Welcoming Back the Sun

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Around the time of the winter solstice I attended one of the most sacred dances of the year for the pueblo people, The Turtle Dance. San Juan Pueblo has many plazas and the sun was warm when we arrived around 3 PM under an azure sky. The dancing had been going on all day and I had a chance to see for the first time how Casino money could be used to help Native people. All the adobe houses have been re-plastered (not one trailer) and when we arrived the men were just coming out of the newly rebuilt kiva after a fifteen – minute break to begin the last set of dances.

The Turtle Dance occurs the day after Christmas every year. Its purpose is to welcome back the sun. This is an all male dance with about 100 participants. Each man wore bells and turtle rattles on his moccasins to mimic the sound of the rain that was as important as the sun was for the people to grow and harvest their crops successfully. Each donned a kilt with crimson sashes, had a neck handkerchief decorated with roses around his shoulders and wore no other clothing. It was cold! Many of the moccasins were made of skunk fur. The men had rubbed gray earthern clay into their upper torsos. Each man had cedar boughs attached to his arms, some with beaded bands and there were two diagonal stripes painted on each dancer’s face. But the most astonishing thing was the headdresses that each dancer wore. Eagle and turkey feathers were placed in a horizontal line on one side of the headdress along with cedar boughs. On the same horizontal plane and as part of the headdress on the other side, a split gourd faced outward, and each was painted with a blue morning glory (these flowers love the morning sun), or some other design that symbolized to that person the sun’s return. I recognized the Zuni and Hopi sun faces. The intricate designs and rainbow colors used to paint the symbols on the inside of the gourds took my breath away. In addition to the dancers and clowns there were a couple of supernaturals dressed in hides and covered in coyote fur, their faces completely masked (one black, the other white) except for sinister looking slits (for eyes), and both carried whips that they struck the ground with at different times. These masked figures chose more men from the crowd who were given a cedar branch and were dusted with cornmeal before shaking hands with the supernatural and joining the long line of dancers. Once a man was chosen he couldn’t refuse; he had become one of the dancers.

The clowns had black and white striped double peaked hats complete with cornstalks or sprigs of cedar and had painted double bands of striped horizontal white and gray clay on their stomachs and backs. They also wore cotton or wool kilts. In their hands all the men (dancers, and clowns) carried the sacred cedar branches and shook gourd rattles filled with seeds as they chanted. Brilliant colors defined this regalia and every man followed every other in one long line of men who reversed directions in a moment when the chant signaled that it was time. I was reminded of a sinuous serpent moving slowly side to side. Between the colors, the chanting, the gentle harassment of the crowd by the clowns, the men danced in one place to their own haunting voices, turning first one way and then another. Different chants were sung at different plazas. The effect of this single line dancing and chanting left me close to tears, although I didn’t understand why because I couldn’t understand a word that was being sung. The men were chanting in the Tewa language. As a group the dancers, clowns, and supernaturals moved from one plaza to another giving thanks for the return of the sun. The multitude of pueblo people who were watching their ceremony were all wrapped in gorgeous handmade blankets with extraordinary designs.

The sun was setting and the cold penetrated my three layers of socks as I sat down against one of the smooth adobe walls. I did this deliberately so I couldn’t see the dancers because I wanted to listen to the chanting. Without realizing it I began swaying back and forth with the music, which was having a hypnotic effect on me. At dusk when the dancers all disappeared almost instantly, the grotesque coyote covered, frightening black/white masked supernatural forces with their whips left the Oh Kay Owingeh for another year…

I was grateful to have been asked to attend this ceremony because according to the pueblo tradition each person that witnesses the joyful return of the sun becomes a prayer.

12/26/16

San Juan Pueblo

When I researched the Turtle Dance I discovered that this dance marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the next. The dance is named for the turtle who is believed to be the first hibernating being to move after the year has turned. Thus, the turtle symbolizes the beginning of each yearly cycle.

During the dance, which lasts all day, four songs are sung in the Tewa language (three times in each plaza) and each song is sung four times. The songs acknowledge and honor the four directions (beginning with the north, west, south with east coming last), the new dawn, the young men and women and the coming of the holy people. This dance celebrates renewal and the regeneration of the continuing process of creation.

