There is a sad, lovely song by the great James McMurtry called Ruby and Carlos on his Just Us Kids CD. I always think of McMurtry’s music when I think of the West. I don’t really know why. I think maybe it is because he just has that lived-in voice that sounds like it ought to belong to a cowboy or a rancher or something. This song is about an affair between a Gulf War vet and an older woman and it is as lovely as anything I’ve ever heard. It is a song that for me will always be perpetually autumnal. McMurtry is criminally underrated and the next time he comes through Chicago I will make it a point to check him out.
In my readings of the history of Crazy Horse, nature always has a powerful role in what he believed. It seems nature and the idea of an almighty were much the same thing and about as predictable. A redtailed hawk led him to the place of his “trances” and “vision quests.” He painted hailstones on his forehead before battle and lightning bolts on his face; the power of nature seems omnipotent in his life. Whites regarded these beliefs as arcane and simple “superstitions.” The visions interest me. It is no secret that the peoples of the Black Mesa ate no small amount of peyote and one wonders if “vision quests” were not helped along by the powerful hallucinatory properties of many plants and mushrooms indigenous to the West and Southwest. One also must realize the Indian peoples had a very different relationship with nature than whites did.
Some years ago I did an artist’s residency at the University of Montana in Missoula. I made the body of etchigs now known as the Autumn Etchings, and for the first time, I actually spent some time in nature. I didn’t camp. Oh, no. I’m a room service and clean towels kind of guy and have no raging desire to wash my nuts in a river. I stayed at a very nice Doubletree Suites place right next to the Bitterroot River and, at one point, took to walking next to the river every day. I’d find these odd river rocks with whitish lines around them, dessicated wasp’s nests, porcupine quills, pieces of antler, and all other manner of natural detritus. I started making little drawings of this stuff and a young man who was Oglala Lakota gave me a beautiful hawk’s skull as part of my “medicine.”
I enjoyed my walks along the river and one night, the front desk lady woke me up so I could go outside and witness a meteor shower, which was truly amazing to watch. When it gets dark out there it gets knock-out dark. There are no street lights or buildings or any of that shit; it just gets black, so you can see the stars. And when there is a meteor shower you can see the stars dance. It is a powerful thing and gives you the proper perspective as to about how big we are in the universe.
One day, I got lost I wandered pretty far from the hotel next to the river and kind of wandered into the woods just finding shit. After about 15 minutes, I realized I didn’t know where the fuck I was. I also realized that grizzly bear, black bear and mountain lions lived around there as well. Fuck me.
Luckily, the primal, lizard brain stem humans still retain kind of kicked in. I stopped and listened for the river. I walked back toward the sound of water and found my way, but for a minute, I thought I was going to be one of those simple assholes discovered in the wilderness three weeks after the badgers have chewed through his pancreas. I was happy to find my way back to the Doubletree.
That said, I know what intoxicates people about nature; how one desires to be lost in i. . .to get away from cable TV, the Internet and shitheads babbling hate on the radio. I get it; the serenity. . . the quiet. . .the sound of water and birds and wind. The first music.