Making Friends with Wolf: The Beat Abides

It was a dark cloud covered night as I sat outside playing a drum at my Chupadero valley home north of Santa Fe in 1982. It was more like the drum was playing me–or we were in a conversation like close friends. There was only the drum in my immediate awareness, no thoughts of conscious control or direction of the beat.   A slight breeze began, then light rain.  I asked whatever, whoever was listening in the darkness if I might see the moon and then watched how seemingly in response it appeared from a circular opening in the clouds. I kept drumming. A feeling of oneness with life welled up that was humbling amid this kinship with land, sky, water, air–an intimacy with the natural world I had not known fully before coming to New Mexico.  The feeling was both new and anciently familiar.

The beat abides.

Years later I learned that what happened this night in 1982 was the experience of many people in many cultures, this relationship of thought, intention and prayer between drummer, drum and the natural and noumenal world. Some say the drum was the first instrument used by humans and that it has the power to aid in healing and influence the weather. Stories about drummers being able to induce or dissuade thunder, rain and other elements through the vibrations sent into the atmosphere are common among indigenous people. 

The Native American drum I held in my hands that night came to me through a creative performance production called Luna. I was singing as well as playing my old instrument from grade school, the clarinet.  Friend Jim Berenholtz   had composed the music and choreography for the performance based on the cycles of the moon.  Singers, musicians and dancers from Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque joined the creative collaboration.  After the performances, the one-sided Taos drums used by the dancers were for sale, and I bought one, not really knowing why or what to do with it.  But the drum was calling me to listen to its voice–the language of the tree, the animal, the earth, ancient cultures of the world and my own heartbeat.  Over time it has become an abiding companion on lonely nights, on Earth Walks journeys I have led throughout the American Southwest and Mexico and at monthly full moon drum circle gatherings in my home for over 20 years.  

After living in Chupadero, I was fortunate to find a home in the Upper Canyon Road area of Santa Fe, near the national forest.  On a hot summer day in June 1989, I walked with friend Judy on the unpaved road from my house. Judy was and is a wise mentor and confidant and at the time a highly respected director of substance abuse programs in Santa Fe.  Despite our easy-going conversation and smiles, I felt a certain sadness and slowness in my step because Judy was dealing with breast cancer.  It was a huge ordeal for her, but even so she maintained a sense of hope and optimism.  I wanted to help in whatever way I could, and had called her to offer a healing session with my drum.

That may sound like I knew what I was doing with the drum.  Yes, I had studied methods of healing through use of the drum with Michael Harner and other teachers and experienced what are called “journeys” to other states of consciousness where I encountered “animal allies” and insights into issues with which I was wrestling. The Way of the Shaman But to help someone else?  I thought it over repeatedly and drummed on my own seeking guidance. Ultimately, I felt it would be worth a try to share this with Judy during her battle with cancer. She was open to the experience.

As we found our way to a secluded side canyon, there were a few drops of rain among Western meadowlark warbles and cooing Mourning doves. Judy got comfortable on the ground and I sat next to her, gently drumming.  I closed my eyes, letting a rhythm emerge from within, without trying to construct one.  What happened next are best described in Judy’s own words which she wrote in 2014:

“...friend Doug called and wanted to do a drum healing ceremony for me.  He also played the flute, a hauntingly lovely sound heard years later as it wafted over us at my 50th birthday party, five years into survivorship.  He does music; comforting and healing music, lodged firmly and deeply in his unique spiritual perspective and practice.  On this June day in 1989, we walked into the Audubon protected area near his house on Upper Canyon Road.  A meadowlark sang to us both as we entered the soft sunny woods, and again later as we left.  I laid on my back in the sun as Doug gently drummed.  As I slipped away, my hawk flew, circling above me and then came down to rest near me. 

            What seemed to be a snarling dull gray wolf was off to my right in the trees.  I was afraid as it seemed ominous and scary.  My hawk flew low and fast over me, I thought to protect me from the wolf.  It then landed on the wolf’s back.  I was no longer afraid, as the wolf now seemed friendly and non-threatening.  The wolf walked over to me, hawk on its back, and wonder of wonders, stretched out soft and warm, nurturing along my left side, with its muzzle restring on my shoulder, sweet as can be.  It was incredibly touching.  The hawk then spread its wings and covered my body with them while resting on my stomach.  I felt safe and embraced with healing light.  I remembered another time in the early days of diagnosis, while visualizing the cancer, a snarling wolf had appeared and I pushed it away as it seemed frightening.  Now it seemed like an ally; what had been frightening was now a helper.  Extraordinary experience; extraordinary Doug.”

