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#ThrowbackThursday: Growing In Moonlight

The moon is now in its waning crescent phase, light dimmed to that which remains visible in semi-profile. Still, here on our small bit of earth, away from the lights of the town, that is more than enough: It’s still possible to go outside in full dark and, once the eyes adjust, see the sleeping earth spread out at one’s feet. such is the clarity of our air at this altitude that even a small slice of moonlight is sufficient to light one’s path.

Not all of our world sleeps at night, of course. There are the nocturnal animals, busy seeking food under the safe cover of darkness. Certain night-blooming plants are also found here, born of the desert and growing in moonlight.

Perhaps because of this unusual aspect of their character — we are, after all, accustomed to the notion that plants [mostly] require sunlight for growth, and that which grows in the dark of night seems somehow mysterious, powerful, naturally to be associated with dreams — night-blooming flowers are often regarded as sacred. Some are indeed plants of powerful Medicine, in the sense that our peoples use the word: bestowers of visions and dreams (and for the careless and the unwary, of distinctly bad trips, as well). As I wrote here almost two years ago:

Here in the desert Southwest, we are blessed with a number of highly unusual, uniquely beautiful plants. Many are cacti, able to survive and thrive in conditions of high heat and almost no water. Some plants have adapted to the environment by blooming, and pollinating, only at night. One is the plant that has long been known colloquially as jimson weed, otherwise known as datura. These days, you will often see it labeled “sacred datura,” but know that that is a descriptor imposed from without. It may be sacred to certain indigenous peoples, but labels and descriptions have, in recent decades, been ripped out of context and warped by appropriation and commodification.

It’s a plant that has another colloquial name, one that better captures its delicate beauty — and, indeed, its very identity — than “jimson weed”:  Moonflower.

Now, to be clear, there are several species of datura; the moonflower is the smallest. But it’s a beautiful plant with a beautiful name, one bestowed because it blooms only at night — i.e., beneath the moon.

To be clear on another front, neither Wings nor I supports the appropriation or commodification of such plants and their purposes. For those whose native traditions do not include such ceremonial use, these plants may be enjoyed simply for their great beauty (and for some species of night-flowering plants, their equally beautiful fragrance). But for those to whom such traditions properly belong, the ceremonial use of such plants fosters growth of the spiritual sort.

And that spiritual growth is significant in more ways than one. Sometimes, the growth is less about the spiritual progress achieved during its actual use than the other lessons the plant has to teach us. I wrote about this phenomenon in very personal terms later that same year, a story that my late father-in-law used to tell about a journey to Mexico in search of peyote for ceremony, after being told in a dream where to find it growing:

Peyote is not, literally speaking, a night-blooming plant, although Wings’s father used to tell a story of a journey he and several other Road Men of the Tipi Way made to Mexico in search of peyote for traditional sacred use. He had been given a map of sorts to the place where it grew, both in dream form and from locals who knew the area he sought. The men found the land where it grew, and spent the night, intending to harvest it the next day.

And the peyote hid.

Where it grew, right in front of them, lay nothing but dry, rocky soil.

After some days and nights of chasing the spirit of the plant in a seemingly fruitless game of hide-and-seek, it finally showed itself to them once again . . . right in the very spot where they had seen it, and seen it disappear from sight.

There were undoubtedly lessons to be imparted in this process: perhaps about patience; perhaps about persistence; perhaps to emphasize the value of the sacred and the need to be willing to work for it. And for a brief time, it was a night-blooming plant, although under ordinary circumstances, it grows openly in daylight.

Of course, ours are not the only traditions in which the motifs and symbologies of growth in dark spaces and places and hours are found. Indigenous cultures the world over feature such stories and lessons in their lifeways. Among such cultures are indigenous European ones, those that today are nominally brought together under the umbrella term “Pagan,” but, like our own, have their own names for themselves and their traditions. This is especially true of those involving moon-related imagery, since the moon played a central (often feminine) role in the origin stories and structures of many such cultures.

One of the people most dear to us comes from such a tradition herself. And about eight months ago, she asked Wings to make a coil bracelet as a birthday gift for a friend of hers who comes from a similar tradition. Her friend is, for lack of a more accurate descriptor, a landscape artist: She works with her hands in the earth, coaxing greenery from the soil. Our friend also described her as distinctly a “moonchild,” with all that that implies for children of the ’60s and ’70s.

I don’t normally feature the coils here in the #ThrowbackThursday series of posts: They are, after all, relatively self-explanatory in terms of the mechanics of their creation. Beads made of natural materials — stone, shell, coral, amber, fossilized wood — are strung in various combinations on a length of memory wire; once complete, the ends of the wire are turned back upon themselves to form a small loop at either end that keeps the beads from sliding off.

The coils are also a collaborative series in which Wings seeks my input at the design level. I have the ability to distinguish fine subtleties and gradations in color, and I keep an inventory of his symbolic preferences archived in my head, and both of those characteristics prove useful to him in determining color, pattern, shape, and form. Given what will be the jewelry themes of this week, chosen specifically to pair with those of the nature of the local light that we have already been exploring, this particular coil seemed to fit perfectly, and I thought it might also be useful for readers to understand the real creative process of the coils, which occurs mostly on the back end.

