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Red Willow Spirit: Medicine That Comes From All Directions

For the second day in a row, we have been granted a perfect autumn day. If anything, the air is even clearer today than it was yesterday, every line and notch visible in the crags of El Salto’s cliff face, the mountains at long last visible in equally sharp relief at the horizon in all directions.

That’s new again, something we have not seen in months; the pall of smoke from wildfires both distant and less so have seen to that. But today feels like October: the light brilliant and intense, a mix of silver and gold that sets the world aglimmer; skies cornflower and unmarred by any trace of cloud; air so clear it almost hurts to breathe, and yet capable of channeling the suns warmth so effectively that it feels more like seventy than the fifty-four it actually is.

Here in the land of the Red Willow, this is the season when we are reminded of the true jewels of earth and sky, of the blessings of wind and light, of the medicine that comes from all directions. It’s the spirit of fall at its most beautiful, and its most healing, too.

And in put me in mind of an unintentional series of three of Wings’s photos from some years past, probably 2006 or 2007, that were all taken at roughly this time of year, each from its own direction, each featuring a subject that occupies it own time and space that come to life in fall.

The first is the old chapel above, bell tower long since boarded up but its spire still tall and straight, its tin roof still shimmering in the light. I understand why it caught his eye: The four-sided cupola bespeaks an understand of the Four Sacred Directions, whether its builders grasped it or not. And there is something in the collective human spirit that seems to find transcendence associated with the skies, always reaching, seeking, searching, yearning.

It’s perhaps especially true in this case, given that the religious tradition for which it was built refuses to this day to grant the status of a “church.” It’s the chapel of an old morada, meeting place for the lay fraternity known as the Penitentes — in this place, spiritually observant colonial men who, through application, acceptance, and initiation, entered a realm not unlike the Catholic Church’s official holy orders, albeit at a lower level, one the capital-C Church nonetheless does not recognize as a small-c church. There is an active Penitente tradition still in the colonial corners and quarters of this land now known as New Mexico, but this morada, like most around here, is long since abandoned. If memory serves, this one is at Valdez, to the northwest of here, yet we refer to it as “down” because it sits at a lower elevation, down in the valley below the rim road.

The photo’s clear skies and the simple spired tower and shining silver roof that serve as its subject reminded me of the first of today’s two featured silverwork pieces of wearable art. It’s a necklace that, at first glance, perhaps, seems to have little in common with it; even the stone is manifest in a color not found in the image, instead picking up the greens of the not-yet-turned trees in the image immediately below it. But look closer.

It’s what some non-Native dealers call a “Pueblo cross,” a very, very old traditional style that Wings creates only very rarely. It’s actually a double-barred cross, sometimes informally called a dragonfly cross, and it’s a perfect example of the phenomenon I explored yesterday, of ancestors ensuring their peoples’ survival by seeming, on the surface, to accede to colonial impositions even as they resist from within and without in ways the colonizer cannot even see. From its description in the Necklaces Gallery here on the site:

From the Heart of the Earth Necklace

From the heart of the earth our whole world grows. Wings pays tribute to this evolutionary process with this necklace, a cross that is not a cross, but the embodiment of elemental forces and nurturing spirits. The pendant’s form is a very old design, one that circumvented colonial insistence on Christianity by appearing to adopt its four-spoked shape — and then adding an extra bar and a curving end to produce the form of a much older spirit: that of Dragonfly, a pollinator, a messenger, a symbol of romantic love and life’s abundance. Here, Wings has honored another old adaptation of the style, turning the curved tail at the base of the lowest spoke into a stylized heart. Above the heart, the pendant extends upward and outward to the Four Sacred Directions, each of the remaining five spokes stamped with a single thunderhead symbol pointing inward toward the center, a sign of the rain that keeps our Earth herself alive. Above the top spoke, the hand-made bail flowers into a lush green peridot; at the base in the center of the heart, the place of emergence, two tiny hand-stamped flowers are wedded into the form of a butterfly, a small spirit rising from its own place of emergence to continue the processes of pollination and prosperity. The cross is made of solid fourteen-gauge silver, and hangs 2-5/8″, the bail 3/4″ (the pendant is 3-3/8″ in total length; 1-1/8″ across at the widest point); the stone is 3/8″ long; the pendant hangs from an 18″ sterling silver snake chain (dimensions approximate).

Sterling silver; peridot
$1,150 + shipping, handling, and insurance

As I’ve had occasion to say many times, I don’t wear crosses, as a general matter. In the context of this society and our existence, they represent colonial violence, genocide, symbols warped beyond all recognition, no doubt, to the man whose death upon one launched the iconography in the first place. But like the crosses atop the roofline in yesterday’s featured image, this cross is no ordinary cruciform symbol.

The double-barred cross preserves the essential cruciform shape that the colonial invaders brought with them . . . and then transforms it into something else entirely. The two bars are reminiscent of the wings of Dragonfly, who plays a role in the spiritual and cultural traditions of many Indigenous peoples across this continent. In this broader region, he is often seen as a messenger, natural given his ability to hover and to fly in all directions, and is associated with fertility and prosperity courtesy of his association with that most precious of all elements here, water, the first medicine.

In Wings’s hands, that association is reinforced with the spare stampwork that accents the five upper spokes: solitary thunderhead symbols pointing inward — again, evoking the imagery of medicine that comes from all directions, and honoring its gift. But it’s more than that: It’s the elongation of the upper spoke into the simple bail, making it more of a length with the lower spoke than the usual cruciform shape; it’s the rich green of the peridot set into that top, a sign of life emergent and transcendent from the directions, rather the violence of blood and death; and it’s the stylized heart at the bottom, its tip in the motion of the dance, and at its center, Dragonfly’s cousin and fellow messenger spirit, Butterfly.

