Witch Hazel Comes to Call

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Through the Looking Glass…

 

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Above: author’s witch hazel tree blossoms

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A scalloped witch hazel leaf highlights this beautiful shrub

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Returning to Red Willow River… Photo Bruce Nelson

 

In Celtic and many other pre –Christian and Indigenous traditions when All Hallows occurs on October 31st the year is coming to a close. What I find most compelling about this ancient nature based religion is that it follows the seasonal round. For example, as I look out my window the fading colors of falling leaves remind me that the Earth is preparing for her winter sleep. In the woods the bears will eat and move less, becoming lethargic as they dig their dens for winter hibernation.

 

After All Hallows, the Feast of the Dead, and All Soul’s Day (a three day festival still celebrated in every country but the United Sates), a space opens up for a number of weeks during the darkest months of the year that doesn’t close again until the winter solstice when the sun reverses his direction. In that “space in between” the veil is thin. It is a time for dreaming, reflection, tying up loose ends, creating intentions for the future, and feeling gratitude for the gift of life. Unfortunately, trickery also thrives in this place, so it is important to stay awake and wary during this darkest time of the year. I follow this ancient tradition because in my world my inner life seems to reflect that of the outer seasonal round and those mysterious spaces in between.

 

This month I reflect upon the last year, re –reading my journals for new insights, identifying old patterns that continue to keep me spinning (some of which I have never been able to change – it seems to me that I have always lived my life on the edge). It takes a certain amount of grit to return to the past, since overall, this year my life has been in a state of chaos and “not knowing” with so many changes taking place – some seemingly miraculous. Yet, deadly repetitions also plague me. This ongoing de-stabilization is not doing much to keep me on an even keel. Each day seems to produce another reversal, a deadly new silence without explanation, or crazymaking confusion that leaves me enervated. I am tired a lot.

 

However, when I peruse my journals or look out the window I recognize that there have been two stabilizing influences in my life that act like the keel of a boat. Human friendships have grown deeper roots, and because for me, Friendship is the taproot of Love, I am grateful indeed for those few people with whom I have come into deeper communion. They know who they are.

 

The other calming influence has been my relationship with my dogs, Hope and Lucy, my dove Lily B, and my enduring love for all Nature. This love is woven through my journals, my dreams, my days and nights, a thread that has sustained me for many years. My curiosity about whatever creature/ tree / plant captures my attention drives most of my writing since Nature also provides the mirror for what is occurring in my life sometimes in uncanny ways. When I write about an animal or plant, even when I am unaware of it, I am also writing about a part of me.

 

And this brings me to Witch Hazel, a plant that I have loved since I was a child. My grandmother always kept a bottle in her medicine closet. Whenever we succumbed to poison ivy blisters, my little brother and I would scratch our skin until it was bleeding and then slather the wounds with witch hazel for instant relief; we loved its smell! And it healed wounds in days.

 

As an adult I have continued to use this plant – based alcohol as a cleanser, an astringent, and to stop bleeding. Recent studies have shown that the active compounds in witch hazel – flavonoids, tannins, and volatile oils act as cleansers because of their astringents and do stop bleeding but Indigenous people had other ways of knowing and understood the healing properties of this plant long ago. In this country they drank witch hazel tea to stop internal bleeding, steamed twigs to soothe sore muscles, and to treat colds and coughs. Today, witch hazel is one of the few medicinal plants actually approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a non – prescription drug ingredient, which unfortunately does not enhance its credibility to me, since the FDA routinely approves potential drugs it has not tested adequately.

 

Indigenous peoples, especially North American tribes also discovered that Y shaped witch hazel sticks could be used to find underground water. Dowsing for water is a skill that I am familiar with because I have used these sticks to tap underground water sources in the past. When the forked stick bends suddenly it is always a surprise, but the water woman in me just smiles.

 

“Water is Life.” Many of us are learning this truth in this time of planetary crisis, but for me that knowledge has been embodied ever since I can remember. Living near/on water has been a necessity, there’s no other way to put it. The only time I lived any distance from this element was during a period in my childhood when we lived in New York, but even then the Hudson was never far, and once back in the country my brother and I had access to my grandparent’s brook where we spent most of our spring, summer, and fall days in play.

