M.Walker – Canyon, Illuminant (2022)

Posted by Green on January 8, 2022as

320 | FLAC

More than 15,000 years ago, before a single human had set foot on its bed, the sun rose onto a roar of color and form, ending an iron-cold night in a rugged canyon carved down into the endless continental staked plains. It is the second largest canyon in the current-day United States, known now as Palo Duro Canyon.

In the northern stretches of what the Environmental Protection Agency has declared one of the state of Texas’ distinct eco-regions, the relatively newly christened Caprock Canyons-Badlands-and-Breaks, Palo Duro Canyon was downcut by the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River long ago, when the whole region experienced upheaval during the Pleistocene’s tectonic and glacial shoving match. Most of the strata in this vast coulee were deposited during the Permian and Triassic periods, stacking an ancient and gorgeous geological layer cake. On a geological time scale, Palo Duro functions as a sort of progenitor for its much larger counterpart, the Grand Canyon, as its bottom most strata end exactly where those at the rim of the Grand Canyon begin. My uncle, a respected soil scientist, suspects the canyon was carved out relatively quickly as a natural dam of the lake (from Canyon, TX all the way back to Umbarger, TX) gave way and all that lake drained rapidly and catastrophically carved out the majority of the canyon-lands depth in only a few days.

Long before the National Park Service’s Roger Toll’s failed effort for the canyon to become a million-acre “National Park of the Plains,” before Georgia O’Keeffe declared it her spiritual home and immortalized its strata on oil and canvas, prior to Charles Goodnight famously herding his cattle from the JA Ranch on its floor all the way to Kansas, before Chief Quannah Parker and his Quahada faced a rabid US Military determined to extirpate any tribe they could find, before the Kiowa harvested its great bounty for sustenance, before the Apache ranged along its vast walls, earlier than even the mysterious Clovis people had found their way to the headwaters waters of one of the region’s largest rivers, these canyon-lands were a brilliant microcosm of the continent’s post-Pleistocene megafauna, free of human intervention.

Across the region’s profusion of canyons teemed bison, red wolf, elk, fish, bobcats, deer, birds, coyote, pronghorn, chaparral, cougars, grizzlies (yes, grizzlies), and reptiles in such immense numbers that much later, well after human occupation and European colonization had begun, John James Audubon was so moved by the site of their density on these interrupted prairie lands that he wrote, “it is impossible to describe or even conceive the vast multitudes of these animals.” To simply imagine these animals living as they did before us, competing for the concentrations of resource wealth that dotted the vast plains along its watersheds and especially in the sheltered canyonlands, is difficult to do.

Given such wealth, it is no wonder that humans eventually sought out that great hiding place on the great American Serengeti, feeling somewhere deep down an ancestral connection to the cradle of humanity far across The Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, our sense of possession , of separation, and of and desire to contain this place – a place older than anyone can properly imagine – has utterly decimated the populations of those great animals. The ecological niches this incredible biomass once filled have given way to commercialized, mono-cropped farming practices, the same that caused The Dust Bowl.

The scale of the ecological disruption we caused the great prairie lands on the North American continent is difficult to grapple with. The percentage of indigenous grasslands that remain today are often below 20% depending on the state. Much of the land where I grew up is now checkered patterns of plowed cotton fields or otherwise cultivated agricultural tracts. There are robust studies on this land-use strategy’s impact on climate change and even the federal government talks big game about its preservation out of one side of its mouth, while utterly neglecting broader potential restoration and re-wilding out of the other. Yet, we continue to neglect the grasslands, including the canyonlands of the Llano Estacado, which once housed unimaginable biodiversity.

At least we were sensible enough to hold on to a small parcel of these canyonlands to admire and hold in heart, now called Palo Duro Canyon State Park, administered by the state of Texas’ Parks and Wildlife department. If we’re lucky, the state will continue to expand the park’s territories all the way down to Caprock Canyon, where some bison still roam in that state park. Just as countless other humans before me, I have walked the trails and slept under the stars in Palo Duro Canyon since I can remember. The state park and the adjacent private canyonlands, in which I was fortunate enough to camp and play as a child, were essential loci for my understanding of the land where I was born and its great many workings. Like O’Keefe, it is also my spiritual home. She put it quite well when she wrote, “it is absurd the way I love this country.” And though I now have lived nearly 500 miles away for some 16 years, that canyon still has a gravitational pull on me.

In October of 2021, I took a pre-dawn run on the canyon floor to the famous butte called The Lighthouse. It was cold, windy, and I was alone (without humans at least) for several hours before the sun peeked over the canyon walls and began to warm the scene. As I made way down the trail, it struck me how powerful the canyon has been long before human presence and will continue to be long after we cease to exist. Imaginary flashes of that same wilderness and its ceaseless movements without anyone else around. There was a primal quality to that experience which I will never forget. The canyon struck me differently that morning and left a new impression of my spiritual home.

O’Keefe called it “a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” In many ways, because of its unique geography contrasted to the endless sea of grasses surrounding it, the undulating sweeps of the canyonlands are an evolutionary crucible. Whether special survival or spiritual growth, the canyon offers itself up almost sarcastically with the knowledge that it will remain though all else returns to dust. But if you go there and listen carefully, it might reveal itself to you. It may tell of its history, which predates time. It may present itself in form of an ancient spiritual home, of terrestrial poetry. If you’re not paying attention, you’re likely to toss your water bottles into trailhead trash bins and simply drive back to town for dinner, ignorant of the staggering life that once swelled and brimmed from within canyon walls, none the wiser for having visited.

This album intends to evoke a sense of that place and its quality of deep time. It is a tableau of a pre-anthropic morning in this great canyon: an instrumental series of vignettes, close-ups of scenes in a morning that none of our most distant ancestors could even remember. I recorded these songs in my home studio, supported by J. Combs, who generously helped me weave brilliant synthesizer accompaniment into my largely acoustic arrangements. The instrumentation is kept simple and consistent across tunes – piano, guitar, bass, drums, violin, and synthesizer – to represent the strata that you find in the canyon walls. Each number focuses on a character or set of characters in the canyon, doing what they do at dawn. I tend to write a lot of songs about the moon and thought that would be a good place to start.

I hope you enjoy these terrestrial and bestial stories. This is not a typical record and I don’t expect it to ever be commercially successful, but that’s not even remotely its purpose. It is an invitation into a kind of music and art that has little to do with systems of commerce, which we’ve established will be long outlived by the canyonlands in view across these tunes. It’s tempting to put on instrumental music while we fold our laundry – something we don’t have to pay attention to. Resist that urge and really listen. Pay attention to what you feel when you listen. Do you see the great species that our own destroyed? How might you contribute to this ecology’s restoration?

Sojourn well, friends.

-M. Walker

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