What follows is an example of the songs:

“Away to the north the holy people are running about, gathering from every direction. They come with their rain bearing powers, and still they come….

 Away to the west the holy people are running about, gathering from every direction. They come with their evergreens and medicinal and plant bearing powers, and still they come…” (Alfonso Ortiz translation)

Postscript: Because I come from the northeast where the turtle symbolizes “Mother Earth” I was forcibly struck by the fact that this first dance of the year was done by men rather than women. When I spoke with author Sabra Moore about this anomaly (from my point of view) I asked her if the pueblo people of this region adhered to a patriarchal standard which might account for the dance being done by men instead of women. She thought I might have a point.

History: Since ancient times the San Juan people have divided the physical world into three parts. The first part is comprised of the village and adjoining areas, which belong to the women and are marked by four sacred objects indicating the directions north, south, east, and west. The second part is made up of the mesas (pronounced MAY-sas; a Spanish word meaning “tables”). Mesas are large hills with steep sides and flat tops. They surround San Juan Pueblo and are open to men, women, and children, but they are under male authority. The third part of the physical world is the outside world (beyond the mesas). Belonging solely to the men of the tribe, the outside world is the place where they hunt, defend their people when necessary, and seek spiritual guidance.

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Dancing the Matachines

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Christmas Eve I went to the Pueblo of Okay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) to watch the ritual reenactment of the Matachines’ Dance. This drama celebrated during important feast days of the year in both winter and summer is the only one that is performed in both Pueblo Indian and Hispano communities in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. There are at least 44 versions of this dance!

The common element between them, at least in New Mexico, is the symbolic battle between light and dark forces that culminates in a transformation which is presently enacted by a young virgin, a bull, abuelos (grandfathers/tricksters), or clowns, and two lines of masked dancers that appear to be soldiers. One of the abuelos or clowns carries a whip, and sometimes the other is an edgy transvestite. In the final segment of the dance the virgin maiden will confront the bull, the bull will be overpowered, symbolically killed and castrated, and his seed will be cast into the joyful crowd. Only after the bull is sacrificed will the ogress (also played by a man) fall down on the ground on his side and “give birth” to a new born abuelito, the spirit of the dance for the following year.

The dance itself is both festive in terms of elaborate dress with a rainbow of ribbons flowing from the dancers regalia, the attention to the exquisite detail of beaded arm bands, the rattles, tridents or palmas carried by the masked dancers who also wear magnificent beaded moccasins, elaborate headdresses called cupiles, and somber because it carries a subtle undertone of violence that culminates in the death and castration of the bull and spilling of his seed…

The mood of the dance was solemn when the darkening pewter and shark gray clouds scudded over the evening horizon as the dancers emerged from the church to the sound of the mighty and resonant church bell that tolled over and over. Venus clung to the heavens of the twilight sky. Farolitos lit the area around the church and the carefully constructed stacked cedar logs called Luminarios blazed, lighting up the plazas. Crackling fires produced billowing black smoke and sparks flew in every direction. A single shot from a gun could be heard as the entourage moved from one plaza to the next. The music (guitar and violin) was often dissonant and carried a sense of foreboding. Pentitentes* chanted repeatedly to the Virgin – “Santa Maria” – invoking her assistance in Spanish as the sounds of the dancers’ bells and rattles could be heard if not seen because of the crowds of people that were moving with the dancers. The elaborately bejeweled headdresses of the “soldiers” seemed familiar; then I realized that some of them vaguely resembled the miters that Catholic Bishops wore. The fringed headdresses some believed pointed to a Moorish European influence (The Spaniards had conquered the Moors before coming to America to destroy the Indigenous peoples way of life). The dancers faces were covered in much the same way that Muslim women are veiled – only these brightly colored scarves were covered with roses. The masks lent an air of mystery and perhaps even malevolence to each participant.

