For Love of Water

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Each morning I awaken to the soothing sound of water flowing over stone and remind myself that this is July in Maine, definitely the hottest month, and usually the driest at least before climate change began to create havoc with our weather.

 

By this time of the year, my brook is usually barely audible, but this year with the increased rainfall it is still running, has a large pool with iridescent rainbow brook trout swimming happily, and the mink leave teeny little prints in the mud after finishing their morning ablutions.

 

Fat tadpoles are swimming about in the “almost vernal pool” I dug for them next to the brook and yellow swamp iris were still in bloom on my return from Abiquiu.

 

Best of all, the scent of water is overpowering and whenever I walk down the mossy hill that meets tall mint spires, round pincushion moss and sage green sphagnum mounds I am overcome with gratitude for this precious gift because water is life.

 

I am glad that both my brother and my father’s ashes are buried there.

 

Kingfisher’s family rattles up and down the winding brook hunting for food; last year the terrible drought left him without adequate fishing territory.

 

When I have the courage to listen to local news the low water table that I witness uneasily as I scan the edge of the brook translates into the drought that is still with us.

 

As of June Maine is at least three plus inches below “normal” rainfall for this time of year. It is easy to be lulled into believing that the drought is over, but of course, as the trees will tell you, it is not. The white pines have new shoots growing as if their lives depended on it and they do. All the grasses are seeding up and my very wild flower jungle is a visual feast with deep crimson fiery orange, lemon yellow, and delphinium blue… Tiny toads and garter snakes abound and the thick fog laden air is so sweet I can hardly bare it.

 

I feel as if I have acquired two “home places” or more accurately, they have acquired me. This one in Maine has been my sanctuary for thirty years. Abiquiu has been a dream that finally came to fruition last summer, when I fled to a mountainous New Mexican desert from a blistering world of withering flowers, falling leaves, and crumpled dead grasses that left me wondering if life would continue here in Maine. There, I discovered people with oh such generous hearts who literally took me in.

 

I came to live on Red Willow river and fell in love with elephant armed cottonwoods, lizards and snakes and the wildflowers that adorned the high desert scrub. Each day as I walked down the river path, I would stop a moment to give thanks for the gift of that torrent that would bring the farmers the precious water they needed to grow their crops. I watched the sun rise over a fog bound serpent who rushed to the sea. In my mind, the two places have become two pieces of one whole in my life. I belong to both.

 

Here I cannot rest in the dappled light, so golden at the edges of the day, under trees with emerald leaves so heavy with fruit, without thinking of that other home to the south of me…

 

That home where water is too scarce and thunderheads do not bring the rains the people must have to live. When I left there in June, temperatures skirted 100 degrees – a great wall of heat that literally took my breath away. By then the birds had raised at least one clutch and hummingbirds buzzed like bees around feeders that I filled twice a day. The magenta cholla were in bloom as were the crimson and yellow roses that my neighbor tends to with such love.

 

I confess, my body cannot take the heat of summer in Abiquiu, though the other three seasons work well for me. It occurs to me that perhaps this is how it is supposed to be. I am meant to return in the spring to this piece of land, my own lilacs, fruit trees and wildflower gardens, and hopefully to the sound of a healthy brook that still runs clear.

 

For the moment, I am at peace, though I miss my Abiquiu friends – people who have stolen my heart much like the sage gray green high desert has.

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Every day I call out to the frog gods to bring the rain to this high desert with its reptilian mountains that is also my home. Never mind that it took 72 years to find it.

 

Every day I give thanks for the precious gift of water that brings all of us life.

 

Every day I wonder when people will see the gift of this water, and once again honor it as Indigenous peoples have done since he beginning of time…

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Seed Ceremony on Earth Day

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(Above) The seed basket I was given to place seed offering – curiously I have a little dog basket like this one at my home in Maine.

On Earth Day I attended a Genizaro/Tewa all day presentation called “Seeds of Hope and Healing” which espouses a way of thinking that acknowledges the sanctity and power of untreated seeds to create uncontaminated food for all people.

In the pamphlet given to each participant it states that “The New Mexico Food and Seed Alliance was formed in 2006 following the Seed Sovereignty Declaration in which farmers from tribal, Pueblo, acequia communities, and other farmers signed a declaration to defend seeds from genetic contamination.

