Toadwise

 

A Tale for a Life Lover

 

Last night I was thinking about the giant western toad that is living in my garden when I had a peculiar thought: Write a story about the Toad and an Old Woman and call it A Tale for a Life Lover. At this very moment I heard my toad’s rasping guttural cry outside my window. I was so shocked I got up and went out on the porch, hoping to hear the call again, but the toad only spoke once. Afterwards, I wondered if I had imagined it.

 

When the giant western toad appeared in my yard last week I had been in a state bordering on despair over baffling health issues and the ravages of Climate Change. Maybe it is no longer possible for me to separate the two? After the visitation I sensed that the toad’s abrupt appearance meant something beyond the amazing fact that I had met a giant toad who apparently had been living here all along.

 

Some preliminary natural history research revealed that the western toad is becoming extinct in the Southwestern states due to UV light, chemicals polluting water, vulnerability to other toxins, loss of habitat etc. so I was even more grateful to have a venerable Grandmother Toad living here near the river’s edge. She must be a grandmother of many thousands –her impressive size suggests her sex and her age.

 

Toads literally change forms; they are shapeshifters beginning their lives in vernal pools as strings of eggs becoming “toadpoles.” They metamorphose quickly into lung/skin breathing terrestrial toadlets moving away from the water, who, if they survive predation, become adult toads that inhabit meadows and mesas. Most toads also have poisonous parotid glands whose secretions can irritate the skin; a few are deadly. Toads deal with the heat and lack of rain by spending most of the day under protective leaves in gardens, underground or in a burrow, emerging at dusk or during rain to hunt. During a drought, they do not breed. In the winter they hibernate. Toads also shed their skins and often eat them. Mine still had sloughed off skin attached to her back legs. Adults are also long lived, even in the wild.

 

Two days after meeting Toad who had just shed and eaten a skin I also found an empty snakeskin. Discovering two creatures that shed their skins almost simultaneously couldn’t be coincidence and helped me to prioritize the probable importance of some kind of personal transformation that I was undergoing.

 

I have intuited by living my life and following my dreams that if I want to learn more about how to be in the world I needed to turn first towards Nature to provide me with a Guide and then to mythology to unravel her/his story. I know a lot about toads having raised so many from tadpoles… so I investigated Toad’s mythology.

 

Christianity demonizes both women and toads attaching both to evil, darkness, sorcery, and poisoning, a too obvious distortion of Patriarchy which seeks to control both Nature and women and therefore isn’t of much use. Too one sided. However, what emerges in other mythologies is Toad as a powerful figure, a literal manifestation of the Earth Mother.

 

Marija Gimbutas mytho – archeologist and scholar traces the toad back to the early Neolithic period 8000 – 5000 B.C. in old Europe when a toad shaped figurine with a flower shaped head was discovered at Sesklo 6000 B.C. – 5800 B.C. The toad/frog motif is common in Neolithic pottery, especially in Italy and Crete. Gimbutas doesn’t make it clear what the distinction is between the Frog and Toad Goddess beyond that the former seems to be associated more frequently with birth and the latter concerns herself more with death and regeneration, a possible distinction I find useful. Certainly both are two facets of one female goddess as Creatrix/Destroyer.

 

More recently the Egyptian Goddess Creatrix Haquit was portrayed as a woman/frog. Hecate of Greece has a name Baubo that also means toad. Gimbutas also writes that the names given to the toad link it with the goddess in many European languages, for example, hexe in German, and fata in Italian dialects. All words refer to the ability of this goddess to read the future as prophetess. But primarily the toad was associated with the powers of death and her ability to restore life.

 

In the Americas I found more recent Indigenous mythology on the Toad as Goddess. Tlatechtli is a Pre – Columbian (1200 – 1519) goddess belonging to the Mexica. Although Tlatechtli’s name is masculine modern scholars interpret this toad figure as female because she is squatting giving birth. Some see her as crouching under the earth, mouth open waiting to devour the dead. Since the Aztec culture was a warring male dominated Patriarchal one I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the Earth Goddess/Toad was seen as masculine to the Mexica.

 

In Mesoamerica we find Toad widely represented in art, often with feline or other non-naturalistic attributes, including jaguar claws and fangs. These images can be regarded as versions of Tlaltecuhtli. In contemporary Mexico, as in Guatemala, and throughout South America toads play a role in myth, sorcery, shamanism, and in curing/healing.

 

In South America the story of Toad begins with the birth of the divine hero twins when their natural mother is killed by the Jaguar People. The unborn twins are saved by Toad Grandmother, who is Mistress of the Earth, Owner of Fire, as well as Mother of the Jaguars, who can change back and forth between jaguar and toad. As the black jaguar she is a threat to humankind, as well as to other non human species. This wild cat aspect of the toad interests me because “cat women” are sometimes experienced as negative figures, perhaps legitimizing the dark side of the female in a concrete way.

 

Toad Grandmother rears the twins teaching them to hunt, cure, etc. but eventually they kill her. From her dismembered body comes food – cassava, or bitter manioc, and other useful plants. Toad as Grandmother in this story dies violently but also literally transforms herself in the process becoming food for the people even after she is slaughtered. This profound level of transformation suggests her immortal nature.

 

There are also many related stories in which a culture hero is taught hunting skills, etc., by a Toad who seems to be identical with the Earth goddess in the twin tradition. Myth’s abound in which an Indian takes aim at a giant supernatural toad, only to have her disappear and reappear elsewhere in the form of a gigantic black jaguar.

