Charlie Russell

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Photo of Bear Biologist Lynn Rogers (left) and Naturalist Charlie Russell

 

This morning the sky was so clear and the birds were singing as I made my way down to the river to take in the pre – dawn splendor. Three kinds of grosbeaks were singing up the sun and hummingbirds zoomed in great arcs outside my window.

Little did I know that I would soon learn that one of the kindest and most sensitive men in the world, a truly dedicated naturalist and bear advocate had died.

In world renowned Bear Biologist’s Lynn Roger’s words taken directly from his website…

“Yesterday, May 7, bears and bear lovers lost Charlie Russell (76), my friend of many years. We learned from each other. We both learned directly from bears. He lived with bears. He fought for bears. There was nothing about bears we disagreed about. Charlie was one of the few people in the world who spent enough time with bears to really know them. It was always uplifting to talk with him or be with him. I remember the great time with him in June 2013 in the woods here with Lily (a wild bear) and the great talk he gave at Vermilion Community College that evening. I remember how he flew to Minneapolis on his own dime to defend me in the DNR hearing of 2014. We’ve talked several times since, and I’d been wanting to call him lately when I heard the news today. A (great) loss.”

(Lynn’s license to study collared bears was suspended in 2014 because his groundbreaking trust based research was changing the face of the black bear from voracious killer to a reclusive, shy, and very intelligent animal, and this dramatic shift of awareness threatened hunting, state agencies that support the killing of animals, and the NRA).

I never met Charlie but I read all of his books and watched the extraordinary documentary that Jeff and Sue Turner filmed –The Edge of Eden– so many times that I began to feel I knew this man intimately – and today, learning of his death – I am filled with grief. Charlie loved bears, allowed them to teach him how to live with them, learned to communicate with them on their own terms – not his – and demonstrated to the rest of us how compassion and care – giving towards wild animals can lead to intimate relationships between humans and non human species and at the same time allow bears (and by extension other animals) to remain free to live their lives in the ways that mattered to them, not people.

Charlie’s life was dedicated to answering his own question: How can humans learn to co -exist with wild bears in peace? He demonstrated how easily this could be done because bears by nature very sensitive, shy, and intelligent animals who want to get along with humans if only we would let them.

Charlie spent many years in Russia re-introducing captive grizzly cubs into the wilderness ‘proving’ that living with grizzlies was possible if one developed the proper trust based attitude. In every sense of the word Charlie was a devoted “bear mother” who demonstrated what could happen if humans approached bears with the respect they craved.

Like this naturalist, Charlie once naively believed that he could change the way bears were perceived. For the most part he was unsuccessful in this laudable endeavor.

(The most difficult lesson that I have learned in my own work with bears is that humans don’t want to change the story. We want and apparently need to continue to see bears as killers so that we can continue to slaughter them).

My sense about Charlie is that after having lived his entire life as a dedicated bear advocate, that in part, he may have died of a broken heart.

I also suspect that today wild bears know about Charlie’s death and are grieving because they lost such a fierce and gentle advocate and a most devoted friend.

 

 

 

 

 

Four Worlds

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Above: a Kaye

 

They came from

Life giving Waters,

emerging from a Lake

at the Beginning of time.

Avanyu –

Serpent,

Spirit of the River

pecked into stone

or painted

on canyon walls

embodies their story.

 

The Tewa settled above

the Great River Banks.

Roaring water flowed

through tributaries

mountain gorges.

The People gave thanks.

Water meant Life.

Each village was the center

of the Tewa’s First world.

 

Bound together by

Women who tended

holy household shrines,

prayed for rain,

created fires,

gathered seed,

ground food,

grew babies,

dug clay to shape

earthen pots.

This was the Second world

of the Tewa.

 

In the hills the men

hunted animals

for food and skins.

Both women and men

ploughed fields,

cultivating maize

as the Corn Mother

blessed them and

instructed them to do.

 

Here too were Kayes

Basalt stones shaped by

mortar and cupules

that marked

cardinal directions,

and burial middens.

Tewa communed with the dead.

Ancestors traversed Four Worlds

before returning to still waters.

 

The men danced prayers

bore holes in stone faces.

The women pounded

rock to awaken

the spirits at sunrise –

prepared medicines

and prayers in

this Third world

of the Tewa.

 

Far beyond the hills,

the men prayed for rain…

Four sacred mountains

held each village

in Earth’s peaceful embrace.

Earth, wind, fire and water,

North, east, south and west –

Four elements and directions

guided the People

in this Fourth world

of the Tewa.

 

Postscript:

 

This poem was written as a result of visiting a few of the pueblo ruins in this area, reflecting upon the meaning behind what I experienced especially with respect to the stones I encountered, going to the Pueblo dances, and before doing some research on the stones about which I knew nothing.

 

Kayes, the Tewa word for certain basalt stones helped me to enter the world of the Tewa on a deeper level when I discovered that their primary purpose was to help the people communicate with the spirit world… According to the Tewa the Kayes were places where offerings were made and the rock itself was also pounded to attract the attention of the spirits. The resulting, usually round, depressions are called cupules by anthropologists and they can be found on both the top and sides of certain rocks around the ruins. Sometimes these stones also had mortars for grinding and some sources suggest that women gathered in these places to prepare medicines. It is said that at certain times of the year the Tewa continue to gather at these stones for ceremony.

Sayain

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Photo credit: Tewa Women United

 

“If you’ve come to a Tewa Women United event or workshop, you may have noticed the presence of our beloved elders in the circle – always there, in the background and sometimes in the lead, supporting with love and wisdom.

The Circle of Grandmothers – Sayain in Tewa – is the nurturing breath that infuses and inspires the work of Tewa Women United. This inter-tribal, multicultural circle of women are either grandmothers themselves or supportive elders.

Sayain provide spiritual grounding and cultural guidance to the whole Tewa Women United community – staff, board, and program participants. Their presence reminds us how the reciprocity of inter-generational learning and sharing strengthens individuals, families, and communities.

On any given day, you’ll find Sayain creating healing gifts for trauma survivors (often pouches of lavender and other herbs), organizing and helping at community education sessions, hosting inter-generational support groups, and sharing knowledge of traditional language, arts. and practices.

As Beata Tsosie-Peña, coordinator of TWU’s Environmental Health and Justice Program says, “Beloved Tsaya In’, thankful for all these powerful women in my life who are there to guide our work, share wisdom and support. My heart is full when I’m with them. Make no mistake, they are fierce community activists and organizers!”

I have been privileged to attend  two seed gatherings where the Tewa women are recognized as elders who are leaders in their communities. Each time I have been moved by the power of these women who continue to fight injustices of all kinds.

Women like this offer me a glimmer of hope that it may be possible to return to more egalitarian practices – practices which celebrate our female elders for the wisdom keepers they are.

I have taken this material directly from their site.

What it means to be a Saya (grandmother) in the Circle of Grandmothers (Sayain)

I have totally embraced my age of reflective thinking.  I have always been an introvert and have great conversations with Creator and our ancestors for a long time. But I have never really shared such conversations with fear I might be deemed crazy. And when I do share, I am so far out that others really do not  get it.

But now 30 years later, I can share thoughts and prayers and not care if others get it or not. I love the slowness of time and I can go where I find myself to be. I love the laughter and joy sharing time with others. And now maybe I have some wisdom to share with the conversations at hand.

Grandmothers, young and older have spirits of earthen connections to other avenues of supporting each other. I love the ways of spontaneity. These times call for Sayain to be aware of so many aspects of lived narratives in contemporary times.

 

Climb like a Crab!

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The view from the ruin

 

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Cupules in the large stone

 

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Views from inside the Monolith

 

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Iren and I were going to explore an ancestral Tewa ruin named Ku’owingeh, situated above what seemed to be a shear cliff of rubble. The one time I looked up to the mesa I decided my best course was to keep my eyes lowered and simply to follow my dear friend, a gifted artist, mountain climber, lover of children, humans, animals, flowers and gardens – my idea of an Earth Mother incarnate.

 

For me the rubble is daunting especially when it’s almost perpendicular! (Brittle bones are an issue for me). As Iren climbed just ahead of me she pointed out hand and foot holds and I followed in her footsteps. Whenever I got stuck – her reassuring hand reached out to haul me up! No wonder I felt safe. I owed this woman!

Every meaningful adventure in the desert that I had since I came to Northern New Mexico two years ago couldn’t have happened without Iren’s knowledge of the powers of place and professional climbing skills. Among other attributes, Iren has a natural ability to know just how to traverse impossible gullies, use sophisticated switchback techniques (not visible to the un- initiated), and to find “steps” in the cracks between boulders. Every now and then she would remind me to crawl like a crab, using my hands and feet to heave myself up another few inches. Crawling like a crab appealed to me I discovered.  When climbing cliff faces I like being close to the ground with my eyes cast downward. (I also like the lizard’s approach to life, though he also scales sheer walls like Iren does!)

 

Finally we reached the summit and began to explore the huge area that was once a thriving ancestral Tewa Pueblo village. Potsherds were scattered everywhere. Some were worked and discarded pieces of flint (chert) that were used to make projectiles and other tools. We discovered two ceremonial circles one larger than the other dug into the earth and surrounded by boulders. We sat down in one. It was almost as if we were nesting inside this circle. The place exuded a sense of peace.

 

The most wonderful part of this ruin was the complete absence of recent human garbage. The cliff face protected the remains of the pueblo, and it was easier to experience the sense of the ancient Tewa pueblo people living here. The views, of course, were spectacular and as we meandered in silence over the mesa Iren was tracking a ceremonial boulder, which she found, of course!

 

This one had a series of depressions called cupules that had been painstakingly bored into the rock. I recalled the research that I had done for a previous nearby ruin we visited where many of these stones were clustered close together surmising at that time that many women ground herbs and medicines in the stone depressions on that particular mesa.

 

Here there was just that one large stone called a kaye with a number of pecked depressions or cupules on one side of its top. A few small pocked stones were scattered about in the general area but otherwise we saw little but gnarled juniper stands. The whole feeling of this place felt different but I didn’t know why… but it seemed to me that this one might have used for very different purposes.

 

Because I believe it is possible to access the past through the present in unusual ways, I paid close attention…

 

Fortunately, I have an open mind and a high tolerance for mystery, so simply being a part of this place that filled me with questions was fine with me – except for that one stone with its mysterious depressions.

 

Why just this one ceremonial (?) rock I wondered as Iren pointed it out. I ran my hands over its surface. Was a different sort of ritual practiced here – perhaps by men? I thought of the chert I had seen that was used for projectiles, knifes and other tools. I couldn’t know of course, but later I did some research on these cupules, and learned that they might be the earliest form of prehistoric art produced during the stone age (290,000 – 700,000 BCE). These impressions are found on every continent except Antarctica.

 

A cupule is defined as a hemispherical petroglyph created by human hands intentionally by a number of percussion blows that exist on a horizontal or vertical surface of a rock.

 

I noticed that on one side of the stone I touched that a spherical cup had been smoothed by repeated pounding, as if this depression had been used to pulverize something. I had seen these before at other ruins. The depressions in the top were more mysterious. According to the literature a cupule must possess some non-utilitarian or symbolic function but I am unable to accept this academic conclusion unequivocally because how can we possibly know?

 

The Tewa Pueblo landscape is vast and nuanced. It is conceptualized as a complex network of people, nature and the spirit world and each intersects with the other at sacred places known only to the Tewa, but not visible to outsiders.

 

For the Tewa, vertical space is bounded by three levels – the current world and an upper and lower world. Horizontal space is defined by the four cardinal directions. Horizontal space is also bounded by sacred mountain peaks whose center is the village. According to the prevailing scholarship the outermost sphere belongs to men who commune with ancestral rain spirits. The second layer belongs to both the men and the women and is composed of hills and the agricultural fields that surround the village. Only the inner circle belongs to the women. I can’t help wondering how heavy a patriarchal overlay obscures what might have been the story before the European invasion.

 

I have no idea how much time we spent on the mesa but I could have stayed much longer – something about the spirit of place was resonating like a drum.

 

When it was time to leave I was grateful that Iren knew of a less precarious descent, one that soon took us by way of dirt roads.

 

At one point we passed this amazing towering stone that was so large that was possible to climb into. Inside, it was lovely and cool and there were fantastic portholes that opened onto the opposite horizon. I was deeply distressed – no I was angry – to see this amazing monolith entirely defaced by modern graffiti, and it was easy for me to imagine how at one time this too must have been a sacred space.

 

I wouldn’t have missed this adventure for anything and I decided that in the future I would be only too happy to become a crab to climb up another mesa with Iren!

Mayflowers long for Rain

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I fling wildflower seeds to the wind

with my usual prayer

to the frog gods and Avanyu

Spirit of the River…

 

Mayflowers long for rain.

 

A great horned owl calls

from under a cottonwood tree,

drops a speckled feather,

haunts the night with her song.

 

Mayflowers long for rain.

 

Under a protected porch

a cluster of green leaves floats

a bouquet of lemony blossoms

gifting the afternoon sun.

 

Mayflowers long for rain.

 

The advent of the dancing May

marks a seasonal turning

not to be ignored.

Even in harsh white light

the song of Earth’s renewal

presents herself :

 

a man sprinkling “weeds”

with ground water,

a cacophony of birds,

wild mustard eating rabbits,

crackling roots,

vibrating tree trunks,

sage leaves,

plump buds,

windblown seeds.

 

Wildflowers long for rain.