 

This “Borderland” tree has magical attributes in both Indigenous America and in Europe, perhaps a quality I may have sensed as a child. The ancient Celts considered it to be the tree at the heart of the Otherworld. In Norse mythology it was known as the Tree of Knowledge. The Greek god Hermes was believed to make himself invisible by using an upright twig of this tree. The witch hazel’s connection to the well of wisdom present in many mythologies is strengthened by witch hazels’ presence around wells, which even today are festooned with votive offerings in Britain and Ireland. The name witch hazel has its roots in wych, an old Anglo – Saxon word that means to bend or shape.

 

As might be expected the witch hazel tree is also associated with women – especially old women, who are both feared and condemned by various cultures but continue today to practice their craft of healing, midwifery and prophecy. The infamous witch burnings in both Europe and America attest to the fear, hatred, and disgust that led to the slaughter of thousands, perhaps a few million innocent woman healers who were considered to be witches. In a peculiar reversal twigs of witch hazel are still used as a form of protection from the witches themselves! Witches are usually women who live alone on the boundaries of their respective cultures and they have intimate relationships with various aspects of Nature including the element of water…

 

The magic powers of witch hazel live on today whenever a water diviner uses a hazel branch to dowse for water. It is believed by some that as the branch bends to reveal water hidden within the ground it is also straining to connect with the ancestors hidden deep within the memory of Earth herself. As a self proclaimed water witch I think there is truth in the above statement.

 

Many years ago when I first bought this land I planted a witch hazel tree down next to my brook. When I built my house I planted a second tree next to my well, and when my brother’s ashes finally came to rest here under Trillium rock, I planted a third tree for him.

 

For the past couple of days these trees have been on my mind because it is almost time for them to bloom. Clusters of small fragrant pale yellow blossoms with finger like petals hug the twigs of this tree – like bush (Hamamelis virginiana) and I wanted to see if any flowers were visible. When I checked the two below the house my brother’s little tree had leaves that were still green, the one by the well had turned yellow… Not surprisingly, blossoms were not present on either plant because neither had lost their leaves.

 

However, when I visited the first witch hazel I planted, now a large graceful vase shaped bush, I was delighted because most of the leaves had fallen and the tiny yellow flowers were in bloom. The blossoms are equipped with both sets of reproductive organs but act as either males (producing pollen) or females (producing fruit)! Small bees and (annoying) gnats are pollinators. Each seed pod has two tiny shiny black seeds which are ejected from  small pods during the following spring.

 

I lovingly trimmed back a few dead branches and made a “Y” shaped stick from one to bring back to the house. Then I photographed a blossom for this blog. In the background the sluggish brook water barely moved over its stony path. Drought is very hard for me to deal with, psychically and physically, so seeing the healthy tree with its new shoots made me very happy. American witch hazel (also imported to Europe) is not really a tree, it is more like a shrub developing many stems as it ages. It attains 15 – 30 feet in stature. It has a number of traits I love including smooth gray bark and an architecture that defies convention. It’s branches zigzag in every direction at once as it roams for light, which it is, because it is an under story tree that thrives in forest openings. It is also one that loves living near water.

 

When I said goodbye to my witch hazel I brought the forked stick back to the house and left it outside the door to remind me of  witch women, women with wings like me who are readying for the transition from one world to another… When I heard the Great Horned Owl call outside my window last night, I thought of my sturdy witch hazel branch… Is it my imagination that the spirit of the old women, witch hazel trees, and owls are all calling me to be present for an important change?

 

Early next month I will be traveling across country to Abiquiu, New Mexico hopefully to enjoy a second fall and a milder winter just as Nature in this part of the country prepares for her long winter sleep.

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Firebird’s Song

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She came on the wings of the Owl
flew out of the crack of our imagining,
swooped low over the underground forest
hooing, hooing, hooing

screeching and clacking –
Haunting the night with her song.

I almost didn’t recognize her
inside the feathery brown cape with bars.

On Starry nights while the white moon sleeps
the cloak falls away and behold!
She steps out
in all her Firebird splendor.
Burning, crimson, gold, she crackles — turns blue
white light torching
the fire turned star.
Beaming second sight
she rises out of Earthen ashes

and soars …

To the edge
of the Universe

to the crack between worlds.

– Sara Wright

Postscript 2017

This poem was written/published in “She’s Still Burning” 15 years ago (2002) along with two unforgettable essays well worth the reading. At the time I was writing to save my own life. The poe m was a reference to the day Bush bombed in retaliation to the twin tower disaster, a day I was attending a retreat that involved walking in silence up a mountain. It was on this walk that I saw the owl, and the hole in the tree and “knew” that something horrific had happened. This “presentiment” followed me back to the retreat where I drew a brief charcoal sketch of the black hole in the tree.

