The Storyteller

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(This image of a Black bear who is aptly named Holly,  happens to be my favorite photograph in the NABC calendar.  I chose Holly to represent what can happen at winter solstice. Holly is peering at us while lying upside down!  She is viewing the world in reverse! We too can undergo reversals that shift our awareness permanently, and this is what happened to me this year listening to a Navajo storyteller…)

 

When I walked into the room a bolt of light shot across the space and struck me so forcibly that it felt like it shattered cells under my skin. Did this occur before I glimpsed her bronzed moon shaped face? I will never know. I sat down almost in front of her, sizzling with the uncomfortable buzz that seizes my nervous system when what I call, the Powers of Nature, have taken over my body/mind. I gazed at her in a dazed sort of way. She wore silver and white, and the two sharply contrasting hues shone so brilliantly my eyes ached…

 

As she began to speak about the Navajo Blessingway, I drifted effortlessly into a light trance in spite of the static. Honeyed words poured out of her mouth as she slipped from her Native Dine’ language into English and back again; creating a profound musical intonation that made it difficult for me to concentrate on the stories. Initially. All that music. Layers upon layers. I had entered the Forest of Enchantment

 

Blessingway stories are focused on hearth and home and are told only in the winter usually in cycles of two or four, helping tribal members to “remember” (as in to render all the parts whole) who they were, they are, and who they shall become. All these stories occur simultaneously in the Now. And all are nestled the context of Nature who is ‘home’ to all “the People.” All Dine’ relatives are composed of human ancestors but also embrace mountains, water, air, trees, animals, insects, stars as relatives -every conceivable aspect of Nature is included.

 

The Storyteller told a family story that I loved – a poignant tale about how her people became part of the Bluebird Clan. Once these birds inhabited this country in all four directions and so the people chose the Bluebird as their animal familiar. Unfortunately, because Dine’ men served in the U.S. military they were forced to change their name. To belong to a Bluebird Clan made no sense to white people in power.

 

Some of the other Storyteller’s first stories also made us laugh. This woman ever so skillfully and effortlessly wove her family tales of joy, laughter, and sadness into one whole.

 

Although she has traveled extensively in her 30 years of Navajo story telling she comes from the matrilineal Salt-Water Clan and lives in New Mexico. Every child born in this clan belongs to the mother’s family.

 

This remarkable woman has worked not just within her own tribe but has functioned as part of an extensive network of Native people who until recently believed (some no doubt still do) that the only hope for peace and Earth sustainability lies with people of all races coming together with a single clear intention to begin to listen. Hope is embodied in the golden thread that places the well being of the planet before the individual creating a contextual reality for all humans to live. Perhaps with this radical shift of perspective westerners could begin to hear Nature’s cries?

 

(This isn’t the first time I have been forcibly struck by the reality that almost no one is left except Native people who still have the capacity to receive, to hear the myriad of non-human voices that are trying desperately to get our attention.

 

Westerners are doers not receivers. I can’t stress this point enough. Turning to technology and mechanistic science for truth we have become a people who to a greater or lesser degree are living their lives on the run with doing, and many inhabit a virtual reality in their spare time. Yet our bodies, like the growth rings of a tree, still record each instance of human suffering; so inhabiting these bodies with awareness becomes a dangerous quest.)

 

The Storyteller focused on the relationship between the human and not human world in all her stories. She spoke of the powers of the eight directions N, S, E, W, and the four that lie in between. She made a point of speaking about an experience she had with Robin who came to her that very afternoon, making it clear through her tale that the signs are there, ready to be read by the person who is capable of receiving. Nature is always speaking; it is people who are not listening.

 

In western terms I would call The Storyteller an eco – feminist because the she knows that what happens to the animals and plants will also eventually happen to humans.

 

She made a radical statement: “Stop having children!” No doubt this remark incited anger or disbelief in some even when other human and non -human species are in some kind of trouble because too many people are presently living on a planet that can no longer support them. So many are suffering and dying. The Storyteller says Americans live within a protected bubble. Or at least they did.

 

The tragic consequences of human hubris and arrogance are now becoming only too apparent she continues. Regardless of personal intent, ethnicity, race, each of us participates in the Earth’s crisis through our actions. We drive cars, burn wood, fossil fuels, wear petroleum – based clothing, clog our oceans with plastics. Our current president may be a monster, she believes, but he is also a mirror in which each of us can see the shadow side of ourselves, offering us a unique opportunity to own our complicity. We are participating in our own demise with each act of denial, blindness, indifference, including the refusal to be accountable for the problems we have created.

