I visited national parks, like Arches, where the massive sandstone formations which often stand like sentinels have names such as The Three Gossips and Courthouse Towers. Names that reminded me of the very human impulse to examine natural phenomena and make them familiar. To anthropomorphise. To create myths about those rocks. Or stars. Or land formations. To tell a make-believe story.
At the little-traveled Capitol Reef, I saw petroglyphs etched into a canyon wall from a thousand years ago.
I marveled at the self-portraits of the Fremont people. Round-faced figures, some life size. Next to them, big-horn sheep in profile, their horns curving backward. Were these petroglyphs the story of a hunt? A diary entry?
A fictional account? A horror movie? A poem?
Poet Jack Gilbert, in The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart, points out that when ancient Sumerian tablets were first translated they were thought to be business records. But what if they were in fact poems or psalms, he wonders? What if what we think of as ledger entries were really the stanzas of the most tender love sonnet?
At a wedding, in a barn on a nature preserve in Montana, I enjoyed the display of a quilt with squares sewn by family and friends – the guests at the wedding. Sitting near the quilt was a photo collage of everyone present. We were each asked to send a picture of our ourselves with our own partner. There was no need for text – we could make our own meaning from the set of photos, from the individual couples kissing or smiling or looking into the camera from years past.
I drove through a Goblin Valley, a Devil’s Spine, Walla Walla, and the Bitterroot Valley. I saw Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert, experienced vertigo at Escalante National Monument, saw the black pumice of Craters of the Moon.
The National Council of Teachers of English says “Good writing may be the quintessential 21st century skill.” Who am I to argue? I saw grounds to support NCTE’s claim on my trip. The ability to tell stories can have a lasting impact as evidenced by the awe still inspired by the Fremont petroglyphs. The visual compositions of a wedding quilt. The myth-making of sandstone rocks, whose names and stories were probably echoed thousands of times during summer-trip slideshows all over the world.
Yet, I think NCTE is slightly off. I would say that the quintessential 21st century skill is a precursor to good writing and is actually the same skill that has been the most critical since the moment we achieved self-awareness. And that is the ability to imagine. To look at a canyon wall and see a canvas. To take in a trio of rock spires and hear gossips. To hold disparate cloth pieces and know that what will be constructed is a collaborative work of art.
To see things as they are and wonder what might be.
Of course imagination is not quantifiable. I’m pretty certain, for instance, that the Fremont people did not work from a rubric. A student’s imagination is not part of the value-added data being pushed to measure teacher performance in Los Angeles. In fact, it takes little imagination on the part of a student to be considered a proficient learner in any subject by the standards set by state departments of education today.
All this despite the wise words of one of the most famously imaginative and brilliant thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein, who wrote on his Princeton blackboard: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”