Everybody knows this is nowhere.
To the west, the ground is largely a mystery to whites, an enormous grassland where the great southern herd feeds. Deserts brood and men dream of mines. Jagged mountains slice through the ground. The fangs of canyons assault any notion of easy passage.
The weather is not faithful. The rains come or do not come, the storms rage or there is nothing in the sky for months. The beasts thrive, or vanish without warning. Some years the rivers rise. Other years, the rivers die. People steal other people. And then the stolen people sometimes become new people. There are many tongues, and many kinds of faces and colors.
Old ways of knowing meet even older ways of knowing and this collision of beliefs draws blood.
We are body and souls the result of unsteady weather. The last million years was kind of crazy after sixty-five million years of slow change, a long drag we call the Tertiary. And then in a moment we've dubbed the Pleistocene, the very time when we belched forth as a species from the cauldron of life, the skies mutinied and no one could trust the weather. The ice left twelve to eight thousand years ago, and things got pretty calm and dependable and we set about this gambit called civilization. Except here, in this place to which we now come. Here, the weather never settled down, not really, and the very forces that raked our lives earlier persisted, the uncertainties that made us such inventive, conniving, and opportunistic creatures. Here, both the better and darker angels of our nature could endure in a state of high barbarism. Here, the wellsprings of our genius and violence remained as sharp as the crack of dawn on the deserts of our life. And now, the wild swings of weather are back everywhere and the lash of the sky is felt here more than other places.
Here, our ultimate dreams of power erupt and here these dreams turn to nightmares that still haunt our lives. The ground remains, uncaring, unconcerned, and beyond our destruction and redemption. The ground in this zone is both our touchstone and our terror and it owns me and has brought me to this book and journey.
They meet in 1870 in Fort Worth, an outpost staring into a void. Texas is part of a nation, but the real force of that nation lies to the east where the rains come and the world seems normal. To the south is Mexico, but it too only really exists more than a thousand miles to the south where the great central plateau has been the floor under civilizations for more than a thousand years. Between these wet centers is a zone without a name, a place where rains often fail, where men and women and children live beyond the control of the official nations.
So Edmund Jackson Davis comes with his young boy, Britton, to meet with the chiefs of two peoples, the Comanches and the Kiowas. Davis is governor of Texas. The chiefs have brought him a present to seal a peace between his people and their people, a big robe made from the skins of six lobos, the wolves of the plains. The robe runs eight to nine feet long and four to five feet wide. The chiefs apologize that the peace conference has been called so suddenly that the robe is, alas, unfinished. They point out to the governor that both sides and one end are festooned with human scalps, one dangling each running foot. Three of the scalps are ripped from the heads of women.
But the fourth side is as yet unfinished.
The chiefs also tell the governor that they have taken care to make sure that none of the scalps are from white people—simply the hair taken from other Indians or from Mexicans. This selection, they note, is deliberate, so that the governor will feel no discomfort from the gift.
Davis speaks with great diplomacy. He tells the chiefs that he knows the scalps are proof of valor for the warriors, and because of that fact, he cannot accept them since they belong with the men who took them in combat. So they are removed and the unadorned robe is given to the governor.
Now all four sides are naked. The great robe will never be finished. And in time will vanish into the dust of history and be lost to memory.
A kind of peace will eventually come, just as claims of power will be made by the nations. The boy Britton, for example, will become a soldier and fight in the Apache wars against Geronimo, then start up a cattle operation in Mexico, become worth at least $750,000, and then lose everything in a whirlwind called the Mexican Revolution. The tribes will be crushed and penned in a place called Oklahoma. The great herds will die and other beasts will enter the country. The wolves will disappear and howl no more.
The great grasslands that ride high benches in the hot desert will persist. The tumult of the zone claimed by two nations, and controlled by no one, will persist also. The lines on the map will be etched with more and more force and yet remain frail on the ground itself.
The great robe never gets its rightful complement of scalps. There is that naked side at the treaty signing. And then, because of decorum on the governor's part, there is the mutilation of the gift that cleanses it of the real life of the place.
