The Bear Circle

IMG_1495.JPG

 

Above: Two bear fetishes from the bear circle carved by Zuni artist Stewart Quandelacy. The red one is a Mother bear, the green one I call Tree bear.

 

When I was a little girl my little brother and I played in my grandparents’ woods, dragging boxes behind us that were full of stuffed animals. My little brother loved bears and his box was stuffed to the brim with bears of all sizes and shapes. In contrast, my cardboard box was filled with a variety of creatures and one giant frog that burped!

When I was in my mid thirties I developed a fascination with bears which totally baffled me because I had always associated with them with my brother, who, by that time, had been dead for many years.

This obsession began when I discovered identical life sized stuffed bears in every store I visited in Portland Maine during the holiday season. After seeing so many I had the uncanny feeling that this giant mole brown bear was trying to communicate something important to me. I ended up buying one of these bears in spite of feeling ridiculous. The bear sat in the back seat and stared at me with deep brown glassy eyes all the way home. I named her Cocoa and put her in one of my kitchen chairs where she was always present to greet people! I also made a crown for her out of grape vines and seed pods. My adult children had both moved out by then and when they visited and first saw Cocoa both thought their very unconventional mother had gone over the edge.

The following spring I began a self directed academic study of Native American mythology and I was amazed to learn that bears were very important protectors for many tribes.

By accident or design I also discovered bear fetishes around the same time. A fetish is an image of an animal (usually) carved out of stone that embodies the power and spirit of that creature. These small carvings are worn by their Indigenous owners who believe that the spirit of the animal acts as a personal guide and protected them from harm.

There was a local woman who went to Tucson Arizona to buy fetishes each winter, and when I discovered her collection I was hooked. The first bear fetish I bought had been carved by artist Stewart Quandelacy, a Zuni Indian who believed that the power of the animal would speak directly to the person who bought the stone.

This was how Blue came into my life. She was a small red (2/12 inches high) pipe-stone bear with a little pearl fish in her mouth. I made her a little pouch and took her everywhere with me… There was something about having her with me that felt really good. It was like having a special secret. I never showed her to anyone.

One day I went back to the local shop and the owner let me open the cabinet and sit on the floor examining other Zuni animal fetishes. Eventually, I went home with a frog. Over a period of a couple of years I acquired lizards and a badger, hawks,  and a raven, and most importantly, more Quandelacy Medicine Bears.

One night I had a dream that the bears were sitting in a circle and they were healing someone who was ill. All the bears looked just like mine; the only difference was that these bears were alive, speaking in a language that I could understand.

The very next day I began to create a bear circle with my bears and other fetishes. There was always a bear that represented one of the four cardinal directions. I acquired a piece of deerskin and each fetish was carefully wrapped after I finished  “working” with the circle by talking to the animals, and moving them around. I don’t know what else to call this but play. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt like something was happening.

A life threatening personal experience motivated me to set up the bear circle. Inside the circle I wrote a small prayer, and left the circle open to the night. The frightening experience dissipated and I had a powerful sense that this bear circle had somehow shifted something to remove the threat. I began using the bear circle as a focus for prayer, first for myself, and then for others.

A couple of years later I discovered that the Bear Clan of the Lakota Sioux used bear circles for healing. Apparently, I hadn’t made up the bear circle after all! I began to research bears as healers and discovered that these “medicine bears” did lots of healing and were often associated with plant and root medicine, that is they healed most effectively through the use of plants. Most likely I had tapped into this ceremonial healing tradition because of my close relationship with the spirit bears and Nature as a whole.

The most unusual part of this story is that the bear circle helped me to break down  walls in my psyche. I had been brought up in the western academic tradition. I was a person who needed to have concrete proof  from “experts” that my personal experience was valid. Working with the bear circle, paying attention to my dreams, and celebrating earth based ritual brought me into a new relationship with myself.

Ironically, when I discovered the work of Rupert Sheldrake and became acquainted with field theory I learned how the bear circle probably worked, but over time these academic explanations came to matter much less. Time has shown me that calling on the bears for help simply works. Whatever the bear circle is capable of doing is always in service to Life as a whole, even if it includes death. Needless to say I do not travel anywhere without taking a small circle of bears with me.

