Thursday, August 10, 2006

Livin' Like a Cottonwood Tree

Monday morning broke hot and clean in our sandstone sanctuary adjacent to the San Juan River. Jana, Kira, Grange and I were scheduled to leave on vacation. Before we left, however, we had to get a few things in order. The crush of the trading post over the past several days had left us more than a little behind, and we were hours late getting people and things packed into the Ford pickup that had been designated the vehicle of choice for our latest adventure.

Alicia Nelson Basket
Alicia Nelson Navajo Pictorial Basket

Wife, kids and camping gear were finally stowed, somewhat haphazardly, in the truck, so I hopped in and prepared to move out. I attempted to fire the ignition and discovered the battery was dead. The title of Father Liebler’s book, “Boil My Heart For Me,” flashed through my mind, and I thought, “Now this is the right way to start a vacation!”

Father Liebler’s book refers to the Navajo term for jump-starting a car when the battery has gone dead. Not long after he arrived in Bluff, Liebler discovered the literal nature of his Navajo converts. Since the Navajo people were not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the automobile, they associated cars with living beings and named the parts accordingly. The battery was, therefore, designated its “heart.”

Once we boiled its heart, the truck was ready to roll. Jana, in the mean time, had decided a tall iced tea was in order, so she headed next door to the cafe. Wondering whether we would ever actually get on the road, I eased the truck in gear and tracked Jana east to the restaurant. As I did so, I noticed a kitten tottering across the parking lot, obviously seeking a spot of shade.

Now, stray and abandoned animals are plentiful around here, and the last time I said anything complimentary about one I became the proud owner of Freckles, the ugliest dog on the planet. So, this time around I was proceeding carefully; too carefully as it turns out. When I finally realized the cat was in trouble and went into the cafe to get some water, it was too late. Although I splashed the cool liquid on the kitten to see if it would revive, there was no response; it was gone.

The death of the kitten reminded me just how severe this desert environment can be, and how careful you must be to avoid disaster. Many years ago Harry Walters, a Navajo scholar from Dine’ College in Tsaile, Arizona, had a big impact on me when he described the duality of Navajo culture in terms of a snowstorm. Harry explained that everything in the Navajo cosmology is both positive and negative, depending on how you approach it. He went on to describe how the snow could nourish the land or kill you if you are unprepared; the cat had been ill-equipped.

Cottonwood Tree
Cottonwood Tree up Cow Canyon in Bluff, Utah.

As we drove north up Cow Canyon, searching for a place to plant the recently departed cat, a cottonwood tree stood shimmering in the mid-afternoon light. Its lush leaves made me think of the kitten and Harry’s comments. Somehow the cottonwoods have found a way to prosper in this difficult region. We laid the kitten to rest beneath the tree, and I remember thinking, “I would like to be like that tree; a symbol of persistence, stability and endurance in this arid and unforgiving land.” For some reason, on that day I bonded with those trees. It was not until we returned from our journey that I fully understood why.

Reading the words of local author Robert S. McPherson at the trading post a few days after our repatriation, I suddenly discovered my cottonwood connection. Speaking of the early Bluff pioneers, Bob said, “In April of 1880, a group of Mormons tethered their tired horses at the future site of Bluff along the banks of the San Juan River. Nearby, they found only cottonwoods for construction; these trees, with their twists and knots, proved as unruly as the river that gave them life.” Bob’s words seem to accurately portray me and my uncontrollable life in Bluff.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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