Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Joke Was On Me

Heading south towards Bluff recently, I had the radio tuned to the National Public Radio station. After a profusion of bad economic reports about rising unemployment and the sinking housing market, I decided I had had enough bad news and switched to the oldies station.

Steve and Jana Simpson with their War Basket at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Steve & Jana Simpson with their War Basket at Twin Rocks Trading Post

Often I have wondered what it is that makes a song, a smell, an object resonate with me. There are certain things that move me whenever and wherever I see or experience them. Over the years, I have decided the reason is generally that there is a special person attached to the memory. Independent of that person, the song, smell or object has less significance.

It was almost midnight as I tuned into the oldies channel. Trying to stay alert lest I unintentionally maim or kill one of the numerous deer that stroll the deserted highway between Monticello and Blanding, I turned up the volume and rolled down the window to let in the frigid air. The evidence of less diligent, or simply unlucky, drivers littered the pavement.

It was about that time I heard the familiar strains of Yesterday; probably my all-time favorite song. This Beatles melody goes to the very core of my existence. As I listened to the beautifully simple lyrics, my mind drifted back to the art Jana and I have gathered during our relationship. Our collection is an eclectic accumulation of kachina pins, rugs, baskets, Pueblo pottery and paintings with no unifying theme. As I considered the individual pieces, one Navajo basket stood out.

The basket was acquired in 1995, when, despite my lackluster record, I was considering yet another assault on the institution of marriage. Jana was both exciting and persistent, so late one evening after a few glasses of wine, I screwed up my courage and said, “Will you marry me?” Not the most romantic proposal, but it seemed to work. “Sure,” she said, apparently more confident than I.

Being the practical man I am, my next question was equally direct, “Should we get rings?” Since they had not made any substantial difference the first time through, I was not enamored of the idea of wearing a wedding ring this time. Jana apparently felt the same, because she said, “No, just get me a basket. I’ll only lose a ring.” It was at that moment I realized I had the right girl; after all, Navajo baskets were my life.

As other nuptial arrangements went forward in a blinding rush, I carefully evaluated what kind of basket was appropriate. This of course had to be a special piece, no ordinary basket would do. The weaving would have to hold together two extremely strong-willed, hardheaded individuals who were accustomed to having their own way. Powerful medicine was needed to stitch that fabric together.

A Navajo ceremonial basket was the logical choice. These weavings were indispensable in the traditional wedding and healing ceremonies, and had a great story to go along with their elegantly simple design. At the time Peggy Black was doing the very best ceremonials, so I explained the situation and asked her to begin the project. She readily agreed, and two weeks later arrived at Twin Rocks with just what I needed.

Peggy had obviously taken her time and put a lot of herself into the weaving; it was tightly woven and finely finished. As I ran my fingers over the stitching, I unconsciously counted the red coils which are an integral part of the design. These are commonly referred to as blood rings and are said to represent the mixing of your blood with your spouse’s as well as familial stability. One, two, three, four, five; five blood rings I said to myself. “Beautiful”, I declared, thinking that five was a good, solid number and failing to attach any significance to the broad smile on Peggy’s face.

The basket became part of our own marriage ceremony and was thereafter placed in a prominent location in the house above the trading post, where it has resided ever since.

As Jana and I fought through our first years together, trying to blend our disparate lives and bring some order to the chaos, I often wondered at the passion with which we argued through certain issues. Several years later, when life had settled into a comfortable routine, and Jana and I had both finally concluded this relationship had a realistic chance to last a lifetime, I discovered the key to those early battles.

