Late September 2015 and the planet is engaged in its eternal autumnal dance of change as it axis tips toward the North Star Polaris. Eleven souls and I are on an Earth Walks journey from Santa Fe westward to the 1,000 foot red sandstone canyons called De Chelly by the Anglo world and Tsei by the Dine or Native American Navajo people. The axis of our own path takes us around the Jemez Mountain range, once a single mountain rising over 30,000 feet high, the largest known above ground formation in the world. Only a million years ago its massive volcanic explosion sent chunks hurtling as far away as Nebraska and affecting global climate for a time.
Onward we go through high desert rolling hills, tall pine forests and open plains, home to herds of elk. We pass the turn off to Chaco Canyon, where a few miles away amazing archaeoastronomical structures are found along with hundreds of underground kivas and an advanced complex social and spiritual organization.
The great kiva complex at Pueblo Bonito
Once we’ve escaped the clutter of billboards, oil rigs, auto salvage yards and cookie cutter fast food eateries in the Farmington-Bloomfield area, we see in the hazy western horizon a huge looming silhouette, dark, starkly solitary and almost brooding. It is known as Shiprock and indeed looks like a gigantic ship, impossibly frozen in a sea of desert. To the Dine, it is the legendary great bird that brought them from the north to their present lands.
Shiprock New Mexico
Still we press on, the land rising to forested mountains, dropping again to bare sandstone cliffs. We are nearing our destination and suddenly without warning, the canyon opens before us.
On our first full day, we are immersed in the canyon walls when my watch stops. Me, who is leader of the pack and so focused on dates, itinerary, agenda, checklists and movement of participants at specific intervals of time. But we are in some ways in “time without time” and a watch seems like a superfluous anachronism. Next, the spirit of the land takes away my prescription glasses, which I don’t even miss until hours later.
In sacred sweat lodge, I hear the weary yet deeply devoted voices of our Dine leaders who strive to maintain the ancient ways. I voice my support and acknowledge how being a spiritual leader can bring more tests and challenges, but also brings its own great rewards. In the darkened lodge, I can somehow see their heads nod in affirmation.
Next day, we are back in the canyon gathered around “spider woman” herself who kneels before the web of her hand crafted loom, weaving threads of wool from her sheep into a multicolored tapestry of wind, sunlight, stars and ancient stories of hope, tragedy, sadness and laughter. She is Kathryn Pemala, who’s lived on this family farm all her life, raised sheep and goats, grown fruit trees, corn and a family as have generations before.
Kathryn Pemala, Dine Weaver
“I hear the songs and stories. That’s why I weave,” Kathryn tells us. “Plus it’s good physical work.” We’ve come to hear some of the stories, but also to help out on the farm. So we get our own dose of physical work. Dust flies, people sneeze, goats greedily much the weeds we chop and everyone chats and chuckles. Soon it’s time to go and we cram into crowded jeeps amidst smiles, thank yous and promises to return next year.
This is an eternal return, however, this coming and going and coming again of countless seasons that have shaped both the canyon and the people who live within her protective embrace. It is hard not to feel a part of this immensity, to shed our limited physical skins and become a part of the land and sky—to Walk in Beauty, as the Dine say. Especially as the full moon rises above us on the canyon rim as we overlook the great spire of Spider Rock on our last night here.
Spider Rock Canyon de Chelly
Oh, and that watch of mine that stopped? I took it to the jeweler who check the battery, found nothing wrong and returned it to me ticking right along. And the glasses? Our group kindly stopped in the side canyon where I thought I might have dropped them, and we fanned out in a search party. Suddenly overhead, a red tailed hawk circled and sent out its screeching call, resonating against the canyon walls. Soon after, the glasses were found where they had spent a night under the nearly full moon. “New vision,” someone said.
Everyone wants to return next fall, 2016. If you are interested in joining the group, please be in touch! Happy autumn. Doug Conwell