Zoukfest Day 01:
This part of the world has been settled by humans for at least 12,000 years. We know that from the dating of rock carvings and the reconstruction of communities at places like Bandera and ?. Europeans have been coming here for nearly 600 years, ever since Coronado and Cabeza de Baca walked from Mexico City to the South Plains of Texas (where Dharmonia and I are from) to the foothills of the Rockies, and back, leaving behind them this first, little city in North America in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. And North Europeans—Brits, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Germans, and so forth, the whole pale-skinned mongrel race of my own people—have been coming to this part of the world since at least the 18-Oughts, when Lewis and Clarke and their motley band of adventurers, trappers, Natives, sailors, and runaway apprentices fought their way up the rivers and over the mountains (usually with under-acknowledged assistance from locals who didn’t know what, by rescuing these struggling tourists, they were getting themselves into) to the Pacific.
But in this specific part of the world: the southernmost tip of the Rockies, the southern pass over the mountains that stretch, otherwise unbroken and in winter nearly impassable, north to the Raton pass just over the Colorado border, the immigrant experience coalesced around a string of springtime meetings, usually gathering a few weeks after the spring Thaw, when the snow on the passes and the ice in the beaver streams was melting and you could pack out of the winter encampments. And up to Green River and down into the little cosmopolitan city of Santa Fe would come hundreds of merchants, drummers, soldiers, traders, and little bands of men in greasy buckskin, leading mules piled high with the winter’s skins. They brought along their Native wives and mixed-race children, eagerly anticipating the fussin’ and fun of the spring gathering, and when they met each other on the trails they’d exchange the news and try out their first versions of the winter’s stretchers (tall tales), more often than not in a strange dialect that combined English, French, Crow, Sioux, and Spanish—when they weren’t just lapsing into their respective native tongue, which more often than not was Scots Gaelic.
These were the men—the buckskinners, trappers, guides, and Mountain Men—who made the great springtime Rendezvous, legendary in their stories and the stories told about them, the big event in the Mountains’ annual calendar. If you were frostbiting your feet in February or March on a tributary creek far up the Power or the ?, piling up the beaver, scanning the ridgeline for hostiles who might try to take your furs, your possibles, or your hair, hoping for an elk as a fresh-meat alternative to spoiled flour and dried peas, watching the sky for the shifts in the wind that heralded a break in the weather—then thinking ahead to the Spanish dollars, US greenbacks, or traders’ credit, the pancakes and fresh bread, the Mexican chile, corn whiskey, and fast women of the Rendezvous, might be what got you out of your blanket roll to check your trapline in the morning. The Rendezvous was the annual gathering when you could see old friends, compare the year’s takings, count (and mourn) the lost heads, and store up, in a week or two, enough booze and credit and fighting and fun to get you through the following year.
Zoukfest is a little like that. Now housed in what may be hoped to be a real permanent home, a facility run by people (including my old friend, ZF’s great mentor Steve Paxton) who care about and believe in the camp’s mission, both pedagogical and philosophical, it starts to feel, here at the College of Santa Fe, as if this is our home—as if we can count on being able to return next year, after the Spring Thaw, and the year after. This both changes and reinforces the sense of rendezvous that’s always been built into the ZF experience: the sense of coming home, of seeing old friends, of reunion (the crucial difference of course between ZF and most family reunions is that at ZF somebody smart—Roger Landes—is in charge of selecting and putting people together in close proximity, rather than such selection being prey to the accidents of genetics and natural selection). Which means that participants—especially those returning, to whom ZF is a true reunion rather than a plunge into yet-unfamiliar waters, can pretty-much count on a positive, mind-expanding experience—even if they don’t know (and if they’re smart, will refrain from predicting) the specifics of what the week will bring.
And, there’s the fact that, even here on the first morning of the ’08 iteration, we already know it is going to end—that there will come a time when the last dollar of credit is spent, when the last whiskey’s drunk, the last dice rolled, when we’re all going to have to saddle up the pack train and turn North and away. And we know that, over the cold part of the year, we might lose somebody—we might not see them again at next year’s Rendezvous. As George McDonald Fraser has Flashman say, in his great comic historical novel of the
So the intensity of the week is already in place, because we know there’s only that little, brief time. As Hugh Nolan said, in Henry Glassie’s magisterial ethnography (really a misnomer to call it that—as Roger says “that book is so great that if the folklore of Northern Ireland entirely disappeared, you could recreate the community just from that book) Passing the Time in Ballymenone, “life is like a little ceili—it begins in darkness, and it ends in darkness, and there’s just a brief flickering of light in between.”
We’ll make the most of the light and our time here.