Lightplay 14 – Utopian Proposals

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Dear Reader —

Hello and welcome back to Lightplay, the big email of your faithful if intermittent correspondent Jasper Luna Nighthawk. (Who was until recently named Jasper Nighthawk Henderson.) I’m delighted to return to your inbox, and I hope that wherever you’re reading these words, you and your family and friends are safe and doing okay. Happy Mother’s Day!

Here in Los Angeles, I’m spurred to write again by the blossoming jacarandas. Every May and June, these Brazilian trees produce luscious, thick-petaled purple blossoms—blossoms that bloom profusely, thousands per tree, a riot of purple. They epitomize the phrase, ‘embarrassment of riches.’ You’d have to be a stone-cold celibate not to blush a little, looking at the lovely sex organ of a street tree in late spring.

However that’s not the reason why the jacaranda across the street made me want to write to you, my sweet dear readers. Instead, it was remembering how when I sent the first installment in this run of big emails, I included in that one a picture of this same tree, in riotous bloom, just about a year ago. In that photo the tree is backdropped by the artificial bumblebee yellow of the panels that clad the building under construction behind it. A year on, that building has just been stuccoed in an off-white plaster. The scene’s composition, as framed by my office window across the street, is no longer quite as striking. But the jacaranda, indifferent, hoists its purple raiment just as before.

Though not quite as enthusiastically as last year.

The workmen have been hard at work, the tree has been hard at work, and so have I. This last year has been by far the busiest in my life as a writer so far. I just write all of the time now, like a maniac.

Which is great! It’s what I wanted!

But it’s also, you know, intense to abruptly succeed in turning your passion into a full-time job. I imagine a musician might feel the same way if they suddenly got work five days a week in a late-night comedy show band. Or a painter might feel this way if they got a multi-year commission to create dozens of municipal murals.

These examples come to mind because while I do now work full-time as a writer, I’m not precisely writing chatty newsletters for a living or—that holy grail—paying the bills by writing novels. My job title is ‘University Storyteller,’ and I work for my MFA alma mater, Antioch University. I now spend my days writing alumni profiles, reporting out news around the school, editing pieces by freelancers and work-studies, and producing and hosting a faculty interview podcast.

It’s interesting, engaging, difficult, and often satisfying work. And I have health insurance! Dental! Paid time off! This is what parents wish for their children.

Like a shift in latitude, it’s revealed a different constellation of problems in my life: how to find time to cook and clean, how to use vacation time to see family but also to recharge and keep from burning out, and how to make sure we hit next month’s metrics. (The dread metrics!) But maybe the hardest thing is figuring out how to sustain my own art, how to keep writing and working on my own projects.

For the last half-year, this big email has lost out in that negotiation. But now we’re back, baby. I’m really happy to be here in your inbox. And I’m excited to move to a model of sending this out quarterly or so. It’s going to be good. This ain’t no Substack. It’s low-fi social media. Welcome to your spring Lightplay. Thank you for joining me here.

There’s an essay that I think you should read. It’s called “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” and was written by David Treuer. The essay’s central idea is exactly what the title says. Here’s Treuer expanding his thesis just a bit:

“For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend—and protect and preserve—these favored gardens again.”

But the essay is more than just that. Its shape is part history lesson, part pandemic travelogue (along a remarkably similar route to the road trip I took last summer), and part proposal for a new way we could do things. I love this. Why don’t more essays include utopian proposals?

What makes this essay so important to me is the way it travels roads of thought I’ve glimpsed before but never pursued in my own writing: Are America’s national parks creepily empty? Does the concept of wilderness have white supremacist roots? And what wounds remain from the violently displacement of so many people from their land?

Treuer is a great writer and thinker. He’s also Indigenous—he’s Ojibwe, from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota—and his senses are sharp to different things than are mine. To read the essay is to take a trip in another person’s car, mind, history—and possible future, too.

So go read it! Can I encourage you any more? Here’s the link one more time.

Okay, now that you’ve read it—or have ignored my entreaties and vowed never to—I can add my own thoughts. Which, I’m always trying to be more honest with myself as a writer, and to be frank I just don’t think I’m a great polemicist. Nobody opens a Lightplay thinking, Can’t wait, I’m gonna get my fix of political thought. You all are here for some other reason. Not sure what it is. But it ain’t for the hot political takes.

