By James W. Perkinson
The clear untouched pool accepts me into its emerald depths like a big drop of water . . . I dive down again and again, feel the water-fingers softly caressing my hot face, tracing my underarms, my neck and breasts—nipples raised hard against the cold . . . and though the water is not going anywhere, it seems to move against me still, even as I lie immobile on its surface. I flip and turn, purring to the sensual caress. I have dipped into a private treasure and am wrapped in the arms of the True Gods (Lee, 132, description of Glen Canyon pothole only fifteen feet wide, whose smooth sloping sides refuse her efforts to climb out wet and nearly kill her over the next hour).
I begin in the unlikely place of a quote from raconteur Katie Lee—author, musicologist, folk singer, storyteller, Hollywood actress, song writer, filmmaker, photographer, poet, and river runner (in the words of her bio, Lee, 273). She is not indigenous. But she is a “grit” person, as Terry Turner Tempest offers in the Foreword—a woman “not afraid to laugh and tease, cajole, and flirt, cuss, rant, howl, sing and cry.” “Katie Lee,” says she, is “the desert’s lover, her voice is a torch in the wilderness” (Lee, ix). I begin here, away from the subject, because that is where I begin, where most of us today begin, in this land of the less-than-free, home of the most-often-cowardly. We who are not indigenous, not native, pretend to own the land, but we are not of the land. Rather than belong to it, we belong mostly nowhere, counting strip malls and car interiors and I-Phone screens our domiciles of greatest comfort.
Lee, in her Glen Canyon Betrayed: A Sensuous Elegy, again and again writes unapologetically of her erotic responses to the mesa-herded waters, the wind-sculpted stones of a once undulating and serpentine labyrinth of 110 canyons, carved by the Colorado River through 170 miles of Utah and Arizona sandstone. Her relation was not merely embodied, but intimate and titillating—even on occasion, literally orgasmic (Lee, 150). And such a report hints an ancestral scope of sexuality that few of our modern “orientations” dare augur. In the deep past, in a more land-taught past we now gloss as “indigenous,” we inhabited a soul and a body much bigger than the borders of our humanoid flesh. And very often, antique peoples carefully orchestrated the Great Hormonal Encounter with that Big Wild Attraction with initiatory finesse and profound seriousness. And here my settler-straight, white-male “self” will weave and bob confessional, in grounding my words as very limited, chastened, partial—but nonetheless, summoned and shattered with grief, in the throes of our modern loss. Our typical notion of sexuality today is as shriveled as a seventy-year old man’s p. . . well maybe not that confessional. Let’s just say the avowed Spanish colonial project going by the name of reducciones was both successful and a boomerang. We live severely “reduced” today.
In the mix, for myself and my Filipina partner of more than twenty sun orbits, an indigenous teaching voice of remarkable scope and gravity and hilarity, has been our most “unsettling” indictment and invitation. Half-white, half-Anishinaabe/Huron/Cree visionary, Martín Prechtel—cattle rancher, corn-grower, silver-smither, Tzutujil Mayan adopted-and-trained for more than a decade—has been as relentless as a dung beetle in rolling up the imperial stupidities of his students (such as Lily and me) into something compostable and worthy. In citing his witness in so short a piece as this brief send-up, I can only hope not too gravely to offend his testament. In his teaching and writing, anchored in his Mayan experience, but ranging as widely as steppe nomad traditions across Eurasia for more than 4,000 years and metallurgy/griot renditions going back to Sundiata and company in 13th century Mali, Prechtel lays out an alternative reality to modern conceits about humanity writ large. Initiation, in particular, in his indigenous ken, was (and here and there, still is) a veritable forge, smelting radically mature adult humans from radically free-wheeling childhoods. And the key “lever,” the ultimate biochemical inciter, in this transformation, is adolescent arousal, kickstarting youth into a dizzying surf of desire and magnificence, hollowing out teenage minds in longing for a grandiosity of love and significance whose only possible “satisfaction” is the bigness and wonder of the natural world itself.
I can only outline, in begging for a hearing from beyond the latest tweet and cancel. In Long Life, Honey in the Heart: A Story of Initiation and Eloquence from the Shores of a Mayan Lake, Prechtel offers the reader a kaleidoscopic ride through his own myth-drunk exposition of the Tzutujil rite. There—when puberty-haunted young ones first began to glimpse nubile or virile bedazzlement in the eyes of their potential mates, likewise blossoming in allure and sinuosity, the community quickly convened the affected teens, the elders, chiefs, initiation guides, musicians, parents, and widows (282-284). Yes, widows! It is this latter presence that proves most astounding to a modern preoccupation! In Tzutujil tradition, before romance can be released in its latest budding intoxication to pirouette in giddy trance across the village square, it must be “schooled” in its real aim.
