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Red Willow Spirit: A Forward Flow

Quartzite Thaw

The Rio Grande has many names.

It could hardly be otherwise: The major artery of this mountainous land, equal parts lifeblood and the waters of birth, it has kept this bit of earth alive for millennia, and its indigenous inhabitants with it.

Here, it has kept well the peoples of two extant Pueblos and the Apache to the north and west, sustaining whole nations and cultures and the travelers who passed through on trade routes as old as recorded time. This harsh landscape and unforgiving climate nonetheless has always welcomed and kept its own.

Colonial occupation has done its cruel work, of course, and yet . . . and yet, earth and water and sky here live and breathe and thrive. These waters that run through the lands of the Red Willow now, at a lower ebb than should by rights be theirs, are still animated by their original spirits, still active and engaged in a forward flow.

The river comprises a long and winding series of bends, some ebullient no matter the time of year, waves leaping, tumbling, roiling and rolling end over end as they race downward over boulders and sandbars and the occasional stand of plant life scattered aid the sediment.

Quartzite Flow

In other areas, progress is much slower, even in the throes of the spring thaw. This year’s runoff, of course, is minuscule by ordinary standards, but small and low may perforce be our watchwords going forward. A warming earth, in this place, at least, is more inclined to drought, and drought we have in abundance now.

Still, the waters flow — in some places, slowly, the only scant signs of progress visible in the small rippling waves created by a break around a high rock or the aerodynamic lines of a diving water bird. In some places, especially now, the water seems, to the human eye, to be perfectly still: more limpid pool than rushing river, so quiet and seemingly deep, even in the shallows, that the mountainsides are reflected with almost perfect clarity. In the still areas, particularly, the sky shares its color with the waters, as though pouring indigo through its silvered surface to create a cascading turquoise ribbon that holds back the earth’s locks, strands still pale and mostly bare.

The waters of this great river, known to the outside world by the name that is not its name, seem to hold alchemical properties, an ability to transform and transmogrify, to conceal in their mysterious depths even as they illuminate impossible colors and patterns in an endlessly-shifting reflective surface.

The water birds know this, and they know how, too, to navigate its mysteries.

Quartzite Landing

From winter into spring, the great river welcomes the water birds into its embrace. Wild ducks, geese, the occasional crane, all find a softly animated home within the gentler reaches of its flow. They join the raptors, what few remain beyond winter’s end, and the corvids who make their home year-round in the ancient cottonwood stands along its banks.

Turquoise waters turn silver in the light, and they shine as brightly as any landing strip. Webbed feet kick up small but steady splashes like diamond clusters, jewels that rise into the air to dance in the light, then fall as one back into the body of its mother, a substance that here is more precious than gold.

Quartzite Skimming

And yet, it will become gold, too: gold and turquoise, indigo and cobalt, that strange alchemical magic of liquid light and shadow. It carries itself downward, and is carried, too, and along the way it catches the spirit of the birds, captures their likeness, holds it, sets it ashimmer and then turns it back to them, a small gift for their travels, or perhaps just a navigational guide.

But they come, in flocks large and small, ones and twos and dozens and scores, knowing that the waters are their lifeblood, too. The waters play host, and the waters will provide.

Skimming the Blue

The great river, the ones whose original names are known only to the people of this place and to the river itself, seems small in places — here and there, not so very deep, nor so very far across to the other side. And yet, it’s possible for careless humans to be caught in its rapids and swept away, even on the calmest days.

Its own inhabitants know no such risk, of course; they can navigate above its surface or within its waves. Occasionally, one will arrive alone to skim above the waters, in search of sustenance for the body, or perhaps only for the spirit. But they have first rights; our task is to ensure that they are realized before we siphon off its gifts for ourselves.

A Solitary GoldenEye

As the waters come together, they move into formation, a long cascading sash of moiré silk in blues and grays, silvers and golds —a perfect backdrop for a solitary goldeneye, nestled softly in the embrace of dark waves limned by the reflection of indigo sky and amber cloud.

The goldeneye is safe; his feathers protect him from the deep cold, even in the shadow of the sloping banks. But the waters’ constant motion mean, too, that he may rest — he travels with little effort, allowing the animating spirit of the river to carry him along to where he needs to go.

Sometimes we need to fight the current, to move a distance back upstream. Sometimes, it’s enough to be carried along downstream by the grace and power of the waves.

But now more than ever, we must heed the motion of the currents, and the water level, too. We cannot continue on the same course; the drought-lowered waters cannot sustain it. The force of the water and the power of gravity assure one thing: Lessened or not, the river will always find and maintain a forward flow.

We must learn to do the same.

~ Aji












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