Some of us knew what was coming. If the reader goes to Harriet’s site s/he will find an erudite letter written by Mary Meigs that expresses theses same sentiments.

Chilling, these waves of the future.

Women know.

Crows Still Know

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Crowmothers, Come Home

Quorking,
Steel black crows
Hop sideways
Dancing blue light.
Quorking,
Swirling shadows
Arching dipped wings
Feathered to bow.
Quorking,
Beady eyes shift with ease
Peruse rough bark and twig
Circle smooth stones.
Quorking,
Old Woman keening at the well
I listen with fierce attention
Thirsting for threefold vision
Of black winged women
Poised in flight.
Mend the silken silvery thread
Broken so long ago,
Ancient Mothers, rise up —
Shapeshifters! You —
Sing new flesh onto white bone
Craft sharpened beaks out of fish hooks from the deep
Carve all seeing sight
Out of the still nights
Of my imagining
Crow Mothers, please come home.

– Sara Wright

THE CROWMOTHER THREAD

by Sara Wright

Every morning I put out chunks of dry dog food and bits of dried bread for my crows, and then sit with coffee and a pair of binoculars, watching the wily corvids commune with each other, display crow antics and engage in elaborate courtship rituals. A couple of days ago I was rewarded by seeing one crow strip the bark off a half-dead oak branch and fly back over the knoll to its chosen nest site in the woods. Later this same bird, or perhaps the mate, gathered so much deer hair in its beak that the crow looked as if it had grown whiskers! These birds fascinate me. When I found a dead squirrel, I placed it where I leave the other food and noticed that it was two days before any of the crows would get near the carcass. When the first one did, s/he hopped sideways, approaching the dead body from four directions before pecking at it. When I focus on their bead-like eyes, I am astonished. Is it an optical illusion that they seem to peer in all directions almost simultaneously? It feels good that these crows have befriended me. Usually they maintain a healthy distance from humans—with good reason, for they are much maligned.

Often as I watch crows, I think about how they expose the underlying bones of things, not just because they eat carrion, but because they uncover what’s normally hidden in the forest by creating, for example, a frenzy in the air as they circle an intruder, voicing their displeasure with loud raucous cries. Sometimes they mob a tired owl, and I follow their screeching to find the harassed day-sleeping raptor perched precariously on a limb and blinking its eyes in distress. More frequently, I see owls soaring low on silent wings through the trees to escape the crow taunting.

Although my grandmother died in 1974, I can still see her with a pea-green scarf wrapped around her head, walking out to the field with a pailful of scraps as a raucous black cloud hovered above her. Here she comes, the crows would screech with enthusiasm. I have no doubt that my grandmother’s crows were the best-fed corvids around. Although she was often teased about her fondness for crows, she fed them until she died, and I suspect there was more to that relationship than she ever let on.

Whenever I see crows, I also think about my mother because now she feeds her crows as my grandmother did before her. Sadly, my mother has a life history of keeping herself physically and emotionally distanced from me, which has left me filled with a peculiar longing. Perhaps that’s why I think of our crow connection as a kind of cosmic link—one that stretches across time, space, and my mother’s real need to remain separate from her daughter.

When I was in my thirties and early forties, my mother would sometimes refuse to talk to me because of an imagined slight or because I displeased her in some way. When she finally broke her silence, I would discover to my amazement that we had been growing exactly the same herbs or tomatoes or flowers, or that we had both discovered clay as a medium, in the two years since we had last had a conversation. I never spoke to anyone about this bizarre twist to our unstable relationship, but I always wondered what it meant.

Three years ago last winter, I developed a pain in my right breast, and I dreamed that my distressed and tearful mother came to me, and then refused to tell me what was wrong. I remember most from this period the baffling, mindless grief that washed over me repeatedly like an incoming tide. One night during a body meditation, I distinctly heard a French lullaby that my mother loved, being sung somewhere in the air around me. Soon afterwards my son called to tell me that my mother had been diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer during my three-month depression. I experienced her tight-lipped silence as a crushing betrayal. Breast cancer, as I told her later in a letter, is a woman’s disease. I was only vaguely aware at the time that my body had somehow known about the cancer, and had been carrying the burden of my mother’s grief and probably my own. The day my son called with the news, my birdfeeders were suddenly flooded with crows. Both Nature and my body (itself part of Nature) seem able to channel information in unusual ways.