In this instance, the challenge was to come up with a combination of beads befitting a self-admitted “moonchild,” one that would also honor her work with the earth and the green plants born of it. We began poring over Wings’s inventory of beads, and soon found a sizeable number of possibilities.

And this is where the first real task occurs: whittling down the options to a number that are workable in size, shape, and volume, and simultaneously aesthetically pleasing and symbolically or spiritually apt.

By now, Wings had already cut the memory wire to the proper size. For the most inexpensive of his coils, he cuts it to ensure that there are at least two, and sometimes three, full wraps around the wrist. For the more expensive versions, there will be at least four, and occasionally five. Price differentials are also determined by the value of the beads used: For example, old natural turquoise will very costly; calibrated ones less so; fossilized wood, natural coral, and natural amber are all very expensive; some beads in the semi-semi-precious category, such as quartz and jasper, are fairly reasonable. Most coils wind up combining beads form both ends of the spectrum, to produce something that incorporates both monetary value and and accessible price point. [A note here about the wire: “Memory wire” is so called because it holds its shape, stretching to accommodate the wearer’s wrist and then springing instantly back into place. It’s the same concept as the old ’60s toy known as the Slinky. In order to hold its shape properly, it’s made of stainless steel, one of Wings’s few departures from sterling silver. It is possible to purchase a type of sterling silver wire that is sometimes labeled “memory wire,” but the metal is too fine to spring back into shape. A coil made with sterling silver wire, besides being much more costly, would not be a “coil” at all.]

But back to our moonchild and her green artistry. After narrowing down the pool of possible beads to a manageable number, we chose those that would honor her vocation and her love of earth and light while embodying her lunar spirit. We eventually chose the following combination: small peridot anchor nuggets; then mossy green and terra cotta unakite; then segments of, respectively, pale rose quartz, pale pink and green and white fluorite, and pale blue lace agate interspersed with a few amber nuggets as separators. The next challenge would be how to organize them to produce the look and feel Wings wanted, and, he hoped, tell her story in a way that appealed to her both spiritually and aesthetically. 

This is the stage at which most of the design work occurs, and it is not as easy as it sounds. You can measure all you like, but the beads will defy you, fitting together (or not) as they choose. You may be sure that you can fit, say, two dozen each of three types of beads and one dozen each of two others onto the coil, but you will almost invariably wind up adjusting those numbers up or down, or switching out certain beads to ensure the right fit. Complicating this is one other factor: A lot of Native artists who make coil bracelets simply cut a length of wire, choose a collection of like beads, and string them randomly, perhaps here and there interspersing a single bead of contrasting color or a fetish bead for accent. Wings, on the other hand, weaves symbolism into the very number of beads he chooses. Wearers will notice, if they look, that most segments of a single type of bead fall into one of two categories: multiples of four; or multiples of seven. These are sacred numbers in many traditions, often with many different meanings that may be especially apt in this context — four direction, four winds, four seasons; seven days, seven spirits, seven generations, to name a few. This means a lot of sorting and resorting, and willingness to get halfway through the coil (or more) and then to undo it all to rework the colors and numbers to make them fit. If a design is being especially obstinate, it can take a whole day just to work out which beads should go where in which numbers and combinations.

In this instance, however, the beads came together fluently, fluidly, as though meant to be together. Once ready for stringing, all that remained was to incorporate the symbolic pattern in his head into the arrangement on the wire, then turn the ends and bless the piece before shipping it.

And so he began with the tiny peridot nuggets, stringing them onto one end as an anchor. I have forgotten the number combinations that he used; a quick look at the photo suggests that the peridot occurred in multiples of four, with either eight or twelve at each end. Once the first string of peridot nuggets were on board, he added four nuggety freeform beads of brilliant amber, the better to separate them from the next sizeable strand of beads while simultaneously helping the design to flow. In this instance, it was an inspired choice; the next segment was of round, ball-like unakite beads, little spheres the color of green grass marbled with a rosy, earthy terra-cotta shade that picked up the glow of the amber beautifully. Another four amber nuggets, and the design flowed into a segment of pale, icy rose quartz beads, round and moon-like. Next came another four amber separator beads, followed by a length of fluorite beads — pale shades of pink and green and white with just a hint here and there of yellow. Another four amber beads followed these, and then coil was nearly half-done: All that remained was the central segment, followed by the same pattern in reverse. The central beads were slightly larger than the rest, a collection of icy blue agate beads that looked for all the world like their own cosmos of full moons catching the glow of the sun and transforming it into a pale white light. Once the blue agate beads were strung, he followed the original pattern in reverse until the coil was filled, then turned the ends, blessed it, and gave it to me for packing and shipping.

To say this was one of the easiest coils he ever created would not be accurate; a lot of work, planning, design, and recalibrating went into it. It would be accurate to say that, unlike some, this one seemed to flow, from start to finish. That’s usually a sign that he has found the right combination, the correct imagery, the symbolism and aesthetics that suit a particular person’s spirit.

Perhaps it’s a work like the recipient’s own: earthy, grounded, channeling light and water, growing in moonlight.

~ Aji










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