Plants, Animals, People and Place

 

 

IMG_6110.JPG

Recently I wrote three articles that addressed the relationship living beings have with place … One article addressed the possible advantages of working with herbs that grew locally as opposed to using herbs and commercial tinctures from elsewhere. Another focused on the perils of re-locating wild animals from one place to another. The third was a narrative in which I discuss what happened to me when I thought I could leave my land, land that I belong to, in order to move to the desert permanently.

 

The common denominator between the three – the relationship that plants, animals, and (some) people have with place fascinates me because it demonstrates  the necessity of interconnection.

 

In the article on herbs I discuss the scientific notion that wild plants growing in one place develop immunities that may also help protect others besides their own kind from disease because they share the same geographical area- that is plants, animals, people may all benefit. Wild plants are very particular about the places they live. If you walk through a forest it will become immediately apparent that some plants cluster together in one area and others don’t grow there at all. It is a well-known fact that transplanting wild plants almost always results in failure because the plants wither and die. One reason for this is because wild plants have very complex relationships with the underground fungal network. In other words there is an intimate reciprocal relationship between plants and place.

 

Now lets look at animals.  Around here all the wild animals that visit me have homes nearby. Attempting to remove animals from their territories – re –locating them usually ends in disaster. For example, black bears who are relocated attempt to return to their home ranges even if they are taken hundreds of miles away and even if they are males whose territories are more fluid and less well defined than the smaller territories of females. Rattlesnakes that are re – located attempted to return to their homes even though more than half of the snakes die en route. Scientific research demonstrates the same pattern occurs with every animal that has ever been studied. Animals, then, also have an intimate reciprocal relationship with place.

 

When I examine what happens with humans the story becomes more complicated. The Indigenous peoples of this land believed that all nature was sentient and all species were related. Respectful reciprocal relationship with all species was a way of life.

 

When Europeans arrived they had no concept of living in a reciprocal relationship with nature. Nature was a resource to be used. The People who lived here were expendable. Consequently, after being infected by diseases, raped, murdered etc. those who were left were ripped away from the land that sustained them and herded onto reservations. To this day, Indigenous people live on foreign soil suffering from poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc., all symptoms of what I would argue is “soul loss”. The forced separation of the Forgotten Ones from their ancestral lands has destroyed their way of life. The Invisible First People of this country once had an intimate reciprocal relationship with place, just as animals and plants do.

 

The colonists had no use for land except as a commodity. Instead of developing a relationship with place, these immigrants rid themselves of the original peoples, killed the animals, slaughtered billions of trees, imposed foreign agricultural practices and bent the fertile earth to their will while claiming Native land as their own. So much blood spilled. Eventually these foreigners destroyed most of what once was a wild and beautiful country without ever taking responsibility for what they had done. We would not be facing a sixth extinction if the European invaders had ever developed a respectful reciprocal relationship with this land.

 

My personal journey began almost forty years ago when I stepped out of the car in pouring rain and fog onto land that would become my home; almost in a trance state I followed the sound of water to peer down at an overflowing brook. When an eight-point buck with velvet antlers stared up at me I shivered, even before I heard a voice. “You belong here”. Three months later the property became mine. From the beginning my relationship with place carried a peculiar charge.  First, I became apprenticed to animals and plants. One day while in the meadow gathering blueberries the entire field rose up around me enfolding me in an invisible embrace. I was Loved! To be cared about by this natural force that I later named the Mountain Mother changed me irrevocably.

 

And yet, many years later I still made the choice to go to the desert to escape harsh winters. I thought because I was in my seventies that I was too old to stay here alone. I also thought I could escape tree slaughter and family pain. Once again it was the powers of place that helped clear up my confusion. I developed a relationship with a river and wetland that helped me to see that I was forced to walk on air in the desert because I had created a terrible split between what I thought I needed and the land my body longed for. I had not only created a split in myself, but my home suffered serious foundation problems in my absence. What I learned was that to belong to place means that I am attached by invisible cords to a piece of land that cannot be severed. This land and I are in intimate relationship and both of us become ill when we are separated.

 

If animals, plants and people need an intimate relationship with land to survive/thrive when we split away from the earth we put ourselves in deep peril. We need these reciprocal relationships for our mental, emotional, spiritual, bodily health.  Perhaps, less obvious to some, is that the land needs us too. S/he needs to be respected, appreciated, and loved. Most of all S/he needs the freedom to teach us how to live. And she can’t model this behavior if we make her invisible. Earth is our context; without access to her body we flounder. We are the youngest species on the planet, and desperately in need of re-attaching ourselves to the earth so that she can once again be heard.

