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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Western Culture

The present moment appears vividly in light and color. Rain clouds, rainbows and solar rays streak the sky.

But, for dwellers in Lake County, just offstage of this spectacle of land and sky are barely suppressed memories. Some of
the evidence, removed from the scenes of the crimes, is now housed at the Lake County Museum in Lakeport. There, in
display cases, are relics barely a hundred years old of a highly evolved artistic culture. There are photographs of the final days of life in that Pomo world. And there are photographs of the orgy of plundering, which followed.

The photographer of Indian cultures, Edward Curtis, made the image of the Pomo canoeist. That picture and others
give off an almost mystical feeling. After looking deeply at the photographs of the people, the masterful baskets, traps for woodpeckers and fish, arrowheads and other artifacts, I walked into an adjoining room at the museum. Here were the artifacts, utterly lacking in soul, and just plain ungainly, of the mechanized industrial age brought into the landscape by European-American usurpers.

But it was the photographs of the destroyers of the animals that gave off a charnel house grimness, which reminded me strongly of photographs of white Americans gathered beneath the branch of a tree from which dangled the body of a black or Mexican or Indian man they had just lynched.

The paradise that was this continent was free for the taking. And taken it was, in very short order. These Lake County photographs are so banal and so ubiquitous in every community across the land, that they arouse almost no response other than curiosity at their quaintness. But they are a record of human rapaciousness coupled with a human inability to see beyond the present moment.

The museum displays the final remains of the very last elk slaughtered in the county. That was just a hundred years ago. Now, thanks to restoration and reintroduction, the once nearly extinct tule elk roams the county again. The Grizzly bear and the wolf
were wiped out within a very few years of the arrival of the Americans.

Somehow the mountain lion persists and often shows up in the local paper. Maybe the sentiment of the editors is not so different from that of the men who chose to be photographed as witnesses to all that killing. There is a sense of wanting to be recorded at the awesome and rare moment in which one's existence comes into contact with the uncanny reality of a great animal... even if that moment marks the end of the animal.