Andrew Bard Schmookler

  THE DELLS Some years ago, I lived in Prescott, Arizona. Of the many beautiful places there, my favorite was an area called the Granite Dells. It was in the Dells that I became convinced that there is something to that ancient idea --shared by American Indians and ancient Greeks-- that in some special places, spirits dwell. That to visit these places is to make a spiritual journey. From a distance, the Dells form a seam stretching across the plain, rounded rocks glowing pink like flesh fresh from a hot shower. Up close, this rocky core of primeval hills provides a perfect place to climb and jump and to witness how, when nature destroys its own creations, it is simply forming a new kind of beauty. In the low places, the worn away pieces of granite make a soil where cactus and pine and oak grow. At the bottom, by the creek, a ribbon of leafy cottonwoods shows how soft rocks can become. One of my friends, when I lived in Prescott, was a man born and bred in the area, born to the family business of investing people's money, and bred to the individualist creed for which the region is known. After wise-cracking with each other, we would settle into some good-natured ideological argument. I remember the day his belief in the sanctity of private property and my belief in the sanctity of the earth collided. He ended up defending the position that, if some individual owned the Grand Canyon, he'd have a right to turn the place into a parking lot. Neither of us won the argument in the other's eyes, of course. But when I went to the Dells many years later, on a trip back to Arizona, I remembered that history has its own way of declaring winners in arguments such as ours. There were the Dells again. Still eerily majestic, still filled with a thousand secret places where spirits whisper. But there, in the very middle of the place, where I used to enter the Dells on a trail of rabbit tracks and coyote scat, a great gash was laid open. Dynamite and bulldozer had swept aside the rock to open the way for a large steel structure rising in the hollow. To my eye, this building, with its glinty hard surfaces, seemed to have no relation to the place where it stood, except that it could only stand there at the expense of the place. But I wondered whether that kind of "expense" had any place in the calculations of those who owned the spot. Or did the builders simply figure that they could profitably trade on all that surrounding beauty. As I looked at this wound in the Dells, I recalled that ad against littering, where an old American Indian looks at a site strewn with trash, a tear running down his well-chiseled face. In the ad, the Indian stands as a spirit of the land itself, a land that once was his, but his in a different sense than we make it ours today. Hardly able to look at that gash in the Dells, I thought: that watchful spirit has far more to weep over than beer cans and styrofoam cups. ??