Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Woman under a Microscope – An Argument on Helen Chalmers

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When we touch this domain, we are filled with the cosmic force of life itself, we sink our roots deep into the black soil and draw power and being up into ourselves. We know the energy of the numen and are saturated with power and being. We feel grounded, centered, in touch with the ancient and eternal rhythms of life. Power and passion well up like an artesian spring and creativity dances in celebration of life.

David N. Elkins


The Sacred as Source of Personal Passion and Power

Kristin Forest

The Woman at Otowi Crossing (Frank Waters, 1966) is the story of Helen Chalmers, who flees to New Mexico to escape a life with a drunken husband and oppressive in-laws only to fall in love with her newly adopted environment. It is at Otowi Crossing that Chalmers finds the peace that she has sought and becomes in tune with the native environment. Chalmers not only befriends the nearby Indian pueblo, but also becomes close to the first atomic scientists. Chalmers’s Tea House forms a link, or a bridge, between the two worlds the Native Americans in their simple life and the world of the atomic scientists. Helen Chalmers is a modern-day Siddhartha (Herman Hesse). She gives up all of her worldly possessions to seek a higher truth a self realization. In the time period for which the novel was written, the 1940s, Chalmers is very unique in attempting this self-realization. Women of the 1940s did not leave their families or their children to find themselves. Not only does Chalmers walk out on her family, she walked out on money and social status. Her husband’s family is wealthy, and could well afford to give her a life of luxury and ease. Chalmers instead chooses to take the hard road and give up the wealth and luxury for a simpler life.

Some might say that Chalmers, the main protagonist of 'The Woman of Otowi Crossing', is a confused, deluded, and ultimately somewhat self-destructive character whose motivations are obscure and whose personal philosophy is a murky mix of pantheism and ecological awareness. Certainly her daughter, Emily, and Chalmers ex-lover Jack Turner, do not understand what it is that Chalmers is going through. Emily, who has a college degree in anthropology, believes her mother is unsophisticated and uneducated when it comes to her “visions” or insights into the Pueblo mythology. She believes that her mother’s visions are superstitions that have no bearing in the real world. Turner is confused and anxious over Chalmers’ behavior because it has severed their physical relationship. Chalmers self emergence has come between them, and Turner just wishes that it could be the way it was. Those who would argue these points miss the message that Waters is relaying in this truly gifted novel. Helen Chalmers is a visionary character whose spiritual awakening, or “emergence” closely parallels what is going on in the world with the advent of the atomic age, a “world emergence.” Chalmers has visions that turn out to be premonitions; what she dreams comes true.

The parallel of Chalmers self discovery and the discovery of atomic power is found throughout the novel. We first see this link between what is going on in the world and what is happening with Chalmers on pages 10 and 11. Chalmers has found what she believes to be a malignant breast tumor, and even though the doctor assures her that it could just as well be benign, she believes her “secret intuitive self which has soundlessly foretold her fate with incontrovertible conviction”. This discovery triggers an awakening in Chalmers. She describes it as a “cataclysmic explosion that burst asunder the shell of the world around her, revealing its inner reality with its brilliant flash.” On the other side of the world, work has begun on nuclear fission and its use in a war that is mounting. Just as cancer has triggered Chalmers transformation, atomic weaponry will inspire planetary metamorphosis What has happened to her has now been manifested in the outer world. The discovery of the lump has shattered Chalmers sense of security, just as the first testing of the atomic bomb will shatter the world’s sense of security. By using this counterpoint, Waters has created a guide for personal change through Helen Chalmers and world change by mixing with it the myth of the atomic bomb. These two myths then unify to tell the story of Emergence, both personal and planetary.


