Dancing for the Dakota Access Pipeline

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Last week we attended dances at Ohkay Owingeh, formally known as the Pueblo of Santa Clara. These Tewa speaking peoples are located on the Rio Grande River, nestled in the hills on tribal owned land in Northern New Mexico.

 

Because it is the time of the year that most dances are held to encourage the crops to grow the first dance we witnessed, not surprisingly, was a Basket dance. The women dancers were dressed in bright shawls of every conceivable color and carried baskets with ribbons, symbolizing the containers for the harvest to come. All wore moccasins. Curiously, some women had what looked like three dimensional moons with rays attached to their backs. These sculptures were quite original and certainly spectacular and once again the corn maiden symbol, the round red dot, adorned the cheek of each woman. Very small girls were also dressed in traditional regalia. Drumming accompanied the dance and corn pollen was dusted on the earth before the dance began.

 

Many pounding drums alerted us to the next dance that immediately followed the first. Drummers and singers entered the plaza from the kiva (the best drummers I have heard so far). The lead dancer was dressed in a war bonnet made of brilliant orange feathers, His arms were covered in purple clay and he had wings made of feathers, bells, scarlet knee bands. He didn’t dance he flew, his feet barely touching the ground. I was mesmerized and for a while couldn’t pay attention anything but the sound of the drumming and this dancer’s whirling body and footwork. He became the dance. Gradually the other dancers entered my awareness, all men with bodies covered in ochre, red, and gray clay.

 

The whole tone of this dance was different. Angry. War cries. Yells. I could feel a fiery intensity that I have never experienced at any of the former dances. I didn’t understand. Some men wore buffalo horn headdresses and other men wore other fantastic war bonnets along with bells, kilts, red ties on their legs. The drumming pulled me into the earth with its awe – inspiring beat.

 

Then I saw the lead dancer wearing an apron with the letters DAPL – the Dakota Access Pipeline – and I finally understood what my body was experiencing. This dance was being held to support all Indigenous peoples in their fight for their brothers and sisters, the right to reclaim their lands. They were dancing for clean waters for all Indigenous peoples, all people, and for the Earth. I wept.

 

Recently the Trump administration failed to follow proper environmental procedures when it granted approval for the Dakota Access Pipeline according to the Federal Judge’s ruling. This action does not stop the oil from flowing but The People took this ruling as a sign of hope because it opens the door to the possibility that this outrageous law might be rescinded.

 

Currently the pipeline can carry 520,000 barrels of oil daily. It is sobering to know that thousands of gallons of oil have already been spilled in dozens of industrial accidents over the past two years. In early April the DAPL leaked oil before it was fully operational.

 

I came away from the dance with a sense of renewed hope and a grateful heart. I have been experiencing so much grief and anger towards this most hostile government that is destroying all hope for planetary survival. Being privileged to witness this active prayer dance for life helped me deal with my own ongoing rage and sense of powerlessness.

 

Thank you People of Ohkay Owingeh for reminding me that I am not alone. My heart goes with you…

A Day in the Forest

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A couple of days ago my friend Iren took me up to Santa Barbara to the San Pedro wilderness. There were so many tall stately conifers – pine, spruce, too many evergreens to mention. Walking through the pale sage gray trunks of the tall aspen forest with their flat edged rustling leaves was only marred by the people that seemed to be obsessed by carving their names into these beautiful smooth ridged trees (which are members of the poplar family as are cottonwoods) creating a vulnerability for disease and untimely death for each thoughtlessly wounded tree. Amber resin weeps tree tears. Whole mountains were covered with every shade of green. White stone. A few peaks with snow could still be seen in the distance. Astonishing tall craggy cliffs and narrow gorges with clear streams running through the low places kept Iren and I close to the rushing water that tumbled over smooth stone.

 

“Water Women” love the lowlands, though Iren is also “Mountain Woman” scaling peaks (with ease) that make me cringe!

