Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Thor's Hammer and other Indelible Icons

Bryce Canyon National Park has filled me with awe and wonder, with its natural ampitheatre and hoodoos—sometimes they look like the turrets of an epic castle, striated in orange and white; sometimes like an army of stone soldiers, standing tall and in formation. In Pauite legend, they are people turned to stone by coyote for their evil deeds. In geology, they are the result of erosion of the Claron Limestone, primarily water that percolates then freezes (frost-wedging.)

Not surprisingly, I became fixated on Thor's hammer, and wielded my brushes and brush pens and oil pastels to produce a few drawings. Yes, nature meets culture here for me, being that I thrilled to the adventures of the thunder god (especially Marvel's rendition) in my young days and my older ones. How appropriate that the first Thor comics epic I read was “The Flame, The Frost, and The Fury!” (issue #425, by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz) wherein the thunderer battles Sutur the Flame Demon and Ymir the Frost Giant to avert Ragnarok (the Norse apocalypse.) Plenty of flame, frost, and fury has shaped the landscape of Bryce Canyon!

After bouts of drawing and hiking, I visited the Visitor Center, to discover Thor's hammer emblazoned on various post cards and posters and calendars and tote bags. The icon of Bryce Canyon!

Most National Parks have their icons, and normally it is some object with a very distinctive shape. At Timpanogos Cave National Monument (where I worked last summer) that honor belongs to the Great Heart of Timpanogos. Park visitors' preoccupation with the Heart was sometimes a source of frustration for some of my fellow rangers, because although the Heart is majestic, it is a large stalactite, similar to ones found in many other limestone caves. The truly exceptional feature of Timpanogos Cave is its Helictites—very few other caves in the world have them in such number and diversity. The greatest concentration of these is found in the Chimes Chamber; they resemble worms of snakes, and their growth seems to defy gravity. Whatever the merits of the helictites, the Heart's iconic shape has a way of cementing itself in the longitudinal memory of the average visitor, above all other cave features, save the darkness (according to an informal survey.)

Iconic shapes—objects unmistakable in silhouette—must occupy a deep and potent place within our imaginations, perhaps even amygdalas, reinforced by millions of years of evolution and survival. (I wrote about this previously in my post “Silhouettes and Night Encounters.”) Religions have their icons, such as the cross for Christians and the circle for many American Indian belief systems. Many of the most successful characters in comics and animated cartoons have a distinctive shape—Batman, Wolverine, Popeye, Betty Boop, Bart Simpson, Dick Tracy, Calvin and Hobbes, etc. These characters are unmistakable in silhouette—just like the famed icons of the National Park system! These include the Sequoia tree, the Bison, Old Faithful, Wizard Island, Mount Rainier, Delicate Arch, the Three Patriarchs, etc. The park ranger in a flat hat is an iconic character too. I strongly suspect that these ink drawings, ancient rocks, and uniformed public servants all tap into the same deep recesses in our brain. Outlines are all-important to how we see the world—what camouflage does is break up an animal's outline, so they are seldom seen. And so the recognition and memory of distinctive outlines with certain characters or features must have been fundamental to our survival, whether to stay away from a lurking lion or to navigate by sun, moon, and landmarks.

And so I sat on the Navajo Loop trail, and tried to depict every crag and crust and ridge of Thor's hammer, my hands caked in ink and graphite, my jeans covered in gray limey soil. The clouds moved past in the deep blue sky behind the red rocks. Tourists came by, most photographed the hammer, and some photographed me at work as well. To me, the hammer meant power and dominion over the sky and storms. I couldn't help but imagine the sky turned to black, and lighting blasts sent from the hammer, to blast away flying saucer invaders to our world!

Thor (superhero) is trademarked to Marvel Comics. Low-resolution image (as designed by Myriah Hankins--unsure of original artist) is used here for educational purposes only.

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