Grandmother Spider’s Web

We are the weavers, we are the web

We are the flow, we are the ebb

                                               —Shekkinah Mountainwater

She hid herself as quickly as she could.  The hulking figure was walking directly towards her and she knew what had happened to so many others of her family in a similar situation–a horrible death.  Crouching in the shadows she waited for what was to come next. But in her wildest imagination, she could not have guessed what did come next.

“It’s OK, I’m not going to hurt you. You can come out,” I said quietly as I gently knocked on the window frame where the spider had hidden when she saw me walking towards her.

To tell the truth, I was lonely.  Coming from a middle-class family, I was finding it hard to relate to the uber wealthy students at the University of Denver where I attended in 1971.  They stepped out of their Lamborghinis with designer jeans that cost more due to the intentional holes in the knees. I stepped down from a used VW bus to get to my clerical work study job at the history department office.

This particular night in my basement apartment I felt especially lonely. When I spied a spider on the wall near the window, I thought, “Maybe here’s someone I can talk with.”

Little did I know how right I was.

As I walked towards the spider, she saw me too and quickly retreated under the window frame, fearing the worst.  Many people smash spiders when they are in their home, maybe out of fear of the unfamiliar, unknown—the “other.”  With some, their fear gets out of hand and they feel uneasy in any area they believe could harbor spiders or might have a web.  Some people scream, cry, have emotional outbursts, experience trouble breathing or go into panic attacks.  We’re talking extreme arachnophobia, and in some cases, even a realistic picture or drawing of a spider can trigger intense anxiety.

“It’s OK, I’m not going to hurt you,” I repeated to my little hidden arachnid.

Well, if I haven’t lost you at this point, perhaps you’ll believe what happened next:  First one little leg emerged, then another and another until she was fully out on the wall.  “Hungry,” came to my mind.  I searched the nearly empty college student fridge, brought back yoghurt and put a drop of it on the wall—which the spider moved up to and ate.  A few days later, she traveled on.

I traveled on, too, was drafted out of graduate school into the Army during the latter days of the Vietnam War, went back to Denver after my discharge, entered graduate school at the University of Colorado and eventually moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico from Boulder.  One day, in 1980 in the Chupadero Valley north of Santa Fe where I was living, I felt I was being watched while showering.  Looking up, I noticed a black spider had come out of the plumbing. I wasn’t too concerned as she was busy working on her web and enjoying a bit of steam bath at the same time. This went on for months until spring solstice 1981 when I sadly found her lifeless body belly up on the shower floor.  And as I suspected, there was an orange hourglass on that belly. A Black Widow spider.

Spiders kept showing up around me. In 1984 at the Hopi Mesas of Arizona I was helping guide a tour for the Wheelwright Museum of Santa Fe as the new director of public information.  Waiting for the tour group to assemble after breakfast one cold and breezy morning, I took a short walk to the edge of the mesa.  Here I was 300 feet above the desert floor on a dry wind-swept mesa but from somewhere I heard a small drip of water.   I gazed out at the valley below and the sacred San Francisco peaks in the distance.  It was a profound moment that I expressed in these words, called “Over the Hill”:


 the wind pushed me

 over the rock ledge

 and down to the lair of Grandmother Spider

Water dripped like

  grains of sand,

     like time itself into

 the pool of time again. 

Here, where sky meets


       Man met something

  not quite understood. 

In the mystery,

   in the majesty,

      where stones speak

   words unutterable, 

A breath,

  a new beginning,

 a step into the unknown. 

“You’ve been over the hill,”

  He said, his suglassed

  eyes narrowing in scope,

     wide with knowing. 

“Yes,” I said.

   “I have.”

As the museum tour progressed, I noticed homes with a black spider painted over doors and later learned about Grandmother Spider who stories say wove the web of Creation for First Man and First Woman.  I learned that some Indigenous Americans thought the spider protected against danger from natural phenomena.

In Hindu mythology, the little arachnid represented the weaver of magic and destiny.  Egyptians saw her as an attribute of Neith, a creator of the world and to the Romans she was as omen of good luck.  But when it came to Christianity, both spider and snake didn’t fare so well, as they represented the Devil ensnaring sinners.  No matter the view, it was a lot of responsibility for such a small creature.

Small but powerful.  Spider silk is stronger than steel and tougher than Kevlar pound for pound. Their web is one of the most dramatic examples of perfect geometry in the natural world and such a successful invention that it has remained essentially unchanged for 140 million years.  Recent research has shown that the webs actually strengthen after they are slightly damaged. According to scientists, spiders are antisocial arachnids who want to be left alone.  Maybe so, but the spiders I kept meeting were friendly, even helpful.