 

Worse from the Storyteller’s point of view is that westerners have deliberately silenced Nature by dismissing her as irrelevant. We use her, but have stolen Her Voice. Nature has absolutely no say in what happens to her as her forests are raped and set afire, her waters, soil, air poisoned, her mountains mined, her animals and plants deliberately murdered, imprisoned and treated as non sentient beings.

 

The Storyteller informs us that all aspects of Nature are speaking to her and other Native people revealing to those who can stand to live in the truth of ‘what is’ that the time for human extinction is drawing near.

 

Some would consider this the voice of doom, but is it? She reassures us that our beloved Earth will out live human destruction; the planet will recover from our species’ acts of unspeakable violence and carnage. I personally find this line of thinking hopeful.

 

About halfway through the storytelling when the story became darker and I began to weep listening to her words, the Storyteller’s eyes started boring into my own. She spoke of the technological damage of cell phones, conversed comfortably in the normality of telepathic communication and “read” the future of humankind with compassion, love, and deep humility, sorrowing as she spoke. We have twelve years she said, eight before things get much worse.

 

I could feel the buzz intensify to an unbearable pitch as her words penetrated my body. Towards the end she looked directly into the eyes of my heart and said twice, “you will live to be eighty”. My hair caught fire; she knew.

 

I had been crackling in the flames ever since I entered the room. Now I understood that this was because I was about to receive personal “life instructions” including further validation that my extensive research, my thinking, my intuition, sensing, listening, my dreams regarding the catastrophic loss of animals and plants (and what this would ultimately mean for humans) were sound and true.

 

My greatest life fear had been put to rest. The mind of the machine was going to be obliterated by Earth Herself.

 

Once I received this knowledge it penetrated every bone and sinew; my body was finally able to relax. I felt myself psychically collapsing like a rag doll.

 

We hugged tearfully after The Storyteller’s presentation. As we held one another immense courage and strength flowed between us. I thanked her for her truth telling and afterwards I could articulate the obvious; this woman was a seer.

 

It wasn’t until I was alone under the stars that I was able to reflect… this propitious meeting had been forecast that day beginning before dawn with the Great Horned Owl’s call. To Puebloan peoples and the Navajo the Great Horned Owl (only this species of owl, not others) comes to warn us that death is on the horizon. And whenever I hear that call I go on high alert just as I do whenever my nervous system begins responding to something in ‘the air’ that hasn’t yet manifested…

 

Still feeling rubbery I forced myself to ignore my body’s profound exhaustion as I walked to a neighbor’s house for a solstice feast and fire. For me an extraordinary reversal with profound implications for living the rest of my life had occurred this winter solstice night. It may have occurred for others as well. Many in attendance were exposed to truths they might not have wanted to hear. Some denied much of what the Storyteller said turning the whole thing into an uplifting experience. Others, more sensitive and open to receiving, wept.

 

At the fire when I fell backwards onto my head I heard my body’s cry. ‘Go home! You need time alone to process what has happened.’ As I made my way back I was literally staggering, as if drunk, yet I had survived my literal bodily collapse miraculously unharmed…

 

Like the Storyteller, I will continue to do the small things I can to leave a lighter footprint on the Earth. I will also continue to accept responsibility for being part of the problem – we are in too deep. Yet I will also persist, offering deep gratitude and experiencing joy when any living creature, tree, plant, ant, dog, bird, deer, chooses to converse with me.

 

At the same time I honor myself as a woman of great strength, vulnerability, and integrity, a woman capable of loving, one with a ‘pure heart’ as someone told me recently.

 

By placing myself squarely in the here and now, I hope to become a better receiver, while accepting that my life and the age of the Anthropocene may be coming to a close sooner that I expected. Native time occurs in cycles so the ‘twelve years left’ may be metaphorically expressing the end of an era that could last longer in western linear time…

 

Either way the end is in probably in sight. As the Storyteller made clear, human extinction is inevitable.

 

And some part of me breathes a sigh, ever so deep, in stark relief that this should be so.

 

Postscript:

The Earth has been mother, father brother, sister, lover to me – the context in which I have found home. As a result I believe I can deal much more comfortably with the loss of the most destructive species on earth than most folks can.