 

In many respects the most interesting South American version of the Earth mother as Toad is that of the Tacana of lowland Bolivia. In the male-dominated pantheon of the Tacana, the Earth Mother is one of the few female goddesses, but she is clearly of fundamental importance. She is also known as Pachamama, Guardian of the Earth.

 

In her animal form as a live toad (Bufo marinus – a toad with very toxic properties) she is kept in a circular hole dug below the altar of the temple somewhat reminiscent of the sipapu, or place of sacred emergence in the Hopi kiva, or the emergence hole of the subterranean gods of the Mexican Huichol Indians. The toad’s home is kept covered with a cloth, or, more, usually, a flat disk of cedar wood. Curiously she is fed a diet of frogs, which harkens back to Gimbutas’s distinction between the toad and the frog suggesting that the toad is more powerful than the frog because she symbolizes death and regeneration as well as birthing. On ceremonial occasions, offerings are made to this Toad goddess.

 

Toad is the originator of cultivated food plants and tropical forest horticulture. She is a culture bringer incarnating as Earth Guardian and Mistress of the animals, especially those that make their home underground. She also functions as Bringer of the Seasons. She is the mother of Rain, and the Bearer of the Moon. In her negative aspect (as usual) she devours the dead. Toad is therefore a complex figure. On one hand she is a protector, mentor of shamans, mother, teacher, regenerator of the Earth, bringer of fire and cultivated plants, and on the other hand she is also a vicious killer and one who swallows the dead.

 

There are also some interesting parallels from Asia. Especially in China and Japan we find numerous traditions in which toads appear as creatures skilled in the magic arts, transformers, mentors, spirit helpers and alter egos of curing shamans, etc. There are a number of apparently quite ancient tales of sages living in mountain caves in the company of giant toads who taught them their magical knowledge and who function as their spirit companions and avatars. Some toads were feared as monstrous supernatural beings capable of inflicting death and destruction, others were highly regarded as benevolent creatures that could draw down the clouds and bring rain and radiant visions. Again and again we see Toad as the nurturing and frightening animal/human aspect of the goddess as Creatrix/Destroyer.

 

After this journey through toad mythology I returned to my original question about what messages my garden toad as Earth Mother, Guardian, might be trying to convey to me.

What follows is what I learned…

 

Toad reminds me that I need more protection from the sun (from the desert sun and from the fathers of patriarchy) than I am getting.

 

Even more challenging S/he models that I have to shed an old skin by ingesting it. This second idea suggests that shedding an old skin or “letting go” is not enough. I also need to integrate more shadow qualities as I become a toad grandmother.

 

Toad is a terrestrial creature who spends a lot of time underground listening to the pulse of the Earth. As a goddess she communes with underground spirits. She also knows how to avoid extremes. Perhaps choosing to align myself with her “ground way of seeing” will help me to send down deeper roots and gain knowledge not otherwise available to me. She may help me to accept my amphibious nature, one that requires regular moisture to thrive, even as she breathes through her skin underground.

 

Toad also needs water to breed. This creative act is not possible in times of drought and escalating heat, one of the results of climate change that is impacting all life forms including myself. The Earth is on Fire. Perhaps all I can do is to witness what is, and ask her for guidance…

 

Toad is a healer and has been associated with female shamans for millennia so she carries the potential for healing splits that are the result of living in a patriarchal culture. I am just one of millions of women seeking closure for this collective wounding…

 

Toad comes to life during the nocturnal hours. Like her I can lean into starry skies and waxing moons just as she does finding nourishment by embracing the dark.

 

Since I am in the process of becoming an old woman I can’t think of a better Guide or Grandmother figure than Toad whose knowledge of destruction re –creation can help me negotiate the joys and difficulties of aging and dying with grace. Perhaps I can even acquire some wisdom in the process. Her venerable age reminds me that I too may have many more years to live. Only Toad and the cells of my dreaming body know for sure.

 

So ends this tale of Toad, an almost Old Woman and one who is surely a fierce lover of her own life.

 

Postscript: This is the second time I have written this essay! In it’s earlier incarnation I wasn’t clear how Toad was guiding me. Now I am.

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The Harvest Dance

(photo – author’s harvest – sunflowers and corn)

 

This morning on a brilliant blue morning, just a few days away from the Fall Equinox I attended the first set of the Harvest Dances at the Tewa Pueblo, Ohkay Owingeh.

 

This celebration of the harvest marks the end of the agricultural cycle that began early last spring. It seemed to me that the whole pueblo (that has more than 1400 residents) participated in this dance either as dancers or active listeners. When I arrived the colorful baskets full of corn, squash and chiles were laid on the ground outside of the Kiva. After about 15 minutes the drum began to beat as the dancers emerged from the Kiva led by four clowns with “ears” of corn tassels, followed by two old women dressed in black whose eyes were circled in white. All six wore bands of gray and white clay on their arms. The clowns wore kilts and were covered in these clay bands from head to foot. The other dancers followed in a single line as they entered the plaza.

 

People were bringing in baskets of more produce and now the dancers either threw or gave the outer circle of participants, the active listeners, the fruits and vegetables they were carrying. Pandemonium followed! Someone sailed a zucchini my way and fortunately I was not hit by it! Retrieving the vegetable from the ground I knew I would cook it for dinner, to remind me that everything about the harvest has to do with giving thanks.

 

All I could think of was that this was a Giveaway – a part of the ceremony that ritualizes the idea of community sharing. As people walked away with full baskets of produce and candy, others were bringing more into the plaza. I imagined this scene would play out again and again before each set all day long. This sharing of all the food is, after all, the core of genuine community.

