Archive for February, 2009

Climate Change in the Gila

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Climate Change in the Gila

by Jesse Wolf Hardin (

yuccaknot2sm.jpgIf you talk to any of the good ol’ boys living in the sparsely populated Gila Bioregion, the majority will assure you that global warming is a false threat concocted by conniving liberals to control the lifestyles of average truck driving Americans.  Debating the science is about as useful in such situations, as debating politics or religion.  It is certainly true that we are in the midst of ongoing natural climate cycles that have more or less predictably reoccurred throughout the history of the earth.  It is just as correct that civilization is the cause of great changes in these natural systems and cycles, and that it is conscious beings who know better that have the responsibility for reversing these mostly harmful effects.  Denial never serves anyone, not abused spouses rationalizing that everything is alright, and not inhabitants of this world pretending nothing dangerous is going on and imagining we have no part to play in a cure.

What we mortals are able to see with our eyes never tells the entire story, and admittedly personal experience and observation reveals a number of seeming contradictions and inconsistencies.  In January of 2008 this river canyon had the first major Winter flood event I’ve seen in 30 years of tending the place, while this January saw hardly any rain or snow.  I’ve read about record cold and wet in some places this year so far, as well as record drought in others.  The general direction of temperatures here in the mountainous Southwest, however, has been fairly steadily hotter, with Winters getting increasingly shorter in wet periods as in dry.

When I first followed the call to the Gila in 1975, my first wife and I barely survived a Christmas with mountain drifts reminiscent of the Northern Rockies.  In that period we slept with her kids under blankets and a buffalo robe, in an uninsulated cedar shake camper atop a ‘68 Jeep J-series pickup truck, and so headed down to the Rio Grande Valley for refuge.  Even there, ice from this storm made the streets impassable for any but 4-wheel drive vehicles, with temps dropping to well below zero.  While Winters generally seemed to be getting milder, the Gila was still blanketed with heavy snow throughout the 1980’s, leaving a thick pack at the higher elevations (7 to 12,000 feet).  Here in the canyon, at the 5800 feet height, we could always count on a few storms producing 6 to 9 inches of snow, beginning as early as mid November, and sometimes surprising us with the swirling flakes as late as April.  January through March were quite cold, with our sunny afternoons seldom topping 50 degrees, and a beautiful snowscape remained intact on the north facing slope even when Ol’ Sol melted everything on this side of the river.

Beginning in the ‘90s, snows would sometimes not arrive until January, and I would find myself still going barefoot in December.  Now in mid February 2009, we are already pulling out of a Winter of very few short lived snows, afternoons are already hitting 70 degrees, the cottonwoods are ready to leaf a month ahead of time, flowers are bursting left and right, and the first of innumerable Summer bird species have migrated home.  There have been few days when I needed to put boots on, and then it was more due to the mud than the cold.  The trend could be lovely, if it continues to include increased moisture sucked in from the warm Southern Pacific, encouraging the now documented northward spread of tropical parrot species into the usually too-arid state of New Mexico, making it hard for us to get supplies across the river to the Sanctuary more of the time but otherwise a boon to plant and animal life.  Or it could turn challenging instead, by shifting into a lengthy drought phase such as forced the ancient natives from the valleys up here to the mountains… and then forced the residents of this amazing place to leave it for other regions as much as they must have wished they could stay.

The changes, whatever they will be, will likely be brought about in part by people living far from the Gila, by politicians and commuters, in spite of the best efforts of activists and largely because of the failure of everyone else to act.  The changes in Gila climate will determine the number and severity of forest fires, and the spread or retreat of native, rare and medicinal plants.  They will either feed or dry up the relatively scarce area watercourses, and thus will test our ability and resolve to remain here through thick and thin, in abundance and through scarcity.  These changes will be noted, learned from and adapted to.  More than that, they will be our reminder of how the intent, choices and acts of people in distant states and countries can impact the experiences and even survivability of people and other species here in the most remote mountains of the American Southwest… and thus how what we do here at the Animá Learning Center must also have the potential to affect people and places far from our reality here.

