Monday, May 14, 2012

White Buffalo Blues: updated

Manipulated photo of overturned tree roots: J. Stimmell 4/8/12

While it has taken me almost 70 years, I am now learning to pay attention when my psyche persists in bringing up a symbol. It all started earlier this spring when I was walking in the woods behind my house when, suddenly, a white buffalo emerged out of the roots of an uprooted tree. Stranger yet, I felt it spoke to me. I came home and scrawled out this short poem:
While taking a walk
in my woods last evening,
a white buffalo suddenly appeared
standing among the exposed roots
of a blown over tree,
and spoke thus to me:

“Once we were too numerous to count
until you two-legged came along
to wipe us out
just because
we were in your way.

"Take heed, my brother,
I've come with sad tidings
from Earth Mother,
'What comes around
goes around:
It's your turn now.'"

Still, I couldn’t shake my strange encounter. That evening I scrutinized the digital photo I had taken when I saw the buffalo but it didn’t really correspond to what I had seen. I started tinkering with it in Photoshop, tweaking this and honing that, several hours ticked by before I finally arrived at a passable facsimile to what I had seen.

Why was I spending all this time on this, I pondered. Is this just a colossal waste of time? A  delusion brought on by magical thinking?

I hoped not. I have always been sympathetic to Carl Jung’s notion that symbols appear to us when there is a need to express a deeper truth beyond the realm of words. Beyond that, he believed that there were certain reoccurring symbols that were universal in all human cultures, past and present, around the world. He called these shared symbols archetypes:  irrepressible, unconscious, pre-existing, universal forms of the human psyche which can manifest themselves spontaneously anywhere, at any time. 

I had a fairly good theoretical grasp of Jung’s theories, but not an experiential one. The same with the work of Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist. Like many of my generation, he is a hero of mine from the sixties, but again my knowledge is from his books not the school of hard knocks.

Joseph Campbell subscribed to Jung’s theory of archetypes and believed that these common symbols were mythic images that lay at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind of humankind. I intended to try to make sense of my vision by studying both these great thinkers but fate intervened once again. 

As luck would have it, I read a review of a new book, a few days later that I had to buy; it sounded right down my alley:  I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own by Michael Taussig, an anthropology  professor at Columbia University, who over his long career has specialized in studying indigenous people who believe in visions, miracles, sorcery and black magic. 

I loved reading it. Not only is he an extremely creative, nonlinear thinker, he validated my vision. He says that we are mistaken to attribute magical thinking to “so-called primitive people” but not to ourselves. 

“Indeed, such an attribution is but an all too typical colonial example of projecting onto others what we want but dare not utter, what we truly believe, but must not. We have our taboos, too.“[1]Taboos like not seeing a white buffalo behind your house, particularly in New England in 2012.

Taussig even answers the question – that I had asked myself – of why I had bothered to toil for hours working on an image to capture the white buffalo, rather than just writing a description.

He believes that language is the poor sister in our world of communication, able to describe the magnitude and richness of reality only in exceedingly halting, fragmented, incomplete, and unsatisfying ways.

“Why can’t language alone serve as testimony here? Why the drawing? [Why the need of my constructed image of the buffalo?] Is there some inevitable primitivism here that sidesteps language, as when for example I invoke Lascaux and the Naskapi… drawing, singing, and dance…?[2]

Taussig says seeing a white buffalo “may be statistically rare, but it is not that which makes it normally abnormal and vice versa. Rather it is the sudden intrusion of the Other world into our mundane world that is here at issue.” [3]

"What we are witnessing is a stroke of fate, a tear in the fabric of reality. That’s what is important."

In my case, this tear in the fabric of reality was paradigm changing! I found myself – in real time – experientially immersed in the archetypal world of Jung's collective unconsciousness, beyond anything I had ever learned in school or experienced in everyday life.

It was only later, during our vacation in New Mexico, that I was introduced to another aspect of the story: How Native Americans consider White Buffalo to be sacred: they see Her as a goddess who will return to earth to usher in either 'a new age' or the end of the world [4] – which, of course, is all one and the same to Native Americans of the Southwest.

I will return to this topic again in future blogs to share new information I have found on the fascinating history of the buffalo in world mythology.


[1][1] Taussig, Michael (2011-10-20). I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own (Kindle Locations 1069-1072). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] (Kindle Locations 1105-1107). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
[3]  (Kindle Locations 1114-1116). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

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