Sitting alone in a second-rate motel in Flagstaff, Ariz., I started to think about Bruce Chatwin’s classic travel tale, In Patagonia. I’d picked the book up about eight years previous in a fit of homesickness while I was in my Massachusetts Captivity period.
But I’m not from Patagonia. I’m from Montana.
At the time it was something of a riff on the composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s answer to how a Russian could be so comfortable capturing the “feel” of the American prairie: “a steppe is a steppe is a steppe” he quipped. A mountain is a mountain is a mountain, I suppose is what I was thinking, and surrounded by the mole hills of the east coast, that was a particularly attractive thought at the time.
But a few years have gone by, and as I’ve really thought about it, I think what linked me to Chatwin’s description of the peaks and plains of Patagonia was not that a “steppe is a steppe” or a “mountain is a mountain” but that essentially, in the big view, I was reading about the same mountains that I had grown up in when I read Chatwin – just at a point a few thousand miles to the north. Who can’t love an unbroken – or pretty much unbroken (dang you, Panama) – chain of mountains that stretch from the Arctic Circle to Tierra Del Fuego?
These mountains that touch virtually every nation of the American continents (poor, lonely, Uruguay) are really a shared sacred space, beyond all of the meta-geographic impositions of politicians and nationalism. I was thinking about Chatwin because I’d just met Glenn and Janice.
Glenn Weyant is an interesting character: His business card lists him as a sound sculptor, journalist, educator, baker, and instrument builder. What’s that mean? It means Glenn plays the U.S./Mexico border fence with a cello bow. And mallets. And sticks. And an egg whisk. I meant it when I said he was an interesting character.
Looking at the fence between the United States and Mexico in Nogales, Glenn set out to overcome this fairly unnatural divide in the landscape and the people with music, and what better music could their be to bring two sides of a fence together than to play the actual fence. Glenn says on his web site that that he wants the listener to ask themselves “What is it I am hearing? Why do these things exist? Who is kept in and who is kept out?” And in the end, his big vision is to change the wall from “an implement of division” into “an instrument of creation with the power to unite.”
In a way, Glenn’s vision makes sense to me. When I think about that eternal flow of mountains and prairies, a steel wall seems like an ugly scar ripped across the belly of society by some act of unnatural and incomprehensible violence.
A fence across the Americas?
Native Americans from Alaska to Patagonia have carved out their own cathedrals of sacred space in the towering peaks and roaring waterfalls of the great range of mountains that linked them together. The Salish found solace in the peaks of what are today known as the Mission Mountains while the Andes were dotted with sacred points connected by invisible lines of power known as Zeq’e by the Inca. Later Catholicism introduced a maze of shrines in sacred locations from Argentina to Canada, and nineteenth century Mormon pioneers referred to the mountains as those “everlasting hills” in Biblical prophesy. Surely, they thought, something so wondrous and grand stretching from north to south was a sign that God favored this land.
But I haven’t yet mentioned Janice, or why she and Glenn put me in this reflective funk in Flagstaff.
Janice is a professor at a small university on the high northern plains. I met her at a conference and stopped to ask some questions about her research (she works on travel writers) and we ended up having lunch. Over some raw fish and hot tea, I found out that in Janice’s little prairie town, immigration has turned into quite the issue.
It seems that with the general labor drain from the prairie that small farmers are hiring Mexican and other Latin American immigrants to work on sheep ranches or harvesting wheat and potatoes. Their children long since gone to drink Starbucks in Minneapolis or Seattle, farmers and ranchers are importing man power to hang on to the legacy given them by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
What intrigued me most about Janice’s tale was the discussion of a harvest festival in which two neighboring towns get together for a little competition. The game? Soccer. The players? Latinos. The sidelines, said Janice, were lined with older white farmers, ranchers, and town folk all cheering on their champions, while little mestizo children ran around and clapped for their papis to win. You see, when the old farmer’s children go to the city, they take their children with them, and losing them means losing the grand children - losing the future. The men out on the soccer field and the labor they provide aren’t the only necessary import for a small western town.
I can’t help but find a little bit of hope in Bruce, Glenn, and Janice. Close your eyes…a sage filled Patagonian wind fills your nostrils while eerie and ethereal sound sculptures dance along with the breeze. In the background you can hear the laughter of children and the elderly – maybe a few cheers and swears uttered in Spanish – as a small town on the prairie finds hope in the strong backs and smiling children brought to them in the flow of people up the everlasting hills.
Chatwin has been dead for a decade. Glenn has plans to create a trans-border orchestra experience in which the fence is played from both sides. Janice is moving to Morocco. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Flagstaff, staring at headlines about a border fence.
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