 (yucca photo (c) 2008 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

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 Gifting of the Bones: Using the Animá Runes

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

The Gifting of the Bones:
Tools of Perception, Tools of Choice

By Jesse Wolf Hardin (


Excerpted from the practitioner’s Manual for the Gifting Bones – a unique Animá Nature-Informed Runic System



Reaching into the Gifting Bones bag, one reaches deep into the soul and soil of authentic self, place and purpose…..

They rest not just in graveyards but in everyday places, resisting time’s slow decay with unblemished shine and undiminished pluck.  They make their homes beneath ours, under the very foundations of our concert halls and workplaces, our roads and schools, their testimony barely hushed by a layer of dirt, lying ready for the annual Spring flood to bare their impossible whiteness in the wash adjacent to the children’s favorite playground.  Long hidden from civil sight, these tributes to life and reminders of death periodically escape their internment, sticking like gothic signposts out of acequia clay or estuary muck, from steaming bog, boreal or backyard mud as out of the fertile soil of our collective imagination.  Truth is, there are bones everywhere, and bones never lie.
These bones are the revered remnants of our ancestors as well as the pink-hued fossil bones of ancient dinosaurs, the delicate structures that gave shape to fish and frog and the huge thighbones of those easily-domesticated herbivores that our kind regularly feeds upon.  Femur, scapula and vertebrae vibrate with a cellular memory of clinging muscle, of wing and fin, leaps and jumps, the test of carriage and stretch of growth.  Composites of the minerals of an enchanted planet, bones can ring like stone when jangled together, singing witness to decades, centuries or eons past.
It is no wonder that paleontologists and archaeologists look to them to tell the story of changing forms and passing time, species distribution and cultural development, or that forensic scientists study their composition for the code that describes a missing person’s age, their life, their time and means of demise.  And no wonder, perhaps, that for thousands of years people of myriad races and places have gathered tiny telltale bones into cryptically woven cloth or drawstring sacks made from the scrotum of a jaguar or the hide of a deer.  Often they would be handled for a lengthy mindful period before being removed, rolled between sure, wrinkled fingers and then tossed gently onto the earthen floors of African clay lodges and fur-covered Siberian yurts, rolled out onto embroidered hemp or smoke-tanned hide in front of druidic rock sanctuaries and vine-laced jungle huts.  With attendant songs and prayers they would be poured from the wrinkled hands of shamans and Medicine Men, Medicine Women and curanderas, seekers and healers, acolytes speaking in hundreds of different tongues about similar personal and community needs, the evident lessons of nature and ways of spirit.  They might begin by lighting a smudge bundle of Western sage, Central American copal or Siberian cedar, with the intent of washing away negative energy, preoccupation and the distracting dialogue of imposing minds.  Further preparation includes setting aside expectation and control, focusing hearts and wills on but a single quandary or concern, and opening up to any potential gifts or unexpected revelations.  They may practice “empty mind” with eyes skyward or closed, careful not to physically or psychically influence the fall of the bones lest the message be hopelessly skewed or irretrievably lost.  In the design of the bones’ fall, in the different patterns they make each time they drop, or in the position of the icons carved into their sides, the soothsayer looks for indications or insights.
Regardless of the apparent result of the toss, the bones have likely always been a reminder of the imperative of choice, while bringing to light the fluctuating variables of the situation, calling attention to relevant criteria and outstanding priorities, and emphasizing the responsibility to understand, decide and do.  No matter what the particular concern or focus of the person reading the bones, the hoped for effect would be a powerfully moving intensification of awareness and clarity, informing conscious decision and consequential action.
In other cultures and other times, the tools for this purpose could be made of natural stone instead, to much the same effect.  Among the best known examples are the Nordic or Viking Runes, a bagful of stones inscribed on one side with ancient ritual symbols, and popular to this day.  Runic or scripted stones in fact represent the earliest example of symbolic writing in northern Europe and Scandinavia, carved onto rock columns, boulders or monoliths.  The word stems from the Gothic runa, meaning “mysterious” and “secret.”  The influence of these symbols on preliterate humankind was immense.  With their power to convey meaning they served as natural cairns for the storage and dissemination of insight and intuition.  If a particular symbol evoked the spirit of a certain animal, characteristic or skill, then its blind choosing could be said to infer, suggest or predict that characteristic’s immanent manifestation.  The development of the runes paralleled that of the I Ching in China, where yarrow stalks were originally tossed and spread instead.  Both of these oracle systems remain popular to this day.
The eyebrow raising results of drawing or casting are more than chance and any correlations more than coincidence, their being affected by existing energetic patterning and momentum as well as by the person doing the pull or toss.  They do not, however, prophecy a predetermined outcome.  Intuitive and instructional tools serve personal growth and planetary healing by helping us to focus on the primary energetics and dynamics of present time, all of which are influences on or factors of every single situation.  They inform process and means, exciting our involvement and response, empowering us to help create unfolding reality.  And they illuminate patterns that – when extended out into the future – fairly predict upcoming events.   Of these, the nature-informed Animá Gifting Bones have in our experience been one of the most if not the most unfailingly telling.