As I thumbed through a text on Southwest Indian basketry, I noticed a Navajo ceremonial basket similar to the one Peggy had made for us. Thinking the baskets were in fact identical, I began to count. One, two, three, four, five; precisely the same number of blood rings as our basket. As I read the text, I was stunned. The weaving in the illustration was described as a War Basket, which is commonly used in the Enemy Way ceremony. Now I understood that sly smile, Peggy had woven a war basket to solemnize our marriage. I guess the joke was on me.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Monster Cats

It seems unreasonably cold in southeastern Utah this winter. Having been spoiled by more moderate thermo-scores, I often find myself seeking hot spots to mitigate my shakes and shivers. After a quick trip to Salt Lake City, Laurie and I were returning to Blanding late Wednesday night, when we discovered the car thermometer was at eighteen degrees Fahrenheit. "Dang," I foolishly complained to my sometimes less-than-compassionate companion, "I'm freezing, and just can't seem to get warm." My dear wife answered without hesitation or reservation,"Oh don't be a sissy, you are getting to be such an old man!" There are times when I don't know why I even speak to that woman!

Hot Air Balloon over Bluff Utah
Hot Air Balloon over Bluff, Utah.

To be fair, the comment was not altogether unwarranted, and may have emerged from my constant haranguing on the drive to and from the city. I was, however, only trying to keep the conversation engaging and lively on a long and routine run. What I intended as thoughtful discussion came off antagonistic and disruptive to by my wife who was trying to concentrate on the road. Isn't it funny how two people can see things so differently. Anyway, Laurie's comment caused me to to become more introspective and I drifted back to a warmer, more carefree time; to summers when Craig, Steve and I roamed the small river valley of Bluff, unfettered by time, space or responsibility.

At that time, my brothers and I would trip around town in our bare feet, looking for adventure in places like Mrs. Bourne's rustic storage shacks. This eighty-something year old woman would scour the countryside for treasured relics by night and store them away from the light of day in her dilapidated out buildings. Only we knew how to breach the back door to rediscover and liberate those bent, broken and mostly useless thingamajigs.

Bob and Opal Howell's door yard was of interest as well. Their prim and proper daughter, Margaret Ann, could generally be found tramping about the property. I remember Margaret Ann was usually encased in pink chiffon, white lace and black patent leather Shirley Temple shoes. She was prone to spontaneous emotional combustion, was easily ignited, and man could she cuss a blue streak. Highly entertaining!

Our good friend Roy Pearson owned and operated the local gas station near the highway. Roy knew how to keep us in check and was always good for a job emptying the trash, stacking tires, sweeping the floors and cleaning the glass. Payment was usually a small handful of quarters housed in his deep pockets.

We would then make haste next door to Clemma Arthur's Turquoise Cafe and spend our liquid assets on powdered donuts and orange soda. Reinvesting in the local economy came naturally to us. Because she had a den of bad news bears that did not tolerate any nonsense, we did not cause much of a fracas around Clemma or her business. Her boys, and for that matter her daughters, would slap us silly at the slightest hint at impropriety. They were just older than we, but did not like to be trifled with. No indeed!

Roy was also good for more education and entertainment down by the river. He fished a traut line for "Monster Cats". Roy taught us that a burlap potato sack filled with fermented, "tender vittles" could become a powerful catfish attractant. You simply tied one end of a stout rope to a tree or bush, secured the other to the sack and chucked the bag into a deep river hole. The heavenly aroma of chum emanating from the open weave of the sack would waft downstream and draw in catfish from as far away as Lake Powell.

The persistent, hunger-stimulated cats would besiege the fabric for days at a time. Roy would then lay out a suitably supple fishing line, with multiple baited hooks in close proximity to the potent gunnysack patiently anticipating catfish fillets. This may just be the origin of the term "bait and switch", but I can't be sure. I do know that the practice is effective, at least where ravenous catfish are concerned. We were wise enough not to steal from our friend, but, in our minds, checking the size and number of his catch did not constitute theft; just curiosity, even when the fish got away.

Psychological experts claim that we are the product of our experiences. Somewhere, somehow I must have picked up the antagonistic trait. Whether it comes from growing up in a free-spirited environment, being associated with an outrageous bunch of Bluffoons or just the luck of the draw I cannot say. The fact is, I have it, and it is as ingrained in my being as surely as is the town of Bluff itself. I consider myself fortunate to have a thoughtful, loving mate who tolerates me (to a certain degree), and is spirited enough to let me know when I have crossed the line into no-man's land. If, however, that woman ever calls me an, "old sissy" again, as the kids say, "It is on!"