 The name of these annual gatherings in three languages beginning with Tewa recognizes Indigenous peoples as seed savers and guardians of countless generations of seeds. It also recognizes that land- based people have borrowed from and added to these traditions with seeds and food traditions from around the world. The Indo –Hispanic people who are mestizo, or of mixed ancestry (Genizaros) have evolved a land-based culture after centuries of growing food in their respective villages…

 The seed exchange and gathering is an affirmation of the unity that is possible between cultures and this unity is necessary to defend seeds so that future generations can continue… to save seed and grow their own food.…

Four Northern Pueblos participated in the 12th Annual Owningeh Tah Pueblos y Semilles Gathering and Seed exchange: Abiquiu, Santa Clara, San Juan, and Taos. The group’s mission statement includes saving not only seeds but extends to protecting animals, fruit trees, and wild plants for the purpose of sustaining a way of life that has been in existence long before Europeans set foot in this country. It is only in this way that The People can continue to resist the global industrialized food system.

In the large room a sacred circle was created by the women, who put beautifully embroidered wide sashes and hand woven baskets in each of the four directions on a beautiful handmade blanket. The women also sprinkled corn pollen in the circle. There were two empty baskets to contain the seed offerings. In the center a beautifully painted white and black clay bowl was surrounded by two ears of corn on each of its four sides. People were asked to line up in four lines choosing the direction they came from: North, East, South or West.

The ceremony began with the leader who blessed the space, and added a prayer for the dead. He called forth the four lands and four waters making offerings to each of them. We all sat in a circle around the simple altar. Small handmade baskets were handed out and we placed a few seeds in our baskets, and when it was our turn to enter the sacred space, we were asked to speak our names, state where we lived, and what seed(s) we were offering for a blessing. We moved around the circle counterclockwise (the indigenous way) leaving it after adding our seeds to the other offerings. The ceremony was solemn, and the experience was deeply moving.

What came next was a total surprise. The sound of drums beating in the distance gradually became more insistent as the Santa Clara dancers emerged from another room. Those that were gathered together witnessed an astonishing Rain Dance, (the first I had witnessed) that filled the room with its vibrant colors, sounds, and prayers that centered me so completely, that I too, became part of the dance. Every day we look to the sky in hopes that the rains will come.

The seed exchange occurred afterwards with people leaving with small envelopes full of seeds grown by another. A feast had been prepared for all the participants. Later in the afternoon three women spoke about the hope that comes with the seeds. How each contains new life, and that each seed is a miracle, a perspective that is also my own.

The young are the hope of the future and I was struck by the young women’s presentations from the Youth Alliance all of whom honored their mentors and were committed to passing on the traditions of the pueblos to which they belonged.

 

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The men spoke too and I remember mention of the spiral and how important this symbol was to the People. From the DNA spiral to the way a sunflower seeds up, to the shape of galaxies, the spiral is a universal life form.

Acknowledging “Truth of Place” one man spoke earnestly about how this land was their church. This land, her mountains her waters all sustained his people generation after generation.

One member of Abiquiu pueblo talked about the history of the Genizaros who until recently went unrecognized, although Abiquiu was given a Land Grant in 1754. Genizaros were Indian children and young women who were sold or traded and became Hispanicized, losing touch with their Native roots for a time. Today both Indian and Hispanic festivals are held in Abiquiu to acknowledge these once invisible people.

The day ended with Los Genizaros de Abiquiu closing the ceremony with an Eagle Dance. The two participants, Dexter Trujillo drummer and singer, and the Eagle Dancer, Maurice, dressed in flaming orange and red feathers were spell binding to watch as they moved towards and away from each other. The eerie sense I had was Maurice actually became an eagle.

A seed pot made by Indigenous artist Roxanne Swentzell was presented to Abiquiu Pueblo in recognition of its Genizaro status.

For a person like myself, who has been something of an “earth mother” tending to, and saving seeds for much of my adult life, this ceremony felt like the first recognition of the importance of this work over the span of one woman’s lifetime; I am 72 years old. Even though I will be returning to Maine before the summer begins I will carry this ceremonial recognition close to my heart. I couldn’t help thinking about the datura and redbud tree seeds that I had tenderly been germinating for the last month. Most, if not all, will find homes here in the desert, but I am content, knowing that I have participated in the spring planting for one more cycle. I am absurdly happy that wildflower seedlings are popping up where there were none before! Soon, I believe, redbud trees will follow.

Eagle Day

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It was zero on my outdoor thermometer when I took the dogs for their early morning walk under a brilliant January sun, grateful that today there would be no wind because Bruce and I were going to spend at least two hours outdoors on a look out point spying for eagles.

The drive to Abiquiu lake was stunning. All the hills were covered with a fine coating of snow that seemed to etch and pull each rounded peak forward, highlighting the layers upon layers of mountains that lay behind one another – creating an undulating earth tapestry. Here and there patches of red were visible. As always the colors of the stone cliffs that lined the highway on one side captured my attention. Bruised purple, lavender, pink, ochre, buff and red rock provided a continuous visual feast for hungry eyes.

