Sunday, December 16, 2012
Recently while staying at a hotel in Torrance, California, I spent part of an evening flipping TV channels in search of something interesting. I happened to view a program about how young Native Americans in southern California have taken an interest in the ancient songs and dances of their ancestors, notably a style of singing called "bird song." Afterwards, I couldn't help but recall an unforgettable experience I had long ago.
When I was a boy in my teens, I was fond of taking an occasional break from city life to go hiking and backpacking in the mountains east of San Diego. I would spend days at a time in remote areas, rarely encountering other humans. These were some of the happiest times in my life. I sought silence -- not the absence of sound, but the whispering of wind, the distant call of a crow, an owl charming the pre-dawn hours -- that sort of silence. Visually too, I was blessed with breath-taking views of mountains and canyons, pine-clad ridge tops, meadows of flowing grass, wild roses -- things that filled my heart both with gratitude to the Creator, and love of all created things.
And, there were so many wonderful surprises along the way.
On one such journey, I happened upon an ancient Kumeyaay village site, and rested there a while. The place was situated in an open forest clearing among the scattered pine and oak common to this part of the mountains. As I picked up broken shards of pottery and examined them, time seemed to stand still as I thought about the significance of what I held in my hands. Rounded pieces, some with thumb prints still visible; I began to weep silently as I imagined people actually making and using these vessels for cooking and storing food. In that moment, I felt a mystical connection with these ancient ones who are long gone.
As I write about this incident, lyrics from Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn's song 'Red Brother Red Sister' come to mind, e.g.
Went down to the museum, red brother,
Saw your ancient bloom, cut, pressed, and dried.
The sign said, "Wasn't it clever what they used to do,"
But, they never did say how you died.
Hey, hey, hey.
Although I am generally an optimist, there are times when I am compelled to lament the course of human history. In this moment, I couldn't help but wonder if the encounters between European colonists and native populations in the New World might have been different. We learn from history. Or do we? As I held the artifacts in my hands, I felt love for these ancient ones whom I will never meet, at least in this life. Hence, the tears welled up as I thought of the horrors they endured during centuries of conquest and abuse.
While I strive to live in the present and hope for a brighter future both for me and for my neighbors on the planet, I keep a realistic perspective. I can do very little as an individual. Yet I must do something, even if only to live out the greatest commandment, and the one that is like unto it, e.g. to love God as I understand the Divine, and to love and respect my neighbor as myself. These ideals illuminate my consciousness, and I feel proud of the native people who survive and even thrive today. I am pleased that here and there it is still possible to hear the Kumeyaay bird songs. God bless the elders and the young people who keep alive the tradition.