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Red Willow Spirit: The Last of the Summer Spirits

Today feels much more of summer than of fall, despite the pre-dawn chill. The mercury has skyrocketed hard and fast, and a shimmering pall of ash and smoke hovers over the land now, having drifted in from the wildfire at El Rito that has gone unreported for three days despite its obvious presence.

It’s only one more example of the breakdown that seems to be occurring everywhere these days, as colonial society fractures beneath the weight of its own harmful dynamics.

Meanwhile, the struggle to keep the land alive here escalates daily. Wings spent yesterday’s afternoon pruning and trimming and cutting more aspens in an effort to save as many as possible, with the result that we now have much more blank space in the stand on the north side of the house, including several trunks that are little more than stumps. The remaining branches, though, seem already lighter, higher; pruning off the dead weight has allowed them to rise and relax and breathe again.

And they are still attracting butterflies.

Not many, true; autumn has already made enough incursions to send most of the migratory creatures on their way. The few that remain, like their dragonfly and hummingbird counterparts, are the last of the summer spirits now. But here at Red Willow, the spirit of the summer season is one that persists well into fall, collaborating and conspiring as much as contending for time and space, and its own do likewise.

At the moment, we seem to have only two large butterflies in residence: one monarch that spends most of its time fluttering around the aspen leaves; and one mourning cloak, here long beyond its usual departure date, seemingly at home in the struggling stand of red willows outside the kitchen door. They, and it, both seem less like metaphors than harbingers now — a foreshadowing of what will be left to us in future threshold seasons if we cannot bring this catastrophic drought to heel.

Today’s three featured photographic images are a throwback to a time before catastrophe had settled in, a time at this same season only seven short years ago when we still believed that, with work and care, we could save it all — save them all, summer spirits, leafy medicine, and water alike.

We know better now.

Or, I should say, we know worse.

With only one monarch remaining here this season, there’s little hope of offspring. There is, perhaps, an outside chance, if this one can be sheltered and saved long enough to make its journey further south. The images here today provide inspiration to keep at the work of it, reminding us of the beauty and harmony that is possible — that this land once held and has a chance to hold again . . . if we put in the work.

The one above has long been a personal favorite, not merely for its subject matter but for its composition. One of the joys of both summer and fall here is the intensity of color the seasons produce, and this photo is a perfect example: an azure afternoon sky, the color of a wild prairie cornflower, webbed with jade leaves and adorned with a pair of monarchs robed like suns emerging from the dark. The knowledge that their mating, a difficult shot to get under any circumstances, would have produced more of their kind, so endangered now, transforms the image itself into a kind of medicine for the soul.

It also calls to mind today’s two featured works of wearable art, both part of the same series, both wrought deliberately in the shape of butterflies and shades of these threshold skies; both are found in the Earrings Gallery here on the site. We begin with the pair set with jewels the color of that end-of-summer sky, of the wildflower blue adrift overhead. From their description:

Floating Azure Earrings

Our world soars on warm silver winds and floating azure skies. Wings gives form and life to wind and sky and the small spirits that inhabit them with these butterfly earrings, all graceful silver wings holding at their heart perfect blues of summer skies. Each dangling drop flares elegantly at top and bottom, winglines articulated, repoussé-fashion, with shimmering depth. At the center of each earring, a tiny round cabochon of bright blue lapis lazuli rests in the embrace of a plain, low-profile bezel. Earrings hang 1-3/8″ long by 1″ across at the widest point; lapis cabochons are 3/16″ across (dimensions approximate).

Sterling silver; lapis lazuli
$525 + shipping, handling, and insurance

These earrings, wrought in an old traditional shape, seem understated — even, perhaps, a bit plain.

They’re anything but.

They are formed from a pair of butterfly conchas, an old design used to separate and delineate more traditional conchas in old-style belts. Their name comes from the flared shape; although they are strung vertically, turn them sideways and they resemble butterflies with wings outstretched. Wings created an entire informal series of them in relatively lightweight silver, most of them set at the very center with a single stone. Only the two pairs featured here today remain.

In that, they call to mind the pairs of their real-life counterparts featured in today’s photos.

It is, in fact, the same pair of monarchs as in the first photo, just in a slightly different position and shot from a slightly different angle. That summer, we had the picnic table beneath the aspens, and we were seated there one late-season afternoon resting momentarily between chores. Wings had his camera out, and when these messengers showed up, he was ready.

They did not disappoint.

Their wings seemed to hold the very sun itself, a glow so bright and clear that it was as transcendent as the spirits who wore it. It’s a color found in the second of today’s featured works, a pair of earrings aflutter on the rays of a transcendent sun, as well-suited to the low-angled light of late afternoon as to the ethereal radiance of the dawn. From their description:

Chrysalis Sun Earrings

Dawn takes flight on silver wings, bearing the orb of a chrysalis sun. Wings summons the sun and the transformative spirit of the day with these butterfly earrings, newly emerged from the cocoon of night. Each drop drifts gently from side to side, its flared top and bottom adance in sharp relief. At the center of the wings sits a tiny amber orb, each cabochon as timeless as the light and glowing with its own cosmic fire, each set in the cool, secure embrace of a plain, low-profile bezel. Earrings hang 1-3/8″ long by 1″ across at the widest point; amber cabochons are 3/16″ across (dimensions approximate).

Sterling silver; amber
$525 + shipping, handling, and insurance

These earrings speak of dawn both literally and metaphorically: of new beginnings, or transformation and rebirth. It’s a message that might seem at odds with a world at autumn’s edge now . . . until one remembers that the real season of renewal is the cold one yet to come.

That summer’s end seven years ago was one whose weather comported more closely with usual patterns: bright mornings and ends of day bisected by a few hours of clouds and intermittent rains. It’s a pattern found in the third of today’s photos. although we only know that because we were there.

Only one of the monarch pair was present at the moment this photo was shot, one day, or perhaps a few of them, after the first two images were captured. It was another late afternoon, but one when the midday monsoonal clouds had only just begun to clear, leaving the undersides of the aspen leaves looking silver in the still-muted light.

It was a slightly melancholy moment: our small world here still gray around the edges; one of the pair absent, its solitary partner’s very presence a reminder that cold winds were around the corner. Since that time, the melancholy has itself transformed — mostly into grief, as we witness our world’s losses in real time.

And yet, there is one of their kind still here now. Even more remarkable is the mourning cloak I saw spiraling like a deep-maroon dervish in a gap in the red willows this morning; after all, their kind are usually both first to arrive and first to depart, gone entirely before July is out.

The presence of this one, a spirit I have always associated with a late and much-loved relative, feels like a gift now — as though the last of the summer spirits are here to instill hope . . . and then to inspire action.

~ Aji








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