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Red Willow Spirit: An Earth, Illustrated

Long, long ago, so some versions of the story go, when the First People emerged from the waters to find that there was no surface on which they could live, it was Grandmother Turtle who created the world by offering them the shell on her back.

It’s a fitting metaphor in ways that transcend even our origin stories and land mass: After all, Turtle’s shell is made up of a series of plates, bones and scutes linked together in a protective enclosure. The world as we know it was likewise formed of a series of plates, tectonic ones that have shifted over time on a cosmic scale to create the land masses that hold humanity, including our own Turtle Island. It’s a phenomenon writ small upon the surface of Mother Earth, too, as heat and water, pressure and time combine to move and shift the mountains, the boulders, the rocks, the sands, their own plates, large and small, merging, breaking, parting, joining together again in new ways.

This is no longer the world as we know it.

We are behind the curve, terribly far behind it, and a new world is being born beneath our feet even as we are too slow to recognize the tragic miracle, and miraculous tragedy, occurring before our eyes.

It becomes ever more informative, then, and ever more urgent, to learn from the shifts that have occurred before.

Here at Red Willow, there is evidence of many. The mountains themselves, some sacred, some harboring sacred waters, too, are proof of the birth of such worlds. The presence of water, and then its receding, carved the peaks and valleys, the cliffs and mesas that are home to the people of this place. And long ago, the Ancient Ones left their mark on the land, too — a land whose boundaries, whose topography and scape is now changing once again.

Wings captured these images well over a decade ago, the old-fashioned way: with a film camera. Back then, he didn’t even own a digital one. And one brilliantly sunny day, he recorded the images inscribed by the ancients, the stories they, and their shifting-plate canvases, had to tell.

The collection of inscribed plates above has always called to mind, for me, a turtle. Perhaps “turtle” is too small to encompass its mass and solidity; “tortoise” might be more accurate. It’s fitting in another way, too, given that tortoises are land-dwelling reptiles while turtles live at least part of their days in the water. And save for what falls from the summer rains, now nearly nonexistent, or the winter snows, last year equally scarce, this great creature formed of gray granite plates is entirely landlocked, emerging from the face of a giant outcropping beneath a hot blue sky.

Tortoise or not, simulacrum of the larger world or otherwise, such plates provided the medium by which history was recorded here. It’s only one of many such media, of course, but earthen canvases and palettes and the art and language inscribed thereon hold no less meaning than any other.

It is true that it’s a meaning mostly lost to us now, although it’s possible to make some educated guesses. Some images are clearly figurative, and meant to be so: humans, animals, spirit beings that assume either form (or both, or neither). Above might be a hunt, with animal a fellow hunter or the prey. It might also be a man or woman (a child) with a dog or other pet). It might be a spirit shooing away a trickster in the form of Coyote, that the people might not be bothered by his mischief.

Perhaps it’s all of them, all living on upon this earthen canvas, a part now of the shifting plates of this place.

Plates that we can expect to shift all the more in the years and decades to come, as drought deepens and wether events become ever more extreme.

Speaking of spirit, one puts in an appearance in this same spot, a little downslope from the hunters (or tricksters) adorning the shell of the tortoise.

Perhaps it’s a relative, too: I have always thought that Ko’ko’pe’li, when standing upright, has always resembled Turtle, with the hump on his back that could easily pass for a shell. It fits with the identity of the old trickster fertility spirit, too; turtles are, after all, associated with water as much as land, and thus with fertility and abundance.

It’s impossible to tell for sure, but it looks as though this romancing spirit was given an audience for his flute-playing, a bird or a butterfly. Both can represent love and romance, although they are more likely to be messengers, but in my case, it calls to mind one very specific real-life incident from eleven years ago. It was just past summer’s end, and we had just lost our dog, BearGirl, to catastrophic illness, a result of some medication she should never have been prescribed. BearGirl had loved it when Wings played his flutes; she would sit at his feet and look up at him until the notes stopped. And so he sat outside his studio in the usual spot, playing one of his many red cedar flutes . . . and a red-shafted Northern flicker fluttered up to dance near the end of his flute, as though in time to its haunting notes.

In our way, the flicker is a spirit bird.

I know it was BearGirl, availing herself of a messenger to give us one last gift.

But not all flute-players are so easily identified, nor are their instruments so clear.

This image has always amused me as much as it has amazed me: the latter for its stark visual clarity; the former for what might be read into its lack of representational clarity.

It looks for all the world like a mosquito. It also looks like a wingéd Ko’ko’pe’li, one whose hump splits to carry him through the air like some sort of 1000 C.E. jetpack. The fact that he flies toward one of of the few sunny splotches of color on the outcropping makes this image all the more beautiful — and it’s equally unclear whether the bright gold is the result of lichen growing upon the surface or oxidation weathering it away.

Speaking of suns, it has always seemed to me that earth stories illustrated by rock art focus disproportionately on the relationship between earth and sky. But that I don’t mean that the focus itself is disproportionate, nor in any way worthy of criticism; merely that a perhaps-surprisingly sizeable percentage of what has survived to hove into public view seems to address this cosmic linkage.

This image has always seemed to me to be a representation of Father Sun. there are fifty-one spokes, or rays, around the orb, with what looks like an arrow inside it pointing in a clockwise direction. Beneath, like the string of a floating balloon, a trailing line seems to tether it to the earth. No, the numbers don’t quite work out in the way modern science accounts them, but despite what the dominant culture will tell you, there is more than one way to reckon time.

There is also more than one way to understand the calendar, the seasons, the months and moons, our relationship to the earth beneath our feet and the spirits of the skies overhead.

We need to understand them now.

Outside, the clouds amass, yet remain stubbornly outside the bounds of this place. The mercury has again passed ninety, ten degrees above our August norm, and the cottonwoods across the highway are fasting exchanging green robes for gold.

Meanwhile, the plates shift, and shift again; the earth moves, rises and settles, cracks open and weaves itself together anew. The histories are inscribed on and in the earth itself, stories waiting to tell themselves to generations growing up with this new world so unlike the one we thought it to be.

It is an earth, illustrated, one to guide us by the wisdom of the ancestors, to give us hope for generations yet unborn.

~ Aji








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