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Small Spirits, Forging New Paths

Our new weather patterns continue unabated, and the land is better for it.

It’s harder on the other beings with whom we share it, though: trees only able to leaf in this latter half of summer; migratory spirits here out of season, or who elected not to brave the drought and never arrived at all.

Our world is finding its own new patterns in hopes of surviving the wounds colonial humanity has inflicted upon it, and it’s forcing us all, however difficult and forbidding it may be, into the same work: that of the small spirits, forging new paths now.

We see it most markedly in the birds: the Swainson’s hawks never arrived, but the siskins of fall are here already, and the house sparrows and chickadees, winter birds, have spent the whole of the summer here. Even the larger mammals altering their own behaviors; two or three weeks ago, there was a report of a bear in the road a fewn iles north of us, and a few days ago, we found evidence of a young bear’s presence among the wildflowers. I fully expect to see the larger pear tree stripped bear any morning now (as happened last year).

And then there are the smaller creatures. We have precious few bees here this year, but a wide diversity among those few that have arrived. Despite local colonizers’ persistence in raising hives of invasive honeybees (and insisting they are helping the environment by doing so, when in actuality they’re further destroying it), the bees that turn up here tend to be indigenous species: two or three varieties of bumblebees, yellow miner bees, longhorns and long-tongues and diggers, squash and mason and neon green sweat bees. They vary substantially in size, often in shape, and significantly in color, providing a beautiful shimmer around the catmint blossoms.

One gift that the new rains have delivered is the presence of a substantial number and diversity of dragonflies. We have missed their small shining spirits in recent years, as the drought has deepened and the water has vanished. But now, although the pond remains empty, they have come, buzzing around the blossoms and dancing through the air.

And then there are the butterflies. With the arrival of August tomorrow comes monarch season here, although we did have one already in residence briefly a week or two ago. And while we have not had as many of their cousins join us this year, we have had a wide array of species come in ones and twos: mourning cloaks and Western tiger swallowtails, American painted ladies and a few that have moved too fast for me to identify their orange and brown wings definitively, a lesser number than usual of the whites and sulphs, but a good amount of tiny spirits robed in periwinkle and gray, tan and white.

Butterfly season is special here. We no longer get the number that once took up residence here every summer, but that’s no surprise, given the drought — and, of course, their own imperiled status. But these delicate, even fragile creatures are still regarded as messengers of the spirits, essentially pollinators whose own spirits are linked extricably with the water, whether by virtue of the links to growing plans or their appearance historically coinciding with that of the rains.

Whenever I see one now, I stop for a moment to mark its spiraling path, to see what it has to show me, to listen for any message it chooses to impart.

It should be no surprise that butterflies feature prominently in Wings’s own body of work. Today’s featured work, a true masterwork created via multiple traditional silversmithing techniques, is only the most recent, if also one of the most elaborate. From its description in the relevant section of the Bracelets Gallery here on the site:

Migratory Paths Cuff Bracelet

Butterflies, small messengers who travel migratory paths, teach us that there are many ways open to us on our journey, and that change can be a gift. With this new and powerful masterwork of multiple silversmithing techniques, Wings has summoned the spirit of Butterfly and the messages she carries upon her wings to show us the dazzling array of paths available and the endless possibilities they hold. The cuff is wrought of heavy, solid sixteen-gauge sterling silver, with a classic wide, hand-cut band; it’s edged with slender borders scored freehand and chased with a repeating diamond motif. In between the borders, more graceful arcs are hand-scored using Wings’s own hand-made stamps; each enclosed space is then stamped freehand in a distinctive repeating pattern of rows and roads, collectively representing hundreds of strikes of the heavy jeweler’s hammer, every path different from every other. At the very center of the band’s outer surface sits Butterfly as you’ve never seen her before, cut and stamped entirely freehand, overlaid securely onto the surface with scalloped wings that rise to flutter freely in the space above the band. Her antennae are individually articulated; her head, an old oval cabochon of sky-blue Kingman turquoise; her body formed from four hand-made sunbursts formed of sterling silver ingot. The band is 6″ long by 2.25″ wide; the butterfly overlay is 2″ high from highest to lowest points and 2.25″ across at the widest points; her wings rise 3/8″ above the surface of the band at the highest point; turquoise cabochon is 3/8″ long by 1/4″ across; ingot sunbursts are 1/4″ across (all dimensions approximate). Other views shown above, below, and at the link.

Sterling silver; Kingman turquoise
$2,500 + shipping, handling, and insurance

The paths inscribed across the cuff’s broad surface using Wings’s own hand-made stamps each enclose lines and rows of repeating motifs — each, in other words, its won path, joining up with the next at various points. Inside each deeply-scored arc are the directional signs of arrowhead points, the sheltering imagery of the lodge, the illuminating of radiant suns, the flowering symbols of medicine . . . and, of course, hearts, representing the love that must be the driving force behind every path forged, every trail blazed, every road traveled.

That stampwork represents, in the most literal terms, hundreds of strikes of the jeweler’s hammer. It’s a work that involves a great deal of labor, and no small amount of pain, as well, as the heavy repetitive motion begins to wear on the shoulder joint and the nerves of hand and fingers. More labor-intensive work went into the creation of the butterfly overlay itself: aside from its own stampwork, there is all the freehand saw-work, cutting and scalloping the edges wings and body and moving smoothly through the tight angles of the antennae. The tiny sunbursts are all hand-made of sterling silver ingot, then stamped, repoussé-fashion, to force the rays of the suns into sharp relief. And, of course, there is the single stone, a very old cabochon of Kingman turquoise that has been in his inventory so long that he cannot remember when or where he first acquired it. Its sky-blue surface is the perfect complement to the wings and the band beneath: a little bit of sky to watch over the messenger’s migratory path.

I have no idea how many monarchs will visit us in the month to come — that is, if any choose to visit at all. But we do still have a few of their smaller cousins with us now, and as we travel summer’s downward slope toward fall, their moth relatives will begin to appear in greater numbers, as well. We would do well to mark their patterns and presence, for that, too, has much to teach us.

At the moment, there are plenty of rainclouds, but also plenty of bright blue sky. This day’s storms, should there be any, will come only near or after sunset, I suspect. In the meantime, we are granted on opportunity to see these tiny messengers at work, to watch their progress, to listen for their song . . . and to learn from these small spirits, forging new paths.

If they can do it, we can learn to do likewise.

~ Aji








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