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Red Willow Spirit: Hearth and Heart

Masks Over Fireplace

In defiance of all forecasts, it is snowing.

Not much, true; these are only flurries, and the slopes of the mountains have barely more of a dusting than our own earth here at their feet. But on all sides, the sky itself is white, and the peaks are shrouded completely, turning mountains into cloud-topped mesas.

It is suddenly a monochrome world outside the window, and if we are lucky, it will remain so for the rest of the day.

Our indoor world, though, is ablaze with warmth and color.

This is February at Red Willow.

White Fire

In a place as old as this — the oldest continuously-inhabited community on the continent, one in which the not merely the architecture but the extant homes themselves date back more than a millennium — homes are hearth and heart of both people and culture. It’s hard to overemphasize the truth of it, not only in symbolic terms but in the most prosaically practical ones, as well.

This is a land of extremes, harsh ones. In summer, while temperatures usually top out in the upper nineties, they have been known to pass the century mark. In winter, the mercury periodically plunges to actual lows well below zero, and has been known, on occasion, to reach forty below; the wind chills are far colder still. In an ordinary year, it can snow from October into the first half of June, and not just on the peaks. The spring winds often pass the fifty-mile-per-hour mark; fall regularly sees pendulum swings in temperature of fifty degrees within the hours of the ordinary day. And summer . . . summer is the rainy season, and ‘its hallmark is its monsoonal weather patterns, featuring drastic temperature inversions, high winds, flooding rains, icy hail, and increasingly, tornadic activity.

In such an environment, solid and sturdy shelter is a necessity.Designed properly, it should be energy-efficient, too, able to keep the interior cool in the heat of summer, yet conduct heat effectively in the winter. And the people of Red Willow, more than a thousand years ago, discovered for themselves the answer: multi-story adobe architecture, built of the local earth and water.

Most of the people who live on Pueblo lands do so at least partly in the old way. Save for the homes inside the old village walls, homes here now have modern amenities, of course. But many are made like our own, of traditional adobe construction. And most of us heat our homes in the old way, too: with actual fire born of local wood, burned in traditional [so-called kiva-style] fireplaces or in somewhat more modern woodstoves .

One aspect of this place that leaves visitors unprepared is the clarity of its air, even in winter when the morning temperature inversion holds the woodsmoke close across the valley. We sit at 7,500 feet above sea level, and at the feet of mountains much higher yet. Save for those unlucky days in wildfire season when the smoke drifts our way, nothing is strong enough, potent enough, to disrupt the crystalline character of the air in any real way. And so even on the darkest, cloudiest, stormiest days, the light that filters through is intense and bright. The result is that, even on a day such as this, walking in from outdoors leads to a moment of visual dissonance: A home’s interior appears in monochromatic shades of white and gray until the eyes adjust.

In a matter of moments, though, gray walls turn their warm earthen color again; the flames in the fireplace shift from white-hot to inviting shades of amber and gold.

Sacred Fire

As I write, the clouds have parted momentarily in places to allow an impossibly brilliant sun to shine through, only to close ranks again and soften the outside world to gray. Here indoors, the fires burn bright, earthen walls glittering with mica in the low golden light.

Despite the best efforts of the wind, we are warm and safe. In the woodstoves, the flames crackle and dance, trading robes with fantastic speed: now ash gray, now a slow molten gold, now amber and coral, crimson and scarlet, now cobalt blue that burns white-hot before settling back down to a consistent coppery gold.


The world outside may be more black and white than Technicolor now, the heavens heavily pregnant with snow long overdue and badly needed.

But indoors, safe within adobe walls of the same sort the ancestors built, we are sheltered by life and love, warmed by the fires of hearth and heart.

~ Aji











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