IN MY HANDS IS A BOREAL OWL who has died of West Nile virus. Waiting for the spirit to pass, I feel the softness of her feathers, the beauty of this other form of life. I look closely at her rounded head, the crescent in between golden dark eyes that are surrounded by feathers white and perfect, shaped like ice crystals, like frost when it forms in the shape of ferns or the ice leaves of winter. Perhaps that is why they are named boreal, as in the Far North, where ice predominates. Frost. The shape of ice crystals. Late winter.
On the drive home from working with the birds, it begins to snow, and the flakes on the windshield remind me of those feathers. It has been a hard winter already, with snow and scatterings of early spring sun, then more snow.
At home, the horses have been vaccinated for West Nile virus, so I am not worried about passing it along. I remain outside to watch them eat, making certain the older one’s food isn’t taken by the younger, more aggressive mustang. It is cold and growing dark. As I kneel, buckling the blanket of the older one, who needs more warmth, I think of the many birds that are dying of a disease from far away in this small world, a disease that is spreading quickly.
This evening, the black, deep-seeing eyes of the mustang look at me, speaking another language than domestic. For her it is still a wild world. Over the years, we have developed a certain and rich closeness, a way of moving together as companions who understand each other’s intentions.
MY LIFE IS ONE ENRICHED BY ANIMALS: cats, dogs, the birds at the raptor rehabilitation center where I volunteer after teaching, and all the wild animals that pass by my little cabin, which sits in a wildlife corridor, bears, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, deer, bugling elk.
I have heard a Pueblo emergence story about a man being sent from the world beneath the earth level to see if his people might ascend there to live in harmony. He climbs a reed and, upon reaching the surface, he first meets the animals. To his surprise, he is wounded by them, but after the wounding, after they have shown him their powers, they heal him. In this way he is taught methods of healing — with plants, with songs, with minerals. When he is whole and has seen this world of richness and beauty, he returns beneath the ground and tells his people, “We have been accepted.” It is a story not only of human mythology, but of animal powers, the teaching of respect for them all. As I stand with the horses beneath the black, wintry sky, watching the elder one eat, her warm, dark eyes looking grateful for food as she chews and concentrates, the wild horse leans against me gently, and I think: I have been accepted. Perhaps she still holds the consciousness of a herd, and for her, I have become a part of it. So often, I have observed that being accepted by animals is something most human beings want and need.
Snowflakes fall on the dark manes and tails of the horses, beautiful white crystals lingering on black hair for just a moment before they dissolve and are gone. I stand with them, looking up at the constellations. Above us are the skies of many people. I once came across a leather sky chart of the Skidee Pawnee, and one of the constellations was swimming ducks, one was a herd of antelope. For the people of the Southeast, there is rattlesnake, healing hand, and a Milky Way souls travel at death. We do not all come from the European Greek mythologies. And for indigenous peoples, the sky often corresponds to what is on Earth, and the significant stories and animals and gods that exist in this world where we dwell.
The moon moves across the sky with its many lights and shadows. There are names for the waters imagined on the moon. One is the Sea of Tranquility. A good name, tranquility being a longed-for quality within a human, and we move toward it in many ways: religion, prayer, meditation, right living.
It is surprising how all these thoughts pass through one woman’s mind as she stands outside in the cold night feeding horses, watching the storm come in from the west.
The sky has winter written in it. The horizon itself is white snow with dark clouds in the distance, clouds that, at times, look like mountains rising in the west over the Rockies, clouds that tell me what weather is coming in. I realize that the temperature has already dropped, and it is so cold that my jeans chafe my legs.
I MOVED TO THIS CABIN WITH SNOWSHOES and headlamps, excited about my planned night forays into the mountain forests, down a trail behind the place and into the woods across a creek. I had taken night trips into winter forests before and found them peaceful, a time to watch a world while the owls called out for mates. On one journey, I traveled over the winter land of Minnesota on cross-country skis wearing a miner’s headlamp. I went farther and farther, and it seemed that I wanted to disappear into the beautiful winter night and continue moving on. I later understood it as a sign that I needed to move away from the cold, flat land of the city to which I had just moved, that it was an unconscious attempt to escape from the world I had entered, one so culturally different from any I had ever known. At the time, however, I believed I was only taking a journey across the surface of snow. I skied into the distance until I was on a lake. It was still beneath a starlit sky, but then the ice of the lake began to whine and crack. The sounds were frightening beneath my feet as I realized that I was alone in a cold world I didn’t know, hearing sounds I had never heard before. Doubting the depths of winter freeze, I turned back. But that night I realized that darkness is its own world. It had a steadiness and silence I loved, with its own kind of winter solace.
When I moved to this little falling-down place, instead of traveling by moonlight that first winter, I found myself in a cave of snow surrounded by stark silence. I could barely venture out except to keep open the triangular path I shoveled to the hay, to the horses, and back. Snow continued to fall in great and fast flurries and a powerful wind blew it into drifts. I struggled to keep the water hose uncovered for the horses. By daylight the sun was warm enough to make the snow heavy and wet. It continued to accumulate. There were some who could not open their doors when they woke that first morning. I was fortunate to have put in a sliding door where once was only a dark wall, and so I was able to leave the house without opening the door a crack and hand shoveling.
Soon the canyon and valley were blown across and there were drifts of seven feet. To my heartbreak, one great tree fell, knocking out my electricity, and so I needed to heat with wood. Heavy, wet snow continued to fall, showing no signs of letting up, and I worked at keeping the trail to the barn and horses and back clear until exhaustion set in. I am certain, though, that other paths were formed, invisible to me. Rabbits must have found their ways, animals moving across a surface I could not see.
BEING STRANDED IN WINTER WITHOUT light opens new passages in time. There are moments by the light of a kerosene lamp or candles to think and remember and feel the great silence. There’s a solitude that is nourishing. Alone, at home, one takes comfort in small things — a pillow, a family smell, domestic and full of memories. In one corner of the cabin is the large chair that I still claim as mine. It was from my marriage. Early on, we had no bed, only sleeping bags, and with our first extra forty-eight dollars we went in search of a bed. It was so many years ago, but I can see that used furniture store like it was yesterday, even smell the rich old woods and oils, the cloth, some of it rotting on the old furniture. When I saw the chair with the angel face carved on it, its sides of beautiful wood, I told my husband, “Forget the bed. The floor is fine. This chair is what I want to rock my grandchildren in.” And I did. I repaired it, refinished it, and I rocked many children in that chair, reading stories until they slept, then watching them sleep with amazement and awe at the freshness and beauty of new life.
Without electricity, I am surrounded by other kinds of comfort. We are all of a piece, myself and the world, close to one another. Boundaries are gone. Distance has changed. The rock outcroppings on the hills above are closer than before, the trees in the moonlight have come closer to the windows, the horses so close I can see the ghost of their breath.
This home has windows all along the walls through which rose and amber light passes in the morning. It is a place to labor at times and to dream. I dream of when I was most happy, and surprisingly it was when I lived in a trailer, in poverty, and had decided to work my way through school and discovered the love of learning about the world. There are deeper visions than mine at work here though. The willows and junipers at the creek are laden with snow and bent by it, all leaning, and many of the larger trees have broken, some of them down the center, some at the tops. Some of the trees will never be upright again. Even so, spring tendrils dream beneath the snow.
The power of snow is in its beauty, its shine, its ability to enchant with its sparkling grains of light until you walk into it and remain — or you step in the wrong place and it tumbles its great icy weight upon you. But it is enticing, with a language of its own. It calls me out into the cold just to look at the beauty — there is no other choice. When the sun is in the sky, ice crystals shine, minute prisms of brilliance, all the colors of the known world in a sky filled with sparks of light.
I think of Takahashi’s poem “Snow Wind” and his line about bringing a snow-covered pine branch out of winter’s forest to his dying sister so she could breathe the fresh smell of evergreen as the snow melted on the floor of her sickroom.
IN TIBET, THE MOTHER OF THE WORLD IS a snow-covered mountain, one of many sacred sites in the world, named Chomolungma,“The Goddess Mother of the World.” It is the center. There are many centers where the universe opens to let us in and we step through that opening into something larger. Whenever we Indians talk about sacred sites, I am always thinking that all sites are sacred, but some places have an energy larger than others, or call with a stronger song, and many define the boundaries of a tribal world, like the four sacred mountains of the Navajo. In our Chickasaw world, we look to the homelands of our origin and to our stories of migration as parts of who we are, to the mounds and rivers of our ancestors. Whoever we are in this world, we find places of silence, of peace, of connection with the larger world around us and the universe, and it is a state of being not easily given to words.
