“Horizon’s Lens” is a book about nature, but more importantly, it is about the human effort to mark our kind’s place in space and time.
The exploration begins with a cover design that reflects the spinning of worlds, of suns, of galaxies and the tie of seasons and space to firmament.
On the cover, two jutting rocks frame a lighted pendulum and the image captures the abstraction of periodic motion in time and space.
Elizabeth C. Dodd’s new book concludes with a question that opens the universe and the transient nature of anyone’s existence.
“And what is silica? Minute ejecta from exploded stars, exhaled to the universe to fetch up in sand grains in a prairie streambed or in dead grass left standing after summer’s passed.
“Hikusu’, Breath; Hutu:ru’, Wind. Stand very still, I tell myself. Listen. Listen.”
Breath and wind reflect the fragility and brevity of life amid the vastness of space and time. So one’s time here might be marked in enduring stone.
At the conclusion of an essay titled “Ruin,” Dodd says, “Throughout my life it’s through attention that I’ve tried to tie myself to various places, through mindful recognition of my body’s presence in the world of forms to memorize my own brief passage in this world.”
Hence, her attention to places and images marking the passage of seasons, of years as well as those points when time seemingly stands still.
Her intellect is focused on examples of megalithic astronomical sites and ancestral native American sites: among them the Medicine Wheel in Northern Wyoming, various Puebeloan sites in the Four Corners region and megalithic structures in the British Isles.
She pays particular attention to those structures and petroglyphs that relate to the major lunar standstill that occurs every 18 and a half years.
The motif of lenses and the optics of megalithic astronomy permeate the essays in this collection and offer more explanation of the title.
“Culturally conservative descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, Zuni people offer lenses through which to gaze back while thinking about rock art throughout the San Juan Basin.”
Dodd, herself, becomes a lens through which the natural world is examined.
In “Megalithic North” readers will find, “I was the lens, dilating in the dark to take it all in: stony uprights, uneven cobbles, the milk light of overcast day pooling at the outer threshold where a visitor must fall to hands and knees to work her way in.”
These are just a few of the lens images in these essays.
In her introduction Dodd says, “Time and Language: two of the great mysteries.” So it is not surprising that as she deals with the markers of time in the natural world, she also examines language.
“The Here and Now” tells the reader that the Hopi have only a single tense for past and present that “blur into a single concept, being.”
She compares that idea with one expressed by Faulkner in “Requiem for a Nun,” where a character says, “ The past isn’t dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Language as it evolves still links us to the past, a point Dodd makes repeatedly in tracing the etymology of words, both English and Native American.
For example, in examining the plant commonly called the buffalo gourd, as she discusses the ethno-botanical significance of the plant, she also digs for its linguistic roots.
Words for “being wild” and for “being alive or being cured” have similar linguistic roots in some Native American tongues.
Language reflects history and so Dodd says, “In words far older than any textual reference to the plants themselves are the tendrils of association, linguatropisms, I think, drawing attention back to ecologic health outside the cramped, smoky rooms of the pueblo and the corn based diet that rots your teeth. Back in the shadows of the language: the salubrious, nomadic life. Human being medicine.”
These essays present landscapes that are studded with linguistic markers that tie the present to the past as strongly as any megalithic structures. There is a temptation to label Dodd as an environmental writer and in the section titled “Assemblage,” this aspect of her work is especially evident.
But these essays are not Aldo Leopold or even Wendell Berry. The intellectual hikes that Dodd provides for the reader scale heights in language, history, nature and philosophy that most writers on the outdoors don’t undertake and she does so masterfully.
Elby Adamson is an educator and writer living near Clay Center.