Below: red hills and mountains from look out

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Many people turned out for this bird watching/counting event, and a brief power point presentation inside the Core of Engineers’ office discussed some of the reasons for this event. I recalled that southern bald eagles were smaller than those in the northeast, but neglected to ask what the differences amounted to in weight. I learned that no one knows why there are so few bald eagles in New Mexico. I puzzled over this conundrum because there are many areas of open water and the Rio Grande flows through the state. I was discouraged to hear that eagles were still being shot in this state and that lead poisoning was still the second cause of death for these majestic predators. We were also told that eagles were quite “lazy” a word I wouldn’t use to describe eagle behavior because I know from personal experience that these birds are opportunistic choosing to steal fish or game that has been caught by others if they have the chance, in order to conserve precious energy, but who also hunt extensively on their own. I think this flexible attitude of theirs speaks to eagle intelligence. To cite another example – it is well known that Corvids like crows and ravens all use the same techniques for hunting if they can get away with it. These birds also use tools and have been studied extensively for intelligence (see Biologist Bernrd Heinrich’s work).

Before the group dispersed – some went on two boats and the rest of us were directed to look out points on land – we got a chance to meet Maxwell, a captive adult male eagle who could not be returned to the wild because of a wing injury. I have spent a lot of time in my kayak watching the eagles on North Pond (in Maine) raise their young, but I had never been this close to a live eagle before. Poor Maxwell seemed very nervous, and who could blame him? We were all enthralled, and busy snapping too many pictures for his comfort. A couple of times he tried to fly up and away. His great talons looked deadly and I was surprised to learn that he could only carry two pounds of prey. I knew for a fact that northern eagles made away with unsuspecting cats and adult loons who often weighed much more than two pounds! I had personally witnessed an adult cat capture on a neighbor’s field in Maine, a few years ago.

Maxwell’s sharp curved beak was huge (and larger than that of the golden eagle whose territory overlapped that of the bald eagles in this area) but it was his ice blue eyes that bored holes through me when I looked into them. The other thing that struck me forcibly was the sight of his pure white tail feathers, which fanned out both times Maxwell tried to escape. The feathers were Sangre de Christo mountain white, the color of newly fallen snow. Almost blue.

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Dispersing to the look out point that Bruce had chosen I felt excited by the prospect of sighting eagles soaring in the air. When we reached the top of the knoll (almost) about ten or fifteen of us we all began to scan the horizon. We were in radio contact with all the other folks and it wasn’t long before the first eagle was spotted. I found it difficult to find this particular bird that was perched on what seemed like a very low snag. He looked small in the distance. We had seen a couple more eagles when someone spotted a female mule deer running down below us. I was thrilled. I have lived here since last August, and although I have seen tracks, I have yet to spot a mule deer in the flesh. I had forgotten how mule deer bound – almost bounce along – because it has been 20 years since I last saw one in Arizona.

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Above Abiquiu lake from our look out point

To my utter amazement, a few moments later we glimpsed a male mule deer, with a full set of antlers, enter the water just below us and begin to swim. I was dumbfounded! The Park Ranger remarked that he was trying to get away from us and I concurred. People hunt both deer and elk and because of that they both have learned to fear humans. (I just hoped that men hunted them primarily for food, as the Tewa do). Watching the buck through binoculars, I was riveted by the sight of this majestic animal almost completely submerged except for his rack of antlers. I tried to count the number of points but he was swimming across the lake to the other side, and my eyes simply couldn’t keep focusing long enough to see. But it really didn’t matter. The sense of wonder I experienced was overpowering. I have lived around white tailed deer in the north most of my life and feed about 30 during the winter but I have NEVER seen a deer swimming across a lake before! When the buck reached the other side he seemed uncertain as to where he was going next. By this time my binoculars felt too heavy and I stopped watching him, just grateful to have been part of this astonishing experience.

What a day full of adventures! All in all 12 eagles were counted and this seemed like a respectable number to me. When Bruce and I drove home we saw two more of these birds sitting in a cottonwood down by the river.

Later, reflecting on the experience as a whole, I was struck by the sense of balance inherent in the sighting of the eagle, a magnificent predator of the sky, and the male buck with his beautiful rack of antlers. It seemed to me that both sky and earth had conspired to gift us with the sight of two animals, both of which are held in great esteem by Indigenous peoples and by others of us who are not.