I was riveted by the deep brown shining eyes of the small Indian girl (who was dressed in Native attire) whose cheeks had been painted with red circles to denote her purity. Her consort, the young bull, also very young, wore horns and a hide was draped over his back. His eyes glowed like coals and he had diagonally striped marks on his cheeks. (The Malinche and the bull are on the left of the picture below)

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As the dancers returned to the church for the final part of the ritual enactment, my friend and I decided to leave. My senses were on overload, humming through my body. I had the feeling that I had seen this dance before, perhaps in another context. Only later that night did I recall that I had seen the Matachines dance during holy week on the Pasqua Yaqui reservation outside of Tucson Arizona. The role the Matachines played in the Deer Dances held Easter week was to banish evil forces.

What was the underlying story behind this astonishing ritual enacted at the Pueblo on Christmas Eve? My friend Iren kindly sent me some Matachine literature that I began to devour after I got home that night. Some scholars suggest that the point of the dance was to reveal that a spiritual marriage had occurred. Some Pueblos attribute the dance to Montezuma, a Mexican king who is in some versions paired with the Virgin who is the only character who does not wear a mask. The fact that she also wears a communion dress (although not in this particular dance) may suggest a spiritual marriage between the two. In another story Montezuma in the form of a bird flew north warning the Pueblo people that foreigners were coming and that if the people mastered the dance, the strangers would learn respect for the people of the Pueblos.

Others suggested that the dance represents the triumph of good over evil, because the virgin, represented by the only female in the dance, who often wears a white first communion dress (and is associated with a Christianized Guadalupe), converts a pagan king to Christianity. The problem here is that Guadalupe is NOT the Virgin Mary. She first appeared at the site belonging to an ancient Mexican Earth Goddess,Tonanztin in the 1500’s and she was dark skinned, an Indian. The Catholic Church adopted her because they couldn’t get rid of her.

Perhaps as a few scholars indicate this dance tells the story of Native people’s resistance to Spanish invasion and their regeneration in spite of the foreigners’ repeated attempts to destroy their culture. No one knows precisely when the Rio Grande Pueblos incorporated the dance into their ritual calendar but it is assumed by many that this dance signaled the Pueblo’s conversion to Christianity and this explanation also seems to be eminently plausible because it has a historical antecedent.

I also read that a handful of historians believed this was a man’s homoerotic dance celebrating the power of men. I think all of the above ideas have validity. The plot is played out differently in each Pueblo indicating that this dance is able to adapt itself to whatever the pueblo people might need at a particular time.

Even the name Matachines creates controversy. The word first appeared in Italy in the 1500’s. The Italian term Mattaccini was used to describe strange and unfamiliar dances. Mattachines was the Spanish name given to the dances that were done by the Indians who had been taken as captives to Europe. The term may also have originated as an Italian mispronunciation of a Nahuatl word.

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Curiously, the “newest” additions to the Matachines dance are the Malinche ( female child-virgin), el Toro (the bull) and the Abuelos. Originally the dance had little or no narrative content and the dancers had more intricate steps. The Matachines was first danced in Bernalillo New Mexico in 1530, but it is not known how or when the story became more complex.

As a feminist and long time student of mythology I was astounded when I realized that the “newest” additions to the dance opened the door to a very ancient mythical story. In Neolithic times (8000BCE – 3000BCE) the Great Mother in her Virgin aspect (whole -one unto herself –having nothing to do with sexual purity – she was often a priestess) had a consort (sometimes a bull) who she sacrificed on a yearly basis to fertilize the earth so that the crops would grow. His seed could also regenerate a new king who would reign until he was sacrificed again the following year. We see this mythological drama of mother/consort repeating yearly in the ancient myths of Innana and Dumuzi, Cybele and Attis, Isis and Osiris, to mention a few, and finally in the story of Jesus who was also sacrificed (as a king) to save mankind. Unfortunately by the time Jesus was crucified male dominated Patriarchal Judaism had taken root, forcing the female as a divine figure underground. Females had almost totally disappeared from religious rites as the Judeo- Christian tradition replaced the earlier matristic or woman centered Neolithic Age. The Virgin Mary, the sexually pure maiden, the sorrowful mother, the mediator between men and their god was all that was left of the Great Goddess…And yet, to my great astonishment here she was rising again from out of the ashes like a phoenix through another mythical story with the identical themes of sacrifice, and transformation! I find this trend encouraging, and if I am correct it puts the Matachine dance in a much larger context, one that merges the present with the distant past, a mythical past that is still meaningful today.

