ABOUT ELEVEN years ago, after living many years in England, I rediscovered a part of my native California which touched me deeply with its beauty-- and by the fact that it seemed to have passed into the late 1980s as if time had not affected it.
THE POINT REYES Peninsula, and Tomales Bay (which separates the peninsula from the mainland), lie about 45 miles north of the City of San Francisco. Only some 4,000 people live along the western fringe of Marin County-- a tribute to the foresight of generations of San Franciscans who have worked hard to keep this area of unique beauty intact and out of the hands of developers. Getting there from "over the hill", from the hard-edge and bustle of the "mainstream" Bay Area is like going back in time and getting silent healing therapy at the same time. In probably less than a half-dozen visits I knew this was the place where I wanted to design and build my first home for me, and in late 1986 I found an acre and a third on Inverness Ridge about 525 feet above the Bay, with what looked like a view if I could get up a story, and nestled in old-growth forest of 150'-tall douglas fir, bishop pine and tanoak.
BY JANUARY of 1988 I lived in a tall house built of cedar, pine and douglas fir with 28 skylights and a terrific view from every room. I'd been living near there for almost a year, finding new friends everywhere in a community the opposite of anonymous-- a place where everyone said hello and smiled, where Fridays everyone was at the only saloon in town rubbing shoulders after picking up their paychecks at the only bank on the whole Marin coast-- where one could be "black tie" and two others literally covered in cow-dung or sawdust-- and nobody was ever excluded, least of all strangers. I'd worked the whole time while the house was under construction, working with large chainsaws for the first time, "bucking" the downed trees where the house went (only four of them-- but about 600 feet total length of big tree) while trying to keep a wary eye on the contractors as the house went up. I didn't have to-- they were so proud of doing quality work that I honestly had never seen such care taken in building-- at least not me, first-hand. And I began to be aware for the first time in my life of a kind of tribal community-- communities in the plural, really-- which existed from one tiny West Marin town to the next, from Bolinas to Dogtown to Olema to Point Reyes Station to Marshall to Tomales.
PROBABLY TEN of my fifteen years living in Europe had constituted my own period of recovery from my forced association with the Vietnam War-- working for positive futures both as an architect and university professor within British society allowed me to heal a complex range of feelings without ever being reminded that I was a veteran (or badly treated because of it). But after that decade, I had become increasingly aware of some things riveted in my personna which Europe could not accomodate-- most importantly, a deep feeling for big places-- the kind that only really exist in the American West of my birth and upbringing, and another deep need that only the Pacicic Ocean seems able to satisfy.
LIVING IN the old-growth forest on Inverness Ridge tuned me back in to all that. It was a magical place of sun and mist and rare mushrooms, of uva-ursi (a dwarf kind of manzanita with strong medicinal qualities) and wild lilac (or bluebottle)-- the native California ceanothus-- which turn the ridge a lavender turquoise smowstorm in the Febraury spring of that climate. Miwok indian legend has it that if one stays too long on the Ridge he will go crazy-- or maybe it's just enchanted-- but the spell is real, at least for me. Newts living in moist hollow pockets inside the Bishop pines, the osprey family (sea-eagles) that nested in a tree about 300 yeards from my home and who trained their youngster attack and dive-bombing techniques on a couple of trees less than 30 yards from my bedroom windows, fishing and hiking Tomales Bay and Ridge and Point trails. I developed a strong affinity for the ospreys, and also for the big black ravens who sailed almost motionless on the thermals, making instinctive and subtle adjustments with the finger-like feathers at the ends of their wingtips. I also travelled to new places, pushing my awareness of wilderness (and always doing some fishing by boat) in Glacier Bay (Alaska), Maui (Hawaii), and southern Baja and Oaxaca states in Mexico. I became aware of native american indian art-- first scrimshaw in coastal Alaska (carvings on ivory-- usually walrus tusk), then Oaxaca weaving and Huichol art.