 

Iren says this place reminds her of Switzerland, her original homeland. She was sure she smelled mushrooms! I thought of Maine. I was entranced by all the lovely woodland flowers, the bright red wild columbine, delicate lavender bell shaped flowers of the clematis vines, bluebells, violets both white and deep purple, solomon’s seal, valerian, red clover, alpine lupine, water hemlock – I could go on and on here.

 

The medicine woman in me was astonished/astounded by the plethora of natural remedies this forest had to offer. I was delighted to have found such an abundant source for so many of the tinctures/creams I make up and use.

 

Spongy green sphagnum moss and a number of gray green and orange lichens covered some granite rocks. A cacophony of birds sang from the tops of trees and a hummingbird joined us for lunch at the water’s edge.

Black bear sign was in evidence. Fallen logs that housed millions of ants and grubs were raked into shreds. Insects make up most of the Black bears’ omnivore diet in the spring, along with new grass and sedges, all of which were in abundance here (although Black bears are considered omnivores 93 – 95 percent of their diet is made up of sedges, tubers, insects and berries). Some aspen were bent over in that peculiar angle that Black bears use when they are marking territory for mating season in the late spring/early summer. I decided that most of the 3000 bears of New Mexico must be hiding out in this forest, the trees of which were allowed to sprout, grow, decay and die naturally returning to the earth – from death to life – the forest, (left to her own devices), is in a continuous state of becoming.

 

Iren put her hand in the pebble strewn rushing water and quickly withdrew it. This mountain stream was too cold for her to take a quick dip!

 

When we returned to the car I felt so happy, so satisfied, so grateful to Iren. Thanks to my friend, I spent another wondrous day in yet another part of New Mexico, a state that has stolen my heart

Indian Paintbrush or Grandmother’s Hair

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When I first saw the flower as we sped down a major highway I could hardly believe my eyes. But that tell tale flash of crimson had to belong to the Indian Paintbrush I shrieked to my companion, although I had not seen one in twenty years. I was thrilled. We turned the car around to see if we could spot the flower again. Sure enough, there it was growing in a sparse desert –like area along the side of the New Mexican highway. The next day my friend went back and photographed it, much to my delight.

Also called “Grandmother’s Hair” or Prairie Fire Castilleja is a wildflower that belongs to the Figwort (or snapdragon) family. There are a number of species and all are native to North America. Indian Paintbrush can be annual, biennial or perennial depending on the species.

Growing one to two feet high the flowers are borne in dense bracketed spikes. The flowers are insignificant and are hidden beneath the red tipped leaves. It is the leaves or bracts that are colored various shades of crimson, or flaming orange with yellow depending on the species. The bristle -like inflorescences look as if they have been dipped in paint. Indian Paintbrush grows in both moist areas and dry areas, open prairie, and at the edge of forests. The plant prefers sunny areas. These plants grow in Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The plants also prefer cooler mountainous climates (up to 10,000 feet) and may be found in the Andes and other parts of South America. They are often found near some kind of water seepage. The flowers begin to bloom in the spring and can last well into summer.

Indian Paintbrush has the ability to grow and survive in serpentine soils. For the geologist, serpentine is a mineral class. These rocks are composed mainly of iron magnesium silicate, with impurities of chromium, nickel and other toxic metallic elements. Because of this unusual chemical makeup, soils may be infertile because of their high magnesium to calcium ratio. Many species of plants are not equipped to handle such stressful amounts of high magnesium, low calcium and in general the overabundance of metals.

Indian Paintbrush also soaks up the alkaline mineral *selenium in the soil in toxic amounts (creating hair loss and brittle nails among other things), so although the plant can be eaten it is necessary to know something about the soil content that the plant is growing in before ingesting it. The nectar of the plant is very sweet and it is the flowers that are most often eaten in salads.

Indian Paintbrush is also known as a root parasite. The plant has small tubes called “haustoria” that insert themselves into the tissues of other plant roots, like sagebrush, to obtain necessary nutrients. However, Indian paintbrush can also make some of its own food, so technically it is a semi – parasite. These plants must also have access to water and they rely on other nearby plants to obtain sufficient water for themselves.

