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.


Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe–the Beat Abides!


In the beginning there was silence.  Then came the big beat that some call the bang—intense vibration, energy, rhythm–sustained and steady. Since time began, that cosmic beat has remained through creation, war and turmoil, joy and transformation, chaos and dislocation–an ancient universal messenger keeping memory and hope alive across countless generations and cultures on Earth.  And one beat of a drum opened a doorway of awareness for a young man who had just stepped out of the gates of incarceration.

It was 1998 and five of us were sitting around a low table in the little office space on Second Street that was assigned to a Santa Fe, New Mexico community corrections program. Three of the group were on probation from juvenile court.  One of us was an Indigenous American woman named Sapokniona, White Feather Grandmother.  One of us was me.  All had drums in our hands. The faces of the two young men and one young woman on probation look bored or irritated and seemed to say, “OK, let’s get this over.”  Sapokniona spoke gently, quietly, with what felt like reassuring confidence.

I had been asked to present some of my studies in cross cultural earth related traditions to these youth who were considered “high risk” having had numerous run-ins with the law. But when I got the go ahead, I puzzled about how to offer my experiences and studies to some who might not be remotely interested.  I had a Master’s degree in criminal justice, had been a juvenile probation officer, worked part time in a Colorado youth prison and served a year as a counselor in an Army jail where the word “counselor” was an anathema, so I had some reason to wonder about what to present.

In the middle of my muddle came the thought: drums.  Drumming was physical and could be energetic and noisy and an attention getter.  Local drummer Eric Gent kindly loaned his drums. Eric and his wife Elise had sponsored African dance sessions in Santa Fe for decades. Then I thought of Sapokniona, an acquaintance of Apache heritage who led teaching circles, ceremony, workshops and retreats that included work with veterans’ groups. She kindly agreed to lead the group of youth that day.

“I want each of us to play one single beat, in unison,” Sapokniona said.  I was expecting something a lot louder and more physical, but went along with it, as did the others.  One beat at a time, like the steady rhythm of a pulsing heart. Each hand with a beater rising then falling on the face of the drum. First softer, then louder, then softer, then it was over.  We went around the table to talk about the experience.  It came to one young man who looked confused, withdrawn. He hesitated.

Finally, he said, “When I closed my eyes for a while, I saw a bear.”


“Well,” Sapokniona paused, then responded.  “My people believe that the bear represents the direction of the west.  And you are sitting in that direction.  I’m not surprised.”  But the rest of us were, including the young man whose face lightened a bit, almost into a smile.

The beat abides—your vibe attracts your tribe.

To my understanding, some Indigenous Americans view the strength of “bear medicine” as the power of introspection.  Bear seeks honey, like the sweetness of truth and intuition inside the silent “cave” of mind and soul.  Think of Merlin in his crystal cave.  In India, the cave symbolizes the creative energy of Brahma which some consider to be the pineal gland located at the base of the brain.

As I wrote these words on an early March morning in 2017, the first rays of sun touched my table, the computer, my hands, the photographs of the family “rogue’s gallery” above on the wall.  I stopped for a moment to listen to the “sounds of silence” around me:  the light twinkle of water in the nearby fountain, the low burbling beating of the humidifier releasing wispy curls of steam, the drone of the refrigerator, the rumbling beat of the attic heater and then…the percussive tapping of typing on the laptop with punctuations, rests, faster and slower rhythms…an opus magnum.

I thought again about the young man in the drum circle who had just stepped through the gates of incarceration. Something happened for him that day that couldn’t be put into words. His eyes got a little wider and there was something like a smile.  Maybe the world, too, got just a bit wider with wonder and possibility for him and for all of us in the group, drumming that one beat together.

Did it make a lasting difference in his life in some way?  I don’t know. But my thought and hope echo Ann Mortifee’s song, “Just One Voice”

A single note becomes a song,

            A single tree becomes a forest.

            A single voice that’s clear and strong

            Can turn into a worldwide chorus.

            Just one voice, one single voice,

            If you say you can, well then you can!

The Native American drum first found its way into my hands in 1982 soon after I arrived in New Mexico. It still does in 2024 after hosting monthly full moon leaderless drum circles in my home for nearly 25 years. In the posts to follow, I’ll share some of my journey with the drum.  If you haven’t picked up a drum to try it out, do so!  It’s a universal, worldwide instrument.  Your vibe will attract your tribe.  Have fun!


A Voice in the Clouds

It was an overcast day, the gray clouds mirroring my mood from the news I had just received early that morning.  My mother called from Kansas to tell me that her father, Grandpa Wallace Fleming, had just passed on.  As I lay in bed gazing out the window at the colorless clouds thinking of him, a perfectly circular opening appeared in the gloom through which I could see brilliant blue sky.  At that moment I seemed to hear grandpa speaking to me and telling me he had “made it over” and all was well.

Maywood Community Church, Kansas where Grandpa Fleming attended.

It was March, 1978 and I was living in Boulder, Colorado serving as a juvenile probation officer and working on my Master’s degree in Public Administration with specialization in criminal justice.  In August of 1981 after I moved to New Mexico, I visited the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos which had an impressive collection of Native American and Hispanic art and artifacts.

I was drawn to a particular Hopi pot and discovered quite to my surprise a depiction of what were said were “spirit holes”–circular openings in the clouds through which the spirits pass through.  In total amazement, I realized  that my personal experience was not singular and indeed was confirmed by at least one other culture, in this case the Hopi Pueblo people of Arizona.

From a strictly meteorological point of view, there are some possible scientific explanations: and   I have been told by Indigenous Pueblo people where I live in New Mexico that they traditionally believe  moisture from the clouds in the form of rain, snow, etc. is the ancestors coming to visit. If you think about it, when we pass on, the moisture which comprises nearly 70% of the adult human body, evaporates into the atmosphere and to some degree becomes part of the life cycle that includes the formation of clouds. Maybe that “some degree” also carries the voice and spirit of the ancestors.

In any case, that day in Boulder I am certain the voice and spirit of my own ancestor Grandpa Fleming spoke through the perfect circle in the clouds, letting me know he’d made a happy landing.




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!”

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