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Red Willow Spirit: Planting Season

Indian Paintbrush In Bloom Resized

It is the planting season here at Red Willow — not only for us, but for Mother Earth herself. Many of her children provide for the existence of their own children, whole future generations, in ways that we have not learned how to manage. Procreation is, at least at the collective level of our species, supposed to be instinctive, inherent, immanent, encoded in our blood and bone and DNA.

Yet when it comes to ensuring the surviving and thriving of the generations yet to come, we humans do so poorly.

Plants plant pieces of themselves, scattering seeds to the winds in such quantities as to ensure, mostly, that some survive. In these days of climate change, perhaps not all, perhaps not many — but now, at this angle on the point of the tip, it is usually enough.

Enough to ensure that there will be a next generation.

More, the plants, and the animals, too, learn to adapt in ways that we resist. We are a stubborn species, one that persists in the fiction that we exercise complete control of our world. Periodically, we pay dearly for that insistence on turning from reality.

A new bill is coming due.

It is this realization, increasingly urgent, that has prompted us to return to older ways: to plant, to cultivate, to harvest. Some years, our garden is vanishingly small, as time and weather dictate, but most year now, we plant multiple gardens and sow a broad range of crops. The Three Sisters, of course, are staples, but we plant much more than that, fruits and vegetables, herb and flowers, shrubs and trees.

And we avail ourselves of what the earth offers naturally.

It is early in the season for Indian paintbrush, the flowering wild plant in the image above. It is a foundational plant for the traditions of both our cultures, indigenous as it is to the better part of Turtle’s Island’s whole land mass. That image was captured seven or eight years ago, in mid- to late June, when its blossoms are most likely to appear.

While out harvesting cedar for traditional use, Wings came upon three such plants in full bloom today.

Climate change and bills come due.

And yet, in spite of the strange weather, the monsoonal flow that comes as snow, the cold nights and frozen dawns, the plant adapts, survives, thrives.

Prickly Pear In Bloom Resized

That’s not uncommon here, where the earth has seen that which time has long forgotten, borne witness to seas receded and rivers dried to bedrock, the birth of mountains amid the death of the depths and a world born to touch the skies. It is and has always been a place of extremes, and of extreme power, a place where only those with strength of body and spirit survive.

And so, in this place, that which lives does so by dint of thorns and spines and spikes, by defense mechanism and camouflage, by toxin and by medicine that saves the lives of other beings. The prickly pear pierces in self-defense, yet sustains by way of its flowers and fruit: prickly pear jelly and candy have always been a thing here, even though those relatively new to this land regard them as a local novelty. More specifically, in places like Red Willow, elders have long known its medicinal value, using the fruit of the pads to make a paste that cools and numbs inflammatory wounds.

Of course, perhaps the greatest medicine the desert earth gives up to us is one that it has been known to hide, perhaps with good reason.

Peyote In Bloom Resized

Peyote is a cactus, one that is deceptively delicate looking: Its green flesh manifests in a moiré-like pattern, and it flowers into fragile pink blooms at its top. The buds, however, contain their own defense mechanism, a substance long believed to be strychnine that is actually its own separate (relatively mild) toxin, albeit with strychnine-like properties. It protects itself, but in our way, it protects us, too: It is a sacrament in the traditions that we call the Peyote Way, the Tipi Way, or the Red Road, what some call the Native American Church, and our peoples use of it is as old as the land itself.

And the land does protect this sacred substance. I’ve written here before of the land’s willingness to shield it, and to teach mere mortals much-needed lessons at the same time:

Peyote is not, literally speaking, a night-blooming plant, although Wings’s father used to tell a story of a journey he and several other Road Men of the Tipi Way made to Mexico in search of peyote for traditional sacred use. He had been given a map of sorts to the place where it grew, both in dream form and from locals who knew the area he sought. The men found the land where it grew, and spent the night, intending to harvest it the next day.

And the peyote hid.

Where it grew, right in front of them, lay nothing but dry, rocky soil.

After some days and nights of chasing the spirit of the plant in a seemingly fruitless game of hide-and-seek, it finally showed itself to them once again . . . right in the very spot where they had seen it, and seen it disappear from sight.

There were undoubtedly lessons to be imparted in this process: perhaps about patience; perhaps about persistence; perhaps to emphasize the value of the sacred and the need to be willing to work for it. And for a brief time, it was a night-blooming plant, although under ordinary circumstances, it grows openly in daylight.

But as our ancestors have always known, it’s foolhardy to rely on what the earth offers up alone — and the truth of that has never been more certain than in these days of great climatic upheaval. We can no longer rely on the usual patterns around which our peoples have traditionally built their lives; like the plants themselves, we must learn to adapt, and rapidly.

