Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A Quiet Opening

(The more I write about the war in Iraq and the BushCheney war on domestic government here at home, the more I need an alternative line of thought. My upcoming Applachian Trail hike will be a welcome diversion. In the meantime, I am starting to write about my five years living on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. Here's one.)

Window Rock, Arizona is quiet. Not absolutely quiet. But very much so. The quiet is not the absence of sound but rather that the vast spaces absorb the intrusions of human activity. The dominant sound In Window Rock is the wind. Except for gusty, blustery days when it rattles the roof of my trailer and howls around buildings, even the wind is a quiet presence, enough to muffle all other sounds but so much a part of the environment as to escape notice much of the time.

Quiet in Window Rock is most pronounced at night. Looking into the blackest sky I have ever seen, I can almost see infinity. The Milky Way stretches overhead, a dense cloud that is our home galaxy. On either side of the Milky Way is open space, studded with stars. The quiet of interstellar space encompasses me. Although I am part of a community, what little activity I can see has no audible presence and seems almost as remote as the heavens above. The land stretches from under my feet into the horizontal silhouette of the Defiance Plateau in the west and the sheer sandstone cliffs in the east. In the distance the land merges with the sky. Earth and sky hold me in their embrace in the quiet of a winter’s night.

Daytime is less quiet. Not so much from the actual noise people make as from greater awareness of their presence. Weekdays are especially busy as the Navajo capitol teems with activity, the comings and goings of business and government. But if the wind is blowing at all (and it usually is), it obscures what little sound emanates from human enterprise. For all our achievements we humans always seem so little compared to the vast land forms of the Colorado Plateau and the immense sky overhead. Even the harsh buzz of airplanes taking off and landing at the airport where I live quickly fades into the wind.

The only time human sounds come anywhere close to intruding on Window Rock’s quiet is during the July 4th Rodeo and the Navajo Nation Fair in September. The fair grounds are very close to my home and the sounds of pow-wow drumming and singing, concerts, rodeo announcements, cheering crowds, carnival music and fireworks issue forth throughout the day into the night. But even these grand events are ephemeral in this boundless space–ten or so days at most. The other 355 days are ruled by Nature’s quiet.

Living in this quiet makes me realize how unquiet the rest of the world actually is. Even Gallup, New Mexico, a small town not far from Window Rock, is a beehive of activity and sound in comparison. Bigger towns are even less quiet, filled with the bustle, noise and confusion of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of people. The quiet in Window Rock is much like the quiet I find hiking the Grand Canyon or any other of Arizona’s remote, isolated places. The difference is that in those remote places, few people are about to intrude on the quiet. People live and work in Window Rock yet all their activity hardly punctures the mantle of quiet that encompasses the area.

In this eternal quiet, I find comfort. Here I am just another speck in an infinite universe. The demands of modern life are trifling conceits compared to the infinite world above and below me. This infinite world absorbs and renders mute the cacophony of our industry, the dissonance of daily life and the strife that accompanies human interaction. Here I am uncoupled from the world of affairs, in the realm of infinity, at liberty to know eternity.