Stories the Stones Tell

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Metate

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The potshard in the center seems to have a “face”… although I bring some of these artifacts home for closer inspection it is part of my spiritual practice to return them to the land.

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Mano

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Avanyu, spirit of the waters

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The storied land

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Another view of the stones that tell stories.

A couple of days ago I was climbing a mesa with my friend Iren who is “a guide to the wild places” – those places off the beaten track where stories are told by the stones and the Earth that supports them.

As a severely directionally dyslexic person who cannot tell her left from right navigating this hidden world would be impossible without Iren’s deep knowledge of this land, her expertise, and her love for stone.

As we climbed through mountains of human garbage and four wheeler tracks we discovered potsherds at our feet. Picking up the predominantly black and white pieces for inspection I found myself wondering about the women (and children) who gathered the clay, shaped it into pots, and fired the vessels to store food. There are so many untold women’s stories hidden in these clay fragments…

Female scholarship (see Marija Gimbutas, Buffie Johnson, and more recently women scholars like Helen Hye Sook Hwang, Susan Hawthorne, and Carol Christ’s tireless research in women’s prehistory to mention just a few – reminds us that women have been fashioning clay vessels and sculptures for millennia. The imprint of women’s hand prints can be seen on Neolithic goddess sculptures and pots throughout the world.

Here in Abiquiu and the surrounding high desert I wonder what specific activities these women might have been engaged in. We found a plethora of the black and white fragmented clay pots (some with very thick rims) of Indigenous Anasazi peoples who preceded later Pueblo cultures. I am especially drawn to the black and white shards that seem to have faces or are tree -like. Occasionally I spot a potshard made from red or micacious clay, a relic from later Indigenous inhabitants of this area. I wondered if the women ground these ancient artifacts into temper to strengthen the newer clay they dug and shaped into vessels for firing.

We studied the landscape around us for more clues to its original inhabitants. Iren spotted a petroglyph pecked into the rock. Avanyu, the Tewa Pueblo serpent, spirit of the waters, also lives here. We were overlooking a stunning valley with interlocking arroyos and even in drought we could see evidence of underground water seeping to the surface, dampening desert sand. I wondered if there were hidden springs somewhere on the mesa. There were so many potsherds that I speculated… Were some clay vessels actually made here, or more likely, maybe this was simply another very large self sustaining Indigenous Pueblo community… On this hill there were also many volcanic boulders, some appeared to have been deliberately placed in a circle…

Even more fascinating were the stones that were smoothed and hollowed out by women grinding foodstuffs into flour. I was surprised to see so many of these in one relatively small area indicating that many women (and children) congregated in this one place. These worked stones are called Metates that were and are still used by some Indigenous women to grind seeds, grains, maize into flour to be used in cooking. Some are portable; these were not.

The most unusual feature of these rocks is that there were a number of different sized hollowed out depressions in a single stone. I have a portable metate with three depressions on its upper surface, and Iren has some with depressions that I believe were used to grind lime treated maize during food preparation. But these particular grinding stones not only had hollowed out spaces in the upper surface of the rock but along the sides as well.

Researching possibilities for why this might be so I learned that some immovable metates were used to grind acorns and plant materials of different sizes for medicinal uses on the actual sites where the plants/trees thrived. Since women were also responsible for medicinal healing I guessed that at one time there were roots and herbs that were found here and pulverized into health remedies. Since grinding acorns created small pockets that looked like dimples in the rocks, and we saw a number of these small holes I wondered if at one time oak forests were abundant here. But of course my all of my perceptions are pure speculation because only the land holds the truth of the story.

I spied a suspiciously round volcanic stone and immediately intuited with excitement that I had picked up a mano, the word used to describe the kind of stone that might be used to grind up plant material. I found one many years ago in Tucson, and when I took it to the park’s wildlife center, they confirmed that I had discovered this tool beside one of the arroyos I walked regularly. About a half a mile back I had seen a metate situated on the edge of the arroyo and imagined the women gazing into the talking waters as they worked…

As I wandered over this particular landscape I had the same powerful feeling that I had when I came here the first time – namely that the Earth was attempting to communicate the story of her earlier inhabitants, to us, and perhaps to anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen.

So perhaps my speculations are grounded in the wisdom of Powers of Place that intersect with ordinary time. Stillness, simple questions, and keen attention to the land seem to allow ancient truths to surface through Earth’s body educating those who choose to listen about the lives of the women who lived and worked here so long ago.