It seems fairly obvious that the Malinche is associated with the virgin Mary, or Guadalupe. I would argue that the Malinche is not a symbol of sexual purity but rather the Spirit of Woman (that includes her sexuality) rising out of the Earth through an ancient archetypal story. The role the Malinche plays in the dance today suggests that she is the “hope” of the future. Interestingly, the Malinche is also associated with all phases of the moon and the new dawn (like so many goddesses before her). One might ask if one of the unintended meanings of this dance is to bring back the lost feminine as a divine power in her own right, a power that might be able to provide a perspective that is life affirming in ways we can’t imagine?

What I love best about this dance is that it is so complex! It crosses mythical, national, and cultural boundaries as archetypal stories have a tendency to do. It is a dance with many layers of meaning, a dance that is always changing, reminding us that innovation and change are constants in the Matachine tradition. The dance is always evolving and yet there are elements of the both the mythical and historical past that are part of its genesis and perhaps its future.

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*The Penitentes, or Brother of Light have existed in New Mexico since the late 1790’s. These men devote their time and effort to care for the people of the pueblo. They also pray for the people during holy week and perform rituals in the moradas, buildings that are separate from the church. They chant rosaries for the dead, prepare burial plots, help grieving families, and care for widows and orphans.

The Bear Goddess and the Tree

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She wore a fur coat and drove

a flaming chariot that flew through the night.

Its fiery wheels threw sparks, like stars..

One point of light leapt onto frozen ground,

sprouted roots and grew a Tree…

When the Snow Bear came to the mountain

It was the longest night of the year.

She reached up to a sky of diamonds and ice,

plucked a star and flung it far…

It landed in Juniper’s thick branches…

The little tree’s berries ripened and fell.

Her green boughs glowed with pride.

Juniper had been chosen to light up the night.

Wafting sweet fragrance on wild winter winds

as a Blessing for All, the little tree soul took flight!

12/21/16

Working notes:

For a number of years I decorated my northern white cedar, the Guardian Tree in front of my little log cabin with crystals that were once a part of a chandelier that belonged to my mother’s family. In the center of my tree I put a large crystal star that shimmered at night when the lights were lit, while the rectangular beveled crystals reflected a rainbow of colors. I never thought much about this little ritual of tree lighting (beyond feeling that it was exactly the right thing to do each November when the nights come so early) until I came to New Mexico and met the young juniper in my front yard. I cared for her in much the same way as I cared for my cedar tree in Maine, and in November decorated her blue-green branches with white lights…

It was only after writing this poem that I recognized the full implications of my actions. Every year I enact a personal mythical story as I decorate my winter solstice tree to honor the dark days of winter, The Great Bear, the winter solstice, the changing season and the power of hope.

In Native American traditions the bear (polar, black, grizzly) is the animal most frequently associated with medicinal plants, flowers, and roots that are used to heal. Bear healing circles were common in many tribes.

By calling up the Great She Bear (whose celestial aspect is the constellation of the Great Bear) I am invoking the Animal Powers to move through our lives, to heal what has been broken in ourselves and in the culture. When the bear throws the star and it lands in the tree, the three become embodied as one. The star (symbol of hope), the animal and plant powers are united and together they “light up the darkest night.” During these troubled times I am reminded that the tie that binds us to each other, to the Cosmos and to the Earth can be renewed if we take the story seriously and choose appropriate actions.

I use the image of the polar bear as the Great Bear Goddess (found in every Indigenous culture north of the equator) to help us remember that animals like the polar bear are dying because of our indifference to global warming. This breaking of “the ties that bind us” to other species must be attended to or we will be facing extinction ourselves.