As a naturalist who has dedicated the second half of her life to educating others about the perils all non – human species face, and one who until the night of the winter solstice believed she had failed in her life’s mission, now sees the light. I have done what I could; and that is enough. This work of witnessing/educating has been hard. But it was what I came here to do, and thus my life has been permeated with meaning, if not with happiness. It continues to be my fate to witness the ‘great dying’ until my time comes, but I can accept this role with grace and with gratitude because I am finally at peace.

Most miraculous have been the dreams that continue to come… They assure me that life will go on and I feel this truth in my bones. The animals, plants, and fungi will recover from this human induced natural holocaust to live on without the species who did everything it could to destroy them – and this is the greatest gift of all.

 

Working notes:

My friend Lise stated recently that westerners have to be taught how to become receivers by living in and listening to their bodies (especially with respect to non human species) and that doing so might be a game changer. Until recently, I agreed with her with some reservation because I also believe that critical mass must be taken into account. For example, it’s not enough to save 85 whooping cranes; the species has already become functionally extinct.

Still, I was astonished by this remark, stung by its truth. This thought would never have occurred to me, because I have been an unconscious receiver all my life, no doubt because Nature was the only parent I learned to trust. Nature spoke to me through flowers, trees, and animals teaching me how to listen, and eventually I came to believe her despite being mocked, dismissed, or considered crazy by a species gone insane.

Teaching our bodies how to become receivers with awareness is a monumental task for westerners, but one that might have made all the difference if enough of us could have grasped its importance in time. Even now my senses tell me (Lily b, my telepathic bird bellows) that becoming a receiver is a worthy endeavor and one that might help humans and non – humans alike in ways that are beyond our present understanding.

The Circle of Life and Death

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This morning the sky was on fire before dawn even as I approached the river whose ripples reflected a purple so deep it was almost inked in charcoal – In the Bosque I noticed that one mule deer had used a juniper to scrape his antlers. Otherwise the Earth emanated precious predawn stillness except for the sound of receding river waters slipping over cobbled stones. It was mild; I thought today might be the day…

 

The greens I had tipped in prayer and gratitude on ‘the mountain where bears live’ were waiting to be woven into wreaths, and by afternoon the temperature was warm enough for me to sit on the porch under a milky December sun with my clippers and bag of greens.

 

The sweet scent of pinion wafted through the air as I began to weave my circle of life with pinion, fir, and spruce. I wove carefully cutting smaller fronds without thinking about what I was doing, but beneath my quiet mind an intention was being set to weave a new kind of wholeness back into the trees, back into our broken Earth; S/he who is crying out to be heard through each raging fire, crackling drought, mud ridden flood. My greatest fear is that no one is listening.

 

My intention is that I will listen; I will be present for the trees.

 

Frequently in dreams I hear the screams of trees being slaughtered, cut away from their loved ones, left alone to die without adequate nourishment, water, or support.

 

Here in New Mexico the cottonwoods suffered so in last year’s drought that I wept over them, never imagining that my holy place, a cathedral created from a few graceful cottonwood arms that stretched all the way to the ground would end up being ruthlessly severed and h left on the ground as a pile of useless dead limbs. I raged and sorrowed then, helpless in the face of slaughter, even after I had a dream that in the distance a whole cottonwood spread her bountiful branches over the desert floor. I was grateful the tree soul lived on, but I was grieving my loss.

 

One day about a month ago as I walked under these Matriarchs in the now parched Bosque, the cottonwoods nudged me to bring one of their broken peeled arms back to my dwelling place and to create something out of it. As I followed directions I discovered I was constructing a memorial to honor the dead. Another dream came; this one reinforced the truth that I must honor all trees, but that I needed to focus on all those that were dead or dying.

 

Finally I understood that the loss of my cottonwood cathedral might have been making the same point.

 

For many years I have been reverencing all trees at this darkest time of the year with an emphasis on evergreens because they symbolized the continuation of all life. And in my world each tree I revered became a “Tree of Life.” Weaving my wreaths in their honor was and remains an act of heartfelt prayer. Up until the present hope for a more wholesome, peaceful future has always been attached to my ‘tree of life’ prayers.

 

But this year it is different. The Earth is on Fire and I must seek a larger context – one that includes the death of all trees and Nature herself.

