Grand Canyon Retreat
On an early April evening in 1956 we pulled our battered Jeep into Cameron trading post, on the Little Colorado River. We were headed for Grand Canyon Village, 60 miles west. We liked Cameron in those days; a good place to spend the night.
Navajos and Hopis padded softly about their tasks. One of them came from the tiny post office next to the trading post to lower the American flag, which rippled in a gentle east wind.
After sunset, and just before dark, we walked out along the high rock bluff back of the post, which gave a view down to the tree-lined sandy shore of the Little Colorado. A dim path was faintly visible, threading its way between giant brown boulders. We scrambled down it, winding our way through a growth of tamarisk trees, waving gently in the evening breeze and tossing their soft pink-purple blossoms much as a horse flips its flowing mane. Through rocks and brush we reached the river. Dozens of times we had seen this Little Colorado with almost no water at all. But this time! There had been flooding rains, and great melt-offs of winter snows near its source. The river was wide and deep — and swift. The waters were as chocolate brown as though a devil’s food cake had melted and started running. Molten, swift-flowing liquid mud. But as beautiful as a river of gold.
Night was sweeping in swiftly. The sky was an impressionist — almost a surrealist — painting of dark patterns in blocked, grotesque shapes of clouds. There was a single jagged opening, like the crudely shaped “light and air” windows of the ancient Indian ruins hereabout. Through this we could see the fingernail moon.
Next day, 15 miles west, just off the road to Grand Canyon, we stood at the “Viewpoint Turnout,” gazing down into the gorge of dizzying depths, which the Little Colorado had carved through its multi-million year life.
How could one comparatively small section of America, we wondered, be so blessed as to have all the miracles of this canyon country which surrounded us? If this scene below were not overshadowed by its big sister, the Grand Canyon, such a short distance away — if this gash and gorge were in some prairie state in splendid isolation, it would be the focal point for half the continent. Now, it is just a hesitation along the way. Many tourists speed by without even stopping to discover its existence.
The great gash was so deep that we had to lean far out in some places — which added a touch of excitement to it all — in order to see the river twisting its way below. It was one of those “oh” and “ah” views.
This was, in fact, a natural, unstructured “Sight and Sound” display such as are now engineered throughout the world. The river, suddenly thrust into that narrow slit of rocks below, snarled angrily at its unexpected confinement, and sent roars of rage echoing upward.
There were other sounds — soft wheezing emanations from an array of lively swifts which were darting, skimming, swooping down and back in those mysterious spaces of the gorge, intent on pursuit of insects.
A fine looking Navajo woman, with her small son, came and stood beside us and we all watched the drama of wings and water together. She told us the Navajo name of the birds.
The little boy pointed downward. Out of apparently solid rock, a lovely mallow plant was tossing its orange blossomed head in the wind. Perhaps one of those birds had dropped a seed which had found lodging place in some tiny crack or fissure. Sight and sound. Wings and water. Delicate flower and a small boy filled with wonder.
Francis, almost unconsciously under the spell of the enchanted moment, began whispering, aloud, the words of one of the Navajo songs that we knew.
In beauty I walk.
Beauty before me,
Beauty behind me,
Beauty above and about me.
It is finished in beauty. I walk in beauty.
The Navajo woman smiled in confirmation.
We were headed for the South Rim’s Bright Angel Lodge, where we had been invited to show our just completed Navajo film, at a “Camps Farthest Out” retreat, led by Dr. Glenn Clark. Clark was not only Professor of Creative Religious Living, he was athletic coach and also Professor of English at Macalester College in Minnesota.
One early morning the two of us joined a creative writing class which he was leading. Fifteen or twenty of us gathered in the spacious room whose large windows looked directly out over the Canyon.
“I teach writing by a different method than usual,” Dr. Clark explained, and told us that his classes at small Macalester College had had more of its writing efforts published than any other similar classes in the land. Clark himself had authored more than thirty books.
In a corner of the room, by the window looking out toward the Canyon, a woman began softly strumming the strings of a harp.
“I want you to relax completely,” Dr. Clark continued, as he directed us in some simple quieting-down exercises. “Free your body of every tension. Free your mind of every thought or worry. Let the superconsciousness take over.”
“Now,” he continued after some moments of silence, accentuated only by the strumming of the harp, “Now take your paper and pencil, go quietly outside. Don’t think, consciously, of anything to write. Just put down on your paper what flows into you. Or through you. Come back in 25 minutes.”
I had never written much, other than letters and college themes, in my life; had never even thought of writing a poem. I went out by the Canyon’s Rim, looked out over the distance toward the Navajo reservation where we had spent so much of the last two years, and transferred onto paper the thoughts which floated in out of the stillness. I called it “Song of the Harp and the Loom,” and Glenn Clark told us, after we had reassembled, to spend the rest of the hour in sharing, that each line which had come to me was filled with beauty, and was the finest expression of the creative writing hour.
These were the opening words of the three-page poem.
0, golden instrument of strings
Speak to us in rhythms bold and free In songs of patterned harmony.
0, instrument of clear majestic song
You are the loom the Indians weave upon; Your strings become the warp
Hung from poles of roughened bark.
Weave 0 Harpist of the early morn As the Ancient One the rug,
Music of the High Plateau
And the chanting Navajo.
One of the Grand Canyon’s important contributions to our lives — surely it was a highlight — was the inspiration which it generated in me, under Glenn Clark’s direction, to attempt creative writing. Years later, we had a full-length book, consisting principally of poetry, published by Doubleday.’ We have coauthored a number of books. That early morning hour, looking out over the Canyon’s South Rim from Bright Angel Lodge, was the beginning, for me.
Another gift of that creative Grand Canyon experience was a rare friendship which has added sparkle to our lives for over a quarter century. Many friendships resulted from that experience, but this one was rooted in the land of the Canyon itself.
From her home under a great cottonwood tree in the Hopi village of Oraibi, just east of Grand Canyon, had come a remarkable Hopi Indian woman, Polingaysi, or Elizabeth White, to use her anglicized name. She had been born in Old Oraibi, an Indian village dating back to 1100 A.D. , the oldest continuously occupied place in North America. She had looked down from Old Oraibi’s plateau to a spot which she loved and where, so she dreamed, she would one day build a beautiful home. That dream came true.
Polingaysi went to college, she became a teacher, medals and honor awards were bestowed on her. Her dream became concrete (or rather, adobe); she built her home at her dream spot and there entertained writers, painters, educators, sculptors, men and women of achievement who were creating dreams of their own.
When we first met Polingaysi at Grand Canyon she was a composer, pianist and vocalist, but not a potter. She started studying the art shortly after we met her; she became one of the Hopi Nation’s most famous workers in clay. Her creations soared in value; they were sought after by collectors and museums. Other high honors came to her through the years and we were thrilled to be invited to contribute to a book published to celebrate her 90th birthday. Her own life story had been told in her own book, NO TURNING BACK .2
Polingaysi, in that creative writing class on Grand Canyon’s Rim, symbolically portrayed a juniper tree which she observed growing from a Canyon crevice, valiantly struggling to exist. One brief statement in it characterizes her own life, which was nourished and brought to fruition in the frugal rocky soil of this land surrounding Grand Canyon:
“The most essential thing is to make sure that your roots are deep within the bosom of your mother earth and your arms continually lifted upward to heaven … “