man, apart from his remarkable creation, is all but impossible to recall from the remote past, and yet he is there in our human parentage, in our racial memory. In our modern, sophisticated terms, he is primitive and illiterate, and in the whole reach of time he is utterly without distinction—except, he draws. And his contribution to posterity is immeasurable. He makes a profound difference in our lives, on us who succeed him by thousands of years. For all the stories of all the world proceed from the moment he makes his mark. All literatures issue from his hand.

Language and literature involve sacred matter and sacred places, places of deepest mystery and ancient vision. Among sacred places in America, there is one that comes to my mind as I think of that anonymous man who painted upon the face of rock. At Barrier Canyon, Utah, there are some twenty sites upon which are preserved prehistoric rock art. One of these, known as the Great Gallery, is particularly arresting. Among arched alcoves and long ledges of rock is a wide sandstone wall on which are drawn large, tapering anthropomorphic forms colored in dark red pigment. There on the ancient picture plane is a procession of gods approaching inexorably from the earth. They are informed with irresistible power; they are beyond our understanding, masks, if you will, of infinite possibility. We do not know what they mean, but we know that we are involved in their meaning. They persist through time in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of story and myth. They are two thousand years old, more or less, and they remark as closely as anything can the origin of American literature.

Let me point in my writings to two brief passages in which this equation of words in the landscape is applied to my memory of growing up in the American Southwest. The first passage is from The Names, an autobiographical narrative that was published in our bicentennial year by Harper & Row.

Monument Valley: red to blue; great violet shadows, planes and prisms of light. Once, from a window in the wall of a canyon, I saw men on horseback, far below, two of them, moving slowly into gloaming, and they were singing. They were so far away that I could only barely see them, and their small, clear voices lay very lightly and for a long time on the distance between us.

The valley is vast. When you look out over it, it does not occur to you that there is an end to it. You see the monoliths that stand away in space, and you imagine that you have come upon eternity. They do not appear to exist in time. You think: I see that time comes to an end on this side of the rock, and on the other side there is nothing forever. I believe that only in DINÉ BIZAAD, the Navajo language, which is endless, can this place be described, or even indicated in its true character. Just there is the center of an intricate geology, a whole and unique landscape which includes Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The most brilliant colors in the earth are there, I believe, and the most beautiful and extraordinary land forms—and surely the coldest, clearest air, which is run through with pure light.

The long wall of red rocks which extends eastward and for miles from Gallup, New Mexico, describes something of the hard, bright beauty of the continent at its summit. The Continental Divide runs down and intersects this wall at Coolidge. In the long reach of country which lies between Coolidge and the red rock wall there are cattle and sheep, rabbits and roadrunners, all delightful to a child. They were small and nearly silent in the distance, and they bore upon the land in an easy, nearly discreet way. They seemed not to intrude, that is, as machines do in so many of the landscapes of our time; or perhaps this is merely MY sense of things, having long ago taken that countryside as I found it, cut through with glinting rails and puffing trains. Like the red wall above them, they made an ordinary stratum on the scene. I try to imagine that large expanse without them, but then there is a flaw in the design. For in my mind's eye, too, a train stitches black across the plain.

The second passage is from a work in progress, a novel which is tentatively entitled Set. Set is the name of the main character, a name which means "bear" in the Kiowa language. The story is, at its center, about a boy who turns into a bear, and it is based upon an ancient myth in the oral tradition. In this passage, Set has returned to a sacred, ancestral home. The narration is his own.

Later I wanted to stretch my legs, and I went for a walk. It was just past six o'clock, and the heat had fallen off. There was a breeze, very light, and warm rather than cool, but it felt good and it smelled of leaves and grass The sun was low, and the light had softened; there was a copper tint upon everything, even the shadows. The bare earth seemed saturated with the soft, sanguine light. I could not remember ever having seen earth of that color; it was red, earlier a flat, brick red, now deeper, like that particular Conti crayon that is red and brown, like old blood, at the same time; or Catlinite, the color of my father's name. I walked to the creek, along Cradle Creek for a mile or so. The growth there was dense, and the water was red like the earth, and the current was very slow, almost imperceptible. The bitch had followed me. I spoke to her now and then, but she paid me no mind; she ambled along in her own ancient and maternal perception of the universe, I supposed. I had the sense that she did not accompany me; she merely happened to be travelling the same path.

I had a strange feeling there, as if some ancestral intelligence had been awakened in me for the first time. There in the wild growth and the glowing earth, in the muddy water at my feet, was something profoundly original and originative. I could not put my finger on it, but it was there. It was itself genesis, I thought, not genesis in the public domain, not the Old Testament, by MY genesis. I wanted to see my father there in the shadows of Cradle Creek, the child he once was, myself in him. But I couldn't; there was only something like a photograph, old and indefinite, in my mind's eye.

Then somewhere something moved. The motion was sudden and without sound. I had caught only a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye. And then I was looking hard across the creek, into a small brake. Dusk had entered there; the dim light was like smoke; the foliage hung still and black. A time passed in which I held my breath, listening, searching. "Well, whatever it was, it's gone now," I said to the bitch. She had set her head and was peering intently into the same recess. The hair on her nape was raised.

When I look back over these passages, the two of them some ten years apart in time, I am struck by a common quality which informs them, a point of view, it may be, or an irresistible sense of place. It happens that the character Set is an artist, a painter, as I am a painter. He sees the world in a particular way, in terms of lines, and shapes, and shadows, and forms-in terms of foregrounds and backgrounds and middle distances, in terms of color and light. In both passages there is a strong accent upon the concept of the mind's eye, an emphasis of which I was not aware until I had put the passages together.

No doubt you have already taken the point I am trying to make: that the elements of place and vision, as they are realized in the imagination, in the mind's eye, if you will, form the aesthetic equation that is art. And I am speaking of particulars, not of any place, nor of any vision, but of sacred ground and of ancient vision.

As an artist, I want to say: in the landscape of my homeland let me place an offering of words in the foreground. And in this act, which is holy, let me stand in the place of that man who touched the wonderful image in his mind's eye to the wall of rock. It is appropriate; it is good.

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Author information

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N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian, spent his childhood living on the Navajo, Pueblo and Apache reservations of the American Southwest. A highly respected scholar and author, Dr. Momaday is the recipient of many honors including a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and the Premio Letterario Internationale Mondello, Italy’s highest literary award. Dr. Momaday is a Regents Professor of English at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.

Additional web resources:

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Prologue from The Names
This excerpt from N. Scott Momaday's memoir is provided by the University of Arizona Press.


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