The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
WALLENDA WALKS ON AIR
Sunday, June 23, 2013A vision of width and depth: vast walls
of sun-mottled stone vibrate
between sky and flow of canyon-creating water
below. So far away, the other side: the length of five
football fields, they say. So deep: the Empire State Building
spans the chasm's height. So far to fall. Unfolding against
this background sight of crag and sky, an untried action
against overwhelming forces by an actual human being .
Nik Wallenda will walk without a tether
across a gorge at the confluence of Little River
and Colorado River near the Grand Canyon
on land called sacred space by the Navajo Nation.
Around the world more than ten million people have gathered
to watch on television this first-time striding
through air so high above the ground whose gravity, should
he waver, may drag the body of this bold walker down.
The spectacle has been called commercial stunting.
Is that all there is to the show? Discovery Channel, with
its cameras on the world, captures what it thinks we want to know,
but--can everything, even courage, be commodified?
In 1978 at age 73, Karl Wallenda, who had earlier made
his way across Tallulah Gorge in Georgia on a rope
without a net, fell to his death from
a wire strung between two tall buildings in Puerto Rico.
Out of seven or eight family members who,
unsettled by the ardent pull of gravity,
have plunged to their death from midair
during the 200 years Wallendas have been walking,
the name we recall is Great Grandfather Karl
whose memory Nik honored by traversing that same crowded
city space together with his mother coming to meet him
from the other side. We see their crossing on film
setting the stage for today's daring. Midway she kneels:
he steps up and over her, no mean achievement
for this man (or his mother) whose feet will carry him
to greater glory in shoes stitched by her each time
he ventures out, each time he puts his life on the line.
Today a steel cable two inches thick will demand
his mastery of cadence and sway, wire and walker
reacting to forces he can't see,
gusts of air coming from below and waves of wind
on all sides, distracted by what he can see:
the slow motion of sun crossing chasm, creating
an illusion that his surroundings are moving,
testing his balance time and again as he wields
the 43-pound pole slung from his shoulders by a leather
harness heavy in his hands. Dressed in t-shirt and jeans
like a common man, he is wearing a radio and two lightweight
cameras that will show his view to those of us in 178 countries
who are watching him walk out now below the slanting sun
into empty space except for the twisted steel strand
that will try to turn in its coiling
under his feet slippered in soft leather while
his eyes blink and focus on shifting sightlines.
He spits into his hand and rubs his shoes before footsteps carry
him onto the cable. A litany of words spills forth: Thank you
Jesus. I praise you Jesus. Lord, make this cable calm down.
There, on the threshold between risk and ruin,
he directs his thoughts toward the face of divinity
that he knows, the One whose image nurtures
life and limbs and concentration for this radical work.
He has heard his aerialist ancestor's spirit call on him
to walk higher and wider than anyone has ever done.
"Life is on the wire and everything else is waiting,"
his great-grandfather said more than once.
Help me to relax, Lord. God, you're so good.
A litany familiar to my ears, from childhood proximity
to churches where rhythmic cadences travel on
the tongue and breath of spiritual enthusiasts,
floating from windows on summer meeting nights. Still,
it is strange to hear these words mouthed by an aerialist
until one realizes how the spirit's striving to fly
may be what motivates this highwire walker.
He could be calling on any cloud-enveloped spirit for help:
Hermes of the winged sandals might respond, or rainbow-drenched,
swift-footed Iris. But no, he is not pagan. His culture has given him
Jesus, and conjuring that face he fashions his prayer.
Perhaps he thinks of Apostle Peter who, watching
Jesus walk across the water to calm the storm
roiling the fishing boat loaded with the twelve
who followed Him to become "fishers of men,"
stepped out to meet his Lord and found
his feet could not do what he willed.
"For lack of faith," his Lord said and
helped him back into the boat.
What a lot of faith Wallenda shows as he travels
time after time through a substance thinner even
than liquid. We humans have learned to propel
ourselves in water using arms and legs
but never standing vertically to make our way in air
on human feet. We cannot fly without machines to wing us.
This air walker-on-wire has done already what no other human
has by crossing Niagara Falls, and now intends to go
himself one better. And so, like Peter, he steps
toward his Lord, body's weight concentrated
in his feet, toes clenching each time he moves,
like the claws of an eagle landing on a limb.
Thank you for this opportunity, Lord. Lord,
help me to relax. Father, help me to calm down.
He is about 12 minutes into the walk when the wind
threatens, prompting this childlike speech: Golly wind,
Go away, in the name of Jesus. Dear God, calm the winds.
You have authority over them. I want you to
calm them in Jesus' name. Thank you Lord. Thank you
for calming that cable, Lord. Oh, yeah. That's my savior.
That's Jesus. "You're l6 minutes on the wire, doing great,"
his earthly father reassures him by radio. "You don't have to tell me
how long I'm on the wire," Nik says perhaps to ward off distraction
and concentrates again on his familiar spirit lord.
Lord, you are my everything. Lord, you are my all-in-all.
You are my peace, my strength, my wisdom, my guidance.
Yeshua. Jesus. You're my rock, my salvation. Sorcerer,
King. Everything. Lord you are my everything.
Glory to your name. Glory, Glory, Glory.
Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Discovery Channel,
for believing in me. Thank you, Jesus. And so
we swing with him on the wire between Jesus
and Discovery Channel, as he gives glory
to the One and gratitude to the other,
balancing his own elements as well
as he holds wind and wire in harmony until
in a moment he crouches down, rises up,
trots the remaining few steps, hops onto land
kisses the ground and goes to embrace his family.
For 22 minutes and 54 seconds he had walked untethered in air.
Men from the Navajo nation hand him an amulet
carved with the image of a bear. The native tribe
gave their consent to cross the gorge here,
nearby the greater canyon, after the U. S. National Parks
refused to accommodate this expression of reverence.
For that is what it is: an act so daunting as to awaken us from
the tawdry and the trivial long enough to remind us
of our human longing for a mystery that makes us kneel.
There are tears in his eyes as the camera leaves
his face. What next? someone asks too soon, and too soon
he answers that he loves his fans and wants now to tackle
America's biggest city. I am flashing back to footage
shown before this man, so alive, started his stroll
across the canyon and wondering whether any amulet--
cross or bear--can help him straddle another urban site.
Better here in the wilderness, where bear has some savvy and sway.
Now I am flashing forward to tomorrow when I will read
one news report with its accent on what this death-defying
feat was not: it was not the "real" Grand Canyon
but only a small nearby canyon over a little river,
a fact the writer says was stretched by Discovery Channel
to make it a bigger deal than it was. In my musing
I invite the critic to place his feet on the wire, stride out
and then say what a thing this was to scoff at.
A rope across an abyss is Nietzsche's metaphor
for humankind, where danger goes in front
and comes along behind, where shuddering and stopping
describe the risk of being fully human
caught between beast and what is more than man
required to walk across ourselves
and if the ground does not fall away
from under us, what change? what ecstasy?
Sometimes, being human
makes one cringe from commodity-based crippling
and cry out for bear-blessed wilderness.
What slow death lurks in comfort and control, smugness and fear.
Full of contempt, a human is a bag of wind without a wire to walk.
Here's where soul gets sold: in life at second hand,
senseless, without a call to go high and deep and long
without an answering song.
Little Colorado River Gorge in Arizona
Copyright, 2014. Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.