My life is as broken as the ground that made me. I have spent a lifetime now on this line watching the murder of the earth all around me. We are heavy feeders and rough estimates now indicate we consume through our throats and hungers and those of our beasts somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of the photosynthesis of the planet. The grasses vanish, the forests go, the fish disappear from the sea, the howls end in the night, and we sleep with a lullaby of sirens in our ears. I am not here to lament, or complain. I simply wish to stop denying this obvious past and present.
This place strikes a history of tumult, one lost to view in the fantasy of power buried in the word settlement. The borders are seen as sacred, the populations as part of an almost divine plan, the Indians as something that grew out of the ground and communed with deep spirits, the stability of title and law as inevitable and irrevocable. All this is a fantasy, a false reading of little more than a century of calm on this ground.
It is fall in 1660 and Diego Romero and five other men ride from Santa Fe into the grasslands to the east. The governor has sent them to buy the hides of buffalo and antelope. They find an Apache village and Romero announces to the tribesmen he would like to haggle awhile. And he would also like to leave a son behind. There is a dance, Romero is placed on a hide and tossed in time to the movements. Then he is thrown into a tent, and a young girl is given him. In the morning, the tribesmen check to see if he has had sex with her. He has. They place blood on his chest, a feather in his hair, announce he is now a captain of their nation. And also, they give him the promised hides.
The moment hangs there and is a mystery to us just as the Apaches and other Indians were baffled by the large bones left by the vanished, giant creatures from the ice age that had receded from memory. A Spanish governor wants hides, he sends a small party east into the grass. The leader of the party wants to impregnate a woman. He does. And is brought into the tribe.
It is a whisper from a past characterized by instability, slavery, and murder. And carelessness about the land. Now my ears are full of talk of security and homeland and invasion by other bloods. I live in a place driven by greed and fear, a place fed by ignorance.
What happened in North America was not an isolated instance. From around 1500 forward, Europe exploded onto the surface of the earth for reasons still debated over sherry and port by scholars. For example, the Russian Empire from the mid-fourteenth century onward grew at a rate of 55 square miles a day, or about 20,000 square miles a year, and did this day after day and year after year for four centuries.6 The Spanish and Portuguese over the same centuries swallowed South and Central America plus chunks of Africa and Asia. And then, of course, there is Great Britain, France, and Germany and their creative appetites for empire. But on my ground, all this is seen as beside the point, as material for some other story, an evil story, of imperialism, rather than the spread of democracy and the true faith.
This is an error, a lie, and the bedrock that sustains my nation. And now, right under my feet it is being challenged both by the sky and by other human beings.
This ground has never belonged to anyone for long. The dream of dominance is fading and yet, as the ground slips from fantasies of control, there is an insistence that this cannot be allowed.
Rollin' and tumblin', cryin' the whole night long.
They will come, they always have.
They will flourish, they always do.
They will fail, that always happens.
Life goes on and lines get erased, they always are.
I'm flying high, the men are dancing, tossing me in the air from my perch on a hide. The maiden flies through the air into the tent, where I wait with lust in my heart and greed in my mind.
They always come, they always have.
There is a giant robe of wolf skins, scalps dangling, a gift to yet a later governor. Such moments are quaint to us as we fatten on our certainties. We have managed to make sense out of the future by walling off the past. And yet our future is floored on a tiny, immediate present that has almost no connection with the long past of this ground we lord over with iron wills.
I always rise before dawn with coffee in my hand and yes in my mouth. But it has taken a fierce act of will to salute these dawns as the beasts go down, the ground dies, the waters vanish, the tribes spin into alcoholic fogs, and torrents of humans pour into the parched ground chasing some dream of wide-open spaces which they systematically obliterate. Still, I persist and believe that the riptide of flesh tearing the entrails from the land will pass, the sun will still rise, the beasts will emerge from hiding, the plants will cast down seed, and the ground will come back to life. I will stand there, no doubt a ghost, my tongue coated with pollen, my dead ears ringing from the songs of birds. I believe this with my heart and soul, but my God, it has been a struggle to keep the faith.
