Unfolding the Map
I feel like this post might ramble a bit, but I think LHM was really trying to make sense of time and space and put it all together in the context of his trip. I don't think he expected to run into a replica of Stonehenge in southern Washington, and frankly, I didn't expect that we'd have such a thing either. I mean, I know that there is Carhenge, made out of cars, and there is a henge made out of old refrigerators. But a full replica? That's pretty cool. To see where Stonehenge on the Columbia sits, see the map - be sure to zoom in with satellite mode to actually see it!
"A little before sunset, in the last long stretch of light, I saw on a great rounded hill hundreds of feet above the river a strange huddle of upright rocks. It looked like Stonehenge. When I got closer, I saw that it was Stonehenge - in perfect repair....
"....In truth, the circle of menhirs was a ferro-concretehenge, but it was as arresting on its hill as the real Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 9
Stonehenge on the Columbia, Washington
There is an awful lot of self-reflection on the part of LHM in this chapter when he finds Stonehenge on the Columbia. It affords us a good time to do some reflection as well. I'll give a short synopsis of what LHM reflects upon.
When he finds this Stonehenge, quite unexpectedly, LHM is first struck by the convergence of past and present, which happened to him once before at the Navajo petroglyphs of Hickison Summit. He remarks that this Stonehenge was built by a Sam Hill to commemorate the sacrifice of American doughboys in World War I, and how some graffiti on the monument gave it a kind of historical authenticity even though it was simply a mask of another more authentic monument far away. He finds a Polaroid of a naked woman posing by some of the stones...her pendulous-breasted pose in the fading light hearkens to something more primal and elemental.
LHM then discourses on time. He discusses how when we look at the stars that we look into the past, and speculates that when a telescope is built that can look back to the beginning of the universe, astronomers will be looking at the beginning of time and at the matter that now makes up the human race. The original Stonehenge, he says, was an attempt at a time machine, one that could take the starlight - straight out of the past - and use it to predict future seasons and astronomical phenomena. He begins to connect all that he sees around him in the universe and concludes that to escape his ego, that narrowness of now, and achieve concord or union with all things he has to reach outward - to embrace the past and the future.
I remember having this sense of things interconnecting in, of all places, New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, in a wing all its own, is the reconstructed Egyptian Temple of Dendur. This temple was given to the United States by the Egyptian government because it was to be submerged by the waters of the Aswan High Dam and because the United States had assisted in rescuing other sites of archeological significance. One thing that captured my attention when I saw it was the grafitti on the temple. One in particular stood out - an inscription by a man in the 1800s who was from Brooklyn. I can imagine that, in the middle of the African desert, the man who carved his name into the temple in the 1800s thought that it would remain there in perpetuity. Instead, his name ended back up in New York City three generations later. I laughed at the irony of it all, a cosmic irony that shows that nothing in our world is permanent and fixed even when we "build it to last forever." I realize now that the places that I've carved my name, physically and in the virtual world, will also fade over time and that any remembrance of me might also end up being a delicious bit of irony if it survives at all.
I am also struck by how the original structure of Stonehenge, in England, was built as somethat that was functional. We are still trying to decipher the exact function of Stonehenge, but theories include an astronomical observatory, a religious center, a place of healing and a place of burial. However, nobody quite knows. Regardless, it did perform a function, and in its longlasting mystery gained prominence as the last remnant of a millenia-long-dead and unknown culture. In a way, it serves as a gravestone for that culture it represents, and its mystery is the epitaph.
On the other hand, the Stonehenge on the Columbia was built specifically as a memorial. It has no other function. There is no mystery. It was never used as an observatory other than those who, like LHM, looked out at the stars and pondered the mystery of time and space from within its concentric circles. It is not used to predict planting and harvesting seasons, or to foretell eclipses. We have much better ways for doing those functions now. Nobody brings themselves or their loved ones to Stonehenge on the Columbia for healing, unless somehow the hope of the founder in establishing the memorial somehow has some healing effects on long-standing and vanishing pain from the First World War. Sam Hill, who built the monument, was mistakenly told that the original Stonehenge was used as a sacrificial site and he wanted to memorialize the young men of Klickitat County, Washington who were sacrificed to the god of war.
There are many places of past function that have turned into monuments. Almost every monument we are left with once had function. Yet, I have to wonder if the functional structures that we have built today, our modern buildings of concrete and steel, will one day become monuments. Just as the pyramids rise above Egypt, will our Empire State Building and Sears Tower, or their remains, become tourist sites for tourists trying to capture a dead culture. Just as we read about the Alexandria Lighthouse, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, will people in the future be awed when they learn about the Golden Gate Bridge, a monument to our civilization's current and maybe past greatness?
I've never heard of a monument turning back into something functional in other ways. That was before I went to the Star Axis in New Mexico. It is a work of art being built into the side of a mountain. Aligned with the axis of the earth, it allows one to walk through past alignments of the Earth with the stars, and future alignments also. Because the Earth wobbles on its axis, the North Star of the time of the Egyptian pyramids was a different star, Thuban, than our North Star today, Polaris, which is different from the North Star of 10,000 years from now, Vega. I wonder if after our civilization is dead, and if there is a time when humanity enters a period not unlike the Dark Ages when knowledge is not widely disseminated as now but is perhaps kept alive by small groups devoted to learning, if this huge sculpture will become functional and serve a purpose other than as a sculptor's long-envisioned project?
If we look to the past, we can certainly take pride in our accomplishments as a civilization. We see where we've come from and how we've progressed. But we can also possibly see our future in the past. Civilizations die, and are replaced by new civilizations, just as if we gaze into the cosmos, we look into the past and see our future in the stars that have been born and have died before our star and world existed. We live in the now, and think it will never end, but all that seems permanent will fade. As LHM says, our present will become our past and our future will become our present, and try as we might to fight it, change renders all impermanent.
One of the funniest scenes in the mock-documentary, or rockumentary, called This is Spinal Tap is the scene where the titular band performs their song Stonehenge. I am putting the full version of the song here, but if you want to see the scene in the movie where the band's grandiose plans to have a giant version of Stonehenge lowered to the stage end up hilariously wrong, look at this YouTube video.
If you want to know more about Stonehenge on the Columbia
Next up: Maryhill, Washington