The Gifting Bones Reveal Themselves

Since childhood I’ve been sought out for intuitive advice, with my elders sitting down to share what hurt or perplexed them and seeking my response.  Even in my brief outlaw biker phase, it was to me that the seemingly fearless came to, when the need arose to expose their needs and vulnerabilities and bare their souls.  Shortly after moving here and long before accepting a role as teacher, women and men from around the country mysteriously started to show up here at this special place as if on a personal quest or spiritual search, describing bizarre ways that they heard about either me or this enchanted river canyon, or else feeling drawn without knowing what or who they might encounter upon their arrival.  Throughout most of four decades I shared what I saw and felt in counsel sessions and then in workshops, intuiting truths, needs, factors and problems and offering illumination and guidance without any physical tools, props or aids.  As a kid I disliked the “Ouija Board” because of its commercial witchy appeal, and considered it all too easily deceived by the tension of muscles acting out our own unspoken wills.  Still, those times I came near someone else’s well-worn Tarot cards I invariably laid out an accurate mapping of my evolving situation, and the toss of square-holed Chinese coins always amazed me with the peculiar resonance of their reading.
Then in 1995, a friend and supporter asked for a special favor.  He wanted me to carve out of antler a modern “Celtic,” “channeled” system I won’t disparage by naming, and it was the first thing he had ever asked of me after years of tithing to and supporting the work of the Animá Learning Center.  It would have been easiest to simply have carved or cast the pieces as described in the accompanying materials, satisfying him but not my conscience.  The over 100 symbols were exhaustive, but my main objection was with many of their assigned meanings.  I couldn’t honorably make him a set that not only felt devised and patent, but that promoted such unsettling qualities as “transcendence” from earthly desire and “liberation” from the soiled and entrapping body, or that assigned corrupted “amorality” to the natural world.  For weeks I felt torn between my allegiance to truth and my desire to show my gratitude, no doubt prompting what proved to be a most illustrative dream.
Generally my dreamworld is inconsequential and mundane, causing me to expend very little thought on their interpretation, and I have not had and remembered more than two truly insightful or prophetic “power dreams” in my entire life.  That made it all the more powerful, when I arose an hour before first light able and excited to recall every detail of my sleep-time vision.  The vivid recollection began with the image of a large boned elder woman reaching into the soft fertile ground of what could have been a weathered riverbank.  I watched as she pulled out what seemed to be 18 cream colored pieces of oblong ivory or bone, about 3 inches long and polished smooth by what I believed was their frequent and intimate handling.  Each bore a black icon engraved on one side and a red symbol on the other, for a total of 36 distinctive images that she drew from and arrayed from left to right.  I awoke unable to recall those symbols (and in fact took weeks to design them), and yet I came out of the sleep state with a deep working understanding of each of their meanings and how to read and interpret them.  For the following several hours I wrote nonstop most of the Gifting Bones practitioner’s manual, impassioned and impelled.
One could describe these Bones as contemporary Gaian Runes, giving voice to the lessons of nature, earth and spirit – of the Anima, the animating and connective force of all life.  They invite conscious recognition of the ways in which other elements and energies affect us, and the often subtle but noxious ways we affect them.  In accepting the empowering gift of awareness and perspective that the Bones provide, we are called to commit to conscious, appropriate action in turn.  As soon as a situation is made wholly clear enough to see, we re-form into active rather than inert agents, become participants rather than ingredients, healers and co-creators instead of victims.
In Animá we teach that every moment is a “decisive moment.”  And the Gifting Bones demonstrate that there are no real quandaries in life, only choices.  The Bones can be thought of as a symbiotic set of perceptual potentials intrinsic to or applicable to the current situational context.  They are one way to bring to light any hidden variables in and around us, clarifying the nature of each inevitable choice we wittingly or unwittingly make… no matter what our culture or race, philosophy or practice, religion or beliefs, lifestyle or needs.

Construction, Sides, Colors & Potentials

The Gifting Bones currently in production are lovingly made of fired porcelain clay, a natural material resembling the tone of bone or ivory.  While breakable if dropped from a height onto a hard surface, they are otherwise durable, and their natural tone resembles that of ivory or bone.  The type of material was certainly significant in my dream, yet we’ve strangely found the system effective no matter what it is constructed of.  My earliest set was made of stove-baked clay, and I’ve seen attractive models carved out of wood, bone and antler slices.  Readings seem accurate and powerful even when the pieces are cut out cardboard, the one requirement being that they’re all of the same shape and weight, and that any engravings be fine so that pieces can’t be differentiated and selected tactually.  It’s crucial that the person making the draw choose according to intuitive “feel” only.
Unlike with the Nordic Runes, there are two sides to each of the Bones.  The side that is placed face up is the primary influence and significator in the moment and situation.  The characteristics and influence of the reverse side should be noted, as it was likely dominant before, and may prove ascendant again later.  The side facing down exists not in opposition (such as “good” is to “bad”), but in response and balance, as the other half of a complete dynamic and potential.  The attention to both sides recognizes that there are no such things as dualities in unreconstructed nature, and that all elements and patterns in the natural world ultimately interact in ways that substantially benefit the whole.
The engraved symbol on one side of each Bone is filled with dark red, and the other side with pitch black.  Red is the color of passion, of blood spilled in a medicine woman’s moon hut, or issuing from the wounds of the determined or heroic.  It is overt, the catalyst in the alchemical brew, the wind that fills the sails, the pain that drives us forward and the bliss that rewards us.  The energy of the red sides tend to be more motive, directional and assertive, prompting movement, action and follow-through, embodying the quality of fire and hence of transformation.  Black, on the other side, speaks from the deepest and most secretive place within us, where power issues from receptivity, patience, form, relationship and loyalties rather than in transition and accomplishment, where the wisdom of the earth and ages is imparted through stillness, silence, and a great purposeful listening.  It is the core and essence where we withdraw to re-consider and re-collect, to be rested and nourished, root and swell, gestate and then sprout.  It is the place where giving is often best accomplished by allowing ourselves to be given to.

Drawing Your Gift

Make yourself comfortable on the floor or ground, spreading before you a cloth or hide that is special and meaningful on which to lay the Bones you draw.  To make way for instruction, the practitioner deliberately derails habitual ways of looking at self and world and suspends disbelief, the linear experiencing of time and the cultivated veil of logic, wordy and clamorous thought… and with this comes a clearing of the lens, an opening of broader and deeper bodily channels of perception and heightened attunement to the instructive world.  This “opening up” may make us feel vulnerable, and so is easiest practiced in a place that is familiar and private, either alone or with trusted, non-cynical friends.  In such a state it is possible to see in the tangle of roots at your feet, in the progression of shapes in the clouds, in the appearance of animals or the draw of the Bones, the keys to greater awareness and understanding.  In this state, one could draw from any of the dozens of variations of Tarot decks, toss coins for the I Ching or pull from someone’s sack of Runes and uncover information more incredibly relevant to the current situation that could ever be explained by mere happenstance.  In any other frame of mind/heart, one could indefinitely pull from the finest deck or corded bag and still get readings with scant discernible relationship to the moment in which they were drawn.
When ready to proceed, close or avert you eyes, slide your hand into the bag and begin to unhurriedly feel your way through its contents.  Intimately handling them for a period of time appears to increase the relevance of the draw.  Certain Bones may feel “warmer” than the others, stubbornly wedge between fingers, seem to beg for attention or otherwise call out to be the first one pulled.  When it feels right, grasp the piece selected between finger and thumb.  Remove and lay it down in one single motion the way that feels most natural, without looking to see which side you are placing up.  Pull a total of four, taking your time between, and laying them out next to each other, from left to right.
While I only talk about the first 4 positions, the potentials of each of the 18 have the capacity to inform and thus benefit any current situation.  If our focus was impeccable, and we drew out and laid down in order every single Bone, the first pulled would be the most relevant of all, and each one thereafter slightly less so until the last.  There are no entirely inapplicable potentials.
As alluded to earlier, every moment of our existence – no matter how seemingly rote or banal – is nonetheless a decisive moment, a moment of choice whether we act on it or not, a lived second helping determine not only our individual present and future but also the future of other people and species.  Our contribution and effect lies in what we don’t do as well as what we do.  Making the best choices depends on having the clearest view, from every side.  The Gifting Bones serve well in this capacity, as mirrors of the multidimensional present, the honest if not always preferred reflections of the real choices at hand.

The Four Primary Positions:

You can think of each of the primary four positions as windows into the truths of your relationships in the immediate moment.  The first position, for the first Bone drawn, speaks of the relationship between the complex and at times conflicting elements of your authentic and whole personal self.  The second position represents the relationship between you and the significant other humans affecting you in the present, whether they’re nearby physically or simply weighing heavy on your mind.  The third position encompasses and influences the other two, and speaks to your relationship to the greater natural world.  The fourth position relates to every other, but refers most directly to your immediate relationship with the contiguous and continuous but ineffable whole, with the enlivening Anima and connective Spirit however you might envision it.  Each Bone is cast before you as a stone into the water, revealing an endless progression of ripples, concentric circles radiating from the center/self, overlapping each other, propelling each other forward to the far shore.


The Gifting Bones are a bag of ever-accessible potentials, born of our primeval connection to the Anima, to spirit by whatever name you choose to give it, and to this living planet we are forever an integral part of.  They stand against convenient ignorance and willful forgetting, and for increased awareness, revitalized life and conscious choice.  Draw from them whenever needed, or simply to mark a significant moment or transition.  When falling apart, coming to a pivotal juncture, or simply finding oneself in a period of pronounced growth or transition. Whenever a situation can benefit from clarity, or a decision has to be made.  When you have mixed feelings or conflicting aims.  But do not disperse their message and power by using them constantly, nor waste their power dowsing for answers to trivial or self indulgent questions.  Let them rest and reset in the dark of their special bag’s interior, like aged bones ensconced in soil until their eventful uncovering and then – at the most significant time, in the most precipitous moment – are revealed in all their meaning.
Of course there are bones of a sort everywhere, all in their own way waiting to be read.  Living bones supporting our bodies as we walk, squat and make love, their structure enabling us to work, play and celebrate.  Real bones, and symbolic ones.  Bone flowers, their story blooming.  Antlers to pierce and open the heart.  A bed of bones.  An art display of bones.  An ecology of bones.  A rocking band of madly dancing bones.  A sensual touching of bones.  An invocation and song of bones…
    And a bag of Bones… Gifting.



Beautiful sets of porcelain Gifting Bones crafted by Resolute and Marble Man are now available from the Books Page of the Animá Center site.  We hope they will prove a true blessing to you on your path of awareness, healing and growth, illuminating the vital present and thereby helping you make decisions affecting not only your life but our collective future.  And may their use aid you in your heroic quest to become an ever more conscious gift to this giving, magical world… helping empower you to fulfill your personal most meaningful purpose.

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

No Going Back – Viking Ships & Half Hearted Swings – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

No Going Back: Viking Ships & Half-Hearted Swings

by Jesse Wolf Hardin (


Wildness is ultra-expressive kids, unbowed women and unpaved nature, the irrepressible dandelion and the pet-scaring coyotes skulking within the city walls.  It is also a state where our needs take precedence over custom and schedule, where we are self defined rather than defined by other’s expectations… where we respond to our instincts and hearts, act to realize our hopes, live our wildest dreams.

While I didn’t think of it as such at the time, traipsing to New Mexico with hardly even the price of gas was surely a wild thing for me to do, a rejection of not only the normal, safe way of doing things but of the mindset that there is anything in the world an impassioned body cannot accomplish with the right balance of impassioned effort or inexplicable miracle or magic.  It was this that I drove my school bus camper home onto the land that became the Animá Sanctuary, across the fabled seven river crossings from a road and into what had once been a Mogollon Indian ceremonial center.  It was wildly unreasonable but true to heart for me to cover the earnest money required for my very earnest offer, by selling both my motorcycle and the engine out of our bus — the absolutely only other transportation that we had.


Years later I read about how ancient Viking warriors had disembarked on a raid of and English or other enclave, only to find themselves confronted by a much larger contingent of defenders.  The chiefs would on occasion set fire to their own ships’ sails rather than order a retreat, thereby ensuring that their men would give their all, guaranteeing there would be no “half-hearted swings.”  By then I had covered the bus with wooden cabin sides and trimmed it with a river-gazing porch, dressing if not totally concealing the metal form that had been both vehicle and home.  On the front I attached, for the general benefit of sentiment, history, my own gratification, and the curiosity of any guest to actually notice – a metal plaque embossed with an image of the Viking’s iconic shield-strapped vessel.  It is a reminder of the importance of taking risks in order to fully live the adventure of our life and purpose, whether that means selling everything to buy land, or renting a studio to teach dance, or writing blogs publicly telling the truth and struggle of your growth for the first time.  Daring to wildly stretch, grow, love and manifest, savor and celebrate

By the way, originally the word “viking” was a verb not a noun, and certainly not yet the generic term for a group of diverse and far flung Nordic tribes.  It was a verb, a word denoting action… meaning not to raid or plunder, but simply (and boldly) to venture.

To read a full detailed history of the founding and development of the Animá Center & Sanctuary, please go to the Archives list on the left side of this page and click on the Animá History heading under Teachings & Practice.  Thank you.

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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)

The Search for Home – Part 2: The Call to Roam, The Call to Stay – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

chaco-dagger.jpgThe Search For Home

Part 2: The Call to Roam, The Call to Stay

Excerpt from the upcoming book Home by Jesse Wolf Hardin (


“Men feel, in growing numbers, the drawing of a net of dependency against which something wild in their natures still struggles as desperately as trapped fish in a seine.”
-Loren Eiseley

I have a few friends who spent their first eighteen years in one neighborhood, in a single house before moving out on their own.  But as I write this, the average American is switching their primary residence once every three to four years.  Stretching the median myself, by the time I “ran away” for the last time at age sixteen, I had lived in, and tried to attach myself to eighteen or more different places.  Our family moved from one to the other for any number of reasons, such as to get closer to a new job or further from our past.  Because we found a better deal or warmer or cooler climate.  Because the landlord decided he wanted the house for his daughter and ran a hose into the bedroom to run us out.  Because another rental was sold out from under us to make way for an apartment complex, once its aging owner couldn’t cover the ballooning taxes.  There were always lots of reasons for us to move, but most played on the word “too,” pronounced emphatically in recurrent moments of dissatisfaction:  because the rooms were “too small,” the neighbors “too noisy,” the crime rate “too high.”   Each house or town was in turn pronounced too big or small, too rainy or dry, crowded or inconvenient, built-up or isolated, rich or impoverished, degraded or pretentious.  It seemed that the grass was “always greener on the other side of the fence” (or at least, that a yard of colored gravel would be an improvement).  Not that the complaints weren’t qualitatively justified, but one tended to act less out of reason than the unflappable belief that every move provides improvement, on the way to the discovery of an ideal place.

Mom was amazed, of course, at how long I’ve spent now in a single area, in the same canyon, on the same land, in the same cabin– the place where every single one of these photos were taken.  She was especially surprised having never stayed anywhere longer than a couple years at a stretch in her entire life, remaining some places less than a month, and averaging over two moves per year.  It amazes me as well, when I reflect on my first few years on my own, a period during which I considered myself a “gypsy.”

There’s admittedly a degree of humor in this scene: a red-bearded, motorcycle-riding American beach-boy identifying with the dark-tressed outcasts of old Europe.  I’d nonetheless  been taken in by the movie images of skulking fortune tellers and twirling fire-lit damsels, silk headbands and gilded daggers, and wild-eyed horses pulling their homes-on-wheels from the shadows of one town or forest to the next.  I felt a particular attraction to the round-topped wooden wagons with the colorfully painted wheels, filled with everything a family could possibly need, ready at a moment’s notice to be battened down and pulled towards the next promising vista.  I later tried for the same look and feel, with a cedar shake camper perched on a Jeep pickup truck, and later in a school bus art gallery.

In the Gypsies I felt I’d found a people in love with the raw sensations of life, feeding on a headwind the way wolves snap and grin at the falling snow.  A people who valued liberty over comfort and ease, adventure over accumulation, peasants who found more gold in the progressive sunsets than in any prince’s purse.  A culture where kids were assigned the responsibilities of adults, and adults were encouraged to never stop being kids.  I knew that their constant traveling could well be the result of being chased from one homeland to the next, yet it never occurred to me that the force that drove them forward might be a deep-seated yearning for the Balkans where they lived for centuries, or for the Indian subcontinent they inhabited before that.  To my youthful mind the Gypsies were the archetypal nomads, freely choosing to never settle down, to never see an end to their whirling-mandolin wanderings…

My Celtic and Nordic ancestors ranged far and wide, but staked out in their time  homelands they dutifully lived and died for.  The numerically and militarily superior Roman forces faced an imposing Celtic host who often wore nothing but loose cloaks of fur, armed with nothing but the most primitive weapons and an overwhelming sense of allegiance to place.   For my teenage years, a Harley-Davidson served as my dragon-ship as I sailed off into uncharted waters, but unlike my elders, I embarked with no consideration of a way back.

The expression “home is where the heart is” appealed to me at this age, probably because my heart found itself warmed by so many different wonderful places.  But what I preferred to say was “home is where you hang your hat.”  Or “home is where you lay your head”— on strange couches, on pillows of barn hay or boughs of pine.  I even wrote it on my clothes, the way other kids squiggled skulls and hearts full of initials on their jean legs, “ruining” the Levi jacket my mother sent me.  Philosophical graffiti.  Points of reference for the intentionally homeless.

In my travels I fell in with love the giant moss-laden fir trees of Oregon and Washington, the archaic geology of the Tennessee hills, and the laconic pace of the Rio Grande at Big Bend where it winds between the United States and Mexico.  I slept in Midwestern rainstorms beneath a tarp stretched over my motorcycle, made the most of Utah’s caves during the hottest part of a summer, and accepted refuge from the worst blizzard on record inside a windowless Arizona dynamite shack (thankfully emptied of its most explosive contents by a miner sympathetic to our plight).  In the process I found myself becoming attached to particular regions, those with a characteristic feel and energy that resonated with my own.

While every place is glorious in its own way, offering its own unique expression of landform and lifeform, there were still certain locations that stood out for me, affecting me deeper, and evoking a deeper response:  that cloister of crystal clear rivers known as the “Klamath Knott,” those parts of Colorado’s San Juan mountains still unimpacted by trails, and the ponderosa covered lava heaves of the Mogollon Rim.  I’d learned to listen carefully and appreciatively to the varied voices of the land, the deep baritone monologue of Louisiana bayous and the shrill communication of  wind-whipped Wyoming mountain tops.  It was clear, nonetheless, that there were particular places which not only spoke to me but made demands– places that solicited commitment and provoked loyalty.  Promises of a potential relationship.  Entreaties.  Voices of the land that clearly said to me, “Stay.  Please, stay.”

This is without a doubt the power that inspires the traveler to slow down and notice more, the weary migrant to finally settle down in one place, the seed to send its root in the direction of the core.  It is perhaps this more than rational choice or casual circumstance that puts the brakes on spinning wheels, soothes the beat of restless rambling hearts, and that seduces folks on their way to somewhere else to stop and run their hands into its warm, giving earth.   For all the stimulation our traveling provides, we may eventually find we’re unable to give wholly of ourselves to so many different suitors for our time and hearts.

A part of me still feels like a “gypsy,” an animal driven by a maddening wanderlust, and a product of a society of discontent.  But I have grown to mistrust such predilection, to resent dissatisfaction, to commit wholly to those I love most and the place I cannot live without.

It seems our kind are forever under the influence of two opposing instincts:  the urge to keep on moving, and the call to remain.  In the first case, we’d be wise to connect deeply to the spirit of every diverse place we come into contact with, finding home in each.  In the latter, we agree to a special relationship with but a single home, demonstrating our affection through our artful care of it.  Through our attentions, rituals and celebrations.  And by staying.

When we’re truly healthy again, home again, we’ll do both.  Then and only then, will our search be at an end.

(to be continued)