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Red Willow Spirit: Free Spirits

Red-Tail Fan Resized

In other parts of this land mass, people tend to think of winter as the time when the walls close in: when the days are short and dim, the nights long and cold, and there is never enough light, nor enough warmth, to do the thousand and one things that require doing.

Here, that season is spring.

Part of it is the caprice of climate and weather: Fifty-degree swings in the course of half a day are common, and so is the switch from a warming sun to snow and ice. But such extremes have been ratcheted further in every direction in recent years, a direct result of climate change, and now the season itself has become wholly unpredictable, and utterly arbitrary in its manifestations. It’s not arbitrary, of course; such unpredictability has been both entirely predictable and flatly predicted based on scientific models of global warming and its effects. But from our small human perspective, the whole year now seems to pace itself only by the whims of more powerful spirits.

But the net effect is to make spring completely unmanageable, a trend that only grows more extreme with each passing year. Now, we have seventy–degree days in January, and one solitary day in May on which the mercury has hit eighty. We have summer monsoonal patterns driving winter snows, and sub-zero lows bookending the actual winter months. A warm and sunny day can be wracked by winds by noon; rain can turn to hail, thence to snow, in seconds, and then revert to sun again by nightfall. It’s been too cold to plant, too dry to till, and yet the pressures of the warming season mount even as the weather remains stubbornly locked in March much of the time.

Our spirits are weary, bound as they are to an insistently resistant land.

At times like this, it’s more important than ever to take our cues from this land’s free spirits, and in so doing, free our spirits.

The hawks are here, having returned yet again. The weather bothers them not in the least; they go where they will, unbound by gravity or other impediments. If we are lucky enough to be out of doors at dawn, at midday, often at dusk, we will be given the gift of watching them take off, soar, hover, then race away upon the winds. We are still shackled to earth, unable to soar with them . . . but when the hawk takes flight, she takes with her a piece of my own spirit. Only a fragment, to be sure, but it’s enough for me to feel the sense of freedom and escape she offers.

But the raptors are also fierce, and while that strength of will is attractive, sometimes a softer spirit is more conducive to a sense of liberation.

Here at Red Willow, many of the wingéd ones are as red as the shafts of the indigenous plant: the red-tailed hawks; the red-winged blackbirds; the tiny red finches and ruby-throated hummingbirds; the red-shafted flickers. And the latter, similarly indigenous, are remarkably gentle spirits.

Female Flicker Resized

Oh, they can be fierce in defense of their young, but they tend more toward the skittish, preferring to share the land rather than fight over it. Formerly birds of brief autumn winds, they have now decided to make a permanent home with us, and every year we have at least one mated pair, sometimes more. This year, they decided to build a home in our home, still under construction . . . and were savagely colonized by a colonial bird, the European starling.

Their departure should have made our lives more convenient, allowing us to plaster sooner, and indeed, it did — and yet, it was an occasion for mourning. Our hearts were as heavy as our tired earth-bound feet. And then, this morning, immediately after dawn prayers, I heard a telltale call. I followed its sound, and one of the flickers flew past to land upon a pole. They have moved camp, but they remain upon the land with us still . . . and my heart lifted this morning and flew with them, just for a moment.

In truth, of course, red-shafted flickers are not really red, but orange. It’s a common color among the wingéd beings native to this place, from the rich rusty feathers of the hawks to the bright orange bars of the kestrel and flicker and the sunny wings of the oriole.

And then there are the butterflies.

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The monarchs glow like pure sun on the wing, and they are freedom itself, liberty and liberation alike.

Have you ever watched the monarchs dance?

They are creatures of warmer winds, shawl dancers of the light spiraling around branch and leaf, alighting here, settling there, finding each other to join and then to separate, dance together and dance apart. They feel no need of concealment, and the resistant pull of the earth holds no power over them: They fly at will and whim, at full liberty, less emancipated from any bonds of nature than simply liberated by self and circumstance.

I said yesterday that we would do well to learn the lessons of the raptors — to liberate ourselves, to fight another day, to survive, to be — by becoming the hawk. But to heal, we need space. We need to loose the bonds that hold us, less to the land than to the daily battles of survival, battles that intensify before summer arrives to emancipate us from the cold.

To heal, we need to heed the lessons of all the wingéd ones.

Every now and then, we need to allow ourselves the small liberty to become free spirits.

~ Aji








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