IN FEBRUARY of 1992, near my birthday when I often feel powerful and inspired from within or "elsewhere", I discovered that there was a show of native american indian art at the Marin County Civic Center. I went, hoping to find an animal totem-fetish, and looking for an otter (the totem associated with my birth period). I found no otter fetish, but became fascinated with a black-on-black pot at one of the booths. I didn't want to buy it but found myself drawn to it more strongly every time I passed it. So I did buy it, and also came away with a very unusual small swiveling double-sided pendant made by a Navajo man who had a small booth on his own there. It had the figure of Kokopelli, the piper, on one side, and a representation of "home" on the other-- complete, with sun, cloud, rain, earth, river, mesa, and hogan. I've worn it for years now, and have never seen another like it.
SOMETHING IN my adult life always seems to force me to move on. In 1991 and '92 the bottom had fallen out for custom residential architects like me, and I had no wish to become a slave to a very long and congested commute into the city of San Francisco. I felt I needed to raise money from the sale of my much-appreciated home, and although I first thought of buying another piece of land in the area, staying, and building again on a different (reduced) scale, building and land costs made this prohibitive. It was the same story in almost every area of coastal California, so when I sold up in August of 1992 I moved to Bandon on the south-central coast of Oregon, and rented a huge old ranch-house on 400 acres with its own stretch of rocky ocean beach. The idea was to sit tight and wait for the right piece of coastal property to come on the market, and then I'd buy and build again.
IN LATE SEPTEMBER or early October I found I missed the sun-- something in a Californian's DNA, I suppose-- and also found myself with an uncontrolable urge to visit the southwestern United States. I had passed through there once or twice as a boy, but had memories only of a frigid and icy Alberquerque in winter, and the vaguest of images of a visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (and some old photos to prove it).
I DROVE to Flagstaff, then headed down 89A into the Valley Verde. I saw little in Sedona to make me linger except the scenery itself, but Jerome caught my attention-- an old copper mining town up above the valley, and something convinced me to stop. On one side of the street was the Jerome Frame Company, and across from it was Kiva Arts. "Star", as he (Richard Flagg) is called, at Jerome Frame introduced me to the beginning of my education in Hopi overlay silver. Kia Friender, of Kiva Arts (now in Cottonwood, AZ), stunned me with her superb collection of Huichol yarn paintings and began to give me some real feeling for the Huichol people themselves, with whom she has worked for many years. [Kia also introduced me to the wonderfully inclusive and eclectic music of Enigma and I have never tired of it.]
THE NEXT destination to me was obvious-- it had to be the Hopi Mesas, some fifty miles north of Winslow, Arizona. It seems appropriate that you leave Interstate 40 near the great meteor crater-- the landscape on the way to the Hopi Mesas is almost other-worldly-- seemingly barren land spiked here and there with the eroded stumps of truly ancient volcanoes. And the hour it takes to get there from what already appears to be the middle of nowhere almost requires a period of wonder, contemplation, and meditation.
THE HOPI MESAS and their villages perch at the southern edges of Black Mesa, a high, flat sandstone formation above the shale-based desert floor, some 30 by 60 miles across. The fact that both mesa and desert floor sit on shale is important, because it's the shale that is the underground base upon which what little water in the area is stored, and which emerges in a few springs at the southern edge of the mesa.
I DON'T remember my precise sequence of arrival the first time I visited-- I have an image of rubble rising from the desert floor, large rounded-edge vertical slabs of weathered sandstone crumbling in the ultra-slow-motion of geological time from the sides of the mesa, and at first, I found my eyes unwilling to see any signs of habitation even though the road was taking me up toward the top. I think I swung by First Mesa on my way to the Cultural Center at Second Mesa, because I remember seeing signs referring to the pottery made there. The houses were adobe and sandstone, poor-looking to my eyes accustomed to the picturesque qualities all European villages seem to have. And I could not understand why, after centuries up there, it had not occured to them to use some of that stone they had in abundance to pave the courtyard areas with sandstone flags.
I LOOKED at silver while at the Cultural Center on Second Mesa. It was all beautiful, but nothing seized my attention. One of the women suggested I might like something with a road-runner, and this puzzled me-- I don't look like one and hate to hurry-- but maybe she thought all anglos were road animals of a sort-- and maybe she had an intuitive vision of what I would be doing in an 18-wheeler in 1996. So I decided to drive some more... explore the roads linking the other villages on the Mesas. I drove up to a couple of the villages on Third Mesa but didn't walk in-- the Hopis discourage photography and they make it clear that their homes are not tourist destinations open to the public. To be honest, I felt very much the outsider, so I turned around and headed back for the road out at Second Mesa.
