Distancing #44: Athena


In 2009, I made my first visit to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It no longer exists as such, but at the time it was the Southwest’s largest protected area. I was preparing to move from West Coast to East, and decided to explore southern Utah by car and bike. I hit the popular national parks, from Zion to Arches—but it was Grand Staircase Escalante, formed sixty million years ago, that stunned me like nowhere else. I’d complete another cross-country move and a career change before returning, but in times of trouble I’ve often gone back there in my mind.

In 2013, self-taught teenage violinist Brittney Parks boarded a plane for the first time and moved from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. She began making beats on her iPad and studying African sounds through the work of Francis Bebey, traveling to Ghana and admiring the one-string guitar. In 2017 she recorded her first EP under the name Sudan Archives, building African-style polyrhythms by layering snaps, claps, and thumb piano with violin ostinatos. Her percussive style of play connects to early jazz and to bluegrass fiddling, itself influenced by African strings. Elided musical phrases form loops recalling ritual music, or Beethoven. Not knowing where in Africa her ancestors came from, Parks chose Sudan as a sort of spiritual homeland to draw upon mentally. It makes sense: Sudan, meaning Black country (as opposed to the Arab Maghreb), used to refer to a savanna reaching all the way across the continent, from Darfur through Ghana and Nigeria to Senegal. I took note of the EP when it came out, but resolved to save it for later, when I might need something truly fresh. 

That same year, 2017, marked the end of Grand Staircase Escalante in its whole form. I hardly need to spell out the story, since it’s happened over and over in the last three and a half years, the White House’s current occupant stripping down regulations on everything from human rights to environmental protection. As a monument rather than a national park, GSENM’s land was already open for hunting and grazing by permit. But three months in, the new administration announced its interest in opening GSENM, and the nearby sacred Bears Ears National Monument, to fossil fuel extraction. Sensing that we couldn’t wait, I took Ben there in the fall. 

I’d made my first visit in May, at the start of the tourist season. When we went that October, the season was closing. The land’s colors were different, though equally beautiful: sagebrush and ochre dogwood framing riparian gorges, nestled among pink, coral, and orange bluffs. We drove over a fold in the earth’s crust on the Cottonwood Canyon dirt road, crisscrossed Escalante River on foot to reach its incomparable natural bridge, and scaled Upper Calf Creek Falls along cairns to its series of cool reflective pools. Exhilarating though it was, I felt disconsolate to think that there might be less of this left in the future. The day after we got home, the White House announced its plan to reduce GSENM by half, breaking it into three pieces, and to shrink Bears Ears by 80 percent. Never mind that it was unprecedented and seemingly illegal for the president to downsize national monuments. The land would be open to drilling and coal mining, pleasing the state’s Mormon leaders, who saw it as their right.  

In 2009, I’d traveled to Utah during the outbreak of swine flu. In 2017, the worst was still to come. The time for something fresh turned out to be this year. I got Sudan Archives’ album, last year’s full-length Athena, just in time for a turn toward interior landscapes. “I wanted the album to be like if you sink even further and further,” Parks has said, “where all the fish are really ugly and creepy, you can find this crazy ruin where Black Athena lives.” 

Sudan itself isn’t a place to visit, damaged as it is by British colonialism and decades of civil war. Many westerners best know its reputation for especially stringent Sharia law. But a more familiar practice might be its rapacious resource extraction: pervasive oil drilling in now-independent South Sudan pollutes wetlands and kills vital forests, while hunting threatens multiple species with extinction (among other things, poachers there traffic the lately notorious pangolin). The new Merowe Dam on the Nile in the north has displaced many thousands of cotton and date farmers as well as nomadic tribes, flooded important archaeological sites, and accelerated desertification. A theocratic government greenlit the project, and the profits left with their outside investors. It’s not so far off from the ongoing colonialism here, treating Native land and Black life alike as exploitable and disposable. When Parks sings, on the elegant orchestral single “Confessions,” “There is a place that I call home / But it’s not where I am welcome,” she could be referring to either place.

She cancelled the Athena tour, of course. Ben and I found a video that went up in June, of a set she played at the NPR office in DC, leading a string quartet. At first the performance absorbed us; we marveled at her technique and her chemistry with the other players. Then it dawned on us: This is from last week? They look like they’re all in a cubicle! Did they make her fly on a plane? We heard applause and looked at each other, stricken. How many people are in that room? I sure hope that’s canned! We read the notes and saw the date of the recording: March 11. Ben had a show on Friday, March 13, and the sound guy hadn’t shown up. The band was bigger than the audience. “Welcome to the weirdest night of our lives!” said the violist, cleaning her mic. By then I suspected our lives might soon get a lot weirder. The next day we locked down. Five months later, we’re still here.

I think nature is getting back at us for everything we’ve done. Even when we can travel safely again, there are places we won’t be able to visit, simply because we’ve destroyed them. I’m sharing this long, strange season with Sudan Archives. On Athena’s closing track, Parks sings to her lightning-bug lover, “Why don’t you let it simmer / We’re soaring high in the sky / Like pelicans in the summer / You and I.” Stay ready for a long simmer.

— Bonnie Johnson
Los Angeles, day 148

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