Departure

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I stood deep

in a toad hole

slinging mud

at twilight

when the sky

turned lemon

and gold.

They arced

over

my head

in pairs,

loose aggregations –

it seemed like thousands

crying out,

crossing

the river.

Ensouled.

Spirits defying

image or word.

 

A Mighty Migration begins…

 

I shivered.

Tears rose unbidden

Who calls them North?

I call out “I love you” –

Believing they know.

A crescent moon listens

cradled by nightfall.

 

To witness

a sky full

of Sandhill

Cranes

dark red heads

ebony eyes

long graceful necks

curved gray wings

dripping black legs

descending out of the blue

to roost

along this

winding Red

Willow River,

gracing fields

of depleted grain

is a Gift

given

at midnight;

the moment

before

departure.

 

This turning

of the wheel

births

days full of light

and an empty

sky bowl.

 

Haunting cries

in my ears

ring in the silence

of beloved crane absence

for another year.

 

 

Working notes:

 

As almost always (summer is the exception – no matter where I live I tire of too long days and too much heat) the shifting seasons bring me to an uncomfortable edge of personal awareness: It is hard for me to let go. Nature orchestrates this truth to me through her individuals… in this instance it is the leave – taking of the cranes that captures the essence of how loss operates in me… At first I resist. When I let go, I feel bereft. Eventually, I reach a state of acceptance.

 

This morning someone made a comment that said in effect that poetry is about extending human consciousness – making the unconscious conscious. I dislike the word “consciousness” because it conjures up new age – know it all – androcentric thinking – but when I substitute “awareness” for consciousness I know the sentiment is true. Poetry explicates feeling…it brings darkness into light.

 

When tears blurred my eyes last night I was grieving impermanence… the only constant is change, and Nature is my compass directing me towards “True North,” a state of “becoming,” my home. Not a place, but a state of being. It is astonishing to recognize that I have been seeking embodiment of this truth for the last forty years and is probably the main reason I have always lived my adult life near bodies of water.

 

To seek impermanence as a way of being is what it means to flow with the river, or float down a stream. What becomes crystal clear is that this way of being is just the opposite of being human (!) – to be a person is to have boundaries, to be bound by soul and skin. Allowing each of our boundaries to dissolve into all that is, and was, and will be, is a stretch for every human who lives, whether they preach flow or not. Dissolution means an end to what is, creating room for death to enter the river of life as a friend, even as a lover, and one who celebrates change. Spirit is part of every aspect of life.

 

In these days of Climate Change the Great Dying is the center core of each of our lives, acknowledged or not. The loss of non – human species will probably lead to our own eventual demise – not necessarily a bad thing, since humans have made such a mess of things. (I say probably because the future might be an unknown – what I do know is that things don’t look good from where I am standing).

 

But meanwhile, we have now, and the present is filled with beauty, awe, and wonder. For me the Cranes embody all these qualities… after they leave, other wonderful creatures/elements will take their place, perhaps toads or frogs…maybe even a sky full of rain…

 

Cranes are Elders in every sense of the word, ancient relatives and they continue on, some adapting, others following unknown scripts or patterns that stretch back to antiquity. The way they live, migrating out of seasonal necessity, returning to home – places, celebrating through community and song in life and death is a way of being that embodies flowing like a river… And for that, their magnificent beauty and inherent wisdom born of genuine community, I thank them.

 

Blessed be the Cranes…

 

A few words about the natural history of these birds…

 

Sandhill Cranes have been in their present state for 30 million years (perhaps modeling to humans what genuine community might consist of).

 

Most recently these birds have been a presence in my life since last November when they first arrived, I originally thought for a brief stopover, before moving south to places like the Bosque del Apache to spend the winter. When I first came to New Mexico two and half years ago I was astonished and bewildered by their haunting collective conversation even when I couldn’t see them which was most of the time… But this year the cranes not only arrived but many decided to spend the winter here much to my great joy, perhaps a result of Climate Change which is shifting their migration patterns, in some case dramatically.

 

For example, I recently learned that Sandhill Cranes have been seen in parts of Maine. Their normal migration routes take them from Mexico as far northwest as Siberia into the Canadian Shield and Alaska to breed with one major stopover in Nebraska at the Platte river (another group that settles further northeast makes a stop in Mississippi) where 600,000 cranes meet to rest themselves before making the last leg of their seasonal journey. In the fall all northern populations will make the trip south for the winter probably because of inclement weather and lack of food.

 

However, some groups spend their entire lives in one place like Florida, others are no longer migrating further south than Tennessee, although these too fly north in the spring. It is unusual to have cranes living in Northern New Mexico, although I understand that a few have sometimes remained here through the winter.

 

Not in these numbers though. When I first began to hear the cranes I never imagined that I would start to see them or watch them make gracious descents into a neighboring field at all times of the day, every day. But this is a gift that this winter has bestowed upon me, and one I have never taken for granted.

 

Beginning at dawn I listen for the first cranes murmurings, and most morning around 7 AM I see the first flock flying over the river, followed by others, often occurring later. One of the most fascinating aspects of Sandhill Crane behavior is the way they seem so intent upon communal living. They take to the air in pairs, small groups and huge flocks sometimes flying one way, then suddenly wheeling around in the sky to soar in the opposite direction! They never fly in formation like geese do (no one appears to lead), and yet they are in constant communication with each other, which currently begins about a half hour before dawn.

 

This morning a friend sent me an article about the cranes arriving earlier than usual for their seasonal stopover at the Platte River. I am not surprised. For about two weeks now the sense that migration will soon be under way surfaces each time I see or hear the cranes. I think my body already knows what’s coming…

Longing For Home

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This patch of red earth

under my feet

even in drought

feels like home.

At dawn

I sit at the river’s edge

gazing east.

The rising sun star

almost always

turns pale light

into a world of color

that defies imagination

or words to describe

my wonder.

Even the lamenting horse

next door

breaking my heart

with his sorrow

is part of the story…

His anguish has become

my own.

I greet each day

with gratitude

and earnest prayer.

Someday

will I find home

in this high desert?

I long for roots –

dug deep as my longing –

and a place of my own.

Osha – Bear Root Medicine

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Osha is an herb that belongs to the parsley family. It is found in Northern New Mexico and other areas of the Rocky mountains at elevations of 7500 – 10,000 feet in wet moist areas with rich organic soil. However, unlike it’s poisonous cousin Water Hemlock it is never found with it’s feet growing in water because it has a reciprocal relationship with mycorrhizel fungi that also makes Osha impossible to cultivate.

 

The herb has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to treat respiratory and digestive issues when taken internally, and topically as a skin cream to moisten dry skin and heal surface wounds. The seeds and leaves were also ingested as natural food. The root of the herb was/is chewed for endurance, respiratory, problems and to combat altitude sickness.

 

The root of the herb is prepared by simmering it for up to three hours resulting in a dark aromatic tea. The root can also be tinctured in alcohol and has a spicy aromatic pungent taste.

 

Osha is an indigenous name for bear. Indigenous mythology tells us that Native and Hispanic peoples first learned to use the herb from the bears that lived in the Rocky Mountains. Since both Grizzly bears and black bears once inhabited these areas both used the herb when they emerged from hibernation to cleanse their sluggish digestive systems early in the spring, just as black bears do today (grizzlies were extirpated in most western states by the last century). During this period bears ingest many kinds of new greens, usually the only natural foods available besides roots and corms. During the warmer seasons both grizzlies and black bears have been observed (by both naturalists and biologists) rolling in Osha to kill parasites and soothe insect bites as well as chewing the roots when feeling ill.

 

All through the Americas the bear is still considered by Indigenous peoples to be the greatest healer of all animals with the black bear believed to be the greater “root” healer while the grizzly is invoked as the greatest source of spiritual protection.

 

Although western medicine has been slow to acknowledge the healing power of natural herbs, it reluctantly acknowledges that the antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory properties of Osha “may” inhibit colds, flu, and other viral infections. It is probably the most widely used herb in the Southwest.

 

Bear root is seriously threatened by over – harvesting and cannot be successfully cultivated, so it is imperative to wild-craft responsibly. Osha has parsley –like leaves and umbels of white flowers. The root crowns have a reddish tint. The roots when dug are fibrous with dark wrinkled skin and the scent is similar to that of celery.

 

Osha is an herb with no known side effects; however because it contains oxytocin it should not be used by pregnant or nursing mothers.

 

I have been gathering my own herbs for 50 years and making tinctures/decoctions/salves out of the ones I grow on my own land or wild-craft in Maine. I do not normally procure herbal preparations from commercial dealers, preferring to use what is available in my own backyard. Now, however, that I am living in New Mexico I hope to find some Osha in a place where I can gather some roots without damaging whole clumps of these plants.

 

Because I am a black bear researcher and have observed many bears ingesting herbs in the spring I have a particular fascination of the multiple uses of Osha, and have just begun using an extract prepared by others. The bear in me just has to find out how this herb works for me!

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.

Little Red Hills

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Little red hills startle a serpentine mountain,

burnish gold in twilight.

Ancient junipers grow crooked –

cry out to wind and rain to shape them.

Baby whip-tails streak over red skinned

dirt at high noon.

Silvery sages call to me through scent at dusk –

“pick a twig and let me heal you.”

 

Five petaled periwinkle flowers

have leaves like bristles,

birth stars under pinion pines.

Diminutive pin-cushions sprout

pink and magenta blossoms in dry washes,

(invisible to all but the discerning eye).

 

Cottontails feast on delicate gray green twigs;

Black tailed hares leap skywards over a waning moon.

The desert is alive with wonder –

Double rainbows arc from horizon to horizon

showering this patch of cracked earth with blessings,

Gifting Her with Rain.

 

8/29/16

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Postscript:

 

Living in the desert makes change seem irrelevant. Clouds cast shadows from mountain to mountain shifting the sky every second. Thundergods rumble fiercely in the distance. Nothing stays the same here – the light determines what I see or what I don’t as the star at the center of our solar system illuminates or blinds me during the daylight hours. Arcturus rises in the western sky at twilight bringing down a curtain of black velvet over a sky of red coals. In the early morning the Great Bear enters her cave in the west under earth made of sand and red dirt. The silence of the red hills and dry washes rings a bell in my heart.