BEFORE I GOT to Second Mesa I saw a detached home with a silversmith's gallery sign on the road between villages. It was the home and gallery of Weaver Selina. I stopped and went in. I think I was more interested in making human contact than I was in the silver, but silver was what there was to talk about, so that's what we did. By this time I wanted to bring something of the Hopis away with me, so I began looking at rings. This in itself was odd, in that I had only worn a ring for a couple of years in college and had not liked it. Most of my life I have drawn for a living, and the ring got in the way. And when doing any craft or heavy work, a ring can be a dangerous liability.
SO WHILE thinking I must be crazy, my attention is caught by a ring that seems to be different from the rest. I look it over and ask about it-- it's a winter rain ring, made by Harvey Quanimptewa, Jr., of the Bluebird-Spider clan of Mishongnovi village (nearby on Second Mesa). It has two black/white diagonal bands representing the lashing winter rain, buttressed by vertically stilted mesa forms at each end, and then swirls representing the flash-floods. (I'll hope to add an illustration here when time and technology permit.) I put it on, still thinking how much I disliked wearing a ring-- but once on, I knew the ringed now owned me. I tried to take it off, but it didn't want to go willingly, so I just accepted it, thanked him, paid, and drove off, getting used to my new connection with the Hopis.
WITH THE ring on my finger, I decided to head east, stopping at the Keams Canyon Trading Post. There are photographs of this place dating all the way back to 1900-- now it's a supermarket, the only one for many miles and serving both the Hopi and the Navajo-- with a small gift shop containing some very fine Hopi silver and pottery (and well out of my price range at the time). Checking my map, and now virtually in the center of the Native American Indian Nations of the Southwest, I continued on a more winding route to the east, past some Indian Agency housing, and on toward the legendary Canyon de Chelly of the Anasazi people-- the ancient ones who disappeared many centuries ago-- but who left some of the most remarkable cliff dwellings in all the history of human existence, and now part of the Navajo Nation (Dinetah). The canyon comes as a stunning surprise-- you're at some 6,000 feet elevation, on land that looks like high, thin-soiled but almost flat table-land, and suddenly you become aware of the 1000+-foot deep canyon with its lush little river valley running through it, and the magnificent jewel-like Anasazi ruins tucked in hollows of the monumental stone monoliths which form the canyon walls. This was a redoubt, a safe-haven for the Anasazis and later the Navajo, and it remains the virtual center of the Navajo Nation today-- their headquarters are nearby at Window Rock.
I SPENT the night in Kayenta, a town composed almost soley of Navajo people, north of the Canyon de Chelly and just to the southwest of Monument Valley. I had hardly seen another non-indian in a couple of days. I remember eating lamb and fry-bread that evening surrounded by Navajo people-- including the Navajo police, and just beginning to see them in a different light. This was their country, and I found that studying their features and body language-- which are quite different from what I have been used to-- was revealing a kind of beauty and real human-ness that is not often visible in our white/anglo society, covered almost continuously as it is by the constant ego-posturing we are so well taught.
I HAD intended to drive through Monument Valley in the morning, but a major snowstorm had arrived overnight, causing me to head west toward Shiprock, and as the snow intensified and Shiprock, a giant monolith, slid past gray and silent, I turned south and tried to outrun the storm, making Gallup before dark-- and where I got snowed in for the weekend because all the roads stayed closed.
THE STORM and the cold of the first major onslaught of the season broke the spell for me, and I drove hard to Houston to visit my dearly-loved cousin-- the more-than-a-sister-I-never-had-- and bought myself an expensive pair of Justin lizard-skin cowboy boots at one of the big discount houses there-- and shopped for more books on native american indians at every major bookstore, enjoying the warmth of the Gulf of Mexico and the people of Houston.
I'VE MADE many more trips to the southwest since, and now have friends in a few more places. Like the Huntington Trading Post in Tucson, and the Honani family gallery (silversmiths) at Second Mesa, near the school, on the Hopi lands. I've watched the Hopi parents meet their children after costume day at the school, and got a feeling for the depth of community that exists in Hopi society, though I am still an outsider. I wear a different ring now, still Hopi, of course-- but this one seems to me fuller, more expressive of all that Hopi means to me. It is made by Riley Polyquaptewa of Shungopavi (and the Bear Clan), and is a simple but powerful design with the steps to heaven (which also represents the mesa) sitting on an earth line, with just one fragment of a silver diagonal line inside the black steps-- representing the top of the ladder coming out of the kiva (the Hopi's sacred chamber in the earth, where all their many ceremonies begin and end). When the ring is turned upside-down, the silver and black reverse and the meanings change significantly-- now there is a silver steps-to-heaven/mesa, and the black steps have become a thunder-cloud bringing lightning (the top of the kiva steps before) and life-giving rain to the earth below. I have spent 35 years studying the great art of the world, and nothing is any greater than the profound and multi-layered meaning on this simple ring. I've since learned too, that Harvey Quanimptewa, the maker of my winter-rain ring, died a year or so ago, so I treasure that ring even more so, carrying it in my pocket to keep it polished, and now and then admiring the deeply-incized craft and art of the man who made it and the culture from which it springs eternal.
I NOW also wear a small round pendant called the man in the maze... or what the Pimas of Arizona call The House of Teuhu. It attemps to represent the myth of man's emergence at the beginning of each new world, and also represents the universal plan of the Creator which man must follow on his often confusing road of life. This symbol has essentially the same meaning to all the tribes of North, Central, and South America, and the same symbol is found in Europe (Ireland and Crete) as early as the seventh century BC. You can see it (and be taken back to this page in a few seconds) here. I had taken a little side-road in my 18-wheeler just south of Phoenix, ostensibly to buy some tobacco from a native american indian Tohono O'Odham smoke shop, and found it there, much to my delight.
THE HUICHOLS (and Fred Huntington and Kia Friender) have taught me much too. The Huichols are a people who use peyote as an integral part of their religious practices-- I have not-- and who start their children on their spiritual journey from the age of two. This is done so that each individual develops a personal vision and personal relationship with god. They see a world of many vibrant colors, they believe in such things as telepathy, and that the birds are the messengers to and from the "gods"-- so I now collect their beautiful beaded animals and birds and their stunning picture-stories-prayers they call yarn paintings. We can scoff, but I do not. Their world exists, and with greater meaning for all of them than any fragment-- let alone the chaotic insane totality-- of our fragmented, superficial and de-humanized western "culture" here in the United States.
30 YEARS of my life has been spent in school-- eighteen in the university systems of two great nations-- and twelve of those teaching. All eighteen of those university years were devoted to the meaning of art and architecture, yet nothing save a few great buildings-- truly masterpieces of three-dimensional creation-- surpass the work of peoples who may know nothing of what I supposedly do. Their work is not an intellectual excersize, nor is it an act of mere decoration. It is a statement of prayer, of humility and the care-taking of the earth and all its gifts, and above all, a statement of integrity and acceptance of both the natural order of things and the great mysteries of existence.
I TAKE my battered and beloved black Montana hand-me-down triple-x beaver cowboy hat off to them all, and bow to the wisdom and knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the world-- and that includes all our ancestors-- mine were sailing wooden ships out of Viking harbors and discovering new worlds, and others of them were piling mud into baskets and stacking it in rows which later become the dikes that created the country we now know as Holland. It's time we looked again at who and where we are, and re-create a world where all live in as much harmony, wonder, and reverence with all we touch as is humanly possible.
WE ARE obliged to.
Greg Sipe / 1997 / updated 4-98
Now read this:
self & ego
growth beyond ego & fear
your true self & other things
slick roads CP extract: history of western spirituality CP extract: control dramas/power theft
CP extract: understanding power theft addictive behavior addiction: the real reasons serenity prayer
schools, learning, & adults what of the future? technology The Hopi Author's totems
The Author's Journey photo gallery about the author Quavajo's awards links rings
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