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Need is a Four Letter Word

Barry and I often joke that at Twin Rocks Trading Post, “need” is a four letter word. When customers say, “Oh, I don’t need this turquoise bracelet, Navajo basket or beautiful rug,” we advise them that if it is a question of need, we are out of business.

Navajo Rug Weaver Eleanor Yazzie with Feathery Escape Rug
Navajo Rug Weaver Eleanor Yazzie with Feathery Escape Rug.

The Navajo folk art carvings we carry will not keep you warm unless you pitch them in the fire, in which case you will surely require more carvings than we carry to make it through the winter. The turquoise jewelry on display in our counters will not nourish you. The Navajo pottery arranged in the windows and Paiute and Navajo baskets stacked in our cases and on our shelves might be serviceable containers, but if you have nothing to store, you surely do not “need” them.

So, as 2 million people have lost their jobs in the first 11 months of 2008, as stocks have posted their worst year since the Great Depression and as foreclosures continue to rise while housing values decline at a record pace, one might rightly question the future of selling things that people do not require to feed or shelter themselves. In answer to the inquiry, Barry and I would respond that we not only sell art, we provide beauty, nourishment for the soul, and that is something everyone “needs”, in good times and especially in bad.

As I sit at the computer reading bleak economic reports on the Internet, and realizing that we are in the deepest economic downturn in two generations, there is a copy of Southwestern Indian Jewelry; Crafting New Traditions by the silent cash register. The book, written by our friend Dexter Cirillo, is, “[A]n absorbing and authoritative chronicle of the current innovations in jewelry-making among tribes of the Southwest.” Several featured artists: Clarence and Russell Lee, Kee Yazzie Jr., Allison Lee and Tommy Jackson are personal friends and long-term business associates. We have become acquainted with many others at various exhibitions, art markets, trading posts and studios.

When I thumb through the pages of the book, admiring the exquisite work, I get a satisfyingly warm feeling; a sensation that touches me deeply. To its creators, the art is important economically. It is also, however, aesthetically significant to them. Many, if not all, of the artists are capable of doing other jobs or trades, but find that creating exquisite objects is most satisfying.

On a visceral level, I fully understand this sentiment. Each day when I open the doors to Twin Rocks and walk among the art created by a variety of Southwest artists, I am overcome with a feeling of richness; not necessarily wealth, but something larger. In each creation I see the artist and remember the experience of negotiating the purchase with him or her, relive conversations with the makers and recall the thrill of seeing the item for the first time.

Often I walk past a rug or basket and run my hand across its surface, just to experience the texture. On such occasions I am reminded of the Beauty Way ceremony, which is performed by Navajo medicine men to reestablish balance, harmony and beauty in the patient’s life. Barry and I believe the Beauty Way appropriately expresses what we feel about the art and artists of Twin Rocks, and have faith that its guiding principles will carry us through to brighter days.

The Navajo Beauty Way Ceremony

In beauty may I walk
All day long may I walk
Through the returning seasons may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully birds
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk
With dew about my feet may I walk
With beauty may I walk
With beauty before me may I walk
With beauty behind me may I walk
With beauty above me may I walk
With beauty all around me may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty

For us, the beauty is in the people as well as the art, and what we expend in support and appreciation is returned to us in similar coin many times over. Surely, that is something we all inherently, deeply, intimately, viscerally need in our lives.

With Warm Regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post

Thursday, January 8, 2009


It is my belief that human beings are basically seekers; we look for knowledge and understanding in all things and make the effort to discover truth in the world around us. Many of us rely on science and technology to attempt a literal translation, while others find peace, wholeness and completeness through faith in a divine essence. Native American cultures looked to the heavens and probed the earth to aid in that understanding, finding a deific understanding through agriculture.

