As I look upon the hills on Sahaptin land, I wonder how to photograph them in interesting ways that will appeal to my audience. Mounds, I tell myself, even the vermilion colored mystical ones before me are only as interesting to others as I make them so. Of what value can these rounded prominences be if they aren’t presented in imaginative ways, with unfamiliar perspectives and compositions? Of what value is my creativity if it cannot find contemporary narratives, fresh truths no one has mined before?
I recently watched a panel in which several excited, privileged, and purported geniuses repeatedly stated that the key to solving all of our problems would emerge from innovations in technology. Hope was to be found in medicines, collective data, and digital advances unimagined to our century. Molecular engineering, outer space exploration, genetic manipulation would be our messiahs.
I laughed. I was the only one. I laughed because I was thinking about how foldable smartphones had not prevented a glacier’s demise. I was thinking about how implementing the internet of things had increased polluted waterways and extinct species. I was thinking of how even as we were tracking the complete DNA sequence of apples, we struggled to break outdated stigmas around health and wellness. I got the joke and so I laughed. But I understand why no one else did. I’m still falling under the spell of ‘let’s start over and it’ll all work out this time…buy my magic potion and it’ll get rid of all your troubles….’
There’s a fable I grew up on where the gods built us a paradise. For awhile we lived inside it in harmony. Then the seeds of discontent were sown into our idyllic garden (insert your demon of choice here) and we became enemies to one another, to our Elysium, and the gods. As our world spiraled into disappointment, the deities destroyed it to construct another better one. Each version continued to survive for a short time until it inevitably fell apart. Then, yet again, the dismayed creators would have to come in and reset matters, ad infinitum. Do you know this legend?
There are some ancient truths which keep cropping up no matter how vehemently we avert ourselves from them. They’ve been spoken by many famous and forgotten people through the centuries: be self-aware, love one another, take care of the place in which you live. Yet, they are so difficult to practice that we avoid them, looking for alternative utopias, radical solutions, new narratives which can bring us the happiness and belonging we all seek. We couch the warnings and the advice in modern slang, wrap them in shiny packages, rearrange the words in the belief that this time they will catch on and we will fix the system.
Back to those blood-red hillocks I was perusing. A mother and daughter passing by asked how much farther the route was which segued into a pleasant chat about lignite and laterite soil deposits. When they left, I returned to studying the terrain from the top. I slunk on my stomach to examine the surface. I leaned in to investigate details. I trudged the trail through them once, then again; began at its end to return to the beginning. I stopped halfway to contemplate the ridges.
The painted hills became alien to me. A landscape I couldn’t comprehend, a history beyond my reckoning. I could’ve been on another planet or an alternate reality. Yet, they were the same rusted prominences, I was the same small human.
Then, I sat on a bench and simply stared unseeing into the distance. My mind wandered to the two strangers I’d met. My senses roamed over the undulating topography. I conversed with the sedimentary strata, reflecting on their birth as slow layers in a former floodplain, their metamorphosis as they built up and were eroded, changing shape, changing color, changing history.
The exercise restructured the painted hills in my brain. They no longer were separate from me. They evolved into part of my experience. Their wrinkled textures became my skin. Their memories were what I saw when I looked at my photos.
So, here they are. Nothing ground-breaking. Nothing cutting-edge. The painted hills as they’ve been for millennia. The way you’ve seen them in others’ paintings and depictions. You’ll have to do your own work to determine what they become to you. You’ll have to dream them in your imagination. And I’ll have to return to the old tales, the ones our ancestors told under the stars — about suffering, loneliness, and death — to find my way. I’ll have to keep covering the well-trodden territory until I too have learned those inescapable lessons.
Don’t Hurt the Dirt! If you’re visiting, please stay on trails and don’t remove ‘souvenirs’ so the hills may continue their story. Protect the unseen wildlife by keeping accompanied pets on a leash and picking up after them. Maintain the soundscape by not operating your drone.
This was a trip taken before the outbreak of coronavirus. Let me know how you’re coping with quarantine in the comments below. If you have published a post about it, include a link to it as well. Wishing everyone a safe April! Take care.