My daughter, looking into the flames of our wood stove, asks me why fire is orange. I know the answer: The flames are sheets of hot carbon dioxide giving off characteristic wavelengths of light. But as I look into my daughter’s wondering, 5-year-old face, my heart quails and I long for a myth. I want to tell her about a Fire-Bringer. I’m struck by the paucity of the things that I’m sure of, and as she waits for my answer, I debate whether to tell my truth, which will give lie to the question, or to tell a falsehood that might reach to the truth.
At Devil’s Tower the hawk’s cry descends like a hand in the dark. Kree-e-e-e-e! Kree-e-e-e-e! (How do I put into human language a sound that fills all of space and my mind, that is full of pain and despair, freedom and flight, that speaks as much of the fleeing dove’s fear, rushing from the shadow of the moment, as it does the power of the hawk, airrush and wingsnap?)
Kree-e-e-e-e? Kree-e-e-e-e? It’s as close as I can come, but not even close. I am stopped in my tracks. I have brought an Elderhostel group here to study myths both personal and cultural, but at this moment on our walk around the monument, I am alone. Again the hawk’s cry drops down, from a different place, from above the stark rock which rises into the moving clouds and reverses their movement so that it and I seem to be moving.
I expect to see, am tensed to see, a large shape coalesce gray and hurrying into color from those stilled clouds, becoming sharp, extended claws. But nothing happens.
The cry rings down again: circling, wailing. But there is nothing to see, just the cry itself, so ancient, so antecedent to language, so full of the force of all that is alive that, frozen on the path as the earth spins around me, I feel for a moment the rock as a great tree, and I can see the bear, how large it must have been, its furfat smell and how its rage heated the air as it clawed and scraped those marks deep into the bark to bring the tree down, to devour its own sisters.
In the room next to where I sit writing this, my children watch 3-2-1, Contact. The voices from the television come muted through the wall. My oldest son likes this show; on it, teen-agers and preteen-agers are taken to various places where scientists are working, and things are explained: volcanoes, earthquakes, galaxies, the workings of suns, the courses of rivers.
Why should such a show make me mildly uncomfortable? My son’s in second grade, and he confidently tells me: “I know what makes an earthquake,” and then repeats it: the shifting of plates in the earth, the slippage, the shock.
N. Scott Momaday relates the Kiowa Indian story of the formation of Devil’s Tower: A brother and seven sisters are playing in a meadow; the brother turns into a huge bear and runs to devour his sisters; a tree springs from the ground, the sisters climb into its branches, and it carries them to the sky. The bear, enraged, rakes the tree with its claws, leaving deep vertical marks; but he cannot bring it down, and the sisters, thrown into the heavens, become the stars of the Big Dipper.
The reality of Devil’s Tower matches perfectly the story of its origins. All you need is the ability to imagine the bear—huge, shambling, stalking the earth in a time when such creatures could exist. If you can supply that image—and you have to work at it, you have to want it; perhaps even then you need the cry of a hawk and then tower in mist—then you feel a moment of fear, and the collapsing of time, and how the moment of the bear is the moment of your breath, and nothing and everything exist in that moment.
The scientific myth of the formation of Devil’s Tower is that it is the core of an extinct volcano. The hard granite of the core, once solidified, eroded more slowly than the surrounding land, so that over millions of years the core, which had been below the surface, emerged and now looms above the land that once covered it. The slide show at the interpretive venter confidently uses the past tense, never interspersing “we think” or “we guess” or even “the theory is.”
I’ve got to say: I believe it, too. In the absence of a hawk’s cry, it makes great sense.
But it calls forth nothing from me. It gives me no way to connect.
Momaday, thinking of those seven sisters sparkling in the heavens, says: “From that moment, and so long as the legend lives, the Kiowas have kinsmen in the night sky.” Believer as I usually am in the modern myth, I find that I have nothing to do with the slow erosion of rock and the leaching of soil into rivers. I have nothing to do with Devil’s Tower, nothing immediate or mandatory, nothing called from the blood. My truth turns me into a tourist: to come, to look, to leave.
But the Kiowa story, what a truth it leads me to: that I am concerned with this place and this sky, these clouds, this tree at the middle of the world, my sisters shining in the sky. No longer merely a tourist, I am instead attending a reunion. And because through the story I feel the world as both intimate and awesome, I know the sacred and I know that what I do here matters—here, anywhere—for I cannot be a tourist to my own life, nor any part of it. I am too aware of the rage of the bear huffing in my own heart, and of my pale, frightened sisters.
