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Red Willow Spirit: In the Spiral of the Snows to Come

Clear and warm again today, and still, it’s impossible to shake the sense of change upon the wind. It’s nowhere near cold enough yet for snow, much less to drive the elk down from the mountains in search of food, but that day is not so far off now.

Here at Red Willow, the elk are one of the heralds of true winter. During the cold months, it used to be not uncommon to the see the herd from the highway, in the fields leading up to the buffalo grounds. For us, living yet further out as we do, the elk had become an annual visitor, knowing that they had sanctuary here. Wings captured the image above from this land, looking southward, nearly a decade and a half ago: on the far side of the fence, at a time when there was less evidence human habitation and far more regular snow than now.

We talk, in general terms, of “the Pueblo’s herd,” although in truth, wild creatures belong only to themselves or, one might say, to the earth, to the land. It might also be more accurate to say that the land belongs to them, if to any. Still, this is a colonial society, and these stately spirits most definitely do not “belong” to the colonial world and its population, in any sense of the term. Their connection to humans lies only within the bounds of the Pueblo, in its geographic lands and the lifeways of its people.

We have been fortunate, most recent winters. Going back at least to the early months of 2010, a hard winter here by any standard, the elk have come to us. Our hay barn then was what now serves as the chicken coop, and for that purpose of course needed neither chicken wire nor a gate. In the warm months, we stacked the bales from ground to roof, the front entirely open for easy access. Near a decade ago now, driven by the early changes to traditional forage that climate change was already wreaking on the land, a small group from the mountain herd made their way down to us in search of food. They found the open hay barn in the dark hours, and had a predawn feast.

Oddly, the other animals seemed to understand that, were we awake to see them, we would have let them feed in peace. None of the four horses here then objected, nor did any of our six dogs sound the alarm. Wings awakened early that morning, just in time to see them finish and make their way back to more distant reaches.

Sine that time, we have had a number of encounters, some of remarkable closeness, with these winter spirits of the hoof clan. We have seen them running in mostly straight lines through the field off the highway toward town, but here, we have been granted the sight of them running for the sheer joy of it, bounding, zigzagging, circling in the spiral of snows to come, and the prospect of a place of both sanctuary and sustenance.

They are an essential element of our small world here in winter, part of what makes the road, the path, the hoop a good one, the way of a life lived well and well lived. Their presence here is assurance, after a fashion, that even in a world now so badly out of balance, there is still a tentative and elemental sort of balance to be found: The elk are here, and they know where safety lies.

Such ruminations — a term beautifully apt to the process of contemplating the role of these regal, yes, ruminants in our small world here — turned my thoughts to one of Wings’s works from some months back, one that similarly embodies motifs of path and road, and spiral and hoop, in an appropriately elemental form. From its description in the Necklaces Gallery here on the site:

The Way of the Hoop Necklace

Our peoples call it by various names: the path, going well through life, the Good Red Road — different means of describing the way of the hoop. It’s the way of our ancestors, given to us by the spirits, a sacred path that, if walked carefully, with a good heart and a strong spirit, will grant us a life of harmony and balance. Wings gives form and shape to the journey, and to our own very personal stake in traveling it, with this necklace, a pendant wrought in the shape of a hand, overlaid front and back with hand-made coils of fiery copper. The pendant is cut freehand of solid sterling silver, thumb and fingers articulated clearly and expressively. On the front, a dual coil formed of a slender length of warm glowing copper is soldered securely into place, the large coil over the palm and the smaller one extending atop the fingers. On the reverse is a second, smaller pair of coils both wound and aimed in the opposite direction, the larger one over the back of the hand and the smaller one extending upward toward the wrist. The hand itself hangs from a hand-made sterling silver bail, lightly flared and hand-stamped in a repeating pattern of conjoined thunderhead motifs, creating a symbol that points to the Sacred Directions. The pendant is suspended from a shimmering chain of solid sterling silver. The pendant, including the bail, is 1-1/8″ long by 1-1/16″ across at the widest point; the bail itself is 1/2″ long by a 1/2″ across at the widest point; the chain is 20″ long (dimensions approximate). Reverse shown below.

Sterling silver; copper
$825 + shipping, handling, and insurance

The spiral pattern evokes for me the image of elk antlers, too: large, flowing, curving gracefully, arc rounded as any bow, tip sharp as an arrow. Their antlers have, of course, been used traditionally as weapons, of both hunting and war, but their beauty and immanent power have always made them at least as attractive for purposes of art and medicine.

Wings owns several pairs of elk antlers, prized traditional possessions whose value is beyond price. Some adorn the tallest arbor poles even now. Cut and polished, it produces a beautiful gemstone-like material popular with traditional jewelers and silversmiths. Artists who specialize in so-called “fetish” carvings and jewelry find it especially useful; in the past, we’ve carried in our inventory horse-fetish necklaces by carvers from another Pueblo, and on a couple of occasions, the fetishes that formed the strand were made exclusively of elk antler. [Those have all long since sold.] Elk antler is also sturdy enough to be used for hairpipe bone beads, the long, slightly tapered cylindrical beads that form traditional breastplates and chokers.

Still, there’s no form quite so beautiful as the spiraling cure of its natural state. A few years ago, I had gone outside late one night to turn off our recalcitrant pilot. It was a night in the very depths of winter, snow several inches deep on the ground and rimed with ice, the darkness deep and clear and brutally cold. I had a small flashlight in my hand, and as I picked my way along the path, I caught the faintest momentary glimpse of . . . something, up ahead, in the carport. I stopped, then gradually raised the beam . . . and we both jumped. Staring back at me from the darkness, high up off the ground, were two glowing eyes and the vaguest impression of a massive rack of antler extending to either side of them. I immediately lowered the light and spoke softly to them, now whickering nervously among themselves, telling them that they were safe here, and it was perfectly to feed on the bales Wings had left in the bed of the truck earlier (which, of course, they did). I’ve seen this small herd-within-a-herd here a couple of times since, and they used to come routinely right up almost to the window to rub their antlers on the aspens outside.

