“As I walk, as I walk, the Universe is walking with me.”
(from the Navajo rain dance ceremony)
Digital artwork by David P. Crews
The shamanic path gives us direct, personal experience of non-ordinary as well as everyday reality. These shamanic experiences underlie all our religious ideas. I believe it represents the source experiences that establish our core humanity. It is our birthright, available to all who wish to experience the universe rather than just read about it.
“The crude product of nature, the object fashioned by the industry of man, acquire their reality, their identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendent reality.”
Mircea Eliade: The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954)
“The Experience of Sacred Space makes possible the “founding of the world”: where the sacred Manifests itself in space, the real unveils itself, the world comes into existence.”
Mircea Eliade: The Sacred and the Profane : The Nature of Religion: The Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture (1961), translated from the French by William R. Trask
My elk-hide shaman’s drum, from a spirit circle in Southern Utah. We drummed and danced as visionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey created a mural on the cliff behind us.
Sitting in the center
Sitting up high
Sing your song
Make the sky.
Sitting in the center
Weaving a web
Spinning our song
Make it spread.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “deh Shay”) is in the heartland of the Navajo Nation in NE Arizona. It is a very worthwhile destination for its scenic beauty, but take some time to learn about the trying history of this place as well. I have very mixed feelings about Kit Carson. He was more in-tune with the native peoples than almost any white man at that time, but then he did the Army’s bidding in Canyon de Chelly and the results still echo hauntingly off the canyon’s red-brown cliffs today.
“To the intelligent, nature converts itself into a vast promise,
and will not be rashly explained.
Her secret is untold.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Nature,” Essays, Second Series (1844).
Goblin Valley State Park is just one of the wondrous, alien landscapes in Southern Utah. This land casts a spell unlike any other place I know.
For those interested in the entheogenic San Pedro (Huachuma) or Peyote cacti, this is an interesting article on the near-mythical Cactus of the Four Winds.
It is very possible that humans have caused some ancient, powerful psychoactive plants to go extinct. Soma is the most notable one of these. It may be that some of these plants were/are very rare, and we simply loved them to death. It will be interesting to see if this one (if truly a separate plant) can be found still living in some strange nook of the Peruvian mountains or deserts.
My last post about the Mayans made me think about how they revered caves and other underground spaces as sacred portals to the afterlife, so I thought I’d post this recent image of mine from Carlsbad Caverns Nat. Park.
Of all the
I do love
– David Crews
“I am a being of Heaven and Earth, of thunder and lightning, of rain and wind, of the galaxies.”
A summer storm vies for attention with the setting sun in the Window in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, Texas. I’ve been visiting and photographing this amazing place on the planet for over 50 years.
“Could the prehistoric artists have been hallucinating and painting their visions? And was it possible that such practices could lie at the foundation of art and religion, the most exalted achievements of mankind?”
Graham Hancock, Supernatural – Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind (Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2005) p. 158
The great escarpment of the Vermilion Cliffs lies just north of the Grand Canyon.
Time has a different pace in realms like this. To the ancient shamanic Taoists, vermilion was the color of eternity.
I’ve been making landscape photos mostly non-commercially for some 50 years now. This is some of my initial work in HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography.
“Perhaps time is after all merely a device to prevent everything from happening at once – or the illusion that prevents us from seeing that in fact everything is happening at once. For time really dwells within the vastness of Eternity – where all things exist simultaneously without any past or future: as that most ancient of all texts, the Rig-Veda, tells us so pointedly.”
– Paul William Roberts, In Search of the Birth of Jesus-The Real Journey of the Magi (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995) 278.
Note: recently reissued (more appropriately) as The Journey of the Magi.
By the way, this book by Paul William Roberts is one of a very few that have actually changed the course of my life and my philosophy when I encountered it by chance in the mid 90’s. He traces the history of modern religions back through Zoroastrianism to the Vedas. That logically leads the intrepid seeker on back to shamanism. I highly recommend his book for its truly important insights, plus it is also a great travelogue and one of the most outrageously funny such books I’ve read.
