Archive for the ‘Sense of Place’ Category

Marriage to the Land: Part 3 of 3: The Active Art of Love – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

 Marriage to the Land

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Part 3 of 3: The Active Art of Love

hopsarbor-sm.jpgI likely say both “I love you” to both wife and land a dozen times a day.  My eyes play over every change of clothes or leaves, river swell or new dress, and I comment again and again on the smile that delights me, the smells of river and woman that arouse.  I draw pictures and write essays full of praise to acknowledge and even immortalize.  Drawings of blue eyes and flowing hair, of canyon bobcats and coursing river.  Stories written of feminine wildness and this special wild place.  Promises and endearments carved or painted and then left somewhere for a certain someone to find.

Marriage, after all, is not only a commitment to another’s well being but to romance as well.  It is incumbent on the spouse to tend not only the body of the beloved but the heart, honoring the other’s unique qualities and complimenting their beauty.  “Settling down” with someone is about settling into patterns of attentiveness and care, affirmation and celebration…. not settling for less.  Similarly we husband the land not so much by tilling as by extolling.  A paramour might leave flowers in the path of the returning beloved, faithfully kiss her mate’s eyes open each morning, or sing his praises with a mad passion.  The lover of a place bows to every new bloom, presses lips to tree bark, honors the setting of sun with a whirling dance, honors root and flight with bared toes on bare ground and the borrowed melodies of the meadow lark.  Such careful attention and creative expression is nothing less than art…. and this constant blooming, the art of marriage.  The goal is not only to make the relationship work, but to make it beautiful as well.  Not only meeting the needs of the other, but delighting them with our means of doing so.  In our marriage to the land, the care we gift it includes our attentiveness, passion, protection, and the artful celebration of what is surely our shared being.

In relationships as in paintings, the art is in the acknowledgment and glorification of the other’s inner essence.  The artist or mate draws out not only the actual appearance of the  beloved but also their feel, their spirit, their beauty that preceded the maturing of the features and will long outlive the perfect skin of youth, shining through a road map of facial wrinkles or mountain erosion to come.  Not only the lines and color of a landscape but the character that breeds and defines its landed features, with the spirits of place honored in deft strokes by those loving the hush of compost and gray of winter as much as the brilliant greens and bursting songs of Spring growth.  And it is just as true for our poetry, correspondence and diary entries, for craft and song and dance dedicated to the revealing of that inner power connecting us to the all.  Take the ancient dances to the hunted animals for example, the chants to the rain gods, magical paintings on mats of bark and myths telling and retelling tribal truths over a council fire, the ways in which we court our chosen man or maiden — all are stories, and it is story that centers us in our beliefs, in our world, in the progression of past, present and future.  They are the threads that stitch us back into our contract and our place, a portion of life’s crucial lessons handed down through the inheritance of craft more than genes.  Since the very beginnings of what it means to be human we have venerated and exalted Spirit, the living land and our conjugal loves through that confluence of feeling and demonstration called art.

The ancient ones they call the Mimbres peoples created a black on white pottery style that is still held in high esteem by modern art experts and connoisseurs.  Featuring fantastic images of wild animals and mythical entities, they inevitably evoke the Great Mystery.  The fired clay fragments scattered throughout our refuge tell of a life of honoring, each one a picture-puzzle piece still vibrating with the intention of its designer and the accumulative energy of years of reverent touch.  The first inhabitants of this canyon spoke their fealty for the land in rock art carved out of their collective and individual souls, lightning bolts and the seed-carrier Kokopelli painted on the insides of caves.  Here too are the forms of the artists’ fingers and palm, their signatures, the marks of their  selves, in graphic hands reaching out to their descendants across the chasm of time.  They left enduring images of their priorities and loves, deities and dreams.  They left their holiest expressions of wonder and communion, the evidence of a marriage with place consecrated in timeless artistic expression.

And of course there was beauty before there was ever an informed audience, in the way the setting sun sparkles on the cottonwood leaves, in the explosive and the sublime, the sensuous inner curves of the datura blossom and the upthrusting lava that first helped form these canyon cliffs.  In a wooden cholla cactus skeleton seemingly braced against both wind and sky.  In the way the morning mist clings to the mountains, and how the willows sway back and forth in the wind.  In the purslane stems forming a crimson star burst on the ground, and the juxtaposition of branches on ponderosa pines stout and tall.  In the orange feathers of clown flickers, and the purple undersides of lamb’s quarters after they go to seed in the Fall.  It is little different today save for our rapt attention and silent applause.  Resident and guest alike are touched to the degree that they are open and aware…. with each glinting rock, each flex of river muscle food for the observant eye, inspiration to the feeling heart, and food for the hungry soul.

Art is a matter not only of form but of deliberate expression.  Even a child’s crayon scribbles are art when they contribute to her sense of self, satisfy her inner muse, or are made to express an idea or feeling to her mama or papa.  This canyon’s river ripples and Zen-like displays of white fuzzy seeds are beautiful even without an audience, and have no need for our appreciation or approval.  But with no conscious intention of their own to impart, it is only as photographs in this book that they truly become art.

Art is conscious expression.  Therefore there is art in the sensuous ways a wife might move when in the presence of her lover.  Art in a mother’s calligraphy, in the extra swirls and embellishments that make her cards and envelopes stand out.  Art in carefully arranged wildflowers, in the way a little girl mixes, matches and layers her clothing.  In the balanced way we lay out the colorful foods on our plate, and on the walls that we decorate.  Art can be not only what we witness or create, but the very how and why of our lives.  How we dress or carry ourselves.  How we eat and think, and move when there’s no one around to watch us.  How meaningfully and expressively we speak to each other, and how well we listen.  The music we like, and the rhythms of our own day to day existence.  In the vernacular of the artist, attention to the forms our being and doing take is called “style,” though its not nearly so proscribed or restrained as that makes it sound.  Another way to look at an artful life and marriage is as a condition and practice of “grace,” sometimes defined as “seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement,” “an excellence bestowed” or “a prayer of thanksgiving.”  It is to walk, as the Hopi say, “in beauty”… and to walk in gratitude, forever, together.

My decades in this canyon have taught me that whole relationship – whether with a spouse or our mated place – is founded on trust, deepened by respect, furthered by communication, bound fast through commitment and loyalty, blessed with surrender and sacrifice, lived and expressed in the most wonderful and artful ways.  It is love both given and received, and not only beautiful but seen.  In this marriage to the land I say, “let nothing come between.”

(photos (c)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

Marriage to the Land: Part 2 of 3: Re-envisioning Sacrifice & Surrender – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Friday, April 10th, 2009

 Marriage to the Land

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Part 2 of 3:
Re-envisioning Sacrifice & Surrender

sunflower2-sm.jpg“Marriage is a relationship.  When you make the sacrifice in marriage, you’re sacrificing not to each other but to unity in a relationship.”           
-Joseph Campbell

It’s possible to go from girlfriend to girlfriend or place to place with neither commitment, sacrifice nor surrender, but a healthy marriage to anyone or anything depends on elements of all three.  We commit to be with someone or some place not just when its most convenient, profitable or enjoyable but “for better or for worse, in sickness as in health.”  When our beloved suffers illness and debility, rages with frustration or quakes from some old and unhealed wound, we hold him or her all the closer.  We meet those needs that we’re able, help heal what we can, abide that which we cannot help, and love the whole .  When our home is hurt we rise to stem the damage, and hold it all the closer as it trembles at the approach of bulldozers, concrete mixers and those furtive men with their seemingly limited feelings and limitless ideas.  The committed hold tight even when faced with an invasion by the most inglorious industries.  I know that a wildfire could blow through our precious canyon home, level our houses and destroy the forest I helped plant a quarter century before and still we would not leave.  We’d stay to bathe its burns with our tears, replant its soil with seed and hope and come nightfall, make our bed on its blanket of ash.

Commitment inevitably requires sacrifice.  If nothing else we sacrifice what we once planned or wanted to do in order to give our time, energy and focus to something that matters even more to us.  To “sacrifice” means literally “to make sacred,” through a deliberate, ritual and voluntary gifting.  As a teenager I hated the term, partly from hearing mothers say in barely disguised disgust how they had “sacrificed” their dreams for their children, and husbands who claimed to have “sacrificed” their lives for the sake of their wives…. using others as an excuse for not having taken the risk to go for what they claim to desire most.  Sacrificing isn’t “giving up” something as if under pressure or obligation, but “giving” it as a gift from our heart…. a meaning-filled offering to others, to Spirit, to home and to purpose.

It’s also true that there’s no sacrifice in inadvertently gifting, or in gifting that which we have no real desire to keep.  To sacrifice is to consciously give of those things we might otherwise rather hold on to, for the sake of our intention, priorities and promise.  Young and relatively clueless as I once was, I nonetheless knew that moving here onto this isolated piece of land would mean sacrificing my gallery and art career, income and social life, and access to cultural activities as well as medical facilities.  Thus instead of feeling victimized or penalized by unseen consequences, I felt empowered by the ritual of choice.  I could value my time and my role in the canyon in even deeper ways, knowing what I consciously gave, and continue to give, in order to be here.

There are no empty holes in life, and as the saying goes, “nature abhors a vacuum.”  If a species disappears, its niche is quickly filled by other life forms.  A basin is sure to eventually fill with rain.  Canyons summon rivers as soil beckons seed.  Thus it is impossible for anybody to give something over, without getting something in return, and with each thing sacrificed we’d do well to look for what might have been gained.   To sacrifice a prerogative, is often to garner respect.  With the sacrifice of one’s plans come the gifts of adventure and spontaneity, serendipity and surprise.  Sacrificing the boost in salary that a move to another region might bring, we gain a renewed awareness of and appreciation for where we already live.  It was through sacrificing my habitual urge to roam that I finally came upon the true meaning of home.

I had just as hard of a time with that other prerequisite of deep matrimony, “surrender”– which I confused with defeat, subjugation and shame.  I would never give up on any task no matter how painful or difficult, and when grabbed in a headlock by school bullies I’d have rather died on the spot than ever “say uncle.”  My images of surrender included cowardly troops on a field of battle, throwing their guns on the ground and marching off with the enemy in hopes of lenient treatment and a hot meal.  In reality surrender is hardly for the beaten or resigned, ambivalent or tentative…. and the stronger willed one is, the more fierce our intention needs to be.  It’s more akin to sacrifice, its roots found in the Old French surrendere, meaning “to deliver.”  Matrimony and allegiance to place have nothing to do with defeat and everything to do with giving.      While submission leads to subordination, surrender is a sharing of gifts that results in recombination.  We invariably become a component of that which we surrender to, and likewise what we surrender to becomes a defining part of who we are.  Therefore one must take care always to surrender to truth and service, but never to illusion or greed.  Surrender not to property but to land.  Not to force, but mission and purpose.  And not to separation, distraction or bitterness…. but to connection and placement, contentment and love.

(to be continued)

(photos (c)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

Marriage to the Land: Part 1 of 3: Promise & Commitment – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Monday, April 6th, 2009

 Marriage to the Land

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Part 1 of 3: Promise & Commitment

riverpondeve-sm.jpgOur relationship to the land, like our relationship to other significant people, is in some ways a reciprocal contract.  But while it’s a hopefully lasting agreement, a healthy relationship with place is more of a marriage, binding similar rather than disparate parties, and formalizing promises between like hearts with shared values, desires and priorities.  It is a commitment unenforceable by law, and yet fastened by love, a lasting emotional and spiritual coupling and – in time – a mixing of the bones.  In its deepest measure it actually outlasts the flesh, not like the ghostly or risen but like energies alchemically enjoined, like a song that continues to reverberate down the canyon long after the singer has turned and gone.

Already once divorced at age 23, I cannot claim to have always lived up to the intent and goal of matrimony, but when I’ve promised I’ve given my all.  And likewise in my marriage to this land, nothing is held back.  I have given myself completely, while opening completely to the gifts of this place.  With full commitment, full belief, and full certainty that this marriage between inspirited ground and devoted man – and between those who tend that ground – will last.  Not until “death do us part” but somehow, some way, forever.  Holding on to each other not “by our teeth” but by hugging.  And more than that, by intertwining form, spirit and purpose until there can be no telling where the one starts and other stops, the lover and the beloved.

When the relationship is at its best, coming back to one’s home or home to our spouses is a return to our selves – to the wholest expression of what it means to be.  We feel the other, the land and lover, as integral extensions of this expanded self.  When we leave we carry them with us in our devoted hearts and minds.  When we are gone from the place we love most, as when apart from husband or wife, we ache for reunion.  We awaken to the comforting breathing of spouse, wind and land, work best all day for them or with them.  We can lose them to failed health or forest fire, and yet we hold them still.  They’re in the dreams we love to remember, and their absence is usually the mark of a nightmare.  We sleep deepest in the familiar arms of the mate or home that fullest knows us.  We plant ourselves in them, and feel them grow inside of us.  If we were to do something so vulnerable as to write a poem, it would be for that special him, or her, or there.

Far too many ceremonies retain the forms without the commitment, pledging allegiance to a country or cause without really meaning it, mouthing the sacraments of a church and then doing the opposite, pledging  a lifetime and then breaking apart in a few years or less.  When it comes to a relationship you want to last, as our relationship to the land, we’re well served by at least one line of the traditional oath, taking it one step further by promising and knowing that “even with death, we shall not part.”  We promise to give ourselves fully to one another, to respect and to nourish each other’s unique needs and vital expression, to share adversity and fortune equally, and to defend each other’s honor and form against all outside threats.

In any healthy marriage we praise the qualities and gifts of the other, consciously celebrate our relationship on a daily basis, infuse every moment with an attitude of deepest thankfulness, and seek to give back equally to the other with no resentment or restraint.  Whether a marriage to a person or to the land, part of what we give back is care, and this care is most significant when it is truly heartfelt.  However we might manifest them in the physical realm, the essential exchange of gifts are at the core emotional and spiritual in nature.  What we properly give back is the best of our selves, and our lasting devotion… voluntarily, out of love.

willowsbeaverpond-sm.jpgThis is not to say that we can’t yearn as much for a lover we’ll never marry, or ache as sweetly for someone who consistently spurns our attentions, but for something or someone to feel irreplaceable they first need to feel promised and attached.  An observant traveler should feel at least a slight tug in passing through each region, an entreaty from colorful roadside aspens and enticing lakes, but no other person or place can equal the pull of either mated land or fated mate.

I came to this river canyon a suitor, but quickly promised to serve her in deed and in heart – first as caretaker, and then as spouse.

(to be continued)

(photos (c)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

The Search For Home: Part 6: The Land’s Human History – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Friday, March 27th, 2009

The Search For Home
Part 6: The Land’s Human History

by Jesse Wolf Hardin



In this quest for home we promise ourselves to the present and the future, apprentice ourselves to place and to past.  While our relationship with place is by necessity contemporary and immediate, it is further enriched by an understanding of and appreciation for what came before, the succession of events that transformed land and creature, and that bonded humanity to the land.  Where your house sits, what changes were made to be able to put it there?  Was it graded, a hill leveled, an arroyo or wetland filled to support it?  What plants grew there, and are there any of them in the yard today?  How many trees were felled to make room?  What kind were they, and what kinds of trees were planted instead?  What animals lived there before your place was first built, which of these are extirpated from the area or driven into extinction, and which still survive beneath its foundations or nested on its high-power lines?  What were the earliest creatures ever to live there, and what kind of fossil record did they leave?  Pick up a handful of the native soil.  What is it like, and where did it get its color and texture?  What mountains succumbed to create it, which rocks crumbled, or what period of volcanic activity spewed forth its porous tufa and brilliant crimson clays?

One can try descending into a nearby canyon or arroyo, or finding a spot where a road has been cut through a rise and read what is as much her-story as history.  Instead of from left to right, read from the surface down, beginning with the scant few inches of humus, a hundred years of composting leaf and bug and bone.  Read the lives of ground squirrels and moles, whose complex burrows are halved and exposed like the passageways of a child’s ant farm.  Belts of ancient clay above the bedrock of an ancient sea studded with the shells or Precambrian mollusks.  Seams of primeval coal.  Every foot down may represent centuries, of eroding mountains and upthrusting continental plates, of species birthed and extincted, of cultures flourishing and collapsing, populations rising and falling like the slow inhaling and exhaling of the great earthen body.

It is more than a matter of natural history.  Some might imagine themselves as originating from extraterrestrial forces, but we remain terrestrial nonetheless.  The same atoms that make up our bodies once vibrated in the breath of prehistoric creatures, and fueled the fires of creation.  In addition, we are each a  product of, a direct descendant of the original organic molecules.  And we harbor a molecular memory, of an ancient blood-red sky and its rainbow bands of unmixed gases, recall in the tides of our own blood the salten seas repeatedly pierced and stirred by amorous lightning thrusts.  We come from our mother, from a certain house or hospital, but still our essence arises from that same great cauldron that gave birth to the first living cell.  We remain part and extension of that unicellular ancestor.  We share with the rest of life, from dragonfly to towering pine, this common progenitor— and those spiritually and scientifically defined energies that have, since the very beginnings of time, animated us all.  We are coparticipants in the miracle called “life,” sharing the thrills and pitfalls of a three and a half billion year joyride.  What we call “sense of place” must include sensing our position within the sequencing of evolution, the unraveling chain of time, and the regional histories of our own kind.  For not even the wilderness is free of a history of human association, all the more powerful that it was never written down, passed instead mouth to mouth in myth and song and the resounding petroglyphs of desert canyon walls.  It is a story told in the shadows of its forests, the trails winding above its rivers, and its powerfully painted caves.

I’ve always thought of old houses as special in a similarly wordless way.  The run-down ones stand out stark and skeletonized, yet still meaningful and inspirited like the collected rocks of Stonehenge and the exposed walls of  Indian ruins.  The well kept-up ones feel like little monasteries, places of refuge, the destination of heaven-minded pilgrims.  Once inside some hallowed old home it seems like I can feel the various moods, the emotions of the individuals of past generations.  Whether an East Coast townhouse with its basement and attic, or a moss covered log cabin in Oregon, I experience a “take off your hat and lower your voice” humility upon entering one.  The sense is of the the hand work in each board and brick, and the investment of so many human hours into living within its fastened frame.  Polished oak floors glisten with the tears of joy and anguish as much as polish, brought to a deep luster by sliding stockinged feet, tongue-and-groove boards reflecting the busy shifting images of families growing, dying, changing.  The stairway rails absorb more than the sweat of hands tender and strong, teasing and anxious— little hands reaching up, crippled hands working for a grip.  They soak up and then exude the overlapping emotions of resistance and resignation, engagement and denial, loss and gain, love and anger, desire and satisfaction.  Take out the heavy wooden furniture and the dark floral drapes, the heavy woolen rug and the leaded glass light fixtures hanging from the center of the ceiling, bring in bright acrylic pile and trendy aluminum-edged lithographs, but an old house will still reverberate with the echoes of the past.  One can repaint, but something deep and old continues to shine through.  Some walls give the impression they’re imprinted with intricate shadows cast by yesteryear’s window lace.  Another holds a stranger’s attention the way it had when it hosted that oval-framed tintype, featuring the roving eyes of the scowling family patriarch.

Ask yourself, what sort of people lived in the house you’re in right now, before you ever did?  Were children born in its back rooms, were there proud matriarchs who breathed their last where the sun still comes in the east window?  The house may be new, or you may be the apartment’s first tenant, but were there structures tore down to make room for one you moved into?  Perhaps a row of old uninsulated brick houses scraped aside for a new development, or a flat-roofed adobe casita given way to ranch houses with large windows and Kentucky bluegrass lawns?  The ethnography of one neighborhood may have changed several times over the course of the last two hundred years, from Indian to Spanish and French, French to English, an Italian quarter now considered part of the Cuban enclave, extended Irish families supplanted by Afro Americans, in turn replaced by buyers of diverse racial backgrounds who by chance or fortune can afford the rising cost of its real estate.

Look outside.  What people tended gardens in the bottoms, on the constant lookout for raiders, and were these “raiders” the peoples they were encroaching on?  What indigenous tribe once gathered shellfish from the edge of the bay and walked the narrow trail where the interstate now lies?  And who preceded them?  I live in a river canyon uninhabited for a thousand years before I got here.  But a few miles away the river winds through a valley where the trailers of retirees sit amongst baked mud haciendas, the  residents of the latter keeping alive much of the traditional Hispanic, frontier lifestyle.  I love watching a family roast their chilies, the oldest son off to hunt for the winter’s meat, the little girls braided with bows for the many fiestas.  From where I park our truck to walk into our place, I can see the land that belonged to Senovio, our deceased patron, or protector.  The little casita is as empty as a torn pocket, and the status-earning direct-TV dish he never even used is now nearly hidden by a curtain of beautiful, uncut weeds.  But I remember that land as an extension of the little man with the big straw hat.  When I look over that way I imagine the way he looked at the sharp crack of dawn, leaning on a pitchfork, pointing with pursed lips at the horses filling up on their breakfast hay.  His beloved animals were fed, and the sun was up in its usual show of morning color.  I see the silhouette of this Spanish American with the baggy pants, rooted to his place, contemptuous of any cities more than a three hour drive from his needy animals, doubtful of or indifferent to any claims of distant wonders.  Everything he ever wanted, everything that mattered was closer than that.  Close enough to see, maybe close enough to smell, certainly close enough to nod at slowly with a dusty Stetson.

But there is more.  Behind him, camped beneath the cottonwoods or sneaking up on him from behind the barn, I sense the intrepid Apache.  And behind them, the pit-house and cliff dwellers they preyed on, the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, the people they call “the Old Ones” pushing corn seed into the riverside soil with a willow stick.  They are the earliest known human inhabitants of this bioregion, and their presence can still be felt over a thousand years after their migration away from this river drainage.  In countless ruins, in the remnant stone-age irrigation ditches, in the cliff art and pottery sherds scattered about the desert floor, in the multihued vistas they themselves fancied— here we find the legacy of the Sweet Medicine People.  To archaeologists they are known as the San Francisco Culture or the Basket Makers, and are commonly but mistakenly referred to as the Anasazi.  And before– yes– before a single human foot edged across this rain-licked rimrock there were those other intrinsically wild beings, plants and animals characterizing and being characterized by the interplay of elements and energies that is land, in the unique combinations that define place.  Behind the patron’s silhouette, the shadows of the Apache and the echoes of the Old Ones— I see, I feel, I delight in the dancing ghost images of leaf and tendril, tail and paw, fin and feather fluttering in the dawn breeze, sensuously rubbing up against an arching New Mexico skyline.

As surely as we alter and impact the places we live, we are ourselves shaped by the land.  Nature seems like a foreign and even frightening place to many of us these days, but it is nonetheless our original, formative context, the very set of forces and qualities that first conceived and equipped us.  What we now call “wilderness” once meant everywhere.  It is the unmanaged Nature that stressed our developing beings to make us strong, that provided not only physical sustenance but the avenues for both love and loss:  the genesis of human compassion.  In experiencing a place’s natural and human history, we honor first our immediate ancestors, then those peoples whose relationship with the land predates our own, and finally those lifeforms that gave way for our emergence, or sustain and enrich us still.  Finally we honor the evolutionary cauldron, creation itself, the ultimate terrestrial source, the swirling matrix that was and is our unique home.


(feel encouraged to share this with others…)

Reindigenation: Matters of Respect & Belonging – By Jesse Wolf Hardin

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

 Preface: In the past few years there has been an increase in pop shamanism as well as “white” people insisting on the right to market “Indian” ceremonies.  This has provoked a militant reaction among some Native American traditionalists and even their strident Anglo followers to expose, discredit, disrupt and in some cases maliciously destroy the lives of what they consider to be New Age Wannabes appropriating their sacred ways.  In the ensuing conflict many truths have been ignored, complex relationships and inevitable twists overlooked, and people on both sides have been distracted from the real and urgent work of personal growth and realization.  Cultural rewilding.  The awakening of compassion and response.  Opposition to global institutional injustice and the rape of the planet.  The work of reducing population while raising empowered children.  Creating alternative schools and community organizations.  Planting trees, gardens, and the seeds of noble resistance. Coming together to heal and repair.  Remembering to celebrate, and to savor…

 In the interest of of getting on with this shared responsibility, we offer this revised version of the classic 1986 Animá text:


Matters of Respect & Belonging

By Jesse Wolf Hardin

IN-DIG-E-NOUS: adj. 1) Occurring or living naturally in an area; native
2) Intrinsic, innate

“We see in the present best efforts of groups of non-Indians an honest desire to become indigenous in the sense of living properly with the land…Sacred places in North America may yet see a series of transformations in which new peoples using new languages rely on them for spiritual sustenance.”
-Vine Deloria. Jr. (Sioux historian)

garden1-sm.jpgNot so long ago unassimilated Native Americans marked five centuries of opposition to the European incursion… preceded, we should note, by over three millenniums of struggle waged in behalf of cultural sovereignty and human dignity by land-based tribes, each courageously facing the encroaching civilized paradigm as it crept over Asia, Europe and Africa before the Americas.

The strength to resist destruction or assimilation, to resist the denigration and transformation of the physical landscape, comes from the depth of one’s relationship to it.  Strength is one of the gifts we’re given in return for our devotion and loyalty, for acting like responsible natives.  The power lies in belonging not owning, from hearing and serving, stretching and risking for a larger purpose… and it is the unimpeachable connectedness of all indigenous people that gives them the strength to face seemingly insurmountable odds.   Such connection comes from our species slowing down and staying put for a change, on our loving tending and intense paying of attention.

To commemorate, to celebrate, to pray or just to make their lives and their spirituality more real, contemporary land-based and spiritual communities have begun to fashion rituals relevant to current times, the planet’s dire straits, the mixed-lineage of the clans, and their terrestrial sites: their place.  They may be fourth and fifth generation inhabitants of Turtle Island, as the North American continent has sometimes been called, and yet they are unlikely to have elders to turn to for instruction or rites to call their own.  In camps next to threatened forests, in gardens and on mountain walks, during rites of passage for their children and attending the births and the deaths of their loved ones, they piece together fragments of prayers, symbols and ideas.  They draw from the universal to tap the power of the sacred circle, of sweat lodges and burning smudge.  They gather bagpipes, drums, rattles, sometimes even a saxophone– and open themselves to giving voice to Spirit, to Gaia, to Mother Earth, to God.

It turns out to be a fine line between the creation and adulteration of tradition, between honoring Indian spiritual traditions and what some AmerIndian activists have labeled “cultural genocide.”  After a history of their homelands being appropriated and sold, the extraction of their Native American rituals and symbols is experienced as the final affront, the ultimate theft.  The one thing usually left to a defeated and dispossessed peoples was their unique cosmology, the songs and rituals through which any culture knows and defines itself.  The new Indian traditionalists grew up with their artifacts sold to museums, their implements bastardized as rubber tomahawks and pueblo ashtrays, their people stereotyped thanks to non-Indians playing their part in a deluge of western movies.  Many have struggled to eschew the materialist ways of the invader culture, and applied themselves to learning the old ways of their various tribes.  Now they find other Native Americans sharing, and sometimes charging for lessons in their spiritual ways.  They find Europeans and EuroAmericans marketing “Lakota” Inipi ceremonies (sweats), and making money writing “Indian” books.

It’s important, however, not to invalidate someone else’s personal connection when protecting the exclusivity and privacy of cultural knowledge and ritual.  Many questions remain unanswered, even by the most vocal of activists waging their campaign to bring grief to what they call “New Age Wannabees” and “Twinkies.”  What of non-Indians who have grown up on the reservation, and call a particular tribal world-view their own?  What should a non-Indian do if invited by a Native American to join in a ceremony?  What of the appropriateness of the spread of the plains’ Sun Dance the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest?  The line is further blurred when one considers the ritual use of sweat lodges, drums and vision quests which are common to the primal peoples of numerous races and cultures, regardless of place of origin.   No one can reasonably make any proprietary claim to that which can’t be owned: the spirit of place, right here in North America, and the search for relationship with all its resident beings.  Nor are those of Celtic descent the only peoples capable or worthy of accessing the energies of Ireland.  Indeed, it is not only possible but crucial to that country’s spiritual and environmental realities that any AmerIndian, Asian, Australian Aborigine or multi-racial New Yorker visiting or settling there learn to connect to its Spirit and honor its timeless character.

In Animá we’ve not only avoided muddled eclecticism, but also honored the concerns of our American Indian friends, by employing only practices that both our feeling hearts and our deep experience of our home place provide – regardless of how useful certain practices from other cultures might be.  And in addition, we discourage any ceremony or practice that doesn’t naturally arise from present needs and context, the land we are a part of and our individual experience.  Our Shaman Path correspondence course doesn’t offer easy feel-good shortcuts to weekend enlightenment, but nature-provided insights and tools for the few to answer an insistent calling, painfully readjusting perceptions and remaking their daily lives, preparing them to serve the larger whole.  The quests we facilitate are in no way meant to be traditional Native American ceremonies, they’re processes and tests that the land and spirit call to us of every race and culture to undertake.  We do not do “Indian Sweats” or teach an “Indian Medicine Wheel”… we strive to understand the life wheel as it is revealed now and here.  And we just sweat, as part of the effort of doing our best.

“It is essential that people reconnect with Earth-based religions, but many times people are trying to practice Lakota vision questing or other practices out of context.  You can’t practice Lakota without being in the context of a Lakota community.”
-Winona LaDuke

I’ve given talks at several conferences where fellow presenter LaDuke admonishes our mostly Caucasian audiences to search out earth-honoring practices within our own cultural and religious framework, meaning to look to the Kabbhalic roots of pre-patriarchal Judaism, the Gnostic traditions of early Christianity and the example of St. Francis, and by implication the religiosity and rites of the Druids of Western Europe, the Yoruba of Africa and the Jains of India.  The problem is that not everyone claims a single country of origin, a single (or any) existing religious practice.  They couldn’t “go back where they came from” even if they wanted, when so many migrants from so many different countries may have crossed to create the persons they are.

Should someone of mixed lineage return to their Pict roots, search through the sprawling cities of Great Britain for the vibrations of their history, or take off to find the birthplaces of ancestors on their mother’s Russian side, where the oldest surviving tradition is patriarchal Orthodoxy?  Or might they belong in France, the place of origin for at least one branch of the spreading family tree?  Or is the only real geographical return one to Mother Africa, the playground of “Lucy,” according to genealogists the original home of the common ancestor of every human on Earth?  Nor can one carve up their body, send a foot to walk two separate shores, an arm to be raised to the Gods of the Pyreenes, guts to the Caucasus, one’s head staked to the destiny of the Emerald Isles…forever looking west.  And even if, our heart must surely remain in the place we love most, the place of allegiance, the place where we finally take on the responsibilities of home.

manometate2-sm.jpgBeing Indigenous doesn’t necessarily require one be a member of an established culture, religion and community history previously associated with that piece of land, although it certainly helps strengthen and codify the relationship.  More crucial, perhaps, is that the person (or other lifeform) be open to the directives of the ecosystem, ready and able to symbiotically interact with every element of that ecosystem.

At the same time, the primal perception of remaining land-based and tribal peoples becomes increasingly important as our modern society reels out of control, out of balance both ecologically and spiritually.  In their land-specific stories we can help recover our lost the awareness of place, the feeling of being home.  The knowledge of how to live in balance, sustainably, already exists – in the ways of the ancient ones of every continent.  The information is being lost along with the unraveling of tribal customs, with time tested skills and gifted insights disappearing as fast as their lands are being seized for development.  The young often feel they have no choice but to embrace foreign values and lifestyles, seeking  a livelihood in the major urban centers of the colonizers.  As our existences and enterprises become increasingly commercial and controlled, our pleasures ever more vicarious, our sense of both culture and place perverted or absent, as both our schedules and our thoughts race ever faster, we can still turn to they who have lived here, and loved here the longest.  Turn to the Native American elders, placed peasants, Hispanic dirt farmers with their knowledge of weather and wild foods, nomads still following the reindeer and the seasons, the Kayapo and their jungle pharmacy.  Not to emulate or simulate mind you, but in a respectful search for the evidence of truths we might then apply in our own lives, families and societies.

The primal mind isn’t just for the seekers of a few tribes, a state of mind accessible to the tranced-out Ladakh, the Kogi or the Shuar.  It is a region or capacity of the human brain, accessible by the most predisposed of us.  It surfaces during love making, while crossing the slick head of a waterfall, in the presence of enraptured children, whenever circumstance and surprise have delivered us most fully into our sentient bodies.  At these times the the Earth reveals itself as unquestioningly sacred, imbued with the numinous.  Even the most mundane expressions of inanimate nature appear alive, and one can sense movement in patterns of fiber and the grain of  mineral and wood.  We find ourselves in the timeless now, the eternal bodily and psychic engagement with the present, a part of an interconnected universe that unfolds and contracts in cycles.  Even if only for the shortest period of time, we jettison words for reality, symbol for touch, and know the world through our primal minds.  We feel more alive,   complete, tested and worthy.  And we are.  Worthy to be.  Worthy to be here now.

We become more and more indigenous to the degree that we reside in our primal minds, in place, in the moment.  To become: coming to be, leaning how to really be, coming into one’s self.  In re-becoming native, we re-create a contemporary culture, community, vocabulary, spiritual sensibility and finally a history true to our mixed-blood ancestry and the urgent and trying times at hand.  Along with our grounding comes an almost forgotten humility.  We can look to the the first “two legged” peoples to inhabit this continent for guidance, but we must each establish our credibility directly with the land, own our deepening connection.  We must stand up for the fact that we too belong, while respecting the ways of those peoples who showed respect to these places so long before us.

In time we may come to recognize being native as a condition of relationship, sensitivity, engagement, reciprocity and allegiance.  Reindigenation is, in fact, an evolutionary imperative.  Just to survive, those people facing the challenges of the next hundred years will have had to learn to feel and act placed again… settling in not as the managers of creation but as humble co-creators of our world and our reality.  Such survivors will likely be of ever more mixed blood, the descendants of Shona and Aborigine, Mongol and Semite, Hispanic and Cree, and they will of necessity have learned respect.  They will be the proud inheritors of the affections of Aphrodite, the temperance of Chuang-Tzu, the resolve of Odin and Ogun, the determination of the Berserkers and the spirit of Crazy Horse. No matter where they’re situate, they’ll have survived because they came to know and manifest themselves – completely and unapologetically – as indigenous.

And this alone will have brought them great satisfaction and peace.

The Search For Home – Part 5: Creating a Native Calendar

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

spiraltime.jpgThe Search For Home
Part 5: Creating a Native Calendar

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

We may live forever in the timeless present, but we are also positioned at any given moment at a shifting point in the cycles of day and night, earth and life.  This schedule and record of events is marked neither by the clock nor the normal 12 month calendar with its state approved holidays and customary periods of work and vacation.  It is, rather, a native calendar, marked by shifts in climate and vegetation, familiar to most land based indigenous peoples… as well as to many of those street-people we call “homeless.”

They should perhaps be called “houseless” instead, since they know better than most residents of the suburbs just what it means to be intimate with the largely predictible changes that help define “home.”  They may know the names of the nearby boulevards, but more as places to avoid because of the traffic or the police, dangerous corridors they must cross to get from one neighborhood to the next.  Ask them where they live, and instead of rattling off a numbered address they’re more likely to respond with a litany of landmarks: next to the river past the ruins of the old brick factory, under the old fir tree behind St. Martin’s, a five minute walk from the tracks.  They know what hour each bakery throws out its unsold bread, what days the supermarkets rotate their milk, how often the police patrol a particular street, what air ducts supply heat in the winter, and where the overhangs provide the most relief during the hottest months.  With no lawn of their own, they become familiar with the flowers and layout of everyone else’s, and can often recite the names of the local children they come into contact with.  They can, and often do, find their way home to their camp in the dark.  They usually have a deeply realized sense of where they “belong,” and exhibit a profound intimacy with their local environs.  Often frequenting the same neighborhood for decades on end, some can recount the succession of families moving in and out of any particular house, identifying each by the way they took care of their yards, the style of their cars, the attitude of their dog, or a habit such as what time a renter would always come out to pick up his newspaper.  They navigate their world without maps, and likewise traverse the seasons without the benefit or constraints of a Julian calendar.

Like other natives, their calendar is internalized, remembered, and round.  Each new turning of the Earth into the light, each new day is distinguished by its sensory record rather than some assigned number.  A native calendar is an articulation of significant events, rather than dates.  Some, such as the longest day of the year, are experienced similarly by divergent cultures and will be duplicated on their regional almanacs, while others are events specific to a certain group of people, situated in a particular place.  We notice that while the seasons, the successions of wildflowers, and the hibernation of the bears are things that occur dependably every year, the exact time of their arrival is likely to differ:  The day of first snow, which has come for us as early as November and as late as the new year.  The show of heaviest rains.  The first Fall frost.  But others clock in year after year, almost to the day:  The arrival of the dock my partners gather for our salads.  The ducks faithfully returning, from either direction.  The insatiable whistling of the mating elk.  In time the more significant or memorable of these recurring themes define the character of each portion of the native’s circular calendar.

Try creating your own.  The most predictable events become as the cardinal points on a compass, in which the Solstices and Equinox mark the four directions.  Of course the North is midwinter, the hottest days of the year situated at the southern extreme of your rounded calendar.  We can break it down further:  Between the longest and shortest days of the year, the days of the longest and shortest shadows, the new and full moons.  Mark the points of natural and social transitions:  When school starts and ends, the onset of each vacation, the time for planting bulbs by the side of the house, the bug season, swimming season, traditional holidays, and the day regularly given to Spring cleaning.

Here in the mountains of New Mexico we’d make the Roman August “the month when the snakes come out.” We’d mark down the first appearances of foodstuffs like ripened acorns, pine nuts and sorrel, the ideal time for root and tuber harvests, and the month for drying fruit.  Then there’s the period of antler shedding, and the months they’re in velvet.  The blossoming of so many blue flowers in the Spring, a dozen different species of white-flowered plants in June, and the splash of brilliant yellow ones come every late September.

There is nothing in your busy schedules and wordy workshops, high tech entertainment systems or feel-good fantasies that can replace physical engagement with the very real planet, itself spiriling through nonlinear time.  Step outside your gated yards and walled minds.  Then look around you, go for long sauntering walks, take note of the colors and processes of your world and then position yourself within it.

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The Search For Home – Part 4: Orientation & Paying Attention

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

The Search For Home
Part 4: Orientation & Paying Attention

Excerpted from the upcoming new book Home by Jesse Wolf Hardin (


One hears the word “space” a lot: maintaining our “personal space,” pushing for “psychic space,” zoning for “open space.”  What they’re calling space, however, is really more interlocking than open, and never “empty,” with even the air that surrounds the solid packed with shimmering molecules.  For the inhabitant, the native, space is complex and dynamic: a system of intrinsically meaningful places. Lacking a sense of our position and role within that system, one is thus “lost in space.”  The solution is simply to come back, out of the stratosphere of abstract thought, back to home-base, in body, in place.  And as with any return, one must first acknowledge that they are lost, and then proceed with a focused effort to reorient themselves.

This word “orient” originally meant “to face east,” in the direction of the restorative rising sun, and hence to revive, to awaken, to flush with inspired intent.  When I think of the term “orientation” I’m reminded of those times as a child when we were new to a school, class or program, initiated in a meeting where we were familiarized with its characteristics, its functions, and whatever expectations it had of us.  To orient in place one must likewise learn/remember its quirks and qualities, its complex and unique personality, and the demands its systems rightfully make on us.  Successful orientation is dependent on a heightening of our native awareness, the act and art of noticing.

Notice the changes in air temperature moving from room to room.  Notice the depth or shallowness of your breath, how the damp grass feels to your feet, the body language of those around you, the sounds in the room and beyond, the creatures big and small living in webs in the window and in nests under the eaves.  Notice the ground around and under you, its color and texture, and how much faces the sun, and how much is covered with asphalt or structures.  Notice the yellowing leaves of trees that for some reason aren’t making it, and any decrease in the populations of songbirds or bats.  Notice the noisy planes continually crossing the sky, the shapes of animals in the clouds that any child would have seen.  And every night notice the stars.  Or notice the lack of stars, and if this is the case, then demand of this world we humans would remake, “Where are my stars?”

Generally we only take notice of something when it grabs our attention away from our tasks or movies, or from the road and traffic immediately in front of our speeding vestibule.  It’s usually a loud noise, a siren or ringing bell, someone calling out our name, an unexpected movement close to our line of sight, a particularly alluring or obnoxious odor, or a hand placed on our shoulder.  In reorientation we go beyond this incidental gathering of information, making a daily, moment-by-moment practice out of noticing.  We make a ritual out of attentiveness, out of a life filled to the overflowing with the awakened experience of its living.

Paying attention is paying homage, paying acknowledgment and tribute to home.  An essential part of our practice involves a high-dive into the sensations of the area weather, immersing in its constant cyclical shifts, the changes in moisture and temperature from early morning to heated afternoon, and from Winter to Spring, Summer to Fall, again and again.  Moving into a new place, it takes time to not only notice but adjust to the unfamiliar weather patterns.  The midsummer humidity of the Southeast, the skin-drying air of the Southwest deserts, the Rocky Mountain snow pack and the persistent Winter misting of the green Northwest all take some getting used to.  What starts out discomforting the newcomer, becomes the comfortable norm for the long term resident, a crucial reference point, a sort of climatological landmark, a badge of regional identity and pride.  Orientation becomes not only a matter of noticing, but one of acclimatizing: developing a deep seated awareness of and resonance with an area’s many meteorological moods, acclimating through immersion in place, through noticing more, and feeling more.

Everyone pays attention, no matter how caught up in the momentum of their assignments and the net of their thoughts, when bright bolts of lightening are reflected in high-rise windows still shaking from the last peals of thunder.  Few things draw us out of the revolving squirrel cages of our minds and out into the nerve endings of our skin better than that.  With the first gathering of clouds comes the awareness of a tingly electric feeling in the air, and we may suddenly stop on the sidewalk or turn off the tractor in the field long enough to focus on the feeling of it, nodding imperceptibly as if to agree with one’s self, “Yes, a storm is coming.”  When the drops fall hard even the most stubborn pedestrian below must give up their attachment to their train of thought, if only to complain, and the drought-concerned farmer gives prayer for its bounty.  We get wet, we may get cold, and there is no way to ignore the rain.  Kids are mesmerized by the rhythm of the drops falling on their schoolhouse roofs, and every little face turns to watch the rivulets of water making pretty patterns on the classroom windows. Then, as countless times before, the clouds part, and a few people pull their cars over to get a glimpse of the sun bursting through in a display of naked glory.  Anyone still walking the sidewalks is likely to slow down and consciously or unconsciously raise their heads to increase the solar gain on chilled cheeks, to squint for a moment in its proud glare, and to be thankful— if not for the rain, than surely for its passing.

Your sense of place should waken when you do.  Try this. Before your eyes are even open, picture the place you are in, the part of the room where your bed lies and which direction it faces.  Recall what beings and objects fill your room, and which lie or stand or grow in trellises on the other side of each wall.  Before the first words intrude, barging in with their own agenda, take time to sense whatever energy or spirit infuses and animates everything around you, let the heart feel thankful for whatever this is we call “magic” or “physics” or “God,” and know that it too is manifested through the body of place.

If no longer in bed, find a safe place to sit with eyes closed, and allow your busy thoughts to surface and burst like fragile bubbles. With the ears, pinpoint the source of every sound, the origin of each thing’s voice:  the ticking or subtle buzzing of any nearby clock, the branch creaking against the house, the wind that moves the branch, and the barking of dogs beyond.  Imagine a clear sound-map, placing each by its direction and volume, and situating yourself within it.  A closing door to the left, or a floor below.  Music from across the alley.  The traffic from two streets away.  In the park or in the woods, experience your position in relation to the intermittent flapping of wings from one side to the other, the constantly fluctuating melodics of the giddy creek to your front, and the sound of acorns dropping noisily on the mat of dried oak leaves behind.  Now overlay another transparency, a map made up of scents, the smells of wet grass beneath you, of the fertile water rolling by and the steel mill or cornfields that signal the direction of town.  Open the eyes slowly, and without focusing on any one particular object seek to absorb the totality of everything within the range of your vision.  Then turn not only the head but the entire body around a slow, full three hundred and sixty degrees, noticing how each scene exists on a single connected plane, and how you and your awareness are centered within this circle of interlocking elements.  No matter who we are, or where we are, we exist between the above and the below, always in the exact center of what are called “the four directions.” While we are irrevocably connected to all that is, connected even to those things far beyond our sight, we remain largely defined by those places of which we have intimate knowledge, by that which we see and feel around us, and especially the area where we now live.

In orientation we start right where we are, walking towards each of the cardinal points, and returning each time to the center our motion describes.  At every step, take the moments needed to emphatically register every feature, milestone and benchmark.  In the country this means the kinds and distribution of plant life, the low spots where runoff crosses the trail during the wet season, the position of the nearest, highest tree or mountain, and whether the high ground lies to our right or to our left as we walk towards the west.  In the city we must include an inventory of the most prominent buildings or businesses, make a note of unusual billboards and the size and color of the houses, watch the changes in the years and models of the cars parked out in front of them as we move through less or more affluent neighborhoods.  More than anything else try to memorize the names of at least the largest of the streets, whether they run east and west or north and south, and which direction the numbers get bigger or smaller.  But to really become familiar with a place we must also look to the lay of the land, rising and falling irrespective of the weight of the pavement, steep streets under which mountains still sleep.  Watch for where ancient watercourses continue to flow, where they’re channeled into pipes and ditches, and where culverts divert them beneath busy roads.

To be continued…


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Walking the Wind-Filled Forest: Into the Pines by Kiva

Thursday, February 19th, 2009


The river runs directly below our small cabins here on the mesa. If you were to climb down the steep rocks and make your way through the usually calf deep mountain water, you would find yourself confronted with the other side of the canyon wall. It rises gently from the river before growing steeper and rockier the further it peaks towards the ridge far above. There’s a rough, nearly indiscernible trail running through the Pine forest from the river to the ridge that we use when the water is so high we’re unable to walk the seven crossings out towards our normal parking area. During such floods, we hike to the road using this route and bring bulging backpacks of food and supplies from the village back down into the canyon with us. We’ve walked these switchbacks countless times — in early morning and at midnight, in snow storms and pouring rain. Loba and I have climbed down the mountain off-balance from ninety pound packs and barefoot to avoid slipping on the ice covered rocks and pine needles and we’ve wandered down leisurely while gathering acorns or wild mushrooms. Needless to say, we’ve grown closely acquainted with this special ecology that populates the cooler, north-facing side of the canyon.

homestead.jpgThe warmer side of the canyon where our cabins are built is dominated by Piñon Pine, Evergreen Oak and Juniper — all three drought and heat tolerant species that can easily withstand our intense Summers. The river divides the canyon in two halves, and the far side remains much cooler and moister year round and is populated by a variety of species that usually only grow at significantly higher elevations. Part of the magic of living in a narrow riparian canyon on the continental divide is that our one small crease in the wild, rambling Mogollon Mountains contains a complex cross-section of many unique ecologies. The Ponderosa Pine forest is one of these special microcosms and offers a cool respite during the hot season and remains covered in a thick blanket of snow after a storm far longer than the immediately surrounding areas during the Winter.

Middle mountain Ponderosa Pine ecologies are peculiar mono-forests, consisting of primarily just the one species with small percentages of Gambel Oak, New Mexico Locust and Alligator Juniper. This lack of diversity at the canopy level can make them especially vulnerable to elements such as droughts, forest fires and the ever increasing pine beetle infestation. Because the forest is defined almost completely by just the Ponderosa (most forests have several dominant species), the whole ecology could be destroyed by the loss of one species. The delicacy of the balance makes this place that much more precious to us and we’re grateful that both the pine beetles and the severe droughts have not effected this bioregion in a dramatic way as of yet.  There’s literally hundreds to thousands of smaller plant species that require these vital middle mountain forests for their survival, everything from Spikenard to False Solomon’s Seal, Gooseberry, Skullcap, Usnea, Mountain Candytuft and many others require their cool shade and acidic soil to thrive here in the often arid inter-mountain West. Below, I introduce you to three of my favorite species that grow specifically in our Ponderosa Pine Forest.

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)

rhipine.jpgPonderosa pines are the most common conifer this of the Mississippi and tower over any of our other native tree species.  Every part of the tree has been utilized by indigenous cultures – from survival food to medicine to ceremonial tools, the Ponderosas have played an integral role in the shaping of both people and place. The long green needles and flexible bark have made beautiful, tough baskets for a variety of cultures and the pitch for glue and to waterproof footwear. Their wood has been used to build the ladders that lead down into the sacred kivas of the Hopi. The needles have been used in ceremony and the aromatic smoke in prayer. Throughout time, they’ve remained a signature element of the wild mountain landscape that fill the stories and songs of the Old West. The wistful, sweet song of the wind through their branches is the very definition of high lonesome.

Closing your eyes and tracing the ridges and valleys of Ponderosa bark, you can feel the terrain of the earth through your fingers, rippling and weaving out along the skin of this one tree. If you press your face to their puzzle piece shaped bark and breathe deep, you’re immersed suddenly and completely in the warm aromas of vanilla, brown sugar and something like Sassafras. It’s as sweet as cream soda, but imbued with the heat and spiciness of sunshine and resin. Some trees have a stronger smell than others, and Loba and I could make a whole morning out of running from one giant conifer to the next, hollering to each other to hurry up and come over here, come smell this one, it’s the best — no no, come smell this one, it’s even better– until we’re out of breath and sticky fingered from wrapping our arms around the wide pitch spattered trunks.

The Pines are a well known, even archetypal, Southwestern remedy. Even those New Mexico natives who have long since forgotten every other herbal medicine know that the pitch from either the Ponderosas or the Piñons will draw out splinters, heal wounds and help broken bones mend more quickly. It’s also a well known remedy for chest rub congested lungs and liniment for arthritic limbs. Loggers, forest service agents, old abuelas and hiking hippies alike often carry small jars of the salve in their pockets at all times. And if no salve is around, they’re just as likely to grab a glob of soft resin right off the tree or melt a hard chunk with their cigarette lighter.

Oregon Grape Root (Mahonia repens)

ogr5.jpgThrough the thick layer of Pine needles, the winter reddened leaves of Oregon Grape Root are apparent, easily recognized by their waxy surface and sharp edges. They are especially easy to spot in the cold months when the leaves blush a brilliant shade of scarlet and purple. Although Mahonia is a fairly common plant in the inter-mountain West, I’m always excited to discover a new patch. Our native species is a small, creeping variety whose network small rootlets can span an entire mountainside. Normally a nondescript shade of brown and only the diameter of a pencil, the roots can easily be overlooked unless you happen upon one that’s been broken or wounded by the weather or a passing animal. The inner bark is a brilliant shade of golden yellow, an indication of their potent medicinal powers. Although this plant is common, it’s important to harvest it respectfully by not stripping whole colonies from a single area and to always gather roots from the upper part of a hillside rather than the younger parts of the group from the bottom of the hill. While Oregon Grape Root a very multi-faceted medicine, it’s most often used as what the old-timers call a “liver tonic” to stimulate hepatic function and thus improve digestion, reduce allergies, treat infections and clear the skin. I find it one of my most reliable remedies for people who suffer from a pattern of bad skin, chronic constipation, seasonal allergies and bloating, usually with some degree of low blood pressure and ongoing fatigue. The leaves make a powerful salve and the berries make a sour but delicious jam that is one of our favorite seasonal treats.

Blisswort (Scutellaria resinosa)

blisswortblue.jpgIn seemingly random patches, the wild Blisswort (otherwise known as Skullcap) is scattered through the forest in small to large colonies. And yet, upon close observation, we can see that their habitat is not random at all and that the plants thrive along the path rainwater takes on its way down the mountain. A moisture loving species, the Blisswort favors the shade and cool temperatures of the Pine forest over the exposure and heat of the riverside and chooses to proliferate in small run-off indentations in the earth or gently sloped arroyos. The plants help to prevent erosion and enrich the soil while the water nourishes them. In early Spring or late Summer, they can seem nearly invisible, just short clumps of green among the more brilliant Lupine and Senecio. But come early May, these humble little plants will be much more noticeable with their abundance of white and dark purple-blue blooms and the insects that hover over them. Their flowers are typical of the mint family, but large and pronounced compared to Wild Mint’s more modest appearance. With their sensually large lips and brazen color pattern, Blisswort’s seductive transformation can sometimes make them suddenly seem like the only plant in the forest. The leaves are often resinous, a sticky coating that clings to my fingers for hours after I brush the soft flowers and leaves on my way up the trail.

Intensely bitter in taste, our native Blisswort is much stronger medicinally than any other species I’ve tried, and there’s simply no comparison with the mild tasting (and acting) herb of commerce. Blisswort earned my nickname through its strongly nervine actions that utterly relax and nourish the nervous system and can often send a upset person from the throes of anxiety and fear into a state of bliss and calmness. It’s also a strong anti-spasmodic with an affinity for the digestive and reproductive system, making it very helpful for many women with severe PMS that includes symptoms of irritability, headaches, insomnia, menstrual cramping and digestive upset. It does have a tendency to promote vivid dreams. Unlike many dream-enhancing herbs though, Blisswort usually triggers intense but pleasant dreams rather than the nightmares some people experience with herbs such as the Artemisias. Blisswort is one of the first herbs I ever worked with and remains one of my most valued and frequently used allies.



Photos (c) 2009 Kiva Rose & Jesse Wolf Hardin

The Riparian Forest: Ecology, Biodiversity & the Trees

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

mossyrocks.jpgMany people automatically think of the entire Southwest as one big desert — doubtless covered in cacti, redrock and rattlesnakes. But in fact, there are four very different deserts in the Southwest United States (the Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran), and the canyon isn’t in any of them. Our eighty acre sanctuary is actually nestled within the rugged Mogollon Mountains, which in turn are set deep within the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico. While prickly pears and cane cholla abound, at about 6,000 feet in elevation there’s no doubt these are the mountains. Our particular canyon is narrow and cool, and our lush flora is supported by freshwater seeps, springs and the curving vein of the San Francisco River that flows directly between the volcanically formed rock walls. Annual floods bring us an abundance of moisture, seeds and soil and replenish the land. The native beaver build strong dams during non-flooding periods and their ponds both raise the water table and increase flora and fauna diversity by adding meadow and wetland type habitats. The wide arroyos that cut through the mountain ridges spill even more moisture into the river and feed the springs. All told, the Gila bioregion is one of the richest and most diverse ecologies in all of the Southwest.

Unbelievably, at one time our canyon was nearly bare. Stripped of its precious trees and wildflowers by grazing cattle and then erosion — the songbirds, butterflies, hummingbirds and other signature creatures were achingly absent. Only through Wolf’s love and determined efforts did the land again begin to thrive. For decades, he has transplanted and seeded the land with wild grapes, poppies, grama grass, willows, datura, spiderwort, dock, nettles and myriad other native flora every single year without fail. It is also through his hard work that the cattle are now fenced out of the land and off the river so that the ecology can once again knit itself into a cohesive, thriving whole. Every time I immerse myself in the wonder and sweetness of my surroundings I am aware of the passion and care of that has nourished this place and in turn, my self.

blueheron.jpgWhen I first came home to the Gila and this canyon nearly five years ago I was awed by the diversity of flowers and leaves, bugs and birds, and even by the wide array of sparkling stones that line the river and arroyos. Before arriving, I’d read the term semi-arid woodland and had imagined the landscape beautiful yet harsh, bereft of the soft mossy luxury of more northerly ecosystems. I was struck then, but the softness of the grass under the alder trees, by the ferns uncurling under cool rocks, by the abundance of edible wild greens, by the plethora of plant medicines and by the lush carpets of moss and lichen that form the forest floor in many places. In turn, the barbed heads of the cactus spines, the summer’s searing heat and the sharp edges of volcanic rock serve to balance all that lushness with a primal intensity. There is a delicate and dynamic balance of elements that profoundly effects the people who journey here. My own transformation and healing is tied inextricably to the magic and power of the land, and I can’t imagine myself apart from it.

beaverpond.jpgWhile I love every part and piece of this place, I most often find myself heading for the quiet and cover of the riverside. It’s there in the tangle of willow branches and under the canopy of cottonwood that I feel most like myself. Wild roses and monkeyflowers bloom along the banks and watercress trails across the water’s surface. Red osier dogwood and alders line the rock walls and blackberries trail beside wild olive trees. I have spent countless hours sitting and just listening or down on my knees crawling through the underbrush in search of some certain tiny herb. Curled up in a rock hollow, I sometimes play my flute just to hear the river answer back and then to allow the melodies blend and flow — my own song becoming part of the land’s vital music.

Over the years I have learned an immense amount from the canyon, not least from the trees that protect and feed soil, water, plants, animals and people alike. Their long lives and generous gifts provide me with instruction and example, and also serve as some of my most potent and valued medicines. Below you’ll find a small introduction to three of our primary riparian forest species, each one special and remarkable in its own right. These three are fairly common moisture loving trees and you may find that you have very similar species right in your own backyard!

The Trees

Cottonwood/Poplar/Aspen – Populus spp.

cottonwoodgiant.jpgAlthough the last week brought us several inches of snow and even more rain, the feeling of Spring is clearly in the air. Down by the river, the Cottonwood buds are sticky and resinous between my fingers and each fat bud is tipped by a golden drop of aromatic resin that glows in the late afternoon sunlight. They tastes bitter, spicy and rich on the tongue, with a bite that burns and tingles through the mouth. Even the freshly peeled bark is strongly scented and full of the pain relieving medicine these plants are known for. The bark and resin forms a primary part of my pain liniment and favorite salves. It is also a wonderful digestive bitter for all kinds of gut inflammation and a treatment for irritation and weakness of the bladder, prostate, uterus, ovaries and bowels. It has much in common with its cousin the willow, although cottonwood tends to be stronger in many cases. They vary in size from tiny saplings to huge grandmother trees. These older individuals often provide a unique habitat for many small plants like stinging nettle, golden smoke, wild rose, wax currant, rabbit tobacco and spanish needles that shelter beneath their shade.


Willow – Salix spp.
willowplanting.jpgThe prolific willows are also bearing nearly popping buds. Unlike the stickiness of the cottonwoods, the willows are soft and silky to touch, a fine white powder dusting their brilliantly colored branches. From gold to purple to vermillion to vivid blue, the willow bark is a rainbow among the white, brown and silver bark of the other riverside trees. Their scent is distinctive and sharp, something like a cross between crushed aspirin and green grass. And though their taste is bitter there is something refreshing about nibbling on the buds and tender bark of Spring willows. Rhiannon is especially fond of them, and will spend a fair amount of time in the next month busily chewing on tiny pieces of the trees. The willows can grow just about anywhere wet, and I’ve seen seemingly dead twigs sprout roots from their sides and grow into large trees. Their abundant roots help to stabilize sand and loose soil and provide habitat for a large number of songbirds (including the rare and endangered willow flycatcher), small animals and other plant life. Willow is well known as a pain reliever but really excels as a treatment for bladder infections, prostatitis, ovarian congestion or irritation (including pain from cysts) and as a first aid treatment for all kinds of wounds, scrapes and sores (especially in the mouth). The picture to the right shows Wolf planting one of the literally thousands of saplings he has planted in his time here.


Alder – Alnus spp.
alderbear.jpgSet along cliff walls and rock ledges, the silver skinned alders are an integral element of the riparian forest. Their tangled roots dip right into the river, forming an abstract web reminiscent of Celtic knotwork. Just under their light colored outer bark is an inner layer of crimson red that’s both shocking and beautiful when revealed by the deep cuts of bear claws and elk antlers. Besides their striking appearance, alders are also healers of the land, animals and humans. Serving as nitrogen fixers, they improve the quality of the soil and diversity to flourish in riparian areas that have been depleted by grazing or erosion. Here in the SW, the health of a river can be in part judged by whether or not alders are present, they have also long been considered an indication of clean, sweet water. Besides being healing to the land, they are also one of the most important medicine in my herbal practice. They are potent lymphatics and are also essential in the treatment of nearly any kind of infection (even antibiotic resistant staph and other bacteria), from UTIs to cellulitis to wounds that just won’t heal. Along with cottonwood, they form an important part of my favorite pain relieving liniment and are in nearly every salve I make. Alder is remarkable for most venomous stings and bites, and I often combine it with peach bark tincture for reactions or infections due to insect bites or stings.

You can read more about these amazing medicine trees on either The Medicine Woman’s Roots herbal blog or The Medicine Woman Tradition site.



All photography (c) 2009 Kiva Rose & Jesse Wolf Hardin

The Search for Home – Part 3: Sense of Place – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

The Search For Home
 Part 3: Sense of Place

by Jesse Wolf Hardin (


“…the loss of…. places makes up a loss of ‘world.’   Modern man becomes ‘worldless,’ and thus loses his own identity, as well as the sense of community and participation.  Existence is experienced as ‘meaningless,’ and man becomes ‘homeless’ because he does not any longer belong to a meaningful totality.  Moreover he becomes ‘careless,’ since he does not feel the urge to protect and cultivate a world any more.”    – Christian Norberg-Schultz

garden1-sm.jpgOur quest to rediscover home/wholeness involves a journey into the present, into the body, and finally into the land itself.

This “land” is fully everything not made alien by our kind, by our design.  First and foremost it is the very ground, undulating beneath the pavement, breathing deeply through the cracks in the sidewalks and the stretches of suburban yards.  It’s the flesh of plant and animal and rock, of all that’s come before us reconstituted into the heated soil of the garden and the dirt that always finds its way beneath our fingernails.  It is the ground that grows the food we eat, but even more close to home, it is what holds up our houses, the terra firma that supports our being and without which we would be left floating in the air, nothing more than an etheric possibility lost without the ground to manifest through and on.

No wonder when someone makes a statement without foundation in truth, it’s said to be “groundless.”  Before an electrician turns on the power, he first “grounds” it to the actual soil.  All life depends on the microbes active within the earth, and we’d quickly perish if for some reason they were to go extinct.  Like Macbeth trying in vain to wash his hands of any evidence of the unpleasant deed, we say we are “soiled” and scrub away at the dirt on our bodies, at the evidence of our organic source and eventual earthly conclusion.  When someone is particularly unassuming, relaxed, plain spoken and in obvious relationship with the rudiments of living, we say they are “down to earth.”

The quality, the expression and fact that is “land” is so much more than ground.  It includes and extends into the grass braving life in the tended dividers between lanes of speeding traffic, the trees reaching towards the sky, and into the birds that fly there now.  This land is not just a part of the whole, but claims as its own the giant sequoias and the fish of the sea, all the natural wonders of the world.  And you.  And me.  As humans it is we that are part and parcel of a greater entity, in a membership replete with inherent benefits and duties.

So just what is place, then?  Asked to give examples of places, most of us in modern society would respond with a list of cities (New York, Los Angeles), countries (the United States, Germany, India), or continents (North America, Europe),  essentially the monikers found on any world map.  It’s less likely we’ll mention the small town or inner city neighborhood where we grew up, as if to really be a “place” it must be large enough and distinct enough to be readily recognizable as such by others.  Fewer still would answer with a description of natural environs (southern Ozark bottom lands, Utah canyonlands, northern Pacific coastland), or a list of specific and personal points of our own connection/reconnection (the ocean cliffs below Trinidad, the grassy spot at the foot of the giant pine in so-and-so’s back yard…).

beaverspillway2-sm.jpgHad I been asked to name some places while still a young runaway, I would have said “The park, the local hangout, the beach at Zuma Cove,” and some years before that I’d have went on and on about “my room” and “my backyard,” or even more particularly, “under my bed, in the closet, behind Mom’s lilac bush.”  Before the names of distant cities and countries meant anything at all to us, “place” was experienced as those nested haunts where we could see out but nobody else could see in, tiny places the shifting boundaries of which one could reach out and touch, with its being and character known in this way.  For the young, places remain close-at-hand, personal, protective, and somewhat exclusive.  Places are special.

Whether large or small, whatever we come to think of as  a “place” will seem to have specific if mutable borders.  The secret habitats of our younger years were bounded by the walls of our closet and the light that slivers through the cracks in the door, by the leafy arms of concealing rhododendrons and the encircling boughs of park trees.  Neighborhoods are bordered by major boulevards or railroad tracks, by subtle or extreme shifts in the prevailing architecture, lifestyles or cultural makeup of the predominate population.  Likewise in Nature, where so-called life zones are demarcated by the at-times abrupt transition from timberless alpine peaks to evergreen forests, from piñon/juniper slopes to high desert or valley grassland.  Bioregions may contain one or several different life zones, but can be defined by the direction the rains run off its land, the major rivers or distinctive landforms that seem to distinguish one place from another.   In addition, every region is defined by the character and effects of its “places of power”: specific mountain ranges, lakes or ancient sites long acknowledged as places conducive to the focusing of intent, spiritual revelation or inner peace.  Indeed, their power seems more accessible, our experience more intense because of their unusual topography, localized energies, or the effects of the acknowledgment, devotion and guardianship of countless generations of indigenous peoples… but the ability of the land to affect us, any land, depends largely on the receptivity of the individual.  Our experience of the power of place intensifies in direct proportion to our ability and willingness to perceive, to feel, to heal.  Once we’re truly open to it, there is no building that can defeat its pull, no fragment of uncovered land no matter how small or contained, unable to gift us with inspiration and power.

(We welcome you to share this piece as you like)

(Photos of Animá Center (c)2008 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)