Shifting shadows

Kansas is a sunnier part of the world than I remembered and expected when we moved back to the Flint Hills. The winters, long and sometimes ferociously cold and icy windy, bring quite a few sunny days that make one almost forget the cold. Yet Kansas in its darker winter days reminds me of Europe, the Low Countries, most of France, Germany, where an unbroken ceiling of clouds seals the land off from the winter sun, which is of course utterly brilliant above the cloud mass. Above the clouds, that is where one has to go to escape from the world down under which has the color of dirty concrete and is joyless and dank.

“No wonder the summer solstice had been such a fun day in northern Europe before Christian missionaries arrived from the sunny south. If priests had not driven sex underground, what would the north have been like?” wonders one of the main characters in ‘Old Boys’ by Charles McCarry. “Would art have flourished in the absence of sexual repression?” Would artillery and fortification have been invented, or would no one have bothered? Would anyone have had the time to think of a Reformation? What about The Thirty Years’ War? The French Revolution? Would there have been any cause for revolting? Or for the “final perfection of murder as blood sport at Verdun and Dresden and in the Gulag? In short, where would we be without Jesus?” Makes one wonder. One way to learn what could have been our history if … is to take a look at the Mochica or Moche, the pre-Colombian civilization that occupied Peru roughly until the year 700. These guys surely had a one-track mind. Sexual commerce in all its forms was amongst the favorite pastimes of these people, who, by the way, being experts of irrigation, succeeded in fertilizing the arid plains of northern Peru just as well as their women. Artefacts from their days including their ritual images and funerary objects are highly erotic examples of every form of intercourse, vaginal and anal, fellatio and mutual masturbation, straying to homosexuality and zoophilia as well. “Normal forms of procreative intercourse were left to supernatural figures (…)” while “the humans were to enjoy more gratuitous sexual sport” (quotation from the Musée Branly catalog ‘Sex, Death and Sacrifice in the Mochica Religion’).

The Mocha were also obsessed with the fertilizing qualities of various liquids. Recipients for liquids had spouts formed by a wide open vagina or an extraordinary large penis. Sex, though, wasn’t their only pastime, they also went fishing and hunting. And they, too, made war. Because when they did have sex, it was to gain a better understanding of death. So, I am sorry to say, the absence of sexual oppression would not have brought our European and American societies much peace. But imagine the unrestricted fun …

During our recent summer solstice, Ans and I did not leap through the flames of the bonfire in our yard. Not because we didn’t believe that our crops would grow as high as we were able to jump. But we do not grow any crops (anyway, not at home, although Ans is heavily involved with farming at the Pioneer Bluffs CSA), and the fire pit we built with limestone rocks is too wide to jump anyway. At the recent winter solstice, we joined our favorite “solstician,” Marva Weigelt, at a little ceremony. She introduced the event roughly as follows (I skip many lines): “At the root of winter solstice tradition is an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with vigil or celebration. This is very much an agriculturally-based tradition, in which light and livelihood are intimately entwined. With all due respect for the other traditions we honor at this time of year, I must point out that candles, evergreens, lights, feasting and generosity are symbols originally associated with solstice and later borrowed and expanded upon in Hanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa traditions. This is the birthday of the sun.” To symbolize the gradually increasing light and warmth and our faith that the sun will return in all its fullness, she offered this chant:

In the greatest darkness, The light is reborn
Out of winter’s cold
While the prairie rests
When animals seek shelter
When the ground is hard
When the days seem too short
When our faith falters, The light is reborn
The sun is returning
The promise of warmth is renewed
The grasses and wildflowers will blossom again
The seasons will continue, The light is reborn
The seasons turn
We bring the light
We raise the sun from dark of night.

The sun was also important to us while Ans and I still lived in New Mexico. Solstices, equinoxes, their occurrences then to no surprise came just as often as now in Kansas. What was weighing heavily in the high desert of New Mexico was its so present Indian past, not just the recent centuries, but the days of The Ancient Ones, the prehistoric Anasazi. Pueblos dating back to the 13th century were near, I could hike to ancient sites every day if I wanted, and find petroglyphs even in my backyard. Most impressive was Chaco Canyon, a less than three-hour drive. Chaco is one of the Anasazi sites clearly created, more than 1,000 years ago, with the sun in mind when its architectural mission statement was written.