Close up shots of Maxwell taken by Bruce Nelson

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Feast Day at the Pueblo

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I arrived at the square in front of the Adobe church just as the bells were being rung just inside the open door. Mass was over. When the drumming began the bells seemed to be ringing in harmony. The hair stood up on my arms and involuntarily I looked up into a cobalt blue sky remembering the story…

Abiquiu had a unique heritage… no one knows exactly when the village was settled but the story goes that in ancient times ancestors of the Tewa Indians had come from Mesa Verde in Colorado and some peoples called the Asa settled in the Chama valley around Abiquiu. There are at least ten prehistoric pueblo sites that can be found in this area. In the 16th century ( perhaps earlier) the Asa left their homes and began to migrate south to Santo Domingo and west to Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi villages. Sometime later the Asa were forced to leave Hopi country because of severe drought and joined the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly. Here they were treated well and food plants like peach nuts were exchanged. As often happened, some women married into the tribe and later the people returned to Hopiland and built new homes at Walpi, defending the Pueblo’s south side.

From the Great Pueblo revolt beginning in 1680, the Hopi’s were secure on their mesa top and were able to resist Spanish domination for a long while. Other tribes were not so fortunate. Eventually sometime in the 1700’s some Hopi’s began to listen to the Catholic friars and agreed to move eastward. A group of descendants of the old Asa people, about 400 people, returned to New Mexico and settled at Abiquiu for the second time, for this was the place from which their ancestors had departed centuries earlier. Other Indians – the Pawnee, Wichita, Apache, Comanche and Kiowa – had been raised from childhood in Spanish households as servants. In New Mexico both Hispanicized members of these nomadic tribes and Pueblo Indians like the Hopi who broke with their own cultural tradition became known as Genizaros. The Hopi settled in one area of Abiquiu away from the plaza and were known as El Moque. The other group, descendants of Plains or other nomadic Indians clustered around the plaza and village church of Santo Tomas Apostel. The women and children of the Ute and Navajo were often taken in battle and adopted by Abiquiu families adding additional Indian blood to the mix. In 1754 Abiquiu was recognized as a legal community when the village was issued a Land Grant to its Genizaro Indians. Today the villagers think of themselves as Hispanics but they also acknowledge and honor their Native roots that extend back to the southwestern soil with two yearly celebrations, the Feast of Santo Tomas, always held during the last weekend of November and the Feast of Santa Rosa that is held in August…

The drumming became more insistent as the procession appeared at the church door. Santo Tomas led the procession as four young girls dressed in bright red regalia complete with brightly colored ribbons danced in circles along with (led by?) one gifted male dancer named Maurice. The girls had bright red spotted cheeks to signify their purity and held turkey feathers in each hand. This dance honored the young Indigenous girls that were taken as slaves during raids and battles between Native peoples, Mexicans, and Spaniards. New Mexico’s history was so bloody and lasted for so long that I was amazed that these Indigenous peoples survived with any traditions intact. Later, in the evening, the women that were also taken as hostages would be honored at a dinner held in one of the buildings on the plaza.

I joined the people following the pageant around the church. Each time they stopped the dancers circled around, and loud whoops punctuated the air as a gun discharged its bullet. I wondered if the roar of the gun was symbolic of the Spanish Invasion but I read in one of local histories that the point of the Civil war gun blast was to ward off evil spirits. Both could be true. After circling the church the dancers dispersed and disappeared quite suddenly. It was a beautiful morning as my new friend Iren led the way up a steep and winding hill past village houses with astonishing views and crossed Abiquiu creek (which we walked through!) to one of the homes where a celebration was already under way. A table was set up outdoors with Posole as the featured dish. The corn and the sauce were separate and even though I wasn’t particularly hungry I appreciated tasting yet one more rendition of this delicious Mexican dish. Traditional cookies were passed around a number of times with two kinds of cake afterwards. Coffee and wine were also offerings. Three musicians gathered around the metal tables to sing songs and then all were invited to dance. I felt awkward not knowing the steps, and after a few turns left the drumming circle so I could watch everyone else dancing. The general effect was hypnotic.

Eventually the clouds closed in and it became quite cold (it felt like snow) so Iren and I started down the serpentine hill. When we passed the cattails on either side of the road I could understand why this location was chosen for a village because the creek (whose waters were crystal clear) once provided the entire Pueblo with it’s drinking water, and the upper fields were watered by Acequias from the same creek. Below the fields were irrigated by acequias from the winding Chama river. Iren told me that cattle were still raised here, and I saw a horse munching grass in a small pasture with surprisingly thick green grass. I loved the way the houses were perched on flat areas that were surrounded by mountains on every side. When Iren and I parted to enter our separate cars, she thoughtfully waited to make certain that mine started because I was having serious engine/brake issues.