I am presently living in Northern New Mexico, a place where the veil between the mundane and sacred world seems thin, probably because we are still surrounded by wilderness. I noticed shortly after my arrival that I experienced the potential power of the bear circle more intimately. That I am living on land that has been sacred to Indigenous Pueblo peoples for a very long time may also be partly responsible for some of this intensity because I also have Native American roots. I am developing a powerful sense of ‘home’ as I wander over the hills listening to a river that sings a song that seems to be “calling” out to me just as urgently as the bears continue to do.

Pay Attention, they say. And I do.

Falling Stars and Irene’s House

IMG_0630.JPG

A couple of days ago I went with my friend Iren (who is an amazing artist and has lived here for many years) to search for more petroglyphs. First we climbed a steep hill at the top of which a solitary burnt umber rock stood out because it was the only (small) stone in the area. This rock had no patina, so on my own I never would have thought to examine it. A baffling picture emerged as I bent over to see the figure etched into the eastern side of the rock. It could have been a cross or a kind of stick figure, I still don’t know.

Next we climbed the Mesa and descended deep into the canyon below which at this time of year is shaded and somewhat protected from the wind. We saw tracks of at least one elk and those of a mountain lion. Huge rough barked cottonwoods stood like gnarled sentries along the way.

IMG_0636.JPG

The first petroglyph I saw was in the sun fairly high up on the canyon wall and had a spiral on one side of it and on the other a pecked picture of what might have been a falling star or the path of its trajectory. One source on Pueblo warfare (Warrior Shield and Star) suggests the star is a multivalent symbol of Venus, the War Twins, and the Morning Star. An equilateral cross was also pecked into the cliff. The four directions? Other figures were unrecognizable because the rock face was gradually disintegrating. People who visit this fragile environment don’t realize that the sands are literally shifting beneath their feet, the rock faces are changing shape with every seasonal rainfall and biting winter winds carve the stone pillars into even more fantastic shapes even as others collapse, huge hunks of earth tumbling into the wash. Nothing stays the same here, and the transient nature of life is in evidence at every turn. I love the feeling that I have of being in “right relationship” with the Earth when I am experiencing her in this manner. Changing Woman Lives! There is something utterly mysterious about wandering through a desert wash. At such times I feel as if Nature is all that is…and I am at peace.

IMG_0639.JPG

Further on we encounter another petroglyph. I think I discern is a creature with antennae? Later, softening my gaze as I looked at this photo I suddenly glimpsed a human -like figure with raised arms. The antennae might be feathers? Beyond this picture we come upon serpents who are swimming horizontally along the canyon walls. I am unclear as to the meaning of so many serpents but I do know that they are associated with the powers of water. While in the Peruvian jungle Indigenous people taught me about Sachamama (land) and Yakamama (water), the two serpents that brought the people to earth from the Milky Way and gave them everything they needed to thrive in the jungle including Ayahausca, a visionary plant concoction that they could use to enter the spirit world. Native peoples traveled and traded extensively through North and South America millennium before Europeans arrived. I can’t help wondering if the myths and stories of Indigenous peoples were influenced and even conflated by this ongoing contact? Another unsolved mystery.

IMG_0640.JPGThe canyon cliffs looked as if they had been painted and allowed to dry naturally with some colors bleeding into others in some places. The colors, ranging from oyster, buff, a dull orange to a gravelly charcoal gray were absolutely stunning.

IMG_0644.JPG

When we turned around to go back up the canyon one side was completely shaded, allowing me to see the beautiful multicolored stones embedded in the cliff and the sand that shifted from baize to rust without the glare from the sun. I imagined the force of the water that sometimes gushed down the arroyo tumbling boulders, uprooting trees, drowning everything in its path. As we wended our way back up the canyon and climbed the Mesa, we headed for Iren’s house where, I soon discovered, I was in for another surprise.

