Friday, October 28, 2016

Here and Now and Then

Last Sunday I found myself high up in the crotch of a large cottonwood tree. I was north of Monticello, east of the airport, on the lip of Spring Creek admiring the view from 25 feet up. The late afternoon light filtered through the remaining leaves, turning them a luminescent yellow as if they were lit from within. Much of the tree trunk retained its coarse crosshatched bark pattern, but there were occasional dead limbs as well, especially upon the top most portion of the snag. These stuck out at oblique angles, something you might expect on a bewitched and aged Tolkien Ent.

It was deer season, but I wasn’t hunting. Instead I was in this quiet and memorable place to enjoy the feel of fall and the creatures that dwell in the area. Although this narrow, deeply cut and rocky bottomed arroyo is dry most of the year, it still attracts a wealth of wildlife. Thirteen years ago, Laurie, our daughters Alyssa and McKale, and I built a sturdy tree stand in the elevated crook of this tree. It was a labor of love for our son, Spenser. Spense had been injured in a terrible accident. He was recovering nicely, but was still a bit unsteady. His desire was to hunt deer, so we built this perch to help keep him upright and secure. Since that time I have often used it as a place of meditation.

The air was crisp and clean, with just a bit of a breeze rattling the leaves and causing the dry ones to drop to the ground. Two white-breasted nuthatches flitted from branch-to-branch in search of bugs, unconcerned with my presence. A couple years ago I was here napping in the warm sunlight when a golden eagle swooped in and landed only ten feet from me. I think it was as surprised to see me as I was it. Needless to say, a full-grown eagle up close is an impressive sight. We stared at each other for a moment, then the giant bird let out a piercing screech, loosed its grip on the limb and sailed across the alfalfa field, sending the local prairie dog population diving for their burrows.

This evening no birds of prey came to visit, but the deer began to stir. I leaned on the edge of the stand and glassed the borders of the oak brush and banks of the stock ponds. I was not disappointed as the deer began to emerge from their hiding places en masse. Does, fawns and small bucks were everywhere. Looking to the east, where a giant, dilapidated barn stands in the middle of a field of winter wheat, I was reminded what Grandpa Clem might have said. “They were as thick as ticks on a dog.” Before long the deer moved into my grove of cottonwoods and started feeding right under my feet. I could see their big brown eyes and even count their eyelashes.

For me, there is nothing on this earth more relaxing than communing with nature. The trading post and cafe are places where Steve and I socialize with people from all walks of life and from every corner of the globe. For certain, Twin Rocks is a stimulating place and more educational as anyone might imagine. However, a trek through the sage and cedar is where I discover peace and tranquility. Sitting in that tree, surrounded by the natural world in all its beauty, helps me balance my world and find peace. The only thing that would have made the experience more enjoyable would have been having my wife and children there with me.

As shadows began to envelop the landscape and the sun set behind Blue Mountain, I knew it was time to leave my hallowed haven. I regretted disturbing the deer, but Laurie would be expecting me soon. I opened the door as quietly as I could and descended the ladder with caution. The deer didn’t seem threatened at all, they simply moved over and kept browsing. Driving back down the dirt road, I thanked my lucky stars for living in this here and now.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Our Children Don't Care About Our Stuff

One of the images that indelibly etched itself into my mind over the past 20 years is that of an old Woodie station wagon parked alongside a dirt back road leading to Shiprock, New Mexico. The doors of the vehicle are flung open and the passenger compartment empty. From the picture it is impossible to tell whether the car has stalled or if its occupants were so stunned by the natural beauty of that stark geography they spontaneously bailed out in order to capture the moment on film.

In the early part of the 20th Century, it was common for those living in the Midwest or East to hire a car such as that and tour the rugged, undeveloped Southwest. Along the way travelers might stop to buy an Acoma pot, a Navajo weaving, an Apache basket or any one of a variety of cultural curiosities. Once home, these items would be strategically placed in their residence to let others know the occupants of the house had satisfactorily completed the classic Southwestern tour.

In most cases, these artistic creations acquired from Native tribesmen were both beautiful to look at and fond reminders of an important time in the lives of the travelers. Not only had the voyagers persevered in difficult terrain, they had met the Natives face-to-face and experienced ancient cultures that were rapidly receding.

As the 1940s turned into the 50s, 60s, 70s and eventually the new millennium, these adventuresome newlyweds became mom and dad, and all too soon grandma and grandpa. When retirement rolled around, the happy couple began thinking about moving into a smaller, more manageable living arrangement, and also started wondering what to do with the tangible reminders of their early years together.

All too often Barry and I meet these individuals as they retrace their footsteps from distant decades and wonder, “What do we do with all the things we acquired?” The easy answer is, “Bring it in.” Barry and I are happy to help find new homes for their art. In some cases we even keep a piece or two for our own private collections. The more difficult answer is, however, actually a question, “Why don’t your children want it?” There never seems to be a satisfactory answer.

My suspicion is that, like the numerous tribes of Native America, we with paler faces are also failing to adequately invest our children and grandchildren with the stories of our past. We are not passing on the wonder and romance that caused us to acquire these items initially and to love them for so many years thereafter. To me it seems we have an obligation to teach our descendants our history, to give them the opportunity to understand our experience and to learn from what we have seen.

Earlier today I spoke with a woman who told me she had inherited two “beautiful Navajo rugs” from her mother. She thought her father had brought them into the marriage, but since both mom and dad were long dead, there was no sure way to know. She said she had photographs of her as a baby playing on the rugs, but she knew nothing of their origin. “What a pity,” she said, “my kids don’t know anything about these weavings. They probably don’t even care.”

