First Peoples

Environmental Psychology: Cinema Carved in Stone

I promised to talk about the art of reading cultural narratives in mountains.  There are many techniques, so let’s start with the observer. Unlike in modern cinema, in this art form the observer moves through the story. It is that walking (usually) that powers the changes in the story. Let me give an example. This is Turtle Mountain, a major indigenous cultural complex in the heart of the City of Vernon. It’s currently a walking park, and houses a couple of homeless people in the summers, and a herd of mule deer. You can, perhaps, see the Turtle’s head to the left, and a line of animals staring out to the right. This is a vital story about the sharing of leadership among all the people, and of how Turtle achieved that in the Dreamtime, against Eagle who wanted full control for himself.P1790012


To orient yourself, here’s a closer look at the Turtle’s head.



As you move to the west (through the houses of Vernon), there are going to be transformations. In the first one, Turtle’s head breaks up into a narrative: it’s not the head anymore, but, in a true closeup, the whole story. The bulk of the hill is Turtle’s body, his head is staring out at the left, as if turning to look back your way, and on his back is an eagle with outstretched wing. Are these things really there? They sure are if you know the story of Turtle and Eagle. As I mentioned yesterday, you are reading yourself by reading the mountains. That doesn’t make it any the less real, however.. just don’t expect any Indian Jones moments.



Here’s Eagle, by the way, trying to lift Turtle in the sky to prove that he can fly faster (Eagles love to drop turtles and eat the ruins on the rocks below.) Is it really Eagle? It doesn’t matter. It is the question that tells the story.


Things change further as you walk along. Keep your eye on Turtle’s head.

P1780969 Now the entire perspective has changed, and Turtle is a lot larger than he at first seemed. You are entering deeper into the story now. The weight of Turtle is so huge that Eagle, in his pride, becomes a laughing stock. But do you think this is easy for Turtle? No.


Turtle dies in the story, of course, but the other animals live on, and they lead as a group, and by consensus. What makes this a story of the Dreamtime is that the story is permanent. It is you, the observer, who moves, and by moving and observing, according to the old story which you learned as a child, you make it live. That’s a pretty good description of how poems work, by the way, or psychology. The medium is unusual, but the process of reading is universal. Once you’ve read the land this way, you won’t build houses on that hill. You will find a more appropriate place. In this way among others, stories keep the earth alive. That it is just a lump of basalt makes no difference at all.

4 replies »

      • Even if they’re lost they can be found, we just have to reconnect ourselves so we hear them again. The Aboriginals in Australia talk about the song lines being in the land. It was a right of passage of the Aboriginals for generations to go on a walkabout following a song line. We may have forgotten many stories for now, but they’re still there in the land, just as your story here shows.


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