Befriending the Dragon

 

Yesterday, for the second time I visited a cultural art exhibit titled “Word Play” organized by artist Sabra Moore at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola New Mexico.

 

This showing is a feast for an artist’s eyes with some beautiful and moving paintings, sculptures, and mixed media art hung on the walls, and positioned on various stands in one room by Indigenous, Mexican, and American peoples of New Mexico.

 

Outside the exhibit, which initially included a wonderful sculptured real life word-play see saw by artist Iren Schio and David Fant there is also an amazing dragon created out of scrap metal created by the Northern Youth Project that Iren and David participated in.

 

This extraordinary sculpture was created out of metal “junk” and other discarded materials that people have thrown away (I put junk in quotes because artist friend Iren Schio has given me an appreciation for discarded objects that are routinely incorporated into extraordinary art works that leave me in a state of perpetual awe). These materials litter our roadsides with human garbage also revealing how we really feel about this precious Earth that sustains us. In the picture it is impossible to see the detail but the dragon’s head is made of metal can openers! Flowers and other cut metal objects adorn the base of this amazing creation.

 

What I love best about this sculpture is that this is a very friendly dragon. He even has rainbow colored eyelashes. I just wanted to stay close to him!

 

When Iren sent me the picture of me with the dragon her caption was “Sara befriends the Dragon!” Perfect, I reflected with gratitude.

 

It was only later that it occurred to me that befriending our dragons is an honorable quest that I have been engaged in throughout my life. If each of us could meet with our own dragon selves and converse with them we could become friends. By doing so we could naturally reduce the dark shadow of denial, projection,* self imposed mind fog, distraction, addiction, and lack of awareness that permeates this culture of greed, hatred, and societal breakdown.

 

We could then open the door to genuine communication, feeling compassion towards others, human and non-human species alike, and dedicate ourselves to repairing the damage we were once unable to own or work with. By pulling back our own arrows of projection we allow others to be who they are, and best of all we become able to see ourselves in all our vulnerabilities, our strengths, and can make peace with our character flaws by honoring them as a part of ourselves. This radical act automatically opens the door to experiencing our own light as well as the light in others, no small thing in these dark days.

 

My dreaming body has taught me is that be- friending the dragons in my life is also the way I can continue to respect and love myself.

 

It is my earnest hope that we can awaken from our collective trance to encounter our own dragons. Only they can help redress our own imbalances and help reverse the effects of the planetary crisis we find ourselves living through.

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Please look again!

Thanks again to Iren Schio for this photo!

* Projection is is quality that all humans use to defend themselves from their own darkness by projecting unwanted qualities onto others (humans and animals) unconsciously. Humans also project their own positive qualities onto others. It is my belief that we need to be taught as children that this is something we do naturally so that we can begin to confront our own demons before they become who we are.

 

 

 

Edge Places

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In the pre-dawn sky

I meet myself

at the river’s edge,

breathing into the promise

of a new day.

The sky is Nature’s painting.

Salmon and pink, bruised plum

Smudged charcol blue gray clouds…

The golden eye of the rising sun

shatters the moment…

My gaze turns inward.

Within the hour

the white glare of this star

will insist that I turn away.

Love songs break the silence.

Birds begin animated conversation

from bud swelled trees.

The waters of the rising river

and unfurling globe willow greens

become the mirror

in which I witness paradox.

Nature repeats Her Story of Becoming

with each new day,

Yet She is also always changing colors,

so why not me?

 

Working notes:

 

I wrote this poem after my daily pre-dawn walk to the now rising rushing waters of Red Willow river to witness the coming of dawn. This practice centers me, offering me a moment for gratitude, although it often raises urgent questions… Lately my energy level has been so low due to passing (I hope) illness that I find myself out of step with the burgeoning of spring.

 

And yet, I also know that this is part of a yearly cycle of descent that I make. It is apparently necessary for me to pass through this dark door, a gateway that separates me from the joy of this seasonal return of the sun each spring, in part due to the strain of the brilliance of the spring sun puts on my very sensitive aging eyes.

 

In truth I thrive in the edge places.

Passages

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This morning I received news that the Director of the college I attended for both undergraduate and graduate work died peacefully yesterday.