My personal experience supports the ecofeminist idea that women and Nature are inextricably bound together. It also supports my own idea that Nature carries a kind of consciousness enabling living things to communicate with one another across species. All warm-blooded creatures share patterns of instinctual behavior, of course, and this instinctual connection between species is, I believe, the pathway that links us—bird to woman.

Although the crows themselves initiated the possibility of dialogue with me by appearing here last spring to munch on cracked corn that I had left for the wild turkeys, I was the one who encouraged them to stay. They did stay for a while and then drifted off after my brief absence. Now, though, they are taking up housekeeping in the lowland woods behind the house. Each morning when I feed them, I do so with a consciousness of the invisible but genuine connection between this daughter and her mother, a link the crows may be mediating. My intention this time is to keep the lines open and see what happens. I am trusting that the crows know something I don’t because they approached me first. I’ve also learned that it’s useless to turn my back on a Nature connection. Regardless of my personal views on the creature in question, if any animal attempts to enter into some kind of relationship with me, I know something is up!

I also believe that a live crow can be an incarnation of the archetype of the Great Mother in her crone aspect. If I’m right and crows can be Nature’s choice to express the archetypal reality of the venerable crone, then it makes perfect sense to me that crows can help keep the psychic lines open between my mother and me, because, like my mother, I too have become a crone. But what are these winsome corvids trying to tell me?

I believe that on one level my crows are reminding me of the ancient relationship between women and crows, one that has recently been hidden behind the veil of patriarchy. I think that if we develop our connection to them, the crows can help us reclaim our lost woman ground. Barbara Walker confirms this intuition when she says that crows represent the third form of the Triple Goddess (Great Mother), her death aspect. But why the death aspect? I think the answer can be found in crow behavior. This third aspect of the Triple Goddess is about seeing what’s hidden, and getting down to the bones of things, literally picking the bones clean, and preparing for new life. Crows have remarkable sight—a ground way of seeing; they peer beyond the obvious, just as old crones see what others miss. Crows ingest decaying matter and, by doing so, create space for the new; crones not only prepare for death, but assist others during the transition from death to new life. Crones have knowledge of the future, and crows prophesy. Both crows and crones inhabit the edge places: crows hang out at the edge of forests, and crones live on the boundaries of the known and unknown. Perhaps mediating this crow connection can help us as women to reweave the original powers of the Great Goddess, especially the powers of death, back into our Woman Psyche once and for all. To reclaim death is to reclaim the crone in ourselves and to reclaim our own woman ground. Can’t you almost see those three old women who not only spin and weave, but know when it is time to cut the threads?

On a more personal level, I believe that my crows may be trying to mend the broken link between my mother and me. Perhaps the crows are letting me know that underneath the apparent physical separation and emotional distance between this mother and her daughter, there exists an unbroken and ancient connection … and that by listening to my crows, I am able to reach through the veil to pick up that lost thread. My mother sent me a crow feather for my last birthday—maybe her crows have been talking to her too.

Crows are also said to be messengers of the gods, and this oracular or prophetic quality is another of my personal associations with the crow. In fact, I was wary of crows for years because it often happened that crows (or other black birds) appeared during times of painful transition, as they did the day I was told about my mother’s cancer. It doesn’t surprise me that the first stage in alchemical transformation—the nigredo—is often represented by the crow, since one of the bird’s trickster/creator-like characteristics is shapeshifting, and this nigredo is the first stage of change. “From death to life” I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.

For the Pacific Coast Tlingit Indians, Crow is a central divinity figure, and in other Native American traditions Crow is a sky god associated with the winds (of change?). Jamie Sams, who created the Animal Medicine Cards, sees the crow as the shadow side of reality. For me, Crow embodies both light and dark, life and death aspects of the crone/Nature. In fact, it seems to me that Nature displays genius when she personifies herself in crow form to spin and mend the threads, to prophesy, or to expose the bones of things! Crows are also seen as soul guides, and my favorite crone, the Greek goddess Hecate, is sometimes depicted with a crow. Thinking of Hecate returns me to wondering about the hidden meaning of my own personal crow connection, which I suspect has a lot to do with learning surrender to the wisdom of the archetypal crone and her instinctual ways of knowing.

