Book: Wisdom Sits In Places

Over the last twelve years, I’ve tried to read most of the books about Palace of Memory techniques that I’ve learned about; it’s one of my abiding interests as a teacher, a magician, a scholar and a storyteller. This has included Frances Yates, Mary Carruthers, Scott Gosnell’s translations of works by Giordano Bruno, and discussions with other practitioners of memory arts within the occult community, including Erik Arneson of Arnemancy. It’s fair to say that I’ve done my homework, learned a number of important lessons, and taught others the basics of the traditional Western system, of thinking about artificial memory in its two major components, Memory of Image and Memory of Location.

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, by Keith Basso, sets an amazing new standard, though, as it’s the first book that isn’t exactly about Palace of Memory techniques, so much as it’s about why they’re so important. And that’s pretty amazing, especially since the book doesn’t mention Palace of Memory techniques even once, and there’s no evidence that Basso even knew that Palace of Memory techniques exist. Yet, to a practitioner of any sort of artificial memory system, the potentialities of the Western Apache system of memory to inform, expand, empower and enrich that artificial memory are vastly expanded and beautified.

Let me begin by saying that the Western Apache ‘system’ does not appear to be an ‘open system’ in which tourists or temporary visitors are welcome to take part. Nor is it a book for learning how to practice memory arts. Nor is this book a manual on how to practice magic as a person of Western European descent would understand that word… nor even to practice a ‘magic of the Western Apache people’. It would be an act of cultural appropriation, and a violent one at that, to travel to Arizona and attempt to wrest the stories of Cibecue and the western Apache from their elders, and then construct some sort of artificial ‘training program’ based around this way of thinking. Far, far, better, I think, to look at Basso’s study of these ways, compare them to the traditional European ways of constructing artificial memories, and realize that the Western Apache way adds an important dimension which has always (always? I wonder) been lacking from the Western approach to artificial memory. We ought to look at this model, described in this 170 page book (including index!) and realize that the European model has lacked some of these essential qualities for a long time; reading this, we should not simply re-purpose some of the techniques that are at the core of the Western Apache concept that “Wisdom Sits in Places”, but recognize and be humbled by the beauty and wildness of the interior country which the Apache elder is expected to cultivate and drink from — and how closely that interior country is connected to the land on which these elders reside. I find I have a newfound respect for the idea of lands sacred to Native people from reading this book — for indeed, any place at all may be made sacred and luminous by this way of thinking.

Basso admits in his forward that this book was incredibly difficult to write. Although many of the events which he narrates occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, teasing them into a coherent whole resulted in re-faceting the coherent worldview of the Apache elders into several separate essays, which became the chapters of the book. Each chapter explores a different aspect of place-names in Apache culture, and how those place-names are used to learn and recall a wealth of stories — each with a mythic, moral, ethical, spiritual and historical dimension. Basso himself didn’t stumble upon this training by accident and enter the world of Apache place-names uninvited; instead, he was called to the work by one of the elders of Cibecue, and other elders drew him in as his powers waxed, and his worth was proved.

At its heart, the place-name system of Apache wisdom draws its strength from the Apache language, which has a broad set of frameworks for creating names that have strong visual and sound components and can ‘paint a picture’ of a location quite easily. A substantial chunk of knowledge has to be available to a person to find out that the Massachusetts town of “Worcester” is pronounced something closer to “Wos-ter”, and even more has to be known to make out that “Worcester” is named after an English town in Britain of the same name, and it gained its name from the Romans, for whom it was “the Roman legionary camp near the ‘Worcc’ tribe of Britons.” There’s a lot of historical data crammed into a word like Worcester, but not everyone has the historical background to unpack it. An Apache name for a place, though, might be translated easily into English as something more like, “The big Cottonwood tree where the path goes down a hill and then up again.” This is squeezed into maybe a half-dozen syllables: a) cotton tree, b) path, c) down, d) hill, e) and, f) up.

