Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Signs of absence or absence of signs?

I set out in a light rain to hike through Black Hand Gorge, a nature preserve named for a Native American petroglyph, a giant black hand that once adorned a cliff face along this scenic stretch of the Licking River. In 1828 the petroglyph was blasted to smithereens to make room for a towpath. Naming a place for what we've destroyed in order to possess it: typical.

As I stood reading the sign explaining the destruction of the petroglyph, I wanted to go back in time and remind those gung-ho developers that progress does not require erasing everything created by those who preceded us. But they're all gone now: the quarries once humming with activity are now silent and filled with stagnant water; the rail line has been transformed into a hiking trail and portions of the towpath are still visible, but the only sign of the black hand that once guided Native Americans is a sign pointing to the absence of a sign. Baudrillard would have fun with that.

I've been wanting to get our canoe on the Licking River and so I decided to scope out the possibilities. I found two promising places to launch the canoe, and then I hit the trail to check water conditions. I've been in that gorge when the water barreled through at flood stage but as the summer wears on it tends to get low. Downstream toward Dillon Lake the Licking spreads out across shallow mud flats, but the gorge squeezes the river into a channel that appears deep enough to float a canoe.

Of course I didn't put my canoe in today because I was lacking three elements essential to a good canoe trip: (1) canoe; (2) husband; (3) good weather. Yes: the light rain that did not deter my setting out on the trail eventually turned into a serious downpour, so that I finally arrived back at my car feeling as if I'd been in for a swim. But now I know a few more things about canoeing the Licking River, so when the signs are right, we'll go.

My hike kept reminding me of Martin Espada's poem "The Monsters at the Edge of the World," where a brain scan becomes "a map drawn by conquerors / flying the banner of exploration / and misnaming all the islands," but the map points only to damage: "stroke, hemorrhage / as if saying that monsters dwell here / at the edge of the world." More significant is what the map leaves out:
do we see the lake where one night
we drifted in a wooden boat
with a bottle of wine
and dangled sparklers
over the starry water.

The scan that reveals the damage in the brain simultaneously conceals what machines cannot see: the memories and images, convictions and connections that make us who we are

What did that missing petroglyph mean to the people who created it? Even if the sign had been preserved, we're not equipped to read it. And so the conqueror moves in, flying the flag of exploration, and shoves aside what he cannot understand, considering the unknown uncivilized--even monstrous--and consigning the monsters to the edge of the world.  

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