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Red Willow Spirit: Green Fringe and Bright Beads of Water and Light

The air is slightly cooler this morning, but the sky is still bleached half-white, as though the heat has leached all the color from it. In this place, our summertime blues, more usually the turquoise and indigo, cornflower and cobalt of the desert sky, are not much in evidence this year, leaving us with blues of a distinctly metaphorical sort.

More to the point, though, a better indicator of our dire straits is not the missing blue, but the absent green.

Here at Red Willow, summer is normally a lush affair, at least in relative terms. At the southern tip of the Rockies, what’s known colloquially as The Dragon’s Tail for its switchbacked ridgelines and series of peaks, our elevation is sufficiently high to produce four discrete seasons, each marked by the colors and accoutrements one might be more likely to find to points far north and east of here. This land’s regalia changes with the seasons to suit the dance of the earth’s turning and the changing of the light.

And this time of year, despite our arid high-desert climate, our fields of chamisa and sage, our corner of the earth is normally green.

These are not normal times.

The fields are mostly brown now, too much of what grass and hay remained having burned up beneath the unrelenting glare of the sun and withered in the embrace of the smoke. Bare patches of dirt dry as old ash are now exposed to heat and light. What should have been the start of our rainy season has instead plunged this land solidly into the throes of wildfire season, and too many of the blazes are too close for comfort.

Tomorrow is a holiday for the dominant culture, and I suppose that it might have been expected that I would weave such topics into this week’s posts. That will undoubtedly happen, but only in the negative: Wings and I do not celebrate the day. It is yet another marker of invasion, of colonization, of the destruction of our peoples and cultures, of genocide tarted up in bright colors and still brighter lights. And here, this year, those brighter lights, the fireworks, threaten our very existence in a whole other way: In defiance of all the evidence and of all common sense, in the face of the worst drought in living memory, our local municipalities are insisting upon going ahead with their fireworks displays.

Human foolishness invites conflagration.

And this year, there is no water to put it out.

Oh, the forecast, tantalizingly, holds out the promise of rain: to begin on Thursday afternoon. Even so, we have learned not to pin our hopes to meteorological projections, which in recent years have proven to be nearly always wrong. Still, such predictions remind us of what should be this time of year, and give us a focus for our prayers. Because now, our pale scorched earth demands such focus. And so we pray that the water comes, and a living green world with it.

Out here at the farther reaches of inhabited tribal lands, there are two primary sources for water: the Río Lucero, flowing downward from the dam; and a river of another sort entirely, the kind that falls from the sky in a heavy monsoonal cascade. The former is fed by the rains, but also by the winter snows, whose runoff fills the reservoir in spring . . . except in such years as this,  when virtually no snow fell, either.

And so, what a few years ago looked like the image above, deep green waters wending downstream between banks lined with lush greenery is this year a relative trickle, low and brown and routed back toward the village.

Because in the village, the river is the water supply. In a good year, it looks like this: a high hard steady flow, roiling, boiling, leaping and dancing in the light as it chases and catches and runs over itself on its downward passage between North House and South House. It keeps the trees green, the land vibrant; it provides water for the people who still live entirely the old way, without running water or electricity.

It also serves as a focal point of sorts for the village, one that is a stop on every guided tour for visitors. It is not, however, a place for play, despite the disrespect tourists occasionally show. On feast days, those who behave improperly may find themselves summarily thrown into its icy waters by the sacred clowns whose task it is to enforce discipline.

The same river feeds the ditches and lands farther out, as well — the privately owned plots of tribal land that radiate outward form the village like the arc of the sun’s light fanning out at the feet of the peaks at dawn.

Up here,  the water flows through ancient ditches, under the wire and over the rocks, blazing its own blue-green trail between stands of piñon and juniper studded with the occasional cottonwood. These waters feed stands of red willow growing wild, the aspens and the evergreens, the chamisa and sage and desert grasses that turn the lower mountainsides green for much of the year.