This wild plant is very difficult to grow by seed because it must be planted with a host, another native plant or seedling, in order to survive. Unfortunately, seedlings do not transplant well.

Various Indigenous Peoples used the flowering parts of the plant as paintbrushes. Some Native peoples like the Chippewa use the plant to treat rheumatism and to make their hair glossy. Both applications are useful due to the selenium content.

There is a Blackfoot Indian myth about a maiden who fell in love with a prisoner and escaped with him. When she became lonely for her family she took a piece of bark and drew a picture of her home on it with her blood and left the bark on the ground. A beautiful plant with a bush like end grew out of the soil It was dyed crimson red with the maiden’s blood and named “Indian Paintbrush” by the young girl’s people.

The last time I saw Indian Paintbrush it was in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson early in the spring (March). I had been walking up an arroyo that was still seeping snow from the Rincon Mountains when I saw clusters of these magnificent flowers each with a slightly different coloring, but unlike this New Mexican variety these flowers were a brilliant burnt orange fading into a buttery yellow. I would recognize this plant anywhere!

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Photo Credits: Bruce Nelson

 

*Selenium is an essential trace mineral that is important for many bodily processes, including cognitive function, and a healthy immune system. It is present in human tissue, mostly in skeletal muscle. Dietary sources include eggs, brown rice, some fish and meats. The amount of selenium in food often depends on the selenium concentration of the soil and water where farmers grew or raised the food. Another curious fact about selenium is that it can also produce electricity directly from sunlight and is used in solar cells.

Bird Watching on Red Willow River

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(Above: Male Bullocks Oriole sipping from hummingbird feeder)

Living on a river is a bird watcher’s paradise I  discovered when I moved here last February. At first it was the Sandhill cranes that awakened me in the morning, or the honking flocks of Canada geese that soared over the house. Mallards quacked as they took to the sky after floating on the river, and some days a Bald eagle or two perched in the cottonwoods. At night I heard the Great Horned owl call. Two kinds of towhees, the Canyon and Spotted version were among my first small avian visitors along with a few chickadees, white crowned sparrows, chipping sparrows, juniper titmice, two kinds of juncos and downy woodpeckers. One day a flock of cactus wrens took over the bare tree as they dropped from the sky chattering incessantly. I also had house finches and pine siskins, and a few robins. The collared doves came gradually followed by white winged doves and finally in March mourning doves appeared. The black and white magpies delighted me with their mimicking behavior. Red tailed hawks and many other raptors regularly patrol the tree and its neighbors but it is very hard for any hawk to penetrate the thick thorny branches of the olive or one of her close neighbors, so to my knowledge, none of the birds here have become dinner for these predators.

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(Above: Mourning Doves)

The Red Winged Blackbirds heralded the coming of spring arriving in a small flock in March, and thankfully some have stayed on. I have them in Maine where I live but Redwings love fast running streams and rivers and usually nest nearby a larger body of water than my brook.

I soon learned that living on the river meant that migrating birds might stay for a short time before leaving again to migrate further north, east or west. There was a poignancy attached to bird watching that I had never experienced before because in Maine we had two distinct seasons spring and fall when the birds either arrived or left. Here on Red Willow River the birds appeared and disappeared without warning. I began to pay close attention to my bird books especially Sibley’s Birds for migrating information.

When the Ruby Throated hummingbirds appeared in mid April so many came at once that I was shocked. In Maine the males appeared first, and the females about a week later but here males and females seemed to arrive together. It wasn’t long before I became accustomed to the buzzing sound of the males zooming around the house as I opened the door at dawn. I deliberately hung two feeders down by the now flooded acequia (ditches that irrigate the fields by the river) next to the Russian Olives so that the females would have plenty to eat while the males sought out the flashy feeder close to the house. One morning I glimpsed an iridescent deep violet throat and sure enough the Black Chinned hummingbirds had arrived to stay. A solitary Rufous hummingbird made a brief appearance before moving northwest to a warmer climate? Rufous hummingbirds are so aggressive that I am just as happy he moved on. Others will soon be with us and I am already using up a half gallon of sugar water every few days!