 

After a few minutes the dancing and chanting, the Tewa form of prayer, began in earnest. The drummer and singers formed a dense inner circle and the clowns led the other dancers around; turning first one way and then another in union to the beat of a single drum as the songs continued. Many wore wreaths of flowers on their heads, a few men wore feathers. All the males wore rainbow colored ribbon shirts and belts and mustard yellow deerskin moccasins, the color of golden squash. A few men from the bear clan wore bracelets of bear claws and silver. The women were dressed in the traditional black dresses belted with colorful sashes, topped by striking shawls, many with scarlet roses. Their feet and calves were wrapped in creamy high deerskin moccasins. Some men and women continued to carry a squash or a pumpkin, strings of chiles and small watermelons too. Women still balanced baskets of produce on their heads as their feet followed the beat of the drum. I was deeply moved to see most women (and active women listeners that made the same gesture while standing) dancing with their hands pressing gently down as if caressing the Earth, while their feet tapped the ground lightly. Some women sprinkled corn towards the dancers. Others kissed the food they caught or were given. The dancers ranged from toddlers to old people and a few dogs joined in. One old woman/elder who was dancing stepped out of the circle to gather an infant in her arms to rejoin the circle.

 

I watched the clowns repeatedly gesturing in an arc first in one direction and then another throughout the set, as if acknowledging some force or biding farewell. I also watched the two women in black for clues as to their purpose but reached no conclusion except that to me at least they might symbolize death. At the south end of the plaza there was a huge collection of watermelon and other melons arranged in a beautiful circle that was included in the dance.

 

The slow beat of the drum and the repetitive singing and dancing prayers, the stunning regalia, the deep blue sky slowly put me in a quiet space where details were lost as I experienced the dance as one unbroken visual and audio whole, a weaving of the communal thread…

 

A dark shadow suddenly cut through the air and I turned to see a vulture circling. I don’t know what this bird means for the Tewa but certainly many noticed. To me  turkey vultures mark the return of the spring season with their tilting wings that cut through the sky. Soon now they shall be leaving to migrate south for the winter, and seeing this bird at the Harvest Dance seemed just right. Perhaps he too was saying goodbye to the Summer People…

 

When the set finally ended I was surprised to see that the clowns didn’t lead the dancers back to the Kiva. Since this was the first Harvest Dance I had ever attended I had nothing to compare it to. I knew enough to know that each dance is unique, and although some patterns are repeated just as traditional songs are always included along with contemporary versions others are conspecific to a particular dance. Today all the dancers and listeners gathered around the circle of melons, many of which were watermelon and each person partook of the feast, another meaningful way to give thanks for another successful growing season.

 

Dancing to the Four Directions, the Four Sacred Mountains, the Spirits of the living and the dead keep the Tewa World in Balance and this function is central to every Tewa ritual as is the emphasis on Community that extends itself to each dancer who becomes the Dance itself.

 

On the way home I couldn’t help thinking what a difference it would make if western culture put an emphasis, not on the individual, but on the diverse community of people who inhabit the Earth. Perhaps even now in this time of planetary crisis and disintegration we could learn something from these ancient people who have managed to survive the Europeans, Spanish colonization, slavery, and invasions from other warring tribes. If only we were still capable of being taught by those we once called primitive peoples…

 

I close with this beautiful translation of a Tewa song:

 

Oh our Mother the Earth, oh our Father the Sky,

Your children are we, and with tired backs

We bring you the gifts that you love.

Then weave for us a garment of brightness;

May the warp be the white light of morning,

May the weft be the red light of evening,

May the fringes be the falling rain,

May the border be the standing rainbow.

Thus weave for us a garment of brightness

That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,

That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,

Oh our Mother the Earth, oh our Father the Sky.

The House Lizards

When I moved into my adobe house the first of June two Sagebrush lizards were already living here. Delighted to make their acquaintance I named them the “house lizards” as an act of faith, hoping they would stay here for the summer.

 

Every morning a little after dawn I was out watering my hummingbird garden and tending my nasturtium patch on the east side of the house while these two followed my movements with apparent fascination. It was hot in June, unbearably so, even in the morning, and I noticed that the lizards favored this time of day. They especially appreciated the water that puddled around my nasturtium patch. They also liked to hide under the nasturtiums’ large deep green umbrella -like leaves.

 

I always struck up a conversation when the two appeared, asking how they were and often one or both would bob their heads up and down in response to the sound of my voice. One was a bit larger, so I assumed he was the male. And when I glimpsed the cobalt blue under his chin I knew I was right. Bobbing is normally part of the mating process but it must also be used as another form of communication because both lizards used this gesture when responding to the sound of my voice. The male was a beauty, dark with sharply etched scales, and lots of cobalt blue on his underbelly and the little female was cream colored, her markings less distinct. Since they were almost always together I assumed they were a pair. I hoped a clutch of eggs might be hidden somewhere nearby and that one day I might meet one of their offspring.

 

There were three more sagebrush lizards each with different markings that also lived in this immediate area, and I could tell the difference between them too. Two were males and one was a female. The male and female liked the curved garden wall but I was never certain that they were actually a pair, and there was another, almost gray, male sagebrush lizard that hung out around the compost heap out back.

 

I loved the way all of them watched me with those slanted lizard eyes often turning their heads in my direction as I passed by. I could get within inches of them if I didn’t move quickly, but they would dart away the moment I tried to stroke one.

