a Place, a Piece, a Puzzle: vol. 10
P. The first crucial thing to know about Thoreau, New Mexico is that it is not named after Henry David. Its namesake was a local railroad baron, and the pronunciation is “thuh-ROO.” The Navajo is Dlǫ́ʼí Yázhí. I can’t begin to tell you how to pronounce that.
About 2,000 people live in Thoreau, though it’s hard to tell precisely where to stop counting. Population spreads thinly across the desert. The old Route 66 passes through town on its way between Gallup and Grants. Long, long trains pass by. The town sits in a valley below an escarpment of red sandstone. Above rises the Colorado Plateau and the San Juan basin stretching toward the four corners. Desert vegetation is sparse in the valley. To the south the land thickens with ponderosa forests and waves with the subtle foothills of the Zuni Mountains.
The Zuni are a small group, with 10,000 enrolled tribe members compared the neighboring Navajos’ 300,000. Archaeologists believe they have farmed in their current area for 3,000 to 4,000 years. Their language is an isolate. It has no known relationship to any other native American language. Linguists believe it to be some 7,000 years old.
The Navajo language, by contrast, is Athabaskan in origin. Related languages are spoken in Alaska and northwest Canada. The Navajo people are believed to have migrated from this area to the American southwest by around 1400 CE.
It must have been puzzling to arrive on the Colorado Plateau and find great cities, Chaco Canyon and outlying settlements, completely abandoned. The ancient Puebloan societies had left them a century or two before, for reasons uncertain but probably connected to drought, deforestation, and bad environmental management.
The ancestral Navajos, for reasons equally fascinating, chose not to occupy these elaborate buildings. The Puebloan cities remained empty and haunted, as they still stand today.
Thoreau is south of Chaco. As you pull onto Interstate 40, Mount Taylor rises to the east. This is one of the Navajos’ four sacred mountains, marking the cardinal directions and the geographical boundaries of the Navajo homeland. It is named of course for Zachary Taylor, who became U.S. President in 1849 after a long military career and died sixteen months later, his primary achievement being that the union did not fall apart during his presidency. To Spanish settlers in the area Mount Taylor was known by the somewhat lovelier Cebolleta (little onion). But the Navajo name is of course the most poetic: Tsoodził, the turquoise or blue bead mountain.
When you see this ancient volcano you are marked geographically and temporally; you see the past that is there with you.
East of Tsoodził, a wide volcanic field opens toward Albuquerque and the Rio Grande rift. To the south is the Malpais, a vast country of lava rock that flowed from the sacred volcano in the distant past. According to old Navajo stories, Monster Slayer and his brother Born for Water slew the last of the great alien giants atop Mount Taylor. The giant’s blood became the Malpais and his head rolled down Mount Taylor to land in the desert below. It is now known as Cabezon Peak, the field’s largest volcanic plug, rising 2,000 feet above the plains.
Highway 371 runs south from Farmington, where the high peaks of the San Juan Mountains loom across the border in Colorado, through the center of Thoreau and under Interstate 40. It becomes State Highway 612 and winds through a narrow canyon before opening to the Las Tuces Valley, where the Zuni Mountains begin to rise. The road continues to Bluewater Lake, a reservoir popular for fishing. In recent years’ droughts the water level has become too low to allow larger boats. Below the lake is Bluewater Canyon and another winding road into the Zunis.
Above the lake, a creekbed crosses the road. This is Sawyer Creek. Often, in recent years, no water runs here. Sometimes there is snow accumulation at Rice Park, site of a distant dam and occasional reservoir high in the Zuni Mountains. When they release this snowmelt in the spring, Sawyer Creek swells. The riparian zones along its banks are green, the meadows flood. This year New Mexico saw a historic monsoon season, and in September a string of rainstorms caused not just Sawyer but its nearby tributary, Once-in-Ten-Years Creek, to flow dramatically.
But I’ll always remember Sawyer Creek dry, the way I first saw it. I’ll always remember a dry, dry June, starchy white desert light hiding in the shade of the cottonwoods down by the creekbed. The crunch of the dry crackling pine needles on the ground. Otherworldly colors at dusk, as the sunset reached us through smoke floating over from the Wallow fire in Arizona. Walking down the driveway back across 612 in the profound breezy silence of mid-afternoon.
P. “Papa made that up, now, that last verse,” the lady says as she finishes her song. She and her sister were trading stanzas. Ohioan musician Brian Harnetty found this recording during his artist residency at the Appalachian Sound Archives in Berea, Kentucky. Each morning he entered the library and listened to old tapes all day. He treated it as a 9-5 job. The archives document Appalachian life and culture and include recordings of music, storytelling, radio programs, and speeches.
And in the sound of these stories, in the deep hesitations in the speakers’ voices, in the space between the verses, in each forgotten lyric, Harnetty heard music. He heard isolated picked notes from the guitar and banjo, he heard quiet drums. He heard the voice of Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. He began to dream of working with the singer-songwriter to make music based on the Berea archive’s field recordings.