 

A sudden movement caused me to look up from this writing…I see the young buck munching on an apple just as the sun rises over the mountain. The apple tree is suffused in gold and the sweet breath of the forest reminds me once again that I belong…

Stories the Stones Tell

IMG_4075.JPG

Metate

IMG_4105.JPG

The potshard in the center seems to have a “face”… although I bring some of these artifacts home for closer inspection it is part of my spiritual practice to return them to the land.

IMG_4106.JPG

Mano

IMG_4072.JPG

Avanyu, spirit of the waters

IMG_4076.JPG

The storied land

IMG_4073.JPG

Another view of the stones that tell stories.

A couple of days ago I was climbing a mesa with my friend Iren who is “a guide to the wild places” – those places off the beaten track where stories are told by the stones and the Earth that supports them.

As a severely directionally dyslexic person who cannot tell her left from right navigating this hidden world would be impossible without Iren’s deep knowledge of this land, her expertise, and her love for stone.

As we climbed through mountains of human garbage and four wheeler tracks we discovered potsherds at our feet. Picking up the predominantly black and white pieces for inspection I found myself wondering about the women (and children) who gathered the clay, shaped it into pots, and fired the vessels to store food. There are so many untold women’s stories hidden in these clay fragments…

Female scholarship (see Marija Gimbutas, Buffie Johnson, and more recently women scholars like Helen Hye Sook Hwang, Susan Hawthorne, and Carol Christ’s tireless research in women’s prehistory to mention just a few – reminds us that women have been fashioning clay vessels and sculptures for millennia. The imprint of women’s hand prints can be seen on Neolithic goddess sculptures and pots throughout the world.

Here in Abiquiu and the surrounding high desert I wonder what specific activities these women might have been engaged in. We found a plethora of the black and white fragmented clay pots (some with very thick rims) of Indigenous Anasazi peoples who preceded later Pueblo cultures. I am especially drawn to the black and white shards that seem to have faces or are tree -like. Occasionally I spot a potshard made from red or micacious clay, a relic from later Indigenous inhabitants of this area. I wondered if the women ground these ancient artifacts into temper to strengthen the newer clay they dug and shaped into vessels for firing.

We studied the landscape around us for more clues to its original inhabitants. Iren spotted a petroglyph pecked into the rock. Avanyu, the Tewa Pueblo serpent, spirit of the waters, also lives here. We were overlooking a stunning valley with interlocking arroyos and even in drought we could see evidence of underground water seeping to the surface, dampening desert sand. I wondered if there were hidden springs somewhere on the mesa. There were so many potsherds that I speculated… Were some clay vessels actually made here, or more likely, maybe this was simply another very large self sustaining Indigenous Pueblo community… On this hill there were also many volcanic boulders, some appeared to have been deliberately placed in a circle…

Even more fascinating were the stones that were smoothed and hollowed out by women grinding foodstuffs into flour. I was surprised to see so many of these in one relatively small area indicating that many women (and children) congregated in this one place. These worked stones are called Metates that were and are still used by some Indigenous women to grind seeds, grains, maize into flour to be used in cooking. Some are portable; these were not.

The most unusual feature of these rocks is that there were a number of different sized hollowed out depressions in a single stone. I have a portable metate with three depressions on its upper surface, and Iren has some with depressions that I believe were used to grind lime treated maize during food preparation. But these particular grinding stones not only had hollowed out spaces in the upper surface of the rock but along the sides as well.

Researching possibilities for why this might be so I learned that some immovable metates were used to grind acorns and plant materials of different sizes for medicinal uses on the actual sites where the plants/trees thrived. Since women were also responsible for medicinal healing I guessed that at one time there were roots and herbs that were found here and pulverized into health remedies. Since grinding acorns created small pockets that looked like dimples in the rocks, and we saw a number of these small holes I wondered if at one time oak forests were abundant here. But of course my all of my perceptions are pure speculation because only the land holds the truth of the story.

I spied a suspiciously round volcanic stone and immediately intuited with excitement that I had picked up a mano, the word used to describe the kind of stone that might be used to grind up plant material. I found one many years ago in Tucson, and when I took it to the park’s wildlife center, they confirmed that I had discovered this tool beside one of the arroyos I walked regularly. About a half a mile back I had seen a metate situated on the edge of the arroyo and imagined the women gazing into the talking waters as they worked…

As I wandered over this particular landscape I had the same powerful feeling that I had when I came here the first time – namely that the Earth was attempting to communicate the story of her earlier inhabitants, to us, and perhaps to anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen.

So perhaps my speculations are grounded in the wisdom of Powers of Place that intersect with ordinary time. Stillness, simple questions, and keen attention to the land seem to allow ancient truths to surface through Earth’s body educating those who choose to listen about the lives of the women who lived and worked here so long ago.

Little Red Hills

IMG_2542.JPG

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

IMG_2589

 

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.