About four years ago, we were granted the gift of the sight of the whole herd in broad daylight, perhaps a hundred or so, come down to our south fence in search of food and a safe place to run. At that time, the fence had been trampled in certain places by a neighbor’s cattle, and os they had plenty of points of ingress, and they made use of them . . . but they did not venture closer, unwilling to risk running into a predatory human in the daylight hours.

Wings brought his telescope outside, and we used it to watch them from a distance of a few acres, the whole of our front yard and south field combined. And we noticed one young one that, perhaps like his reindeer counterpart of holiday song and TV show fame, was unique among his peers. This one had no shiny nose, but he did have one rounded, curving antler out of place, growing directly out of the center of his forehead. The other antler was situated normally.In this young male’s case, the spiral extended from his forehead, arcing upward, and it did not seem to leave him feeling unbalanced in the least.In this young male’s case, the spiral extended from his forehead, arcing upward, and it did not seem to leave him feeling unbalanced in the least. It gave him the aura of a unicorn, and who knows? Perhaps among his own kind he is magic because of it. [We were relieved to notice that his unique feature seemed to be accepted with perfect equanimity by his clan (and among the wild creatures, as with humans, such petty bigotries are far from unknown).] Perhaps it gave his path a surer direction somehow.

Today’s featured work embodies this desire for a clear path and sure footing, even when the way seems convoluted. The image above shows the front of the necklace, a hand with an open palm, the path traced around it by way of a slender strand of copper, overlaid on the surface to create a large spiraling series of concentric hoops. What’s not visible is the reverse, shown here::

This is the back of the hand, overlaid with a pair of smaller conjoined copper spirals aimed in the opposite direction. It’s not a mirror image, precisely; it’s more a reminder that the way looks different depending on one’s perspective, and vantage, worldview, and starting point will all affect its appearance.

And still, it remains the way. We encounter obstacles and roadblocks along the way, elongating detours and outright derailments, but if we keep to the road that is given to us, we will find ourselves at the proper place in the end.

And sometimes, along the way, we are granted a gift of invaluable proportions, one that involves its own path and hoop and cycle of life — one that, in this case, gave us a secondary gift, one of proof of their fundamental trust in us and this place they treat as sanctuary.

It was in the earliest days of December some four or five years ago. Wings had let the horses out to graze, and they had ventured out to south field in search of whatever tiny shreds of remnant alfalfa might still be there. Suddenly, they began to milll around, trotting, then running, in their own small spirals, a buck here, a pitch there, all accompanied by soft whinnies and snuffling sounds. The dogs noticed, too, and between them, the animals brought to Wings’s attention the fact that something in the south field was . . . different.

He walked out to see what had sparked such agitation, then pulled out his phone and called me to join him.

When I got there, he was pointing to one corner of the fenceline, where a yearling elk stood balanced at an awkward angle, as though injured. There was also no sign of either parent or herd. It is not at all unusual, during the winter months, for the adults in the herd to find their offspring a warm and sunny spot and deposit them there to nap while the grown-ups forage, but there was no sign of any other of the herd for miles. And then there was that awkward stance.

We’ve dealt with injured creatures, wild and domestic, for years. For the wild ones, there is, an hour and a half or so south of here, a wildlife rehabilitation center (we had occasion to use their services more than a decade ago in an attempt to save an injured skunk). But we couldn’t call them out at the end of the day without knowing that the little elk was indeed injured. By the same token, if she had been injured and for some reason abandoned by r otherwise separated from her herd, we couldn’t leave her out there alone overnight in the cold. She would not have survived it, and not least because she would have been a prime target for predation, and possibly a very painful death.

And so, it fell to me to ascertain her condition as best I could. I approached slowly, and while she was appropriately wary, she was also curious. She did not, however, move from her strange stance, one that made it appear as though one hind leg might not be functional.

Slowly, carefully, I drew closer, speaking softly all the while in a mix of English and the old language, and she followed me with her eyes the whole time, but showed no fear. Finally, I got just to the fence, within two feet of her, and she looked me right in the eye, chewed her cud for a moment . . . and then wheeled and bounded away, although only by a distance of a yard or two. She stayed there for a bit longer, then suddenly turned her head as though she heard a call outside of human range, looked back at us one last time, and bounced away, fuzzy copper pants shining in the waning light. It seems that she knew exactly where her mother was the whole time (and vice versa), albeit at a bit more of a distance than is perhaps usual this close to human habitation. Then again, her mother would not have brought her here two days running had she not felt it a safe place to leave her little one for a while.

And through it all, Wings had the camera out and was shooting.

This is the precious face that peeked out at us from the gold-tinged chamisa and sage. She was remarkably calm, and remarkably brave, too: willing to look us right in the eye with neither challenge nor fear, simply interested in these strange creatures with two legs amid the four large and six smaller ones who traveled on a more customary four legs apiece.

The beauty of it the incident was that no one was frightened. The horses settled down immediately, content to watch. The dogs knew instinctively not to give chase, despite their penchant for hunting wild things. And we were given the gift of a very close encounter with a young but powerful spirit.

Now, the wind is howling again outside the door; perhaps the weather is due for a change after all. And in the spiral of the snows to come, perhaps we shall again receive a visitation from our relatives, these beautiful winter spirits of the hoof clan.

~ Aji








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