There are those who do not understand the notion of sacred sites and holy lands. In our country’s recent war, we have bombed the Garden of Eden, the place where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet in Iraq. Much is unknown and unremembered by us. I was told by Navajo elders that a Forest Service representative, working on a ski area proposed on a sacred mountain near Flagstaff, asked, “Just where is the line where the sacred mountain ends?” As if there were a map that could show where something ceases to be sacred. I have to wonder why it is that this concept of a sacred site is not easily understood by the Western mind and way of knowledge, yet we First Nations peoples find it so simple. What led to the break in Western thought where land became something to be measured — acres, units — and surveyed?
For now, the great snow of this year is my center, accumulating one crystal at a time, one particle after another, making for a large and mighty silence all around. There are lights and prisms, a diamond cutter’s precision, days and nights of shifting, moving. I am constantly aware of how millions of the singular come together into something so large and overwhelming that I am housebound, except for the trail I painstakingly make to the horses, struggling hour after hour to keep the way open, trying to stay on top of it as the snow drifts with wind, snow now peaked above my head all around me.
When I am outside working, my mind always fills, and this time I think of the Eskimo glasses I saw in the North. They were made of bone with a slit cut in them. How intelligent a design. In the glare of this day, they would protect my eyes from light that is almost blinding. And yet I still see the small. Always I notice the miraculous and minute shapes of our creative environment, whether it is the beautiful mosses alive in places beneath the freeze, or the lichens on old stone, or the crystals in caves. Now, reaching the horses, taking the hose to fill the water tank, I notice the ice crystals that have grown along the heated tank. Ice all the way up, shaped like a forest of ferns. I see fronds and leaves, white, changing with the light. I know that each snowflake has a piece of dust at its center. Winter magic is at work here. All the human failings in the world are almost meaningless when considering this.
Whenever we Indians talk about sacred sites, I am always thinking that all sites are sacred, but some places have an energy larger than others…
WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER GRADUATED from Bloomfield Chickasaw girls’ school, my great-aunt memorized and recited “The Lotus Eaters” from Tennyson. I considered this to be a result of the labor of acculturation. Elsewhere Tennyson says, “One god, one law, one element and one far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves.” But we know there are many far-off events and more than one kind of law, more than one notion of god, individual to each human vision. The whole creation moves us, I am thinking now, as I, one small human, am moved by it. The word god itself means to call out, to invoke, to appeal or pray. We could even add to enchant, as I feel we live in an enchanted world.
Out there, where some religious cultures imagine their god lives, new universes are forming, nurseries of stars, along with what looks like a great eye, and the Horsehead Nebula. An illuminated order of the universe that we have yet to imagine exists in space. We dream of it in our ways, but we don’t often examine even our own world of matter, the state of the soil, the ice breaking away, the houses now falling into the ocean because of climate change, the great droughts and flooding because of the enormous weathers we think of only momentarily as they appear on television. The melting of polar ice is quickly accelerating, and there are peoples having to be moved from their lifelong places on islands in the Pacific and in the northern regions of our own continent. The long legacy of deforesting has already been changing this continent for five hundred years. And now here is a region with more than seven feet of snow and what would amount to an emergency, except that I have my own heat. Nevertheless, we have already crossed over a line of dangerous changes, and we human beings must be here for the work of healing, as the whole of creation has been moved not in its own way, but in ours.
Here and now, the forest is filled with snow. But the birds are no longer here. At first they came for food. No doubt they have found a better supply up above this valley, where there are more people with bird feeders and less snow. At night I imagine they are all gray feathers fluffed out in their nests — in their feather pajamas, as my daughter said when she was a young child. Also, standing here, listening, I hear the sounds of trees. In the North there is one month of Popping Trees. Here, even now, I hear them popping, snapping with ice-coated branches in this breaking cold. Some are even falling from the weight of the heavy spring snow.
One day a male elk appears. He is one I recognize, with lighter fur than that of the herd that passed through earlier, and as I step out from the hay storage I find that I am on the path directly between him and the horses. He clicks his teeth at me, a warning. I turn to leave, and when I look back he is coming toward me. I drop what I am carrying, cross my arms before me, face him, and say, No. He backs away and so do I. Before long, he returns and stands watching as I carry food to the horses. I occasionally drop some alfalfa for this thin, solitary elk who stands on the shoveled path out of necessity, due to the sharp crusts of snow atop deep drifts. Again, I am aware that I live in a world I do not know.
