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Selling the Sacred

A modest proposal to convert Niagara’s state parks into Wallenda memorials

The services of Navajo code talkers weren’t required to transmit the message of the sign posted near Nik Wallenda’s Grand Canyon wire-walking stunt: “OUR SACRED PLACE IS NOT 4 SALE.”

But it had been for sale, of course, as it had been here at Niagara. Here on the Frontier, those in position to sweep laws aside, to ignore the rationale honoring the natural environment in place for over a half century, simply did so. And then cheered about it.

We can only speculate about the divisions of opinion that existed in the Navajo Nation about Wallenda’s act. Those who objected seem to have done so because of a spiritual connection to the land, religious; ours was a secular spiritualism, tattered, but some of us remember it.

In Navajo country, Renae Yellowhorse was one of those objecting to Wallenda’s circus act defiling the land, who put her hands to the sign, fixing it to the fence in a public display of disapproval. She and the others deserve our respect and admiration, even though the walk went off as planned.

The Buffalo News appeared to respect Renae Yellowhorse, as well, if we can interpret their coded message. A photograph of the sign and Renae Yellowhorse, her hands along its top edge as it’s being fastened to the fence, was on the top front page of the 24 June 2013 edition. “Not a Wallenda fan” was the caption. The photo was about seven by eight inches, more than twice the size of the article on an inside page describing the wire walking stunt.

The 15-sentence article revealed two things: Wallenda was “murmuring prayers to Jesus almost constantly along the way,” and the cable he used to cross the canyon in Arizona was the same one he used at Niagara Falls. Perhaps it was the idea of the same cable that caused a Channel 4 reporter to get all weak in-the-knees giddy describing Wallenda’s walk: How he walked! How he prayed! So unique and marvelous! And to think he walked at Niagara, etc.! And where oh where, and on what will he walk next? On air? On water?

Well, the praying got to me, also—to think of the Lord, of Jesus, steadying that wire! This is the Jesus and Lord, neither of whom lifted a finger to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian children during the 2012 Israeli massacre in Gaza—now taking time out to calm the unsteady cable for Wallenda’s wire-walking ass. But those kids didn’t pray to Jesus—was that their problem? How about the 20 kids of Newtown, then? Didn’t they have the right God? How about the 19 firefighters in Arizona who lost their lives in a vicious wildfire because of a sudden shift in wind direction—was the Lord and Jesus responsible for that wind, too?

What kind of mind attributes everything that happens in the world to Jesus and the Lord? When the wind comes up in a canyon millions of years old, disturbing the stability of the cable you’re walking on—it’s the Lord. Then when the wind ceases to blow—it’s the Lord and, therefore, perfectly reasonable to say, “Thank you for calming that cable, Lord!”

There’s no disputing Wallenda’s faith. That’s personal. There’s no disputing his wire-walking knowledge and skill or his courage. It was a long way down from that canyon cable. I’m not among the cynical who say that every “Bless me, Jesus” was a commercial for his new book, Balance: A Story of Faith, Family, and Life on the Line.

But I am among those who say he shouldn’t have been permitted to walk in either place—and there should be no “commemorative plaque” going up on state parks land, either.

The New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYOPRHP) has, of course, insulted the vision and creation of Frederick Law Olmsted at Niagara in just about every way we can think of—and that’s been documented elsewhere—so what’s another little plaque? It’s nothing compared to what the NYOPRHP has done to the Three Sister Islands, the most recent insult. Frank Croisdale noted it well in his “Three Sisters Islands Rehabilitation a Travesty to Olmsted’s Memory.”

Still, there was something especially offensive about the photo-op near a railing at the Falls, where Senator Maziarz and Assemblyman Ceretto flanked Wallenda behind a podium—with, standing to one side, a young local boy enamored of wire-walking since the event at Niagara, invited to pander to local interests. This was part of the push for the commemorative plaque. My complaint is that it seemed way too much for way too little. Only a plaque? This is far too timid. How about a larger-than-life bronze statue, a monument of Wallenda on the wire at Niagara? Of course. If we’re going to sell the sacred, let’s quit messing around and do it big time.