“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”
– Robert Frost – from “Desert Places”
A Further Range – Henry Holt & Co. (1936)
Photo of badlands in Big Bend National Park, in west Texas, just north of Castolon.
Just one of the amazing rock formations in the Bisti Wilderness Area, south of Farmington, New Mexico.
The red wind whispers – calling me
Out to the sharp world, the cold land,
The place of polished stone, the land of keen breath,
The clean and parched country
Where the river of moments slows its crawl,
And the world runs far, far away to the
Uttermost limb of blue and brown.
The blank places beckon and chide, reaching
Long and deep to find my invented corner, to
Lift me up from my comfortable blindness,
To bring me out to my real house.
The hollow lands fill up my eyes
And the empty flank of the world
Supports my soul.
Illusions can be entertaining, but what if, suddenly, you realize you are living right inside one? Driving through the thick, green hills that ruffle up just west of my home, I got a glimpse – hiding in plain view – of just such an illusion, one that has haunted me ever since.
I love to drive and to travel, and deserts and wastelands have long enchanted my soul. Why, I wonder, do they so attract me, these lands of limited life and dangerous conditions? Certainly, there is a unique beauty to the sublime emptiness and harsh terrain, but there seems to be a deeper reason. After my recent startling discovery, I’ve concluded that this has to do with a grand illusion – the illusion of the ubiquity of life.
The illusion that now haunts me was revealed by a simple highway road-cut, sliced cleanly through one of the larger rolling hills near my decidedly non-desert home that made me pause. It was a wide slot, carved by man and his explosives to let the hard road through. I had driven through this rock-cut many times, but this day I noticed something about it and it felt like my view of the world had slipped sideways.
Living upon the dry land of this planet, we take as a given the world of life that surrounds us. Green grasses, great forests, flowers of every description, fields of crops, fresh water coursing over moss – all the very stuff of the world as far as we can see. Surely, all of this combined is what we consider our Earth to be truly made of – what defines it as Earth. On the continents, only the rarified deserts and mountaintops are thinned of this great green and living mass. Those are places with enough scarcity that we tend to think of them as exceptions to the mundane majority – accent pieces to the Green World. All this is true enough from our everyday perspective, but it is still a terrible illusion. The highway cut showed it to me plainly.
I saw the green hill as I approached in my car, then I was inside the cut. The Green World was not here. For a moment, it seemed some alien place had peeked out from behind its mask, giving slip perhaps to a false front that nature has arranged for our naïve comfort. This hill, this tiny lump of land, had risen up long ages past and now we humans had cut a slice right through it revealing it brazenly like some giant stony x-ray. Inside the fully green hill was nothing but stone. Of course, of course, but look how thinly the green grass and trees cling to the outer surface! Life on the skin of this simple hill is a vanishingly thin veneer. Underneath is nothing – nothing but stone.
It looked like a baked potato. The white rock here was skinned with a narrow dark green line that followed its every curve. Inside the hill? Nothing but potato meal. What was left of my green life was the extraordinarily thin “peel.” What if that peel was all that kept me alive, all that any of us can ever depend on for our very lives, forever? It made me shudder.
Then, it began to truly sink in. This is just a hill. It is a molecular protrusion – a mere grain on the side of an immense sphere, and that sphere is made up solely of more hill-stuff. Compared to the size of the hill, that green peel of life is gaspingly thin, but what of the ratio of that same green veil’s same thickness when gauged against the size of the entire planet?
I stopped my car and walked up to the spot where the grass shell’s edge met the face of the cut. This blade of grass at my feet and its roots extend some inches down into the soil. That tree descends perhaps several tens of feet. It all gives way in a breath to crusty dense stone that stretches thousands of non-air miles from here to the far foothills of another land’s evening, and there at the last blink, one more faint and incredibly thin curtain of green life clings to the stone face before the void beyond. In between these green ghosts? Only unbroken and ungodly fathoms of dense, unfeeling minerals twirling through the radiant night of space, viscous and fierce at the deepest heart where its own heady mass sits down. Is there red and glowing light at the very core, where no eye can perceive?