The second parallel between the two worlds - the contemporary world of nuclear physics and the ancient world of the Pueblo civilization- happens when Chalmers has a dream, or as she calls it a “vision.” She relates this vision to her Pueblo friend, Facundo in a very happy, light-hearted way. Chalmers vision is of a strange world with a dark hole below, the world feeling like the bottom of a well. The walls of the world she is standing in are made of rock and are very high. Strange animals, deer and antelope, start ascending from the deep chasm in four spirals, climbing out of the hole and up the steep walls of this world. The last animal, a deer, asks her to ascend with them. Chalmers humorous answer in this dream is that she is “waiting for a taxi.” As Chalmers relates this information to Facundo she laughs, seeing the humor of such a statement. Facundo does not see the humor in her relating of the vision, but withdraws into himself and does not speak to her for many days. When Chalmers see Facundo next, he invites her to visit the kiva with him. The kiva is a cylindrical, thick-walled adobe building about eight feet high with stairs that are inset into the walls leading to a ladder entrance on the top of the building that is flat. The ladder leads down into the ceremonial chamber where the Pueblo Indians have their ceremonies. It is here that Facundo relays to Chalmers that her vision is the Pueblo’s legend on how the world was created. Chalmers vision and the Pueblo Emergence myth are identical. This myth is once again relayed when Helen and Emily attend the San Ildefonso feast and lines of natives dressed as deer, antelope and mountain sheep play out this tale in the shadows of the firelight. The dance is supported by a drum beat, a rumbling sound that vibrates the earth beneath those attending the ceremony. This ceremony shows how the earth was created the evolutionary journey of earth and man. Just after the ceremony finishes, a brilliant flash of light covers the sky along with a sharp explosion and the rumbling of the earth. Testing of the atomic bomb has begun on the hill. With this symbolism, Waters is once again linking the unique world of Pueblo mysticism with the reality of the contemporary world. Just as the Pueblo’s believed the world came from a deep chasm accompanied by rumbling, the new world of nuclear science was also created within a deep chasm that causes earth rumblings.

Other ways that Waters shows a link between Chalmers self-emergence and the world emergence are echoed in the mood of Chalmers. Her moods seem to reverberate the moods of the men who work at “the Project.” On page of the novel, Helen’s senses are heightened and she has a feeling of oneness; the individual separateness has vanished. This mood coincides with the mood of the scientists working on the atomic bomb project on the hill. The scientists similarly, on page 110, are all gathered together to hear from General Groves on the urgency and secrecy of their mission. It is during this meeting that a letter is read from the President of the United States on the significance of the contribution of the scientists efforts to the war. Edmund Gaylord, the scientist that is interwoven throughout the novel with the main characters, feels “nothing should swerve him from this task to which he has dedicated the highest hopes of his unspent youth”. The scientists have been working individually on this project but are now drawn together with a sense of urgency and oneness. These are the same feelings that Chalmers has described having on her own.

The most disturbing vision that Chalmers has happens when she and Jack Turner, her former lover, go on a walk. In a canyon below Los Alamos, they come upon a huge field of mushrooms. Chalmers tells Turner about the “Destroying Angel” mushroom, the most poisonous mushroom that looks innocent, but is deadly. This is a parallel to the atomic bomb; also an innocent looking small object that is most deadly. It too creates a mushroom cloud when it has been detonated. As Chalmers and Turner walk through the canyon, they come upon a most monstrous mushroom, nearly two feet high and very ugly in its appearance. Turner is disgusted by this mushroom’s size and ugliness, and in a fit of anger rushes toward the mushroom to kick and destroy it. Chalmers sees what Turner is about to do and has a waking vision, screaming at Turner not to kick the mushroom, but it is too late. Turner has kicked the mushroom making it rise in the air like a mushroom cloud. Chalmers feels this sensation as she is watching, and clutches her breast; a breast that may very well be filled with another poison, cancer. As the mushroom reaches high in the sky it begins to fall apart, dropping a vast cloud of billions of poisonous spores upon the earth below. This “waking” vision of Chalmers has two meanings. One meaning is that the cancer is spreading inside of Chalmers, sending its spores throughout her body and settling all over. Waters does not detail Chalmers battle with cancer directly. He instead alludes to Chalmers illness briefly here and there in the novel by discussing her health as almost an afterthought. Chalmers’ loss of weight and her extreme fatigue are mentioned but are not dwelled upon. The other meaning of Chalmers vision is foretelling of what is to come. Chalmers has had a precognition vision; a waking dream of what is to come with the dropping of the first atomic bomb. This bomb will spread its deadly radiation spores all over the earth like the mushroom. This incident starts Chalmers talking with others about her visions, and helps add to the mystery of the Woman at Otowi Crossing. Word spreads throughout both the Pueblo community and the community working at the Project about Chalmers visions. The Pueblo Indians consider Chalmers to be a hechicera or witch, someone with special powers. Chalmers’ moods continue to parallel what is going on at the project. Mere days before the testing of the first atomic bomb, Chalmers feels tight all over and does not know why. Something is building within her, as if it is going to burst. Days later, the first successful test of the atomic bomb happens. Chalmers has once again had a precognition of what was to come.

