Tuesday, December 11, 2018

My Life as a Leaf

A while ago I was thumbing through an old issue of Southwestern Art magazine when I noticed an advertisement for a bronze sculpture. The sculpture looked interesting, so I paused for a closer look. The ad showed three men sitting beneath a monumental bronze of a canoe with Daniel Boone in the bow and a Native American man in the stern. The ad included the following text, “Near the end of his life, Daniel Boone was quoted as saying, ‘My life was like a leaf on a stream.’” I nearly shouted out loud, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s my motto.” 

Many years ago, I decided I had little control over my fate, and that the title of my autobiography, should it ever merit writing, would be, My Life as a Leaf. The title refers to the belief that my life has generally taken a course similar to that of a leaf cast into a fast-moving stream. I sense I am carried along by this overwhelming, uncontrollable force which sends me tumbling over rocks, swirling in eddies, and bouncing from shore to shore, with no ability to stop or even slow the process. Fortunately, up to this point at least, there hasn’t been significant physical damage.

It didn’t take long to realize ole Dan’l must have had the thought well before I did. Well, okay, it took a little longer than I care to admit, but I eventually arrived at the appropriate chronology. I often feel the pull of a current as I go about my daily routine. The tug reminds me that larger forces are moving all around me, and that I have little or no control over them. That point was reinforced late one morning as I walked to the trading post and a “monster truck" approached me from behind. Since Bluff’s streets are narrow, the truck came fairly close and I began pondering just how fortunate I was to have avoided occupying the same space with that mass of steal and rubber. Shortly after my close encounter, I noticed a stinkbug with his back side sticking up in the air. The vehicle had obviously affected the insect as well. In response, the creature simply stuck its fanny in the air; apparently concluding the truck would somehow notice the obvious threat to its wellbeing. I am confident I have engaged in similarly vain attempts to protect myself when forces I cannot possibly comprehend are impacting me. Although I generally don’t stick my rear in the air, like my companion the stinkbug, I have all too often failed to understand the magnitude of things that have just passed over.

One such thing was making the decision to move back to Utah almost thirty years ago. At the time, I had no idea I was destined to become an “Indian trader” in Bluff, Utah, USA. That was one of those parts of the stream that sent me tumbling and swirling uncontrollably for an exceptionally long time. Having grown up in this region, I thought I had a good grasp on its land and people. In fact, I had none. As a result, on many occasions these people of the Desert Southwest have shown me new and unexpected ways to see things.

As an example, when my oldest daughter was young, a Hopi friend periodically invited us to the katsina dances at Moenkopi. I accepted the hospitality whenever possible, and often took her, a bag of flour, and a box of oranges to the ceremonies. On our first adventure, we got up early and arrived at the old village before sunrise for the Bean Dance. Our friend ushered us into his grandmother’s home to meet the family. His grandmother was of an advanced age, as was the community. Hopi villages are some of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in America and are a testament to the tenacity of these Indigenous people. Grandma lived in a single room with a wood-burning stove in the center and the table, bed, and other modest furnishing neatly placed around perimeter of the apartment. When I initially stepped inside, I noticed there was no running water and no bathroom facilities. “Poverty” was my first thought. A short while later we went outside and were shown a tree with a metal pipe protruding from it. It appeared the tube had long ago been stuck into a spring and over many years a cottonwood had grown around the outlet. Water flowed freely from the spout. Our friend explained that the tree was the village’s only water source, and that, although he was unsure exactly how it worked, he and the other members of the village were happy to have it.

We returned to Grandma’s house for the start of the ceremony, and I began to notice more about the structure and the family. I realized the room was built of love and contained virtually everything the elderly woman needed. I noticed melons under the bed and a curtain hung for those moments when she needed privacy. I also realized the woman’s children and grandchildren exuded love and tenderness. I began to see my initial evaluation had been terribly wrong, and that this person lived in a state of extreme wealth; wealth that we of the Anglo culture frequently misunderstand in our quest to accumulate more and more material things.

As the dance began, one of our friend’s aunties asked to hold my daughter. I, of course, agreed because I sensed her kindness and gentleness. My daughter looked a little concerned as she sat watching the Mudheads cascade from the kiva. I reassured her everything was okay, and she snuggled down into the woman’s generous lap. I believe that is as content and happy as I have ever seen my daughter.

As the dance progressed, I remember feeling the warmth of the old woman’s family surrounding me. I also remember thinking I had stepped back in time a century or two, and was experiencing something important, something large. The flow in that part of my stream was cool, comfortable, and serene, and I felt content. It was then that I realized just how happy one can be with a few melons under the bed and a family who loves you. At that moment, I knew something significant had passed over me, something I could not fully comprehend.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Up, Up, and Away

I must be getting grumpy from the grind of the summer season because everyone at Twin Rocks, everyone except our sweet-tempered Priscilla that is, has suggested that I take a little more time off. “Go to the cabin, to the mountain,” they suggest. “Just get out of here!” Even Laurie, my trusted and supportive spouse, suggested I go forth and “disperse a little negativity.” I thought that I was one of the most calm and compassionate people around this place. As Rick is fond of saying, “Guess again!” So, leaving the business to Steve, who is much more suited to deal with the nonsense, I grabbed up my ruck sack, my chainsaws, jumped into my battered Toyota pick-up, and sped away. Arriving at our alpine property, Laurie’s treasured inheritance, I felt my worth of worries and frustration drop away. Other than being in direct contact with Laurie, the mountain is where I choose to stay. It is, in a word, my sanctuary.

I have told Laurie and the kids that when I get too old to move around much and too blind to see where I am going that the simple solution would be to place me on the mountain property. “Just maintain the fences,” I tell them. I will wander the land until coming into contact with the four wire then bounce off in an equal and opposite direction. Like the game of Pong (me being the white ball) continually bounding and rebounding, enjoying the land and solitude until someone has the time to come visit and share a meal. I would have plenty of room to maneuver, and if the property boundaries became too great an expanse, move me into the forty square feet of aluminum panels surrounding the shack, 1,600 square feet will suffice in a pinch. “What about wild animals?” asked McKale. “Better to become bear scat, coyote crud, or fox farts than slowly melting away into a mound of man manure,” I told her. 

Breathing in the freshness of the place and appreciating the natural world, I went to work. Because Laurie knew that I would surely cut a load of oak, which we had no need of, she had already promised it to a friend who would put it to good use. While she cared for her mother down the hill in Monticello, I got busy and fired up the Stihl. It didn’t take me long to cut a pickup load of 8-foot logs which had the bed of the truck riding on the frame and the rear shocks overloaded to the point of fatigue. Feeling as if I had accomplished something worthwhile, I took up a lunch of an Arizona Mango Madness and a bag of Jack Link's smoked turkey jerky. Walking further into the forest, I found a small open space, sat back against a fallen Quakie, popped the top on the tallboy, and began to partake. 

Although it may sound silly, but because of the associated colors, refreshing taste of the drink, and spicy kick of the jerky, this slim repast always reminds me of a brilliant early winter sunrise over the mountains, mesas, and monuments of our beloved canyon country. If you are up and out just before dawn and look to the east you may be privileged to see a spectacular, watercolor-scape eruption of light and color upon the skyline. From behind the wildly varied and still deeply shadowed landscape, the resplendent God of the Sun slowly but steadily emerges, bursting forth in all his might and majesty. A light show of radiant orange, passionate pink, and fiery red---along with every shade of purple---ebbs and flows in an ever-evolving tide of diffused and refracted luminescence. The backlit feminine form of majestic mountains and linier staggered and stacked buttes stand out in softened silhouette. Closer in, twisted and gnarled groves of our wind- and weather-formed juniper trees along with bushed-out shapes of yucca, sage, and rabbit brush add depth and dimension to nature’s painted palate.

As I sat there, leaning upon a tree stump amongst a grove of pine, oak, and quaking aspen, enjoying the sounds of silence and smell of cut wood, I heard something scampering through the leaves and underbrush nearby. Opening my eyes, I saw one of the most amazingly attractive sights on our mountain. A glorious Abert's squirrel stood poised on a log only yards away from where I rested. Through my work at the trading post, I was aware that in Native American folklore, squirrels are most noted for their noisy and aggressive behavior; they frequently spread gossip, instigate trouble between other animals, or annoy others with their rude and bossy attitudes. However, as Priscilla often reminds me, cultural stories also attempt to find balance. They speak of an equal and opposite side of everything.  She tells me that squirrels (Hazéí) are praised for their industrious food gathering and courage, and among Southeastern tribes, squirrels are honored as caretakers of the forest. In the story of Changing Bear Maiden, the squirrel guards the maid’s vital organs making her difficult to defeat. 

The extraordinarily outfitted little beastie saw my movement and sprinted up the nearest tree in a flash of grey and white. It leapt from tree to tree with the ease and grace of being born to the heights, then stopped some thirty yards away and began chastising my intrusion from on high. The sighting made me smile in delight. I would never see the Abert as rude or bossy, but I do consider it a guide and protector. I appreciate their beauty and place in the world. The next time you are in need of a few moments of meditative refreshment, grab yourself a can of Mango Madness and a package of smoked turkey jerky. Then find a quiet, peaceful place to sit back, close your eyes, and think of the most magnificent sunrise or sunset you have ever witnessed. I hope you, too, will catch a glimpse of the tufted Abert’s squirrel. See if that doesn’t calm your nerves and make life easier for others within your circle.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

On the Web

Long, long ago, I took Grange to Bluff Elementary School to conclude his Student Education Plan. Every year, parents convene with their child’s instructors to set goals for the upcoming term. Upon our arrival, Grange’s teacher, Mrs. Hart, informed us it would be about ten minutes before she finished the current round of interviews and could see us. As a result, Grange rounded up his old buddy Trevor, who had been eagerly standing by, and out to the playground we headed.

Upon exiting the easterly door, we spotted an adolescent lizard scampering up the side of the building. The reptile was only about three inches long and had an unusually beautiful blue tail. Apparently, it was new to the location and had not previously been harassed by the school yard population, because it was fully intact and not overly skittish.

All that was about to change, because Grange and Trevor could not resist the challenge of catching the small beast. The kids whooped and yelled, as I directed the creature towards them by stamping my feet, all the time cautioning the boys not to harm it. At one point, the harried reptile sought sanctuary beneath my shoe, and, as Grange and Trevor dropped to their stomachs to peer under my Nike, I carefully lifted the sneaker.

Realizing it was once again in danger and hearing the excited war shrieks of the children, the lizard took a flying leap off the stairs and onto the playground. As it raced among the drawings of various chalk masters, darting from side to side in short, quick bursts, Grange and Trevor did the same, albeit more slowly and awkwardly.

A few days earlier, a French woman had browsed the trading post. Trying to explain her Southwest vacation and searching for the English word “memories,” she had described her recent experiences as “pictures of the brain.” The sight of Grange and Trevor chasing the illusive racer provided me some truly memorable brain pictures.

Although the lizard was getting a good workout, he did not appear in any danger of being caught; Grange and Trevor were having too much fun to actually capture him. All of the sudden, the lizard’s fortunes changed. It decided to climb straight up a cement corner, which at first appeared to be a good decision. The snag, however, was a large spider web suspended in the nook.

As the creature dashed vertically up the concrete, he all too quickly became ensnared in the web and was irretrievably lost in a completely unexpected and unforeseen impediment. Grange snatched him up as Trevor and I looked on. The boys thoroughly inspected the reptile and gently scratched his tummy to make him a little more comfortable in his captivity.

Holding the lizard gently but firmly, Grange and Trevor marched him into their classroom to get Mrs. Hart’s impressions. “What a beautiful tail,” she said, and encouraged the boys not to harm him. By that time Mrs. Hart was ready to meet with us, so I asked them to liberate their hostage. When they returned from their mission, a little later than I expected, I inquired into the status of the lizard. “Oh, he’s all right,” they reported, “but his tail is a little bent.”

At the trading post, we often feel our experiences are much like that of the lizard; as we scurry from one project to the next, we sometimes feel there is a larger power dictating our movements. Just when we think we are on top of things, we realize we have been tripped up by an unexpected snag. There are times when we get our tummy scratched, but usually at the cost of a bent tail.