IMG_0631.JPG

First we walked down to the river, which is fish – deep in places and wide and shallow in others. Both Iren and I love water and together we listened to the soothing sound of the river singing to her stones. In the late afternoon sun the river sparkled a deep cobalt blue… We saw and heard geese flying overhead. Iren has created paths through the brush for meandering, and as we walked, bits of potsherds, and glittering chert (used for making arrowheads etc.) could be seen embedded in the ground. I picked up a few small pieces with reverence. This land was situated just across from the Mesa where at one time 15,000 pueblo people lived. I could almost see the indigenous women who came to this part of the river (perhaps to gather clay) and formed beautiful clay pots working at the river’s edge. I was struck by the sense that this piece of land held a story. The Power or Spirit of Place was palpable here.

IMG_0647.JPG

When we arrived back at Iren’s house I was positively overwhelmed by the beauty of the adobe home that had been built by her husband and the massive amounts of Iren’s art work that seemed to be everywhere I looked – a feast for hungry eyes. It seemed to me that Iren worked in every medium. Various intriguing metal sculptures, windows crafted out of colored bottles, stones, artfully placed captured my attention. This house, unlike so many others in this area, was not separated from the land by walls or gating but was built into the earth and open to the surrounding desert. There was an attached tower that looked out over the river and valley. Iren had planted various junipers and pinion, a climbing wall had been built into the side of the adobe, and this is when I learned that Iren also climbed sheer walls. “It’s good exercise,” she remarked smiling. What an understatement.

IMG_0648.JPG

Entering the house was an overpowering experience because the house meandered – room after room – and was impeccably crafted with smooth clay tiles on the floor. Iren’s paintings and other pieces of art like a magnificent deer headed Kachina adorned the walls or stood on tables. It was all I could do to keep up with what my eyes were seeing! Eventually we sat down in the porch to sip a glass of wine from stunning crystal goblets that chimed. I loved this sunny cactus and plant filled room that looked out on the wild grasses and natural desert scrub. What a great place to watch for birds and to gaze at the stars at night. Iren pulled a book down from one of the many bookshelves and opened it to a page that had a photograph of a petroglyph that had been found in Italy. Both of us had Italian roots but I had not known that these petroglyphs existed until Iren told me about them. I was astonished and delighted. What a lovely way to end another petroglyph hike!

IMG_0649.JPG

Armando’s House

IMG_0432.JPG

I walked down a path of dried grasses and crossed a little bridge. I listened with pleasure to the sounds of river water flowing under me. Some part of the Chama (river) had been channeled into some sort of canal beneath my feet. There were large sprawling deciduous trees overhead and I could feel the peace of this place permeating my mind and body. I was relaxed and alert as the path veered to the left opening onto a modest adobe house with a small covered porch or Ramada. To the right a steep mountain rose out of a nearby field. Dried cornstalks seemed to be waving as an invisible breeze brushed their papery leaves.

People were wandering around outside, some sitting under other trees around tables all talking quietly. I was struck by the sense that there was no clear boundary between inside and outside; the two spaces, the adobe house and the rest of nature seemed to flow one into the other. Dried Datura flowers were hanging from the ceilings and Hopi pottery shards lay on one of the tables. A huge Great Pyrenees greeted me in a reserved but friendly manner; as I bent down I lost my hands in her thick white fur.

Almost involuntarily I was drawn to the painting of the Indian woman with a bowed head who was wearing a living crown fashioned out of the magnificent sacred Datura blossoms I loved so much. This painting of the woman, with a face like a Madonna replete with flowers and a brilliant yellow billed toucan was hung at the edge of the Ramada. I was astonished by the image because it seemed eerily familiar but it wasn’t until I began to write about my experience that I recognized that this painting and others like it were manifest expressions of the ancient Neolithic bird –woman archetype. I plan to return to buy this print.

IMG_0430.JPG

Other paintings caught my eye as I approached the porch. I was swept away by the plethora of graceful women and their animal familiars. I stepped into the adobe with open kitchen where Armando was preparing a bowl of homemade chicken posole for someone…Behind the big black velvet screen that was adorned with paintings and two sculptures I glimpsed a beautiful healthy indoor cactus garden that looked out on the field and mountain.

IMG_0421.JPG

Guadalupe’s sculptured face (and the face of the angel who held her) was the purple of wine colored grapes. I stared, at first startled, and then gradually comprehending… The rays that surrounded her were made of spiked golden agave leaves. Each detail of Guadalupe’s cornstalk body was meticulously fashioned. Bits of clay and brightly colored stones adorned her robe. I was unable to look away and sat down in a chair to be with the sculpture and then the rest of the paintings in a quiet way. For a while I entered another field of awareness one beneath or beyond thought.

