On the coast they put up a few ramshackle huts
and slept uneasily. This, they claim, in the Riachuelo,
but that is a story dreamed up in Boca.
It was really a city block in my district – Palermo**.
Jose Luis Borges – The Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires
Nothing is true or false until it is properly enstoried.
It can be handy to think of our hemisphere as three distinct ethnospheres; Euro-America consists of most of the US and Canada, and the Southern Cone of South America, which were relatively empty (or quickly emptied) and where the indigenous peoples were displaced by populations from Europe. Afro-America consists of the Caribbean basin, some parts of the old Confederacy in the United States, and the northern parts of Brazil, where the same vacuum was filled by slaves imported from Africa. Finally, Chthonic America consists of the heartlands of the old native American high cultures of Meso-America and the Andes, where the indigenous inhabitants were not eliminated so much as creolized, and where the underlying thought patterns are still very much Inca, or Maya, or Toltec.
The mythopoetic process, the digestion of Chthonic America, I believe, can be found in what is called the literature of “magical realism”, about which I know little, but at whose fountain I have tasted sweet waters and want to learn more. Miguel Angel Asturias, of Guatemala, whose master-work Men of Corn I have yet to read but the portions which I have read burn like lava.
Along the same line, the mythopoetic impulse in Euro-America, I believe, can be found in what I like to call “visionary realism”, except that the seminal works are not fiction, but non-fiction. Let me explain.
About 15 years ago, before moving to Miami, Florida, I read a book by a remarkable woman, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, The River Of Glass. Yesterday, I began another book by an equally remarkable woman, Mary Hunter Austin, The Land Of Little Rain. These two books are so similar they almost appear to have been written by the same mind. Certainly, they partake of the same spirit.
Both books were written by women of powerful character who, despite being early feminists and agitators for “women’s rights”, kept their husbands’ names. Both of them endured a rocky and tempestuous marriage that ended in divorce. Neither of them was native to the place she wrote about; Mrs. Douglas grew up in Minnesota, but moved to South Florida in 1915, and she lived there until 1998. Mrs. Austin moved to the Mojave Desert in 1890 and remained there for the next 17 years.
Mrs. Douglas wrote about the Florida Everglades, and Mrs. Austin about the Inyo valley on the leeward of the Sierra Nevada range, and both of their masterpieces share a common structure. Both begin with the geography and the flora of the region, then they discuss animal and bird life, noting peculiarities caused by the singular environments, overly wet in the case of the Everglades and overly arid in the case of the Inyo valley.
After this, they describe in considerable detail and with great sympathy the lives and customs of Native Americans that lived, and continue to live, in these areas. Only after all of this are the stories of white settlers introduced. At first they are the stories of solitary, furtive men, miners or trappers, who wander into the region hoping to find some kind of quick economic salvation from a region that at first sight has very little to offer.
Only towards the end of the books are the stories of “smart men” introduced, well-connected men, who can systematically exploit the scarce resources of the region efficiently. This then draws the region into the larger American narrative, dominated by a nearby large city; Miami in the case of the Everglades and Los Angeles in the case of the Inyo valley.
I think I would call the writing style of both The Everglades: River of Grass and The Land Of Little Rain “visionary non-fiction”. Think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek or Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams, both of which have been recommended to me and both of which I have tried to start. It is possible that I have an antipathy to Dillard and Lopez in the same way that I have an antipathy to the very derivative Tolkien imitators that so abound these days.
This visionary realism may just be the essential Euro-American way of mythopoesis. It attempts to “get inside” a place, to show how the contours and characteristics of the land work their way into the consciousness of its settlers, and how the consciousness of the human agents affects the land. Both River of Grass and Land Of Little Rain are spiritual histories of a particular place, at the margin of the easily habitable and easily “developed” parts of the country. Yet they are far from tedious.
Both Mrs. Douglas and Mrs. Austin accept a responsibility for their respective territory that leave you feeling as though they had become, through their artistry, almost a familiar spirit or a guiding genius. Mrs. Douglas, in particular, living in South Florida until her 108th year, was continually referred to in the press as a spokeswoman “for the Everglades”, or for “the cause of Everglades conservation”, whereas, truth be told, she felt every unnecessary subdivision and short-sighted, self-serving political decision impacting her beloved River of Grass as a personal affront. I heard that she didn’t die a happy woman.
It may very well be that the project for the Church for the next millenium will be to drop the Imperial Church one-size-fits-all fantasy and begin to develop what Father Stephen Freeman refers to as Orthodoxy Where You Live, what I would like to call the Orthodoxy of Right Here, Right Now, and what Mark Thomas Hoyer calls, following Mrs. Austin, Local Christianities.
To be certain, embracing sectarianism is not the idea. Each square inch of ground has to have a tutelary spirit, a guiding ideology. I want it to be Orthodoxy, the Faith Once Delivered, but it may very well be that an Orthodoxy lived out and developed in a particular place wouldn’t “work” 50 miles down the road.
Maybe we need to find out.