In May 1986, I found myself resting upon a pink granite boulder above the Randall Davey Audubon Center in the upper Santa Fe canyon area. I was quiet, enjoying a meditative moment. As I looked down at the trickle of water flowing below, I saw something next to it that looked like a stone, but not quite.  Curious, I climbed off the boulder for a closer look and discovered it was a weathered turtle shell. What are the chances of that in this area I wondered to myself. As I approached, spiders on either side of the shell seem to be guarding it, even offering it to me. They withdrew as I got closer.  Astonished at what was happening, I accepted the shell as a gift and later it became the receptacle for the pennies I use with the Chinese I Ching system of divination.

Grandmother Spider kept weaving my story web ever larger.  Nearly 20 years later in February 1997, I was fortunate to witness the Snake Ceremonies at Hopi Second Mesa. I also visited the home and studio of artist Ross Joseyesva Jr. who had served as a guide for an Institute of Noetic Sciences group I led in the Southwest a number of years before.

I was seeking a new watch band made by a local Southwestern artist, and I stopped in to say hello and see Ross’ jewelry work.  After a pleasant catch-up conversation, we went to the studio and looked through his portfolio.  As he turned a page, I spotted a design with spider.

“That’s the one,” I exclaimed, and began to relate my spider tales. He listened quietly and then said, “You are a friend of the spider.  I’ll put the friendship sign on the design.”  It just so happened that Ross’ studio was within sight of a shrine for the Spider Klan. I ordered the watchband without making a deposit or pre-payment.

Weeks went by and the watch band went to the back of my mind as I got busy planning an Earth Walks overnight event at the home and weaving studio of Max Cordova in the Truchas foothills above Chimayo north of Santa Fe.  The Cordova studio and residence sits on a spectacular finger of high-country land overlooking the village of Cordova and a wide circle of sky, mountain ranges and the Rio Grande Valley.

It was summer solstice, June 21, 1997 and full moon, an auspicious convergence. Participants included Max and his family, 77-year-old curandera (healer) May Delgado and other elders from the area who dropped by to visit as well as a five-year-old boy named James who was wise beyond his years. And it seemed to me that Grandmother Spider showed up as well.

James and Gary at Earth Walks in Truchas, NM


As the group gathered, little James stood tall atop a green plastic chair facing the immensity of desert and mountains to the west.  In his hands, stones were speaking through him to us, this weekend gathering of our Earth Walks vecinos–compadres y comadres, tios y tias–friends and family new and old.

James held a small stone in his young hands. “Now pass this stone from person to person,” James instructed.  Stone passed, hearts opened, the breeze blew and the earth turned a bit more in its dance on this our second Earth Walks for people living with HIV, their care givers, friends and family.   We camped out on the land, full moon sailing silently over the majestic Truchas peaks, some still white with winter snow, silently standing sentinel above us. 

At the loom during Truchas, NM EarthWalks

“Just do the weaving and don’t think about it much,” Max advised, when the next day we all tried our hand at his looms, looms that over the years had created an abundance of beautiful tapestries.  As I began to run the shuttle, mental distractions and random thoughts cris-crossed my mind.  My shuttle got tangled in the threads like a fly in a web, and like the fly, my mind got tangled up too.

“Just keep it simple,” I told myself as I finally extracted the shuttle from the threads.  This was a lot like other times in my life, trying to do too much in too little time. It seemed as if Grandmother Spider was telling me to slow down, have some patience and get my conscious mind out of the way of the creation.  And I did.  At least a little, enough to see some of what Max was talking about.

Hopi watchband with spider and friendship symbol

It didn’t dawn on me until 2017 while writing this story that there was an amazing pattern weaving itself all around me during the Earth Walks, like a spider web of balance and beauty. Just the day before our visit to the weaving studio in Truchas, my spider watch band arrived in the mail from Ross.  Fortuitous timing, on a full moon summer solstice.  I hadn’t made any payment to Ross. He simply sent it when it was finished in an act of trust and friendship. 

That act of trust spiraled back 40 years to the trust a spider at the window and I had one lonely night during graduate school.   All my web of relationships with spiders over the years has woven sacred strands of kinship between me and the natural world.  I know now without a doubt if I get into a basement of loneliness again, I’ll be sure to have yoghurt on hand and look for one of God’s little eight-legged children.