 

The lizards appeared to have distinct territories. The pair of house lizards hung out on the eastern or southern wall, the other two chose the area around the curved garden wall also on it’s east and southern edge, the fifth lived out back zipping around on the ground or lounging on the wire that covered the compost barrel.

 

Sometimes one of the house lizards would cling to one of the house screens, a habit that reminded me of Shadow, my first lizard who actually lived inside the house I was renting until an arrogant insensitive woman who was always in a hurry crushed him in the door, killing him instantly. This tragedy happened two years ago just after moving here. The worst thing about this story was that I had warned her moments before she squashed him that he was clinging to the inside of the screen.

 

After Shadow’s death I was so heartbroken I wasn’t sure I wanted to make another lizard friend… but here I was in my new house with two lizards in particular that seemed to be developing an attachment to me, as I certainly was to them. All during the month of June many Whiptail lizards raced around here in the tall grass but the two house lizards had a penchant for clinging to the walls of the adobe structure. This behavior made me very happy because I believed they might escape predation by snakes and birds.

 

I also dug a small rock pool into the ground just beyond my garden for the lizards and hopefully to attract a toad or two. Oddly, the solitary compost lizard often sunbathed on the warm pink sandstone around the pool before returning to his territory behind the house.

 

I think it was in mid July that I realized that one of the curved wall lizards was missing. This was a little female. The other is still around but the remaining lizard now keeps to himself and scurries away whenever I get too close.

 

In late July I had a house lizard scare. The female developed some kind of white growth on the back of her neck. I tried to remove it but she resisted my attempts to touch her so I was unable to dislodge whatever it was. Then she disappeared. I was bereft, thinking I had lost her, and was it my imagination that her mate seemed to follow me around as if he needed a friend? I had never seen one of these lizards without the other being visible somewhere nearby until now.

 

A few days later she re-appeared much to my relief, and although there was still a white mark on her head, almost like a scar, the mass or growth was gone.

 

By mid August my nasturtium patch had mushroomed into a huge lizard friendly canopy, and when I would go to water the flowers at noontime (the plants wilted in the heat of the day, just like me) the two house lizards would suddenly materialize on the wall above the vines under which they had been hiding. Apparently, they didn’t like sudden cold showers!

 

One morning in late August I was inside the house and thought some kind of bug had attached itself to the screen. Going to the window to investigate I was startled to see that the tiniest sagebrush lizard clinging to the wire with spidery feet. I rushed out the door, and surprised both house lizards who were basking on the sill just beneath their offspring. This couldn’t be coincidence. Out of perhaps 9 or 10 eggs one little guy had made it. Now I had three house lizards, much to my delight! Lizards aren’t supposed to be attentive parents but why else did that one inch baby lizard stay so close to the adults?

 

When the baby disappeared about a week later I wondered if he had left to find his own territory? I missed seeing him – a lot – probably more than the house lizards who continued their normal routine, spending their days climbing around on the walls, preferring a southern exposure now that the sun was less intense, at least for the morning hours. Each afternoon they still retired to the nasturtium patch for a nap. Sometimes I couldn’t resist peeking in at them!

 

A few days passed and then the baby lizard surprised me by materializing on the steps that lead to the porch on the south side of the house. So he was still around after all. Since then, he appears irregularly but often enough to suggest that he is still using his parents’ territory at least the area around the porch. I last saw him yesterday. The literature states that young lizards practice dispersal. Perhaps this little one had siblings that had also survived and moved on? Around the same time tiny whiptails were scurrying around in plentiful numbers, but in the two years I had been here in New Mexico I had never seen a baby sagebrush lizard before this one.

 

I’ve read that males and females defend separate territories except during mating which would have occurred in early June, but my house lizards don’t seem to be following the rules because now it’s mid September and these two are still together. And yesterday afternoon the little one was on the south porch railing sunning himself, a perfect miniature sagebrush lizard.

 

Lizards are not supposed to develop attachments to humans, but I believe this assessment is wrong. In my life experience any wild creature will befriend a human that cares about them.

 

I was with the dogs on the east porch having my coffee in the warmth of the early morning sun today thinking about finishing this narrative when I glimpsed the male house lizard peering over the edge of the roof. In seconds he rushed down like a reptilian spiderman to cling to the wall next to me, and sure enough, just behind him the female appeared too. With September half over it won’t be long until the lizards find a safe burrow or debris to hibernate in, and I shall miss them dearly…

 

Hopefully, next April they will emerge from their winter’s sleep along with the little lizard to join a woman who loves them. And together we will celebrate another season under the heat of a warming spring sun.

The Grandfathers

Sapawe is an ancestral Tewa Pueblo located outside of El Rito. Until this weekend I had never been to the ruin. I didn’t know, for example, that it was the largest ruin in New Mexico, and perhaps the entire Southwest or that during the period it was built and occupied (1300- 1500’s) that ten thousand people lived there. Estimates suggest that there were at least 1,800 ground rooms and twenty – three kivas. Walking around the huge compound is something I have yet to do. It was too hot for me to do more than take in the astonishing view or traverse a small part of the plateau, briefly. I did note that there were artifacts and planned to come back another time – soon.