But why stop there? How about a monument of Frederick Law Olmsted, arms spread, grim smile on his face, greeting each visitor to the island as they come off the bridge? Additionally, a large statue of a goat, a ram, being pursued by three wolves would be located in a clearing in the woods, the goat desperate, eyes rolling back in fear, the wolves straining after it, mouths open. We are talking about Goat island, here, after all. Then, dispersed around the Island, monuments of all the wire-walkers, 10 of them, from the Great Blondin, and Maria Spelterini walking with peach baskets on her feet, to the last of the classics, James Hardy, 1876. And after that the barrel riders who went over the Falls, and also those who rode, swam, and otherwise floated through the lower rapids—18 of them all together, I believe, starting with the unforgettable Annie Edson Taylor, on to Jean Lussier (wouldn’t his rubber ball be great rendered in bronze?), including the great Red Hill Jr., and Bobby Leach, and William A. Fitzgerald, Karel Soucek, Steve Trotter and Lori Martin, John D. Munday, Peter DeBernardi and Jeffery Petkovitch—and of course, Sam Patch, jumper, the first of Niagara daredevils. A dozen plus more of the lesser-known, the outriders: Jesse Sharp, kayaker over the falls, Captain Webb, William Potts, Martha Wagonfuhrer, Maude Willard, Carlisle Graham, Robert Flack, Charles Percy, and so on. There’d be a huge family of Niagara Daredevils, in bronze, in locations all over Goat Island—families of tourists would stay for days, clambering over the monuments, attempting to get their photographs taken with all of them. And each time they left the Island they’d see the two-foot handle of a bronze knife protruding from Olmsted’s back. Some of them might then understand his grim smile.

Knife handle aside, this Niagara Daredevil Park would put Niagara Falls on the map once and for all, would it not? It would be visible from outer space, sunlight glinting from dozens of bronze statues, points of light from earth. International sculptors would vie for commissions to create these monuments, art schools and their students would be frequent and repeat visitors, and postcards of the monuments, and calendars, and frameable prints would do a brisk business. Small models of the sculptures would be available in the souvenir shops and online, ceramic, pewter, plastic, bronze, plaster. Winter snows and ice storms would create unique, unrepeatable scenes of the actual island monuments.

Creating the larger-than-life statues will cost more than a few dollars. Several million of it will come from Niagara River Greenway funding. NYOPRHP would probably be only too happy to apply. If the parties involved can be convinced to cooperate, additional monies could come from that 1,800-foot cable that Wallenda walked on at both Niagara and the Navaho Nation territory across the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon. The cable is now historically significant. It should be cut into six-inch lengths and each piece mounted on a wooden display board. The lumber for these keepsakes, to add to the value of these artifacts, should come from trees cut from the old growth forest at DeVeaux Woods State Park—red oak, black, white, beech, maples, whatever’s there. Those trees aren’t going to live forever, anyway, and this way some part of them will be preserved.

Photographs of Wallenda walking the wire in both locations should be inlaid into the plaque, some brief words of description, dates, etc. Starting price, $500. If the six-inch piece of cable is chrome-plated, or some other metal is used for plating, the price goes up. Likewise for a Wallenda signature. The first $25,200 earned should go the the City of Niagara Falls, New York, which Wallenda stiffed the last time he was in town. A nonprofit should be formed to watch over the business—when, 25 years from now it’s discovered, in keeping with long Niagara Frontier tradition, that over 18,000 feet of wire has been mounted on these plaques and sold, the whole enterprise can be dissolved and one or two lower-level people can go to jail. But we will have our Niagara Daredevil Park, and another interesting story to tell.

Footnote: Naturally, this park will encourage more daredevils, a steady stream of them, both sanctioned and freelancers, who wish to ensure their being immortalized in bronze. Some will die. So be it. That is the risk of fame and a necessary component of selling the sacred. This will also all but guarantee an increased flow of tourists over and beyond what might normally be expected—and, properly managed, could also ensure tourist crowds in the off-season.

After the first quarter century, the old growth forest at DeVeaux will have vanished. In its place will be 10 acres of closely cropped lawn and several clusters of picnic tables. The name “DeVeaux Woods State Park” will be an anomaly, but few will give it a second thought.

E. R. Baxter III’s most recent book, Niagara Digressions (Starcherone Books), is winner of the silver medal in ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year Award in the Ecology and Environment category. Among the book’s varied themes are the contamination of the Niagara River; Hyde Park Landfill toxins now concentrated over what was once the watershed of Bloody Run; a satiric proposal to build a mile-high fence on the US-Mexico border constructed of all the billboards in the country; and the history of deer on the early Frontier, from early farmers attempting to protect corn crops with pointed stakes to deer impaling themselves on the ornamental points of the cemetery fence in Williamsville.

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