The Three Rabbits

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When I first came to the high desert I fell in love with the western desert cottontail rabbits that appeared at dawn and dusk as well as at odd times during the day to feast upon the sunflower seed I scattered for them on the ground. At first these animals were very shy, disappearing into the nearest bush the moment I spoke to one, even from inside the house. Soon however their behavior began to shift. Instead of hopping away they began to make eye contact with me through the windows, their beautiful brown eyes shining like marbles, their ears and whiskers twitching as they nibbled the seed while keeping one sharp eye on me! When I met one in the yard, I surprised him/her by calling out “hi bunny” as I walked my dogs. They would freeze when I spoke and fasten their glistening doe-like eyes on me in what seemed like curiosity. It occurred to me then that they weren’t used to humans talking to them. I began earnest conversations with these rabbits whenever I met one letting them know that I wanted nothing more than to be a good friend… By early fall they allowed me to get within a couple of feet of them. I longed to touch the silky gray fur of just one rabbit…

One day I was walking around outside looking for lizards to photograph and decided to sit on the ground. The snakeweed was in bloom and although the seriously disturbed earth around the house was bare, the bright yellow clumps thrived in the surrounding hills. It was hot in the late September sun, but I was stalking lizards and had no intention of allowing heat to get in my way. Finding a bare spot I sat down to wait.

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My breathing slowed as I slipped into a light trance… A cottontail approached me; I kept still, breathing deeply. The rabbit stopped just in front of me its whiskers twitching. Now I was on high alert having snapped out of the relaxed state I had been in. Ever so slowly I reached out to touch the soft fur coat, and the rabbit didn’t move when I gently ran my hand over its back. Amazed and joyful I repeated this gesture three times. When the rabbit hopped away his/her tail bobbing, I stopped holding my breath and relived the experience still feeling the silky fur…Did this really happen? My rational mind was on overload even as my body relaxed again. Of course it did, my body responded feeling thick fur. “Of course it did!” I heard myself replying in response to my own query. This rabbit had responded to my longing telepathically by coming and allowing itself to be stroked. Immense gratitude flooded me. Our relationship had become reciprocal.

This incident marked a dramatic shift in the cottontails’ behavior. Now whenever I was outside alone rabbits appeared like magic. I also discovered that although many rabbits and hares visited me that there were three that lived right here by the house. I could tell them apart by their size, one was so much smaller than the other two who looked like twins. I also identified the difference between the twins by the way they twitched their whiskers, by the subtle differences in the gray brown of their coats, the way each held its ears, even the shapes of their cottony tails were different.  I don’t know if they are related but all three are great friends. I am guessing that they are all female rabbits since they are sharing the same territory (males need a much larger space). The three spend a lot of time chasing each other in what seems to be some sort of game. They reverse directions without warning, and the chased becomes the chaser! They also leap up into the air without apparent reason  their long back legs propelling them skywards with ease. And sometimes they nuzzle each others noses.

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Now that winter is almost upon us, my three rabbits spend their days hiding out under the boughs of one particular juniper tree, the one by my back door. Even when it’s frigid they come out for a brief visit while I am bringing wood into the house. I watch them nibbling the ripe berries and licking the ice from the copper water pan that I refill each morning for the birds. Two of them have almost demolished the two prickly pear cactus plants that are close to the house. Even though I watch them eat through binoculars I can’t see how they manage to rid the pads of their sharp thorns before taking their first bite. I know from previous experience that rabbit incisors do make a clean cut. I leave spinach leaves on the ground for them, and the occasional carrot. But it’s the sunflower seeds they love the most, probably because the latter are high in both protein and fat.

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I have become so attached to my little cottontails that I am already imagining how much I will miss these particular rabbits when I leave. They have become members of my family, the only difference being that they live outside while Lily B, my dove, my two Chihuahuas and I live indoors. Every evening we repeat the same ritual with me standing at the window, the dogs in their chair and Lily B peering down from his high swinging perch. We all watch the rabbits and scaled quail devouring their seed just after the sun has slipped below the horizon. The littlest rabbit is usually the last one to leave just as darkness spreads her cloak of cracked stars over the high desert scrub and sand.

If I am correct in my assessment that these rabbits are all females, I expect I might have little ones in the spring, since they mate quite early and have about 2- 6 young, born naked and blind. The literature says that few make it to adulthood, so nature compensates for these losses by allowing the rabbits to have many litters a year helping keeping the population relatively stable.

