Journey To Enchantment: Animá & Sense Of Place (Part 2 of 3)
Part 2: The Gila Bioregion
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
“Spirit howls and wildness endures. Anticipate resurrection.” (Terry Tempest Williams)
The American Southwest is famous for its ambiance and energy as well as its scenery, often described as “spiritual,” “other worldly” or “magical” in nature. The state of New Mexico in particular has a reputation as the Land Of Enchantment, attracting spiritual leaders and communities from the Sufis to the Dalai Lama, and host to its own still vibrant indigenous religious traditions. This is on top of its draw as a place of beautiful mountains and stunning deserts, of colorful cultures and relatively low human density. As I write this the entire population of New Mexico is considerably less than that of numerous “mid-size” cities including Denver, Phoenix, Charleston and St. Paul.
If you look at a map you’ll see that most of the lower left portion of New Mexico, bordered by the Rio Grande valley to the East and extending West into Arizona is one huge mountainous forest, encompassing the Black Range and the Mogollon, Tularosa and San Francisco mountains. At its center is the roadless Gila Wilderness (pronounced hee-la), the first national lands intentionally preserved in a native, wild state. The was largely due to the proddings of the visionary conservationist Aldo Leopold a full forty years before the passage of the U.S. Wilderness Act. The county is one of the largest at approximately 7,000 square miles, most of which is national forest and state lands…. and with only about two percent of the surface area being private property. The area is filled with a combination of history and legend, beauty and romance, the quiet space necessary for reflection, and the busyness of myriad active species each living out their own rendition of life, adventure and home. Thousands of elk, the most unobstructed view of the stars imaginable, and acres and acres of unmolested old growth forests. And it is defined not only by what it has, but what it has not: no stoplights or rush hour traffic, no polluting industries or midnight sirens, no gangs and scant crime. Thousands of miles from the intrigue of our nation’s capital. Three hundred miles from any nuclear reactor. Two hundred and fifty miles from the nearest “real” city or targetable military base. One hundred miles from the closest crowded discount store. And no cloud cover throughout most of the year.
Given the amount of sunshine it receives, it may come as a surprise to learn that temperatures in the Gila bioregion seldom exceed ninety degrees Fahrenheit. The hottest months are July and August, but even then the chill nights tend to ensure pleasant mornings, and just around the time the heat is getting uncomfortable along comes the relief of afternoon storms. The end of Summer is the monsoon season after all, when each day the wind dramatically picks up around two o’clock or so and thick black clouds rush in to dump their precious load. Thunder echoes as lightning cracks against rock outcroppings and treetop spires, and drops of rain the size of marbles gather into sheets blown nearly sidewise in their rampant race to the thirsting ground. Winters are mild with few nights that dip below the zero mark, and snows that melt fairly quickly from all but the highest of North facing slopes.
Mountains in the area rise up from primeval inland sea beds to around 12,000 feet in height, laced with streams and spotted with a handful of especially enticing hot springs. Created by the most recent and violent volcanic activity on this continent, the fire colored cliffs climb above pines and oaks where Geronimo and Victorio once undertook their own quests for vision, meaning and assignment. And snaking through these peaks and hills are the beds of the region’s life giving waters: the Tularosa, San Francisco and Gila rivers. Creeks with names like Palomas, Gilita, Iron and Indian. Turkey, Bear and Centerfire. Alamosa and Negrito. Oak and Willow. Mangas, Mineral, Deep and Devil’s Creeks. Waterways anywhere are a literal magnet for plant and animal species, and nowhere is that more true than in the arid Southwest where other sources of moisture are seasonal at best. Spilling out of artesian springs or draining the snow-saturated soils of the high country, trickles couple with seeps to become rivers that may be calf deep in late June or December, and thirty feet deep and seventy-five yards across during a big Spring runoff or following relatively rare Fall torrents. No lover is unmarked by love, and everywhere the flowing water touches there is a meander carved deep like memory. And where raging love or insistent waters cut deepest, the result is a canyon– bone deep, the bedrock of human or Earthen soul exposed and titillated by passion’s churning currents. It is from the very bottom of this glad wound, this sculpted gifting, that art and magic rise, lifted forever into a cliff-framed sky.
One of these special canyons now hosts the Anima Sanctuary, and was once a village of up to thirty families and It features the largest kiva site for many miles in either direction, evidence of its having been a ceremonial center for ritual gatherings and sacred rites. The same precious flow coveted by those of root, feather and paw, drew early human kind close as well. At the same time as the Tevere of Roma and the Euphrates of Asia supported the growth of civilizations, rivers like the San Francisco watered the palettes, the crops, the imagination and spirit of its Earth-honoring residents. Climb up from the river to almost any flat spot above the flood plain, and we will likely find ourselves atop the erosion-filled pit houses of those who loved and revered these canyons long before we did. They migrated in mass down the Rio Grande Valley approximately a thousand years ago in response to raids by hostile tribes, a particularly long drought or a well received vision of some messianic shaman…. and at around the same time as the first boatloads of Norse Vikings were making landfall in Greenland.
Referred to as the Mogollon people by archaeologists, the Sweet Medicine people lived in underground “D” shaped structures, hunted, cultivated maize, and seem to have practiced a spiritual tradition that emphasized connection, reciprocity, interdependence and the necessity of honoring life through ritual and caretakership, song and dance, story and craft, intention and act. The painted pottery sherds scattered about on the ground are reminders of this lineage of celebration, responsibility and prayer. And many of the rock ledges feature obvious trails burnished smooth by the touch of countless sandal soles, the villagers making twice daily trips from their dwellings to tend their irrigation ditches and carry back to the houses pitch-lined juniper baskets filled with sweet river water.
If as Leopold suggests, this wild land does indeed come with its own intrinsic set of values, priorities and hopes– then they are ours to learn, following the river to what is not only roofless temple but experiential school. A journey into any canyon is a journey into history and not only due to a deepening of intimacy with an indigenous past, nor simply for the way in which the traveler is cast into a mental/emotional state that seems somehow outside the constraints of linear time…. but also, a descent from above traces an actual regression through the various geologic eras, down to the time and place of life’s beginnings. And there we too, may yet discover the beginnings of our own sacred/sensate story…. and thereby the root of our truths.
-Jesse Wolf Hardin www.animacenter.org
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(Photos (C) 2008 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)
Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Practicing Animá Lifeways