It wasn’t until I got home and began reflecting on the day that I experienced a peculiar sense of kinship with the village of Abiquiu. Each time I visited the Pueblo I had this same experience, either at the library or at my friend Beatrice’s house. I felt honored to have been invited to this gathering of people that included folks with such varied ethnic backgrounds. I wondered about my own Native Passamaquoddy roots and wished that the oral traditions of the northern Indigenous peoples had survived…

I know how grateful I am that Abiquiu Pueblo is attempting to bring back more of its earlier traditions. The Abiquiu Library and Cultural Center (totally dependent upon grants) is doing what it can to help the people here any way it can. “People of Abiquiu…have never refused to shelter anyone, regardless of their obscure or humble origins,” wrote Giberto Benito Cordova author of a folk history of Abiquiu. The Pueblo itself sets an example for the rest of us. Although times may be hard for many people in this country there is a sense of determination and pride present in these Indigenous people that reflects their strength and character – providing a cross cultural beacon of hope for all of us to live by.

Photo Taken by Iren Schio –

Abiquiu 1

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We have been living here  in Guadalupe’s little round stone house for about two weeks making the acquaintance of many rabbits and hares, three kinds of hummingbirds (ruby, black chinned, rufous) and the canyon towhee, a rose colored house finch, flycatchers, and a multitude of gorgeous desert lizards – the stunning blue green collared lizard, a yellow and red striped fellow that I think is the chihuahuan whiptail, and my favorite, the sagebrush lizard who seems to like hanging around the house. These friendly little lizards like the stone ledges to  bask in the sun. The desert cottontails come in for seed in the early morning and evenings. Black tailed jackrabbits (hares) meet and greet one another, leap around the scrub, fragrant sage and rabbit brush at the edges of each day. They too feast on sunflower seeds. Yesterday a juniper titmouse called out to me from its tree in the wash. Juniper and pinion pines seem to dominate the landscape but there is one juniper or cedar (cypress family) that reminds me of the northern white cedars of Maine that I can’t identify. Wildflowers are abundant and the wild mounds of Datura with their violet tipped trumpets are sweetly fragrant in the early mornings and are humming with bees. I have huge clumps Datura everywhere outside my door and will sow seeds around Guadalupe’s house as soon as the thorny pods are dry and brown to usher in the coming of autumn. I also have diminutive clumps of sky blue blossoms with a yellow beak, bushy mounds of delicate yellow star-like flowers and masses of Russian sage.  I also discovered a barrel cactus under its nurse tree, a helpful Juniper. I dug this up and planted it in a pot. The washes are full of little mounds of magenta flowers. Tiny plump bushes of asters dot the landscape. Yesterday while watering my small juniper I saw an emerald green praying mantis amidst the thorny leaves and the broad winged katydids bring in the night with sounds so soothing they put one to sleep. Ravens squawk from the highest buttes. I have seen night – hawks soaring, scissor -like at dusk and heard the hooting of the great horned owl on the full moon. Huge puffed up cumulus clouds rise up in the afternoons; every day the desert folk, animals, plants and people pray that rain, carried by shark gray clouds and flashes of lightning will come to sooth the parched cracked earth. Abiquiu, like much of the rest of the country is suffering from drought. The mountain ranges and little red hills are astonishing in their beauty – peppered in subtle sagebrush grays and greens –  sunsets catch the sky on fire.

 

We have a community dog named Snoopy that belongs to this cluster of houses. Mine is set off from the others and has it’s own long winding road. This is probably a good thing because Snoopy has not been welcomed by one of my Chihuahuas, who, because of her behavior has been named the “Barracuda” by one of my closest neighbors! Wild dogs are a nuisance and bark at night while coyotes sing up the stars.

 

I have met two wonderful people who have helped me in so many ways already that I feel that I will be indebted to them forever! It is such a gift to have so much in common with these kind generous hearted folks. And for me, having people I depend upon for help finding my way by car has become necessity because of my severe directional dyslexia. I was told by someone who knows me and lives in Abiquiu that I would have no trouble negotiating the driving to get groceries and other necessities. That assessment was incorrect. I am so used to fending for myself that it is hard to depend so much on others for such basic help, but I have no choice. Thus, I feel doubly blessed by these neighbors and their offers of  assistance…

 

What follows is a list of the birds that I have seen and I think I know by name:

mountain blue bird

pinon jay

mourning dove

raven

crow

turkey vulture

scrub jay

great horned owl

black chinned hummingbird

ruby throated hummingbird

black chinned hummingbird

flycatcher

nighthawk

canyon towhee

house finch

coopers hawk  (landed on Lily B’s outdoor cage terrorizing him)

juniper titmouse

 

August 19th

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Changing Woman

The glaring white headlights picked up two small rabbits streaking across the highway just in front of us as we drove to the airport at 3 AM. Inwardly I groaned because I am both blessed and cursed with an ability to sense (presentiment) the future. Animals like these rabbits often appear to help me read the landscape while my body acts as a kind of lightening rod or receiver picking up vibrations that are left up to me to interpret. I love rabbits and wonder why seeing two always foreshadows an occurrence of the void experienced in both my mind and body. I almost laughed. I guess I needed another reminder of what I could expect upon my return.

