Today’s post is by Blooming Rock contributing writer Kevin Kellogg:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Many of us continue to search for an explanation for this inexplicable place. The metropolitan Phoenix region, or The Valley, is an urbanized footprint nearly 2000 square miles. This has been built over a period of 150 years in spite of isolation, scorching summer temperatures and apparent lack of local water. The region has been built and abandoned at least once, and passed over by previous explorers, only to grow to unimaginable proportions under its American stewardship.
In order to understand the weird phenomenon of the valley, you have to consider the deeper meaning and symbolism of the oasis, the illusory power of a mirage, and the cultural mandate to outdo everyone else on the planet.
We all know The Valley was founded by entrepreneurs who sought to make money on the frontier through mining, farming, livestock and providing water and supplies. But, let’s assume there was a higher calling than simple monetary gain. All settlements are founded on a mixture of need, opportunity and imagination, and Phoenix is no different. It’s not fair to say this place is purely formed of a profit motive. Anything that has persisted and grown like the Valley has something else driving it. Like any business venture, it must be dedicated to some cause or meaning. As Jim Collins says in Built to Last: “A fundamental element…of a visionary company is a core ideology—core values and sense of purpose beyond just making money—that guides and inspires people throughout the organization and remains relatively fixed for long periods of time.” This is true of all ventures, and in the Valley it is certainly true that lots of money has been made. What is more interesting is why it persists when such vast sums of money have been lost.
The two real founders of Phoenix represent these two motives: profit and mythic imagination. One was a practical and energetic doer and the other a sophisticated trust funder. Both were the not-so-favored sons of prominent families who came to the western territories for adventure, and to prove themselves worthy. Jack Swilling dredged out the Hohokam canals around Pueblo Grande and created an edenic paradise for himself, while selling water to farmers and hay to the Army. He founded the city, and later, died broke. His compatriot, Darrel Duppa didn’t need the money. He was a well educated aristocrat from England who reveled in the rustic and wild life of the frontier. Both carried multiple bullet wounds, drank to excess, told tall tales and by all accounts were extremely brave and physically powerful visionaries. They fit perfectly the image of the western hero with True Grit.
While Swilling had the knack for business, it was Duppa who waxed poetic, naming the city in a moment of mythic and literary inspiration. Allegedly, at a picnic at Pueblo Grande in 1863, Duppa entered into a conversation on the naming of the new town. Duppa said, “This canal was constructed in an age now forgotten. Prehistoric cities lie in ruins all around you. A great ancient civilization once thrived in this valley. Let the new city arise from its ashes. Let it be called Phoenix.” Whether this be fact or fabrication, the point is that invoking the supernatural powers of a mythical bird, that rises from its own funerary pyre to live again, has so captured the imagination, that large numbers of people continue to adhere to the notion that Phoenix is in fact immortal, and even if destroyed entirely, will rise again. This is the type of core belief that no amount of statistical evidence could ever out weigh.
This is important because we can see in others how the motives of the founders of other American cities have profoundly influenced our society. For example, John Winthrop created the template for the founding of Boston in 1630 with a speech that includes the following:
“…we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; Therefore let us choose life, that we, and our seed, may live; by obeying his voice, and cleaving to him, for he is our life, and our prosperity”
Winthrop invokes a biblical reference to exhort his Puritan followers to live according to a set of moral guidelines, but he also starts in motion two other impulses that can be felt in our own city streets: first, that American Cities must be models for all others, or at least, be impressive; and that God will ensure financial success. This pretty much explains the uppity attitude you get in Boston, even to this day. But the attitude of American Exceptionalism, has been a backbone of this country’s politics, throughout its history. In recent times, the image of a City upon a Hill, and a Light to the World were famously used by both John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, each to his own purpose. A single biblical source served well for over 300 years as leaders exploited its appeal to the imagination. The Sermon on the Mount tells the chosen ones: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds…” To my mind, this helps explain the obsessive promotion of the Valley’s sheer scale: 2000 Square Miles/6th Largest City in the US/Largest Public University, etc, etc. Holding a lamp up to the one unique feature of the Valley-it’s bigness-is both a national obligation, and an almost religious practice.