Today I continue feeding my crows to participate in the wonder that is Nature. I feed them because I feel psychically and physically linked through crows to my mother and to my grandmother, and because something about this woman connection goes beyond the veil that separates life and death. When I feed my crows, I am consciously putting my life in Her hands. It’s at this point that I let go, enter the “Great Mysteries,” pick the bones clean, create new beginnings, and cackle with those wily Crowmothers who are older than time.

Postscript:

These pieces were written and Published in “She’s Still Burning” in 2002 and have been republished by most excellent writer, poet, editor, and now dearest friend, Harriet Ellenberger in her latest installment.

When I wrote the poem and essay I didn’t know how to save anything on a computer so have no record of this writing.  To re -read the material brings me over the edge I presently live on – that of the Great Unknown.

And yet, some things stay the same. My love for Nature and the way she continues to teach me through each animal, bird, tree, or plant that I encounter that indeed we are all interconnected in ways that stretch our imagination… and remind those of us that know, that quantum entanglement is a reality that overshadows space/time as we presently understand it.

Blessings to you Harriet. I hold you in my heart.

 

..

Losing Your Children to Patriarchy*

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There are many ways to lose your children. Some parents endure the death of a child from illness or accident. Others, like my own parents, lost their only son to suicide.

 

I lost my children to the dominant culture. Of course, as a young twenty one year old mother I colluded in this process without knowing it. First by repeating the cycle of abuse I had been born into, and then making a series of poor choices as a young woman and mother.

 

I grew up in a terrifying abusive family, one that looked like the “American Dream”- great from the outside – rotten from within. Living in an upper middle class environment in a “nice” house in the country in upper Westchester New York my father ran a successful business and my mother was a stay at home housewife and artist. Both considered themselves academics because each had attended the colleges of their choice, although my mother never received an undergraduate degree. My father was an immigrant who came to this country from Italy when he was 12 and put himself and his brothers through college becoming an aeronautical engineer in the process. My mother, an only child, came from a family of privilege and she never let anyone forget that, particularly her daughter who she treated like a servant.

 

Inside our family walls unspeakable violence of all kinds occurred. Both of my parents drank – a lot. My mother used deathly silence as a means to control her husband and children, sometimes refusing to speak to the perceived offender for a week. Sometimes, she inexplicably left home for days. I was so terrorized by the threat of those silences/abandonment that I did anything my mother wanted me to, giving up my personal self in the process. My father’s explosive rages kept both his children walking on egg – shells whenever he was around which fortunately was only on weekends. We both hated him, gravitating towards our mother who seemingly was the better of the two because she endured this abusive behavior although she struck out at her children instead.

 

Theirs was a marriage made in hell. Silence and Rage make poor bed partners, and I remember begging my mother to divorce my father when I was barely six years old (it is astonishing to me that I knew what divorce meant at that age).

 

To escape my family I went away to college and got married.

 

My abusive drunken husband threw me down the stairs when I was three months pregnant with my first child.

 

Four years later my brother killed himself just after graduating from Harvard.

 

Single motherhood became the worst nightmare in my life after the loss of my only brother who I adored.

 

As a suicide survivor I believed that I owed my parents my children and willingly surrendered them whenever my parents wanted them (a prime example of what survivor’s guilt can do).

 

How did I manage to forget what it had been like living with people like that?

 

It wasn’t until mid –life after having made the terminal mistake of letting my parents “parent” my children that I began to suspect that something was very wrong with them, and that maybe I wasn’t the whole problem after all.

 

By that time I was divorced, my children were grown, and both had left home. It was too late to repair the damage. I didn’t understand at the time that my children had internalized the very worst of their grandparents’ patriarchal values of “power over” and were embracing my parents’ view about how defective their daughter was as a human being.

 

I began to craft my own authentic life.

 

I thought time would soften my children’s vicious treatment of me.

 

I didn’t realize that my children thrived on this sense of having emotional power over their mother.

 

Power Over, not Love.

 

I am ashamed to admit that I kept trying to repair the damage with both of my children up until this year, enduring the silent treatment, endless bullying, and verbal abuse at the hands of my youngest son after my oldest simply shut the door on our relationship 25 years ago.

 

This is not to say that eventually I didn’t became aware of what had/was happening.

 

I did, but like Cinderella, I kept “hope” alive for a different ending.

 

Until now.

 

This spring the chains that once bound me as a sorrowing mother snapped and I was set free.

 

Grace intervened.

 

At this point in my life I respect who I have become too much to sanction more “family” (familiar) abuse.

 

Still, it is frightening to acknowledge how our personal accounts repeat themselves over generations without interruption.