The Great Blue Heron must be nesting somewhere nearby on the river because I see one flying by the house almost every evening just before sunset.

On May 9th a flash of brilliant orange startled me as the bird landed on a branch of the budded Russian Olive. I hadn’t seen a Baltimore oriole for many years but there was no mistaking that color. With a few hops the bird was perched next to the hummingbird feeder. I watched with amazement as he deftly tipped the feeder in his direction and sucked down the sugar water. When he was joined by his olive and yellow – breasted mate, she started fluttering her wings in his direction. The female evidently captured his attention because they flew off together after he had a few more drinks!

I grabbed an orange and sliced it in two, ran out the door and impaled one half on a broken tree branch. In minutes the two were back and this time the male went straight to the orange spearing it with his bill. His flaming breast feathers made the orange look dull by comparison. Another couple arrived and although the male was just as brilliantly attired I noticed a different wing pattern, different head markings and what seemed to be a sharper beak. I was confused and took a picture of this bird while he too was sipping sugar water. Turning to my bird books I learned that the first pair were Baltimore orioles as I had thought, and the second two were Bullocks orioles. Adult male Baltimore orioles have brilliant orange undersides and shoulders with black heads and wings. In contrast, adult male Bullock orioles have deep orange breasts, with black caps, wings, back, white wing patches, and tail tips. The detail that was most helpful distinguishing the two species was that the Bullock orioles (both male and female) have black lines through each eye. Just after I figured this out another male oriole showed up and his blotchy black head and wing pattern varied from the others. Perplexed, I turned back to the books. According to Sibley’s (eastern) Baltimore and (western) Bullocks orioles frequently interbreed creating hybrids of the two. When the Western Tanager with his distinctive red head joined the crowd I was frankly astonished but at least I could identify him! Within a day or so I was just starting to sort out the differences between the female orioles when the Baltimore orioles suddenly disappeared!

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(Above: male and female Bullocks oriole)

This morning I looked out and saw a bird I haven’t seen for 50 years. Not just one Meadowlark but about a dozen were crowded around an open feeder. Tonight I saw my first Black – headed grosbeak of the season, another male bird whose markings somewhat resemble those of the spotted Towhee.

At dawn I wake up listening to the roar of Red Willow River as she winds her way to the sea wondering who might arrive today. I pay very close attention because I never know which birds might also be leaving…

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(Above: Two collared Doves)

I could easily spend the entire day sitting at the east window peering into the lovely Russian Olive trees that are such a silvery gray green that they provide a striking contrast to almost every bird that perches there. Bird watching on Red Willow River reminds me that change is the only constant and that it’s important to stay emotionally present to treasure each joyful moment.

The Woman Who Listens

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Oh, the sun is burning up the sky

turning it white under smoke heavy air.

Crackling tree bark keens but no one listens.

It’s just another “burn.”

 

I am a woman who listens.

 

Twilight lays down her starry blanket.

A half moon floats through the sky.

Desert air turns cool.

The Canyon towhee and white crowned sparrow

Converse, quenching thirst at a shallow well.

 

I am a woman who listens

 

Hummingbirds

dive and climb, wildly whirring wings

speak to a multitude of avian presences.

Fierce and vulnerable in the extreme,

humming and buzzing they call my name.

 

I am a woman who listens…

 

A long guttural trill breaks the silence.

He sounds like a tree frog!

Is he singing a song for his lady,

under sun warmed stones?

A desert oasis is a holy place,

for a woman who listens.

 

Working notes:

Yesterday, the sun was fierce and the air thick with smoke that didn’t clear until twilight. I ached for burning trees. It was so hot that I went for a dip in the river. And then after dark I heard him singing from the little pond. I don’t know what kind of frog sounds that long guttural trill but just knowing that he was out there singing allowed me to sleep.