Butterfly visited us yesterday, despite the new cold, a last spiraling dance by a mourning cloak now fully grown.

The colors of the second image are similarly bright, although they include more green than is visible here now. That’s not surprising; only a few years ago, the foliage would have just begun turning in highly visible ways about now, but several years of accelerating climate change and deepening drought have telescoped our seasons drastically. Still, the dry leaves at the top and bare ends of the limbs, combined with the angle of the light, are telltale signs that this is an image of fall.

And this is an image of an actual church, one that has been granted that designation by the Church that is its source of authority. It’s the Church of San Lorenzo de Picuris, another colonial structure whose Indigenous spirits shine through its weathered clay walls, and it is the official colonial mission church of the patron saint of Picuris Pueblo, the Pueblo nation that is sibling to Wings’s own, on their ancestral lands not very far south of here.

The grounds of the church are very much larger than what this image indicates. In the foreground, you can see the courtyard wall, which stretches before the church itself to turn and meet in front in a high open gateway. I believe it has been resurfaced thoroughly in the years since this photo was taken, and so is now a deeper shade of clay, with none of the weathered fractures in evidence at a first glance that are so plainly visible here. But that is usual here; ancient adobe buildings are routinely resurfaced as needed to preserve the integrity of buildings still in use after hundreds of (in non-ecclesiastical cases, more than a thousand) years.

But the weathering, here, is part of the photo’s very subject, a testament to longevity of far more ancient ways than the ones who commissioned the building’s construction. In this land, it possesses a stark and poignant beauty all its own, a reminder of what and who precede us, and of the fact that their ways have stood the test of time so well that we use them this very day. And the building is, like all Indigenous Pueblo construction, a marvel of geometry: the stair-stepped crenellations at the roofline and atop the joining of church to courtyard wall, steps that echo those far older that go far deeper than anything these colonial friars envisioned or understood. And then there is the Pueblo ladder, rungs lashed together in the old way, wood weathered silver in the light: a symbol of emergence, and a tool thereof, one that permits sight in all directions, and protection, too.

The composition of this photo, its colors and angles and the space it occupies, too, all put me in mind of the second of today’s featured works of wearable art wrought in silver and stone. This one is a cuff whose name speaks of summer but whose substance hints at winter; like the image above, it occupies a space between categories of place and time. From its description in the relevant section of the Bracelets Gallery:

Hail In Summer Cuff Bracelet

One of the gifts of the rainy season is hail in summer, a bit of snowy white to grace the green of a heated earth. Wings brings together the green and the white and heat, too, with this slender cuff bracelet studded with gems of summer and winter. The slender band is stamped free-hand in a repeating pattern of directional symbols down the very center, spokes pointing to all of the Sacred Directions like a radiant star, or the crystalline structure of a snowflake. Each side of the band is edged in a separate repeating pattern of triangular motifs, a symbol used at once to represent the mountains and the shelter of the traditional lodge, radiant with light at the base. The ends of the band are rounded by hand and filed smooth, each stamped in a single radiant sunrise image. Along the center, five gems are set into scalloped bezels and backed with sterling silver, the layer then overlaid across the band itself — a cascade of three round cabochons of grass-green jade alternating with a pair of domed oval cabochons of snowflake obsidian, icy white patches adorning the glassy black molten material. The band measures 6″ in length by 1/4″ across; jade cabochons are 3/8″ across; snowflake obsidian cabochons are 1/2″ long by 3/16″ across at the widest point (dimensions approximate). Other views shown below.

Sterling silver; jade; snowflake obsidian
$1,150 + shipping, handling, and insurance

This cuff is wrought in physical layers, but it contains layers of spiritual and cultural, temporal and geographical complexity, too. It’s a work for this season that is also a spirit and a space between seasons, both threshold and destination in and of itself. The stones are opposites, summer greens and winter snows, reminding us that now more than ever, the seasons of extremes spill over into each other and yet the world manages to survive it all. The stones have their own setting layer, one that sits atop an arc stamped in the shapes fo the sacred directions and of shelter from wind and storm. And like the two images above and the one below, the whole reminds us that neither age nor weathering is any barrier to beauty, nor to the gifts of medicine.

The final image of today’s small informal series is one that the outside world would regard as a ruin, seeing only decay. To me, it holds an eternal beauty.

The prior photos were shot at locations to the northwest and southwest of us, respectively; this one, as the crow flies, was very nearly due east. Even less of it remains now, but once it sat visible from the highway along our own land, winding northward; this ruin sits on the east side of the road among stands of cottonwood and evergreen.

This was once a home, lived in and well loved. After hundreds of years, the shape still coheres, the bricks and mortar retain their essential integrity. It is the less solid parts of the structure, the roof and the door and the windows that have disintegrated, along with the surface plaster, but the walls remain mostly sound. The rich red color of the clay is faded now by centuries of sun and wind and storm, but it still glows in the autumn light. And the structure, what the outside world would insist is a ruin, still holds its space within the groves of trees that have long surrounded it: cottonwoods likewise fading with the coming of winter, what’s left of their leaves now pale gold; the small woods of piñon and juniper and other evergreens behind it coming fully into their own with the cold’s arrival. The structure is no longer inhabitable, true, but for its age, precious little of it has disintegrated . . . and it remains surrounded by life, thriving and self-renewing, in all directions.

And that, perhaps, is what we need to remember now, in a world beset by climate and, locally, a deadly drought, and even more immediately deadly pandemic abroad upon the land. This is a place of great gifts, ones that the ancestors used wisely and well. They may assume different forms now, but the gifts are still there for us: medicine that comes from all directions. We only honor it by using it; our task is to learn to do so also wisely and well.

~ Aji








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