For dust thou art...
An empty country road in Utah, snow on hills hairy with sage and juniper, and I am driving south. On the right, a white roadside sign with black block letters, perhaps double my height, too imperfectly spaced to be machine made: LAND (with arrow pointing west). The sign is surely an advertisement of acreage for sale, perhaps a future mountain retreat for the city folk, and yet it seems incongruous here. Surrounded by nothing but land, hill over hill of it, is there any reason to point and label? And isn’t this just the latest iteration of our pushing into the empty landscape following those siren calls promising fields and furrows and manifest destiny, leading west, drawing trails across the land with wagon wheels? Land is a word loaded with meaning, or, in any case, too heavy a word to be simply painted on a sign on the side of the road, even in block letters.
I’ve heard it said that our chemical and physical makeup contains elements from exploding supernovas, that we are literally the stuff of stars. But with iron and water and carbon and salt all flowing through our veins as well, aren’t we also literally made of the stuff of soil, and is that any less ennobling? The Genesis mythos has Adam pulled directly from the rough hummus of the clay. And in a strange reversal, there is a Native American concept, found in tales of what we now call the geology of the Pacific Northwest, of a time “when the mountains were people,” hurling rocks and fire and words at their fellow ambulatory peaks before taking root in their present geography. We are made of land; our bones are the stuff of which mountains are made.
People becoming mountains becoming people.
The Norse were more humble in their view of our progenitors: Ask and Embla, ash and elm, are found on the rocky shore, washed up like driftwood. They too come from the earth, but are merely the residue, arboreal bones polished white in the surf. Maybe they had us pegged, these old vikings. Perhaps we are only the cast off remains of what once was bound to the land, but the umbilical cord is cut and it cannot be reattached by any knot-work. Do we long to root ourselves in the dirt beneath us and swallow its nutrients with open mouths, blessed and cursed as we are to move about on its surface instead? Do we ache from the memory of contact?
These old stories certainly suggest a connection between land and limb: the contours of the body following the contours of the earth, spines of rocky hills running north across our backs. Can we then map ourselves as we map the earth, and if so, what unknown regions of ourselves are we searching for, to tame and to claim?
The land is a mirror in which we see reflected back to us our desires and obsessions. Sometimes I feel like I am carrying mountains of earth with me on bent back and sloped shoulder; the weight of place, like that of family, of culture, of memory, is a burden we will all bear to our graves. But if the land is a mirror, are we then just carrying ourselves around?
No, not even ourselves are ourselves; like the land, we are made up of stories, trails of texts, weavings of words. Solon once wrote, “Myth is not the story of something that never happened, but something that happens over and over again.” We live forever in the shadow of myth, and not just the ancient stories of creation, but in the echoes of our mythic fore-bearers and their close and combative relationship to the landscape. The wilderness we seek is the same that they sought to order, and it is marked by its refusal to be settled or stilled. And yet still we go, walking pilgrim lines to rocky peaks. We follow trails as we would follow the lines of a hymn, reading again and again the same story even as we walk it, even as we insert our self into it. Maybe we want to be myths ourselves. We cross the neat boundaries we have built to mark out our space, our homes, our cities, hoping to find whatever it was we lost when we were pulled from the earth. Perhaps we never will, until at last we are laid again beneath the soil, to dust returned.