Susan Suntree’s previous books include Wisdom of the East: Stories of Compassion, Inspiration, and Love; Rita Moreno; and Eye of the Womb. She taught for many years at East Los Angeles College. Sacred Sites (Nebraska, 2010) is now available in paperback for the first time.
Without the arts, without music, without dance, without drama, without photography, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”—John Lewis
I am honored that UNP is giving readers curious about the geological, biological, cultural, and spiritual deep history of Southern California and the West another opportunity to delve into my book, Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California. Updating the paperback, published this year, welcomed me to revisit—as a poet, activist, and artist—my fascination with the ancient origins of these mountains, rivers, and bays and with the people who, for millennia, walked them before me. My research has only deepened my commitment to activism on behalf of the region I’ve learned to love.
For almost two decades, eco-political street theater was the core of my performing life. FrogWorks focused on saving the Ballona Wetlands. The EWALA (Earth Water Air Los Angeles) puppet trek, with its giant puppets and troupes of people, some wearing animal headdresses, brought attention to endangered open spaces along the course of the Los Angeles River to the Ballona Wetlands. The drama of our colorful and unexpected presentations attracted the press and stirred public consciousness in ways that straight information, no matter how emotionally charged, would not.
Lewis’s words accurately describe how street theater charged our environmental activism, and also describes my motivation for writing Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California (Nebraska, 2010), which is now in production as audio theater. The professionals on my audio production team are all volunteering their time, including Peter Coyote donated his reading of Gary Snyder’s foreword and Lowell Bean’s introduction. Why? Because it is literary activism intended to inspire personal and cultural change by reaching from the page to the ears to the hearts and minds of those who listen.
Sacred Sites began as outdoor theater and evolved into a one-woman show using masks, stylized maps, and music. It was a joy to perform. But pressure from audiences, hungry for ways to know Los Angeles better, urged me to transform my research material into a book. (I used to say: It’s burning a hole in my file cabinet!). A reader’s experience is notably different than an audience’s. Thus I was graced with the necessity to review and deepen my research, to turn the play’s script into a work of non-fiction narrative poetry.
My research showed me that the evolution of the Southern California landscape is an ongoing drama generated by the ceaseless and powerful forces of tectonics, weather, and ocean. For example, the area’s oldest rock, Mendenhall gneiss, was shaped at least 1.2 billion years ago during the earliest days of the incipient North American continent, which extended into this ancient homeland. Eventually its sparkling layers have been uplifted so that they are now visible in road cuts in the San Gabriel Mountains.
The coast of Southern California, from San Diego to Point Conception, was harvested by the Pacific Ocean Plate when it was driven northwest by the mantle along the west coast of Mexico 28 million years ago. As it plowed along, it captured a vast swath of that landscape and hauled it along its path, the San Andreas Fault, in an on-going motion that creates dramatic upheavals shaping, shattering, and reshaping our region. Southern California does not reside on the North American Plate (which lies on the east side of the San Andreas Fault) but on the Pacific Plate, and shares its destiny: to disappear into the mantle at the Aleutian Trench. I am enthralled by this geological history that underscores the fact of impermanence and the interpenetration of physical as well as cultural forces.
Tracing Southern California’s formation from the Big Bang to the present as Western science and indigenous myths and songs required the generous and patient guidance of scientists and librarians. With their help, I updated the text for this year’s release of the paperback edition.
My most influential guides, however, have been the Native American people who have patiently deepened my experience and my understanding of what I thought I was doing. For twenty years before publication, I was welcomed to ceremonies and events intended to bring awareness to protecting sacred sites.
A current example is the effort to save the remnant twenty-two acres of the village of Puvungna at the edge of California State University, Long Beach. A profound sacred site, according to the Acjachemen and other tribes, it is the birth and death place of great leaders of the First People, the Ancestors, who shaped the world, life and death, and human culture. My book introduces Puvungna and describes the many events that took place there in primordial times. It continues to be an active community and ceremonial site. The narratives in my book and audio production about the site aim to raise awareness and to support activists, like Rebecca Robles, who are working hard to save it from becoming another parking lot or mini-mall.
Lewis’s words inspire the work my team and I are doing to create the Sacred Sites audio theater production because activism involves educating as well as motivating and rousing supporters.
The origin songs of this homeland describe the creation of the universe and North America, bringing to life the deep, plentiful, and mysterious beauties of the world. They help us see through the cement. Hearing the ways that cultures have lived here for millennia without destroying the landscape opens our hearts and gives us the information and the courage we need to face the present moment with all its challenges. Right here, right now.