This is the month when planting begins, but in years past, we might have staggered the crops a bit more than is likely this year. This year, the snows of late winter into spring took a distinctly monsoonal track, their path and pattern mimicking that of the thunderstorms of the late-summer rainy season. It feels, this year, as though we have already entered the summer monsoons, although the season remains stubbornly spring by both calendar and mercury.

And so, in the next week or so, we will begin, as we do virtually every year, with the first of the Three Sisters: Corn.

Corn Stalk Resized

There is nothing remotely like this in the fields yet; indeed, the kernels are not even in the ground. But within a week or so, we will have sown row after row of corn: sweet corn, white corn, blue corn, Indian corn. The last encompasses all colors, and too many varieties to count; our peoples understood and practiced hybridization before there was a word for it, at least among the peoples who would invade and colonize this land in more recent centuries.

But by the time the corn reaches that height, the stalks shimmering like stars, no silken tassels yet in evidence, the clouds will have moved in on a daily basis.

Corn Stalk Close-Up Resized

The first sister will rise, tall and strong, against a backdrop of monsoonal skies. She will be ready to dance in the wind and the rain — the dance of a young girl not quite blossomed fully into maturity, but one for whom its promises is mere sunrises away.

Cornfield Resized

And given that the rainy season has decided to visit sooner this year, the earth is ripe for planting, past ready. Delay too long, and the rains will wash the seeds away. Timed correctly, she and her fellow first sisters will rise and grow and expand, stretching outward, upward, reaching and dancing until it is time to flower fully into maturity beneath an equally pregnant sky.


Because it will not be long before the storm is birthed.

Corn may be our cornerstone, in a sense, but she is not the only sister upon whom we depend.


Beans are the Second Sister, an equally traditional food source, and one with a similar complex history of hybridization. Beans now are grown by tribal nation, and disseminated under their communal names; each year, we plant some that come from our cousins on the plains, to the north, to points further east. They flower like a  rainbow in miniature: green, yellow, red, purple, white.

And then there are the pinto beans, the local staple so essential to the foodways not only here at Red Willow, but across her sister Pueblos and beyond, to Dinetah and the lands of the Apache peoples, and further south to the indigenous lands now labeled “Mexico.”

And then there is the Third Sister, another female spirit who manifests in many forms and shapes and sizes.


Her family name is Squash, but she and her clan assume many incarnations. Long; short; tubular; acorn-shaped; round. She dresses in shades of green, yellow, tan, brilliant orange. Some are called acorn; others, butternut; still others, pumpkin, that great orange globe of the harvest season. And some of her kind flower early into another edible form: the squash blossom.

The squash blossom is a delicacy, fragile petals wrapped around sweet or savory fillings, then fried lightly until golden brown. I have made them many times, straight from our own gardens. Yet I still think they are more beautiful in the garden than out of it. They do, after all, follow the track of the sun, opening beneath the dawn light, turning their faces to follow our father across the sky, then folding in upon themselves to slumber when the shadow falls across their faces. They are predictors, and predictable, these short-lived yet bright flowering bits of the sun itself.

There are others, too: Those trees and plants whose role it is to bring sweetness into summer days. Plum trees are common here, as are apple and pear trees; some grow peaches and cherries, too. Then there are the wilder ones, less susceptible to the domesticating sprawl of the orchard — among them the chokecherry trees that the small bright birds call home.

And here, as in the lands of my own home, the heart of the summer season is the sweetest of indigenous fruits, the wild strawberry:


We have had wild strawberries here on the land for years, often growing in the company of sage and mint. In recent years, Wings has planted more, and their fruits are tiny perfect scarlet hearts. In my own tongue “strawberry” and “heart” are sometimes the same word.

Speaking of hearts, planting is means of sustenance, yes . . . but it can also be an expression of love. In recent years, Wings has planted trees for me to remind me of home: a slender birch; a tall, elegant maple. He put more wild strawberries and pineberries in a special place, and added wild raspberries next to them, so that my summers include the fruits of my own lands, as well as those of his lands and people, this place that I now call home too.

And now, the storm is here, and the water, too.


Yesterday, I saw two dragonflies, the first of the season: one large blue darner type; one smaller red skimmer. I said to Wings that I hoped the water would come, because the dragonflies would need it. They are, after all, our pollinators, along with their cousins the butterflies and bees and hummingbirds, all of which have been here a month and more. But the pond was bone-dry.

I awakened this morning and headed outside shortly after dawn.

The water came in the night.

Oh, it was only a small amount then, enough to cover the bottom, but not much more. By mid-afternoon, the pond was full, and now, the storm’s advancing winds are lashing its surface, driving it forward in rippling waves.

The water has come; the earth is ready.

Planting season is here.

~ Aji








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