Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Shell, Safeway, the highway matrix — everyone knows these culturally significant features of our landscape. Less well known are the natural features of the land: the hills, prairies, ponds, and streams. Our landscape watched the mammoths roam, it watched the furious madness of civilization, and it will watch the manmade eyesores dissolve into ancient ruins.
Waking up in the civilized world each morning is a jolt — jets, sirens, the endless rumble of machines. Most of us live amidst hordes of two-legged tumbleweeds, nameless strangers. We are the people from nowhere, blown out of our ancestral homelands by the howling winds of ambition and misfortune. Our wild ancestors never lived here. Carson McCullers wrote, “To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.”
Pssst! Over here! I’ve found the entrance to another realm, a temporary place of refuge, an escape from the madness. It’s called Wisdom Sits in Places, and it was written by Keith Basso (1940-2013), an ethnographer-linguist. In 1959, he began spending time in the Apache village of Cibecue, in Arizona. He discovered a culture that had deep roots in the land, and a way of living that was far from insane.
The Apache culture also had entrances to other realms. Many places on their land had names, and many of these named places were associated with stories, and many of these stories had ancient roots. Everyone in Cibecue knew the named places, and their stories. The voices of the wild ancestors could be heard whenever the stories were told, and their words were always conveyed in the present tense. “Now we are in for trouble!” Past and present swirled together.
The stories were a treasure of time-proven wisdom. They often provided moral messages that taught the virtues of honorable living, and the unpleasant rewards of poor choices. When people wandered off the good path, stories reminded them of where this would lead. They helped people to live well. Because of the power in the stories, the natives said, “The land looks after the people.”
Most scholars who spend time learning about other cultures were raised in the modern world of nowhere. These experts would study languages, ceremonies, food production, clothing, spirituality, and so on — but they paid too little attention to the relationship between culture and place, because this notion was absent in their way of knowing. Often, the reports they published were missing essential components.
From 1979 to 1984, Basso worked on a project that blew his mind. The Anglo world had zero respect for sacred places when there was big money to be made. But natives didn’t want their sacred places destroyed, so they hired experts to document their culturally significant sites. Elders took Basso to see these places, and record their stories. He created a map that covered 45 square miles, and had 296 locations with Apache place names.
Ruth Patterson told Basso about her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s. In those days, families spent much time on the land, away from the village. They herded cattle, tended crops, roasted agave, and hunted. As they moved about, parents taught their children about the land. They pointed out places, spoke their names, and told the stories of those places. They wanted their children to be properly educated.
Apaches used historic stories for healing purposes. Nothing could be more impolite than directly criticizing another person, expressing anger, or providing unrequested advice. Instead, the elders used stories to “shoot” healing notions. During a conversation, they would mention the names of places having stories that would be good for the wayward person to remember. Then, hopefully, he or she would reflect on the stories, understand their relevance, and make the changes needed to return to balance.
One time, three wise women sat with a woman who was too sad. The first wise woman spoke a sentence that mentioned a place name. Then the second mentioned another place. So did the third. The sad woman recalled mental pictures of those places, and heard the ancestors’ voices speak the stories of those places. She reflected on their meanings, and the clouds lifted. She laughed. This was a gentle, effective, and brilliant act of healing. They called it “speaking with names.”
One day, Dudley Patterson was talking about stories and wisdom. Basso asked him, “What is wisdom?” Patterson replied, “It’s in these places. Wisdom sits in places.” In a long and beautiful passage, he told Basso how his grandmother explained the pursuit of wisdom. Everyone is different. Some are smart, some are half-smart, but only a few achieve wisdom. Wisdom is acquired via a long dedicated quest; no one is born with it.
When elders become wise, people can see them change. They are calm and confident. They are not fearful, selfish, or angry. They keep promises. They pay careful attention, always listening for the voices of the ancestors. Patterson’s grandmother summed it up something like this:
“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will see danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you.”
Years later, when Basso sat down to write his book, Cibecue had changed. The road to the village had been paved, and there was a school, supermarket, medical clinic, and many new houses. Big screen televisions were a new source of stories, sent from the spirit world of corporations, not ancestors. People were spending far less time wandering about, old trails had grown over, and the younger generations were losing their connection to the land and its old-fashioned stories. They preferred the new and useful information provided at school.
So, the book invites us to contemplate a society far different from our own. It calls up ancient memories. Everyone’s wild ancestors once lived in a way something like the Apaches. It’s inspiring to remember this. Observing the world from a tribal perspective allows us to realize how far we’ve strayed. The people from nowhere are paying a terrible price for the frivolous wonders of modernity, and the wreckage it leaves behind.
Basso wrote, “We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.” Prince Charles said it a bit differently: “In so many ways we are what we are surrounded by, in the same way as we are what we eat.” In the traditional Apache world, the people were surrounded by a beautiful culture that encouraged respect, caring, and wisdom. In the modern consumer world, we’re surrounded by a wisdom-free nightmare of hurricane-force infantile energy reminiscent of a Godzilla movie. But all hurricanes die. Our Dark Age will pass. Think positive!
Basso, Keith H., Wisdom Sits in Places, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996.