There is a wonderful story about the goddess of spring riding in a chariot led by six rabbits holding lighted candles. Both the goddess Eostre and her familiars, the rabbits, celebrate the new dawn, renewal and fertility returning to the Earth after a long winter’s sleep…During these dark and sometimes frigid days of winter I am reminded that each season has its blessings and that with the winter solstice approaching tomorrow (in the northern hemisphere) the sun will soon be climbing higher in the sky bringing warmth and longer days and before we know it, the wheel of the year will be turning again.

The Juniper Tree

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When I first arrived In Abiquiu, which is situated in the northern mountains of New Mexico, I discovered a very small (about 2 foot tall) juniper growing just outside my windows that overlook the southwestern horizon. Native grasses had all but obscured the small tree, the only one in the front of Guadalupe’s (almost) round house.

Immediately I decided that this little tree needed my attention, so within a week I had cut down the thick grasses and ringed the tree with river stones. At this point I began to water, and after fertilizing the tree once, I continued this practice throughout the summer and early fall. I watched in amazement how the juniper flourished, sprouting new blue green spiked needles. By mid-autumn this tree had added about two inches to each branch, and had filled out considerably. A few birds began to land in the lengthening branches, and some days I would discover a praying mantis tucked into her center close to the slender trunk. This little fellow would start waving his legs and washing his face as soon as I started watering! Every morning I touched her boughs tenderly, commenting on how beautiful she was becoming. I told the tree that when winter came I would festoon her with tiny white lights to celebrate the low shadowy light and the coming of the winter solstice. Whenever I spoke to the little tree she seemed to listen; we were developing a reciprocal relationship that I could sometimes feel.

Although I soon had small cottontails eating seed I left around the tree each morning, I noticed that the rabbits never chewed on the tree. Researching junipers in general I read that they are dimorphic, meaning that they have two growth forms. One is upright, and the other much more common is bush-like opening to the sun like a flower. Even the biggest trees are not taller than 40 feet. The seedlings (like mine) bear bluish green awl shaped leaves that are pointed at the tip probably to discourage herbivores like my cottontails. Mature leaves are a darker green and scale – like in appearance. The older leaves are borne in pairs or whorls of three and are rounded at the tip, I noticed, while examining older junipers around the house and in the washes. The arrangement of the adult leaves in a circular pattern gives the twigs and uncanny resemblance to coral.

Although juniper and cedar are related – both belong to the cypress family – cedars produce small woody cones like the white cedar I have in my yard at home (my  northern winter solstice tree), while junipers produce a bluish berry –like cone. Junipers bear both male and female cones although the female cones look like highly polished blueberries and take two to three years to ripen. Most junipers are dioecious, meaning that male and female cones are found on separate trees and once you observe the difference it is easy to differentiate between the two. The male cones are brownish in appearance and very small. These latter produce pollen sacs that release pollen grains in spring and summer. As the trees age some of the trunks become twisted and gnarled (no one knows why). Stout single trunks or multiple stems originating from the ground are the most common forms the trees exhibit.

Junipers are one of the top ten plants for wildlife. Many birds love their berries and around here the Cedar waxwings, Townsend solitaires, Scaled quail, and American robins flock to the sprawling juniper cluster (one tree, many small trunks) that shades the ground outside my back door. Last fall the branches were loaded with ripe berries and now they are scattered everywhere on the ground beneath the juniper. I also see Dark Eyed juncos, Canyon towhees, and House finches scratching the ground under the tree. I sometimes see the thrasher with his curved beak hopping around. Does he eat the berries too? Collared doves, the Pinion jays, Magpies, and Western bluebirds gather in these trees for protection from hawk predation. And now that winter winds are fierce and deadly, birds of all kinds seek protection from the bitter cold in the junipers’ thick branches.

What I love best about junipers is that most of them get to live out their natural lifespan of a few hundred to a few thousand years of age. In Maine our mature (a tree is now considered mature at 20 – 30 years old) trees are logged and great swathes of raped mountain forest surround me on all sides. My guess is that the next generation of Maine children will not know what an old tree looks like.

