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Red Willow Spirit: The Rise and Fall of a Sanctuary Sun

It is the last day of July, what should be solidly midsummer.

We awakened this morning to a sky more at home in the depths winter.

These were not snow clouds, of course; sixty degrees is far too warm for that. Instead, it was a combination of wayward fog and the smoke of small fires. Climate change brings us something new every day, and while the gift lies in its beauty, the curse is in the adaptation required.

We live beneath the rise and fall of a sanctuary sun: one that smiles upon us daily, even when the clouds hide his face for a time. In the way our peoples understand the world, power and benevolence are neither at odds with each other nor required to cohere; in our cosmologies, there is much to mediate between them — and to turn their use to other purposes and effects.

Here at Red Willow, we are seeing the fruits of such intervening influences now.

Our sun is powerful, not punitive; no persecutory sky god, he. And yet, his gaze can blind and burn when met with arrogance and disrespect. It’s not doctrine or dogma, but the simplest of science.

This year, appreciating Father Sun’s gifts — light, warmth, growth, and yes, sanctuary — has been more challenging than in such seasons past. This is the time, after all, when he would rightly trade time and place with the clouds for primacy in the visible sky, when he would cede the lower afternoon atmosphere to the rains. In an ordinary year, we would see and feel his presence indirectly, even as we would see his dwelling-place reflected in the waters of the pond, sheltered by the cascading emerald fall of the weeping willows.

In an ordinary season, as we head toward the downward slope of summer, we would see his face reflected in the upturned profiles of his namesakes, the wild sunflowers so ubiquitous at this elevation. He might even descend to touch their faces in his own fall of water and light: the monsoonal rainbow, an arc of color like no other.

And amid purpled skies, his rays would expand, extend to embrace our visible world, and the sunflowers would dance in the misty light.

Last week, we were given an exceptionally beautiful rainbow, an electric arc in a coral-colored sunset sky. We were not granted the rain that preceded it; that moved wholly south of us, close enough to see but not to fall on these parched lands.

Save for a few sunflowers in a barrel planter, their seeds dropped by birds last year, and one hardy soul that yesterday emerged from the rocky earth adjacent to the (still empty) pond, Father Sun’s own flower children have not seen fit to join us yet this year. Of their domesticated numbers, we are likely to see nothing; the stalks already look as bent as this old September bloom, without even the withered golden petals as adornment.

But even so, this image offers hope, at least for those of us who attend to history and memory.

No, the hope lies not in the wilted sunflower, nor even the seemingly thriving chamisa — it, too, gone now, a victim of an overzealous horse using it as a winter scratching post.

The hope lies beyond, at the horizon . . . the place where the sun itself rises and falls, where earth and sky meet.

You see, that particular horizon was, not so very long ago, not nearly so green, even in the deepest days of summer. It was no drought like this one that turned it brown, but fire: wildfire, one sparked fifteen years ago by dry summer lightning that spread far too close to the old village itself for comfort. Since that time, the drought has remained in place, albeit at a lower ebb until recently, but the rains have come and gone, and the winter snows, too, and they, with the sun, have done their work. There are still large stands of dry dead timber on the slopes and ridgelines, but fewer now; the green has begun its slow return, and with it, the wildlife that birth a healthy habitat.

After so many years of brown and gray slopes, the green is a welcome reminder that life returns, eventually. It renews itself; it reclaims the world and its own place in it. It finds refuge here, and it works with sun and soil and rain and light to create, and recreate, this world that is our own sanctuary.

~ Aji









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