I devoted myself to simplicity and returned to it all, left that workaday life for this
wisdom of wandering, for this wilderness of rivers-and-mountains clarity.
— Xie Lingyun (385-433 CE)
LANGUAGE AND LANDSCAPE
I first discovered storied landscapes as an anthropology student. Accompanying Native Alaskan elders on hunting and fishing excursions, I shared in the place-based experience of people who maintained fluency in nature’s idiom to an unequaled degree. Each slough, each mountain pass, each peregrine roost or bear den spoke to them of a past that is also present. The landmarks and associated stories express a worldview as much as they embody knowledge. They focus the traditions of people whose history and self-image largely reside in the land. They define homeland rather than wilderness. They endure as part of a moral universe, eloquent reminders that continue to shape the identities of groups and individuals.
Among the Colorado Plateau’s mesas and canyons I found my own voice. There as well, indigenous cultures had assembled a record of things that centered and grounded them. They spoke to me through their rock art and ruins, through legends and myths, through Navajo silver and Hopi pottery. Yet like the enfolding landscape, these artifacts yielded more questions than answers, confounding the newcomer. I traced some of my own civilization’s stories while roaming redrock mazes that converged upon Glen Canyon—which now lies beneath the inertia of Lake Powell. In the process, I realized words matter more than I thought: an artificial lake should be called a “reservoir,” in debt to the truth. What began as a personal quest quickly grew into a book. Others soon followed. As a wilderness guide and writer I not only unearth extant tales but also sink roots deep into landscapes, creating new stories that drive and sustain me.