Once Basso’s command of the Apache language is tested (and found slightly wanting, but good enough for an outsider, they suppose, especially one who pays), he’s taken along on a trip to a few places with an eleven-year-old Apache boy. They go to a few places and Basso (and the kid) are taught the names of these places. There are stories that go with these places, too, and many of them start with “When the Apache first came here…” It turns out that this is a key phrase, intended to clue the listeners in to the mythic content of the story: this is something that the founders of our tribe saw, when they first approached here. The name, perhaps translated into English as something like “Waterfall flows over coarse red rocks to the white smooth rocks below” (and I’ve made up this name, so that you’ll actually go and read the book and learn for yourself), suggests both a spot to stand, where you can see the scene from a particular vantage point; and calls the location vividly to mind. Basso learns, as a result of this visit and subsequent discussions, that almost every one of the not-quite 400 places within 20 miles of Cibecue, AZ — has a mythic body of knowledge associated with it: a short story about the founders of the Apache people who first came to this land; their encounters with gods or spirits or animal powers of the land; their difficulties and successes with finding food and water in a harsh environment.

My Palace of Memory senses began to tingle, right about here. Water sources? Places where a strong visual cue is visible? Locations that are specifically chosen to create a deliberate picture in the person’s mind, that’s easily recalled by the name of the place? Mythical stories associated with that place? Laconic but deliberately-explained stories?

It got even more interesting to Basso — and to me — to discover that a different phrase, “It happened in this very spot, this [name] here!” was intended to be used to call up a different tale, not the mythical first visit of the Apache to this location, but a historical event that might have occurred sometime after. Place, not necessarily time, was the critical component in Apache history — an event might have happened five hundred years ago, or as recently as the Great Depression, but where it occurred mattered considerably more than when. Good, place-associated stories with either mythical and historical components also have a moral dimension. Stories with morals belong to all times — in some sense, it matters little whether an event occurred yesterday or six centuries back; if the moral or ethical precept the story encodes remains relevant, then the story should continue to be told. Far better that the story have a stage, a place where it occurred, than that it have a date; for it is easy to say, “five hundred years ago is so long, and we are modern people in modern times”, but far harder to say, “a man tried to molest his stepdaughter at this watering hole by this corn field we use every year; then she and another uncle bludgeoned him until he was reeling; and then they pushed him off a nearby cliff so he died; and they told the tribe what he did and why he died. So we no longer bring his name to mind, and he is forgotten —but the good uncle and the daughter, we remember.” Did it happen a thousand years ago in rougher, more savage times? Or last week? Does it matter?

And going there, to that very cornfield for a work-day… why, look at the land! Here is the watering hole, and over there is a cliff. It is a long way down. Did the body bounce? The boy dropping the stone over the edge can hear it clatter on the sharp rocks. The lesson is hard, but important: defend your kinswomen, and behave honorably toward them, and the whole tribe will have your back: you shall be remembered with honor for always.

It’s hard to imagine the depths of this traditional wisdom, all of it oral, all of it the result of elders taking you around the country-side from the time you were children. The elders show you specific things, tell you stories, and ask you to remember and reflect on the stories you’re shown and the places you visit. As they die, the places themselves hold the memories — to go to the cottonwood tree is to remember the tale. Thus, to drive by the stream where you caught crawfish with an uncle is to recall a story about Coyote and the snakes; your aunt springs to mind when you pass the field where you roasted agave; to drive up and over the mountains is to remember a bath in a mountain pool, and a story about the Apache arrested by a policeman.

The landscape itself is invested with memories of ancestors; and the ancestors’ words return to you, the moment that a place is thought of…. or when it’s called to your attention.

Basso has some sense of this when, observing a conversation between two older and two younger members of the tribe, a very serious matter is resolved with reference to three places. One of the younger women of the tribe is astounded by an action her brother took recently, and gossip about it is traveling all through the town. Her anxiety is palpable when she interrupted Basso’s conversation with the elders.

And yet, after a mere minute of conversation, the matter is resolved. One elder says the name of a place, “it is in that very place,” he adds. Another waits a few seconds more, and adds “When the Apache first came to Water Belonging to Snakes…”, and a third, after another tentative silence, ventures to add, “There was a time at the Cottonwood Tree where the trail goes down and up.” By this point, the anxious young woman is laughing slightly, and playing with the dog.

The young woman has been told three stories — one mythical, one from the deep history of the tribe, and one from the relatively recent past — that also happen to group into two serious stories and a funny one. They’re all about young men who do stupid things, and come to humiliation and perhaps light injury, but probably not death. Her mood lightened by the references to places associated with such stories, the young woman now feels at ease enough to turn her attention from the elders to the hound. Being reminded of stories she already knows, without being told them, has given her the ability to think with the stories she’s been told already, and play out these tales in her mind. Driving by one of the spots on the way home, she’ll be further reminded that her brother is not likely to die from his outrageous behavior — only be the subject of some ill-advised gossip. And perhaps, if she points out the places to her brother in the near future, he’ll get some good advice for the long haul, and maybe a rueful laugh about his own misadventures.