I do not consider myself extraordinary, but am humbled and grateful to Judy for this extraordinary opportunity.  It was a healing experience that opened some unnamable healing currents within myself as well. Our experience was testimony to the power of the drum, the power of prayer and positive intention.

In the book “Black Elk Speaks,” by John Neihardt, Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk says this: “Since the drum is often the only instrument in our sacred rites, I should perhaps tell you here why it is especially sacred and important to us.  It is because the round form of the drum represents the whole universe and its steady strong beat is the pules, the heart, throbbing at the center of the universe, it is the voice of Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit) and this sound stirs us and helps us to understand the mystery and power of all things.”

It is important to know that Judy was the victor in her battle with cancer. The beat abides.



Sometimes you do what you need to do without knowing what you need to do. That was the case on a blisteringly hot summer day in Santa Fe in 1995.  Temperatures were over 100 and we had been suffering from a long dry spell with no relief in sight.  Not a single cloud in the sky for weeks. It was part of an unprecedented heat wave in midwestern U.S. states during which 3,000 people died, 750 in Chicago alone.

I was living at 1710 Upper Canyon Road in an historic but crumbling adobe rental that had all the rough charm I could have ever wanted.  The first Archbishop of Santa Fe, Lamy, was listed as the original property owner, but the rugged remoteness of the earthen cabin two miles from the downtown Cathedral might have made the place more of a retreat house than a primary residence.  1710 Upper Canyon Rd #B, Santa Fe, NM 87501 | ZillowThe fireplace was almost big enough to put whole trees in it, or so it seemed to me.  There were cracks in the wood plank flooring and cracks around the weathered window frames where the adobe plaster was splintering.  One day as I sat at the kitchen table with my dear black cat Mona on my lap, a chunk of wall fell out, hitting me on the forehead and narrowly missing Mona.  As I sat motionless and stunned, a small dribble of blood began to snake down my face. (The photo above is from a realtor’s page after the little adobe I lived in was bought and expanded dramatically.)

But I loved the place, and it loved me back.  It was a dream come true–living by an acequia (irrigation canal) next to the Santa Fe National Forest, dark night skies filled with an amazing quilt of sparkling stars and quiet.  Many gatherings of friends and welcome strangers took place there over the years–drum circles, counseling and massage therapy sessions, music making, tipi ceremonies and prayers for peace and well-being.  The adobe walls were thick and on hot days, a welcome relief to the relentless sun and heat outside. On cold days it was hard to stay warm even though I covered the widows with thick plastic sheeting and fashioned my Grandma Fleming’s wool blankets into curtains.

On this particular day I had agreed to give a massage to an NMAS client who was now at my door.  I was a volunteer massage therapist for the New Mexico AIDS Services program, serving people with HIV and AIDS as well as their caregivers and families.  Before starting the session, I said to my client, “Rocky, I feel like I need to go outside and call the rain.”  He looked at me puzzledly but joined me on the patio.  “What are we supposed to do?” he asked.  I had no idea, but I did bring what is called a “rainstick,” thinking that might help in some way.

A rainstick is a long, hollow tube partially filled with small pebbles or beans that has small pins or thorns arranged on its inside surface.  When the stick is upended, the pebbles fall to the other end of the tube, making a sound reminiscent of rain falling. The rainstick is believed to have been invented by the Mapuches of Chile and was played in the belief it could bring about rainstorms. It was also found on the Chilean coasts, though it is not certain if it was made by the Incas. Rainsticks are usually made from any of several species of cactus. The cacti, which are hollow, are dried in the sun. The spines are removed, then driven into the cactus like nails. Pebbles or other small objects are placed inside the rainstick, and the ends are sealed. A sound like falling water is made when the rainstick has its direction changed to a vertical position. Although it was thought to have been invented in Chile, many similar instruments can also be found in Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa, where it is often made using bamboo rather than dried cactus. Indigenous peoples of the Southwest use gourd rattles and other instruments in a similar ceremonial fashion.

For some reason, I lifted my rain stick to the sky and turned it to face the full intensity of the sun.  As I turned the stick, pebbles gently creating the sound of water flowing, I asked the sun for its help in bringing rain.  Pretty counter intuitive it seemed. It was Rocky’s turn to do what he thought best, then we both went inside for the therapy session.

Just as we began the massage, I thought I saw a brief dimming of light outdoors.  Then again.  I looked and there were a few clouds, the first in many weeks.  That evening there was a wonderful rainstorm bringing much needed relief.  Needless to say, I was dancing in the rain for joy.

Annie Kahn

Some days later, I spoke to a Dinè (Navajo) elder friend by phone.  Annie Kahn had hosted a number of Earth Walks journeys at her hogan in Lukachukai, Arizona and I had great respect and love for this dear person who shared her wisdom with so many others.

“Annie, do you think I kind of maybe smelled or sensed the rain coming that caused me to go outside and do the rain prayer?” I asked.

I could see her shaking her finger at me in her good-natured grandmotherly way.  “It sounds like you are having trouble accepting responsibility for what you did.  More people should be doing this!”

Photo by

Ladder to the Moon

It was a hot summer solstice day June 22, 1985, and I was hiking the high country above Santa Fe with a 40-pound backpack.  Light streamed through ponderosa pines, dappling the path I walked.  My breath was coming harder so a stream along the way was welcome cool relief. Then it was onward and upward. As I approached the summit of Puerto Nambe, I paused for air in the rarefied atmosphere and took in the great expanse nearly 12,000 feet below me.  I felt small, insignificant amidst this vast panorama and yet somehow as wide and endless as the sky and its horizon. Far in the distance was Pedernal Peak on the northwest edge of the Jemez Mountain range.

Pedernal in Spanish means “flint.” The first peoples of the area call it by the Keres language name of Tsi Ping, “place of chipping away.” Centuries ago, Pueblo people traded chert and obsidian implements crafted from mines at Tsi Ping.  When I once climbed the 10,000-foot volcanic butte, I was scrambling up 8 million years of geologic history and could see the far away mountains of Colorado. Another time I explored the nearby ancient pueblo (also called Tsi Ping) perched atop a mesa and found numerous examples of archeoastronomy, places where researchers believe certain natural features align on specific seasonal, lunar and solar events and figure into sacred ritual observances of the people. As they continue do today in the Pueblos, these cyclical events foster awareness of our essential connection with nature and a sense of balance and inspiration. 

Silently standing on the summit of the Sangre de Cristos and looking back at Tsi Ping, I was awestruck at the drama of sky and earth before me. I was certainly not the only one to feel that way. In 1958, famed artist Georgia O’Keefe painted Tsi Ping with a ladder to a moon suspended in a turquoise sky. The moon was in perfect balance, halfway between full and new, light slicing it exactly in half.  They say Georgia thought if she painted it enough times it would become “hers.” Was the painting just a reflection of surroundings at her Ghost Ranch house?  Or did it symbolize some kind of unseen link between us and cosmic forces like the ladder in a sacred ceremonial Pueblo kiva? We can only guess at the answer, but O’Keefe passed on March 6, 1986 and her ashes were spread atop the peak according to her wishes.  If the mountain did not become hers, perhaps she was claimed by the mountain.

O’Keefe was a fearless pioneer when women were more likely to be found cooking in the kitchen and cleaning up after their families.  That’s a sacred role, but O’Keefe was an iconoclastic renegade, a rebel with a cause and a profoundly talented one at that.  I’m a lot rebel myself and I like that in her. She also took a local young man, Tio Manzanares, under her wing and supported his education and employment. Tio later became a friend of mine as well as an Earth Walks cultural guide. O’Keefe gave generously to the local elementary school and other causes.

It was getting late that summer solstice afternoon, and I needed to make camp in the Puerto Nambe area.  But I was glued in astonishment to the rock in the meadow where I sat watching the path of the sun make a direct arc towards the dark pyramid of Tsi Ping.  As it reached the horizon the huge burning orb of orange and red set directly behind the pointed peak, bisecting it exactly in half.  Had I been here a few days before or after, I would not have seen this phenomenon. In that profound instant, dots and lines connect in my mind.

There are no accidents. I was watching this convergence of sun and earth that in my bones I knew was a part of ancient rituals at this very spot. I had not only a visual connection with Tsi Ping at that moment, but something else powerful, unnamable, timeless. The sun set and I had to set up my camp for the night.  Hoisting up my backpack I walked the steep mountain pass trail into the growing darkness of evening, like walking up the steps of Georgia’s ladder to the sky. Somewhere above me that moon must have been hanging in perfect balance.

Georgia Guidestones

I was in mid-flight on October 8, 2009 to fulfill one of my fantasies, “Autumn in New York” and the fall colors of the Hudson River Valley when I read William Least Heat Moon’s “Roads to Quoz.”  Quoz is the mysterious, incongruous, odd or peculiar.  The unknown.  My mother long ago started me on the author’s prolific literary road by giving me a copy of “Blue Highways,” his first travel documentary.  His work is kind of like a memoir in present time, much more than travel documentaries, and inspiration for my work with Earth Walks.  Here are some quotes from “Quoz”:

  • 10…A genuine road book should open unknown realms in its words as it does in its miles. If you leave the journey exactly who you were before you departed, the trip has been much wasted, even if it’s just to the Quickee-Mart.”
  • 13…But for me it is the last reason which underlies all the others, for to go out not quite knowing why is the very reason for going out (on the road) at all.
  • 14…this fragment from a Navajo chant: “Remember what you have seen, because everything forgotten returns to the circling winds.”

On another dream come true, in 2010 I saw the South full springtime bloom when I visited a cousin north of Atlanta.  Boiled peanuts, bluegrass music, church services. And a “quoz” indeed:  the Georgia Guidestones, a mysterious Stonehenge -like monument near Elberton, GA.  Eight world languages were carved in the stones urging humans to preserve and protect the earth and life in harmony with the creator. Unfortunately, in 2022, a bomb was detonated at the site, destroying one of the stones and ultimately resulting in its dismantling.  The mayor and town were shocked and saddened at the senseless act.  See also: and

Santa Fe New Mexico Sense of Place Award

Santa Fe New Mexico has been recognized with the “Sense of Place” award by National Geographic Magazine. The award is bestowed on an organization or place that enhances cultural authenticity and supports historic monuments, vernacular architecture, indigenous heritage and artistic traditions.

Let Earth Walks be your guide through Santa Fe and the Southwest United States country. Experience the land, people and culture of the spectacular country. We can provide a wonderful experience!  You can reach us at

Pueblo Bonito Kiva and Complex at Chaco

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Walk in Beauty

In September 2016, Earth Walks traveled to the spectacular Canyon de Chelly with 12 participants.  It was a deeply memorable time, which included camping in the canyon under a blanket of stars, Dine (Navajo) friend and guide Daniel Staley playing his beautiful flute music to the echoes of the notes and his  ancestors and a day of service on the family farm of Kathryn Pemala.  Canyon


Our canyon campsite was on Daniel’s grandparents’ land where he maintains a fruit orchard and a traditional hogan.

daniel-with-apples-canyon-de-ch-2016One magical evening found us around the campfire with Daniel playing his flute and singing traditional Dine chants in his native language.  One participant had just acquired her first drum and she sent it around the group, asking each person to add their own drum beat, song or words to empower it for future drumming.  The group spent a day of solitude near the powerful Spider Rock.  That evening the group participated in a traditional sweat lodge.Spider Rock Canyon de Chelly Our final day in the canyon was spent in a service activity on the family farm of Kathryn Pemala, long time weaver, who has lived her entire life in the canyon.  As she weaves, she hears the voices and stories of her ancestors which are woven into the fabric of her work.

Dine (Navajo) weaver

Dine (Navajo) weaver

The group help harvest corn and plums, pulled weeds and enjoyed conversation with Kathryn and family members.  It was all too soon that we had to leave.

Helping Harvest Corn

Helping Harvest Corn

One of our participants, Sallie Bingham, is a writer and published author.  Her blog on the journey is well worth the reading.  You can view it at: 

Earth Walks plans to return to the canyon in the fall of 2017.  We will also travel to Chaco Canyon, NM in late May.  This coming spring, we will be based at Bodhi Manda Zen Center in Jemez Springs, NM helping with an organic farm in Jemez Pueblo  as well as making traditional flutes with Pueblo resident Marlon Magdalena

If you would like to join us on these or other journeys or create a special Earth Walks for yourself, family, friends or business please be in touch.  Meanwhile, Happy Trails and may we all Walk in Beauty!

Earth Walks Director Doug Conwell

Earth Walks Director Doug Conwell