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Red Willow Spirit: A World of Bright Blue Skies

On Sunday, we planted the first of our corn.

It was both too late and too early: too late because in an ordinary year, it would have gone into the ground a month ago; too early because even at this late pass, the soil, like the air, remains far too dry to nurture nascent life.

Dry or not, it could wait no longer; these waning days of June, the first days of official summer, are our last chance to ensure a harvest of any sort at season’s end.

A check of the extended forecast shows no real chance of rain — or, more accurately, no real prediction of any real chance of rain — for nearly two full weeks yet.It’s far enough out that we may find, when the date rolls around, that the projections were inaccurate in the first place. This drought has taught us the futility of expectation, of reliance on the dominant culture’s computer models and meteorological equivalent of faith healing. In our altered climate, at the end of service or show, the injury remains, and no amount of blind faith restores the weather version of walking or sight.

Here at Red Willow, that is especially true. To say that water is at a premium misses the point; for the most part, there simply is no water to be had for love or money, regardless of one’s faith in miracles. We are blessed to have a small amount in our pond now, the flow having diverted some small portion of itself on its way downstream to someone else. But it will not be enough to irrigate, nor much else beyond supporting the odd dragonfly. What little is there will be fed to the trees tomorrow, because under the heat of these unrelenting blue skies, it will evaporate in record time.

One of the great gifts of life in this place is the sky beneath which we live out our days: a great vaulted expanse of blue, turquoise and indigo, cornflower and cobalt. Montana may have appropriated the slogan “Big-Sky Country” for itself, but it applies just as well down here at the base of The Dragon’s Tail, the southern tip of the Rockies whose ridgeline turns back upon itself like its informal namesake, the peaks and waters and skies that are home and sacred to this place known as Red Willow.

Here, the heavens are mostly turquoise near dawn and dusk, the hint of green visible thanks to the golden glow of Father Sun ascendant and descendant. Or so it used to be. Like much else, that, too, has changed.

I noticed it again yesterday in early afternoon, that thin verdant veil that covered what would normally be a cornflower sky to the east. Part of it is the smoke of wildfires not so very distant from us now — up and down the state’s western edge, north to Colorado, and as of Sunday, a small one some half-hour south, near Pot Creek.

But part of it, I’m convinced, is simply the heat and aridity: full-bodied color depends in part upon moisture, and with virtually no humidity, much less any rain, the color of the sky here has thinned appreciably. Now, we depend upon the billowy whiteness of the clouds for contrast, their pale color backlit by a silver sun making the blues seem more intense than they actually are.

Occasionally, of course, skies clear; the haze burns off, leaving a perfect clear blue in its place. On such days, the clouds seem impossibly white, puffy and pure as cotton, ready to merge and dance and assume the shapes of other spirits. It’s not at all unusual to find a bear lumbering across the heavens, or a wolf stalking some invisible prey, or a giant eagle in flight between worlds.

Once, it was a hummingbird.

It showed itself to Wings only in semi-profile, its head and beak merged fully into a larger cloud, perhaps some celestial version of a nectar-producing flower. But the articulation of its head, the shape of its body, the spread of its wings: all were unmistakable. As the cloud rippled outward in shirred white rows, they assumed the form of outstretched wings bearing the ethereal bird aloft, hovering just as its tiny real-world counterparts of the lower atmosphere are wont to do.

Its message, if any, has been lost to memory and time, but I find myself drawn anew to the image each year — as though, perhaps, the tiny spirit messenger, his image writ large across the sky, carries enough power to transcend the bonds not merely of earth and sky but of time as well.

We could do with some good news this year.

For the moment, there is nothing we can do but adjust, adapt, and pray. There is always room for hope, of course, but if our peoples know one thing, it is that we must deal with the realities of how life is, not how it was or how it might have been or how we wish it to be.

And so, we planted our corn, gave it a small amount of water . . . and watched it break the surface already in the space of a single day. In weather such as this? That is cause for celebration, for thanksgiving, and, yes, for hope.

Still, hope and corn alike will wither on the vine if there is no rain. Normally, these would be early days yet in the monsoon season — the heaviest storms tend to come in the latter half of July and the first half of August — and so hope is not lost.


Still, we know better than to make assumptions, especially now; two decades of record drought have worsened drastically in the last couple of years, and this year, it has reached a nadir, at least in terms of living memory. Based on current patterns, we have reason to suspect that it had not reached bottom yet, either.

And so, while we adjust our expectations and adapt to new patterns and practices, we pray. We pray for the earth, and for the waters and the sky. We pray that our planting will be blessed, and our harvest sufficient, if not abundant. Most of all, we pray for the clouds to change their own patterns and practices, that instead of independent white threads of cotton drifting lazily across a scorching blue sky, they will instead choose to gather, to combine and cooperate and collaborate, to build themselves into great thundering towers of blackened violet — and that they will invite the Thunderbirds in to play, to toss the balls of thunder back and forth with sticks made of lightning, to  welcome the winds and whip up the rain and deliver to our dry and thirsty earth.

It’s unlikely we will see any rain before the month is out. Still, we have a little time yet. We have prayer; we have hope. For now, we cope.

We are learning, even in rainy season still delayed, to live, to thrive, to survive in a world of bright blue skies.

~ Aji








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