 

As Terry Tempest Williams states we “must feel the pain of now and not look away.”

 

I promise the trees I will do my best to stay present for their anguish, knowing that what I do for them I do for me.

 

It is hard to admit that I can no longer imagine what I can do to change any outcome – theirs or mine – we are that enmeshed.

 

I wove the above intention into my wreath and then brought it in. After placing the circle of greens on a small table I lit the wreath up in green and blue lights to honor both Earth and Sky. Life and Death. As I stood over the wreath, the scent of all the boughs filled me with a profound sense of peace.

Winter Solstice Repose

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Solstice Eve Sunset

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Winter Solstice dawn…

I awaken to the lovely song of my dove who is coaxing up the dawn as the turning of the wheel is occurring. When I go outside to feed the birds I gaze up into the giant cottonwood tree in the east studded with stars in the predawn sky. Arcturus and Jupiter are brilliant against a velvet blue firmament.

 

I listen for the owls…

 

Last night anticipating tonight’s bonfire down by the river, I celebrated my ritual in our bird room with its blue green lights to honor the Earth and a crown of candles to honor the women of myth who wear them at this turning. The effect was stunning – the crown and the lights, the burning white sage sanctifying this space.

 

A bruised deep pink and purple sky soon caught fire outside my window.

 

My rituals are simple and each is written according to the inner dreaming self who directs these seasonal turnings of the wheel. As I blessed my dogs, my bird, myself with river water, I allowed my present grief to flow through me… every year it’s the same this mixture of sadness and gratitude.

 

Yesterday morning I awakened with an image of a cross section of a perfect round red cedar tree that somehow had the four directions or the equilateral cross superimposed over it (or more likely both)…In the dream this image was attached to an entire tree and someone was telling me that I needed to find a way to separate one slab from the whole supine trunk of the tree because this was my piece.

 

Reflecting on this dream I was struck by the double meaning of the cross and the four directions…. The cross indicating suffering and death perhaps, the four directions signifying life and a “good red road.” The fact that the trunk was one of great girth gave me the sense I had was that I was participating in a mythical reality of Oneness, and that my piece of tree trunk held one piece of the tale just as the rest of the tree held the whole. It was enough, and all day I carried this story in my heart.

 

Winter Solstice is a time to rest, a time to reflect, a time to seek repose. “Winter Woman” is very much with me as is the prayer that I might lean into her stillness to find my own sense of peace.

 

In my mind I see Freya, the Snow Goddess with a crown of stars on her head flying across the frozen tundra in her chariot, rabbits leaping over snowdrifts as they lead their goddess on…

 

This winter season like every other is a gift that Nature offers – it is always our choice to embrace what is, and I am grateful to be alive to make this choice.

Blessings to All

Welcoming Back the Sun

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Around the time of the winter solstice I attended one of the most sacred dances of the year for the pueblo people, The Turtle Dance. San Juan Pueblo has many plazas and the sun was warm when we arrived around 3 PM under an azure sky. The dancing had been going on all day and I had a chance to see for the first time how Casino money could be used to help Native people. All the adobe houses have been re-plastered (not one trailer) and when we arrived the men were just coming out of the newly rebuilt kiva after a fifteen – minute break to begin the last set of dances.

The Turtle Dance occurs the day after Christmas every year. Its purpose is to welcome back the sun. This is an all male dance with about 100 participants. Each man wore bells and turtle rattles on his moccasins to mimic the sound of the rain that was as important as the sun was for the people to grow and harvest their crops successfully. Each donned a kilt with crimson sashes, had a neck handkerchief decorated with roses around his shoulders and wore no other clothing. It was cold! Many of the moccasins were made of skunk fur. The men had rubbed gray earthern clay into their upper torsos. Each man had cedar boughs attached to his arms, some with beaded bands and there were two diagonal stripes painted on each dancer’s face. But the most astonishing thing was the headdresses that each dancer wore. Eagle and turkey feathers were placed in a horizontal line on one side of the headdress along with cedar boughs. On the same horizontal plane and as part of the headdress on the other side, a split gourd faced outward, and each was painted with a blue morning glory (these flowers love the morning sun), or some other design that symbolized to that person the sun’s return. I recognized the Zuni and Hopi sun faces. The intricate designs and rainbow colors used to paint the symbols on the inside of the gourds took my breath away. In addition to the dancers and clowns there were a couple of supernaturals dressed in hides and covered in coyote fur, their faces completely masked (one black, the other white) except for sinister looking slits (for eyes), and both carried whips that they struck the ground with at different times. These masked figures chose more men from the crowd who were given a cedar branch and were dusted with cornmeal before shaking hands with the supernatural and joining the long line of dancers. Once a man was chosen he couldn’t refuse; he had become one of the dancers.