In many cases these items define who we are and where we were at a particular moment. Those are not just black pots, they are a reminder of what was important to us at the time, our economic status and what was happening during that phase of our lives. That is not just a Navajo rug, it is an indication of the fondness our parents felt for each other, a memory aid. Just another basket? No, that might be a representation of our support for a particular artist or artistic movement. An undistinguished piece of jewelry? Well, maybe it is all that is left of a particularly romantic evening all those years ago.

If our children do not care about the items we have collected over the course of our lives, then we have failed them, failed to communicate our passions, failed to communicate our histories and failed to invest those children with that part of ourselves that lives on when we do not.

What shall we do with these things our children care nothing about? Why not use them to help our descendants understand more about who you were and who you may become. Then those items will have true value and we will no longer have to ask ourselves what to do with our collections when we close this chapter.

With Warm Regards.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Living on the Edge

"You people live on the edge out here!" the lady said accusingly. The woman was seventy-something years of age with white hair, a pale complexion and, because she was agitated, a rosy flush on her hollow cheeks. "Well," I replied curiously, "Whaddayamean, edgy?" The woman's traveling companion, a short, petite girl some fifty years younger, laughed out loud. She had this really weird, machine gun giggle--the type that is sorta, kinda interesting when you first hear it, but you know, for a fact, if you were cooped-up in the car with it for several hundred miles, it would begin to get on your nerves.

The older woman looked at me crossly and said, "My comment was that you live on the edge, not that you are edgy." "I stand corrected!" I said, managing to contain my sarcastic nature. Looking into her sage green eyes, I said, "Alrighty then, what do you mean by living on the edge?" This sent the young woman into a rapid-fire giggling fit. I winced as her curly brown hair bobbed about and her dark eyes twinkled merrily. She was kind of cute, but that laugh!

Working on a hunch I asked the ornery lady, "Is this your granddaughter?" "She is," came the strained reply. "We are traveling from Salt Lake City, seeing the sights." The elderly woman explained that she had a newly-discovered fear of high places and narrow roads. Her granddaughter was driving them around and seemed to be drawn to elevated and grandiose vistas. "Muley Point was frightening, and the Moki Dugway made me fall to the floor boards; I nearly popped my teeth!" the aggravated woman said.  "At the Goosenecks I thought I was going to be sucked over the edge by the vortex there, it scared me out of my skin!" The granddaughter fired-off another round of laughter.

"Driving over and around these mountains, monuments and mesas is just too much for me!" Grandma said, lashing out. The granddaughter snorted with that now annoying giggle. Speaking now to the girl I asked, "Do you like to drive fast?" "The faster the better!" she giggled. Thinking to myself about Grandma's situation of being forced to ride around Canyon Country with a crazy, cackling driver was enough to force anyone over the edge.

The apparently disruptive interaction between the two women and the grandmother's misplaced aggravation made me think of a Yee Nahgloshii, a Navajo Skinwalker. Growing-up in Bluff brought Steve and me into direct contact with Navajo legends, one of which concerned a werewolf-like creature, or a witch wearing the skin of an animal, and taking on its more negative aspects. Stories of Skinwalkers were whispered around the campfire and caused the night to be a much more frightful place. Later on I came across a book by Clyde Kluckhohn, the American anthropologist and social theorist, titled Navajo Witchcraft.

As I understood Dr. Kluckhohn's interpretation, the Yee Nahgloshii were often used as scapegoats. Navajo families generally lived in large groups, the close proximity of numerous personalities often caused contention. To help disperse pent-up emotions, a Skinwalker was blamed for an altogether different issue like losing sheep, scaring children or causing an illness. The focus of frustration was shifted from each other to something far more malevolent. Most often everyone involved knew the underlying issues, but chose to vent frustration on a common enemy.

Several years ago Marvin Jim and Grace Begay brought in a carving of a Yee Nahgloshii. When I reacted in a less than positive manner to the sculpture, Grace chastised me and explained, "The Skinwalker was initially a positive creature. Medicine Men would morph into animal form to move about Navajoland with speed and agility to gather herbs and medicines from the sacred mountains, then arrive at their ceremonial destination on time. "But," Grace explained, "humans corrupted the totally positive aspects of the Yee Nahgloshii and twisted them into something far less pure."

"As with many cultures," Grace explained, "most people focus on the negative aspects of things. Marvin and I carved this Skinwalker to help people understand that our deities gave the medicine men a gift to help heal our people, not to represent fear and distrust." Steve and I bought the carving and sold it to some friends who collect American Indian Art. The sculpture remained in their care until recently when we reacquired it. 

Looking back to the elderly lady and her antagonistic granddaughter, I realized that here was a perfect opportunity to incorporate the Yee Nahgloshii. That poor frazzled Grandma was just venting her frustration at being cooped-up in a car with a crazily cackling speed demon. She had become edgy and was focusing the blame on those of us "living on the edge."

After all that, Grandma bought that girl a pair of earrings as a gift for bringing her to Monument Valley and southeastern Utah; then left, shakily, through the Kokopelli doors. As the young woman gathered up her gift I caught her eye, dropped another small pair of earrings in her box as a gift and said; "Slow down and let your Grandmother enjoy this trip, you are stressing her out." The young woman giggled nervously, as she left I thought I saw the ghost of understanding cross her countenance.