 

These family stories are bigger and more powerful than we can ever know, creating a cautionary tale for those who think they have escaped abusive situations. We either repeat the story, or embrace its opposite. In rare cases, if we have the courage, we can break the cycle, something I hope that I am doing today.

 

First Harvest Moon (The Blueberry Moon – 2017)

Published on the day of my youngest son’s 49th birthday.

 

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Afternotes:

 

The word Patriarchy requires an explanation:

 

Historically, Patriarchy was defined as “The Power of the Fathers.”

 

This definition is partially correct. Patriarchy is a hierarchal system of domination that thrives on white lower, middle, and upper class men (and some male identified women) having power over other less fortunate individuals especially other women.

 

Carol Christ defines Patriarchy as a system of power that seeks to control women through their sexuality.

 

However we define it, Patriarchy is a destructive system that is endemic to our culture and is mirrored by the collective in countless ways including our insatiable need to “control” nature.

 

(As an eco – feminist I believe that what we do to nature we do to women. A poignant example is the way we continue to sanction rape of both women and the trees that provide us with oxygen to breathe).

 

An equally horrifying example is the attempt by the dominant culture to control a woman’s right to have an abortion. A woman’s right to choose is just that – a basic human right to have control over her bodily processes including pregnancy.

 

I have worked with women for most of my life, and I have never met a woman who didn’t struggle with the right to choose abortion, and then have to deal with the guilt and shame she endured as a result of making the choice to end a pregnancy.

 

As a naturalist/ethologist I am struck by how nature has built in abortion as a response to too much stress in most non – human species, if not all. If the mother in question does not have enough food or resources to survive, spontaneous abortions occur without danger to the mother. Survival of the potential mother comes first.

 

Black bears, for example, practice something called delayed implantation, which means that the mother mates in the spring, but the fetus will not develop unless that mother has sufficient food and has gained enough weight to survive hibernation. If she has, cubs will be born and cared for while the mother is denning during the winter.

 

In my own life I experienced a spontaneous abortion after leaving my abusive alcoholic husband. I had no money, no place to live, one toddler and one 6 month old baby (I went to work as a waitress). Without support from my family I did not see any way through this horrific situation until Nature mercifully stepped in and ended a third pregnancy.

 

Most desperate women are not as fortunate.

 

I have come to embrace Carol Christ’s belief that Patriarchy is primarily a system that seeks to control woman through every aspect of her sexuality. The obscene emphasis on the way women are supposed to stay “ young” is yet another way we cage our women like the animals we consume so mindlessly, objectifying ourselves and animals without consent or compassion.

 

As women, we still struggle to develop an identity beyond being someone’s mother, wife, grandmother, servant.

River Muses

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As the river rises with spring melt from the mountains, Abiquiu dam opens flooding the river to overflowing. The men come to clean the acequias or ditches that will bring life bringing water into the fields to irrigate the crops. All the farmers share this precious water, and having “water rights” determines whether crops will thrive or perish…

Every morning a shimmering golden orb mirrors the river whose serpentine shape and echoing voice welcomes me as I walk out to feed the birds and walk my dogs. I respond to her rumbling roar of water on stone with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of water, the rising sun, and a new day spent in this place of unimaginable beauty.

I have fallen in love with a river.

What Spirits decreed that I might live here for a time?

For months I climbed to the ruin of Poshuouinge to glimpse the serpentine path of water meandering below wondering what stories the river held close to her heart. Generations of Tewa speaking Pueblo peoples lived here along the river’s banks, women digging mud, shaping pots out of wet clay, creating art with agave brushes, men carving swiftly flying arrows, clearing the acequias, planting, harvesting, hunting giving thanks for the river’s generosity…people struggling to live in harmony with the land they called “Mother.”

Yet there was much suffering too. Too much blood was shed. Children and women were stolen by those who believed they had more “rights” than others, people who used other people and earthscapes for personal gain. Yet the People endured and some live on today in Pueblos scattered along the river.

Is this why the river tells me that I too must be steadfast, make peace with a troubled past, leave land that I love deeply, come to live here as a child would, trusting the river’s ebb and flow?

Is this why I have met such generous hearted people, people I could come to love?

Did the river draw them to her just as she calls to me now?

These questions haunt me because Place has a kind of Power that works invisibly through Fate and body/mind pulling a person into relationship with a particular element – like the water of this river – but this power never uses words to communicate. Instead, Nature calls her red winged blackbirds to sing their hearts out as I listen fervently for confirmation.