 

Early yesterday morning I met with four other people to see the shrine that was located outside the pueblo. This was the place that secret ceremonies were held on behalf of all the people in the pueblo. On the surface all that could be seen was a large raised stone circle, but there was a sense of presence there that felt both powerful and peaceful probably because few people knew about this shrine and the  natural power of place had not had a chance to dissipate. After having explored a couple of other Tewa ruins, I learned that it was very important to allow place to speak in its own time, and to allow that to happen I had to return again and again with an open heart, eyes that could see beyond the obvious, and an active inner ear … The land speaks to those that can listen.

 

When the leader, a kind local man pointed out an almost juniper hidden standing stone as the East entrance marker to the shrine, another man, who turned out to be Tewa, said quietly, “there is only one way in and one way out of the circle and it is marked by the stone which is always placed in the east.” Immediately, awareness struck – he knows what transpired here – I felt him “reading” the land as we walked. I watched carefully as he picked up an artifact. “This was probably a stone that held paint” he said, turning the oblong hollowed out stone over in his hands before placing it back on the ground.

 

Little by little the others dropped away as the man began to talk… I listened, dropping deeper and deeper into my body with each word. Although he had never been to Sapawe before he told me that he knew how the people lived here because the Tewa still lived. “Archeologists speak of us as if we are dead but we are here, and we have the stories, and our ceremonies are the same.” He told me that he had come to the conference because it was important for the Tewa to work with the archeologists. So he was a cultural bridge -builder, like me. He said he had to use sociologist terms like “values” to discuss the spiritual aspects of the material world, which for him, as for me, were one. “There is no separation, and archeologists don’t understand this… this is why I farm, because our spiritual lives are tied directly to the land. Our spirit is the land.” He laughed then, saying that he was out in his field spraying Neem oil on his squash plants at 1:30 in the morning the night before! I nodded. He was talking to a plant woman… we were on the same wavelength and we both knew it.

 

His next words upset me, “the Tewa live now but the old ways are dying. The young people are not following the elders. They are too impatient. They want money and don’t want to work the land, and they are too young to feel that the spirit of the land is alive, and living through them.”

 

“Are you sure, I asked him. The Tewa still have their stories, the dances that acknowledge every turn on the agricultural wheel…” my words faded away as I experienced the sudden paralyzing fear of loss because the Tewa are part of the reason I came here, and certainly one of the primary reasons why I am staying. I am a woman with Indigenous roots that has no tribe. The Passamaquoddy/Maliseet have been wiped out as have most tribes in the northeast. All my life I have been disconnected from a people whose ways were my own and it has been very lonely. Moving onto land that belongs to the Tewa has allowed me to feel supported by invisible threads. To lose that connection now would be devastating to me. I belong to the land; I am the land and these Tewa ceremonies have been my own, although I didn’t know it until I came here.

 

He continued, “I was talking to an elder who told me that it was the young people’s choice to leave the old ways behind and that there was little to be done to stop it. The Spanish tried to destroy us, the Mexican’s did too and now the United States is succeeding.” I felt an involuntary chill.

 

“But what will happen then” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear what he had to say.

 

“The young people will become confused and when all is finally lost then the Creator will return to restore not just the Tewa but all tribal peoples to the land.”

 

I experienced wild hope surfacing… I had heard words to this effect before but assumed that the people needed that story to go on. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure… something about the way this man talked to me made me believe him. He exuded a complex sense of deep humility, knowledge and authority. I thought about the ravages of Climate Change and the disgusting cross-cultural belief that the Earth’s job was to serve humanity. My rational brain went on overload giving me a thousand reasons why what he predicted couldn’t be true, almost as if it needed to win this round (ah, Patriarchy exposes itself – if you don’t win you lose). Yes, it was true that we were in a state of breakdown… he didn’t deny it but he also made it clear that this was not the end. First we had to survive the breakdown, and living through it is a challenge that some like me live with every day. These are dark times.

 

I thought of my relationship to the Earth then, how intimate it was, how she was my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, my daughter, my lover, and how this relationship that sustained me when all else failed and whose foundation – Love – might be enough. Somehow.

 

That Nature loved me unconditionally was a reality, that she supported me was a reality, that she guided me was a reality – maybe that relationship was strong enough to overcome the final destruction of a killer culture.

 

My friend never said that all people would survive, what he said was that those whose lives were tied to the land would live on. And yet there was nothing about exclusivity or being a “chosen” people that was part of this thinking. It was simple. Nature responded to those that loved her. She took relationship with her humans seriously and responded in an unconditional loving manner. I knew this from ten thousand personal experiences over a lifetime. Perhaps our love of the Earth, our willingness to suffer heartbreak, torment, torture, even breakdown on her behalf might result in some sort of miracle like the one he spoke of. I didn’t know but now, thanks to him, a new door had opened for me. It was my task to keep it open…not to slip back into what I thought I knew from living through global catastrophe.

 

I thought about “new age” thinking – the belief that all you had to do was to “transcend” reality – step outside the murky waters of doubt, suffering, and fear – leave the heartbreak of the tortured earth behind, thousands of dead animals, drought, the millions of trees on fire, floods, polluted waters, air, and soil, and you would be free to make judgments about the rest of us who live in the world, not above it (we’re better than you – another tenet of Patriarchy). How utterly revolting, selfish, disgraceful, and insensitive… Above the fray, patronizing pronouncements of peace and tranquility can be made with impunity and superiority. The powers of denial were thriving in new age bubble thinking. All this when Earth desperately needs us to suffer with her, to be witness to her travail, so that together we might reach new awareness, another shore…

 

We walked and he spoke of many things that I am not at liberty to share, but as our meeting ended he said to me “the Creator told me to come to this conference to find people who would be able to help create bridges between tribal cultures and you are one of them. I was stunned into silence. Numb. I had nothing to give, Nothing. Believe me, I knew. I had been asking the same question every day for years – what can I do? What could this man be referring to? And then I blurted out “I am a writer…”

 

It wasn’t until later that afternoon after returning from the shrine that I had an illumination. One of the Tewa Grandfathers had incarnated through this elder.