Biblical admonitions may seem a bit supercilious to the modern ear, but to early settlers they were the lyrical and metaphorical literature of the day. Cormac McCarthy and Joel and Ethan Cohen have evoked this language in Western themed books and movies. Biblical images pervaded the imagination of the west during the frontier phase, and gol-durnit if it hasn’t stuck with us. Old testament language is a natural for the desert; rich and beautiful in metaphor and imagery. It has the force of raw poetic power, inserting in the listener’s mind the thirst for spiritual meaning in place of actual thirst, for water. And in the mind bending heat of the summer, perception, thirst and reality seem to melt into a vision that is as old as the desert. Glistening sands, flowing pools of water and a shady grove of trees and vegetation beckon. To the well-watered, these appear only as mysterious and beautiful optical illusions, but to the thirsty, lonely, unfunded and lacking, or those seeking to re-imagine themselves in a new light, the valley and its weird phenomena of nature provide the perfect setting for the imagination to merge with reality.
A mirage is a common optical illusion that occurs when surface temperatures of the desert floor rise in waves, and get trapped by cooler air that pushes down from above it. The layering of heat causes light to refract and the viewer see an image of what appears to be lakes or pools of water in the distance. In fact, light rays carry an image of the sky to the viewer. Similarly, images of landscape, mountains and architecture can appear in these optical phenomenon. Tales abound of the grisly deaths of French Legionnaires, City Slickers and others unaccustomed to the desert heedlessly pursuing these visions of paradise.
The image created by a mirage is the iconic oasis. This too is covered in the Old Testament, where spiritual thirst is again equated metaphorically with bodily sensation. “He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs” in Psalms and “I will fill the desert with pools of water. Rivers fed by springs will flow across the parched ground” in Isaiah, and on and on. This starts to sound like a formula for planned communities in outlying areas of the valley. What could be more oasis-like than a fenced backyard, complete with a pool of cool water, lush plants, shade and swaying palms? What could be more desperate and at the same time satisfying than an hour drive through hellish traffic only to arrive at this paradisiacal place? And in a culture of individualism, each person is entitled to his own personal oasis. With God overseeing these works, as well as prosperity itself, what could go wrong?
Cowboy poets and romanticists alike seem to be less trusting. Marty Robbins sings about the mirage in “Cool, Cool Water”
Keep a-movin, Dan, dontcha listen to him, Dan
He’s a devil, not a man
He spreads the burning sand with water
Dan, can ya see that big, green tree?
Where the water’s runnin’ free
And it’s waitin’ there for you and me?
Don’t trust the mirage, he seems to say. And, we should have listened. The Valley is a colossal accomplishment, but is it real, or a desert mirage? Are we really seeing a true oasis or have we drifted so far from creating paradise, a city upon a hill or a lamp to the world, that we may have created our own ruin from which we will have to rise. The eerie scene of thousands of empty foreclosed houses, freeways to unfinished places, half built cities so large they will never be populated, and uninhabited neighborhoods recall the macabre images of Ezekial’s Valley of Dry Bones. In a hallucination of sorts, he says: “the hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” “Tags: american cities, american exceptionalism, boston, built to last, city upon a hill, cool cool water, cormac mccarthy, cowboy poets, darrel duppa, desert, ezekial, farming, hohokam canals, iconic oasis, jack swilling, jim collins, joel and ethan cohen, john kennedy, john winthrop, light to the world, livestock, marty robbins, metropolitan Phoenix region, mining, mirage, oasis symbolism, old testament, optical illusion, paradise, Percy Bysshe Shelly, phoenix, psalms, Pueblo Grande, ronald reagan, sermon on the mount, spiritual thirst, the valley, valley of dry bones, Valley of the Sun
Man, Kevin, this is good. You are doing what so few people have been able to do in this town – give it meaning – and it means a lot.
Very thought-provoking, Kevin. To start to understand the soul, or heart, of a city, I usually ask its longtime residents what they love about it. Much different answers will come from New York, Seattle, and Phoenix, and those differences start to illustrate what’s exceptional about Phoenix.
What a great posting, nice read. I have always loved Phoenix, and as the story says people who love it just can’t explain it. Since I put solar on my home I realized that it is a place where mirages sometimes take the form of magic and transform the way you view things….now the long days of sunshine actually create the coolness of the oasis. Things change. It is to bad that the city has evolved into a political animal that invades every aspect of our lives and relationships with others……we can’t even agree how to preserve our heritage without somehow causing it harm.