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While noting the deeply distressing sign, I also felt child-like excitement rising because during my sojourn to Abiquiu, New Mexico I tracked many small rabbits that crisscrossed the high desert without ever glimpsing one of these elusive animals. Did the rabbits live in the small burrows that were dug into the ground between red rock and sagebrush? I didn’t know but I was delighted to see two in the flesh and to marvel over how slight and delicate these little desert cottontails were.

Ever since I had first seen Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of the mountains around Abiquiu I had longed to come to this place. A woman I knew had moved into the hills just outside of town offering me the opportunity I longed for.

I made a conscious decision to make this pilgrimage to the high desert at a particularly chaotic time in my life. I put my house up for sale not long after turning 70. I thought I could hear the desert calling me more insistently. On this trip I hoped to gain clarity about where I might go next on this third and last stage of my life’s journey. The desert was a place that had moved me deeply ever since I had first visited it as a young woman. Yet I had adult grandchildren who would probably make their homes on the coast of Maine, and a son who lived in the rolling hills, another place in this state that I loved deeply. If I moved away from Maine how often would I see them? The conflict had split me in two. I also wondered if “the powers of place” would once again determine where I would locate next, or if an unknown self would have to take the lead…

As some of us know, while making a pilgrimage, time stretches out like a rubber band, and once the threshold has been crossed one is catapulted into sacred space where the present becomes all there is. That first morning in Abiquiu I awakened at dawn and ran out into the surrounding desert in my nightgown! The dusty gray sage laden hills were round, peppered with sea green spiked pinion pine, fragrant Juniper and mountain cedar. These beautiful small trees provided a stunning contrast in shape and color to the dusty red Earth. On the peak of a nearby hill I was drawn to a solitary Grandmother Cedar, an ancient gnarled tree whose thick, rough, and wavy gray bark had been shaped by harsh winds and summer rains. Her lace-like fronds were few. Most branches lay dead, strewn around her trunk like bleached bones providing her with nutrients that might be helping her to keep on living long past her time. Startled by her probable age and tenacity, I picked up one of the dead twigs; I saw the shape of the whole tree mirrored in that one branch, just as the sparse but fan -like evergreen “leaves” that still lived reflected the same fractal patterning. I could sense a presence around and within the tree’s ashen body as she bled into me; I was reminded that if she could live on, so could I as I entered old age.

When I returned to the adobe house I was stunned to encounter a wild African collared ring necked dove sitting on a branch of a nearby snag. I am very familiar with these doves because I have one. Lily B has been with me for 23 years. Hundreds of these doves (who are imported because they are such good egg sitting parents for exotic birds) have been released into the wild after they are no longer useful as egg sitters. With a shock I realized that some apparently survive here in Northern New Mexico where temperatures drop well below freezing during the relatively brief winters. I called out to this ring necked dove as I approached him warily, not wanting him to fly away. He cocked his head in what appeared to be curiosity but he didn’t respond to my voice with a song. I was disappointed. Perhaps this dove was a female; females adopt a shorter version of the male’s song but only respond to a call from their mates. I experienced the appearance of this wild ring neck dove as a powerful link with home. After our meeting I reflected on what this sighting might mean for me personally, because I felt so ambivalent about accepting what seemed to be at the time an excellent offer that had been made on my house just the night before I left for New Mexico.

The next morning I awakened to storm – ridden skies, a raven perched on the adobe wall outside my window, and a fine layer of snow that covered round hills and hills stacked with red rock formations. Each ocotillo, cholla, agave, prickly pear, rabbit bush and sagebrush looked wooly! The soft snow highlighted the sharp contrast between the shapes of the wild desert plants.

Captivated by the dramatic shift in weather I sat drinking coffee, watching the snow slowly sink into thirsty ground as cloudy skies turned pale blue at the edge of the eastern horizon. All of the surrounding mountain ranges were white, not just the distant Sangre de Cristos whose name (the blood of Christ) refers to the phenomenon of alpenglow that occurs when the mountains turn pink in the evening light.

As the sun broke through the steel gray clouds the desert turned the palest green, a diaphanous spring veil spread over the landscape. I thought I had never seen anything so beautiful. It was chilly though, and the warmth of the gas fire felt good as I dressed to walk up to the summit of another of the round hills.