They corresponded for a while, but schedules didn’t immediately align. In 2006 Harnetty released an album called American Winter. It begins from the Berea recordings, with strips of Harnetty’s own music wrapped around the source material and through the holes in its center. The field recordings are the body of the album. The original music mostly ornaments them.
There was more to be said and sung from the library in Berea. For Silent City, Harnetty’s 2009 release, Will Oldham joined the process. The field recordings are not the proper body of the album this time, more its quiet heart, not always visible but always beating below the surface.
The record opens with soft harmonium blankets and grows to patchy drumbeats and piano patterns. It isn’t until the end of the first track that we hear a field recording, a splash of old fiddle music. In American Winter the question was whether Harnetty’s music grew from the field recordings or simply commented upon them from a detached position, accentuating certain elements. In Silent City the relationship is more complex, a knotted symbiosis in which the music is inspired by the field recordings, and yet the field recordings themselves seem to grow up out of the music, the 1940s springing from the 2000s like aspen saplings in hard mountain soil.
Oldham’s entrance in the fourth track, “Sleeping in the Driveway,” is a decisive moment of arrival. It occurs to me now that the album bears a dramatic structure like a subtle baroque cantata. The first two pieces are instrumental, a prelude and a chorus; the third introduces the album’s first voice, a radio announcer speaking a brief recitative. Then at last, with the first appearance of Oldham, we get a proper aria. He sings on only three of the album’s twelve tracks, but his presence lingers remarkably where he is absent.
The composer John Cage famously suggested, in his music and writings, that true silence doesn’t exist, that if we listen in the right places there is always sound, always music. Silent City makes the opposite case. Harnetty begins from sound and dismantles it. He uses sound to create a texture that feels a lot like silence.
“Well, there’s a lot of stories,” an older man says to a younger interviewer. “I can remember one of them. Now, this is not really a...It is a story, but it’s an actual story.” The breaks in his speech, which might be described as proper silences, are more dramatic, more poignant, more silent because there is music, because there are quiet tones sustaining and distant plucks on the banjo punctuating the time between his statements.
P. The great physicist Enrico Fermi thought it was always a good idea, before experimenting on a vexing question, to make as an informed an estimate as possible. Even in the absence of any reliable information on the subject, working through an estimation can identify the general magnitude of answer one is looking for, help illuminate the most relevant missing information, and identify underlying assumptions that might be clouding one’s foresight on the issue.
Such an approximation is now often called a Fermi problem. One famous example: how many piano tuners are there in New York City?
Well, how many people are there in New York City? Say, around ten million. And how many have a piano? One in forty? One in fifty? Let’s be optimistic and say one in forty. That makes 250,000 pianos in the city. Perhaps they get tuned once a year, on average. This makes 250,000 piano tunings total. One could continue: how many working days a year per piano tuner, how many pianos can they tune each day, and so on. Eventually you end up with a respectable guess, or one that at least puts you in the right numerical neighborhood.
In 1961 an astrophysicist named Frank Drake used a Fermi-like method of approximation to determine roughly how many intelligent civilizations might exist in the Milky Way galaxy. Again, he did so not to seek accuracy, but because he was curious what sort of answer we could expect.
Drake formulated the question as an equation. The calculation of galactic civilizations with whom communication might be possible depends on the total number of stars, the fraction of those stars that have planets, the likelihood that any given planet can support life, the fraction of those planets which actually DO develop life, the fraction of life that might become intelligent and form civilizations... and such. These are intimidating factors. They make our ignorance regarding the daily activities of piano tuners seem relatively inconsequential.
The Drake equation has therefore been more an object of contemplation than of calculation. Which is not to say that calculation hasn’t been attempted. In 1961, Drake and his colleagues debated each factor and ended up with an estimate of between 1000 and 100,000,000 civilizations in the Milky Way. Not just civilizations, again, but intelligent civilizations. Civilizations that we might conceivably communicate with.
One of the more evocative and controversial factors proved to be the shelf life of any given civilization--because ultimately to be included in the Drake equation a society must not merely exist, but exist long enough to develop interstellar communication. Astronomers such as Carl Sagan, theorizing during the Cold War, were understandably suspicious of any complex society’s ability to survive for this length of time without self-destructing.
Nonetheless, three zeroes or eight, the Drake equation seems to yield a fairly large number. Undoubtedly, the universe is old and incomprehensibly large. Statistics suggest that we are not alone, and yet we have seen no evidence whatsoever of the existence of any of these 1000 or 100,000,000 civilizations who supposedly share our galaxy. This odd state of affairs has been referred to as Fermi’s paradox, after a conversation at Los Alamos in 1950. A group of physicists were casually debating the likelihood that human beings would observe extraterrestrial activity of some sort in the next ten years. Some hours later, while silently eating lunch, Fermi perked up and exclaimed, “Where is everyone?”
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• Music as Drama
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• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues