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Red Willow Spirit: Spaces and Spirits Older Than Time

Bell Tower Resized

Today is the Eve of All Souls’, what the rest of the country calls Halloween. Here at Red Willow, it’s a time to honor the dead, a blending of Spanish Catholic colonial influences marking All Hallows’ Eve with much older indigenous traditions that recognize the passing of time and season and the spirits of those who have walked on.

On All Souls’ Day, November first, the village church will bear witness to memory, as the people file in and out to toll the bell in honor of loved ones who have gone to Spirit. The bells are tolled individually, personally, without need of a priest of other intercessor to mark the passing of another year.

But here at Red Willow, both church and bell tower are emblematic of other deaths, too, of other ancestors walked on centuries ago, warriors all. I wrote about them here nearly a year past, when I wrote about what is known as the Pueblo Revolt, but was in fact not merely revolution in the reactive sense but a stunning act of collective resistance. I also wrote, then, about why you’ve never seen a photo by Wings of one of the symbols of Red Willow Resistance, the crumbling bell tower that is all that is left standing of the original mission church:

Bell Tower Closeup Resized

One of the architectural casualties of the Pueblo Revolt was the original mission church in Taos Pueblo’s ancient village, the Church of San Geronimo. At that time, it was built outside the current village walls, encircled by its own low brick-and-mortar adobe wall.

All that remains of the original church is the old bell tower, a zig-zagged portion of crumbling brick wall rising upward to house the ancient bell. It sits at the center of the Pueblo’s cemetery, the low village wall separating it from the traditional homes. It’s out in the open, and tourists can and do take photos of it — constantly, in fact.

So why have you never seen an image of it here, while Wings has shot numerous images of the current church and its bell towers?

Because it sits at the center of the resting place of elders who have walked on. Taking a photo of it necessarily entails one of the graves. And Wings’s view of the ethics of such things requires him to refrain from disturbing their rest. Whatever dreams they now dream in the spirit world should not be disrupted or invaded.

The Spanish incursions into Pueblo life would not, of course, be the last. And the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 would not be the last effort by Taos Pueblo to protect their own from colonial interests.

Even in death, our peoples are not safe from invasion.

Wings has always made it his practice and praxis to protect the vulnerable, whether they walk with us in this world or not. And so it is with those who have walked on, although that is not the whole of it. It is also partly that our peoples, to my mind, tend to have a healthier relationship with the subject of death than does the dominant culture, despite its best and constant efforts to impose its own views on the matter from without.

It comes, in part, from having a healthier relationship with our world, too — one that does not seek one-sided control over that which, frankly, is beyond our rein, however much we may delude ourselves otherwise. We know well the powers of the natural world: of the winds and the waters, of our fellow spirits and the sacred directions. We are wise enough, and experienced enough, too, not to challenge the storm or the fire head-on, knowing that in such a match-up, our mortal powers are always doomed to lose. We learn from our elders and our ancestors to honor and respect the other spirits with whom we share the cosmos, and the elemental powers that animate it. In Wings’s case, some of those elders and ancestors now sleep beneath beneath that crumbling bell tower, and their resting place is not and should not be fodder for outside consumption.

Boarded Up Bell Tower

He holds to the same ethics elsewhere, too: Whatever the sins of colonizing forces, the reality is that those who have walked on were human and deserving of respect in death as much as in life. And so while churchyard graves are commonplace, particularly in these small rural villages outside tribal boundaries, he honors those now gone in the same way: He turns his lens away from their resting place, and toward the structures they built, the work of their hands.

Such work is now aging, too, of course, all weathered wood and rusted sheet metal, bell tower boarded up, no song for the dead rung on All Souls — but even weathered and closed, it possesses beauty and dignity. At this time of the year, the bell tower shines in the autumn light, silver and gold and copper even where there is nothing to be found but splintered wood and rusty tin.

Of course, bell towers are not the whole of it, either: There are crosses and crenellations and parapets, walls and windows and ladders reaching skyward.

Penasco Church Ladder

Sometimes it’s not tin that shines silver in the fall sun light, but weathered wood held together by leather rungs, and faded adobe as lined as any elder’s face. Wings captured this, along with a more panoramic view of the church, about a decade ago, the shot taken in the earliest days of autumn, when trees and grass were just beginning to go gold (the broader view shows the yellowing leaves not visible here). Like its wood and sheet metal counterpart above, this church was built the old way, using techniques passed down from generation to generation. Of course, the hands that laid the bricks and mortal and troweled on the clay have long since accompanied their owners to a sleep far longer than any winter, but a century and more later, their work lives on, the beneficiary of timeless techniques native to this place and to blessing to future generations of a visible, tangible artifact of the history that birthed them.

But churches are only one small part of this place. These broader lands of Red Willow, lands no longer always under the purview of their stewards, yet wholly a part of them still, are filled with spaces and spirits older than time.

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There are the homes, of course, houses no longer inhabited, barns and outbuildings now cracked and crumbling beneath the weight of sun and wind and weather. Dilapidated they may be, empty of human occupancy, yet still they stand, a tribute to the materials and masons that built them out of the very earth of this place.

Rusted roofs and tumbling chimneys, windows not merely broken but gone . . . and still the barbed wire remains stubbornly strung between spiraled fenceposts black with age and wear, and still the red willows rise exuberantly from the land to envelop post and wire in their embrace. They spring, of course, from a deeper root, as do the people who share their name: roots as old as time itself and as thoroughly a part of the land’s DNA, one at the cellular level with red earth and rocky outcropping, with mountain and mesquite alike.

And those mountains, and the waters that bisect and transect and traverse them, they, too, are ancient spirits, not merely alive but having given birth to all the rest: people, place, spirit. These peaks are haunted, and the waters too, animated by spirits so ancient as to be beyond human reckoning, holding the spirits of beings whose very existence transcends time itself.

And eventually, those spirits reclaim their own.

Adobe Ruin

Adobe is one of the most durable of construction materials, but it requires maintenance. Left to its own devices, particularly in a climate as harsh as this, and it will return to earth as surely as the bodies of the ancestors, ash and dust and sandy bone. The cottonwoods and evergreens will give it time, and they will be there to bear witness, but in the contest between what Earth creates and what man constructs, the mother of our world will win every time. She is immortal, or the next closest thing to it, and the best we can hope for is a spirit strong enough to ensure her continued well-being in the time that we are given.

In our way, haunting is not particularly a good thing. It is not necessarily a bad thing, either. It turns on the form the act takes: Is it a malicious spirit, one bent on destructive visitations? Or is it simply that slight breath of life and language and culture, of history and ancestry and identity that infuses our world with knowledge and experience and wisdom . . . and hope? Is it that faint gentle through the earth beneath our feet, that faint whisper on the wind? We live in a land of spaces and spirits older than time, and they illuminate our world, if only we remember to listen and look.

~ Aji

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All content, including photos and text, are copyright Wings and Aji, 2017; all rights reserved. Nothing herein may used or reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the owners.

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