These black robed muses are answering my call.

It is up to me to make the choice to believe these birds whose Presence I see and hear, but whose message I cannot as yet feel.

Baba’s Tapestry

 

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Above: Huichol String Painting of the Tree of Life – Thanks to Bruce Nelson for the image

This morning the first email I read was written by a male friend of mine who reminded me that today, International Women’s Day, was “my day.” How delightful to be reminded of this moment by a good man I thought to myself.

An article in Return to MAGO about the biological miracle of female mitochondrial DNA captured my attention immediately afterwards. It had been a while since I had thought about the unbroken line of genes passed down from mother to daughter that allowed geneticists to trace woman’s heritage back to the “first mother.” I reflected for a minute on “her- story” that I share with all women including my own mother and grandmother.

In the same piece of writing (excerpts from Blood and Honey by Danica Anderson) references were made to scholar Marija Gimbutas’s research which highlights the importance of spinning and weaving, and how these two creative acts were carried out by women in sacred temples long ago. In ancient times flint blades were used as scissors by the women who cut the threads and cords – umbilical and otherwise. (Neolithic Europe).

These references swamped me with memories driving me to write, today, before I lost the precious threads.

First, I thought of my grandmother who I named “Baba” because she sang a song to me about three lost sheep that cried bah, bah, bah. The word “Baba,” I later learned, was a name used to denote grandmother.

My maternal grandmother took care of me as a child. She let me bake cookies and help her put up food that she had grown in her vegetable garden. She taught me how to grow flowers, and together we watched birds for hours. She cooked special foods for me when I was sick and washed my face with warm water every single night. She awakened me so that we could watch the deer grazing in a circle around the golden apple tree under a blossoming white moon. But what I remember best is sitting with her as she sewed…

My grandmother was a professional seamstress who crafted all my grandfather’s suits, shirts, ties, and silk handkerchiefs from bolts of cloth that she chose with great care. I also have many poignant memories of her sitting at the sewing machine stitching together dresses, shorts, shirts, for her only granddaughter who she loved fiercely. She taught me to sew delicate little stitches, and I have a clear memory of her working on a huge tapestry of the Tree of Life that was filled with colorful birds that I loved. That she never finished this particular piece of embroidery always upset me whenever I thought about it. At the time of her death my grandmother had embroidered so many pillow shams, and wall hangings that were so exquisitely executed that I was left to wonder about the significance behind the fact that she abandoned my favorite tapestry of all. I still have the silver heron scissors that she used to cut the threads while working on that piece of embroidery …

Today of all days seems like an appropriate time to honor my very creative and loving grandmother who nurtured me as a child, adolescent, and young woman. When I lost her not long after my brother’s death I lost the only adult I had ever come near to trusting…

According to Andersom, women’s aprons had pockets that often held precious family heirlooms like rings and necklaces, as well as scissors that were passed down from mother to daughter (or as in my case from grandmother to granddaughter).

(I stopped writing at this point to get a cup of coffee and to water my plants. I was stunned to discover a small pair of (child’s) scissors in the center of one of my passionflower pots that had been hidden there for months. Sometimes synchronistic experiences like this reinforce the powers of interconnection like nothing else can)

My grandmother also wore aprons that always had pockets in them.

My mother was an artist that worked in a number of mediums. At one point she was silk screening pictures that my brother and I had drawn onto linen napkins. My brother drew a bird’s nest with three eggs in it. The picture that my mother selected for me was a self-portrait of a small child who wore an apron with a single pocket in the left hand side. I was also wearing one of my grandfather’s berets. Oddly I had drawn myself with only one arm. As an adult, I wondered about why my mother had chosen this particular picture for her napkins because it seemed to indicate that her daughter saw herself in a distorted way.

The embroidered Tree of Life tapestry that my grandmother never finished and the picture of myself with one arm leads me to believe that something was broken in my grandmother and in me on an archetypal level (tree of life) and the personal (a child with one arm). But I think that the intergenerational woman thread endured and eventually triumphed, because the child had a pocket and inside that pocket was a woman who developed into a creative writer, one who continues today to re-weave the threads of her broken woman line.

The Grandmothers

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When I first arrived in Abiquiu the Pedernal stood out above the other mountains with its imposing triangular shape and flattened top. Initially this mesa fascinated me because Georgia O’Keefe painted it so often, but after a while, although I liked the Pedernal it became one mountain amongest many others… However, I also knew that the Navajo’s mythical Changing Woman was born on this flat – topped mesa,and that story continued to intrigue me.