THE SKY IS SHINING AND NEW snow arrives, but in the world beneath, trees are preparing for spring. There are stirrings, a whole world of activity, but time is different now, and while this creation continues underneath us, the snow is still growing in size, like an animal taking down tree limbs. There is beauty as I look at distant mountains and see snow gusts blowing like clouds from the earth, sometimes golden in sunlight. But I am concerned with the rolling whiteness, the long and hidden road to this little cabin. At night in this world of silence, large trees break under the weight of this blizzard. Two are lined up to fall on the cabin. They are old, large trees, whose roots are eroded and exposed. In bed at night, under piles of blankets, the dog and I listen to our world breaking above us. With each crack of a tree, each break, he barks, and I visualize a tree falling through the ceiling.
Shelter. It sounds so handsome and so comforting, so real and true and yet it is just a little wall between a person and all the rest. There is so little there. At the same time I realize that the fragility of crystal after crystal can be my killer. One small thing plus another equals a power greater than any shelter humans can build.
As the snow ends and thaw begins, I survey the damages. The trees I thought would fall on us have each broken in half, one falling on one side of the cabin, one falling on the other. The most heartbreaking thing is that one tree that has fallen held a red-tailed hawk nest. The nest is not altogether finished and suddenly birds appear to chase away the hawk. She leaves, and I try to save the nest. For some reason, I wish to save this nest, as if it would bring back something that has been broken. It is a piece of art. Each stick of wood has been carefully chosen, finely stripped like driftwood, all nearly the same length. There is green wool or felt from some cloth in the center, and mud turned to clay. I am amazed at the skill of this bird, the precision of the nest. A friend once told me about seeing a red-tail flying with a crow in its talons, and that a group of other crows flew over it, landed on it, weighed it down, and landed it, saving their crow companion. Now I see all the smaller birds harass away this hawk as she looks at her nest, knowing she must begin somewhere else, and I too feel a sense of loss.
THE SNOW, THE MOUNTAINS, the trees. The winter way. It is a world turned into drifts, unstable. In the North there are so many ways to speak of snow, but here I do not have them and create my own. Whisper snow speaks around me as I walk through what should be solid. Cloud snow. Feather. Ice snow where it hardens. One word I like is from science, sublimation, a term for what happens as some of the snow evaporates and rises, leaving behind a fragile layer that sounds like tiny bells and collapses when touched. But I am tired of the labor, the cold, the constant silence, and wish only for some creature comfort. The walk to the barn and the shoveling have become burdensome.
Finally, one day, my brother comes with a backhoe and a friend. At the top of the road, they turn the snow over and toss it down the hill so that I can get to my truck, still parked up on the main road. The backhoe ruins my road but I don’t care. It will not be the last time a mere snowplow is unable to push the heaviness of snow here. Although I love solitude, I need this passage to the rest of the world. I will be working for months cleaning up after this storm, cutting wood, having trees trimmed, the roof repaired. The worst is, I will miss the tops of beautiful trees and mourn those that will never stand straight again. But we have survived, me, the dog, cat, horses. Even the elk.
Like snow, I lay my life down one moment at a time until it grows, drifts, or turns to shining ice. It is light falling through windows, moving along the edges of earth. Each thing in this world counts for something, and I need to live as though each moment, each person, each action, counts because it all equals something akin to a great snowfall in the end.
And here I am, an Indian woman living in a world so changed. It happened as this winter snow happened, one act at a time, one presidential or dictatorial decision, one man’s signature, one wrong shot fired, one knife wound, or a treaty signed by someone who did not have the authority to sign it. There were words we believed to be true and have meaning but they equaled betrayal. Nevertheless, I am alive because I was carried here in the bodies of my ancestors. And here each morning is red on the mountains, on the snow, and through the black pines. For now, that is what matters.
Down by the creek, I see beaver tracks and remember how they were nearly made extinct in the 1700s for hats in fashionable Europe. Then I see the mountain lion pass by. I consider this new virus, West Nile, and how it has affected the birds, entire populations gone by one invisible thing. Ours is an alive world, ever changing, sometimes dangerous, but always amazing. The formation of our universe is ongoing, and I am one minuscule participant within it, as is one bird, one tree broken, one spreading virus, and I can only hope that my life will offer something back to this magnificent creation, this changing climate, this sacred earth, these lives all around me.