 

Margo Macleod intimidated me as a student (and I was not young either) but I admired her honesty and integrity. She certainly appeared to be a stern presence; and as I remember her she was always dressed in black. But I also knew from Lise Weil, one of my feminist/writer professors, that Margo loved animals.

 

When graduation approached I arrived at Goddard with my little terrier, Star, who was my closest family member. No human family members would witness this most important graduation (As a matter of fact, this late entry into graduate work seemed to be something of a source of ridicule to my grown children. My mother simply dismissed my college work with a chilling silence.)

 

I am severely dyslexic with numbers and directions; I do everything backwards and navigating the daily world is an unbelievable challenge. I cannot open water bottles or doors; driving is almost an impossible nightmare, and using the computer, even today, continues to be a frightening experience, creating heart pounding anxiety the moment I attempt to do anything new with technology.

 

If it hadn’t been for Margo’s approval I wouldn’t have made it through my first semester at Goddard because I was terrified of the computer and submitted all required work by handwriting it.

 

In today’s mechanized world I am a total outsider.

 

My experience at Goddard with Margo at the helm, (including my work with Lise Weil whose cat essay motivated me to choose her as an advisor) helped me develop into the writer I have become.

 

When I arrived for my final graduation I discovered that Margo had given permission for Star and I to approach the podium together to receive my degree. Star was jubilant and barked excitedly when applause began, so the two of us walked up the isle, obtaining “our” diploma together!

 

What other school official would sanction such a partnership?

 

I will remain indebted to Margo Macleod for the rest of my life for this act of unbelievable generosity.

 

Something of Margo’s warm – hearted animal spirit will live on through me until I die.

 

Thank you Margo.

 

May the animals you so loved be with you on this next stage of your journey.

 

Postscript: I chose my favorite desert primrose that is blooming with such abandon around my friend Iren’s doorstep as the photo include with this narrative. This flower has no stem and blooms out of a rosette that appears on the desert floor. Oddly, just after I picked out this photo a single white lily bud opened on the table next to me, intoxicating me with her scent as if she too was commenting on Margo’s passing. Flowers, of course, communicate with other species through scent. Seconds later a white winged dove began to coo wildly outside my window.

Horus takes to the Sky in the Spring

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Every April I look to the skies for the red tailed hawks and think of the Egyptian God Horus a solar deity who in almost every mythological tradition takes on the hawk -like quality of messenger and protector. Often the bird is depicted as an actual god/goddess. Tewa speaking Pueblo dancers adorn their headdresses with the feathers of the red tailed hawks. The stylized Eye of Horus/Isis/Maat/Hathor (note the androgynous quality suggesting the “both and” quality associated with divinity) is a relatively well-known symbol for this bird that in the natural world has unbelievably keen eyesight…

 

April is also the month I buried my brother’s ashes by my brook on Earth day. For a week afterwards the branches of the trees around the rich woodland earth and stone that sheltered some of his bone fragments were continuously occupied by red tailed hawks that scared away all my other birds during the day. I believed, then as now, that the spirit of my brother had incarnated through the visitation of these hawks (that normally avoid crowded woodland areas) to let me know how important it was that I had completed the circle of his life in linear time. My mother also died in April… no wonder this is such a charged month for me.

 

Just yesterday down by the river I witnessed three red –tailed hawks initially soaring in circles dazzling me with an amazing aerial display. Eventually one of the two smaller males disappeared ( these birds are sexually di –morphic with females being about a third larger than the males), his red tail shimmering russet and gold in the steel blue morning sun leaving the other two to rise and plummet in broad -tailed splendor over my head.

 

Identifying these hawks is relatively easy because of their size (they weigh up to 4 pounds and have a wingspread of 56 inches or more) Slow syncopated wing beats are also characteristic of red tails. Their actual plumage is variable in color although speckled cinnamon seems to be a dominant color at least when the light is right. Their bellies are buff and look white against the sky. Immature red tails lack a rust colored tail. All have a haunted rasping cry or scream.

 

Mating dances like the one I witnessed are a common sight at the end of March and April because it is time to nest and lay eggs. Red tails reach sexual maturity at about three years, take a single mate (probably for life), build a shallow nest in tall trees which they may reuse, and raise one brood of two (usually) a year. They are equally at home in field or desert. After the female incubates for a month, the downy hatchlings stay with the parents for 6 – 7 more weeks. The voracious chicks require much food and grow slowly keeping both parents busy with hunting. By the time they fledge they are as big as their parents.

