Of late I’ve been thinking of special, secret places I’ve loved in the past, wondering why it’s so difficult to find such a spot now.
When I was a child we had a forested area on the hill behind our eastern Massachusetts home. That’s where my grandmother and mother would take my brother and me as toddlers. The white pines seemed taller than anything, the ubiquitous oak leaves crunchy beneath our feet. There were paths deep in pine needles leading here and there; the one we often followed led eventually to a small street we would cross to get to the post office on the other side. Where we might, for a dime, buy a small paper bag of root beer barrels, peppermint sticks and lemon drops — none of them wrapped, all of them rich with unique flavor. That path had on it a family tomb, dug into a small hill, for a Civil War soldier and his wife which my brother and I, once old enough to wander through the woods on our own, found to be pleasantly spooky.
Later on I wanted to write a story about the people in the tomb, something to read on one of those dark, windy, rainy nights when doors might blow open and you wanted to be comforted by hot cocoa and cookies.
Nothing about that spot was strikingly pretty, yet it is still clearly memorable, in both the sights and the smell of the pine needles, the taste of the wild blackberries that grew along one path.
Two decades later the special place evolved, in the Southern Rockies, into a mountainside on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. At the beginning of every July coming of age ceremonies are held there for young girls in the tribe, serving the same purpose as kinaldas within the nearby Diné (Navajo) tribe. For months, years, the girls intensively study traditional ways of their people, and the ceremony is held in honor of their maturing role in the tribe.
That mountainside burned itself permanently into my mind the first year I lived in that area. My future husband and I were lucky enough to find a parking space not too far downslope from the ceremonial grounds, in the dark on the evening of July 4. With great, towering thunderclouds barely visible in the black sky overhead, the deep booms of thunder made talking difficult. Then fat, pelting raindrops. Male rain, the kind the comes down in sheets and buckets, soaking us to the skin in seconds.
Nevertheless we persisted, I on my crutches and leg braces clomping my way up through the mud. Him being overly solicitous, a characteristic that would bear its share in our much later divorce. Once at the high destination I realized that my normal perceptions would be of lessened use. A huge bonfire blazed despite the pounding raindrops — and it never flickered, never threatened to go out. It did shoot out a lot of sparks. People tended it inconspicuously as great drums began to pound out what I would later describe as the heartbeat of the earth. The ground shook with each reverberation.
Out came the Mountain Spirit dancers, or Ga’an, men painted in black heavily enough to disguise their identities, to all look alike. Bare chests, deerskin kilts with bells, ankle bells. Lots of eagle feathers. Atop their masked heads were headdresses of painted wooden thunderbolts — at least that’s what I thought they were. In their hands were long, swordlike, painted sticks.*
[Note: You do NOT, ever, under any conditions whatsoever take even a single photo at Native American ceremonies (or on Indian land) unless specifically, unequivocally granted permission by authorities.] That said, here is a Pinterest photo taken by a Native American at a Ga’an dance.
Even better, here is a link to a painting of an Apache Mountain Spirit dancer by the well known, late Apache artist, Allan Houser, or Haozous.
The rain lightened and stopped as the chanting and drumming spun us into a trancelike state almost as clear to me decades later as it was back there. It became part of the powerful magnetic force that always drew my heart to New Mexico, wherever I went after that.
In the Bay Area a year ago my personal special place became the spot along a highway near Stanford where a Bald Eagle appeared over a golden hill, flying straight at our car for just a few seconds. For me that spot embodied the spirit of the place, survival and persistence of ancient species alongside places where invention of some of the world’s most cutting edge technology takes place.
Down here in Fresno, the heart of the arid Central Valley breadbasket of the USA I can’t say I’ve found a special place yet. I’m hopeful, nonetheless. Probably it’s more difficult since I am an open space person who has decided that because of the wheelchair life style these days she needed to live in an urban environment. It feels pretty strange
Finally, what would one of my blog posts be without music? While I was working on the writing and the drawing for this post I listened to several albums of Native American music, some from New Mexico. I want to share three performances by Robert Mirabal, a Pueblo Indian from Taos, whom I knew of as a fine flute player/maker many years back. He has morphed into tribal rock act, adding to the flute his singing, fancy dancing, a band and numerous other touches of today’s Indian performance world. In each he first gives a brief cultural background.
The first is called simply The Dance.
Next, it is 1000 Miles, reflections of a dying urban Indian so far from the home he has always carried in his heart.
Finally, as the popular Native writer Sherman Alexie has told us in many short stories laced with humor and pathos, Indian children face an awful lot of existential threats merely by accident of their birth. In Little Indians Robert speaks touchingly to these issues, how a loving parent feels.
*Here is a link (http://nativeskeptic.blogspot.com/2011/03/apache-mountain-spirit-dancers.html) to a site with information on the history and significance of the ceremonies and the attire. For specifics you need to scroll down a bit, several times.