 

It wasn’t just the Tewa Grandmothers that were speaking to me these days, but the Grandfathers too…

The Grandmothers

I had a very upsetting experience two days ago with some men whose disrespect tunneled through my open heart and stole my sense of worth, triggering old “you’ll never be good enough because you are female” wounds.

 

Although I took appropriate action by making a formal complaint, I couldn’t shake the caul these men laid over me. Outrage bled into the old shame diminishing me not just because of this miserable experience, but because I am aware that even if the present attitudes towards women change I will not live long enough to see them… This patriarchal culture of woman hate is still going strong and unlike many I do not see authentic change in the wings, just more band aids.

 

And what is happening to women is happening to the Earth.

 

She is heaving in agony, seething, striking back with natural disasters that “man” has brought down on himself by his indifference, his need to control, his colossal arrogance.

 

Humans are an expendable species and by the time this global breakdown is complete we may well be extinct.

 

Woman centered women are weeping.

 

Woman centered women are grieving.

 

Some, like me feel that human extinction will bring relief.

 

We know of course, that the Earth will live on for a few more billion years. Ironically, she doesn’t need us but we desperately need her to survive…

 

It was in this frame of mind that I felt a powerful nudge to visit the ruin of Poshuowinge that is situated just across the river from me. I hadn’t been there all summer because the area had been closed due to the threat of forest fires.

 

Poshuowinge belongs to the Anasazi, ancestors of the Tewa speaking pueblo peoples that live here along the rivers of the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Today these Pueblos are self – governing, follow an agricultural calendar, and hold dances on feast days throughout the year.

 

When I first came to Northern New Mexico I knew nothing of the Tewa, but became a willing student, learning about the People from attending the dances, researching, and spending long periods of time with their petroglyphs, allowing them to speak through intuition and intention.

 

One of my favorite of these petroglyphs happens to be on a rock half way up the mesa and it was this stone that kept nudging me to make the climb to Poshuowinge yesterday.

 

It was a beautiful clear morning as I traversed the switch back path taking in the astonishing view. Ancient Pueblo peoples chose magnificent vistas not only for their beauty but also in order to protect themselves from Navajo, Ute, Apache, and other invaders.

 

As I approached the turkey stone I looked for the faded petroglyph of the Tewa world of concentric circles and distressed to see that more vandalism had occurred in my absence. Someone couldn’t resist pecking a link between the circles and the serpent.

 

When I reached my destination I stopped and put my hand on the warm stone examining it as I had so many times before. I placed my hand on the turkey. In the early morning light the patina highlighted a side usually shadowed, and it was then I saw her, with one hand raised to the sky with a moon over her right shoulder, and the other touching the Serpent, Ayanyu, spirit of the waters. There were more glyphs but I was transfixed because suddenly the meaning of the picture became crystal clear.

 

Standing before me in relief was an image of another woman of power dressed in regalia, and because of my research and visits to other ruins I now understood that this was also a holy place where the women came to pray, to grind precious herbs in the small depressions or cupules, and used the grinding stone depression located on top of the rock to work other substances… The concentric circles marked this third world of the Tewa.

 

At the same time I was absorbing this knowing I began to feel an easing of the grief I had been carrying since the day before…

 

I sat down holding a sense of peace to my heart, feeling completely restored. Seeing this image of a woman of power had healed me.

 

Last spring I had seen another petroglyph at Black Mesa (another Tewa site) that was in better condition the day of the Tewa Seed Ceremony. When I saw the pecking inside the woman dressed in her regalia I immediately intuited that she was a Seed Woman. Holding the serpent in one hand, touching the Earth with the other, this image oozed female power. The woman at Poshuowinge didn’t have seeds in her belly but she danced with the moon and stars, and touched the serpentine waters and that was enough for me.

 

When I returned home I looked out my window towards Poshuowinge that is located in front of three or four mountains. Depending on where you see them, they appear to be steps to the sky. I renamed those mesas The Grandmothers, after the spirit of the Elders, the Tewa women ancestors who had transcended time to comfort me and to heal old wounds.

 

Tonight they are with me still.

 

Photo of the Grandmothers as seen from Poshuowinge

Midnight Musings

It was damp.

Cloud heavy skies

spit silver raindrops…

When I awakened

to overflowing drainpipes,

and an unfamiliar voice

I wondered if

you were out there

hunting, or

singing love

songs to wet ground,

laying low in thick green –

Toad, lover of deep night.

I marveled,

picturing your image…

a throbbing throat

your tightly pinched face –

amber bejeweled eyes

wide ample body

nubbly pale skin,

a cream stripe

running down your back.

You had shed an old skin.

In the white heat of the day

I murmured endearments.

Could you feel

my joyful body thrumming?

 

Now I wondered

if you were calling.

When

signature hoof prints

marked

the driveway

at dawn

I believed you had.

Deer

bridge worlds

binding one

to the other

as you bridged mine

that day

with the gift

of your presence –

a toad dream come to life.

May we

share this bountiful river,

cottonwood canopy,

red road,

and meadows

replete with visits

from occasional bear and deer,

thick with burrows for you to hide in?

