Reflections in Flagstaff: The Powerful Play Goes On

by Brad Olson

Living here one can’t help but learn about at least a few of the many rich layers of history submerged just below the surface of Flagstaff’s daily bustle. The history of Flagstaff’s early days is always within reach; and the vestiges of lumbering, ranching, and railroading are still hiding in plain sight. But I never fail to be touched by the whispering echoes of ancient voices that spoke, sang, laughed, wept, hoped, and shouted more than a millennium ago in and around what would become the Flagstaff with which you and I are familiar.

The earliest habitation of the Southwest dates to before 9,000 B.C.E. and those residents lived much like the indigenous hunting and gathering peoples of the Great Basin or the Plains. Eventually the inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau developed a genius for masonry and agriculture, created impressive architecture and grew crops of maize, beans, squash, and even cotton, by virtue of imagining ingenious irrigation systems that mitigated the harsh growing conditions of the arid climate. After Sunset Crater’s eruption in 1064 or 65, the volcanic ash deposited around the area was a significant factor in the creation of a fertile, hydrophilic soil that made the agricultural arts even more viable in the region, and enticed an influx of people over the next several decades.

Even though by the early 1200’s the community was permanently abandoned, there is something ineffable that remains, some…experience that one may have standing in the ball court or peering through a window of a partially collapsed wall at Wupatki. In places such as this, a murky pre-history arouses my imagination, and the place comes alive with images of families, young men and women, leaders, story tellers, the elderly, going about their daily lives, their routines and recreations. I imagine that, like ourselves, they hardly ever gave a thought to the inevitable reality that one day life as they knew it would end; that their people would disappear, and that what they saw and heard and felt and believed would, in some unimaginably distant time, become the subject of abstract conjecture, speculations proffered by archaeologists puzzling over the remnants of the communal trash heap.

The temptation to imagine these early residents of the Flagstaff area as uncomplicated stone agers is largely due, I think, to the fact that the indigenous people of the region were pre-literate, and therefore left no bequest of a written record to us modernes. I mentioned that in 1065 Sunset Crater Volcano erupted, and because we have no contemporaneous writings to which we might refer for first-hand accounts, all we can do is speculate about the effects of such an eruption on human life and activities in the area. But at the same historical moment in Normandy, William the Conqueror was maneuvering to contend for the hereditary throne of England and, one year later, win it in the battle of Hastings. Because there exist contemporary written accounts, it sometimes seems that British history of the same period is more accessible, and nearer to us, than our own.

But a lack of a written history should not bamboozle one into believing that the inhabitants of ancient sites like Wupatki were living in a disorganized, undeveloped, or crude society. In fact, they seemed to engage in a robust trade economy: Scarlett Macaw remains have been found on site, and there is also evidence that they traded with other communities ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the Lower Mississippi and Gulf Coast regions. These were smart, competent, adventurous, and creative people, and I think that in many ways they thought about the world the same way we contemporary human beings think about the world. But we don’t often recognize that because we don’t feel the need to reflect upon the antiquity of the ideas we use each day in the living of our lives.

Our own human-all-too-human expectations, spontaneous responses and obsessive fears have not markedly changed since the dawn of human history. In fact, the same rational, imaginative abilities that invented those ancient irrigation systems invented the iPhone. The human imagination functions now much as it always has, and gives us the power to imagine things that aren’t, and the power to imagine differently the things that are; and in that most human of qualities lies the power to radically transform the world.

Of course, it’s wrong to say that sometime after the beginning of the 13th century the people who created Wupatki or the cliff dwellings along Walnut Canyon mysteriously disappeared. I’m sure their emigration was no mystery to them, and in fact, they continue to live on in their descendants. Thirteen different Native American communities, including the Hopi and Zuni people who consider Wupatki to be a sacred site and have a significant oral tradition regarding the area, claim to have some ancestral ties to the site.

But doesn’t every piece of earth, each plot of land, a rock outcropping, a river, a grassy knoll, have a rich and sundry history? We forget that Planet Earth is as alive as you or I (If you don’t think the earth breathes, just watch The Blue Planet documentary’s segment on the earth’s water cycle). And like us, the earth is also possessed of an unconscious, just as sleepily awash in memory, reverie, and dreams as we are. It is alive with its own movements, its unique interactions; it lives with and experiences emotion and memory, which interfuse with our own. We, Alan Watts has said, don’t come into this world, we come out of it. The Earth influences us the same way children are influenced by their parents.

So, now we find ourselves in the first quarter of the 21st century, blithely using technology we don’t understand, in a world whose manias often sweep us along as though we’re caught in a rip tide. Regardless of our will or desire, we are often left wondering what life means and how we should live; I should think that every human generation from the beginning of our species has felt this way about life. And what is the point of such a life? Well, I don’t think there needs to be one beyond having as full an experience of being alive as possible. But that’s no small thing; having such an experience of being alive transcends understandings of meaning and purpose, it constellates the longing that triggers imagination, which drives most human behavior, and connects us to those ancient peoples across the “dark backward and abysm” of time. If there must be a point, then the point is that, as Whitman wrote, the powerful play goes on and we may contribute a verse.

Brad has lived in Flagstaff nearly 25 years and is a Depth Psychologist in private practice. Dr. Olson is also a mythologist and works for the Joseph Campbell Foundation as the editor of the MythBlast series. 

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