By Scott Thybony
University of Arizona Press
125 pp., $29.95
In the southwestern United States, the geographer's rule brought together in a perfect square the four corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. This artificial, political delineation was a relatively recent development in North American history. And it happened in a territory that still includes much evidence of ancient civilization and now-extinct species.
A few modern artists and writers have managed to capture something of the essence of the place. Painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams. More recently, Tony Hillerman, in his novels about 20th-century Navajo Indian reservation life. And of course the native inhabitants, the Navajo and Hopi, in craft and story.
In "Burntwater," Scott Thybony displays the same kind of aesthetic perception and emotional understanding. He knows the place well, yet is constantly learning from it. And he is able to communicate this in a way that takes the reader along.
"Burntwater" is a slim book, built around a backcountry trip in which Thybony and a friend look for a place named on an old reservation map. The chapters shift back and forth between this journey and earlier experiences the author has had in the Four Corners country.
There is much more to it than the events. "Certain places take us beyond ourselves," he writes, and this is one of them. "The long distances tug at the soul, drawing us far beyond the familiar."
Thybony and his brother spend a winter herding sheep for a Navajo medicine man who explains a native story about the creation of the world. A crucial act of thoughtfulness during a two-week hike in the Grand Canyon helps him survive a dangerous situation there years later.
The immediate and the ancient merge in a place where, he writes, "time is more geologic than biologic."
"In a sandy pocket among the trees I come across a prehistoric camp. Chunks of fire-cracked rock lie mixed with translucent flakes of chalcedony. I pick up a small flake, retouched along the edge by a toolmaker centuries ago. Stress lines radiate from the point of impact where a single, sharp blow from another stone sent the chip flying. Whoever sat here knapping on rocks had the idea of a tool in mind before beginning. The idea led step by step from the raw stone to the finished tool, from the present to the future, drawing the toolmaker into the flow of time. I run my thumb down the sharp edge and over the smooth, rounded bulge. It has a human feel to it, a stone shaped to match a thought."
Thybony joins an annual 28-mile Easter pilgrimage, on foot and through the night, to find himself "walking though a medieval town buried deep in America." A "Roadman," a priest in the Native American Church, teaches him a Navajo prayer recalled at the moment of trying to understand a family member's death.
The Southwest desert is spare and clear, and so is Thybony's writing. "In the end, all we are left with are the big questions and the small kindnesses," he writes. "The rest falls away."
* Brad Knickerbocker covers environmental issues for the Monitor.