Jorge Luis Borges writes: “Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places—all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.”
There was a time in my childhood when I would go out to the dark fields on the Minnesota plains where the sky is everything, and I would stack the miles up to the stars. I could imagine a mile. Two. Three, four, five. Mile after mile I would climb in my mind, but at some point the whole imagined construct would collapse. I’d reach the absolute limit of my imagination, and everything I had built would rush like a stack of blocks upon me, and there would be nothing between me and the stars. Yet I had not even come close to imagining their distance.
As I built those miles up, I was always on the verge of understanding something, the mystery of distance, that I never had before. But it was my failure to understand that passed through me and thrilled me. The building-up was fun, but the collapse and the sudden rush of awe and intimacy in the presence of the distance of the stars—this is what filled me: my failure to understand as a kind of understanding, my own emptiness felt as a fullness.
I cannot do this at will any more with the night sky. But sometimes the feeling will surprise me yet—upon finishing a book and knowing that I understand something which I don’t yet understand; in the presence of a good friend or loved one when some small gesture will drive home to me that person’s absolute mystery and deep unknowableness; when a passing look on a stranger’s face will speak of a whole life and history. Or in a moment of a hawk’s cry when it seems, because the clouds are moving, that the treerock is moving and the clouds are still, and I’m floating along with it through a sound piercing time from the beginnings of the world.
Many of the questions that children ask, adults for generations were unable to answer. But now we can answer them. Why is the sky blue? Because of the absorption of longer wavelengths of light. Why do birds sing? Because of mating drives and the defense of territory. Where did I come from? From egg and sperm, the joining and splitting of cells.
These are answers I am sure of. Yet I can’t help but feel that they miss the point of the questions and detract from a central mystery. The child is not wondering, “Why is the sky blue?” but is wondering, “Why is the sky blue to me?”—why is it so deeply and purely blue, and what is it within me that lets me stare into it and lose myself and feel its blueness, and yet never know what that blueness is?
Why is the sky so blue that I love it?
Or those flames so orange?
This is why—though I know that child psychologists say we should answer our children’s questions as truthfully as we know how—this is why I have at times, seeing my children’s wondering faces, mumbled back to their questions: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know why a fire is orange.” And I let the child return to the mystery of the flames and her love for them.
Because I don’t know a Fire-Bringer myth surely enough to tell it so that it reinforces the mystery, and bonds the child more fully to the flames.
Because the only way I have to acknowledge the mystery is to simply acknowledge it.
Why are my lover’s eyes so blue, or so green, or so brown, that I lose myself in them?
Why, in that light through the curtains, is a face I’ve known for years suddenly so anguished, or so strange, or so beautiful?
Why is that woman dressed in the wool coat in July so frightening that I’m drawn to her?
What is a sleeping child?
Why are the stars so far and so near? How do they chisel the darkness?
What do I have to do with this rock?
Why should I care?
How do I connect?
These are the questions that bring fire to our lives as we get older. I worry about supplying sure and facile and literal answers to my children’s questions. I worry that as the questions deepen with age, such answers will teach them to quit asking and so deprive them of wonder and mystery, depth of pain, fire of love. I sometimes see people who have learned to play tourist to their lives and loves, to their friendships, their marriages, their children, their beliefs.
The old myths serve always to deepen mystery, not to explain and so do away with it. They serve to increase that imminence of a revelation—the imminence, not the revelation itself; that sense of being on the verge of something beyond us—that is the esthetic experience, that is the source of all awe and intimacy, the Bringer-of-Fire to our lives, the Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious, that bonds us to the sky and the flames.
The morning after visiting Devil’s Tower I am with my Elderhostel group in the classroom, sharing experiences. Each member of the group, from vastly different backgrounds, felt the power of that place. When it comes my turn, I talk about the hawkcry. Though I had been alone, members of the group had been nearby, just out of sight around the bends of the path. When I’m finished relating my experience, I ask: “Did any of you hear it? The hawk? Did some of you hear it too?”
They look at me silently.
“No one heard it?” I ask again.
Again no one speaks. I don’t know what—if anything—to make of that silence.
Kent Meyers is a professor of English at Black Hills State College in South Dakota.