In an ordinary year.

As the water flows downward, it passes through a simple system of weir gates and junctions, a mix of old and new that bespeaks a culture of efficiency and practicality: Use what is available; let nothing go to waste, and spend nothing unnecessarily.

It is a system that reminds me of my own childhood, in a place where irrigation was left mostly the rains, but where barbed-wire fencing was commonplace and so, too, was the hard honest labor of digging and hoeing, of turning the earth and routing the water where it should go. For farmers of the dominant culture, of course, industrial equipment already existed, but for us, for such a small space of land, my father’s ancient tractor and harrow and plough were the apex of our planting and cultivating and harvesting technologies.

Living in a place such as this, Red Willow, instills an appreciation for this elemental substance the [over]developed world so takes for granted: Water.

The colonial culture’s bible speaks of a pearl beyond price, but if the promise of heaven is a pearl, in this world, drops of water are diamonds: staggeringly beautiful, increasingly rare, and the subject of endless bloody wars that will only worsen with time and drought.

I come from lands where water was always a given, so abundant as to be beneath notice, save perhaps to complain about the rain. That is no longer true; drought and wildfire have begun to notice the land of the great waters, even as the wars heat up over the diversion of freshwater resources to multinational corporations. Here, with water never a given, always a gift, I have learned to appreciate its beauty in every context, whether bubbling over a rusted iron grate or flowing freely into our pond, building up in the heavens as violet-bottomed thunderheads or pelting the ground in heavy drops and hailstones.

And we pray for its arrival, by whatever means — down the ditches from from the mountain by way of the river, or down the light from the sky by way of the clouds.

We pray for the water, we pray for land, we pray for for the rain and the corn newly planted. We pray for the green that the spirits have so far seen fit to deny us, the tall strong stalks and the lush green leaves that betoken a good harvest.

Last year was drought-ridden, but in no wise this bad. We did not, it is true, have much of a rainy season, but we did get one monsoon to end them all . . . and, unlike the year that image was captured, to end our corn crop, too. The wings was so fierce, the hail so hard and battering, that the leaves were stripped into strands of cornsilk themselves, the stalks flattened. The nascent ears died on the vine, so to speak. All we managed form last year’s garden were a few small squash and the occasional wildflower.

This year might be worse: There might be no nascent ears at all, no squash blossoms at the ends of their small hard fruits, no petals from the hardiest of indigenous flowers rising to meet the scorching sun. There is, at the moment, no water from the mountains, nothing from the river, nothing in the streams or the ditches or the pond.

And so the rains become our last best hope for a green summer earth.


Even in the ferocity of the storm, the water manages to do its work. It helps, of course, to have a monsoon season like the one from the year in the image above, where regular daily rains, however small, have primed the earth to receive their gifts, a time when the harshest of cloudburst might pool on the surface a bit, but will not be driven off a too-dry land to flood the lower reaches of the roads and tracks.

In that year, the rain was a daily occurrence, small storms scattered here and there to replenish what Father Sun took for the use of the air that holds his light. It made for hot mornings and cool afternoons, and a fertile richness to the grass and the corn and the vines and the leaves on the trees, an emerald-green blanket to hold our whole world in its embrace.

Because this is the season of summer regalia, of green fringe and bright beads of water and light.

It is the earth’s traditional dress, as celebratory as it is ceremonial. It may be worn for an hour or an instant; if the latter, only those aware enough to stand its watch are privileged to see it.

But it was not so many years ago that, five-hundred-year drought notwithstanding, we still were granted the gift of the rains sufficient to grant us the arc of the light, to hold our small world in a green and fertile embrace.

And so we have faith, we hold out hope, and we pray: for the waters from the mountain to be refilled and rerouted; for the waters from the sky to bless us with the rains; for a world wrapped in the traditional robes of summer, with green fringe and bright beads of water and light.

~ Aji







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