Maria-Del-Silencio.oc_.30x40.15.jpg

There was something about the way Armando portrayed women that seemed infinitely wise, yet familiar. The Indian women were stylized, ageless and sensuous, rounded in form, most with long flowing black hair. Gracious. Both spiritual and sexual elements were blended seamlessly into each painting. All had eyes that were softened and unfocused giving them a dream-like quality. In one large painting a woman and a young man were flanked by graceful white water-birds (probably egrets) who regarded the observer with keen human-like eyes. I noted the distinction between the dreamy unfocused eyes of the two and the intensely observant eyes of the animals. The relationships he depicted between women, animals, flowers and birds also spoke to me of seeing beyond the veil as well as depicting interspecies communication at a cellular level. These paintings seemed to reflect my deepest longings and the depth and breadth of my own experiences with animals, flowers and birds, the powers of water personified by the river, and the moon. I was astonished, stunned, humbled by the recognition that someone understood.

IMG_0420.JPG

It wasn’t until the second day when I first saw the painting of the two Mexican men facing and touching one another on the shoulder and face with clear untroubled eyes, one with a small flower in his hand (Somos Novios) that I realized that for Armando the power of relationship that he expressed so poignantly through his paintings of woman and nature extended to men as well, although in the painting of the two men it was expressed more directly through feeling and touch. How I wished a painting like the one I was gazing into could penetrate the haze of the power driven patriarchal culture that forced men to abandon genuine feeling…

When I met Armando I involuntarily clasped my hands together as if in prayer while I asked about Guadalupe’s face. His voice was soft, almost musical, his face round, his eyes were large, deep mysterious pools, and his skin burnished like almonds. Only a bit taller than me he spoke with a thick Spanish accent, slowly and replete with feeling, answering questions I can no longer recall asking. Being around him felt inexplicably safe…

I returned to Armando’s house each day of the Abiquiu Artists’ Tour – three days in all. Each time I walked down the path I had the same experience of moving into an altered state or dimension in time… each day I was invited to have a bowl of the celebratory Mexican posole which Armando had prepared for his guests. Each day hours passed without my knowing how long I’d been there. The last day his partner invited me to sit with them under the trees just after I arrived and Armando replied, “No, first she has to sit with the paintings.” He knew.

Duena-De-La-Luna-Owner-Of-The-Moon-giclee-print-on-paper-250.00.jpg

That third day I finally got beyond the lure of the paintings long enough to gaze intently at the whimsical sculptures that were also hanging on the screen and walls. Archetypal symbols abounded; piercing eyes, flying horses, cats, wheels, stars, sun rays, mirrors, animals with teeth, came at me from every direction, and I was once again flooded with delight, awe, discomfort, as I allowed the images to penetrate my awareness. I was startled anew by this multifaceted aspect of Armando’s imagination, creativity and ingenuity. These three – dimensional “stories” were impeccably crafted out of natural materials, and many were in flight. To me they seemed to be a child-like extension of the man who created them.

I recall at some point sitting on the porch opposite Sugar, the giant great Pyrenees, who lay stretched out on the couch, when Armando sat down next to her and laid his head and torso against the animal’s thick fur. The deeply loving unconscious gesture struck a chord that resonated… There was a basket of apples next to the couch with a sign that said, “Please take these apples with the holes to eat!” I happily complied and was delighted but certainly not surprised that Armando grew his garden organically.

IMG_0428.JPG

I sighed as I walked down the path back to my car on the last day of the studio tour. Here was a Mexican Indian who was so attached to his Tarascan roots that he could fly, and who crafted his art from his life and his dreams. I was filled with wonder that such a man existed in the flesh, a man for whom the idea of separation was a total anathema…That I was in love with Armando’s art was obvious!

My lasting impression of Armando is that he is a man who is loved by all of Nature, blessed by the sun and the moon, the animals, the plants and the dreams that he lives by.

Armando – Adrian Lopez

Email : armando@armandolopez.com

IMG_0425.JPG