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Red Willow Spirit: A Fall of the Light


On this day, our thoughts are preoccupied with the catastrophe approaching those far to the east of here. They sit now in the path of the storm — and not just any storm, but a vortex of cataclysmic proportions. Many of those now in its sights are also indigenous peoples, but the forces of colonialism have transformed the hurricane into a monster unlike any their ancestors ever faced.

Here at Red Willow, the people daily encounter the effects of climate change, too, although not nearly on such a scale. They will be no less transformative over the long term, but here at 7,500 feet above sea level, there is more time to prepare. Our risks here run less to disasters that can strike and disappear in a day — although tornadoes are increasingly a feature of certain seasons, if mostly on the periphery. Instead, they run more toward long-term alterations that, not so very far off, are likely to throw livelihoods once taken for granted into risk and ruin. Here, it is wildfire, drought, heat, cold, flooding rains and burying winter storms that have ramped up their power and intensity, bringing with them now-visible changes in seasonal patterns and in the diversity of plants and animals able or willing to survive in this place.

One thing remains more or less constant here, whatever the change to climate and weather and season: the magic that is the light.

Oh, it’s true that sometimes the light seems more mysterious, more ethereal, more intense in recent years, particularly at less usual times, as a result of climate change. The smoke from summer wildfires and the clouds of more furious monsoon season contribute to more spectacular demonstrations of celestial beauty and power. But in this place, the light has always been a living thing, a spirit of such otherworldly beauty as to rob one of speech and breath in the same instant.

And this season is marked by a fall of the light.


It begins, every year, in September: the month in which fall itself arrives, and the time when the light turns as gold as the leaves and as red as the setting sun, the time when it it emerges for a season’s fiery congress with the lengthening shadows and the encroaching dark.

It is dawn, it is day, it is dusk, these three, but the greatest of these are dawn and dusk. Some evenings, the light’s fall is brief, foreshortened, caught by the peaks there to pool above the ground. This series of images came from a September evening some six years ago, as we had just finished getting the hay in. To be more precise, the hay was not entirely in; the final load remained stacked on the flatbed, just out of range behind Wings as he took a series of three shots: first, the one featured yesterday; the second, moments later, displayed at the top; and third, only moments after that, shown just above. We had been racing to beat a fall of another sort — the rain, a late monsoonal cloudburst that seemed ready to strike with all of its fury, then fizzled into a few hundred drops. We managed to get the trailer halfway into the hay barn, where we left it for the night . . . and the light came to reward us with a dazzling display of ever-shifting shades and shapes, as though the spirits danced in robes of silver and gold, rose and blue, just above the surface of the earth.


Sometimes, the light falls upward. It’s a gift of the the dawn, a phenomenon only those sleepless enough, or fortunate enough, to be abroad before the sunrise are privileged to witness. It’s also a phenomenon larger of the final third of the calendar year, the months from September to early December, when the morning clouds are a late-hovering veil, still thick enough to filter Father Sun’s blazing brilliance.

Dancing Light

Sometimes, the light is liquid, falling and cascading and pooling and splashing, a millions tiny fireflies dancing upon the pond in broad daylight. It’s nearly as blinding as trying to stare upon the sun itself, this reflection in the waters of the earth, a dazzling display of jewels frolicking among the reeds.

Then, of course, there are the shadows, the light’s opposite, the dark void where its path is blocked.


September’s long shadows fall across the Pueblo, creating doorways and entries, portals and interstices, thresholds and liminal spaces between. Light and shadow alike seem to point elsewhere, to direct or beckon, to command ons attention for places beyond the dusty paths of our day-to-day footprints.

105 Cropped

They fall across the earth, too, this land that is older than time: tall spirits of unknown name dancing across the meadow, reaching for the mountain, striving for places beyond our awareness or understanding. They are the stuff of dreams and visions, beings who exist only in the absence of the light, but without the light they are not, no form, no shape, no ability to be.


They fall across the land where we live, a union with the day’s late light that lends dark to earth but allows the golden glow to kiss the treetops. It is another set of lines, another collection of light and shadow, existence and absence, substance and void that create a momentary universe that belongs to that threshold that encompasses both summer and fall.

Valley of the Sun Resized

They blanket the peaks, these shadows do, then move to the outer edges, parting with the clouds that birth them high above to allow the light to pool in the center. It is a fall of light in the most complete sense, literal, metaphorical: one that occurs at the aspen line, only in the fall, and only when the light manages to fall between the clouds at its perfect autumn angle.


And sometimes, it’s not the shadow that creates the spirit, but the projection of the light: through a window, water birds and spirit figures dancing together upon the cracked concrete floor. They are there for moments, only, too, and only for those whose eyes are open to such things: They appeared at a literal threshold, a pair of graceful spirits bestowing grace of their own, a September blessing appearing momentarily upon the foundation of Wings’s studio.

These are the spirits for whom to watch: the ones who show themselves at thresholds only, those who not only ride the light, but are the light..

But there are other blessings, too — not quite visitations, but gifts nonetheless.


It, too, is grace, this gift, because it is an opportunity, a chance: a path forward, a way out, a means of emergence . . . out of the dark, into the light.

Because on some September days, when summer is not yet gone, autumn here but not committed, when the storm has passed and dusk gathers in the distance . . . on such days, a fall of the light is a ladder between the worlds.

~ Aji










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