Winking at a Snake in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico


I was on a solo journey to Chaco Canyon August 11, 2012, taking a favorite walk from the Great Kiva Rinconada to the mesa above the kiva and the ancient site of Tsin Kletzin.  The subterranean Great Kiva was once utilized for religious activities and ceremonies.  It had 39-foot passageways from the underground structure to above ground levels. Casa Rinconada is one of the many buildings in the Chaco area that have documented astronomical alignments.  Many know the Great Kiva for the archeoastronomy event that occurs on summer solstice. PBS video

On the walk all was silent save for the wind, whipping around me in a deafening roar. Suddenly I encountered two large deer, or possibly elk.  There were two farther on.  How they survived in this harsh environment could be a lesson to us all in this time of global climate disaster.  I felt blessed by their wild animal presence.  Back in camp, I sat in mottled shade of the nearby low growing cliff bushes and created prayer sticks for friends facing challenges as well offerings to my home.  Knees bent, “feet standing,” I silently wound colored yarn, feathers and other found objects into the sticks.

These “ofrendas” were a meditation practice given to me and others long ago at the LBGTQ Spirituality Gathering at Lama retreat center north of Taos, NM by Maria Elena.  Maria Elena was of Mexican Huichol ancestry and had the gift of being a “dream healer.”  She could enter into the dream world of a person and offer help and interpretation.  As a young child in Los Angeles where her Mexican parents had immigrated, she occasionally found herself in that dream world, seemingly floating above her bed and having other unusual experiences.  Experiences that her parents did not want her to have, as they had immigrated to the U.S. to forge a new and hopefully more prosperous life.  So, they put her in parochial school to help her forget the old ways.  But Spirit will have its way, no matter where we are.  At school, Maria Elena said made friends with an African American maintenance man and together they went out to the desert and did prayer and ceremony, helping to further deepen her healing abilities. This secretive time in ceremony and prayer helped her make sense of her natural talents. Maria Elena said that if she had been living in her Huichol community in Mexico, the elders would have recognized her gift and taken her to be trained in the ways of their people.  Fortunately for me and many others, she did not lose that gift and indeed was willing to share her healing ways.

cute <b>snake</b>&#39; Sticker | Spreadshirt

The ofrendas had also become a part of my healing and prayer practice.  As I sat there quietly making prayer sticks, slowly sliding out of the low bushes emerged a two-foot snake that just as quietly made her way under my legs, stopping briefly among the colored balls of yarn and feathers to give me a quick glance, then travel on her merry way.  For some indigenous cultures, the snake is the most sacred of animals as it travels with its heartbeat closed to that of Mother Earth.  I was both in awe and gratitude for this silent serpentine gift.

Earlier in the day driving into Chaco, the cell phone buzzed with a message from work at the public schools in Santa Fe.  As I listened, I recoiled and contracted, wanting to be as far from an increasingly difficult work situation as possible. But soon thereafter I heard this interiorized message:  “Say yes! to all that does not compromise you or your core values…keep your spirit shield firmly in place, beware delusional thinking, but do not contract in fear of change or letting go to new conditions or requirements or adaptations to the material world.”  Perhaps this was the message the snake was giving me in advance of our special encounter.

And all it took was a quick wink.

Chaco Canyon Calling! June 2023



The Flute at Sunrise–Chaco Canyon

JUNE 16-18, 2023
(Just a few spaces left–register soon!)
On the mesa at Chaco. You. Native American flute plays as birds sing the day awake. First rays of sunrise warmly greet you.
If you’ve been to Chaco Canyon New Mexico before, you most likely want to return.  If you’ve never been to this profound World Heritage site, this is your opportunity for a wonderful immersive experience.  Chaco is vast, silent and filled with the voices of the Ancestors in ancient Pueblo sites, rock art known as petroglyphs and phenomenal archeoastronomy reflected in its buildings.  Then there are the stars at night! 
In fact, this will be New Moon when the night sky will especially display her sparkling glory.  We will be in the Canyon close to Summer Solstice, when special features of the ancient buildings receive the first rays of light in a remarkable display of architecture and the natural world.
Cultural resource guide for  the group will be respected elder and artist Bea Duran of Tesuque Pueblo.  Bea considers Chaco to be ancestral heartland and homeland and her humor and goodwill radiates a warm welcome to all.

Bea Duran of Tesuque Pueblo

Prior to the two night camping trip, the group will meet  with Ehren Kee Natay, a local Indigenous multi-media artist and recognized member of the Dine Nation with Kewa Pueblo, Irish and German ancestry. Deeply connected to his ancestral traditions, Ehren will share his understanding of historical and contemporary Indigenous culture, dispelling myths along the way.
His creative work has shown internationally and can be found at two New Mexico Heritage Museums. His current work further infuses his musical craft in Native American flute and drumming with visual aesthetics via live-performance. In his words, “I have a prayer, a spirit, a breath that is inside me.  It tells me to create. It cannot be silenced.  It can only be quiet by creating.”  

It is this spirit and breath that can be found in Chaco Canyon. I hope you will join us in this journey of discovery.

Doug Conwell, Earth Walks

For more details, cost and registration information contact    There is limited space available so be in touch as soon as you can!

Diane Reyna of Taos Pueblo: Reflections on Covid & Other Matters

Interactive Online Earth Walks
Monday, June 28 2021 6 p.m.
Free or by Donation

Limited Enrollment

From anxiety and stress to inspiring courage and spiritual strength, Diane Reyna, Taos/Ohkay Owinge Pueblo artist, shares a series of drawings that reflect her thoughts on the events and situations that occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown last year.  With pen and paper, hope, faith, and love, Diane created the drawings between March 16, 2020 and March 16, 2021. The ink drawings embody her experience in all its dimensions, including the cultural traditions that helped her navigate the year. She will guide participants through a hands on activity that will offer an avenue for individual insight and possibilities for the future.

Due to the nature of this event, there will be a limited number of participants. Register as soon as possible by contacting:  There is no charge, but a donation is appreciated. Everyone is welcome!

Diane was raised at her father’s village of Taos Pueblo in Northern New Mexico; her mother was from the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh. She is an experienced facilitator, college instructor, and trainer. She retired from the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2015, where she provided comprehensive support and services to first year students. Prior to working at the Institute, she spent 20 years as a videographer, producer, and director in the field of video news and documentary production. She directed the PBS documentary, “Surviving Columbus”, which was awarded the George Foster Peabody in 1993. She has spent most of her adult life in engaged in the arts, education, and facilitation.

Watch Surviving Columbus online
Late one afternoon in May 1539, the world of the Indigenous Pueblo people changed forever when Estebanico – a Black slave from Morocco – and his 300 retinue of Mexican Indians marched into the Zuni city of Hawikuh. Through wild tales and exaggerations, Hawikuh would be transformed into one of the fabled Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, and a year later, Coronado and his soldiers would wreak destruction and violence on this peaceful world in search of non existent gold. Surviving Columbus is a search for the Pueblo people’s view of these first encounters with European civilization, told exclusively through the voices and visions of the Pueblo people themselves..
Due to the nature of this event, there will be a limited number of participants. Register as soon as possible by contacting:  There is no charge, but a donation is appreciated. Everyone is welcome!

Canyon de Chelly–Walking in Beauty

Canyon de Chelly: First Memory Time Begins


A thunder cloud-cannon explodes somewhere overhead. Cottonwoods tremble in a rising wind, then wave their arms wildly in the invisible turbulence. And here am I, a thousand feet below the rim of red earth, sandstone cliffs towering above my little human figure, brilliant blue sky canopy above. Suddenly out of nowhere, a huge bucket of rain dumps down, sending me scurrying to the canyon wall for protection, back flat against the sun warmed rocks. But there is no escape. Waterfalls materialize in every direction, crashing down in a gushing symphony where there was only dry bareness before….a scene from the creation story when time began. Then the wall which is just barely sheltering me from the storm becomes a vertical ocean, rippling waves of water propelling down the cliff face behind my back] onto the canyon’s sandy floor. As the drama unfolds around my feet, tiny desert frogs appear from the sand where they are buried, waiting for this precise moment in time.

The moment is over almost as soon as it starts, this desert madness and miracle of passing storm. Sun sparkles over wet leaves, now glistening and refracting the light in delight at the welcome moisture. At least that is how I am feeling as I breathe in the fresh fragrance of wet sand, sagebrush and juniper.  Waterfalls slowly recede, their crashing, gurgling noise passing like a dream. Frogs return to their subterranean hideouts…and I step out into this new world, like everything else in this desert  more alive in the radiance that only rain can bring.


Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Just a name on a map to many, and not the name it is called by those who have lived here for generations. To the Dine, this is Tseyi, or “inside the rock,” a place that echoes with memories of their ancestors and the ancient cliff dwelling Pueblo people. Their voices whisper in the winds that wend their way through willows, cottonwood and Russian olive trees, past coyotes howling their songs under starry night skies and down trails and pathways known only to those for whom this place is home. But the canyon holds memories for me as well, experiences that have changed the course of my life. Those experiences are the subject of future blogs that will include visits with my service learning program, Earth Walks

My first visit to the canyon was in 1991, assisting a tour led by  a guide from the Santa Fe, New Mexico area. Our group overlooked the awesome canyon, visited the National Park Service museum and learned about its history and geology. All well and good, but that was only a brief introduction to one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America, and not the heart and soul of the canyon. I was to learn more about that in the years to come. History and geology are important, though.

Perhaps geology is a bit more objective in the telling: The de Chelly sandstone was laid down during the Permian period over 200 million years ago. The formation is unusual because it is not horizontally deposited but rather as a cross-bedded formation composed of many steeply dipping wedges, typical of windblown dune deposits. The canyons were carved over millennia by erosion from the Tsaile and Whiskey creeks forming Chinle Wash, creating awesome vertical walls. The area encompasses a long three-armed canyon on the northwest slope of the Defiance Uplift sloping to the west where the de Chelly sandstone plunges under the land just east of the town of Chinle.

Now for history, which is more subjective and depends on who is doing the telling. I will try to do some justice based on what academic research I could find. For nearly 5,000 years people have used the canyon as a place for campsites, shelters and permanent homes. Artifacts and rock imagery of the Archaic and Basketmaker people have been found in the canyon. According to anthropologists and archaeologists the first settlers built pit houses that were replaced with more sophisticated homes built into south-facing alcoves of the canyon walls to take advantage of sunlight and natural protection. Research indicates Pueblo people left the area in the mid-1300s to seek better farmlands. The Hopi, descendants of the original Puebloans in the canyon, migrated to the area in the 1300-1600s, and then left to settle on mesa tops to the west.

For the record, researchers have long used the word “Anasazi” to refer to the ancient settlers of the area. Because that word in the Dine language often translates as “ancient enemies,” it gives offense to the Hopi and other current-day Pueblo descendants. The word now most often used is “Ancestral Puebloans.”

The Dine came to the area around 1700 and have lived there ever since, except for the tragic and brutal event known as the Long Walk  when they were force-marched into exile at Ft. Sumner in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Reportedly there had been a long history of trading and raiding among the various indigenous tribes and then later with Mexicans and peoples from the United States. Sprinkled throughout that history were broken promises and treaties. Be that as it may, the U.S. decided to put an end to the Dine resistance to their authority and in the winter of 1864 Army Colonel Kit Carson arrived on a scorched-earth mission to expel them from their native homeland.

Dine guide Daniel Staley with weaver Kathryn Paymala


It’s hard for me to imagine this where it is now serenely quiet, but instead of the calls of ravens and hawks, the canyon walls must have echoed with thundering horse’s hooves, gunfire and rampaging violence as Carson’s men torched cornfields, captured prisoners and chopped down some 2,000 peach trees. The Dine—including women, children and elders—were then forced to walk in bitter cold 400 miles east to Ft. Sumner. There they remained for four years in deplorable conditions of captivity before being released to return to their homeland. Many people fell ill during the relocation. Many died. It is a shameful atrocity and a sorrowful chapter in chapter in history.

It is said that on their return when the Dine reached the crest of the mountains of Albuquerque and on the horizon saw Mt. Taylor–known to them as Tsoodizil (Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain)—they fell to the ground in prayer and gratitude. I think of my home as a physical address where I live or the town where I was born.

But talk with a traditional Hopi or Dine person and the thing called home will be a different story, layered with myth and meaning, some of which the English language cannot begin to express.

Because the streams running through Canyon de Chelly are not raging torrents like the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River, it has long supported farms and homes. Anasazi dwelling sites etched out of the vertical cliffs are found throughout the area accompanied by rock art petroglyphs and pictographs on the copper-hued walls, weathered into luminous “desert patina.”

One day while walking in the canyon with Dine guide Daniel Staley who has now become a friend, I was told: “When there is only one creation story left, it will be the end of the world.”

I won’t pretend that I know or understand the venerable complexity of Dine cosmology. But I do know that Grandmother Spider—who some say wove the web of creation for First Man and First Woman—has been a presence in my life since graduate school in 1971, long before I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a tale I’ve told in other Earth Walks blogs. Here in Canyon de Chelly there is a towering monolithic spire called Spider Rock that I’ve visited repeatedly over 30 years, and in future I’ll share some of my experiences with this iconic sandstone tower.

Earth Walks takes guided journeys to Canyon de Chelly every year, led by Daniel Staley and his family members.  Come join us!  Go to the website at to sign up for future service and travel activities.

Earth Walks on a recent visit to the Canyon

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