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Red Willow Spirit: Worlds Between and Beyond the Lines

Lines Below the Peaks - Latillas

Our peoples already live in a world beyond boundaries, in multiple senses of that phrase: The lines we draw to protect our communities and cultures are transgressed daily by the outside world, by colonial attitudes and cultures, individuals and collectives. At the same time, we are bound by those imposed from without, lands and resources stripped and stolen, bodies and identities confined within reservation borders . . . except, of course, where there is something of value to be extracted and we are dispossessed yet again.

A world beyond boundaries does little for us; it’s been here for centuries now.

But worlds between and beyond the lines? Ah, now that’s a very different possibility indeed.

There was a time when fences were few and far between in most of our cultures. There was no need; there was enough room for everyone, and people used space judiciously. Winters were spent in close quarters, preserving warmth; summers, wide-ranging in pursuit of plants or game or perhaps only a dream.

The lands of my own home are now known by a name that the world traces to our language, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. We have several words and phrases that vie for that title, some of which are unknown to the dominant culture that has anointed linguistic bastardization as etymology, even when it likely is not. One such word translates very differently, to “the fenced place,” and it would certainly have fit the area once invaded by colonizing populations. but fences were not unknown to our peoples, either; for my own, strategic placement of the occasional palisade did much to fend off predators, both indigenous four- and colonial two-legged.

Here at Red Willow, fences have also long been used by Wings’s people to similar purpose, and more. They introduced the latilla to the Spanish invaders who gave it the name that stuck: the long, slender pole, usually the trunk of a piñon tree, placed upright side by side with its kind to form a barrier. Such fencing keeps young children and domestic animals safely within bounds and sight, keeps predatory wild creatures out, forms a windbreak, and serves purposes of security and military strategy. It’s useful for preventing overgrowth, for protecting ditching and the waters that flow through their channels, for serving as drying racks, and for providing a [mostly psychological] barrier to protect the sacred. Wit regard to the latter, why do fences work? Because it is a natural human instinct to recognize that there may be consequences to transgressing a boundary, even if the possibility remains too often insufficient to deter those with a colonizing mindset. A millennium later, latilla fencing still protects the kivas,  individual homes, and sometimes considerable expanses of land.

But in this new calendar year, the fascination of latilla fences is to be found not in what they keep out, but in what they allow in; not in what they lock up, but in what they permit escape; not in what they conceal, but in what they reveal.

For it is within these spaces where purpose is not fully realized, objective yet unmet, that other worlds are born and nurtured into being.

Intersitial Snow - Latilla

We have no snow here this year, only a blanket of pale gold grass in the deep sleep of dormancy. In recent years, climate change has contributed to increasing subsidence across the land, and the ditches are no longer the only dangers to a human ankle or a horse’s hoof. But snow is more than a blanket — it’s a disguise, one that covers all manner of imperfections even as it conceals all manner of danger.

An ordinary shadow wouldn’t change that.

But the shade of a latilla fence? Suddenly, light and shadow and snow come together in a whole new form and shape, creating a whole new world on the surface of the land. And now, the ditches show themselves beneath the accumulated flakes; so, too, do the holes and dens that house small creatures during their own winter’s rest.

It creates its own world in other ways, too: the negative to the actual fence’s positive, the latillas a stencil for light and shadow. It’s a guide, of sorts, and a mirror too, a reflection of what we regard as the “real” world that shows us new aspects and angles of ourselves. It would not happen with a wall; that would block too much of the light, hide features and details in a mass of solid shade. It is the poles that make it possible: the lines that necessarily bring with them spaces and thereby create new places, new worlds through and between and beyond.

Blue Space In Gold - Latillas

Perspective. That is the gift of the lines.

Sometimes the whole picture is too much for human eyes to comprehend, especially in a place such as this. Red Willow occupies a vast expanse of wild earth, a wilderness scape that ranges from some of the continent’s highest peaks to deep valleys, the bluest of waters and desert dry as ash and bone.

And in the winter — in a real winter, one with measurable snow — the lines and spaces deliver worlds beaded with jewels: a turquoise sky, gold in full flower, pearl-topped petals, diamonds spangling every surface. The day Wings captured these images, the temperature was five below, the kind of cold that numbs skin and steal breath in the space of a moment. The sun seemed to taunt the land, bright enough to blind mere mortals’ eyes but not enough to warm the air around them. It was the sort of day that drove all life indoors, seeking shelter from the winds and fires to warm body and soul.

Despite the sun, it was, as the saying goes, not a fit day out for man nor beast.

And yet, the lines produced a gift: They birthed a reflective world of shadows and midwifed one of jewels into view. They did nothing to keep out the cold, but they allowed in a glimpse of other worlds visible only in such harsh extremes of weather. And in spite of temperatures truly dangerous, they afforded us a stark and momentary beauty that would not have shown itself to us in weather a few degrees warmer.

They were the worlds of a new year some five or six years past, worlds not then realized. But they showed us potential; they showed us possibility. And this year, even without the snow, we now know where to look, and how.

This year, snow or not, we know to look, to dream, to seek visions and act to bring them into being . . . because we know there are worlds between and beyond the lines.

~ Aji







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