“The true wealth that North America offered, wealth that
could turn exploitation into residency, greed into harmony,
was to come from one thing – the cultivation and achievement
of local knowledge. It was in the pursuit of local knowledge
alone that one could comprehend the notion of a home and
its attendant responsibilities.”
– Barry Lopez
from The Rediscovery of North America
“We have not yet discovered America.”
– John Hay
from A Beginner’s Faith in Things Unseen
“A place we know calls for the beloved to awaken and come home.”
– Christopher Scholl
Many times, I stood next to Castle Butte in southern Saskatchewan and gazed down the wide Big Muddy Valley, its stratified walls burnished by afternoon sun. Since the valley has filled up over the past 8,000 years, I imagined it five times deeper, engorged with torrents of cold glacial runaway meltwater, carving a new language in a system of channels across the land, its syllables the unstoppable will of gravity driving fresh water toward a warm and welcoming sea. The same water chiseled Castle Butte’s precious shape.
Castle Butte, a quarter of a mile around and over 200 feet high, is a huge, ever-eroding sandstone monolith that stands like a sentinel over the vast distance of the valley, a prominent landmark for millennia. I have stopped there many times and seldom have my visits been solitary. Castle Butte attracts an array of humanity. Spelunkers explore the narrow shallow caves cut by water through the guts of the butte. The curious seek out Castle Butte, usually tourists lured by travel brochures. Most prevalent visitors in my experience are returnees, people whose early lives began on this same prairie under an enormous sun.
Yes, here they are again, returnees, often trailing disinterested families. Enticed back, fulfilling an unspoken responsibility, the returnees stare up at the sultry muscular shape of the butte against the blue dome, dreamily remembering some event or epiphany the butte shared with them. Each brings with them their eroded piece of the rock, their memories and their own worn shapes against the sky.
Local knowledge lives in Castle Butte. Across decades, a magnetic force attracts people made wise by the butte in their formative years. Its changing form looms large in their definition of home. Terry Tempest Williams asserted, “Home is the range of your instincts.” To which I add that pairing instinct with local knowledge gives us the certainty, not the mere potential, but the certainty of adaptation and survival, not only here but anywhere we call home.
Part of the responsibility of calling Castle Butte home is to return, like pilgrims, to be present once more, to “show” new family the place then realize Castle Butte’s meaning is so ineffable, so sublime that neither your words nor their presence here will interest them. Unlike you, they are inadequate to the local knowledge; their instincts are out of kilter here.
Local knowledge doesn’t only exist in the sparsely populated rural landscape. It feeds urban dwellers in a more intense version which, coupled with a pantheon of human-induced rules, provides the necessary adaptation tools for most of us to survive in cities. Yet we blankly walk through this local knowledge, unaware of it or any of its manifestations. Instinct is keenest when we are mindful. Try this: for one day, every time you walk into a shadow, notice what building or tree or whatever caused the shadow. Suddenly you’ll know where you are.
Every acre of virgin prairie from Vita in southern Manitoba to Grasslands National Park in western Saskatchewan possesses the original voice of the land, the local knowledge. The winds that blow over the land are given voice by the buffalo rub stones and wallows that are the anomalies and the vocal cords that produce the true language of the prairie. Undisturbed tracts of vitality, uninterrupted evolution, the barks of the prairie dogs, the rattle and hiss of the rattlesnake and the silent spinning of the wolf spider still echo in our ears gone deaf from listening only to our own cleverness.
We are trapped in the process of naming, which both connects us to and separates us from the world. Our naming is merely a way of talking, a doing where not-doing is required. Because it makes us comfortable we confuse the name with that named, identify with the thought not the thought-about. The reliance on identifying and defending this word magic is amplified in the volumes that fill libraries and bookstores, words scrawled on blog walls and our own fear of silence and solitude.
Ancient shimmering places, like Castle Butte, cannot make reason or ego feel safe. They can only slake the soul, making it feel at home. Beyond our clamorous superficial culture lives the real depth of soul, of growth and evolution, of discovering America. After a few days in the wilderness, your dreams change from urban scurrying to a more peaceful pace. Accompanied by dramatic increases in quantity, vividness and context, your wild soulful dreams convey caring concern for all beings. This led ecologist Robert Greenway to suggest our culture is only four days deep. Or four days shallow.
We have discovered its coal, oil, water and forests but the North America that lives invincibly inside us still calls for discovery and understanding. North America is an inner space. If we seek the sacredness it promises, inner work is essential. North America will sustain us if we listen for its wisdom by being patiently quiet. Be still long enough and the wisdom wells up into your consciousness. Then you’ve truly begun to discover home, like the returnees with their local knowledge of Castle Butte.