Montana Wolf

Friday, October 6, 2017

Eclipsed at Mato Tipila

It wasn't easy to accept. As thousands of people partied, willing to wade into Wyoming traffic jams that went well into the hours, my full-on solar eclipse took an unexpected turn. Not that there wasn't excitement, wonder and heart-stopping awe. Daughter Hope flew up from New Mexico. We spread our blanket and placed our chairs on a ridge that faced the powerful monolith, Mato Tipila, known in the common lexicon as Devils Tower. (Mato Tipila is Lakota for Bear Lodge, the name given the rock formation by the Indians who lived at its base for ten thousand years. How it changed to Devils Tower is a question I answered dozens of times a day in my summer stint as a park ranger.) 

I should have known I was in for an extraordinary experience. I had queried several Natives about the upcoming eclipse and received similar responses. Cheyenne, Lakota, Kiowa ... all spoke of great tension building with earth's new birth, heralded by the eclipse. And as we know, birth can be a perilous time. Natives hung prayer bundles at her base every day. They repeatedly mentioned that Mato Tipila was a portal to other dimensions. Spielburg wasn't too far afield when he chose this location for Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Her power was palpable.

We chose a knoll where we would be alone and positioned ourselves an hour before the eclipse, predicted to be at 98%. Climbers were already on Mato Tipila's top, having crack-climbed the 867-foot vertical face in the average four to six hours.  We put on our glasses as the light began to dim.  Nature was quick to respond. The drone of cicadas was replaced by the nighttime song of crickets. Two Peregrines sailed from the cliffs and landed in a nearby ponderosa pine. Nuthatches' incessant calls ceased. The warm wind that enveloped us turned cooled. So far so good. Exciting and fascinating as darkness swelled. Then ...

The tower turned foreboding. Steely gray, barely visible through the veil of darkness. A frigid wind blew down. Unfriendly. My body turned cold with discomfort as I was walloped with a sudden revelation: a preview of nuclear winter. Life without sun at high noon. I shuddered; remembered that this eclipse stretched across the United States and no place else. It was a stark foretelling, a warning to those of us in the richest country on the planet: change our ways or earth will force our hands.

And just like that, light returned and birds began to sing. Ala Disney; the Peregrine Falcons lifted off.

Hope and I hugged but stayed silent. Something monumental had happened at the base of the nation's first national monument.  A warning given as the earth birthed anew. This, as I birthed Wild Road Home. This, as the Comanche man requested I hang his prayer bundles. This, as a native woman spoke of "special energy" and placed a white beaded pouch with sage in my hand.

Soon the hurricanes hit. Forest fires burned Montana alive. Nuclear war was threatened against North Korea.

The soul-crushing news does not stop but hope must prevail. The earth is on life support; in the midst of the next mass extinction. If one is to trust the unfolding I point to the miracle genesis of a people who changed course on the threshold of nuclear winter, real or metaphor.

I didn't name my daughter Hope for naught.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mato Tipila Eclipse: Medicine Men and Bundles of Prayer

I see the amulets first. Hand-crafted neck pieces made of leather, bone or hammered metal. Usually there are beads. Gemstones that glint in the sun. They drape the breastbone and they are large. I notice them from a distance on the trail around Mato Tipila, Bear Lodge, worn by old men who come to pay their respects to the sacred monolith. To pray.

With no exceptions, their medicine stops me in my tracks.
I comment and admire. Before long I have learned that one creator is Iroquois from New York; another is Dine' (Navajo) from New Mexico. None, thus far, are from the twenty-six tribes who come frequently to do ceremony, sweats or vision quests.

So it was I was walking down the hill from the Tower last week, completing my guided tour around the base. A part of that walk is a presentation on the brightly colored prayer bundles that hang from ponderosa, aspen and oak trees at the foot of the tower. Deeply touching, the bundles consist of objects sacred to the beholder. They are the physical manifestation of their prayers, wrapped in long scarf-like cloths. The chosen colors are significant, usually one of the four colors of the medicine wheel: black, white, yellow or red. Occasionally they will be blue or green. Blue for the sky; green for the earth. Four colors for the four directions, four seasons, four elements (air, earth, fire and water). Native culture revolves around the number four. I often point out to my captive tour audience that I never see the prayer bundles actually being placed. They appear and disappear like magic, part of their allure. I was about thirty minutes out from saying that when I saw him. Or rather, I saw the crescent moon amulet around his neck.

He motioned me over. It wasn't until I was standing next to his large frame that I noticed his cane. In his left hand he held three good-sized prayer bundles: red, black and green. "I can't make it up the hill," he said. "My knees are too old. I wonder if you'd hang these in a tree at the base of the rock?" I was so surprised, so deeply moved, I could barely utter yes. He handed me a sprig of sage and instructed me to put it behind my ear, "So Spirit will know your intentions are good."

I introduced myself; clasped his leathery hand and told him I'd be honored. He said his name was Four Thunders. He was Comanche and had traveled from Oklahoma.

I asked if there was a particular place or direction he wanted me to place them. He said no, wherever I could go would be fine and handed me the bundles. I looked from them and into his eyes as he told me the significance of two. Green, prayers for Mother Earth, that she be protected. Red, he prayed, that his family would continue on the Red path.

He handed me the bundles and reminded me again of the sage.

I chose a spot that looked onto the west side of Mato Tipila. West for the direction black, the color of the third bundle. I tied them to a ponderosa tree, far off the beaten path, where aspen flickered in the sun. I sat a bit on a rock and watched the colors sway in the breeze. Pondered the timing of this auspicious deed.

I looked for Four Thunders when I returned to the parking lot. My eyes sought him out on benches. There was so much more to say, but he was gone.

Since that day I have picked a piece of sage, put it behind my ear beneath the stiff Park Service hat and returned to sit by the bundles. There's a reassuring feeling there. A querencia-like peace removed from the throngs of visitors.

I have queried two medicine people, one Lakota, one Cheyenne, for their views of the upcoming full moon solar eclipse next Monday. Their answers speak of intense change; the tension of new birth; an alignment of energy that will transform. Pipe Carriers will be in ceremony to assist a rebirth. "When things line up like this it signals connection." A cosmic download.

Four Thunders' visit corresponded with the first eclipse of this month. It occurred on the heels of a dream where a gigantic tornado picked up my house, twirled it around in the sky, and set it down in a new location; no one hurt, nothing destroyed.

I can not begin to fathom the confluence of Mato Tipila and Monday's disappearance of the sun. The deafening silence, the eons old echo of souls. That black bundle just might symbolize the darkness of a birth canal. It might be good to make an amulet. Perhaps a prayer bundle or two.


Christina is winding up her position as a summer seasonal NPS Interpretive Ranger at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.

Luna and Mato Tipila 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Spiny Truths: Return to Grandmother Tree

Teak and I setting out 
It had been seventeen years since that first visit to Grandmother Tree, the old growth Ponderosa I'd discovered above Taos. It was She I sought when I wished for respite; words of wisdom to clarify a cloudy world. She had once ordered me to grow my hair long and take to the road. Thirty thousand miles, two books and one divorce later Teak and I were trudging up the back roads on my way to the Grand Dame of the forest. It had been four years since my last visit. I had no agenda other than to pay my respect; to be sure she still towered above the forest. The day crackled with beauty. The mountainside was covered in elk sign: tracks and scat; chews and rubs on the young aspen. Perhaps I'd find a shed!

A forty-five minute climb brought her into view. She loomed off trail, and all was not well. Her needles were brown. This was not a typical needle shed. I wondered if she was dying, the first stage to becoming a tree snag. I approached her as always: put my hands upon her, circled, stopped and buried my face into her bark. It did not have the typical cinnamon smell. I sat in a cleft at her base and leaned back into her trunk; unlaced my boots and squiggled my toes into needle duff. Three deep breaths later I broke into tears. A release from the depths, with no words. I was home.

I sat beneath her canopy of birdsong. The smell of pine was intoxicating. The wind whisked through her long, dry needles. Not far away was another young aspen, covered with teeth marks. I remembered the day I had ventured to this spot and heard the clash and felt the utter power of two bull elk fighting for rights to the  cow who would bear their young. My reverie ended with Grandmother's sudden words: 
Don't dare delay your book.
Your life is a spark in time. 
 Flash! Do it!
You are not given good health to squander.

I'm not sure what I was expecting but book advice was was not on the radar.
Wild Road Home was finished but I had not yet pulled the trigger, 
trusting the wait; repeated movement in the book's favor.   

She continued: 
Thus far your life has been expanding. Soon it will begin to contract.
We ALL fade away ...

I peered into her brown needles.
Watched as puffy clouds floated above and beyond.
Fading away.

I took out a pad and wrote down her words. Digested her directive as tears welled. Then eek! -- something was crawling between my breasts. I reckoned an ant. I reached into my royal blue shirt and pulled out a gray ladybug-sized beetle. It crawled across my hand, let loose a feisty buzz and took flight. 

Take off.  Fly, Christina!

She never ceased to reassure. 

I began my goodbye. I asked forgiveness for humankind's ignorance and utter assault on the wild. I eventually rose, kissed her goodbye and thanked her. Then, I asked her for a sign.

I continued around the mountain, bushwhacking my way to favorite vistas before I began to descend. I was looking for an antler, but my eye landed upon a half buried vertebrae instead. It was weathered and decades old, honeycomb indentations covered its bony surface; mammals had gnawed away. How the heck I saw it on the limb-strewn ground I'll never know. She, on the other hand...  

I picked up the gift and savored the obvious: can't move without a spine! -- and you're in for some big moves, Christina. Indeed, within forty-eight hours I received two communications about the book. Two days later I had a dream that shook my foundation: a symbol of my current world destroyed and stolen. Ask for a sign and you get it. Sometimes in triplicate. 

I'm taking my cat stretches seriously. Strengthening that backbone. 

That evening's sunset ... brushstrokes across the sky

Thursday, February 2, 2017

This is no normal Imbolc!

Down come the holiday cards taped to the kitchen cabinets. Down come the colored lights I gingerly wrapped around the mesquite tree in the yard at winter solstice. Bright red green and blue to ward off the winter doldrums. Granted, the doldrums don't take a hold in Arizona like they do further north, but one should not underestimate the biological and spiritual downturns inherent in January's long nights. Especially if one resists sleeping more.

Welcome Imbolc! St. Brigid's Day. Candlemas to some. Ground Hog's day to others. I cherish the cross-quarter holy days for their markers. Imbolc, half way between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, kicks off February (Februare: to purify) with Brigid, triple Goddess of flame, at the helm. Heat returns with the sun's journey north. Teak throws her coat leaving drifts of brown hair against the bed. I shed clothes in favor of radiant warmth on my skin.

Imbolc's caress is everywhere. Patches of green erupt outside my door; birdsong increases in volume and breadth. Energy explodes in the urge to mate. The birds at the nearby Cienega couple and call. Deer in rut lose their instinct for self-preservation while females' arch their bodies effortlessly over fences. I even spied a bobcat wiggling her little tail.

Tis the time to pay homage to earth's awakening. Light a fire to welcome back the sun from winter's southern house. Longer days warm the earth. The metaphor is melt: loosening, the beginning of flow. Contemplate what thaws; ask what remains frozen. The wheel turns; the spiral unfolds into the ephemeral.

Let there be no mistaking, however, this is no normal Imbolc. These are gut-wrenching times as we experience Mother Earth under assault. What thaws, for me, is the resolve to act on behalf of our planet home, justice for all and the wild; my daily reach to sisters and brothers in solidarity; the countless phone calls to Senators; the marches. My solitary life has shifted, making holy days like Imbolc more pertinent than ever. The seasons and wildscapes nurture my spirit; help me to maintain balance.

While tonight's fire will welcome the sun's return I will remind myself that I am not alone. The fires of resistance burn bright. Hell'YA.

Great-horned Owl 


Wild Road Home, my latest book, is finished! 
Watch for a release date this spring.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Taste of WILD ROAD HOME, coming soon, spring release!

Sharkstooth Peak 

Six days until my Alaska departure. Thus far I had scribbled my name across divorce papers, cashed CDs and traded my lavender Toyota truck for a trailer-towing V-8 Ford. Beauty for brawn. Packing boxes choked off my mountain view as I checked Verizon coverage in remote places. I roused, stepped onto the balcony and gazed at distant Sharkstooth Peak. Enough already! I hopped around a cardboard box, grabbed my pack and headed one last time into the Colorado high country.
The air was eerily warm for early June. Up, up I climbed, through the virginal green of newly-leafed aspen; across rushing streams of snowmelt and mountain meadows lush with marsh marigold.  Then just like that, tree line ended and I emerged into barren expanse. Exposed. The air thinned as exhilaration took hold. Ah yes, there it was again, that invincible woman-alive feeling, the connection with infinite possibility. I stared up at the twelve thousand foot saddle and caught my breath. Two-hundred feet to go – almost there – the trail disappeared under snow. I treaded gingerly across the sun-softened drifts, ten steps from solid ground when I sank through to my crotch. Mountains were ripe with metaphor. I struggled free with my hiking stick and trudged on up the steep slope.
I set my soggy self below Sharkstooth's craggy point; beheld familiar peaks south to New Mexico and west to my beloved Sangre de Cristos. I opened my water bottle, gave the first drink to the mountain and took a swig. Then I stood, feet apart, arms upraised and faced northwest, to Alaska and the nameless future before me. Praise be, I uttered, here I come.
Quests have no itinerary. I didn’t know if my tracks heading north would be there to follow when I returned south. Perhaps, like this day, they would melt into the earth, diminutive amidst nature's grandeur. Of this I was certain: a quest was little about reaching the door and everything about walking through the doorway. Stripped of the roles and rituals born of habit and protection, one traveled naked as a newborn. Light and darkness shaped the shadows, illuminating the way, one holy, hell-bent moment at a time.