Another young woman isn’t in for such an easy time of it. At a ceremony for young girls of the tribe entering puberty, she showed up with her hair in curlers. The year was the mid-1950s, and she was a rebellious teenager trying on white women’s ways: make-up, curlers, and a haughty expression. Her grandmother told a story to all the gathered people, one she’d learned in her own girlhood, about an event that occurred at the Oak Tree by the Narrow Arroyo. This story concerned an Apache who’d become a policeman, and there was a lot of starvation that winter, and an Apache man had killed a whiteman’s cow for food, and many of the people in that place had taken meat from the butchered cow. The policeman arrested the hunter, and put him in jail, but then had to go to the whiteman’s station to arrange the transfer of the prisoner and the hearing of the court case. But the other Apache warned him, and put a spell on him with words, so that he did not do these things, even though he tried to do them twice — and the other apache made the policeman into a fool and an idiot in front of his police-boss, so he wasn’t trusted with major jobs again.

Telling this story to Basso in the early 1980s, the woman remembered that ceremony and her grandmothers’ words as though it were yesterday. More than that, the place came back and haunted her dreams; and the route to the place from the road was on her daily commute to work. “Every day,” she says, “I think about Oak Tree by the Narrow Arroyo. That Oak Tree has become my grandmother, reminding me not to be a whiteman, but to remain Apache.” Basso briefly recounts meeting other Western Apache from Cibecue, who have moved to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, or Fort Worth — many of them left Cibecue because “the places haunted them” — their grandmother had become the mountain over the village where they lived; a stream behind their family home harangued them in the voice of their aunt; a beloved uncle stood forever in the swirling waters of Good Fishing Place Under the Cottonwood, reminding him of his failures. The stories of the ancestors, the animal spirits, and the recent past also swirled around that place — and for the Apache absconded to the mean streets of Seattle, even leaving home was not enough: the stories, and the places where they occurred, continued to haunt him in his dreams. Leaving was not enough — the places affected him even while asleep, calling him to live right and leave behind his inattentive and selfish and self-destructive behaviors.

How does one “live right”, though, in this kind of system? Why do I say that this is the epitome of a Palace of Memory system, when there is no system of connecting corridors, no artificial niches into which Roman statuary may be located, no imaginary walk through the chambers of your house, or through some vast but imaginary Vatican Museum, crammed with the wisdom of the ancients?

Consider this: Basso seems not to have been exposed to the full wealth of the place-based system of the Apache of Cibecue, AZ. Yet we may observe that the location was the first layer of reality: the young boy of eleven was urged to face a certain direction, to see certain features of the landscape, and to associate this location and this particular view with a particular proper name: the name of this place. He was introduced to it, as a youngling might be introduced to an elder.

Next, he was given a story to attach to this place, a story with its own tag-line, “When the Apache first came to this land, and to this place…” Other phrases, introduced later, gave him two more stories of events at this location: “In that very place,” indicating a part of the Apache’s historical record, and “Some time ago,” indicating something more recent, perhaps even within the speaker’s own memory and personal experience. Basso gives hints that maybe three other categories of story were attached to places — perhaps funny stories, perhaps sexual stories, and perhaps tales of heroic action — but we’ll have to imagine rather than have definitive evidence that such is the case. The insight remains: location place-name (strongly visual name) + catchphrase (mythic, history or personal experience) calls a specific story to mind, usually one of several. It struck me, strongly, that Basso was only given two or three of these key catchphrases — and that other stories, just as rich, lay behind other phrases but attached to the places he already knew.

Almost all of these stories — the myth, the history, the personal experience — had at least two of the following five characters: a wise person who did the right thing and advocated for the right action from the beginning; a foolish person who saw the error of their ways and turned to the correct action in time; a foolish person who never saw the right way of acting and was punished for that refusal with humiliation, injury or death; an animal doing what that animal usually does; an enemy of the Apache, an outsider of some kind.