Perhaps this is the underlying reason I am attracted to deserts. The wonderful deserts! Where the green skin is worn away like a threadbare dress, revealing the true physical nature of rocky planets like ours, lurking beneath the living skin. Not that I disdain life – not at all! Rather, that it is here that the illusion thins enough to sense the reality of our situation. It is seeing through the illusion that gives me perspective. Life is thin and precious. We live by the benefits of an environment that is truly a soap-bubble skin – one atom thick and easily punctured, even by road workers with dynamite. Does our life-filled world of greenness seem so thick and full to us because we never really look below its broad, but incredibly thin face? Or is it because we ourselves are so amazingly tiny, lost within it? In the desert lands, one can feel the sizes.
The illusion revealed by the highway cut was as if someone had taken life’s movie camera and tilted it down, clean off the green set, revealing the stage hardware and support beams below. This camera, I found, can be tilted up, also.
We’ve all watched a blue sky full of unreachable white clouds and imagined shapes in their fractal forms. To me, as a young child, this cloudsky was a vision into a deep, vast land full of unknown ethereal beings and golden cities that no earthbound human could ever reach. The sky was endless – deeper than any ocean. Surely none of our activities, even flying, could truly penetrate its awesome mysteries. When the first rockets rose to space, I watched in rapt pleasure, sensing even as a small boy that a completely new perspective on things was to be had. I was always intrigued to see pictures of the earth from the high vantage of orbit. One of the most curious views to me was that of the limb of the planet with the sun rising. Curving above the dark planet below was a narrow bright band of light. It was our atmosphere illuminated from behind.
But wait! This couldn’t be the sky I know! This skin of air was so very thin – so thin it looked like a mere hand swipe would splash it all off and make it float away into hard black space. It could not be the true nature of that deep and unknowable sky world that had always fascinated me! Yet, this was our atmosphere – our sky, our clouds, our sunsets, our fresh air after a storm, the very pulsing breaths we consume and that sustain us. So thin?
So, the vast sky above my head was another illusion. The camera had been craned up this time, out of the set, and was looking back down with a cold, real eye.
I once had a pet fish. It swam around in its round bowl, eating its fish food and thinking its fish thoughts. Did it know that the water in which it swam extended only a very short way out from the center? Did it presume, as perhaps I did of the sky, that it must extend great and grand distances because it appears to do so? If I removed it from its bowl, say in a small water-filled plastic bag spaceship, would it have looked back upon its bowl world home and exclaimed, “So small?”
Now, we have extended ourselves out of our bowl and into the hard, waterless universe beyond. We can look back and see that the illusion of the ubiquity of our life-giving environment is comforting but also dangerous. Now, we begin to see how our actions are affecting this incredibly crucial and fragile resource.
We truly live within a thin margin. To see it as limitless and beyond our ability to alter or even to destroy, is to succumb to the illusion – something we can no longer afford.
The stars in space do not twinkle from our high orbital platforms. They shine crisp and cold for we see them there from outside our potato skin of air. As we walk across our gossamer greenswards, we might pause and think of the illusions revealed by a road-cut. As those cold stars call to us, we might also look up and gaze into the forever night, wondering what new worlds might exist in, or perhaps even outside of, our visible universe.
It seems so big.
The old ones had their own names for the homes they made under the shadow of the cliffs.
Sometimes, their voices yet echo softly down the walls of stone. You may hear them if you are very still.
It was a good life, here in the protected canyon with its stream and its cottonwood trees. There was trade and there were crops of corn. The women wove the magic into the fabric of their clothing and baskets, and the men kept the farms and hunted on the mesas.
They gathered in sacred spaces to experience those things that connected them to the spirits of the land.
