Nichos embody Natural Grace

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Red Willow River at Dawn

 

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Nicho in the East

 

A ‘Nicho‘, is a three-dimensional or recessed area used to honor an important figure, saint, or loved one. Nichos originated as an adaptation of the Roman Catholic ‘retablo’, painting of a patron saint on wood or tin.

 

When I was a little girl my parents spent a year in Europe and my mother brought me home a small Greek Orthodox retablo of the Virgin and Child made of silver. It had two small arched doors with tiny nobs that opened onto an etched picture of the Madonna and Child. I placed the retablo on a table next to my bed where it remained throughout my childhood. I opened and closed ornate silvery doors frequently drawn in by something that at the time I couldn’t name. When I became an adult this small silver story moved from night table to table in each house I lived in for about 45 years.

 

The most amazing part of this childhood gift was that as far as I knew my mother had no idea that I had a relationship with Mary or her son. The eight year old child in me concluded that my mother must have magical powers! Even more curious was the fact that my mother, though she had married an ex-catholic, was very biased against Catholicism, so as I got older I became even more puzzled as to why she would choose such a gift for her daughter, especially one she didn’t like much.

 

When I moved into my log cabin in Maine, the very first object to be placed in the house was a retablo of Guadalupe, a Mexican Indian Goddess that belonged to the country people. She appeared to an Indian peasant in the 1500s at the site of an ancient Indigenous Earth goddess Tonsaztin. During the cold winter months, I festooned her with red lights. Although I was no longer associated with Christianity or the church I was still much taken by this figure because she was an Indigenous Mexican goddess and an Earth Mother.

 

Now I am living in Northern New Mexico and have just moved into a casita that has been constructed by a gifted Mexican builder named Mario. I do not own this house. It belongs to my neighbor. However, part of me belongs here. I chose the location, the colors of the walls, the Mexican tile floors and insisted that the house have many windows so that indoors and outdoors could merge as one undivided space. I also asked that Nichos be placed in each of the four directions. The adobe has simple lines and two portals or porches one on the east side that overlooks the majestic cottonwood trees I love so much.

 

Perhaps even more important, as the first mud bricks were laid, my dear friend Iren  embedded “sacred” (to me) objects in the walls while I was in Maine. She also placed sage in the center of the house. To acknowledge the powers of the Four Directions she chose an elk antler and a piece of chert for the North not knowing that I had named my log cabin in Maine “Elk House”. For the East and West (the good red road) I sent her treasured pieces of bear fur from my ursine friends to honor the black bears that had stolen my heart, and who lived around my house in Maine. The potshard she placed in the Southern wall acknowledged the ancient inhabitants that first belonged to this land. (The southern view from the house overlooks Poshuowingeh, an Anasazi ruin, a place I love and have visited countless times).

 

In preparation for this embedding Iren made a drawing of a squared circle and its four directions in her studio, When I arrived later in November she made a copy which I immediately placed on a wall where I could see it every day throughout a long and difficult winter. This drawing reminded me that the casita that was being built with my neighbor’s money began with me, and my clear intentions to inhabit a space that would be in harmony with the powers of this place. Iren and I called the casita “house of the bear.”

 

Winter dragged on, and as the construction continued I was rarely at the site because my neighbor had made it clear that the casita was his and that my suggestions were no longer welcome. I was told that the house would become part of the estate that would be left to his niece; this latter piece of information was no surprise since I already knew it. I had no claims on the casita, only my love for Red Willow river, Iren’s beloved land, and this small chimisa meadow which I had chosen as a building location because the Earth had indicated that I should.

 

Serious doubts crept in along with ongoing persisting illness that plagued me during the course of the winter. On the rare occasions that I did visit the construction site I experienced a peculiar numbing throughout my body. Had the connection I once felt to this small piece of Earth been delusional? … Every morning when I went to the river to watch the sunrise I would silently ask this question… I buried bear root. I made plans to return to Maine.

 

On the first day of May I was visiting the casita with my neighbor when I discovered an owl feather. I had been listening to owls all winter and knew that they lived in these cottonwoods. I also had what I would call an ongoing owl conversation with these great Horned owls that began in Maine last fall and followed me here. Finding the owl feather on this day, a day once revered by country folk/Indigenous peoples as a powerful turning point of the year seemed significant, and my neighbor brought it into the casita and placed it in the Nicho in the East. That same day, May Day, I also began to scatter wild seeds that I had collected the year before around on the red earth… This seeding went on all month with me tending to the care and watering, clearing up construction debris, garbage, trimming beloved chimisa bushes. (with me doing the work the owner has a professional gardener/landscaper who works for free).

 

For the first time I wondered if it would be possible to live here after all – to stop here for a time. The house and land might not belong to me except in a spiritual sense. What I felt was a renewed connection to Place and since I trust Nature’s nudges I went with it.

 

Now a month later I have moved into the casita. I don’t carry a lot of false hope. Money rules the world and I don’t have it. I could never buy this land even if it was an option. That I personally believe that we all belong to the Earth and no one owns it is a perspective that is foreign to most people and is certainly not lauded by the owner of this property.

