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The Storyteller: Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko (wvu.edu)

Leslie Marmon Silko grew up on the edge of a Laguna Pueblo Indian reservation, being school by Pueblo family matriarchs in the old ways, the old stories. 

Now, after a lifetime of path-breaking contributions to Native American literature – American literature – Leslie Marmon Silko is looking back, looking around, taking stock. 

She’s slowing down, intentionally, moving away from too much talk with humans, and pulling closer to the nature around her in southern Arizona — to bees and rattlesnake and the very stone around her. 

We speak with Leslie Marmon Silko about her latest book, “The Turquoise Ledge.”

-Tom Ashbrook

Guest:

Leslie Marmon Silko, award-winning Native American novelist, essayist, and poet. Her new book is a memoir, The Turquoise Ledge. You can read an excerpt, or read it below — just scroll down. Her breakthrough novel “Ceremony” (1978) sold more than a million copies and has been described as the greatest Native American novel ever written.

Read some of Silko’s new memoir:

From “The Turquoise Ledge” by Leslie Marmon Silko, Viking Books

CHAPTER ONE

My friend, Bill Orzen, taught me to speed walk on flat ground in town, but I prefer the hills to the city, so I adapted the speed walk to the steep rough terrain. The walks took me back into the Tucson Mountains to the old trails where I rode my horses thirty years ago when I first moved here. The trails are narrow footpaths made by the ancient tribal people who lived in the Tucson Mountains for thousands of years; later on prospectors used the old trails and made new trails to their mining claims.

The trail I took on my walks passed the Thunderbird and Gila Monster mines—old diggings—they were never actual mines—the former is a shallow cave in the hillside and the other is a twenty foot vertical shaft where two big white barn owls live and once emerged as I rode by on horseback—truly startling and astonishing.

On foot I can see the ant palaces, some in solid rock, others with starburst circles of stones they’ve mined and somehow moved up from below. The star pattern reminded me of the Star Being images incised into sandstone thousands of years ago.

Eventually the trail descends and crosses the big arroyo and continues; but here I turn and follow the big arroyo back home. The sandy bottom of the arroyo is criss-crossed with bird and animal tracks that make the trail that humans have used for thousands of years. In rough steep terrain arroyos may provide the only access to an area so the arroyos are “right of ways” for wildlife and humans on foot.

At first I didn’t pay much attention to the stones in the arroyo because I was focused on my walking—I was new to the notion of a speed walk through the desert. In the arroyo the deep drifts of fine white sand had a gravity of their own that sucked my feet down. So in those early months of learning how to walk over rough desert terrain at a fast pace I had all I could do to keep moving. I wasn’t thinking about rocks in the arroyo.

I learned not to lift my feet in and out of the deep sand but instead to slide my feet through the top layer of sand very rapidly, to shuffle them back and forth so they wouldn’t have a chance to sink further into the deep sand.

Slowly it got easier and I started to notice the pebbles and rocks in the fine white sand, and the animal tracks and signs of coyote and bobcat in the arroyo. I began to find small rocks and pebbles streaked with turquoise. Over the years I’d picked up some of these turquoise rocks but I wasn’t as interested in the stones as I am now. I needed almost daily contact with the turquoise rocks on my walks to develop my interest.

Turquoise doesn’t originate deep in the Earth as many precious minerals and gems do. It forms when certain chemical reactions take place during the weathering of surface minerals. Water is a necessary component of the formation of turquoise—no wonder indigenous people of the deserts connected turquoise with water and rain—it wasn’t just the color of blue or green—turquoise meant water had been there.

The surface minerals necessary for the formation of turquoise are: Copper, aluminum and phosphates.
Turquoise is a hydrous hydrate of copper. Hydrate of copper indicates water in the lattice-work of the turquoise molecule.

Iron can substitute for aluminum and results in a color variation toward green.

In my research I learned the turquoise stones I’d found were technically not turquoise but chrysocolla which is a minor copper ore, a hydrated copper silicate restricted to a shallow depth of less than twenty meters. Volcanic disturbance is required to make the cracks and fissures that allow water to reach the aluminum and iron ores in feldspars. Turquoise, malachite and chrysocolla are often found with one another so they all were called “turquoise” in the old days. Some turquoise was harder and shinier while some was chalky and soft. “Chalky turquoise” was the term for chrysocolla. It is not as easy as one might think to tell the difference between the two without chemical analysis in a laboratory.

I prefer the lovely sound of the word “turquoise” and even ”malachite” to the sound of “chrysocolla”. Chrysocolla sounds like the name of a soft drink—”Chrissy Cola”. Turquoise comes from the 16th century French word for “Turkish”. So I will use the word “turquoise”.

After a walk I would make a few notes about what I’d seen and where. The next time I walked I wouldn’t be able to locate any of the places I’d noted on the earlier walk. The ant palaces I’d have seen the previous day would have vanished.

If gravity is distributed in this Universe unevenly, then there are places here on Earth where the gravity is weaker or stronger, where even light may speed up or slow down. At a certain walking speed, my eyes received light images from a parallel plane. Parallel planes or worlds may be visible briefly at certain points in this world from time to time. Thus the discrepancies between my recollections and notes immediately after a walk and what I actually find when I attempt to locate these places again.

The idea was that the exercise and open air would help release my mind into a less self-conscious state where I could better perceive the delicacy of the light and the dawn moisture in the breeze. How sweet the air smells and how luxurious it feels to move through this yellow dawn light. The idea of the fast pace was a cardiovascular work out, but also the pace of the walks helped me edit the experience of the walks to the essentials.

As I walked along, I began to imagine a great ledge of turquoise temporarily buried under the sand and rocks. To find so many pieces of turquoise in the millions of tons of arroyo sand pebbles and rocks meant the turquoise ledge must be large. Or there is more than one ledge of turquoise?

The distribution of the pieces of the Turquoise Ledge may reveal its location to be somewhere below the place where the main road crosses the big arroyo. I don’t think the ledge occurs higher in the Tucson Mountains.

My speculations and guesses proved to be wrong. I walked up the arroyo higher into the mountains far above the main road crossing and I found pieces of rock with turquoise streaks. I even found a small turquoise rock near the place the cottonwood used to grow higher in the mountains.

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