“We shall now seek that which we shall not find”

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“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. Then the people marvelled, and told it to the Archbishop. I command, said the Archbishop, that ye keep you within your church and pray unto God still, that no man touch the sword till the high mass be all done. So when all masses were done all the lords went to behold the stone and the sword. And when they saw the scripture some assayed, such as would have been king. But none might stir the sword nor move it. He is not here, said the Archbishop, that shall achieve the sword, but doubt not God will make him known.” Thomas Malory.

One of the more striking things I saw during my trip to Wales was Maen Ceti, which was located in the middle of the open fields of Cefn Bryn, one of the purported places at which Arthur extracted the legendary sword Excalibur from a great stone, announcing to the world that he was to be King of the Britons.  While the story is generally regarded as the stuff of myth and fantasy, whose literalness weakens in the light of modern historiography and the archeological sciences, I have always found in my experience that oral traditions possess a unique capacity for expressing an understanding of people, place, and spirit that is often beyond the positivist limitations of rational explanation. Oral traditions like the legend of Arthur’s stone often evoke a concept of natural history in which stones, earth, not to mention the animals, exhibit non-human consciousnesses, complete with narratives hidden in the shape, texture, and material of their being. In light of which, Arthur is the hero, aided by Merlin, who makes the world safe for his descendants, ridding the land of monsters, villains, and marauding armies. Arthur’s stone is an indigenous legend from which a people derives their self-awareness of themselves as a people; more important, as a people who are deeply connected with their homeland, as signified by the sword embedded in an ancient stone, a foundational element that is as old as the earth itself.

On the Path to History and Hopefully Enlightenment

On the Path to History and Hopefully Enlightenment

[photo credit: David Martínez]

Near Wakasa Park there’s an elevated garden adjacent to Gokoku-ji Temple, in which you can walk on a circular path along which a Buddhist statue and inscribed stones like this one transport you away from the bustling city of Naha, Okinawa below and back through the centuries to when the Ryukyu Islands were truly an island domain unto itself. The area is sacred to Buddhist, Shinto, and Indigenous Okinawan traditions. Indeed, it’s a place where you can sincerely feel spiritually removed from the plastic emptiness of so-called modern civilized life, surrounded instead by stone, earth, and trees, interwoven with the sound and smell of the nearby ocean.

“Get Your Roll On”: Canal Street

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[photo credit: David Martínez]

Firsthand proof that the Big Easy is more than jambalaya and Dixieland jazz. Saw these guys hanging out on Canal Street one Friday evening as I was headed to Louisiana Music Factory to pick up some music before they closed. If you thought the skate scene was limited to Southern California and the X-Games, think again. Homegrown and totally legit, these dudes know how to roll. Lil Wayne, I’m sure, is smiling big somewhere.

The Fox Says “Play!”

[photo credit: David Martínez]

Commissioned in 1989 by Le Centre George Pompidou to commemorate the invention of photography, and now on display at the Denver Art Museum, Sandy Skoglund’s Fox Games takes the viewer by surprise! While casually browsing the galleries, you suddenly find yourself engulfed in a wave of redness, in which an otherwise staid dining scene is populated by an array of gray foxes. It’s like wandering into a contemporary Japanese Kitsune story, where, like much of folklore, the extraordinary merges into the ordinary without warning or explanation. Particularly in Skoglund’s composition, the world defined by the dining tables seems less disrupted by the leash of foxes and more inhabited by them, as if what is really happening is that the human diners that must have been here a moment ago have metamorphosed into their true selves. Skoglund reveals the deep world of fantasy (if that’s the right word) that’s hidden underneath the thin veneer of reality we believe we see everyday.

“Behind This Curtain”

[photo credit: David Martínez]

The Denver Museum of Contemporary Art held an exhibit devoted to the ballet last spring, which included this installation in which one could enter the otherworldliness of Western Civilization’s most refined dancing tradition. Whereas much of humankind’s dances were choreographed for either religious ceremonies or social occasions, which people from all segments of the community could learn, the ballet is the epitome of dance as fine art, one which only an elite corps of dancers can perform well, not to mention meeting the athletic and skilled artistry it demands. As for my photograph, I happened upon this scene as I wandered around the museum galleries. The woman inside sat quietly and alone, completely immersed in the world hidden behind the green curtain. I couldn’t help but imagine her to be a former ballerina vicariously reliving a long ago sense of elation.

“Loneliness, Chinatown, San Francisco”

[photo credit: David Martínez]

Walking into San Francisco Chinatown during a visit in late December 2010, just before New Year’s. Struck by the stream of people flowing up and down this street, I pulled out my camera intending to capture the heart of a dynamic city. What I got instead was the essence of someone’s forlornness amidst a sea of humanity.

Night of the Terminator Pigs: Monsters, Dreams, and the Ancient World

Night of the Terminator Pigs: Monsters, Dreams, and the Ancient World

[photo credit: David Martínez, Denver Museum of Nature and Science]

During the weekend of August 3, 2007 I suffered a stroke. While I didn’t incur the kind of symptoms, such as paralysis and speech impediment, that are common to stroke victims the incident still left me deathly ill. Nevertheless, perhaps because I was too apprehensive to admit it to myself, I wouldn’t know I had had a stroke until three days later when I finally went to the ER because my vision was blurred and doubled and my nausea was relentless. Over the weekend as I prayed flat on my back for my disconcerting problems to abate, I had a dream. I was in a place I knew to be somewhere in what is today the American Southeast, long before the first white men arrived, in a world I recognized as ancient, almost primeval. It was here, in a forested area that felt humid and swampy, that I saw a group of men and women dancing. Their moves were coordinated and ceremonial. The men in particular wore feathered head regalia that covered their eyes–not eagle feathers, but from a water bird. The women, who I couldn’t see as clearly, were behind the men, dancing the same steps. Who were these people? Despite how vividly I saw everything around me I couldn’t surmise who I was among. Perhaps I could have spoken to someone, but I didn’t, most likely out of respect for the ceremony underway. I only knew that I was far from home. Yet, I implicitly knew that I belonged here. People were aware of me but they didn’t pay me any attention. Everyone was either dancing or watching the dance. I was one of the ones watching, when suddenly chaos erupted! A monster appeared in the shape of a giant boar. Towering over everyone, the beast ran rampant around the village. Just then another appeared. This time leaping through the air on immensely powerful legs. Flying overhead, it smashed a grass hut standing on stilts. As the people scattered to find cover, men wielding long spears took position on a nearby hillock. From there they thrusted their spears into the rampaging beats, killing them both. Once the commotion subsided I gazed upon their hulking carcasses, utterly amazed that I had witnessed the slaying of such magnificent and frightening creatures. They were beings from when such giants ruled the earth and humans feared for their lives. Yet, there I was, among the survivors. Several months later, as I walked around with this dream, I was visiting Denver for an academic conference. While in town I went to the Museum of Nature and Science. As I wandered the various galleries containing prehistoric remains and dioramas, I turned a corner and was startled to see the great being pictured here. Taken aback, I instantly recognized that this was one of the monsters from my dream, or at least its reproduction. Did these creatures inhabit the Southeast? Denver, obviously, is faraway from the humid forests where the people known to archeologists as Mississippian once dwelled. Then again it doesn’t matter what science thinks. A dream, especially one this poignant, is its own source of truth. As for why I needed to tell this story now, I can only say that it was time. In fact, it took me the past three days to recover the photo I took that fateful day when I met my monster face to face.