Chalmers most frightening vision that comes to fruition is a truly horrifying dream. This dream is so terrifying, that Chalmers wakes up screaming. She dreamed that the world and the heavens “were enveloped in one brilliant apocalyptic burst of fire.”

This vision was of a long narrow candle with a wick on top which cast a tiny flame. The flame erupts into a large flame, which touches off an enormous explosion that enfolds everything, the whole world, into flames. Chalmers recognizes that this vision is something like that of the mushroom vision she has had, with the candle stem growing up like a mushroom cloud. This vision happens just mere days before the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Chalmers has foretold the events as they will happen. These visions, the mushroom and the candle, are visionary symbols for the atomic and the hydrogen bombs. Word has spread throughout the community that Chalmers has these visions and they then come true. The Myth of the Otowi Woman has taken hold. The government also hears of Chalmers visions and sends the F.B.I. down to talk to her about them. They ask for specific details of her dreams to ascertain whether someone at the Project has been leaking information to her. Chalmers relays in detail her dreams, and the F.B.I. seems satisfied that she is basing her visions on dreams, and therefore they are harmless. They caution Chalmers that she should not discuss these visions with others or she might end up in the same category as other quacks and kooks.

The final events that deepen Chalmers connection to the Pueblo Emergence myth comes as she lies dying. Seven deer mysteriously appear to witness her passing. These seven deer correspond to the seven worlds of the Pueblo Emergence story. As Chalmers dies, the deer leave as if signaling the finality of her passing.

Was Helen Chalmers a Great Mystic as the Pueblo Indians claimed, or was she “crazy as a hoot owl” as Turner described her? I believe that Helen Chalmers is simply one who knows, a person of insight into the unity and harmony of all life. I believe she describes it best in her journal that she writes so that Turner will understand what she has experienced




“So all these scribbled pages, Jack, are to help you understand that an awakening or Emergence, as the Indians call it, is more than a single momentary experience. It requires a slow painful process of realization and orientation. Just like a newborn child, you get it all and instantaneously in the blinding flash of that first break through the shattering impact of light after darkness, of freedom after confinement. Then the rub comes. The learning how to live in this vast new world of awareness. The old rules of our cramped little world of appearances wont work. You have to learn the new ones. The hard way too, because everything youve known takes on new dimensions and meanings. This process of awakening with new awareness, a new perspective on everything about you, of perceiving the “spherical geometry of the complete rounded moment” as Gaylord once called it 'this is the wonderful experience' I've been going through.

How many thousands of obscure people like me all the world over are having the same experience right now? And for no apparent reason, like me. Keeping quiet about it too, because they cant quite understand it at first or their friends might believe them mentally unbalanced. Thats why some day youll get this Dime-Store ledger. To reassure you its a normal, natural experience that eventually comes to every one of us. So when your turn comes, Jack, dont be afraid. Be glad! Its our greatest experience, our mysterious voyage of discovery into the last unknown, mans only true adventure.“


Helen Chalmers adventure is a long journey of self exploring. She is to be admired for emerging herself into the Native American culture, and her understanding of the world that surrounds her. While many of those who love her do not understand her, that does not deter Helen from her journey. She lives with dignity, dies with grace and loves unconditionally. She is a great woman. Frank Waters has created a character with Helen Chalmers that ties all of the universal truths together that we are one with our environment, all part of a great plan.


Work Cited

Waters, Frank. The Woman at Otowi Crossing. Athens Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1966


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