While I appreciate the historical context of the article, I am confused by the greater message. If Phoenix’s bones are so dry that they no longer support life, then what is anyone’s motivation to attempt to make Phoenix a livable city? In the end, it’s not just the people that founded this city that define Phoenix, but rather the people who choose to make it their home today.
I think of Detroit and the rust belt. Many of these cities have lost nearly half of their residents in the last 15 years, yet many residents continue breathe life into the bones of their cities. In the end, the dire picture painted of Phoenix as a biblical wasteland seems to over-emphasize the “mirage” that is Phoenix while overlooking the struggle of many American cities to amend the enormous missteps and mistakes of their own histories. Yet, unlike “Ezekial’s Valley of Dry Bones”, these cities are still alive and able to evolve. Even dry bones erode and become something else. All dry bone allusions aside, Phoenix is still a living entity and because of that, we must focus on the future while learning from our delusional past.
Ummm, not cool to continue the myth of manifest destiny that decimated the original inhabitants of this continent and continue to rape and pillage it’s natural resources. The native american mythology is far more powerful and inspiring than western patriarchal gobblydy goop. Try again.
Tyler, I agree that this piece functions well in giving meaning to place that has struggled so much with exactly that. I think what is left open-ended, is how to take that meaning forward. Wayne, you hit the nail on the head with the idea of solar panels transforming Sun into the coolness of the Oasis. Below is my critical response to the piece and a suggestion about taking meaning forward.
The exploration of meaning in Phoenix is on point. The writer’s desire to wallow in the inexplicable nature of the Valley is in fact worthy and scarce as a dialogue. But this essay reaches in many ways. Modern Phoenix is not the writer’s romanticized, perhaps once valid in many ways, but certainly bygone, sense of the pioneer’s Phoenix. Overpopulation and overexploitation are evident and quite obvious in many ways. The gritty pioneer and imaginative miner/farmer/entrepreneur experienced a resource rich, wide open, and behemoth desert landscape – which led to great imaginings of opportunity, perhaps even sun-fed delirium of the possibilities of what could be. A stark contrast to the current reality of an air conditioned, sprawling, resource straining grid. Which itself tears down a significant pillar of this essay. The air conditioned Phoenix is hardly comparable to the Valley of yore where thirst was real and mirages a part of consciousness – which lead to spiritual imagination. Nor is the average Phoenician seeking both physical and therefore spiritual and imaginative thirst quenching. The fact is, most of the Valley has easy access to water, even in Fountain Hills there is a monumental geyser showing that in Phoenix, industrialization has control over nature. But I sense that this “mirage” of control is predominately false, unsatisfactory, and inauthentic. The fenced-in yard with pool and vegetation is not an Oasis to many. It is a veneer Oasis.
I would go as far as to say it is quite easy to see that Phoenix as it stands cannot survive if development for development’s sake continues (that is the ideology of the cancer cell). This is a departure from writer’s interpretation of the current moment as ambiguous, is Phoenix a real or mirage of an accomplishment. It is more hopeful than perceptive. I take the mythical underpinnings of Phoenix as having fed the ideology of development, sure, but this has quite obviously gone too far. I would like to interpret the author’s reference to the two possible outcomes of Phoenix – is it the Valley of Bones or a Colossal Light – as a suggestion that it has reached a tipping point, and I am in agreement with that to be sure. To me it is not a question of whether or not Phoenix is an accomplishment or not. Rather, it is a question of whether or not Phoenix will meet its demise by continuing on the trajectory it has become accustomed to since the mid-twentieth century, or whether it can reach back to that mythical pot of literary and romantic imagination and create a modern Phoenix that synthesizes human innovation and natural processes, and can help return it to a place of grandeur and awe, spinning it’s web in synergy with it’s landscapes. this sort of epic imagination needs to go in a progressive direction, just as the pioneer did. This is in essence, sustainability, creating human-nature harmony amongst such naturally grand landscapes, keenness to the scarcity of water and resources, and innovation in going forward. This falls in line with the mythical thirst of accomplishment and imagination that gave way to the Valley being settled (as the author implies). To me the idea of returning Phoenix to a literal, not industrial-induced hallucinatory mirage of an Oasis, where nature and human activity jive – at once mutually supporting and spiritually compelling – is fulfilling and essential. That is, equal of being compared to the metaphorical thirst of relic texts and spiritual imagination of the sons of ancient gods.