For the Navajo, Changing Woman is the daughter of the Earth and Sky – a personification of the Earth and Universe. She represents the cyclical repetition of the seasons – spring summer fall and winter –aligning each with a different aspect of human life – birth, maturation, old age, and death. In this seasonal round Changing Woman lives out the different stages of her life as a child, daughter, mother, and old woman who dies, but who also is born again each spring…

The legend tells us that as a young woman Changing Woman was dressed in white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet, and blessed with bee pollen… While bathing she was impregnated and two twins –monster slayer and child of water who after their births soon left their mother to journey westward to seek their Father, the sun. Changing Woman was lonely so one day she created the Navajo People from the skin of her body with the help of the holy people who came down from the mountains to assist her. Changing woman also created the Blessingway, a sacred ceremony for young girls that is still used today to celebrate the first bleeding or menstruation. After the original teachings were passed on the holy people left Changing Woman, but they promised that she would always feel their presence in the sound of the wind, the birds, and through the first green shoots of corn.

Pedernal, the imposing butte with its flat top or ridge lies in the heart of the Jemez mountain range at ten thousand feet.. Seen from one side it appears wide and flat, the way I see it from my house. However, an hour’s drive will take you into the startling Indian red, orange, ochre, grass green mountains behind the mesa, and from the other side the top appears peaked and narrow. The high butte is ringed by a long sheer cliff band almost impossible to climb, although ancient Puebloan peoples found their way to its summit.

The name Pedernal is the Spanish word for flint, the stone that can be found in abundance on and around this volcanic mountain. Puebloan peoples used the rock to make beautifully crafted tools like arrowheads and scrapers for hunting and skinning animals. Worked pieces and flakes of this rainbow –like chert can also be found at many ancient Puebloan ruins.

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The Pedernal was settled around 1161 CE and Indigenous people stayed until 1275 CE when the area was suddenly abandoned, possibly due to drought. The remaining artifacts include pottery shards that are typically black on white and jars with rounded bottoms so that they could be laid in a bed of hot ashes in the fire pits. Chert is abundantly common here.IMG_1074.JPG

Because I am so intrigued by the sharp, opaque, translucent flakes I collect them and spend a lot of time arranging them in different ways, much like I do with pottery shards. “Play” allows my mind to become still. This practice has become a daily meditation, much like bird watching from my window that overlooks red willow river.

After gazing at the Pedernal for months I developed a peculiar longing to get physically close to the actual mesa. I wanted large pieces of the stone to line my path to the birdfeeder, but there was something more ethereal pulling me too – and so two days ago – my friend and I drove out towards the base of the mountain… This drive takes about an hour and is absolutely stunning – a visual feast – crags, and sandstone statues, oyster to red dirt, thick Juniper, pinion, and deep green spruce and Ponderosa pine forests, huge clumps of black sagebrush, colder temperatures and the occasional clump of snow left me with the sense that I had entered another world, one where bears and elk found home. Seeing the mesa from behind gave me a sense of belonging to this place that I simply cannot describe beyond believing that I was called here by Changing Woman. Perhaps other Indigenous voices and holy people were calling too  in spirit if not in body.

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Above: Pedernal from behind

The night after this excursion I had a dream of my dearly loved grandmother that died in my early twenties. In the dream I was at her bedside, telling her I loved her, washing her face, rubbing cream on her hands and pitifully thin arms, listening to her rapid shallow breathing, feeling so helpless, and so guilty – all this while she lay in a coma. The next morning, thanksgiving day, she died at dawn.

My dream repeated the original experience with one dramatic change. Instead of the numbness and terrible nameless guilt I experienced at her death, in the dream I now understood that my grandmother had been waiting for me to make the trip down from Maine to the New York hospital to be with her, and that once we had said goodbye, she could die in peace. Astonished, I felt for the first time in fifty years that my presence had been enough. When I awakened from the dream the lifetime of guilt I had carried was gone and I was free to feel, to grieve as much as I needed to, which seemed to me to be some kind of miracle. Surely Changing Woman had wrought this reversal changing the storyline I had lived for so long.

Today the Pedernal is no longer a mountain in the distance, it is a holy dwelling place where Nature still sings the song of creation and those of the grandmothers who inhabit this sacred space in between the two worlds.