Thursday, May 22, 2008

Singing for Horses

Family legend has it that “horse” was my first word. Doubtful, although the physical, emotional and mental image of horse occupies my earliest memories. As the youngest of eight children, my parents’ defenses against begging children were well fortified. Every run-of-the-mill pet, toy or vacation experiment had already been tested by my older siblings and thrown out by Mom and Dad.

Navajo Basket by Peggy Black
Navajo Pictorial Basket by Peggy Black

Knowing the stench of manure was a much more powerful force than a child’s willingness to clean it up, my mother wisely found other diversions for my equine yearnings. I plowed through every horse book ever written; Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague; Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty; Walter Farley’s Man ‘O War and, mistakenly, John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, a devastating read for a horse-dreamy eight year old. Mom sent me to Girl Scout Camp in the Jemez Mountains where I was able to ride for weeks on end. My sister, Chris, and future brother-in-law, George, carted me along for crude horse lessons in the Zuni Mountains.

My first job, excrement duty at another brother-in-law’s veterinary clinic, paid a whopping $1.00 per hour. After school and on most Saturdays, I happily hopped aboard my brother’s old ten-speed and propelled myself along the few miles of the Gallup truck bypass, furiously pedaling in cowboy boots; quickly realizing they were better suited to rough leather stirrups than smooth metal pedals. No bike helmet, either. At the end of a good day, I was allowed to ride Opie, the sweetest little sorrel Quarter Horse for which a young girl could wish. Off to the hills we would go where we pretended to barrel racing greatness, reveled in bridleless gallops or sauntered along the golf course fence, pondering that ridiculous game of long sticks and tiny balls.

My raking and shoveling endeavors in the clinic’s large animal enclosures were placed in a wheelbarrow to be taken up a board ramp and hauled off in the bed of a 1960’s green Chevy truck. The only problem was that the wheelbarrow would get mighty full and I was a mighty small twelve year old. In order to get the load up the board ramp without sending its fermenting contents flying in forty directions, I would have to start at one end of the gravel and sand yard, gaining a wobbly momentum with my slippery cowboy boots, picking up speed like a cartoon character. This was my Saturday morning test; me against the stinking manure, the tottering weight of the wheelbarrow and the slickness of the narrow board ramp. As in the remainder of my life, most times I succeeded. Occasionally, I was up to my neck in . . . .

Cleaning cat and dog cages, raking stalls and clearing out cow pens provided me a great line at later job interviews. Upon graduating college, I was sometimes asked, “There may be some tedious aspects to this initial position. Do you think you can handle it?” Do you think, after being on the losing end of a parade of sick pets?

I realize now in my half century of acquired wisdom that my begging, borrowing and stealing approaches were all wrong. In my teenage attention deficit approach to activities, I believe my parents wisely recognized a lack of long term horse commitment in me. Already in their fifties, pooper-scooper duty simply was not on their agenda and they were fairly certain it would only, sporadically, be a part of mine.

If I had any horse sense at all, I would have sung them into existence, following the guidance of Johonai’ei and Changing Woman as they wisely ushered their twin sons into the responsibilities of bringing horses to The People. This Navajo story is told in They Sang for Horses, a book by LaVerne Harrell Clark.

Zuni Prancing Horse Fetish
Zuni Fetishes

“After arriving at their father’s house, they discovered that Sun had four horse fetishes of mirage stones and shells; he kept these sacred possessions in a beautiful ceremonial basket. The boys longed for the horse fetishes so much that they passed up the live horses of the cardinal directions, which they saw in the deity’s corral, and asked, instead, for his horses of shell and stone. Now, this was not, as it might appear, a foolish thing for them to do; their choice proved to Sun, just as it would prove to any Navajo father, that his boys were bent upon acquiring the necessary ceremonial objects to produce live horses on earth. Still being a wise father, Sun decided, as the boys’ mother had, to make them first earn the right to this valuable equipment.”

The twin boys were not to receive the horse fetishes from their father, but they now realized their mother had the necessary figures and ceremonies to bring the horses into being. Upon approaching Changing Woman, however, she was not going to give in so easily. She sent them away to another deity in order for them to acquire more learning. It was not until they procured the knowledge and necessary ceremonial objects from this additional training that she knew she could fulfill her own desire to give them what they wanted once they “proved themselves capable”.

Changing Woman placed white shell, turquoise, abalone and black beads along with four kinds of pollen in four spots of an unmarked deerskin, then placed twelve more unblemished deerskins on top. She sang the horse’s creation song:

“I am White Shell Woman. I am thinking of the deerskin blanket spread out on there. A white shell horse lies in a white shell basket. I am thinking about it. They [horse fetishes] lie in the pollen of flowers. Those who come to me will increase. Those that will not die lie in it [the basket]. . . .

The horses were sung into being. When Kira and Grange grumble about horse feeding, watering and clean up, I think I will remind them to sing.

With warm regards,

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