The Culture of Place and the Struggle of Community

By: Bill Whaley
17 December, 2017

“The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” (Proverb)

We know that our community leaders mostly have the “best intentions” in mind. But the “collateral damage” cannot necessarily be justified. Too many signs, too many lights, too much hype, too many conflicts obscure the obvious beauty and prevent the spontaneous pleasure of discovery, discovering daily the implicit spirit and fragile nature of community.

Here in Taos both natives and newcomers recognize both the physical beauty and the spiritual force of place. The recognition of mountains, deserts, Rio Grande Gorge, the land, animals, vegetation, and complex geology above all contribute to a sense of one’s place among people with natural and cosmic connections. Those who can see the beauty and feel the sublime energy respond to the notion of the sacred and secular in various ways. The “Doings” at Taos Pueblo honor those connections.

In an “Archaeology of Doings: Secularism and the Study of Pueblo Religion,” archaeologist Severin Fowles (Columbia and Dixon) compares Heideggerian metaphysics and the Doings. “Both seem to seek a sense of what Heidegger (2001: 175) referred to as “nearness,” a sense of the world as interconnected and unified, a sense of every thing being filled by every other thing. Both offer philosophical treatises on the gathering power of things, be these things jugs or jars, masks or prayer sticks, boulders or lakes. The comparison should only be taken so far. Heidegger was aiming merely for better philosophy. Pueblo doings are more ambitious; they aim for better worlds.”

Fowles quotes in his research, writer Susan Milius’s record of an interview with Hopi consultant, Tuwaletstiwa, who comments on new age outsiders, seeking spiritual sustenance, saying, “What they do not understand is that you cannot export the Hopi religion. It can exist only here, where we have our shrines, springs, landmarks, materials, animals, plants, and hundreds and hundreds of years of belief and practice.”

The archaeologist makes the point that “when ancestral Puebloans migrated to a new landscape, they became new people. This, perhaps, is why pueblos like Taos are able to acknowledge the geographically expansive set of migration pathways by which different kiva groups came to settle in their present village while simultaneously asserting that the entire community also emerged in place at a specific point in the local landscape.”

Further Fowles argues that “space,” as Native American writer Vine Deloria points out in “Red God,” offers an antidote to the western notions of historical “time.” In other words the “immanence” or presence of the Native American culture offers a counter narrative to the “transcendent” or absence that forms the basis of the western tradition (associated with the history of the Greco-Roman divinities or the transcendent Judeo-Christian notions).

Space: those of us affected by the intimacy of rural life, whether 400-year old descendants of the Hispanic settlers in Taos, native or newcomer, or farmer and rancher in the U.S. understand the sense of conflict over land in Israel and Palestine. We all sense the idea that land and water, animals, plants, and geological markers form a way of life. The struggle to integrate place, people, spiritual and community connections seems basic and fundamental, regardless of belief or tradition.

Beauty, as Heidegger suggested, reveals how primordial truth reconnects to the sublime spirit. Recently Dr. Richard Tobin, director of the Harwood wrote an insightful piece about the way the “sublime” spirit has drawn artists to Taos for more than a hundred years, artists who joined Hispanic and Pueblo artists, who celebrated beauty and the sublime, whether as Agnes Martin, Patrocino Barela, or the ancient ceramicists at Taos Pueblo. The latter created pottery, jars as, Fowles might say, that signified the useful and artistic, devoted to honoring the spiritual and material connections of human beings and nature under the aegis of the cosmos.

“We” don’t come here to “make a deal” for the sake of Manbyism or seek the status of mobile socialites. The reasons and causes of why we all live here and/or visit the place vary but regardless of the tumult and the conflict or “intentions,” we all contribute for better or worse to community and place.

Two days ago, on a clear and warm Dec. day, while walking my landlord’s two Boston Terrier/Pomeranian dogs (no bigger than rabbits) along the 600-ft. deep Rio Grande Gorge, we encountered a magnificent Bighorn Ram, not ten yards away between trail and cliff. Roxie, an escapist, was leashed. But her liberated sister, Ollie, immediately ran toward and confronted Mr. Ram, who didn’t move but stared.

Ollie stopped. Mr. Ram nosed around the large Sagebrush bush to look. Little Ollie, curious, trotted round to look at him but stopped again. He, curious, walked round to look at her. She then turned and rounded the brush, going back the other way. Tired of the game, he trotted off north, then loped back toward the rest stop. She ran off, tentatively, not barking, but following in his wake. She couldn’t keep up with Mr. Ram (not that she wanted to catch him). Then she returned and we resumed our amble south.

On this day certainly the four of us knew why we lived here.

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