This mud house

needs a Toad –

one wed

to the ground way

of seeing.

She who tunnels

underground

transforming

with each sloughing

of wrinkled skin,

one that hugs the Earth.

Owl songs sweeten the night,

slice through poisoned air with silent wings

but rarely touch ground in flight.

Will you befriend me

and stay a while?

What I can offer

is the promise of

a little extra moisture

to help protect you

from too much sun…

That, and my love.

 

 

 

*Awi Usdi is a mythical white Cherokee deer who is a ‘justice maker” intervening in the lives of both animals and people to re-dress imbalances between the two.

 

Working notes:

 

Two days ago I wrote a toad story about a remarkable encounter between a giant female western toad and myself. The toad appeared in 92 degree heat and in three hops bounded into the only available moist ground. Within minutes she had dug herself into the hole as I covered her with leaves, branches, and cottonwood bark to protect her from the heat. I had been palpably longing for a toad to join me here all summer and had even built a small rock pool for one so this “visitation” seemed quite miraculous.

It wasn’t until after the toad appeared that it occurred to me that her unexpected arrival might mean something more than seeing a beloved friend.

“The Old Woman” is coming to life in me, and Toad just might be the ally I need.

The amphibious part of my life remains unresolved. Toad and frog thoughts pull me back towards the lush green of my past life along a woodland brook rich in riparian diversity. I am homesick and hungry for fog and mist, warm summer rains that last for days, toads trilling and grey tree frogs singing from the tree tops. Cool, cool nights. Are these thoughts keeping me present to myself helping me to complete the mourning process of leave –taking so that I can finally shed my old skin? Or are they warning me not to make another mistake?

Perhaps I need to live in both worlds after all.

I have to keep reminding myself that most people do not make the kind of radical life changes that I am in the process of making – leaving one whole life behind, house and land I love, along with absentee children, loneliness, and harsh winters, moving more than half way across a country to live in the high desert along Red Willow River, a place I love, but also on the edge of what will surely become ‘true desert’ before long. Drought, intolerable heat, and wildfires are bringing the terrifying effects of climate change into the daily world I inhabit here.

The knowing is excruciating.

I have come through my first summer in New Mexico scorched by the unrelenting heat, with strange and debilitating bodily symptoms that seem to come and go without rhythm or reason leaving me enervated and in a state of perpetual confusion. I feel as if I have literally become allergic to the sun. What can this mean? I have been ever so fortunate and deeply grateful to find a “home” here but as thankful as I am, I am also wary of what my body may be trying to tell me.

My body seems to be screaming and I don’t seem to know how to listen.

I may think that living here “permanently” is what I need but if so why is my body in such misery?

I have no answer to this question, which is why I think I need a Toad Woman to intervene…

Yesterday after doing some extensive research on the western toad I was devastated to learn that according to a number of academic sources these toads have already been extirpated from the only area where they once thrived in New Mexico – along the Rio Grande river and its tributaries in Rio Arriba County which is where I live. Because I have seen two western toads in two years I know this information is not correct – at least not yet. But the trend is alarmingly clear. It won’t be long. Dams, the artificial raising and dropping of river water, drought, chemicals, UV light, farming, fertilizers are all culprits, as is habitat loss and human indifference. So this longing I feel for toads has both truth and loss at its core because we are losing this species. Now. Next year, the year after, or a few more years and the last western toads will be gone. Forever.

Ever since I learned that western toad extinction is immanent all I can feel is heartbreak. I am used to feeling helpless in the face of ecological destruction. Every creature I love is under threat and I am living with what is, grieving as I go. But this story has a deeply personal aspect, because part of me thinks I need help from a toad to stay here and what happens to me if they are all dead?

This is where the power of an archetype becomes important. My encounter with the toad transported me into another dimension. Toad is more than a toad. She is also an ancient archetypal pattern that is aligned with, and embodies the Earth Mother (in both life and death aspects) in Mexican, Mesoamerican, and South American mythology (as well as in Asian mythology). I think I tapped into that pattern when I encountered my giant toad. If so, this experience has transpersonal aspects to it and help may be on the way.

As heartrending as it is to learn that live toads are disappearing, the pattern remains and I can still choose to align myself with it. I need a Toad Woman to ground me in the dark generative powers of the Earth Mother – to help me shed an old skin, to help me breathe through mud and lack of clarity. I also need access to more effective protection from the powers of the sun…

This morning I had a dream that made it clear that returning to my old home and land (both of which are for sale) is not an option for me even for a brief time. This dream -body response clarifies what not to do, but does not solve the problem of how to survive New Mexican summers. Next year maybe my longing to go north to Minnesota to be with Lynn Rogers and my friends the bears for two months will become reality. And then I could come “home” to New Mexico to bury my body in the mud for a month or so like Toad does until it cools off for good. Perhaps this would be a “both and” solution for my amphibious self because Ely is on the edge of the Northern Wilderness where lakes and moisture abound. There I could listen to summer rain and visit with my friends the toads and frogs that are still in abundance- for now.

Today while watering my wildflower oasis I discovered the first baby sagebrush lizard I have ever seen here. For the second time in a couple of days I felt that thrill of being present for amphibian and reptilian Life. My two house lizards have a tiny two – inch long son or a daughter that is presently hanging out with them on my adobe walls. Just seconds later I noted that the toad’s hole (which was located just below the place where the lizards bask) was no longer empty but was now occupied by someone who had dug herself in and pulled the dirt in over her head!