 

The red tail hawk ranges throughout North America into Canada and northern Alaska reaching as far south as Panama. These birds are not migratory except in Northern latitudes. When I first moved to the mountains of Maine thirty years ago all red tails fled south during the winter months, but more recently can be seen scrying the skies all year long. Farther south like here in Abiquiu, they are year round residents.

 

Carnivores by nature these raptors have strong hooked beaks; their feet have three toes pointing forward and one pointing backward. Their diet primarily consists of small rodents including rabbits, hares, moles, gophers, snakes, and lizards. They will also kill quail, grouse, and pheasants.

 

Since the beginning of recorded history birds of prey have been both despised and revered. The sport of falconry – using raptors as hunting aids – has been practiced in Asia and Egypt since 3000 BCE. There is a movie called “The Eagle Huntress” well worth seeing that allows the viewer to get a bird’s eye view of what it is like to fly and hunt like a hawk or eagle.

 

Yet these birds continue to be ruthlessly destroyed because of real or imagined competition with humans for game and domesticated animals. This disgusting behavior highlights the outdated and destructive “man against nature” paradigm that puts human rights above those of all animals. We are learning the hard way that being at the top of the food chain is now killing us too with ground water, polluted air, plastics, salt, clothing and other aspects related to a ruthless industry that privileges humans over other species.

 

Although in some states raptors are protected, they are also indiscriminately shot by people who believe they are pests because they occasionally kill chickens.

 

No matter how frequently I see these hawks I remain in awe of them, in part perhaps because of my personal story but also because in their aerial majesty they highlight the wonder of all birds that inhabit the skies marking the changing of seasons.

River Offerings

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Today while walking along Red Willow River and listening to the rush of wild waters racing over rounded stone, I felt suddenly compelled to make the river an offering. This felt a bit strange because just last night I had celebrated the full moon and the rising river water by writing and reenacting a simple ritual as I do each month as part of my own practice.

 

Returning to the house I removed the two small branches of blooming peach blossoms from an old bottle and returned to the river’s edge to complete my task.

 

When I cast the flowers into the churning grey green water it felt just right. In that next instant I had an insight: Whenever I locate myself in a mythological context the powers of the ancient goddesses and gods live through me. Something was coming through.

 

I hadn’t been thinking about anything, certainly nothing mythological, but I do have a strong academic background in this discipline, so immediately I wondered who it was I might be relating to. Vaguely, I recalled the rising Egyptian Nile…

 

When I looked up the Egyptian river goddess I discovered that her name was Anuket, which means “to embrace.” These two words described perfectly the satisfying experience I was living as I witnessed the water rise over the once expansive beach.

 

When the Nile flooded in the spring the Festival of Anuket began. Anuket was believed to be a goddess who nourished the fields with her rising waters in preparation for spring planting. She also protected both the river and its source. During this ceremony people made offerings – precious gold and other gifts – to the river out of gratitude for the life bringing water.

 

The taboo against eating certain fish was also lifted at this time suggesting that Anuket had a fish form that was also eaten as part of the spring festival. She was also linked to the great cobra, a goddess/god associated with water and Hathor, Great Goddess of the Moon.

 

It is intriguing to note that in Egyptian mythology religious beliefs were not predicated on theological principles. The focus was always on the relationship between the people and their many deities all of which represented some aspect of Nature, and the intersection between the two.

 

I was struck by the confluence of so many diverse religious beliefs. Here in Northern New Mexico Avanyu is the Spirit of the Waters and Pueblos peoples have a dance that is done in his honor during the spring months. His petroglyphs and pictographs line our canyon walls. Today is also Easter Sunday in Christian traditions, and oddly it is also April Fool’s Day!

 

“Let us be chroniclers of loss.” One woman’s words also soared through my mind like the red tail hawk that sliced the air in two as he flew overhead (Horus?) as I remembered that in Abiquiu, the rising of the river is no longer a natural occurrence but is instead a result of opening of the dam. Nature has become a “resource” to be used by humans and then discarded. I next experienced a moment of searing grief as the present overshadowed the past.

 

Still, it is my earnest hope that the River Goddess and Avanyu will both be pleased by my humble offering of pale peach blossoms because I too honor the spirit of the rising waters as I participate in both ancient and extant traditions by allowing myself to become a receiver by opening to what is.