Navajo Weaver Luana Tso with her Mother Earth Father Sky Rug.

Questions attracting the most attention seem to be those entertaining thoughts on life and afterlife. The Navajo people found a way to best explain this human frailty through nature; they watched and marveled at the cycles of Mother Earth, arriving at the conclusion that all living things undergo the same transformation.

The Navajo people saw that in the spring of each year, new life begins and bursts forth into the world. This was evidence of the spark of life, an awakening of consciousness. Summer is interpreted as the youthful years, where perceptions of reality begin to form in the mind. It is understood that positive outside influences are essential in forming a whole, productive human being. Recognizing the divine, nurturing planet helps initiate the metamorphosis of the people into functional, emotionally prosperous adults.

Careful evaluation of these cycles caused the interlocking pieces of the vast, cosmic puzzle to take shape in the minds of these aboriginal people. Autumn was visualized as maturity; a ripening of the body and mind emerging from carefully tended crops. The fruit of the plant represents successful reproduction; food and nourishment, both physical and mental, the seeds significant to regeneration and progressive continuation. With winter comes a more refined understanding of life, love and a compassionate respect for the thoughts and feelings of others. Unfortunately it also brings old age, frailty and death.

Contemplating the knowledge of Mother Earth provides a fuller understanding. Although individual human beings eventually pass from this world, they may be born again, as with the renewed awakening of the earth. Changing Woman came into being and evolved into the outward expression of Navajo mystery and divinity. Through careful observation, and by approaching the question practically and imaginatively, an acceptable solution is formulated.

A metaphor for this early stage of divine development is corn. The roots of this plant grasp the earth for strength and support; they touch the past and remind the people of their emergence into this world and the accompanying birth of society. The stalk portrays the upward moving way; reaching to the heavens for knowledge, understanding and greater significance. The fruit of the corn represents people: white, male; yellow, female. The tassel produces pollen which is interpreted as pure, unadulterated sunlight or sacred prayer; a realistic contemplation of truth through interpretation of available resources.

Mother Earth Father Sky Navajo Basket by Erick Holiday.

Researching a little deeper, I found similar thoughts from other cultures. Ankh is Egyptian, symbolizing a mythical eternal life, rebirth and the life-giving power of the sun. Most earth-centered or pagan cultures worshiped the serpent because it regularly sheds its skin, representing rebirth, protection against the forces of evil, sexuality, rain and fertility. It is a mediator between the physical and spiritual worlds. The list goes on and on. In the Bible, the serpent is associated with sin, temptation, destruction and Satan. The circular image of the snake biting its tail links the mythical significance of the reptile to that of the sacred circle of life and death.

The Phoenix is a cross-cultural heavyweight when it comes to life and death. This spontaneously combustible fellow is a symbol of the sun, mystical rebirth, resurrection and immortality. Every 100 years or so, this legendary red, yellow and white "fire bird" is believed to die by its self-made flames then rise up out of the ashes. The Phoenix is linked to worship of the fiery sun and associated, volatile, gods such as Mexico's Quetzalcoatl. It was named, "a god of Phoenicia" by the Phoenicians." To alchemists it symbolized the destruction and creation of new forms of matter, along the way to the ultimate transformation; the physical (turning lead into gold) and the spiritual (immortality, an occult alternative to Christian salvation). The philosopher's stone was considered the key to this transformation.

With the coming of the new year, the timeless dimension of questionable reality once again becomes the heavy focus of my consciousness. I contemplate the many versions of past and present realities, existence and substance. I wander in wonder, waiting for lightning to strike. Does the sum of all human knowledge hold the answer? I believe we must all seek and attempt to find our own path to enlightenment. Some of us find it more of a struggle than others. My head hurts, finding a quiet place in my mind would be a comfort. Ah well, bring on the eggnog, let's party and allow a brief dismissal until more relative information can be assimilated. Happy New Year!

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2009 Twin Rocks Trading Post