- Horizon’s Lens: My Time on the Turning World by Elizabeth Dodd
In Horizon’s Lens, Elizabeth Dodd travels to many disparate locations—from Kansas to New Mexico, Utah to Scotland, Mexico to Mount St. Helens. A person obsessed with outdoor travel and language, Dodd uses both to knit together a series of contemplations on place and time. Her initial focus on the North American West hearkens back to an obsession with the mythologizing of place in these strange landscapes and artifacts west of the Mississippi. Yet as the book continues, and the geography expands, one gets a sense of larger sweeps of time, migration, and immigration that also contribute to the American mythos and the story of the West. Dodd seems haunted by the questions of what depths of culture, weather, language, dreams, disaster, and time led her to the minutiae of this life, this moment.
Dodd’s writerly strengths lie in her talent for describing the sights she encounters on her travels. Many textual intervals detail petroglyphs and other ancient artifacts, particularly their appearance and purpose in relation to the solstices, sunrises, and sunsets that dominate the book. For example, looking at one site, Dodd reports, “Here in the shadow of sandstone, we’re looking at a room-sized ruin, the inaccessible past displayed on a domestic scale: a few corncobs rest inside one curved-wall structure, like a miniature silo or cistern” (107). Such tight descriptions weave the book into an interconnected tapestry of details.
Dodd generally imbues her place descriptions with some understanding of the people who preceded her. These people are frequently the former inhabitants, often ancient (Puebloans, Celts, Maya), with their fetishized artifacts and forgotten languages: “The Maya numbering system, too, is based on twenty. … The symbol for zero looks a bit like a fist, five tiny knuckles showing in the cipher’s closed curve” (180). However, Dodd is often at her best when describing more recent, even quotidian scenes such as bird watching near her Kansas home or a surprise run-in with a rattlesnake: “look there, I shout absurdly, as if English were not my native language, look right there” (160). These passages come few and far between, a shame because it is in such instances that we feel closer to the person Elizabeth Dodd rather than her reserved academic persona.
This leads to my primary criticism: For all that it is ostensibly a memoir, a record of Dodd’s experiences and thoughts, there’s very little [End Page 483] of Dodd for a reader to grasp hold of except in frustratingly brief fragments. Overall, the book reads more like researched, creative nonfiction, but in this mode Horizon’s Lens lacks the clarity of meta-explanation and purpose. Without either self-reflective persona or a clarifying thesis, readers are left to decipher the “so what?” of Horizon’s Lens, making it much like the inscrutable petroglyphs that capture Dodd’s imagination. In the end, there’s a distance between the reader and the reality Dodd so minutely describes. It all sounds very fascinating and lovely, but I cannot quite touch it.