Thomas Doty – Storyteller

Coyote & Friends


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Listening When the Universe Speaks
by Roy Scarbrough

When the universe spoke to native American people, they listened. Today it takes a readiness to learn from the stories and signs that native Americans created centuries ago. A simple drawing of a sunrise on the side of a sunrise on the side of a lava cave in what is now Lava Beds national Monument is largely ignored, except by those who have heard that it marks the summer solstice.

The Modoc people of Southern Oregon and Northern California are gone now, but what they witnessed remains. Each June the sun flashes its hand sign on the side of a lava cave, becoming most distinct on the summer solstice. The image is the shape of the hand sign that the Modocs made when speaking of that time of the year when the days grow the longest. The image projects from within cracks of rocks outside the cave and appears within the boundaries of faint markings, where it points to the more distinct image of a sun rising over the eastern hills. Someone who listened to his world made that drawing, someone who was waiting for a sign that the season's cycle will go on as it always has.

* * * * *

Readiness came late for me -- only after abandoning a career in newspaper journalism, only after submerging myself in a body of great literature dictated by graduate studies, only after emerging to find myself with little time left to search for answers before returning to the real world of earning a living. That was when I got wind of the solstice pictograph at the lava beds. Although the pictograph had never been documented, except in an unpublished report that the National Parks Service commissioned, I heard about the rock-writing from a friend of mine, who had heard it from a friend of his. Neither actually had seen it on the solstice. The word of this divine hand found its way to me and seemed to call. I had to go see it.

In 1971 and 1972, when I was 19 and 20 years old, I was in England during the summer solstices. I knew about the heel stone at Stonehenge and how it marked the sunrise that day. The fact impressed me in an academic sort of way, but not enough to go see it. It was easier to sleep in that morning and watch the changing of the guard that afternoon. I was not listening then.

Later, regretting that, I vowed not to miss this other Stonehenge. It seemed to call to me to throw my sleeping bag in the back of my car, to take the drive from my Medford home and to head over the back of the Cascade Mountains and into the Klamath basin.

That solstice eve the moon shone full. I watched it travel across the sky and set far off in the lava-and-sage plateau. I wondered if somewhere out there a structure of rock-carving showed the way to the place of the moon. This time I was listening. With the moon gone the stars brightened, and for the first time stars became something more than pretty pinpricks of light stuck on the shroud of night. They composed an infinite, three-dimensional array of energy and movement -- far away, but somehow touchable.

As the stars made their way across the sky, I thought of Coyote, the trickster in Modoc tales who fell in love with a star near here. He climbed the highest hill, close to where the star passed over, and begged the star to take him with her. She obliged, sweeping Coyote from the hilltop and off into the sky. At such a height Coyote's fear overtook his love. He begged her to return him to Earth. Indifferent, she immediately dropped him. His fall from love was far, and his landing hard, so hard that the impact knocked a huge crater into the Earth. That crater, now filled with water, is known as Crater Lake.

The brightest of the early morning stars still shone when I reached the cave the morning of the solstice. I was the first of several people to arrive. Above the depression where the lava tube opened stood a small rock cairn, the place where the vision-seeker might leave a stone as an offering. Not long afterwards a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist arrived and began taking compass readings from behind the cairn. She hoped that the cairn would be aligned in some way with the sun -- like the Stonehenge heel stone -- but her compass didn't reveal what she was looking for.

When the sun peeked over the horizon, an orange glow appeared on the rock face. Within minutes the image -- said to resemble a fist -- appeared and rose slowly into an area where almost-invisible markings lay. The index finger -- initially a short stub -- grew long and pointed in the direction of the sunrise pictograph and in the direction of the cairn outside. Within another 20 minutes all resemblance to the hand and finger vanished.

* * * * *

Although the show was over for the time being, its image was fixed in my mind. And it continued to call. More was to be said. In the months that followed I read the myths, the ways and, in particular, the calendar of the Modoc and Klamath peoples.

I read of how these people used their fingers and hands as a calendar. Each finger had a name that corresponded to a month. The index finger -- the finger on the cave wall -- was the finger of the month when the longest days arrive. And I thought of the young vision-seeker or hunter who, so many years ago, woke in the cave on the morning of the longest day. In my mind, I saw him rub his sleepy eyes, which suddenly focused wide at the divine sight of the sun's sign above him. This made him special. He had reason to think his magic strong and that he could take a new name: "He-to-whom-the-sun-spoke." He would paint an image of the sun on the cave wall before returning to tell his people of his find and to assert his new status.

Although not expecting any profound revelation, I returned to the cave the following year for another solstice observance. This time I made it a point to stay for the sunset, as well, and I watched the sun make its diagonal descent into the northwest. I stood on the only flat spot between the cairn and the cave entrance. My boot heels butted against a boulder and fitted comfortably into two heel-sized recesses. Maybe I was not the first to stand there.

I looked up for an instant to see the sun; it seemed headed for an alignment with the cairn and Hippo Butte, a prominent cinder cone. If I was right, the sun would dip into the bowl at the top of the butte and align perfectly with the cairn, myself, the cave, and a series of cinder cones stretching far across the open sage country. It would be a secret that I shared with the cairn-makers and rock-writers. Feeling undeserving of this knowledge, I doubted my instincts.

I should have kept faith. When the sun sank neatly into its little bowl at the top of the butte, it did exactly as the old Modoc stories described: It returned to its home in the Earth. from there it would travel through a tunnel under the Earth by night and emerge in the East at dawn. I thought of the people who believed this story, who probably entered the cave to re-enact the sun's journey under the Earth and emerged at the other end with renewed faith, a sense of rebirth and the sense of listening to the universe.