The clowns had black and white striped double peaked hats complete with cornstalks or sprigs of cedar and had painted double bands of striped horizontal white and gray clay on their stomachs and backs. They also wore cotton or wool kilts. In their hands all the men (dancers, and clowns) carried the sacred cedar branches and shook gourd rattles filled with seeds as they chanted. Brilliant colors defined this regalia and every man followed every other in one long line of men who reversed directions in a moment when the chant signaled that it was time. I was reminded of a sinuous serpent moving slowly side to side. Between the colors, the chanting, the gentle harassment of the crowd by the clowns, the men danced in one place to their own haunting voices, turning first one way and then another. Different chants were sung at different plazas. The effect of this single line dancing and chanting left me close to tears, although I didn’t understand why because I couldn’t understand a word that was being sung. The men were chanting in the Tewa language. As a group the dancers, clowns, and supernaturals moved from one plaza to another giving thanks for the return of the sun. The multitude of pueblo people who were watching their ceremony were all wrapped in gorgeous handmade blankets with extraordinary designs.

The sun was setting and the cold penetrated my three layers of socks as I sat down against one of the smooth adobe walls. I did this deliberately so I couldn’t see the dancers because I wanted to listen to the chanting. Without realizing it I began swaying back and forth with the music, which was having a hypnotic effect on me. At dusk when the dancers all disappeared almost instantly, the grotesque coyote covered, frightening black/white masked supernatural forces with their whips left the Oh Kay Owingeh for another year…

I was grateful to have been asked to attend this ceremony because according to the pueblo tradition each person that witnesses the joyful return of the sun becomes a prayer.

12/26/16

San Juan Pueblo

When I researched the Turtle Dance I discovered that this dance marks the end of the old year and the beginning of the next. The dance is named for the turtle who is believed to be the first hibernating being to move after the year has turned. Thus, the turtle symbolizes the beginning of each yearly cycle.

During the dance, which lasts all day, four songs are sung in the Tewa language (three times in each plaza) and each song is sung four times. The songs acknowledge and honor the four directions (beginning with the north, west, south with east coming last), the new dawn, the young men and women and the coming of the holy people. This dance celebrates renewal and the regeneration of the continuing process of creation.

What follows is an example of the songs:

“Away to the north the holy people are running about, gathering from every direction. They come with their rain bearing powers, and still they come….

 Away to the west the holy people are running about, gathering from every direction. They come with their evergreens and medicinal and plant bearing powers, and still they come…” (Alfonso Ortiz translation)

Postscript: Because I come from the northeast where the turtle symbolizes “Mother Earth” I was forcibly struck by the fact that this first dance of the year was done by men rather than women. When I spoke with author Sabra Moore about this anomaly (from my point of view) I asked her if the pueblo people of this region adhered to a patriarchal standard which might account for the dance being done by men instead of women. She thought I might have a point.

History: Since ancient times the San Juan people have divided the physical world into three parts. The first part is comprised of the village and adjoining areas, which belong to the women and are marked by four sacred objects indicating the directions north, south, east, and west. The second part is made up of the mesas (pronounced MAY-sas; a Spanish word meaning “tables”). Mesas are large hills with steep sides and flat tops. They surround San Juan Pueblo and are open to men, women, and children, but they are under male authority. The third part of the physical world is the outside world (beyond the mesas). Belonging solely to the men of the tribe, the outside world is the place where they hunt, defend their people when necessary, and seek spiritual guidance.

The Juniper Tree

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When I first arrived In Abiquiu, which is situated in the northern mountains of New Mexico, I discovered a very small (about 2 foot tall) juniper growing just outside my windows that overlook the southwestern horizon. Native grasses had all but obscured the small tree, the only one in the front of Guadalupe’s (almost) round house.

Immediately I decided that this little tree needed my attention, so within a week I had cut down the thick grasses and ringed the tree with river stones. At this point I began to water, and after fertilizing the tree once, I continued this practice throughout the summer and early fall. I watched in amazement how the juniper flourished, sprouting new blue green spiked needles. By mid-autumn this tree had added about two inches to each branch, and had filled out considerably. A few birds began to land in the lengthening branches, and some days I would discover a praying mantis tucked into her center close to the slender trunk. This little fellow would start waving his legs and washing his face as soon as I started watering! Every morning I touched her boughs tenderly, commenting on how beautiful she was becoming. I told the tree that when winter came I would festoon her with tiny white lights to celebrate the low shadowy light and the coming of the winter solstice. Whenever I spoke to the little tree she seemed to listen; we were developing a reciprocal relationship that I could sometimes feel.

Although I soon had small cottontails eating seed I left around the tree each morning, I noticed that the rabbits never chewed on the tree. Researching junipers in general I read that they are dimorphic, meaning that they have two growth forms. One is upright, and the other much more common is bush-like opening to the sun like a flower. Even the biggest trees are not taller than 40 feet. The seedlings (like mine) bear bluish green awl shaped leaves that are pointed at the tip probably to discourage herbivores like my cottontails. Mature leaves are a darker green and scale – like in appearance. The older leaves are borne in pairs or whorls of three and are rounded at the tip, I noticed, while examining older junipers around the house and in the washes. The arrangement of the adult leaves in a circular pattern gives the twigs and uncanny resemblance to coral.

Although juniper and cedar are related – both belong to the cypress family – cedars produce small woody cones like the white cedar I have in my yard at home (my  northern winter solstice tree), while junipers produce a bluish berry –like cone. Junipers bear both male and female cones although the female cones look like highly polished blueberries and take two to three years to ripen. Most junipers are dioecious, meaning that male and female cones are found on separate trees and once you observe the difference it is easy to differentiate between the two. The male cones are brownish in appearance and very small. These latter produce pollen sacs that release pollen grains in spring and summer. As the trees age some of the trunks become twisted and gnarled (no one knows why). Stout single trunks or multiple stems originating from the ground are the most common forms the trees exhibit.

Junipers are one of the top ten plants for wildlife. Many birds love their berries and around here the Cedar waxwings, Townsend solitaires, Scaled quail, and American robins flock to the sprawling juniper cluster (one tree, many small trunks) that shades the ground outside my back door. Last fall the branches were loaded with ripe berries and now they are scattered everywhere on the ground beneath the juniper. I also see Dark Eyed juncos, Canyon towhees, and House finches scratching the ground under the tree. I sometimes see the thrasher with his curved beak hopping around. Does he eat the berries too? Collared doves, the Pinion jays, Magpies, and Western bluebirds gather in these trees for protection from hawk predation. And now that winter winds are fierce and deadly, birds of all kinds seek protection from the bitter cold in the junipers’ thick branches.

What I love best about junipers is that most of them get to live out their natural lifespan of a few hundred to a few thousand years of age. In Maine our mature (a tree is now considered mature at 20 – 30 years old) trees are logged and great swathes of raped mountain forest surround me on all sides. My guess is that the next generation of Maine children will not know what an old tree looks like.

Coming to Abiquiu for the winter has given me a reprieve from my grief around ongoing tree slaughter. I notice that most folks around here don’t pay much attention to junipers except to think of them as trees that are used for fuel, while I am almost obsessed by them, their colors and shapes, their thickening (sometimes) reddish stringy trunks, the way they can endure the effects of wild winds, and the tenacity with which they cling to cliff edges, or bend over washes with their roots exposed, inhabiting places where nothing else can grow. And it is also true that they can be a “pioneer” species since they most definitely thrive in poor soil. To survive in dry climates, like the high desert I am living in, junipers have long taproots and extensive lateral root systems that can efficiently obtain moisture where none seems to exist. I think junipers are heroic!

I tried to identify the species of my little juniper and reached the conclusion that she was probably a Utah juniper (Juniperus utahenis) because this species is the most common in the mountains of the southwest and northern New Mexico growing at elevations of 3000 – to 8000 feet. Together with the pinion pine these two comprise most of the trees in this area and are common on our mesa tops and ridges. Adult junipers define the landscape with their glacial growth, half dead half alive appearance and fragrant aroma. Because of their intolerance to shade they are always spaced apart.

These hearty trees have been used by pueblo people for millennium for firewood, building material, roof poles or vigas, as a food, and medicinal source. The fibrous bark can be woven into sandals or substituted for tobacco. Leaves and berries were/are collected and brewed to make herbal teas to treat colds, headaches, and stomach ailments. Even the hard seed shells discarded by ground squirrels provided a source of beads that were sown into clothing.

Junipers have a potent anti-viral compound – deoxypodophyllotoxin (DPT) – which as been shown to be effective against viruses that cause flu and herpes. Today, when the overuse of antibiotics has made us resistant to treatment we need to think about using natural alternatives. Juniper is certainly one possibility.

Juniper is probably most well known for its berries that produce the distinctive bitter flavoring in gin (ugh).

Juniper is used in Earth-based rituals that call for the literal manifestation of some kind energy and/or information. It is also used as an incense to welcome new animals into one’s home. As a smudge it is used for purification as it puts negative ions back into the air much like balsam or sage does. For long-term protection, a sprig of juniper is hung over doorways.

Last summer I brought in bouquets of juniper branches to scent the house, and to express my gratitude for living in a place where these old trees thrived. On hot days a sweet pungent aroma wafted through the air and my dove Lily B would fly down to the table, pull off bunches of berries and roll them across the stone floor! Outside I continued to care for the little juniper…

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When I first read that the juniper tree was a symbol for the goddess Astarte, I was amazed. How many times have I discovered after falling in love with a particular kind of tree that she first belonged to a goddess? The ancient Phoenician Astarte is one of the oldest Middle Eastern goddess’s dating back to the Neolithic period (5-8000 BCE) and the Bronze Age. According to legend Astarte descended to earth as a fiery star. She was also associated with the moon. A celestial goddess, she was a bringer of life.

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Last evening when I was walking home from a party I was stunned by the clarity of the starry firmament over my head. I immediately thought of Astarte as a star goddess because this was her realm, and yet, when I passed the little juniper I thought of this same goddess as a tree rooted securely in the ground. With the winter solstice just four days away it seemed fitting that both sky and earth were included in this turning of the wheel as aspects of Astarte who (I imagined) fell to earth and was shining her light through the thick branches of a prickly young juniper tree, a tree that loved and held her tight. So ends my story of what happens on this Winter Solstice Night.

Winter Solstice

IMG_2117Solstice is a word that means “to stand still.” In the northern hemisphere the sun has been moving south rising a bit lower on the horizon ever since the summer solstice. The turning of the seasonal wheel into winter marks not only a new season but the beginning of a new year after the sun reaches it’s most southerly declination as seen from the earth in northern climates. At the solstice the north pole is tilted furthest away from the sun and so on December 21 we will experience the longest night of the year. By the 22nd the sun will have reversed directions, turning north, rising a little higher in the sky each day and bringing with it longer days, and eventually warmer temperatures… Thus the winter solstice is both a process – the turning of the wheel – and an event – the moment in time when the sun stands still and then reverses his direction.

Nature brings a number of gifts to those of us who live in the northern hemisphere. Longer nights bring time for dreaming, our skies are more transparent (due to lack of moisture), and brilliant starry nights both stir and stun us with their ethereal beauty. The Geminid meteor showers peaked around the 12th to the 15th of December. Winter constellations like the Great Bear who appears to follow the Little Bear and his north star (Polaris) are easy to locate in the northern sky early in the evening. The Pleiades or the seven sisters is a cluster of stars quite visible overhead, as is Cassiopeia in the northeast sky and the Gemini twins (Castor and Pollux) are noticeable in the eastern sky. The dog star Sirius is at its brightest in the southeast along with Orion…Of course the last gift Nature brings us is the coldest days of winter, because even though the sun is moving north in the northern hemisphere the oceans continue to cool and most of our weather is driven by ocean temperatures, which this year are warmer than usual.

We are all familiar with the Judeo – Christian seasonal rituals so I will not discuss them here. Less known is the fact that people around the world celebrate the return of the sun with fire festivals, evergreens or other plants, trees, dancing, food, and the drinking of wine, and they have done most of these things since Neolithic times (and no doubt before). To Pagan peoples – the word pagan means country people – the deities of the winter solstice are new born gods or sun gods, but also include mother goddesses like Mary, or virgin (as in “one unto herself”) goddesses like Brigid, and the triple goddess of pre – Christian origin.

Most of the people were agricultural folk so Nature continues to be the central focus of winter solstice rituals. No pagan would consider cutting down a tree because trees were sacred symbolizing the Tree of Life; only boughs and branches were used in rituals and celebrations.

The celebrated Horned god, or green man of the Celts was honored with a wreath of greens at the winter solstice. In Scandinavia St Lucia’s Day (Lucia means light) is celebrated as a festival of lights. Young girls wear crowns made of evergreens lit with candles. A Yule log is burned to insure the sun’s return. The Greeks celebrate the feast of Dionysus by drinking the wine made from grapes celebrating a successful harvest and by wearing laurel wreaths as crowns; the lighting of fires and dancing are all part of this ritual. A sprig of basil is wrapped round an equilateral wooden cross to discourage the dark spirits that appear only during this celebration that lasts for twelve days. The Roman festival of Saturnalia occurs around December 25th and addresses the limits of Saturn as a god and the necessity of working through spiritual difficulties. In Romania wives bake special cakes for the trees that are barren so that they will be spared another year. A log from Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of the Teutons symbolizes the sun and when burned brings light into the dark nights of the winter solstice. The Hindu people place clay oil lamps on their roofs in honor of the return of the sun. Yalda is the Persian festival of Mithra whose victory of light over darkness is celebrated over the winter solstice. Today Druids gather at Stonehenge to welcome the sun’s return.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas also hold celebrations during this time of year. The Hopi welcome the Kachinas, the protective spirits that come down from the mountains. They carry evergreen boughs that represent the tree of life. The Iroquois celebrate the night of the solstice as the dreaming time during which the people walk between two worlds. When the dawn comes the they gather  in a circle to share visions that will guide the people through the year to come.

In most European traditions the emphasis is on the birth of the god, or the return of the light. The Celtic goddess Brigid provides us with a sharp contrast to this predominantly masculine view. Brigid is a triple goddess who is perceived to be a female solar deity in all her aspects. Her attributes are light, inspiration and all skills associated with fire. ‘She hangs her cloak on the rays of the sun, and her dwelling place radiates light as if on fire.’ The fires of her inspiration are demonstrated through her poetry, divination and through prophecy; she keeps oral traditions alive. She taught humans the skill of making and tending fire and during the winter solstice she presides over the hearth fires in every home. As mistress of the primal element of fire she molds metal (earth) through her skill and knowledge as a transformer. At the winter solstice Brigid’s flame pierces the darkness of spirit and mind, while her cauldron promises that nature will provide.

Here is a second Celtic story that provides context for the birth of the god. As the winter solstice approaches The Great Mother lifts the god out of the ground and places him in the sky as light. She offers him the gift of her knowledge and passes along ancient traditions to strengthen and guide him on his journey. This teaching process ages her because it takes so much effort so it is not just the god who is transformed but the Great Mother’s identity shifts as well – after the teaching she becomes the Wise Old Woman who waits at the three way crossroad to assist those who will be born and those who will die. She is also found sitting at the well or tending the cauldron of immortality. The Celts celebrate the twelve days of the winter solstice beginning December 20th and include all these figures. The first three days are dedicated to the maiden goddess that belongs to spring. The second three days are dedicated to the mother goddess whose fertility impregnates the earth, the third three days celebrate the birth of the new god from sheaves of wheat, corn, or the sun/son…and the last three days honor the old woman for her teachings and wisdom. It is important to note that the triple goddess who births the god is one aspect of three deities that are also One. This pre-historic holistic approach interrupts the fragmentation that is endemic to modern culture reminding us that to celebrate the birth of the god, or the return of the sun is to also celebrate the triple goddess as mistress of the fires of transformation.

I celebrate this peaceful time of year by stringing a festival of lights both inside and out. I also tip balsam branches to make a wreath that symbolizes the Circle of Life and the Sanctity of Nature. I light my “Guardian” tree, a young cedar, and hang crystal prisms on her lacy fronds that reflect all the colors of the rainbow when the wind plays my wind chimes.

The winter solstice is a time to release old attachments, a time to dream, a time to imagine new possibilities and create intentions for the future, and I weave all these ideas into a simple written ritual that I will enact on the eve of the winter solstice gazing into my solstice fire. This year I will light the balsam candles in Brigid’s name and burn balsam on my wood stove to sweeten the longest night. The following morning I will leave special gifts of food for my beloved birds most especially the cardinals (my Red Bird) and the deer, giving thanks for the gift of all life.