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  • Tule Lake: The Dying Grass

    Feeling historical: the ground shifting. Suddenly there are serious questions about our grandchildren’s future. And this sense of insecurity, no doubt related to cyclical processes of political economic decline, is intensified by long-term ecological threats that can no longer be managed or exported. Historicity at a different scale: that of a species among other species, the past and future of a whole planet and its ability to sustain life.  James Clifford, Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty First Century (2013), [1]

    For over a century the petroglyphs of the Tule Lake area have attracted speculative and interpretive imaginings of popular and academic cultures.  The soft granular surfaces face wind, rain, ice, seepings; absorb peering eyes, snapping cameras, studied tracings. The distinct visibilities of intense grooves, the dense clusters, spark deep in the psyche. The walls of incised markings emerge emblematic of historical moments, mirroring desires to define origins.  

    William T. Vollmann in his recent epic, The Dying Grass: A novel of the Nez Perce War, imagines the musings of U.S. Army Captain Joel G. Trimble  [2]  in 1877 as he recalls a day in May 1873 by the eastern shore of Tule Lake, in northern California, eating lunch with other cavalrymen:

    “with their backs against a swallow-ridden sandstone cliff which the Modocs had pecked out with depictions of setting suns, full suns, peculiar insects which might have been moths if moths could skeletonize and if their wings had ribs; then there were armbones descending into triple-taloned claws, parallel wave-forms, squares pecked out to enclose right-angled groove-labyrinths, snake-grooves crowned with spreading fingers like the lodgepoles atop an Indian tipi, buglike schematic humanoids, mushrooms or perhaps phalli, nested double circles, Y-shaped incisions and lines of short vertical markings like tallyings, and there was something resembling a heart above a long vertical groove, while a birdlike figure spread her downcurving arms, and from a certain oval rose a long hooked, neck as to represent an egret bending down toward the water to troll for fat insects; then there was a vertical slash topped with nested inverted V's; had there been only one of those latter, the vertical stroke might have been an arrow, but the way it was made, Trimble supposed that it must be a grass head; after all, so much of this tall greenish-yellow grass grew about; and then here was grooved something like the inverted or falling seedhead of a stalk of what must have been dying grass, which made him inexplicably sad — why even consider dying grass?”  [3]

    Vollmann’s language refreshes. He does not say: this is what it is.  He says:  this is how it appears to me.  He does not treat the petroglyphs as objects, rather the event in a life as subjective encounter.  They are equal to his presence.  They change and endure, he comes and goes.

    [1] James Clifford, Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty First Century (2013), pp. 6-7.  Download the book’s Prologue
    [2] Vollmann notes, p. 353, Trimble’s role in the capture of Modoc leader Kientpoos, known as Captain Jack, on June 1, 1873. (The Dying Grass, 2015, p. 353.)  More: Robert Acquinas McNally (Indian Country Today, June 1, 2016) provides a carefully researched study of the capture: Who Really Caught Captain Jack?
    [3].  This quote is from The Dying Grass, p. 354.  Accompanying the Trimble’s musings, Vollmann inserts his 2013 photograph of a section of the wall of petroglyphs.  Vollmann acknowledges:  “Description of the petroglyphs in the Modoc Lava Beds — After a visit to Petroglyph Point (near Tule-lake) in June 2013.” (p. 1300)  

    Photos: Petroglyph Point
    More from the Tule Lake area (Petroglyph Point and The Peninsula)