Coming to Abiquiu for the winter has given me a reprieve from my grief around ongoing tree slaughter. I notice that most folks around here don’t pay much attention to junipers except to think of them as trees that are used for fuel, while I am almost obsessed by them, their colors and shapes, their thickening (sometimes) reddish stringy trunks, the way they can endure the effects of wild winds, and the tenacity with which they cling to cliff edges, or bend over washes with their roots exposed, inhabiting places where nothing else can grow. And it is also true that they can be a “pioneer” species since they most definitely thrive in poor soil. To survive in dry climates, like the high desert I am living in, junipers have long taproots and extensive lateral root systems that can efficiently obtain moisture where none seems to exist. I think junipers are heroic!

I tried to identify the species of my little juniper and reached the conclusion that she was probably a Utah juniper (Juniperus utahenis) because this species is the most common in the mountains of the southwest and northern New Mexico growing at elevations of 3000 – to 8000 feet. Together with the pinion pine these two comprise most of the trees in this area and are common on our mesa tops and ridges. Adult junipers define the landscape with their glacial growth, half dead half alive appearance and fragrant aroma. Because of their intolerance to shade they are always spaced apart.

These hearty trees have been used by pueblo people for millennium for firewood, building material, roof poles or vigas, as a food, and medicinal source. The fibrous bark can be woven into sandals or substituted for tobacco. Leaves and berries were/are collected and brewed to make herbal teas to treat colds, headaches, and stomach ailments. Even the hard seed shells discarded by ground squirrels provided a source of beads that were sown into clothing.

Junipers have a potent anti-viral compound – deoxypodophyllotoxin (DPT) – which as been shown to be effective against viruses that cause flu and herpes. Today, when the overuse of antibiotics has made us resistant to treatment we need to think about using natural alternatives. Juniper is certainly one possibility.

Juniper is probably most well known for its berries that produce the distinctive bitter flavoring in gin (ugh).

Juniper is used in Earth-based rituals that call for the literal manifestation of some kind energy and/or information. It is also used as an incense to welcome new animals into one’s home. As a smudge it is used for purification as it puts negative ions back into the air much like balsam or sage does. For long-term protection, a sprig of juniper is hung over doorways.

Last summer I brought in bouquets of juniper branches to scent the house, and to express my gratitude for living in a place where these old trees thrived. On hot days a sweet pungent aroma wafted through the air and my dove Lily B would fly down to the table, pull off bunches of berries and roll them across the stone floor! Outside I continued to care for the little juniper…

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When I first read that the juniper tree was a symbol for the goddess Astarte, I was amazed. How many times have I discovered after falling in love with a particular kind of tree that she first belonged to a goddess? The ancient Phoenician Astarte is one of the oldest Middle Eastern goddess’s dating back to the Neolithic period (5-8000 BCE) and the Bronze Age. According to legend Astarte descended to earth as a fiery star. She was also associated with the moon. A celestial goddess, she was a bringer of life.

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Last evening when I was walking home from a party I was stunned by the clarity of the starry firmament over my head. I immediately thought of Astarte as a star goddess because this was her realm, and yet, when I passed the little juniper I thought of this same goddess as a tree rooted securely in the ground. With the winter solstice just four days away it seemed fitting that both sky and earth were included in this turning of the wheel as aspects of Astarte who (I imagined) fell to earth and was shining her light through the thick branches of a prickly young juniper tree, a tree that loved and held her tight. So ends my story of what happens on this Winter Solstice Night.

El Rito Creek

 

 

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Every day the dogs and I take our favorite walk on the same dirt road behind the house. To the North the stunning peaks of the Sierra Negra mountains cast deep shadows in December’s low light. We usually head East stopping to feed three donkeys, one llama, two alpacas and a horse all of whom are friends of ours.

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Climbing the steep spiked Juniper hills we pause at the gorge to see if the coyote is around. Peering down into the shadowy cracked – earth canyon is like entering another world. Coy – wolves also inhabit this general area, and once or twice I saw a mountain lion’s tracks in one of the sandy gullies.