Basso describes, in some detail after a conversation with an elder about the nature of Wisdom, how wisdom sits in places, like water in a well-constructed vessel. The stories are the water itself; they’re attached to location. Nearly four hundred such locations lay in the landscape around Cibecue: water sources, and fields for growing food, settlement sites where medicinal plants could be harvested … and of course, risky locations where enemies and Apache might come in contact, or where wild animals were often found, or where the environment itself could hurt you if you weren’t careful.

To become a wise Apache, and an elder of the people, is to sit in a place and drink in all of its wisdom, a little at a time. The wisdom refills its container, sure enough — the wisdom is rooted in the land, and springs forth from the stories that are attached to it. Almost four hundred places… three kinds of story (or maybe six?) at each location — 1200 to 3600 stories… two to five characters per story, or 12,000 possible points of view. To sit in a place, and drink its wisdom, is to imagine how the tale plays out for the fool whose pride won’t let him change his opinion; how the bear acts, or the snake thinks; how the rock will wobble; how Old Man Owl’s women-chasing habit brings him to grief; how the medicine man who will only work in groups to bring the rain is proved right; how the prideful young man survives when he accepts the learning that comes from a little stupidity.

Simply by mentioning a place-name and a catchphrase, an Apache elder soothes a junior when a singular story is called to mind; and all its characters, both the smart ones and the foolish, the thoughtless and the intentional, all spring into existence as advisors and guides, and with them the grandmothers and departed elders who taught the stories in their childhoods — and each story may be projected with kindness and sensitivity and a minimum of words, into the thoughts of another who has a similar basis of shared experience: childhood explorations with a beloved aunt, a cherished uncle, in the hills and valleys around Cibecue, Arizona.

Wisdom sits in places, indeed.

It is hard for me not to be awed. Too often, Western memory arts are put to service for party tricks, like memorizing a thousand digits of Pi or playful poetry for seduction and wit, or memorizing long scripts for plays and rituals which may (or may not) have deep moral and ethical dimensions. For the Western Apache, natural features of the landscape serve as Raymond Llull’s algebraic wheels, or Giordano Bruno’s nested circles of letters or philosophical seals, inviting us to ask questions of our memories and learn wisdom most explicitly and deliberately from the land in which we live.

Yet it also occurs to me that what Basso is describing, is a multigenerational school. A young child knows few place-names, and fewer stories; he may know only two of the tales connected with a place-name, not all three (or not all six). The elder, a well-traveled man or woman, knows many places and knows all the stories associated with them. In between, a cowboy ranch hand or a homemaker may know a hundred place-names and three hundred stories. To know them all is to hold a PhD in Apache culture (I don’t mean they award a degree — rather, that you know how to talk your way around the landscape. All of the essential moral and spiritual teaching of the people is held in mind; the Apache man travels around town in a completely different way to the whiteman tourist who stops for a soda at the gas station in town. The hills, the cottonwood trees along the river, the seasonal streams and watering holes — these are Bible and kama sutra, joke book and historical record, law-book and herb-lore pharmacy reference. The kids are set to learning from their elders, as many stories as they can bear — in part to learn how to think and react to the land, and to the people both real and mythological who inhabit it.

In referencing two great practitioners of the memory arts of Western teaching, I am inviting you, the reader, to consider how Native American wisdom teachings, in their own way, make use of the same insights of Homo sapiens’ intrinsic brain powers — the connection of the human brain’s short- and long-term memories to our awareness of our location (rather than our position in time) through the hippocampus — to a process for life-long cultivation of intelligence and wisdom, through a purposeful attachment of meaning to the Land.

In this way, the Land speaks to us in the voices of the past, and refuses to let go of us even in our dreams. It is hard not to love a place, when it has infiltrated our deepest dreams, and spoken to us clearly, of the way to walk rightly in the paths of wisdom.

6 comments

    • I think — I hope — you’ll really like it. For me it was a window into what my ancestors shattered as they came to this continent… and what it means to live in a land that’s sacred. It’s not even, necessarily, for ‘woo’ reasons, even. But if the whole landscape is constantly teaching you the stories that matter, you cannot really “opt out” or let the land be destroyed: it’s not just water, or topsoil, that is damaged, but also the ability to remember the past and train the future.

      • Yup. I have a lot of thoughts about that very topic. One of the reasons I’m inching ever closer to simply declaring for polytheism…but that’s a story for another day.

        • I think polytheism is a perfectly valid choice, given the nature of our species’ encounter with the non-corporeal parts of the universe’s population.

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