This ceased to be one day, as the people walked away from their elegant labors. We still do not know for certain just why.
At a special desert place where I go to contemplate the world and life from within a sacred circle, I found a large area of ripple rock. This is slate-like sandstone that actually has embedded or recorded in the rock surface the precise ripple patterns from when that sandstone was laid down at the bottom of a lake or shallow sea. Some natural event rapidly covered it up and locked in that exact pattern of waves caused by the water on that particular day, perhaps 60 or 70 million years ago!
Now, after being buried for all that time, it is being slowly exposed here in the parched desert, a faint echo of water from ages past. The fascinating thing about ripple rock is that the image preserved represents something relatable to a human timescale. In most geologic forms, we are looking at shapes that reflect what happened to the specimen over millions of years, but here is a rock that presents a flash-frozen moment of time, like a time fossil. I can touch this rock and feel the ripples with my hand. I can almost hear the lapping of the waves as they washed over that sand on that one day so long ago. I can relate to it.
I suppose some things human (Pompeii comes to mind) are recorded in similar fashion, but surely most of what we do will never be so preserved. How many lives and stories and wondrous events of nature have happened on this planet over the millions upon millions of years that were not so fortunate to be recorded in a stone panel by a freakish chance?
Sometimes as I watch a particularly wonderful sunset, it occurs to me that there must have been billions of such beautiful sunsets over the history of this earth that went, well, unappreciated.
I wonder if a dinosaur ever paused to look up in hazy curiosity at a red-orange sky?
With my eyes fresh from sleep
Like the naive gaze of a child,
I look out at the world beyond my simple bed.
The dry air is delicious.
The moonlight is delicious.
The sigh of the soft night breeze is delicious.
The stars are delicious.
The backlit clouds are delicious.
One thin veil of cloud has a fish’s shape and a star
Shining through it, just so placed to be its bright eye.
The spirits of the night sky are watching me sleep.
The Freemont Indians would have understood.
If I reached out my hand and held the Moon within it,
Would it burn me? Is its bright face hot or cold?
Would it, perhaps, freeze me so that I would
Quickly let go and drop it in its old track?
Would it scold me, then, in its dusty old voice
For having been so bold?
It is by the Moon’s cool light only that I write these musings,
So perhaps he would just gaze down upon my tiny form,
Then smile and sail away.
©2012 David P. Crews
Delicate Arch is waiting. Standing on the edge.
More than the effort of crumbled and windblown stone,
It is like a letter in some unknown alphabet
Set glowing and hard on the desert wall
Quietly hidden until it is sought, or,
More likely still, an entire word –
A statement waiting for some reader.
Is it then a symbol,
Spoken in a language not of words?
Is the speaker also the audience,
Or does he speak to men?
Does he utter such a thing
That shapes the land in reddened art,
Or say some other thing that lies
Beyond the sand and sky?
Delicate Arch remains, silently ringing.
©2012 David P. Crews
A poem I wrote many years ago, inspired by the incomparable Delicate Arch in Arches NP, Utah.
I once took my father up the trail there to see the arch and I read this out loud. It was very wonderful.
I placed my hand on a huge sandstone boulder, perched on an unlikely column of mud and dirt. Within its stony layer, it has been lifted up to this position over millions of years. Dinosaurs once disturbed the dirt from which it was formed. Now, it has appeared here on its pedestal, emerged out of its matrix of mud which is being dissolved away with every infrequent rain and every howling wind.
Some say you can speak to stones, so I address this one directly. “I know you are slow of time and I am quick, but can you speak to me and tell me of your story? Time is long for you and quick for me, but time is just an illusion – a quirk of space and gravity. Space and gravity are what made you and brought you to this precarious position, but surely we can set time aside so that we may speak to one another? Time is nothing, really.”
After a long pause, wherein only my heartbeat could be heard, the stone answered with a distant and soft voice in my mind, “Time is everything.”
Goblin Valley, Utah
From a website I made a few years back called “A Circle in the Desert”
It can be found here: