Thursday, August 28, 2008

Thunder Bolts and Lightning

White hot bolts of lightning bee-bopped across the darkened horizon as we topped out on the south side of Devil's Canyon. It looked as if an electrified game of pin ball was being played above the torn and ragged, moisture laden clouds. I visualized the frightening, Navajo deity, "Big Thunder" aggressively playing the game above our heads. A host of smaller Thunder and Lightning People would be whooping it up and sparking the big boy on.

Navajo Thunder Sandpainting by Joe Ben
Navajo Thunder Sandpainting by Joe Ben Jr.

My wife, children and I were on our way home from Uncle Reid and Aunt Stephanie's home in Monticello. We had joined up with Grandma and Grandpa Washburn for dinner and Sunday companionship. The Washburn/Chapman skill at gardening was abundantly evident at the dinner table that evening, as was their legendary skill at creating culinary delights.

I was reminded of my childhood fascination with the television show Hee Haw. Good fun, humor, country music and a healthy respect for family and friends. Hey Grandpa, What's for Dinner, with Grandpa Jones was one of my favorite segments of the show, because it spotlighted the mouth-watering goodness of country cooking. Grandpa Jones would have been proud of the Washburn women that day.

As we made our way to the dinner table, I spied homegrown lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers gracing a green salad almost too beautiful to disturb; steamed green beans with real butter; fresh peas and Olathe sweet corn; hot dinner rolls with home made raspberry and strawberry jam; slow roasted beef with sauteed onions; and mashed potatoes and brown gravy. All this caused me to swoon in anticipation. A huge platter of fresh Green River watermelon and Casaba, along with red and green grapes, sliced peaches and an odd apricot or two graced the table. I foundered just looking at the delicious magnitude of the setting.

After this marvelous meal; and a few games of Barnyard Rummy, Kings Gone Wild and much laughter, Laurie finished us off with a serving of fresh apple crisp and vanilla ice cream. I had discovered culinary paradise. After dinner, I found myself nursing a knot in my stomach the size of a cantaloupe; it was time to go home and crawl into bed for a mid-summer's eve nap. I was sure the knot would transfer itself to my midsection and hindquarters by morning, but I could not worry about that right then; tomorrow about 30,000 sit-ups would take care of the problem. I told Laurie she would have to drive.

Navajo Ceremonial Basket by Alicia Nelson
Navajo Ceremonial Basket by Alicia Nelson

As we made our way south to Blanding, Alyssa and McKale vivaciously sang along with every song on the radio. Although he would never admit it, I could hear Spenser's gravelly voice in the mix. The three kids sounded heavenly to me. I reached over and laid my hand on my wife's slender neck and gave her a squeeze that, I hoped, projected my love, satisfaction and enjoyment she, the kids and this life provides me. As if reading my mind, she smiled. We relaxed in our seats, and enjoyed the concert.

The stimulating show of thunder and lightning, and the associated visual imagery, along with the pleasure I receive from over-consumption and familial interaction, was etched upon my memory; I can see, hear and taste it still. All I need do is close my eyes and open my mind. I see it like an age-old black and white movie with a herky-jerky frame display, scratched images and a static-filled sound track. Such is my mind on "recall".

The Navajo people are greatly aware of the importance of family. They believe relationships are the essence of beauty and harmony. The joining of blood recreates and projects joy, hope and love into the future. We are fed in many ways in this life; spiritually, emotionally and physically. I am ever so lucky to have tremendous love and support on all sides. My plate is full, I hope yours is as well.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Life As An Ear

Dedicated to our recently lost, but forever loved, friends Kim Acton, Brian Bayles and Eric Johnson.

Navajo Maize Rug by Eleanor Yazzie
Navajo Maize Rug by Eleanor Yazzie

It is fascinating to me how corn, which is among the most familiar of grains, continues to mystify contemporary society. A full three-quarters of the world’s production is fed to livestock; thereby transforming it into meat, milk, eggs and a variety of other products we consume daily. As such, it is the world’s most ubiquitous food plant. Archaeological studies indicate that corn has been grown in the Americas for more than 7,000 years, and that American Indians grew the plant extensively long before Europeans arrived on this continent.

The origin of corn, which is actually a grass, is however shrouded in mystery, and its exact lineage uncertain. Cultivated corn is known to have been imported into the American Southwest more than 3,000 years ago. It is only recently, however, that science has begun to unravel its genetic roots and explain its development.

It does not seem very long ago when, as a young man fully integrated into the Boy Scouts of America, I went scrambling in and out of the Ancient Puebloan villages scattered throughout southeastern Utah with my buddies from Troop 311, Blanding, Utah. In the dwellings we often found small, charred corn cobs which ignited our imaginations. These remnants were a connection to the past; an association with an extinct culture.

From our perches inside those long abandoned mud, stick and stone houses, we looked out through open doorways and imagined neatly tended fields growing along the base of the cliffs. Sitting among the ruins, we visualized granaries stocked with large ceramic vessels containing corn, beans and squash. On the gentle breeze, we heard the ancient ones as they moved about their daily routine.

Although I am a huge fan of corn on the cob, and can eat it until my face is blanketed in butter and my stomach in jeopardy of bursting, it is the impact the plant has had on civilization that most fires my interest. When a culture has a steady, reliable source of food, such as corn, it can stabilize and build permanent structures where many families live together in harmony. Under the right circumstances, out of that grouping of people grows division of labor, society, government and eventually art.

Maize Watercolor by Serena Supplee
Maize Watercolor by Serena Supplee

Lately, I have begun to view my life in terms of an ear of corn; with each kernel representing a window into a particular episode. In the yellow morsels clinging to the rough cob, I see love that was, but never should have been; love that might have been, but wasn’t; and finally, love as it was meant to be. Also included is agony, ecstasy, tears of sorrow, tears of joy, fear, success, failure, happiness, pain and countless other reflections. Each bud describes a story; a fragment of my being woven into an overall portrait illustrating who I am and the reasons why.

Beginning at the base of the ear, I can see the years of my youth; running barefoot through the dirt streets of Bluff, scrambling up sheer sandstone cliffs; and quiet peaceful nights gazing at constellations, full moons and streaking meteors. The adolescent and teenage years are a little farther up the cob and the organization of the seeds more random, exciting. I have seemingly progressed to the center; an area where the kernels are firm, better developed, with more complete illustrations. It may be that these larger pieces represent a fuller understanding and acceptance of my universe.

Beyond the center, there is empty space; an open area which must be waiting for new growth and further development. Then there is the tassel; wavy, unruly, shimmering. All is enveloped, snugly, securely, in a green sheaf. The Navajo people believe corn depicts their presence in three different worlds; its roots represent the underworld from which they originated, the stalk is the present and the tassel illustrates the spirit world. To them, the plant is also a symbol of fertility, regeneration.

When I have progressed from center to tassel, and those left behind take time to review the fruit of my life, I hope they will find I added something significant to their lives, and to this world in general. After I cease to exist, a few of my seeds may carry on and plant more corn for future generations.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Soldier Lady

Navajo Ganado Rug by Bessie Bitsui
Navajo Ganado Rug by Beth Bitsui

Recently I was "resting" on the cool, shaded porch of the trading post when I heard the heavy wood chair next to me accept the slight weight of an intrusion. I opened my good eye and looked upon a stately woman of approximately 60 years of age. There was the hint of a smile on her lips, as if she were proud she had sneaked up on me.

"I heard you coming," I said casually. "You were snoring," she said with a look of complete disbelief in her steel blue eyes. "A ruse," I said, "I grew up among the Navajo and Ute Indians; they taught me how to 'capture' curious white people." "To what end?" asked the Levi and lace clad lady as she relaxed her still slim form in the chair a bit and looked at me with interest.

"Well, my Native American friends would have scalped you," I said, "I was simply honing my skills, your hair is safe with me!" The comment caused the woman to pause, and reflect for a moment. She unconsciously ran her fingers through her bobbed, salt and pepper hair, and frowned inwardly, as if dredging up an unwelcome memory. I pressed my advantage by adding, "They call it the Venus Fly Trap Effect." The woman snapped to attention, and turned the frown on me. I had gone too far with that last statement, and instantly lost my credibility.

The woman shook her head at my sad attempt to misdirect and cover-up. She said "In my world you would have been shot at sunrise for falling asleep on duty." "Ex-military?" I asked sitting up. "Army, major retired" she replied proudly. "I'm hoping, for my sake, that you were disarmed when you retired," I said. "You think?" she retorted. We both laughed and fell into easy conversation.

Navajo Dancing Yeis Pictorial Basket by Peggy Black
Navajo Dancin' Yei Basket by Peggy Black

As I discovered, Major Moore was on a quest to re-harmonize her life. She was looking for a quiet place in the world and in her mind to regain the balance she had lost. The good major told me that living a life of competitive aggression had cost her dearly. She had chosen to forgo a family and lost her innocence in an extreme fashion. At this point in her life she was looking to regroup and retreat into a calmer, more rationally focused lifestyle. The major stated that she was no longer interested in investing in power and control for herself or others. This soldier was in search of a relationship with the good earth and centered people.

After hearing Major Moore's comments, and seeing the sadness in her eyes, I felt her sincerity. Trying to lighten the mood, I said, "You are in the land of new beginnings, this is where the Navajo learned to walk in beauty, at least that is the basis of their belief system." We got out of our chairs and walked into the trading post. I introduced Major Moore to the Navajo philosophy of "Hozho", which loosely translates into personal harmony and balance.

We looked at pictorial baskets, traditional rugs and precious jewelry with images of sacred ceremony and cultural significance. The culture of the Navajo is alive today in great part because the people incorporated these impressions in their art. It was, and still is with some, a lifestyle that is embraced on a daily basis; ingrained in every aspect of their lives.

Navajo Dispersing the Waters Design Bracelet
Navajo Dispersing the Waters Design Bracelet

We saw stars as duality symbols, whirling logs as emerging consciousness, masked dancers symbolizing health and well-being. The major asked why water signs are so prevalent in Navajo art. I responded that for desert dwellers, water is paradise; it hydrates, cleanses and gives precious life to an otherwise parched land and people. From a people in touch with the subtle realities of the universe, deities of wind, sky and sacred corn came to life through the creativity of an agriculturally inspired society. This recently retired soldier began to see and appreciate a different perspective of those intimately in touch with the natural world.

We recaptured our seats on the porch, and, as the sun made its way to the western horizon, spoke at length on alternate realities based on harmony and balance. The major finally sat back, sighed and said, "You have given me a great deal of food for thought. I appreciate it." "Thoughts and ideas shared by most aboriginal cultures around the world;" I said, "easy to understand and appreciate but hard to adopt in today's science-based society. "Indeed!" was her reply.

As the major rose to take her leave, she said, "You can go back to sleep now soldier, all is well." "Thanks to you and those who serve ma'am," I said with a lopsided but polite salute, "watch your top knot Major." The lady soldier smiled and walked away. I sat back, closed my eyes and nodded off.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.