Brad Olson – Reflections from Flagstaff: Flagstaff Imagined

by Brad Olson

An item in the Flagstaff History column of one of our local publications noted that there was a controversy over the zoning of Switzer Canyon back in 1969. The city council was considering rezoning Switzer Canyon to allow modular homes to be built there. Opposition to the proposal was based on the potentially negative impact to the natural beauty of the canyon and the reduced value of other real estate in the area. When I moved to Flagstaff in 1995, there was conflict around proposals that would make downtown construction and renovation harmonize with the nature, style, and character of the surrounding architecture. Presently, we bear daily witness to the conflict over, and encroachment by, the development of low-income housing and large student housing projects characterized by fundamentally similar arguments. 

This dispute between development and conservation represents, it seems to me, a never-ending conflict between individuals and groups, but primarily—and in ways we often misunderstand, or fail to understand at all—it is a conflict within each and every one of us individual human beings. Our own desires to preserve the familiar, pleasing, comforting elements of our lives are always in conflict with the forces of life that challenge us to grow, open to new experiences, let go of the past, of habits, to let go of predictability. 

These forces at odds within us constitute in part what the poet Ann Carson called, “the tactics of the imagination.” For the vast majority of citizens, the potential manifestations and impacts of development are imagined, rather than rooted in probability theory or physical and social sciences. These imagined potentialities are often based on fear and its avoidance, particularly the fear of a negative impact on one’s own values and lifestyle. Likewise, the past one wants to preserve is not a past that ever, in reality, existed. Memories of the past are found in a category of autobiographical memory called self-defining memory, a collection of memories that are created based upon what you most value and how you ideally wish to see yourself, your family, your community, your state, et cetera and et cetera, ad infinitum. Distorted memories and their concomitant desires are some of the logarithms, or “tactics,” of the imagination. 

What I see in the conflict between development and preservation or conservation, is an illustration of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to think in two very different time frames at once: the contemporary and the ancient. The collision of these two different time frames of thought results in fragmentation: fragmentation of thoughts, of values, of feelings, and such fragmentation disconnects us from people as well as places. By my lights, the conversation between developers and conservators are bound to be subject to fragmentation, and thereby less rational and reasonable, less coherent, less inclusive, less collegial and communal, and bent more toward serving exclusive ends. Fragmented solutions emanating from fragmented arguments (the solutions must be fragmented if the arguments are fragmented) are ultimately satisfying to very few people, and never entirely satisfying or comfortable to anyone. 

So where, then, does satisfaction lie? I’m skeptical that everyone may be satisfied; human beings have a genius for discontent. But I do think there is a way, a mode of thinking and imagining, that may satisfy more people, more often. I believe we need to think more poetically, more metaphorically, in other words, more mythically. Shakespeare writes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: 

The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them into shapes, and gives the airy nothing

A local habitation and a name (Act V, Scene 1).

Poetic imagination—mythic imagination—sees through the multiplicities, contradictions, and the negative spaces fragmentation creates and makes a something out of an apparent nothing. The poet and the mythologist see that plans, predictions, and proposals are not inevitable, concrete, or flawless, nor are the memories of the past reliable, accurate, and objective. Mythic imagination allows for transformation over time and across geographic boundaries and contributes to the foundations of places, times, and peoples. It allows one to see that what is monstrous is not the building nor development itself, but the language deployed to make the building or development inevitable, a language which overpowers the human need for aesthetics, space, and harmony. 

The language of myth and poetry are synthetic, and joins together terms or fragments that belong to different time frames, perceptual states, and disciplines. When Homer, for example, uses epithets like “the wine-dark sea,” or “white-armed Hera” we leave the realm of the literal where connections are based upon associations and enter the realm of metaphor, where connections are limited only by the limits of one’s imagination. If we can move into the language and mindset of poetry, imagination, and myth, we have the real possibility of creating new development, in and around Flagstaff, that is true to the character and soul of a unique and precious place while at the same time honoring the necessity of change. Plato quoted the Pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, when describing the nature of things: “Everything changes and nothing stands still” (Cratylus). Heraclitus knew that all things are in flux, that nothing remains as it was or what it was, and he knew the thought of such metamorphoses was a painful and frightening thing for human beings. 

Regardless, in a mythic imagination there is always Flagstaff—always this place on the Colorado Plateau, no matter how much the ravages of time or the greed of developers might threaten to destroy it. Flagstaff is inextinguishable because it is more than a literal place, more than just a desirable city for Americans in which to live, more than a place sacred to indigenous peoples, more than merely an atmosphere. The soul of Flagstaff is a true place, and as Melville wrote of Queequeg’s home island in Moby Dick, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

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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