In Chaco, these enormous settlement ruins in northwestern New Mexico, it’s all about the sun’s alignment. That is why these ancient “observatories” were built – shafts of light align with human-made markers that were probably used to chart and celebrate celestial patterns, and foremost the shift of the sun. By careful observation and precise measurement, celestial movements marked the best times for planting and harvesting, to judge when to expect rainfall, or to set dates for events. It’s an extraordinary place, is Chaco. The Anasazi constructed an ingenious seasonal clock based on sun rays striking particular points on spirals drawn in or on rocks. High atop Fajada Butte for instance, in the past, before some rocks shifted thanks but no thanks to tourism, a spiral petroglyph functioned as a solar marker. At the corner of the great house of Wijiji the sun can be seen to traverse a distant notch. Anticipation of the summer solstice from this “sun-watching station” must have culminated in the confirmation of its arrival. Symbols representing the sun can be found everywhere. “Pueblo Rinconada and Pueblo Bonito are actually solstices as mediated by building,” said our former neighbor Ron Cox, who produced slide shows and films about Chaco. In the huge town called Pueblo Bonito an unusual doorway may also have been used to track the sun. The principles of solar heating were discovered by the Anasazi and they fine-tuned the basics of their home designs to receive additional comfort in the winter as well as in the summer. Shifting shadows – the Anasazi knew how to handle these so well and to their great benefit.

The celestial bodies, even if they are less prominent put forward than in Chaco and by ruins elsewhere in the Southwest, have an endless power to captivate us, also here in Kansas, on the edge of the Great Plains. “Ultimately,” as is confirmed on Chaco’s website, “we look to the sky not just to understand the universe, but to seek our place in it.” To solve mysteries. A task not very easy for us, in our times, when we need so much more opposition to blind progress, which, by the way, isn’t the same as blind opposition to progress. Progress and specialization, not to mention globalization, can be destabilizing, can’t they? Just look around, in this early 21st century. The image of “progress” is heavily conditioned by stereotypes, and by contempt for anything “old,” not to mention primitive or underdeveloped. “But these (old) economies have demonstrated a degree of long-term cultural stability and survival unknown in today’s world,” wrote Jay Miller, the author of several monographs on Indian subjects. How old is our Western civilization? A few thousand years, maximum? The Greeks disappeared, Byzantium lasted quite long but met its downfall after all, Dutch hegemony (I guess it would ask a little too much from my American readers to call it a civilization … which it was) lasted merely a Golden Age, the British saw their progressive Empire break apart after, say, two-hundred years. The American Empire came about only after WWII, and already there are serious signs of its approaching demise. While the real old civilizations, the ones many of our contemporaries look down on as primitive and savage, remained flexible and adapted to their changing harsh environments for ten-thousand years.

Shifting shadows. Shortsighted viewers will not notice them. But anyone who takes time away from cellular phones and iPads to sharpen his or her “original,” natural, senses cannot but see and experience them.

There is as much prehistory in Kansas as in New Mexico, of course, with the Plains Indian (Athabascan) tribes predominant until first the bison and then they themselves were exterminated. In what are now the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, the Oto, the Kansa, the Osage and the Kiowa after leading a nomadic and foraging existence learned to plant maize, fashion ceramics, and erect mounds to honor their dead. The ruins that resulted from this more settled life –village life– are scattered all over the Plains even if they are not as dense and visible as in the arid Southwest. Not that the bison stopped forming a major portion of their diet. In the then drought-prone areas such as the Flint Hills agriculture was hazardous, and the bison prey. The villages were fortified with dried moats and counted a few hundred almost year-round residents. There were numerous underground storage pits for food, maybe as many as there are underground tornado shelters today.

On the Plains, just as in the Southwest, archeologists found also signs of “red-on-red” violence to the extreme, massacres, the dead eventually interred in mass graves. Crow Creek in present-day South Dakota, to name one. In Iowa the Marching Bears grouping of thirteen effigy mounds was discovered around an east-west line of clear design. In early spring, the Big Dipper stands precisely over the top of this ‘arc’, in late summer it is at the bottom position. To the Kiowa the stars of the Big Dipper were described in oral history as the seven sisters of a young brother, who turned into a bear. To the Kansa the Milky Way was the massive foot of a bear. To the Pawnee the Milky Way was the path of death.

Ancient arrowheads are abundant in the Midwest just as in the Southwest, it’s just a matter of keeping your eyes open, being patient, and letting your feet dig into the earth. I myself haven’t found much, so far, not here – I am better at, and devoted to, searching the horizon anyway. But what even I can easily detect are the many fossils with the seashell clearly visible in the rock. That is enough to give me a sense of long history. If I need more signs of the past, in nearby Cottonwood Falls the small Roniger Memorial Museum, a private initiative of the brothers Frank and George Roniger, shows the largest collection of ancient arrowheads that were found, and are remaining, in Kansas, as well as prehistoric non-armory artifacts, such as manos and metates.

If this is still not enough contact with ancient times, I can always drive to Ohio and take a good look at the venerable serpent constructed centuries ago near Chillicothe. This huge effigy, a mystifying snake mound, is land art par excellence. The snake by shedding its skin every spring symbolizes the annual and natural renewal of life, and may tell us to revise our notion that it is only civilization that represents progress in human wellbeing. In other words, it may advise us to shift our shadows.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, March 2011 

Photo by Anne Ausloos (Belgium), shortly after summer solstice 2010, location Highway #50, Strong City, Kansas