Spirit That Form’d This Scene

A road in the desert of New Mexico showing brown and yellow sage and the Sandia Mountains in the far distance.
Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

Ken escaped to rural New Mexico in the summer of 1969, running from both the Vietnam War Draft and some “bad people”, as his mother called them, in his hometown in upstate New York. He simply hopped on a Greyhound bus and went as far as his meager money would take him.

He found work on a construction site outside of a small city in the south. He would be laying pipe and other lines for the growing city, and it would take several months. Since he had nowhere to live, Ken volunteered to live onsite and watch over the equipment at night, and the supervisors set him up with a simple shack and some water to do so.

Nights in the desert were deliciously cool, even in the middle of the summer. At sunset, Ken would get completely naked and sit on a blanket outside his little shack, listening to coyotes howling in the distance. Some nights he would build a fire, letting the stories in his head dance in the shadows of his campsite. 

After several nights of utter aloneness, Ken felt the need to start whittling.

There were some discarded pieces of wood around the site that he used for his evening campfires, and he had a small pocket knife that he kept with him at all times, for eating or for cooking or for defense. Whittling seemed like a perfect hobby. 

He didn’t consider what he would whittle. It wasn’t a knife or a fork or some sort of useful object, he realized; he needed to whittle something else. The first night he set to it, an animal took form in his hands. He carved four legs and a head with pointed ears. He whittled longer than he normally would stay up after sunset, until his neck and hands ached from the work. As the fire dimmed, he stretched and went to his cot to sleep. 

In the morning he realized he had carved a coyote, with fur details and even little eyes and teeth. It fit in the palm of his hand. He put it under his pillow and got ready for the day.

The next night, Ken felt the same need to whittle. This wasn’t extraordinary in any way; it just seemed like the right thing to do for his nighttime hours. He started after dinner on a new shape and let it take form as the sunset and the fire crackled. This time he found he was carving a bird-shaped creature, with a beak and wings held close to itself. 

When he got up the next morning he saw that it looked like a dove resting, cuddled up in a tight ball with its wings tucked in. The etching and detail were exemplary, and not something Ken remembered doing himself. It was as if a better artist was working through him. Or maybe the darkness kept him from thinking about it, so he was freer to work on the object without worry.

This wooden creature also fit in the palm of his hand. He put it under his pillow again and went to work.

The next night he found himself carving a fish. The morning revealed a brown spotted trout, again covered in tiny detail he didn’t think his giant hands could have done by themselves. 

The following night he whittled again, this time creating an elk with great, sharp horns branching off from each other. Again the creature fit in the palm of his hand. He was impressed by the detail, and wished he had someone to show it to. But he couldn’t send it home to his sister or mother, and he had no friends here to brag to.

The night after that he got to work on another four-legged creature, this one larger than the coyote. In the morning he found it was a bear, still small enough to fit in his hand but clearly recognizable in its ursine form, contrasting with the coyote’s thin legs and pointy ears. 

After a few more nights, he found he had carved an eastern collared lizard, a Cooper’s hawk, and a jack rabbit with giant, long ears. He’d had to start keeping them in a separate bag because it was too hard to keep this herd of animals under his pillow. Each night, he let the shape of the animal come to him as he was whittling, lost in the sounds of the fire and the earth around him. 

One night, he found himself carving a mountain lion, and when he awoke, he was startled to think of its power and might. He dropped the little lion into the pack of animals in the bag and tried to forget about it. 

The night after this, he didn’t feel like whittling at all. He sat by the fire and rested, his hands aching from both the day’s work and the week’s whittling. He listened to the insects and the wind and the coyotes and the fire, and fell asleep far earlier than he had before.

The next night after dinner, he sat by the fire, thinking his whittling days were over. He didn’t feel like it again. But he didn’t feel the way he had the night before, when he’d felt fine resting and enjoying the stars and the wind. He felt restless now, and energized, well after the sun had set and his dinner was settled in his stomach. 

