Changing Woman Speaks

She climbed steep hills

and rubble to reach the meadow.

The flat – topped mountain peered down

at the woman

gathering stones 

as if they were diamonds.

Amber, moss, pearl white,

rose red and orange,

gray and ebony – a luminescence

emanated from each,

almost as if the moon had

infused each flake and boulder

with her translucent light.

The Pedernal absorbed

her child-like wonder

and gifted her

with stones

that told a story

of a sea of shells and plants

and Changing Woman

who helped her

remember who she was.

Stones speak to

those who listen.

Notes on the Pedernal:

In Abiquiu, New Mexico there is a flat – topped mountain that is called the Pedernal which can be seen from most directions and has been painted and photographed from every angle. Indigenous peoples considered this mountain to be sacred. The mythical (Navajo) Changing Woman was born on this mountain, and it is said that she lives there still. Each year she is born in the spring, emerges as a young woman during the summer, becomes a mother in the fall, and turns into an old woman during the winter season, only to be born again. In the East she is Earth Woman, in the South Mountain Woman, in the West she is Water Woman and in the North she is Corn Woman. Changing Woman embodies Nature’s as a whole and since the Navajo trace their lineage through a matrilineal line she is the Mother of all the People.

 The first way Changing Woman saves the world is by birthing the twins, the male aspects of herself. This embodied female/male energy is capable of taking action on behalf of all the people, ridding the world of monsters. It is important to note that the twins require the help of Spider Grandmother’s wisdom, guidance and protection because Spider Grandmother is Changing Woman’s older wisdom aspect, a continuation of her mother – line.

 The second and most critical way Changing Woman saves the world from “monsters” is because she secures the matrilineal line for the People. The matrilineal system traces descent through maternal roots. Men who marry move to the wife’s residence (matrilocal) and become part of the maternal family. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers bring up the children, protecting, guiding, and teaching the children the ancestral family stories. This system unites Navajo society and creates the social structure of the culture connecting generations through kinship.

 Although in present day Navajo culture Patriarchy has eroded women’s power the four tenets (harmony, beauty, balance, peace) remain part of the judicial system of the Navajo people.The multicolored stone called chert and its darker twin, flint, are structural (quartz) parts of this mountain. These stones were once collected to craft the finest arrowheads for hunting.

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.