Evidently the puma, who needs a lot of acreage for its territory, was just passing through, because the tracks stopped after a day or so… Mountain lions, I read in the petroglyph literature, are mostly associated with the old “warring” activities of the pueblo people of this area. It’s important to understand that these skirmishes between Indigenous tribes usually did not end in anyone’s death, although hostages were sometimes taken.

One of the fiercest petroglyphs I have ever seen was that of the Mountain Lion, whose habit of ambushing its prey, tearing it to shreds, and caching the remains probably taught the Indigenous people how to use stealth when raiding millennium ago. Petroglyphs in this area show the claws of this cat always extended and face is often drawn or pecked into the rock with bared teeth. A formidable predator, the Puma.

The road veers left and steep gravelly hills rise up on both sides of the road. To the Northeast an opening between the cliffs offers a sudden surprise as a low plain appears stretching out for miles. Gazing into the distance I take pleasure in noting the reddened stone that comprises the mesa on the other side of the valley. Beyond the valley to the east, the snow capped Rocky Mountains rise up dramatically. If we stop for a moment the gurgling sound of the El Rito creek becomes audible as it meanders through the valley eventually making its way to the Chama River. There are few houses in this area and I love the sound of silence that accompanies us on this walk. The dogs are alert scanning for scent.

Descending the hill we reach a small arroyo and cutting a sharp right we walk across an overgrazed wasteland almost devoid of vegetation in places to reach the sandy shores of the creek. My friend Beatrice from Abiquiu pueblo tells me that this creek carries water from the El Rito mountains downstream. Sometimes, during the winter the water freezes, and I have already seen evidence of this freezing and thawing because broken sheets of ice are heaved up against one another in some places.

When I let the dogs off their leashes they take off racing across the sand, jumping into the creek and lapping the water with great enthusiasm. I find a rock to sit on, enjoying the warmth of the sun and another view of “the reptiles” so named (by me) because these layers of ridge-back mountains rise up to the southeast like some mysterious prehistoric creature, blanketed by a deep blue firmament.

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I am a “water woman” by nature; I have never lived anywhere for any length of time that didn’t have moving water nearby. Here in the high desert this small creek has become an oasis for me – a place to reflect and dream. What I love the most about these early winter days is being able to sit on a stone in a warm sun in December, listening to the sound of water flowing while remembering keenly the sun’s absence at this time of year in Maine in conjunction with sub -zero temperatures!

Guadalupe’s Night

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Guadalupe’s Feast day is today December 12th. For years I yearned to be physically closer to where Guadalupe first appeared on that snowy December day outside of Mexico City in the 1500’s. This year I am living in a house that contains a niche outside the back door with a (whitened) Guadalupe surrounded by her Castilian roses. At the Pueblo in Abiquiu a Mass was celebrated in her honor yesterday. Did you know that she once wore a crown? When I light the ruby candle on my altar…I await her coming, or not.

I came to Abiquiu in part to move closer to you Guadalupe, behaving as if distance really matters. If you chose, I believe you could incarnate out of the fire that I just lit in your honor…I long to feel your presence inside this small Mexican adobe house, one you would probably approve of…but perhaps you have more important work to do. Just know that I will be waiting.

The sky will bow low in Guadalupe’s honor during this night… and some stars will fall to earth as meteor showers. A light wind ruffles the chimes. The waxing moon will be full tomorrow…

I think of Guadalupe standing on a crescent moon alone, no babe in her arms. An angel holds her aloft. Doesn’t anyone notice that she is different from the others? She is the only one of the Virgin- one unto herself – Marian goddesses to stand alone, even if she is still depicted in her sister Mary’s robes. Her skin is like chocolate, smooth and creamy, a Lady of Light who rose out of the Earth on Tonantzn’s hill. A spring erupted out of the ground to announce her coming.

Oh Lady of the Darkest Nights,

take flight and comfort those who need you…and know that I shall never forget the story of your coming. An image of you is emblazoned in my heart.

Tonight, I honor you as Lady of the Mountains, the Desert, the Forest, the Animals, the Plants Lady of the life bringing Waters. You are not a Mother. You were born of the Earth and Water and embody both, the twin female powers.

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Sculpture created by artist Armando Lopez

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