He took himself for a walk, naked in the desert, wandering away from the construction site and the city lights he could see in the distance, until it was just him and the nearly-full moon and a bunch of rocks and desert shrubs. Ken wasn’t afraid of the wildlife — he knew the coyotes wouldn’t attack him unless he came upon a den and there were no wolves nearby. All the lizards would be asleep. And the hawks wouldn’t bother him, either. 

Ken stared up at the stars, the Milky Way showing clear above him, the animals in the sky that he knew of passing overhead — Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, the swan, the scorpion. They were the same stars here as in New York, but he felt closer to the sky here. 

Absentmindedly he picked up a large rock and moved it somewhere. It was dark and he didn’t see where he put it, but he moved another rock to another space. He counted steps, although he wasn’t conscious of what numbers he was counting. After an hour or so of moving rocks and counting steps, he was exhausted and went to his bed. 

In the morning as the sun rose and before the rest of the crews could get there, he went for a walk in the direction he’d walked the night before. He paused dead in his tracks when he saw what he must have built. Before him lay a large circle, at least 10 feet in diameter, with large cairns marking four major points at quarters across the circle, and four smaller cairns halfway between each of those, dividing the circle into eighths. In the middle was the largest cairn of all, like a grand platform. 

Ken tucked this information away in his head. Maybe these nights alone were making him a little crazy.

That night he tried to avoid thinking about the little platforms he’d built. His hand felt restless again and he felt the urge to whittle once more. He picked up a piece of wood and started whittling, but kept his mind busy by reciting a poem he remembered by Walt Whitman. Someone had made him memorize it, and he couldn’t remember its title. But he murmured the words to himself as he whittled. 

Spirit that form’d this scene,

These tumbled rock-piles grim and red,

These reckless heaven-ambitious peaks,

These gorges, turbulent-clear streams, this naked freshness,

These formless wild arrays, for reasons of their own,

I know thee, savage spirit—we have communed together,

Mine too such wild arrays, for reasons of their own;

Was’t charged against my chants they had forgotten art?

To fuse within themselves its rules precise and delicatesse?

The lyrist’s measur’d beat, the wrought-out temple’s grace—column and polish’d arch forgot?

But thou that revelest here—spirit that form’d this scene,

They have remember’d thee.

He sat whittling in silence after he finished the poem. Where had that come from? Some deep recess of his memory, something his grandmother had made him learn. 

When he held up the shape he was whittling to look at it in the fire, he saw that it was a man.

He felt startled by this, but not afraid. He regarded the whittled man for several minutes, recognizing its detail while noting that it was also not anyone he knew. It was just a man. Or maybe a woman. It had no genitals, no hair, no sex markings or particularly feminine or masculine features. It was a person.

He put the wooden person in the bag with the other animals and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next night, he felt restless again. Not like whittling at all, or like building a circle of rocks, but extremely restless. He felt compelled to act, to move, to do something. He had no books to read, no paper to write on, no musical instrument to play. It was just him and fire, like all the other nights. Tonight the moon was full, and the desert seemed almost white with the light.

He dashed into his shack and grabbed the bag full of animals. He took them out of the bag, one by one, and examined them. He considered throwing them into the fire. But something inside said, no. Wait.

Ken walked with the bag out to the circle of rocks he’d made two nights before. This was where they belonged, he knew. He placed an animal at each point, the bigger ones on the bigger cairns, the smaller animals on the small cairns. Bear, coyote, mountain lion, elk — these all lived on the cardinal points. The hawk, dove, lizard, and trout went to the smaller cairns. In the middle, he placed the man, lying face up, looking at the stars, unblinking forever.

Then he felt he was very tired, and went back to his shack and slept again, another night of dreamless sleep.

In the morning as the sun rose, he sat straight up, remembering what he had done before. 

He jumped off his cot and raced to the circle, not exactly sure why. As he got up close, he realized that each of his whittled creatures was gone. The cairns were intact, untouched, undisturbed, but he couldn’t find a single one of the wooden carvings anywhere nearby.

Decades later, he’d tell his students at the high school where he taught that a spirit must have needed his sacrifice, for whatever reason it is spirits need sacrifice, and he had done his duty without knowing what it was or why.

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