The Harvest Dance

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I close with this beautiful translation of a Tewa song:


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

Your children are we, and with tired backs

We bring you the gifts that you love.

Then weave for us a garment of brightness;

May the warp be the white light of morning,

May the weft be the red light of evening,

May the fringes be the falling rain,

May the border be the standing rainbow.

Thus weave for us a garment of brightness

That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,

That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,

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

For Love of Water



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.


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…

The Gift

Lily’s View from his new home:


The night before Valentines Day the fireplace damper shut down while I was sitting on the couch with my dogs gazing into the fire. The only other glow came from a cluster of twinkling star – like lights that were arranged on top of some pinion boughs on the tall chest. Because I was seated on a low piece of furniture I never noticed the smoke streaming out of the fireplace climbing high into the rafters.

When I heard Lily B my bird make a strangled sound from the place he was roosting on top of a ceiling fan, I turned around. Terror stricken, I couldn’t see him because Lily B was engulfed by smoke. Screaming his name over and over I jumped up, ripped the rug and threw logs away from the door, opened it and ran out to the storehouse to get a fan. Once back inside I climbed a ladder up to his perch but Lily was gone. More panic. I screeched “ Lily, where are you” weeping uncontrollably. And then I heard the flutter of wings as Lily flew up from the floor answering my frantic call. Grabbing my poor bird, I stuffed him into a cage and placed him outside the front door, praying that he would not die from smoke inhalation

My two Chihuahuas were on alert but under the radar as the smoke poured out the door. Strangely, the room didn’t clear and my lungs hurt, my eyes burned as the room continued to fill with smoke. A friend arrived and it was then that we discovered that the damper had closed by itself. I had been using this fireplace for 5 months and had never had a damper problem until this night. But the tell tale sooty black adobe bricks above the fireplace suggested that there had been serious problems before. We poured water on the fire until it went out…

Just before this incident occurred I had been thinking seriously about moving out because major construction around the house was about to begin. I had come to New Mexico to write, renting this house because it gave me a place to land after driving across country. My first shock occurred when the wild dogs that roamed the area awakened me very single night at 3 AM. And then there was the house, a virtual steam bath from a fierce summer sun that streamed in from the southwest windows. And yet, it never occurred to me that the studio I had rented for such a ridiculous price was non functional. A broken window, a torn screen that took six weeks to fix, gas leaks, one of which was never fixed, doors that wouldn’t lock, absolutely no attempt to winterize the structure, plumbing and water pressure issues, and finally the lack of working radiant heat and a refusal to issue a dump card until I threatened to withhold the outrageous rent had left me feeling betrayed and very angry.

Equally disturbing, the property manager violated my rental contract rendering it invalid by her continuous invasions during the first two months I was here, a fact I was now grateful for. She entered the studio when I wasn’t home without my permission and sent others to the house without letting me know beforehand. Someone hit one of my Chihuahuas because this once friendly outgoing little creature now bit men.

Fortunately I have developed a few friendships with caring people and had a place to go when this fire became the straw that broke this proverbial camel’s back. With help from friends I moved out.

Lily B somehow miraculously survived the fire, just as he had survived a brutal attack by some animal, just a month after we moved to this place. I believe that the threats to his life were dire warnings not just for him but for me. Because I am in relationship with all living things, but especially intimate with my own animals I often get information from what happens to them.

I remember so clearly the dream I had just after arriving in New Mexico last August that something was going to happen to Lily, and I awakened frightened, for him and for me. A short time ago I had another dream that Lily was going to die, and once again, fear struck. Yet he has been spared twice. Gratitude flows out of me like the river that wends it’s way by my door.

Leaving a chaotic and unstable situation for a peaceful sand colored structure so close to the river has made me realize that I had been living on a threatening knife-edge ever since I had come to these mountains of New Mexico. I am proud that I managed to deal with all the house problems and learned to accept what was, making the best out of the situation. I refused to allow ongoing house issues to detract from my love of this high desert. I took pleasure in every sunset, every mountain view, every weather change, every petroglyph hike, every Tewa dance, every canyon, art museum, movie, Mexican dinner, I could go on and on here. But most of all I feel profound gratitude for  the great generosity and support of friends who cared enough to help me.What else could I ask for?

Below, Lily basking in the sun.