 

However, with this much said, the day I moved in I felt the walls hugging me. I did belong here! The casita felt utterly familiar, comforting. Most important the structure exudes a sense of inner peace… something I have been longing for.

 

About a day later, Mario found a second great horned owl feather that I added to the one in the East Nicho. By now it was clear that Nature had decreed that bears belong in the West, but owls must embody the powers of East. As if to reinforce this notion, the second night I slept here I heard a great horned owl hoot just outside my window….

 

The first task I undertook was filling the rest of the Nichos. The owl feathers face East. A vase holds precious potsherds in the South. In the West I have placed a picture of a bear I once knew whose name was Hope. Iren’s photo of the squared circle and sacred placing of the objects sits behind a black Mexican luminary… to light up the night. In the North I have placed a piece of luminous black chert and an antler that Iren gave me. There is also a small wreath I made with cypress pine cones that symbolizes Wholeness inside the house and out. I am setting clear and vivid intentions. I am aligning myself with the Powers of Nature to hold and to heal…

 

Some say that two is the number of manifestation…Iren began this process of orienting the casita to Nature and I am finishing it. The casita has been blessed by river water and smudged with sage by me.

 

Will I be stopping here awhile? I don’t know. But I do my best to be as present as I can be to each moment opening myself to the astounding beauty that surrounds me. Nature aslo invites me  to do so with each new seedling that sprouts tiny green wings.

 

However, Everything Changes and the future remains veiled.

 

The light in this house (thanks to my placement of windows) is astonishingly beautiful with its warm sandy walls, wood ceilings, and rust colored Mexican tile. The east portal that looks out on the Matriarchs of the Bosque is a source of ongoing joy, a place to end each day, eating my dinner to the fluttering sounds of heart shaped leaves of the cottonwoods and hummingbirds that twitter and cheep as they dive into the feeders for a nightcap! Each morning I walk to the river winding down through the wild grasses of the old pasture, cross the acequia onto the prickly pear path, listening for the roar of this much beloved churning serpentine ribbon while scanning for birds. When I sit down on Iren’s little bench I look to the sky… Sunrise is a time to give thanks for the gift of each day…

 

And I do.

Three Old Women, Owls, and the Spirit of Place

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The Three Old Women In the distance

 

Every morning as I walk down the river path, climb prickly pear hill and enter the lower pasture that nurtures the sage garden I feel a powerful pull I am afraid to trust… I exchange greetings with the Cottonwoods, listening for fluttering heart songs. I feast my eyes on the red dirt road under the soles (souls?) of my feet, soaking in her rich crushed rock, peer at wily lizards scurrying through leaves like lightening. I bathe in the deep shade and light breezes as cottonwoods tufts drift around my legs. Although I can no longer hear the river roaring behind me I know she’s there, just beyond the willows that line the acequias… I remember the “good red road” that Indigenous people walked, the same road I am walking now from west to east. Fire and Ice are my steadfast companions.

 

Raising my eyes from the forest floor I gaze at the simple lines of a new adobe structure that seems to belong to this patch of earth. Surrounded by a few junipers, silvery Russian olives, a Squawberry bush or two, and a forest of recently battered chimiso that I have trimmed with loving attention, the stepped mud walls rise to the sky… perhaps the Cloud People will visit here. The portals are inviting me to enter the house, their cedar wood railings a pleasing contrast to textured sand walls. Lizards climb the adobe walls with ease, their delicately splayed feet finding firm purchase on nubbly mud skin.

 

Once on the porch I stare at another stand of giant cottonwoods with thick fissured trunks and branches that arch over my head. How I have come to love these trees! Whenever I walk under them I feel blessed by Tree Presence, blessed and loved.

 

In early May I scattered wildflower seeds in the holes that my neighbor dug for me. I grimly uprooted plants with injured roots, and we transplanted sacred Datura, an apple tree, and two kinds of sage. One day this man surprised me by saying “we work well together” and I realized that this was true. Was it my imagination or was peace growing between us in the space between words?

 

Each day throughout the month I continue to climb the prickly pear path, and walk through the cottonwood forest to water seedlings that generate hope for new life. I fear the coming heat. The sun burns my shoulders, and some days I feel woozy from the rapidly approaching fire of the summer solstice sun.

 

I search for more wildflowers because my neighbor has taken the time to water barren ground while I water seedlings. I am never disappointed! New green shoots appear like magic. I wonder if he knows that I appreciate his watering. I have tried to tell him, but he is not much of a receiver.

 

Scarlet gaura spiral upwards transforming rose to red; delicate white primroses seek the morning sun. I find clumps of salmon globe mallow, pull tumbleweeds as I stare across the mesa visually climbing the steps of the mountains I call the Three Old Women. Could they be my Desert Mothers too?

 

I think that in the beginning The Powers of Place first seeped into my blood through these three wise “Old Women” who live in the hills beyond the adobe house. When Place casts her spell, an ordinary view becomes the Beloved crying out – “see me, feel me, I am you and you are me” blurring edges between us…weaving mystery and magic through sight and senses, irrevocably marrying me to a piece of Earth without my knowledge, let alone understanding. Place determines the strength of our relationship not me. If this hadn’t happened to me before I wouldn’t have believed it…

 

I am afraid to Love. This bond binds me like no other to Beauty, animals, plants and people, to internal truths, to knowing what I might not want to know, to Life in all its complexity, fragility and strength, and finally to a possible homecoming after two years of wandering in the high desert without any sense of direction. This year, winter/ spring illness eclipsed my body, robbed it of will, sapped precious energy to hike or explore. Six months of soul loss leads to crushing depression and loss of hope.

 

Both the miracle of seeds growing and my attention to watering, birth a tentative hope as I open the door to loving place again. Is this piece of Earth a sanctuary where I might find friendship and peace?

 

Was it necessary to wander alone in the wilderness – to live without knowing, to mourn what was to reach this turning?

 

Of all my fears, self – delusion frightens me most of all. Could I still be desperate enough to imagine this feeling of belonging?

 

I sense not.

 

When I open the door cool rust colored tiles gently massage my feet. The walls warm me with pink sand like hues, the light is soft and inviting, yet the air is blessedly cool and sweet. An immense wooden beam slices through the slanted wood ceiling above my head. In every direction windows open to Nature’s beauty, trees, berry bushes, chimisa, mountains, red dirt, and wild grasses. Wood and mud make the finest of houses, and I have lived in both.

 

Walking towards the kitchen, cobalt tile counters shimmer like spun glass. Over the sink the Three Old Women gaze in at me through the window; our eyes lock in silent recognition. A few nights ago I smudged the rooms with sacred sage. The next morning an elk ran by my front door. An elk antler and a chert fragment had been embedded in the Northern foundational wall. Was this synchronistic occurrence a personal sign? It was tempting to think so. Nature routinely communicates with me through the appearance, disappearance, or death, of animals and plants.

 

When I picked up the owl thread on May Day I felt bewildered…

 

Discovering a great horned owl feather just beyond the east door of the new house meant something I was sure. My neighbor told me that he had been listening for owls in the evening, which seemed hopeful to me for some unknown reason.

 

As friends we had spent the last six months having star crossed encounters many rife with raw anger, and it seemed to me that it was impossible for us to amicably share this piece of land. Hadn’t our differences divided us permanently? When I spied the great horned owl feather I was surprised that he seemed as moved by it as I was. Taking it into the house, he placed it in the Nicho that faces East (where it has found a permanent home). This simple action carried a deep resonance for me although its meaning was veiled. It also reminded me that for the better part of the last eight months owls and I had been in ongoing conversation…so I digress a moment to return to the past…

 

The night of my birthday last September – I was still in Maine – a symphony of owl song brought sharp memories of my mother and I felt the usual fear and ambivalence because my mother loved great horned owls but we also had a deeply troubled relationship… Great horned owls are harbingers of death to some, birds of wisdom to others. They carry a charge that is either positive or negative in every culture and in my life as well. When this trio of owls sang just outside my window the hair on my arms prickled. A Visitation, I thought. Each night thereafter, I was serenaded by these magnificent birds who had moved into a still untouched forest for the first time in thirty years.

 

When I arrived here in November I couldn’t believe it. Great horned owls were perched in cottonwood trees around my neighbor’s house. They sang out on starry nights and heralded pre-dawn skies with me rooted to their whooing seeking out their presence on star cracked winter nights and bittersweet orange (pre-dawn) mornings. This couldn’t be coincidence. Whatever the owls portended I knew I needed to listen with careful attention … I surrendered, even found comfort in their haunting songs. I knew I was being called. Was I being warned?

 

The day I moved out of my neighbor’s house two paired owls flew over my head after hooting to one another in the cottonwood tree… I couldn’t escape the feeling that they were saying goodbye… I experienced an unbearable sadness.

 

I had a very strange dream a day or so later. A strange dis-embodied voice informed me “I am the Spirit of this Land and you shall dine with me.” I awoke with a sense of awe and mystery, believing I had been called for a third time by the Power’s of Place, this time not by Three Old Women, or Great Horned owls (old women in feathery owl capes?) but by another Voice that was clearly male.

 

This dream was followed by another in which I peer in at many diminutive fluffy owls who are sitting at a table and all of them are waving to me! I wave back jubilantly.

 

After moving into the Trailercita owls hooted infrequently and from a great distance. I missed them.

 

I didn’t fare well. This winter was hell.

 

But to return to the present…

 

In May the owls left me a feather reweaving our dormant connection, and owl presence preceded May, the month of my seeding…

 

Each spring all creatures, plants and people participate in Nature’s round – the resurrection of soul, body and spirit as the greening approaches full bloom. Our Mother adorns the Earth with bouquets of flowers… And seeds that have lain dormant for months or years burst out of moist ground… rising from the dead.

 

Will the seeds lying dormant in me grow into blossoms of fragrant flowers?

 

Will the owls finally speak in a language I can comprehend?

 

I look towards the mountains as a bat flies across a waxing full Mayflower moon… The Old Women stand steadfast in silent contemplation.

 

The future remains veiled.