George Gershwin in the white heat of the creation said, "My place is America and my time is now." I have not heard that kind of talk lately. There is a silence out on the land and whispers in the locked houses. Something is breaking up and something is being born amid the slippage. I have spent my life on a fault line that tears human cultures and biological communities. The great wolf robe with scalps spoke of two worlds—one of buffalo-hunting plains Indians, the other of Europeans and their native converts who would murder the world of buffalo hunters.8 Now both seem the dreams and boasts of a lost world. And I stare into a world being born. The fantasies of power have faltered. Only the doomed believe in communism or socialism or capitalism. I see their blank faces at the meetings and in the coffee houses and cocktail lounges. And yet fantasies of power flicker at the edge of the light.
There is a faith that the land was made for us and that we are the meaning of the land. Any fact that questions this belief is ignored or erased or denied. But the tension remains between this faith and rising of the ground to assault our senses and strike down our dreams of power.
Human, All Too Human, says Friedrich Nietzsche, and he continues, "Every tradition grows ever more venerable—the more remote its origin, the more confused that origin is. The reverence due to it increases from generation to generation. The tradition finally becomes holy and inspires awe."
In the cold hours of this night when our faith fails us, some turn to drink, others to drugs. Others tend to the altars of various gods. None of these gestures touches what is taking place in this place. The power of the human cultures rakes the earth and yet at this very moment of triumph, fears seize the preachments of these cultures. The ground rebels, rains go away, wells sink, the wind rises, red eyes stare back in the night. And the wars come and come and come.
I have no feel for doom, nor have I ever. But I think the play of life leaves tracks and these marks can be glimpsed on my native ground. What path we take and where it leads us depends on how well we read these tracks. Where I live and plan to die and also plan to keep on living, here a chunk of the earth spreads out that many nations have sought and claimed because . . . it connected them to dreams of riches and power. The people and other life forms that lived here at the time the decisions were made had to be crushed because they stood in the way of this larger appetite for riches and power.
I have spent my life listening to their muted voices.
There is a house and it is in the woods and it is by the creek and it is in the mountains and it is on the hot desert and it is by the dry arroyo and it is down by the river and it is under the ground and it is in the sky. There is a house without walls or floor or ceiling.
There is a house and it is not made of dawn and it is not made of dusk and it is not bright and it is not dark.
There is a house.
I am finally home.
I am not a man who dreams and my sleep is almost always deep and unbroken. But since childhood, there has been one recurrent night visitor. In this dream I am on a black horse and looking at a house that is blazing. The house is my own. I have set the fire.
At Hot Springs, South Dakota, far to the north of my ground, there in the Black Hills on the edge of the Great Plains, a trap persisted for a spell twenty thousand years ago that enticed mammoths into a hot and verdant hole and then they could never escape and so died inside a natural dream that became a natural tomb. Dozens of such creatures slumber in this trap. But there is a curious thing: none of the dead are old males, none of the dead are mothers, none of the dead are calves. Every single trapped mammoth was a young male, some willful spirit that went down into the hole where hot water bubbled and lush grasses grew and could never climb out again. I am not about to mock these young males, nor celebrate them. I am too old now, and too cautious, to fall into the trap that killed them. But my life and the life of my ground has been similar to that warm, beckoning doom. The beasts and plants and humans of my ground also have felt this tug toward doom and some resisted and some did not and all came to make this ground the home that it is.
That is why the peace offering, the robe of wolves and scalps, is not simply a curiosity from the dusty cabinet of the past but the persistent wager that comes from this place and is this place.
The dead voices still whisper, "Are you feeling lucky?"
The hairs on the robe are like so many blades of grass. The lush scalps, the three long tresses of the women, astonish one like the glens and canyons and springs of the region. The peace treaty fails, the wars go on for a spell. The governor loses the next election and is sent packing. The dreams of power and dominance never really go away.
Nor are the lessons ever really understood.
The robe requires more scalps.
That is clear.