The understanding is that the first moment of such “falling” is before the surreptitious gaze of a Goddess or God, a Colossal Being—Mountain and Storm in male form, River and Ocean in female 271; 239-241, 280, 304, 356-362). And these are genders that are “vernacular” in an Ivan Illich sense, not captive to human anatomies or intentions or harsh laws of patriarchal enforcers or heteronormative prisons (258). They are worlds in grand dance with each other across light-years among stars, between particles in quantum fields, between highland lakes and dormant volcanoes at one end of a given bioregion and coastal marshes and marine depth at the other. And it is this watershed reciprocity, this wooing and cavorting, colliding and inseminating across the entirety of a local ecosystem—taken up in mythic eloquence and perspicacious intelligence—that gives human Eros its actual genesis and destiny. Fresh water, in Tzutujil savvy, is not merely a necessary support for human existence, but primally and primarily a pre-human Deity, a Grand Goddess Mystery, the quintessence of what they mean by Female Power and vigor and beauty—again and again dispersed across the land, taken up by plants and animals, running and running and running, to rejoin the Great Salt Mother Incubator of Life (383). And the male version, a Sun-Bright or Storm-Dark Sky and Rocky Crag, anchoring the other end of life, in heights attracting the rain fall, providing basins for catchment and caressing, lightning and thunder for percussion and syncopation. The concerto of call/response is seasonally danced, gambled constantly in honor of Chance as a Big Interrupter, humanly parleyed in myth, such that human beings in this ecozone are actually small actors, channeling much bigger realities, romanced by these Big Ones as everybody’s indelible “First Love.”
Initiation is all about getting clear on such, so that in actual human-to-human coupling later on, there is no mistaking one’s partner for the big Goddess or God, and then savaging her or him or them when they fail to measure up. Our partners will at times—maybe even regularly—be places of those Grand Beings’ appearances, but not always and forever. And when they are thus just small-scale humans without much remainder, no problem. The Big One is still available for wooing and wonder and romancing and dancing and trancing in a million other disguised forms—as a river or a squirrel or a wren. Or for Mayans most especially as corn! And if the myths are enough intact and the rituals enough embraced by a durable community—then really (!) sensuousness and eros and touch have a big, huge field in which to play and say and make hay! And even if the myths and rituals (and community) aren’t up to their old timey snuff—Katie Lee is witness to the still available possibility! All of this is way deeper than can be conveyed on paper or in a few pages.
But back to the widows. The Tzutujil historically “mapped” this “first blush” romance onto the landscape and once puberty craziness struck, then discipline kicked in. For the better part of half a year, the youthful romancers were separated from each other, bundled into special interaction with the initiation “elders,” taught various antique languages of “courting eloquence” by which to address these bigger beings in the natural world around them, vigorously schooled in speech-magnificence as one of the gifts human beings owe back to the natural world for all of “Her” gifts of food, water, air, shelter, wood, metal, stone, mineral, etc., etc., without which we would collapse in a few seconds (and actually have never come to be in the first place) (256-258). Learning to “court” thus becomes the approach, first of all, not to another human being, but to everything that is non-human, that we otherwise “take” as if it is our right. It is not. It is gift. And we need to ask permission. Always. With everything. Understanding its uniqueness, its mystery, its habits, its ways of being, its seasons, its “food.” And really, it is not an “it.” But a whole wrangling crowd of living and spirited Beings of Beauty.
What would it mean to live such? For the Tzutujil of old, after the time of prep learning some modicum of eloquence, the process then issued in a village-wide send-off of male initiates to navigate the mountain heights sixty miles to the coast and back, all along the way encountering mythically-coded places and creatures, accompanied by an elder musician playing the requisite ancient music twenty hours per day (for the three day trip), finally to engage ritually “the Lords of Death” themselves, there to negotiate by way of poetic elegance and verbal magnificence, a standoff, sign a deed of acceptance of one’s own death at the right time, and receive in exchange, the Goddess Soul-Beauty lost by the living widows back in the village, who have been left raising hungry kids in the fields of daily grief and tears (360). The male initiates took with them, as “armor,” shawls woven by their romantic teen partners, who meanwhile are simultaneously being schooled by the older women in their own adventure with the Big Beings of Life they already know in their bodies (284). Obviously, I barely touch the surface of a grand old practice here, and only do so as myself a ten year “novice” in Prechtel’s teaching (both in person and by way of his writings).
But the gist is clear. Eros in indigenous compass is first of all a relation to the natural world that has “born”—and borne with—us. Entering a long-term romance with a human partner requires first immersion in owning and responding to the “romance” that already “has” us in a local ecosystem’s way of living. At heart of a Tzutujil understanding, the “test” of such, involves assenting to one’s death as a gift back to the whole, speech-elegance courting an entire ensemble of living plants, animals, waters, weather, soils, etc., as the real partners in the dance, and “romancing”—before approaching one’s chosen “squeeze”—those who grieve the loss of such in their actual lives. For a male, how romance a widow in a way that respects her loss and reflects her beauty back, precisely there!? And for a female or non-binary or two-spirit persona—Prechtel does not pretend to say, as he is not fully privy to that particular parlance and training in Tzutujil culture. But the principle would presumably be the same. The Great Sensuous Prance, the Grand Erotic Trance and Exchange is with Water and Plants and Place! And the memory of such today—as ground up by the violence of colonialism and empire in Guatemala as the Glen Canyon Dam version of such has subsequently drowned Katie Lee’s great love in creating what she calls the “cesspool of Lake Powell”—is no less demanding for having been largely obliterated. We still do not own the Earth. She owns us. She remains the Great Beauty in human life, Who, even where already Widowed, remains our Great Romance. How shall we respond to such a Love and such Loss?