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  • Walking Well
  • Sam Pickering (bio)
In the Mind’s Eye: Essays Across the Animate World, by Elizabeth Dodd (University of Nebraska Press, 2008. xii + 348 pages. $26.95)

In a letter written in the 1940s Georgia O’Keeffe described the view from a window in her home in New Mexico, “pink and yellow cliffs to the north—the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree-covered mesa to the west . . . I wish you could see it.” Elizabeth Dodd also wants readers to see the places she explores In the Mind’s Eye. To that end she describes carefully, capturing the riot of color and thought that runs across mind and eye as she travels. Dodd rambles the Southwest, wandering canyonlands in search of petroglyphs. She studies places named, among others, the Lighthouse, Castle Rock, the Great Gallery, and Head of Sinbad.

The canyons and gulches are the sandstone equivalents of Fountains Abbey, the ruins of which appealed to the romantic poets, the broken walls invigorating the imagination. The canyons also smack of John Muir’s cathedrals, the mountains of California. Instead of climbing up to experience the sublime, Dodd hikes down and through. She roams naves, discovers chapels, and studies vaults and buttresses—these shaped by the most powerful stonemasons of all, time and weather. The shifting lights and colors that layer the walls turn canyons into massive stained-glass windows. For their part the petroglyphs are fragments of earlier times, remnants of shattered memorials or carved capitals that provoke inquiry and awaken ideas.

Behind Dodd’s meticulous description and ranging thought lies a hunger for the spiritual, not a spiritual element limited by doctrine, but one arising from feeling. The silences of her canyons seem almost musical. “Why don’t you lead me to that rock that is higher than I?” the gospel song implores. Indeed, as I read Dodd, gospel songs ticked through my mind, “Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross”; this last on a hill far away and the “emblem of suffering and shame,” [End Page xxxv] comparable to a petroglyph high on a wall, an emblem of a vanished civilization, not of suffering, but perhaps of shame, the recent shame that nearly all of us share for worshipping the commercial.

Also echoing through the canyons are snatches of gospel songs such as “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “I’ll Fly Away,” songs packed with such phrases as “wayfaring stranger” and “travelin’ on,” the lyrics pervaded by longing to escape the distracting cacophony of daily life, including that produced by the family and friends one loves. The person who comes “to the garden alone” is free to dream. Alone one has the leisure to hear voices and mull over ideas. “Purposeful motion may very well be a form of intelligence,” Dodd writes, “for me, it is certainly a form of joy. It is a part of living well and living wholly. Whole, I mean, and wholly present.” Dodd moves unceasingly, flying away to canyons and caves and never wallowing in the doldrums. Although she often hikes with other people, they remain shadowy; for In the Mind’s Eye is the book of a solitary taking a closer walk with ideas, something not possible in the company of yammering companions. Of course in part the essay form dictates erasing other people from pages. Describing her fellow travelers in detail would bloat the manuscript beyond obesity.

The Dodd who lives off the page, however, is not such a loner, since she acknowledges forty-six individuals in the introduction. She does strive, however, to see and feel afresh. She wants, she explains, to go to places on her “own two feet.” She wants “to be present in the place itself” because, she writes, “my life is so often mediated by high technology. One has to work hard, sometimes, to break out of the facsimilated mode.” She acknowledges that enjoying “an original relation to the universe,” as Emerson put it, is probably impossible, writing that figurative language is itself “a facsimile through speech, a verbal likeness of being.”

Attempts to escape convention must themselves inevitably...


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