The Digger

 

When I saw her on the red dirt road around 2 in the afternoon I was stunned. It was 92 degrees. Who expects to see a giant toad in intolerable heat? It must be at least 105 – 110 in the sun I thought as I stared at this apparition whose breath was labored and whose newly shed skin was still stuck to her back legs. S/he was the fattest toad I had ever seen, a western version of the toads I lived with in Maine. She was almost as wide as she was long – 5 plus inches in length with a girth of almost four inches – maybe more. In my entire life I had never seen such a HUGE toad.

 

What threat to her well-being could have forced the toad onto the driveway at this time of day? Her newly shed skin made her more vulnerable to dehydration and death. I already knew that toads could not survive in 90 degree heat.

 

For a few moments I watched her from a place outside time. I had been longing to see a toad since I had first come to the desert two years ago. A year ago last spring had heard one, and found (tragically) a dead one. This year with the drought droning on through the monsoon season I hadn’t even heard one toad or frog – let alone seen one.

 

It must be said that my love for these amphibians goes back to early childhood, the songs of peepers, tree frogs, bull frogs, leopard frogs, and when I moved to western Maine, wood frogs joined the early spring chorus. All these amphibians continue to sing through my skin although the symphony is now internal.

 

One of the hardest adjustments I have had to make here in the desert is losing the seasonal marker of spring – the songs of my beloved frogs and toads. Although this desert is home to both, rain is a necessity for breeding to occur and this year we had no winter, no spring snow melt, and during the monstrous heat that has characterized late spring/summer, only few drops of rain or a light shower have grazed the ground. We have had two good soaking rains in July and August – one at the full moon in July, and one at the Green Corn Moon in August, just two days ago. I wonder if the second rain may have brought this toad to the surface. Could this giant toad actually be pregnant? Probably not and although I would love it if it were so, she has no temporary pool in which to lay her eggs let alone hatch them.

 

Last June I had constructed a small hand dug rock depression in the ground, using plastic covered with mud to line the hole and creating cool interior niches in hopes of inviting any toad to take up residence hereabouts. I waited patiently watching the lizards scurry about this strange looking rock pile and young fledglings also used the spot but no toad appeared. I created a space for toads and left it at that. Now seeing this giant I realized that if I wanted any toad to breed I would need a much larger container.

 

After having a brief conversation with Toad and taking a few pictures I watched this female – females are always bigger than males – make three long hops that ended when she reached a tiny oasis, an area watered twice a day with an irrigation drip that supported seedlings that I had planted too late. In seconds she began to bury herself in the soft moist soil. I watched as she used her long webbed back feet to dig herself in, almost disappearing into the ground in minutes. Then at the end when she just sort of sat there with her head still exposed, seemingly exhausted by this herculean effort, I decided I had to intervene to protect her from the heat. First I gave her three cups of water, gently pouring it into the soil that was already drying around her. Next, I gathered three rocks to make half an enclosure and then placed olive branches over her head. My prolonged exposure to the sun during this whole process of watching and building had made me dizzy and ill, as it routinely does in the afternoon, so having completed this project I scurried indoors. Toads and I had a lot in common. About 45 minutes later, still uneasy about the heat, I emerged, watered her again, and added a cottonwood bark roof. Finally satisfied that she would be cool enough I left her to rest.

 

The most amazing part of this story is that gradually I realized that this toad must have been living here all summer without my knowledge because she knew exactly where she was going when she headed for that particular piece of moist ground. All the other irrigated areas were bursting with plant roots and thus difficult to disappear into, and she had to have known that.

 

I routinely irrigate and spray water around this area in the early mornings so the hummingbirds can bathe, to keep wildflowers blooming, to help the solitary juniper sprout new growth and to encourage more flowers to come. The ground is well covered with wild greenery and is always moist below the surface so it seemed to me during the early summer that if any toads were in the area I might have seen one but I never did.

 

For me, just seeing that emerald green in the early dawn hours helps me deal with the drought that seems to be sucking life energy out of me. When I first came to the high desert two years ago sage green bushes and gnarled junipers, monsoon rains and stunning August sunsets stole my heart, but this year’s weather has brought me to my knees.

 

Someone I know said recently “welcome to the the new summer in New Mexico” in reference to the thick unbreathable smoke of raging Southwest/ Northwest wildfires, and the reality of ongoing drought conditions intensifying as global warming creates more havoc. This casual comment sent chills of miserable truth up my spine because my dreams have repeatedly been forecasting this precise future for approximately 30 years. For a long time I didn’t realize that I was having what some would call a ‘big dream’ that would affect everyone from Maine to New Mexico as well as the entire planet.

 

The Earth is literally on fire. Most people don’t think about what these changes will mean. For us in New Mexico high desert will become a “true” desert like that of Arizona or that of Utah – a land made of stone, sand, and wind… animals will die, the trees, scrub and bushes will disappear as the water table continues to drop. The Southwest will be the first place in the US to become uninhabitable because of lack of water. This is the reality humans have created in their arrogance, stupidity, and blindness.

 

The long term future for toads, frogs, and all living creatures is grim.

 

But for this moment in time I feel such wonder that a toad probably lives here somewhere in this small desert oasis. And that, for whatever reason I actually got to be with her, and hopefully helped her deal with the scorching heat that literally could have killed her. The last thing I did before dusk last night was to clear the pool of wood debris enlarging the space, in case she wanted to take an evening dip after her ordeal.

 

At dawn this morning after returning from my river walk I anxiously peeled away her house to see if she was still there. What I saw instead was a giant empty toad hole!