This morning there were coyote tracks that crisscrossed those of the rabbits and hares. Following the coyote tracks that wound through one of the arroyos I climbed to the top of a fantastic rock formation. Even before I reached the summit I saw the den. Glimpsing a shape for an instant I was left with the impression that I had seen someone, perhaps a young coyote? There were smaller tracks around the den that were rapidly disappearing as the snow seeped into dusty ground. Looking inside the triangular hole I could see nothing beyond the fact that this was a large rock cave. Whoever had chosen this place as home had a 360 degree view in every direction! I noted a small pile of juniper berries and clipped cedar twigs just inside the entrance to the den. I was suddenly reminded of the 3000 bears that remained in New Mexico’s high desert, (high desert is defined as an area 2000 feet or more above sea level – Abiquiu is 6000 feet above sea level) and was delighted to see for myself that black bears could really find adequate shelter here, although this particular cave was probably too small for a bear. I returned to this den two more times over the next few days and left offerings of sunflower seeds as part of my desert pilgrimage.

 

 

My first trip into Abiquiu village was bewildering because I experienced the winding road as one sinuous red serpent snaking its way down the hill. The clear untroubled Chama River flowed beneath a bridge in front of us as we made our descent to the place where earth met concrete. The cottonwoods were sprouting lime and chartreuse and mountain blue birds and three kinds of doves were singing to each other and perhaps to the sound of the river

 

 

(as an avid bird watcher I know how much birds like the sound of moving water). Once across the bridge we stopped and entered the general store/gas station for supplies.

When I visited the Inn and church compound where Georgia O’Keeffe eventually bought and managed her second house, a once abandoned hacienda, I experienced a rush of pure joy. My love of her desert paintings had been part of what had driven me to this place so why was I so surprised that when I opened the wrought iron gates of the courtyard around the church it felt eerily familiar? Georgia had once painted this edifice. I found the fragrant herb Rue growing in the garden and picked some to take into the church with me. Rue is traditionally an herb of protection used by Meso and South American Native peoples to ward off evil. Inside, the lovely chapel had stained glass with lots of traditional Christian images but when I approached the Lily strewn altar I saw to my right a statue of the Virgin, and on the opposite side of the enclave I was stunned to come face to face with the Black Madonna! In Arizona I had found these images outside or behind the churches, usually in little stone grottoes. The country folk come to these places to light candles and pray to an older goddess than the one Christianity knows as the Virgin. The images of the Black Madonna that I had seen in Tucson and other places in the southwest were usually Indian looking; in Europe they are black. This figurine was black and seated, embossed in gold. There was no place to light a candle for Her, this Mother of Us All, so I took a votive candle from the Virgin and lit it in front of the wooden carving. The hair prickled on my arms… After a while I left the church, leaving an offering of Rue at the foot of the Black Madonna’s robe.

Once outside I discovered another relative of the mountain cedar, the eastern red cedar. These are magnificent large, rounded conifers, similar in shape to the northern white cedar (like the one that I planted as a seedling in front of my house and later named the Guardian) but its foliage was much denser, and amazingly when I got up close to the tree I saw almost microscopic exquisite violet and lavender blue flowers on each lace-like twig. Also present were empty seed – pod cases that were painted a dusty but luscious blue on gray. It looked as if each once contained a single seed in its center. I was overjoyed to see that more cedars were growing here by the river because they are my favorite trees, but I also knew that desert landscapes are defined by the presence or absence of water, and this kind of cypress (there are no true cedars on this continent) would not grow in the hills I had already fallen in love with. To plant such a water – guzzling tree even near a river is questionable from a conservationist’s perspective.

When I went to see where Ghost Ranch was located, the first place that Georgia lived, and bought, where she painted many of her landscapes, I was not prepared for the astonishing depth and breadth and the visionary quality of the seemingly endless beauty that surrounded me. Ghost Ranch blended so well with the scenery that I could barely see the whole tucked into the base of one of the cliffs. I spent four hours staring at the austere mountains that changed color every second as clouds passed by and shadows fell in new places highlighting red, ocher, lavender, deep purple and green until the night closed in. The landscape around Georgia’s “homeplace” was so astounding that after my initial experience and attempt to describe it, I decided that O’Keeffe’s mountains must remain as stark impressions in my mind:

Sand, white clay, ivory, buff, orange and yellow ocher, brick, Indian red, peach, rose, violet and purple, gray and black, even a pale moss – all colors running together against a background of Indian red rock and stone. The stillness is deafening and sweet. Fantastic formations, a roaring gorge, and one long deep blue lake – a sand stone floor teaming with life – raging gullies – slippery sands – and layers of clay forming pyramid hills dusted in a multitude of earthen shades. The Great Goddess of the Desert Wilderness was a living presence here; the powers of place rooted me, clasped me in their embrace, and soared above me like great black birds disappearing into the deep blue firmament…

For artists and perhaps mystics, the “value” is in ever changing color and truly this place embodied the Navajo spirit of “Changing Woman.” She continuously shifts clouds and sky, stones, sands and water – arroyos overflow, even reverse directions under thundering rains – the driest cracked red earth is alive with sage, juniper, cedar and pinion pine – all the colors except the red cliffs run together – pastels, each bleeding one into another. Desert Silence is like no other, and at night a bowl of silver stars stretches round the sky from horizon to horizon.