I suspect that part of what I am well-suited to is writing from life: thought embedded in experience. That after all is part of what makes Treuer’s essay so great. We love abstraction, but then we spend our days thinking with our bodies, as they move through time and space. The road trip essay, as a genre, is great because it’s embodied.

So rather than philosophize to excess, instead I present here two experiences from my own life, two moments that impressed me deeply at the time—and that have clicked into a new understanding since I read Treuer’s essay. Each occurs in a specific place and time.

I. Snow Mountain Wilderness Area, Lake County, 2014

In the late spring, I went with my partner at the time for a three-night backpacking trip around Snow Mountain, a peak just north of Clear Lake, in the Mendocino National Forest. It’s a beautiful, austere place to take a hike in the woods: broad hillsides covered in hardy wildflowers, dim paths through pines, pocket views of the lake gleaming far down below, and there were even wind-carved drifts of snow at the blustery summit. (In this part of California’s Coastal Ranges, the regular presence of snow is notable enough to give the mountain its name.) We dosed streamwater with tiny iodine pellets and then waited an hour before drinking. Each night, we stuffed our food into our sleeping bags’ stuff sacks, which I raised like piñatas into the understory. But we didn’t see any bears.

To be honest, we barely saw any animal bigger than a songbird. I think we spooked some deer one day. And there might have been ducks in the pond we slept by the first day. But the mountains felt empty.

And I think they felt particularly empty because the year before we had been in northern India, exploring the foothills of the Himalayas, which are many things but never really empty. On the day hike from Dharamsala up to Triund, you come around a bend, parched, only to find someone with a kettle, selling tiny cups of chai masala for a handful of rupees. And then around another bend there’s a small stone house, built into a crease in the steep, rocky slope, where you can get a bowl of noodles. If you make it a few more hours up to the pass, it’s mostly wind-swept rock, but there are also some tents, pitched and ready to be rented.

Yes, this is all capitalism—dirty commerce, spoiling nature. But also: the hills are lively. They are full of life. They don’t hold just ‘wild’ nature, but also humans. There’s something wonderful about it. And in my experience, this thing where beautiful, wild landscapes include humans doing human things isn’t just true in touristy Dharamsala. In remote Tibetan valleys or in the grassy foothills of the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang, you regularly cross paths with herders and pilgrims. You often find them at little restaurants or small monasteries, or maybe on the front steps of a general store. The landscape is often profoundly beautiful, but it’s also just home to people who live there and are going about their lives. It’s a different relationship with nature, and often people are interacting with the land in similar ways to how their ancestors did many generations ago.

This is not the case in the Snow Mountain Wilderness Area. And you can tell. The mountains feel lonely, pristine, almost like a ruins. As we walked through them, I was haunted by the idea that for thousands of years this had been a lively place. But not anymore.

On our third day, the obvious place to camp was near Bloody Rock, up in the oak woodlands above Lake Pillsbury, a man-made reservoir. But before the trip, I’d looked up how Bloody Rock got its name. The answer is not pretty: it was the site of an 1860’s massacre of about sixty-five men, women, and children of the Yuki tribe. A small group of armed ranchers had chased them to the rocky outcropping and then killed every last one of them. According to the internet, the bodies were never buried and lay exposed for many years.

Instead of camping there, we walked late into the evening, trying to get far away from the history of this empty place. And the next day, we pushed to get back to the car, not wanting to spend another night sleeping in the empty hills. We blasted the Mountain Goats as we drove away, and we never went camping there again.

Now, having read “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” I am seeing that the emptiness of what the U.S. government calls “Wilderness Areas” isn’t just a consequence of my culture’s genocidal past. It’s also a choice that we as a country keep on making, year after year: the decision to keep these places empty of the people who lived there first. It’s a choice we could make differently.

II. Tahquitz Canyon, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation, 2021

Not all of the beautiful and wild corners of this country are administered by the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service, though. In a handful of precious places, the future that Treuer describes is already here. Take the lush oases and austere desert canyons administered by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. It’s located just a five-minute drive south of Palm Springs, this beautiful corner of California is open to the public year-round—though in the blazing hot summers, only Fri-Sat-Sun. You pay a modest entrance fee, get a map, and then you’re free to explore its extensive trails, visit its gift shop, or do whatever else you want to do.

This winter, my partner, her dad, and I walked far up one of the park’s canyons. We followed a small stream through lush groves of California Fan Palm, the only palm tree native to our state. The old fallen-off fronds, deliberately uncleared, made a thick litter under the palms. Smoking was absolutely prohibited, and still, many older palms had fire scars on their trunks. Further up the canyon, the stream went underground and we were once again in sere desert. Where the way narrowed, we scrambled up smooth-rock channels, the granite eroded by eons of flash floods into Brancusi swoops and swirls. The air was hot and dry and faintly perfumed with creosote. Larry took his shirt off.

Eventually we realized that it was too late in the afternoon to make it all the way around the loop trail, so we turned back and retraced our steps. We took more photographs. Saw a lizard. Shook a pebble from my shoe. By the time we got back to the car, we were filled with the beauty of the desert, knew more about the place’s past, and were hungry for dinner.

So Tahquitz Canyon is just like a National Park or Wilderness Area, right?

Well, not quite. For one, there’s no campground. The park closes promptly at 5pm every day, and signs threaten that cars left overnight will be towed. You are a guest. It’s expected that you treat the place with respect.

Other differences are more subtle. There are dozens and dozens of miles of trails, leading wherever you might want to go, linking and looping and well-marked. This contrasts with Joshua Tree National Park, down the road, which generally has just a single trail for each area. The picnicking area is also uncommonly clean and thoughtfully laid out; there’s a feeling of personal touch and pride of ownership. There are some old-style woven dwellings that kids enjoy exploring, and these are in good repair. A hand-dug little irrigation canal—to demonstrate historic agricultural techniques—is in good repair. Instead of being a pastiche of log cabin and logging camp, the architecture is simple and even a bit modernist. Instead of using a font chosen by bureaucrats in Washington, DC, the trail signs are stylishly local.

These are little things, and I don’t mean to trash the National Park Service, which I think is filled with people who love nature and want to make the parks a nice place to visit. It’s just that in Tahquitz Canyon there’s a pride and personality to the human elements. The place feels loved and lived-in.

Maybe my favorite part is the concessions shack. A big open window in the side of the gift shop building sells water, chips, hot dogs, trail mix. Nothing elaborate; just goodies you might want to stick in your fanny pack and eat out on the trail. There is none of the corporate-lunch-counter ugliness of the National Parks cafeterias, no long line, no complex point-of-sale system. The craziest thing: nothing is overpriced. The concessions feel less like a profit center for a park management company called Xanterra and more like a service tailored to the needs and desires of park guests.

Tahquitz Canyon is a relatively small park, but I’ve only walked maybe 3% of its trails. I can’t wait to return. The place just has a different vibe from government-run outdoor spaces. I only wish there were more parks like it. And maybe there will be soon—if we as a country can gather the bravery and resolve to return the National Parks to the tribes.

Find more shots in my latest gallery: Desert, March 2021

Three Film Recommendations

1. Bacurau, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, 132 minutes. (Available for rent on streaming services.)

If the history of Bloody Rock rightly curdles your blood, you might enjoy exploring those feelings—along with possibilities for Indigenous resistance—through this 2019 thriller from Brazil. The film is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, but I think I was delighted most by its continual inventiveness. It kept surprising me right up to the end. Which is why I don’t want to say too much more, to spoil any of it. Bacurau is both bloody and deeply political, but it left me feeling smarter, more alive, and creatively nourished.

2. “The Story of ‘It Wasn’t Me’ by Shaggy,” dir. Dan Zabludovsky, 26 minutes. (Available for free on Youtube.)

This is the second episode of a series by Vice, posted on Youtube, called ‘The Story of…’ There’s a bit of a formula to this show. Each of its five episodes explores, oral-history style, the circumstance that led to the creation of a hit song: moments of inspiration, conflict with A&R guys, big emotions, twists and turns, stupid crushes, drug problems, and then, every time, world-beating success. Strangely, each of these hits comes from a quite specific couple of years: 1999-2001.

This happens to be when I first started listening to music on my own, and watching each episode I remember each song so clearly: “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, “Last Resort” by Papa Roach, “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton. The songs are so much of their time, and remembering this lost age of two decades ago is deeply transporting. None of it is to be missed, and definitely not the deep dive into “Thong Song” by Sisqo, where he just says some amazing things about the genesis of that piece:

“And for the first time in my life I saw a thong—or what was expressed to me as a thong. I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that it was glorious. I was at a loss for words. I was like, “What? What is… what is this? What is that? What is this?” She was like, “you know, like a G-string; a thong,” and I was like “ow! it’s called a thong?” Pretty much, I don’t even remember what happened for the rest of that night because I could not wait to get back, you know, like around my friends and tell them of this glorious material that I witnessed.

But the episode that moved me the most was the one about “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy. I first heard this song on my eleventh birthday. These other sixth-grade boys I was trying to fit in with had come over for a sleep-over, and one of them gave me the Shaggy album Hotshot, and I put on my new walkman, and I just couldn’t stop listening to this song. It had lyrics so dirty (“banging on the bathroom floor”) and emotionally wound-up (“Yo man / open up, man / my girl just caught me”) and ridiculously bravadocious (“Say it wasn’t you”), and they matched so well with its sick groove and Shaggy’s unique style of Jamaican dancehall sing-rapping. I’d never heard anything like it before. I loved it.

That night, the social dynamics of my birthday party eventually became overwhelming. So without saying anything, I just got in my sleeping bag and put on my headphones and put this song on repeat. I disappeared into it. Its vibe, its world—they let me in like a bath.

It must have been two or three in the morning when I slowly realized several of the other boys were crouched around me, lifting the foam ear-pads off my ears, laughing. They had found out that I had this one song stuck on repeat. It was hilarious. But I wasn’t cut in on the joke. It was, I realized, at my expense. I tried to defend myself. I insisted that I didn’t really like the song. It was just, I explained, it was interesting. I was trying to understand it. But they wouldn’t let it go. My blubbering just made it funnier. I’m sure I blushed as deep a shade of red as there is. Vermillion? Crimson? I don’t remember what happened after that. Did I cry? Did I try to laugh along? How did I ever get back to sleep?

The next morning, I vowed never listened to Shaggy again. I’d change the song if it came on. I convinced myself that I really, truly didn’t like it. And my intention stuck. I never willingly listened to Shaggy again.

It was another year before I figured out that those boys weren’t the friends for me, and in so many ways that decision to break up with them set the course of my life to who I am now. But even as I stopped trying to fit in, I never reclaimed Shaggy. It wasn’t till this week, in 2021, as I was watching this little film, that my scar around this song began to heal. Shaggy, I now see, was never a true avatar of those boys who refused to accept me. He was always something else, though I just didn’t know or was blind to see: he was a force for good, a thoughtful artist with a strange and expressive instrument and a great sense of humor.

The story told in “The Story of ‘Wasn’t Me’ by Shaggy” is amazing, including a mysterious Napster user and a heroic Hawaiian DJ. But I’m most thankful that it helped me see that I was right the first time: it’s a great song. And nerding out to it was never anything to be ashamed of. In its own little, weird way, this short film on Youtube helped heal something inside me.

3. Shirkers, dir. Sandi Tan, 96 minutes. (Streams on Netflix.)

This is a feature-length documentary about a feature-length film by the same name. That film, also directed by and starring Sandi Tan, was never released, for reasons that are still mysterious today. If the original Shirkers had been released, back in 1992, it would have been Singapore’s first ever indie film. But it wasn’t. Tan’s documentary, full of footage from the earlier film, is an investigation of grief, youth, fate, abuse, and resilience. It’s my favorite thing I’ve watched this last year—and an inspiration to projects I’m working on today. I really cannot recommend it enough.

That’s it for this week’s Lightplay. If you made it this far, you must be one of the Lightplay die-hards, so you might be interested to know that I’ve recently published many profiles of interesting people associated with Antioch University. And I also have been part of the team creating the university’s newest project: the Seed Field Podcast. If you want to give it a listen, I recommend starting with this interview I did with Jean Kayira, a brilliant professor of Environmental Studies who spoke with me about Indigenous Knowledge and the climate crisis. 

Thank you for spending time with me. Take good care, and don’t be a stranger!

Jasper
9 May 2021

Land Acknowledgment: I want to acknowledge the land from which I am sending this as the traditional homelands of Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash peoples—including the Gabrieleño, Fernandeño, and Ventureño; members of the Takic and Chumashan language families; and other Indigenous peoples who have made their homes in and around the area we now call Los Angeles. Indigenous people continue to live in this area and celebrate their traditional teachings and lifeways. I further wish to acknowledge that Los Angeles is home to one of the largest Urban Native populations in the country, with an intertribal community numbering over 54,000—many of whom settled here after being forcibly removed from or otherwise pushed out of their own homelands. I want to express my gratitude as a guest and to thank the original and current stewards of this land. (Adapted from the Emerging Arts Leaders Los Angeles land acknowledgment and from that of the Newberry Museum, which was drafted in partnership with the Chicago American Indian Center.)