Archive for September, 2009

Serpent & Shadow: A Defense of Snakes & Darkness – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Introduction:  The following vintage piece has been rewritten for our upcoming book of Animá, a discussion about the most misunderstood and misrepresented of reptiles, but also about what our fear of these secretive creatures says about ourselves.  It isn’t just the possibility of a serpent’s bite that scares us, we also tend to be terrified of whatever we can’t clearly see or understand, the darkness and the unknown.  This was driven home for me again yesterday on the trail by our cabin, when I involuntarily jumped as a small gopher snake wriggled up and over my bare foot… and when I then hesitated to pick her up, even though I could clearly see by the rounded shape of the head that it was a nonpoisonous species.  Before being released back into the wild, our little friend proved to be not only passive but downright affectionate… an agent not of cold blooded evil but of the insistent anima, of life awakening into life.  -Wolf

Serpent & Shadow

By Jesse Wolf Hardin


Our lives are marked by moonless nights and sun drenched days as well as what artists call “chiaroscurro”: the delicate interplay of dark and light brought about by subtly shifting shadows.  We paint with light as much as pigment, but make sense of what is illuminated one must explore the unlit depths of meaning and being.  The dark serves us in the form of insightful pain, comforting silence, the stillness between periods of tiring activity, the death that begets life, and the blackness that gives birth to light.  In spite of these facts, there is no element or force of nature more commonly associated with evil in Western societies than the dark hours of night, and no creature more demonized than the dreaded snake we imagine lying in wait for us there.  To the degree that I have a different understanding of them – of learning from them and accessing their power – it is perhaps because of decades of deepened intimacy with a canyon as yet untouched by a bulb’s glare, and time spent in close association with the serpents housed there.

It was over twenty years ago that I spotted a rattlesnake swaddled in shadow a mere few feet from one of my playing infant daughters.  I choked back the urge to shout a warning, afraid of causing her to panic and thereby alarm the four-feet long beast.  It happened to be a black-tailed rattler, a species found only in a few mountainous areas of S.W. New Mexico and S.E. Arizona.  But while known to be less aggressive than its cousin the diamondback, its poison is every bit as potent.  A single bite to a child’s calf so far from medical assistance, could possibly mean her life.  To my horror, she continued walking in its direction, singing a favorite song.  A heartbeat later she stepped directly on the outstretched creature, and then over and past it without it ever coiling.  I watched her go on her way, and then came as close to the unperturbed animal as I dared in order to proffer thanks to the reptile that had for whatever reasons opted not to strike.


My daughter demonstrated not only a level of blissful ignorance, but also her freedom from fear of the invisible and the not yet known.  She learned to hesitate and shutter but not until she was older and in the city.  At that stage she explored every dark nook, and still laughed as she stumbled without a flashlight in the thickest of night.  We adults, on the other hand, all too often freeze at the blurred edge of the moonless evening or the sharp perimeter of the street or yard’s security light.  We might mistakenly attribute both the snake and the blackness to evil entities, due to the way each reminds us of our vulnerability or triggers bone deep flight from the realization of our mortal life’s end.  Or we may have learned to accept our biological limits as well as value what we neither can see yet nor understand, but what is most likely to send chills up our spine is still the terror of the unknown and the nearly universal fear of change.

No wonder it arouses strong feelings and critical dogma.  The snake is an often concealed agent of mystery and danger, a representative of the shadow world and cross cultural symbol of unavoidable transition as it yearly sheds its skin.  The meaning of life itself can be discerned from a reading of its meaningful molt, with the spirit and anima continuing on as our flesh and energy is repeatedly cycled back into the earthen alchemical cauldron from which it sprouted and branched.  The snake’s molting skin is emblematic of our temporal creations and fragile illusions, as well as those exactly defined personas we pray will outlast all transition.


In societies where nature is generally considered to be base, dirty or evil, the serpent is reviled.  Indigenous peoples, peoples living near to the land, have never been as quick to abhor the rodent-reducing reptiles slipping through their granary roofs.  Examples of snakes treated as a positive, informative embodiment of life are found among many primal cultures: coiled within the womb of the African “black goddess,” wrapped around the Celtic and Teutonic effigies, held aloft in rainbow colors by the carved image of the goddess Una in aboriginal Australia.  The Sumerian “Great Mother Serpent of Heaven.”  The Venezuelan Yaruro’s “Puana the Snake,” creator of all.  The writhing passion of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of the Maya.  Snake-hearted Paghat of the Near East.  The serpent and the planet-body, the snake and the feminized Earth were seen as one indivisible entity.  Thus for early Egyptians, the symbol of the cobra served as the hieroglyph for the word “Goddess,” and from her comes the egg, “Maat”:  a word meaning both “matter” and “mother.”

The rattler is prominent in Native American mythology, marked by its propensity to warn us first with the distinctive buzz of its tail, the buttons of its rattle made of the remnants of its shed skins.  They were often revered as agents of the Spirit who could avenge human affronts.  Bites were punishment for sacrilege, or the harming of a fellow snake.  The Comanche, on the other hand, would only kill one if it failed to rattle, presumably on a ninja mission of vengeance.  Other tribes such as the Talawa and Tarasco wouldn’t hurt one under any circumstance.  The Luiseno and Shoshoni regarded a snake-bit camp dog as a sign of failed spiritual duties.  Most refer to them respectfully as “Grandmother” or “Grandfather,” in deference to their spiritual significance and power.  Rattlers repay the Chitimacha of Louisiana for a historic favor by guarding their houses while they’re away.

Of all the known American rituals involving serpents, the Hopi Snake Dance is the most widely known.  Many of the animals they use are rattlers, held in the teeth at a point five or six inches behind the head.  This portion of the dance occupies less than a half-hour of the nine day ceremony for rain, but fascinates the snake fearing ethnologists and jumpy observers.  They’re pulled from the enclosure called a Kisi one at a time by costumed participants until each one has been danced with, then they are placed in a circle of sacred cornmeal by the Antelope priests.  Women scatter more white cornmeal over them, before they’re grabbed by the Snake priests in great handfuls and carried to the four directions to be released.  It’s then the snakes’ job to reenter the underworld, and there ask the Thunder Gods to bring the much-needed rain.


By affirming snakes’ right to exist, we affirm proliferate, sentient, outlaw life.  Sensual life.  Sexual life.  In the Yogic traditions the energy of life and transformation is known as Kundalini, serpent energy that rests at the base of the spine in the sexual chakra.  It spirals in a timeless state, a unifying fire that extends upwards to that atrophied portion of the modern human brain, the source of shared instincts and dreamtime appropriately labled our reptilian cortex.  The spine is the conduit for the life-force, the trunk of the sacred tree.  It’s the arousal of the Kundalini serpent power that reunites the false dualities of good versus evil, spirit versus matter, body versus soul.  It’s our conscious retrieval by the Garden of Oneness.   It’s the re-membering of our selves, of our selves as the planet-body Gaia.  With Kundalini we have both human nature and greater nature on the rise.  With the Greek Oroboros – the snake with its tail in its mouth – we have a complete circle, nature forever consuming itself without diminishment, a corporal as well as spiritual homecoming.

Here is the source of mantism, telepathy, intuition and healing, the power of the Earth to know and to cure itself.  It is the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, breaking free from the hardening concrete. In spite of what you may have been told, the snake is velvet soft rather than slimy.  It is a blessing.  It is a teacher.  It is a manifestation of anima and spirit provoking us to wake up and pay attention to the world under and around us, including those scaled and voiceless soothsayers living nearest it.  We sing for her, stoop to apologize for any mistreatment and to praise her for her teacher’s role.

The serpent and dark are not threats so much as opportunities, with all manifestations of nature in and around us ready to inform and empower, and with darkness being the fecund womb from which all possibilities arise.  Both the shadow world and its resident snakes are in ways always right here in front of us, unseen among the dried grasses and lichen-covered rock of our still wild souls.  They wait not be to ambush us, but to welcome us back to the real world of inter-coursing dark and light.  To wholeness and balance, to the wondrous cycling of death and life.


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(All photos (c)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

River Dreams: A Paean to Water – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

A Newly Revised Section from our Upcoming Book:  “Home: Reinhabiting Self, Place & Purpose”


River Dreams:
A Paean to Water
by Jesse Wolf Hardin



Sleeping outdoors as we do, the sound of the flowing river course through our dreams as through our lives.  Last night I awoke to rains that failed to come during the normal July and August monsoon season, the musical rhythms of the season’s first torrents.  It is hard to imagine it, given that the Rio Frisco is currently low and narrow enough in places to leap over… but it was just such conditions in 1983 that resulted in an early October flood that filled the canyon from one side to the other.  At any given point we know we could be encountering either a deluge or a drought.

But let no one ever say that we don’t have running water.  Whenever it storms, the sweet water runs off our metal roof, runs down the gutter and into waiting containers.  When they overflow we run out to transfer buckets from one barrel to the next, and when we run out of water in the house we run outside to get more!

Dipping out a cup full, it’s hard not to be affected by its crystalline clarity, intrigued with the way the surface curves up the sides like a cat rubbing against a leg.  We remember that without this most vital liquid the digestion and assimilation of nutrients would be impossible.  The universal solvent, water reduces the nutrients necessary for both plant and animal life, dissolving them in the bowels of the soil as in the twists and turns of the human digestive tract.  It’s capable of penetrating most barriers, and when flowing it can wear down even the hardest stone daring to impede its willful passage.  Water constitutes up to three fourths of a person or animal’s total weight, and similarly three fourths of the planet’s surface is covered with it– three hundred million cubic miles of fresh and salt water.  The soil is full of it, it flows beneath the driest deserts, and even the most solid of rocks harbor some moisture within.  Looking at satellite images of the mostly blue covered planet, one might be tempted to name it Oceanus instead of Earth…. a world of water.

On the other hand, while the deepest trenches of the Western Pacific could easily swallow the breadth of the tallest mountain, the oceans are but a shallow film relative to the mass of the Earth, similar to the thin skin on an apple.  Competition has gotten fierce for the ever scarcer fresh water supplies, and underground aquifers are fast being depleted through wasteful surface irrigation and the growing demands of industry, urban golf courses and suburban lawns.

Like so many others in the arid Southwest, the Rio Frisco is drained of every drop long before it gets to the sea.  In the United States three hundred and fifty billion gallons of ground and surface water are removed per day, from reservoirs that are increasingly polluted, depleted and despoiled.  Counting the water used for the production of their food as well as their household usage, citizens here on average require an astounding fifteen hundred gallons per person per day.  It can take up to two thousand gallons just to produce a pound of Western beef steak.  During recent court wrangling over the disposition of the Rio Grande, it was revealed that more water was being demanded by the growing cities than the area’s farmers – mostly to water ornamental non-native grass and keep the state’s many hotel and motel showers flowing.



Arriving in this remote canyon in the Fall of 1979, I was literally the first protector of its precious river in 1,000 years, fencing off parts of the land to protect it from the free ranging cattle.  For years I had no partners, no focused land-loving mate or offspring devoted to and helping me protect and serve this special place, replanting and restoring its banks until at least one section of the canyon was a thriving riparian forest again.  In time, willows stabilized the banks, wildflowers attracted pollinators like bees and songbirds from afar.  Before long, blue heron alighted to nest, and noisy flocks of ducks chose this part of the river for a rest stop on their lengthy migrations.  Beaver have built dams, preparing the area for the possible reintroduction of endangered otters.  Close on the heels of this the influx of vegetation and critters, came our students and retreat guests, touching their authentic natural selves, awakening to their needs and dreams, and each discovering in their own way the river that runs through them. Once loved and healed itself, the Rio Frisco offered the chance of healing to all those coming open to her gifts.


In the Frisco, as perhaps in all rivers, we witness the rise and fall of dream and fortune and the passage of our gifted mortal lives.  We discover ourselves in its reflection, our moods ranging from shallow to deep, alert or asleep.  Like the river, we can be full of ourselves, spilling out over our edges, exceeding the capacity of our containers, expanding beyond our imagined limitations as we seek to penetrate and inundate the universe.  It’s at this point that it becomes a magical or spiritual thing, as we join in as participants in the ongoing riparian Chautauqua, the riverine revival.  Freed of rational constraint and incessant doubt we partner with the crowds of buzzing bees and spinning dragonflies, rapt grass and attendant trees made whole by its touch.

The rivers, in turn, need our tending, not only protection but attention and celebration.  Thus the was it blooms and shares its bounty at Kiva’s healing touch, and responds to Loba’s cascading voice of gratitude echoing off the cliffs.  It may be that all things natural have an intrinsic sacred value, but through ritual, attention and intent we make them even more so.  Investing the rocks with centuries of prayer, nourishing the soil with our promises.  Swelling the river with generations of practiced magic and directed love.  It’s often a part of the belief systems of those peoples living closest to the land — that the river knows when we’re singing to it, and knows when we’ve stopped.  And that it holds in its bowels, the memories of all life’s songs.

Ancient river-informed peoples from the Euphrates to the Rio Grande spoke of something like water, continuous and contiguous, that we’re all a lasting part of: what we call the “anima.”  They saw the similarity between the physical/spiritual cycles of life and death, and the water cycle’s endless circling back into itself, the balance-within-change that so personifies nature… sometimes symbolized by a “Round River,” a circular watercourse with each part feeding the other.  Here perhaps is the real meaning of the expression “going with the flow”… not malleable or easily coerced, indifferent or directionless, but rather, willingly and intentionally choosing to move in the cyclic course of our own true natures, and that of evolving life and purposeful spirit. Students of the river know that we, like it, are forever changing… and yet, in some manner or capacity, that we also stay, that something of us remains.  That we, too, are dissolved by an energy like the sun, returning homeward like the rain.

So do we of many cultures and colors speak of the power of the “healing waters.”  The sinuous touch of a “holy river” blesses as well as baptizes, the chill embrace of a beckoning lake cleanses the mind of the worrisome wordage that can take us out of our bodies and present time.  Mineral seeps and hot pools are considered therapeutic to bathe in or even drink, and we can benefit from ingesting generous amounts of liver-flushing and flesh-hydrating fluid.  But just as important may be the way we are affected by simple proximity to the example, gentle sounds and relaxing negative ions of running water.


A favorite thing for me to do after a day of typing on this laptop is to walk down the the river, stand in the gently moving current, then falling backwards into its welcoming aquarian arms.  Falling, in fact, back into balance, and into sensate myself.  My mind hushed, the cool flow commands the attention of my entire being, and I find myself tripping-out on the shifting opal patterns of the river surface.  Like the dynamic flow of life and death, the forms, the ripples, the glimpses of the faces of slaughtered creation and departed loved ones wash downstream before my very eyes— and yet continue to exist there, flowing, in front of and around me.  With my hands in the river I can feel the water moving through my fingers.  I can neither grasp it nor hold it back, but when opening my hand it becomes instantly full again.

Tears become rain that becomes a stream, and then turn into anxious rivers filling the oceans’ bed to the brim — though only to be called back to the clouds once again.  Molecules of water dance in the lightless subterranean tunnels as well as on the bright mountain winds, participating in a vast and constant migration without ever really leaving the Earth that host them.  If contained or restrained they immediately seek to leak out or evaporate.  If swallowed they’re soon spilt back upon the earth.  Thus water, like spirit itself, is consumed without diminishment, and changes form without depletion.

Who can say which to call the origin, the ocean or the cloud?  Or the both joyous and grieving human heart.

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(photos (C)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

Betting on Ourselves: Novel Objections to the Health Insurance System – By Jesse Wolf Hardin

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Betting on Ourselves:

Novel Objections to the Health Insurance System

By Jesse Wolf Hardin


Yes, I am among the millions of unassured Americans.  Unassured by industry claims, administration promises and congressional intentions when it comes to health legislation.  No, I am not one of the privileged, able to slap down multiple plastic cards and receive the kind of A-1 care reserved for the well insured, looking down my nose at the less fortunate.  While our work and purpose includes healing others, my family and can’t get medical insurance even if we want it.  We don’t qualify for existing state and federal health insurance because our land is considered an asset, and yet not anywhere near enough money comes in to pay the premiums on even the lousiest policy.  It is a stretch for us to make small payments to a private subsidized clinic that serves our backwoods community, a wonderful doctor and staff who nonetheless lack the equipment to conduct many tests, and who have to refer their patients to the big-city hospital whenever the condition is serious or requiring surgery.

As a technically impoverished healing school, you might think we would be among the first to champion a new system of universal care.  Not!  The larger and more standardized a system is, the less personal, regional, flexible and adaptable it becomes.  And as poorly managed as private enterprises of any kind can be, it is the official government run systems and programs that have the greatest potential for mismanagement and abuse.  In the hands of bureaucrats, even something as seemingly benign as health care becomes a means for the observation, manipulation and control of a country’s citizens.  Of all the so-called solutions, insurance co-ops make the most sense to me, so that participation is strictly voluntary, and its members get to vote on who directs it.  But frankly, even the very concept of insurance seems largely absurd to me, unnatural and objectionable.

To begin with, the majority of people with health insurance will pay far more in premiums during the course of their lifetimes, than they would have spent direct-paying doctors.  If that weren’t the case, the insurance conglomerates would be losing money instead of making the billions and billions of dollars in profits that they do.  In addition, in an environment where there were no insurance companies, the costs of health care wouldn’t be nearly as high as they are now.   Providers can charge the insurers more than they would individuals, leading to doctors ordering expensive and often unnecessary tests that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

A problem with the very concept of insurance itself, is that it tends to make people more dependent and less responsible.  Kids sent out into the world with the insurance of a financial safety net tend to be more careless and cavalier than those teens and twenty-somethings who know they can’t count on their parents to pay for every mistake or bail them out of every jam.  Similarly, people insured from childhood on have proven to increasingly focus on treatment after the fact, than they do on prevention.  Subconsciously if not consciously, folks may feel less need to concern themselves with the effects of the foods they eat or the exercise they miss, when the believe they can always turn to a doctor to treat the heart disease and adrenal burnout their lifestyle choices may have caused.  For the same reason, the longtime insured are also less likely to ever learn how to treat themselves, even when dealing with simple conditions that are easy to both diagnose and affect.  They’re less likely to pay attention to their own bodily signs, to experiment with changes in the way they eat, to become familiar with herbal and other natural remedies, to seek advice from an experienced relative or midwife, or to visit and support community herbalists and natural healers.

If that weren’t enough, I am at a gut level repulsed by the very way in which insurance works.  All my life I have done what many thought was impossible, doing things differently than others, taking extreme risks, following a dream with little money and little common sense, but also little self doubt and even less restraint.  In essence, I bet on myself again and again, bet my life and belongings, even my future.  I was all the more careful and tried all the harder exactly because there was no backup, no fallback plan and no net, knowing that I had placed everything I am and own on “myself” in the “first”… “to win.”  It galls me even to be forced to pay car insurance we can’t afford every month, on a Jeep we drive less than ten miles to town and back, forced to bet our scarce funds on a game where I only get paid anything if I screw up and have an accident, or fail to notice some other driver screwing up in time to avoid the collision.  There is something seriously wrong about a government threatening us with jail unless we participate in some profit-producing game, especially one in which the only way for us to win is to lose!  And now they want to force me to pay for a health care arrangement where I get fewer benefits the better that I take care of myself, where I have to get sick or do something unaware and hurt myself in order to get any payback, and where I only win the lottery big if I come down with something serious, chronic and largely incurable.

We might better place our bets on our selves, on our driving abilities and the human body’s natural inclination towards health.  That way we’re more likely to pay attention to how aware we are being on the highway, and on how our bodies feel as well as how we are treating them.  It’s said that the worst thing that could happen this year is for the Congress to fail to pass on national health bill.  It would indeed be tragic for some us with no other way to get the high dollar, high-tech help.  On the other hand, doing nothing in the halls of Congress is always better than doing the wrong thing.  And it may prove that those without sanctioned insurance plans may be most conscious, concerned and caring… the response-able, responsive ranks of the growing unassured.

(Jesse Wolf Hardin is codirector of the Animá Lifeways & Herbalism School, with Kiva Rose:  Feel free to share and post this piece)