The fifteen – mile drive in to the Benedictine monastery requires both courage and focus on an unbelievably narrow winding dirt road that slithers its way above an impossibly deep gorge on one side and meanders around flaming orange cliffs or towering rotund sandstone castles on the other. The roundness of these Sandstone Beings, sculpted and curved by wind and time seemed infinitely wise and the sight of them left me dumbstruck. How could stone be chiseled and smoothed into such a fantastic myriad of shapes? I felt as if I needed eyes in the back of my head to take in all this wonder.

I was actually relieved to reach the monastery, which was tucked under its own mountain, shaded and sheltered by many surrounding cliffs; rich red soil had already been turned for spring planting. I thought I recognized the church… Walking into the chapel for vespers stunned me. Above all the usual ecclesiastical images on the altar there was a huge bowed window that stretched across the front of the church and reached the top of the building. This giant window was angled like the prow of a ship and opened directly on a towering burnt sienna cliff with a solitary mountain cedar rooted to its pinnacle. I let out an involuntary gasp as the golden sunlight streamed into the church and lit up the room. Whoever had done this architectural work clearly understood that the Stone People were the first earth beings. The image of the stupendous cliff turning crimson, orange, and gold in the setting sun was so breathtaking that I was speechless. It’s impossible to write more about this place beyond stating that it must be experienced.

On the last day I spent in Abiquiu I went to see an adobe house for sale, one without soul. As I walked around the barren ground I spied a bone and was delighted to have found a cow skull similar in size to those that Georgia had painted. Just afterwards I picked two of the tiniest yellow and fuchsia colored wildflowers, the first I’d seen since my arrival, and placed one flower in each of the eyes of the skull.

Later I walked around another area in the hills that I loved. From the top of a craggy red rock another solitary raven crowed. Because this was virgin desert I didn’t expect to find a creative homemade wood and tin birdhouse lying on the desert floor. Yet one more undecipherable message about home? I picked up the bird -house and decided to keep it.

 

 

The sparse and spiky vegetation suggested that this area was a bit drier and I wondered how much water was left in the underground aquifiers. The average home well was 400 – 500 feet down. Masses of juniper, cedar and a few pinion pines provided some protection from the wind and the dirt road wound its way up the mountain. Nature sculpted circular sandstone paintings on the rough stone eroding on the ground. There was a steep red gully that ran through the west part of the rolling hills and across from that gully stood another group of sandstone Desert Beings. I imagined I could hear the water tumbling down the crevice during the summer rains. Birds of all kinds flew in and out of the holes of these cliffs. To the north a nearby softly rounded mountain range speckled with pinion and juniper rose in silence. To the east the imposing snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range stretched over the horizon as far as I could see. I wondered which peak was 14 thousand feet high since all seemed equally immense. To the south I saw another blue mountain range with its solitary mesa or Pedernal rising in the middle. Georgia had painted this configuration of rock with its flattened top, and her ashes were scattered on the top of the mesa. The contours of the land rose and fell, flowed over gullies and shallow arroyos. The Earth seemed to be whispering to me in an ancient language that flowed out of stone into thin air. Late that afternoon I wandered back to this higher terrain and eventually ended up at the crest of the mountain where I witnessed a miraculous sunset on fire.

Early dawn would find me at the airport headed for Maine. I reflected upon the particulars that stood out from the whole shifting my perceptions: the mountain cedar, the brief appearance of a ring necked dove, the coyote’s den, the Black Madonna, flaming cliffs and the prow of a ship, the skull, the birdhouse, and the sense that Georgia in some magical way had accompanied me throughout this entire journey. I sensed that a potentially discernable  pattern might be emerging…

During my pilgrimage I learned from individual desert sightings that I needed to ask more questions about what home might mean for me in the future, and I learned from the whole experience that I needed to cultivate the kind of patience that the Stone People possess. I also understood that what I needed most was more time to be in “the space in between” to be with “Changing Woman” in myself.

The high desert mirrors my life through wild beauty and my fatal attraction to it, through song and scarcity, tenacity, loneliness, and death, my need for silence, wonder, thorns, bones, and briefly, for flowers. When I looked at the pictures I had taken after I got home I was initially disappointed because the life force of the desert seemed strangely absent, but now when I look at those same pictures it’s as if I see through them. The images are alive, having cut through my mind and settled into my body, finding solace and sanctity. A part of me belongs to this place…

This last photo is taken from the hills where I stayed. In the distance to the left stands the  Pedernal, the mesa where Georgia’s ashes were scattered, and the place where Changing Woman was born.

***O’Keeffe’s Painting: Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills