ROUND AND ROUND ANEW

I awaken with indigo skin. Sparrows hop about on my mattress. I vaguely recall a plunging star followed by blindness. In that sleep, a voice spoke in primary colors and related a saga oozing blood between brown feathers. I followed her in a procession toward the origin. She pointed out a killer whale, a shaman’s folded robes, a raven’s halo, a falcon spitting fog, a cluster of warthogs, a gathering of peacocks and white llamas, the roots of a great-grandfather’s moustache. As we ascended from a swampy trail of frogs, birds, cobwebs, sunning turtles, and lizards, we skirted the foot of a smoldering volcano. Off in the other direction in emerald water, an island burned. She, however, had other plans. Wild goats ran from our approach. Soon we braved auto glare, road owls, iron bridges. Spinning me back to my Midwestern sources, she demonstrated how thin the thread of perception remains. Spider-thin, in fact. She showed me I’m one animal at one time and in one location, but when those factors change, I become another. Only the soul is constant. When she held a mirror before me, there was no reflection. When I asked her name, she smiled coyly. “You’ll find it written in the desert.”

Each time you acknowledge the distractions that keep you from dancing freely, turn back toward the melody and the rhythm. Turning, I knew, was repenting. Turning and returning, in the music I danced and played. My partner there has always been faithful.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

LEAVING THE POINTS OF REFERENCE

To step into desert far enough you no longer see cars or houses brings a break with convention. Returning from one exploration with Kokopelli, I view the town as a mound of pea pods. Next, it becomes peanuts (which aren’t raised in these parts). Eventually, as packages of Grape-Nut Flakes — each building containing bodies, nothing more. Entire cities appear as collections of books identical to a room of cardboard boxes. Every abode duplicates a television set. I know this isn’t how people should be living. This isn’t freedom. This isn’t personality. We have our work cut out, don’t we? If Kokopelli hadn’t come this way earlier, I might have feared for my sanity. Instead, I know the brain’s a weird instrument and let it go at that.

Imagine undertaking a trip where there are no road signs, no maps, no pages of text. You have no way of knowing how far to the next town, gas station, restaurant, motel, or campground. Ask people and hope they know. With utter sincerity, half of them give bogus information. The other half lie. Without a guide, all the books you’ve read can’t possibly help find the marker, YOU ARE HERE. Your teacher embodies map, compass, path, and highway. If you have the genuine article, it’s better than an Interstate speedway. If it’s false, watch out. I wished my own were closer. I was running on memories. As my Teacher said, “When you think I-I-I, you’re a smoky fire blowing every which way. No I, no me, no my attachment means there’s no smoke, just a good hot flame burning clearly.” For me, this meant breaking out of my own shell. Would I have wings or claws? I hadn’t considered the spider.

At least I have Kokopelli, on occasion. Most of the time.

In this desert, I seek to unearth the hidden meanings of place. I return to a chart of Aboriginal names and translations, and substituted these for the Geological Survey’s designations. The mountain once known as Komo Kulshan is STEEP. That’s how it is when GOING FOR CLIMAX in the spiritual quest. You must keep asking, “What can I do WHERE I AM?” The answer? “Take another step dancing with your beloved.”

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

APPRECIATING WHAT’S FUNDAMENTAL, EVEN PRIMITIVE

Throughout history, people have turned to pilgrimages, monastic retreats, or fasting as pauses in their daily customs — opportunities to reflect fully on immortal objectives before returning to everyday demands. Modern versions include vacations, travel, and outdoor pursuits such as camping — typically without the dimension of worship. Whatever the form, people return home with renewed appreciation. Maybe my wife’s trip on the bus held an element of this; perhaps it was just an escape.

The desert is similar. It’s made me recognize fundamental, even primitive, life requirements clearly, as though chiseled by flint instruments. Like the multitude of crickets chirping in the garden, much we take for granted — rain, clouds, family, especially — now magnify in consciousness. I could lay out some generalized principles and then form a big picture.

Tell me, then, Kokopelli insists. So I do.

Begin, for instance, with a line found on few maps, one that nevertheless defines the United States as much as the Appalachian mountains, Mississippi River, or Mason-Dixon Line do: to its west, less than thirty inches of rain falls in an average year. Because they require at least thirty inches of rainfall a year, leafy trees never extended across the Great Plains or Far West, except along streams or in pockets settlers planted and irrigate. The line drops across the map like a spider’s exploratory filament, a perpendicular sheen from a ceiling. The Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas are cleaved. Further west, forests return near mountains, which generate their own weather patterns. Snowfall and rain, in part, explain the conifers of Western forest. Explain, too, the smell of open air, crackle of fire, proliferation of wrinkles in neighbors’ cheeks and foreheads. More lines can be drawn, leading to some web: the treeless expanse, for instance, between the Rockies and the Cascade or Sierra Nevada ranges.

Within the treeless expanse are other circles, other webs. Take center-pivot irrigation, patented in 1952, and count how many mile-wide green circles it’s spun across the Western landscape, each one requiring the electrical power of a city of ten thousand and a reliable source of water, generally fossilized or snowmelt. Back east I had rarely considered such matters. A drought meant no rain in several weeks. Dew was dependable. I knew about farmers, not cowboys. Grass was thick and green rather than sparse and dun. Summer air heavy with humidity made the sky milky rather than this piercing blue. On the westward journey, I barely noticed how loam is a table tilting to sky until we ran up against the forbidding wall of the Rocky Mountains. Now I measure summer nights that plunge fifty degrees, yet desert thermometer readings don’t compare with the comfort and discomfort known elsewhere. Thirty or sixty days without clouds oppress me as much as continuous rain would. I need new prayers. New magic, too.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

TURNING, RETURNING

My cultivated exercise of substance and spirit, my Dedicated Laborious Quest, is an interplay of natures — my own character and communities and varied ecosystems as they ultimately feed into our universe. As they harmonize, intuition leaps and skips; intellect dances with the heart. Emotions and each individual’s senses potentially humanize a fertile terrain rather than snagging within wildness. Wilderness, meanwhile, represents another order. In its sacred opportunities, the field of endeavor itself, whatever its name or specific form, becomes secondary to the abundance being disclosed around and within each practitioner. Indeed, many who participate and even excel in some activity where the D.L.Q. begins to appear — be it a gymnasium or playing field, a studio or stage, a laboratory or workshop — remain oblivious to the gateway my spiritual brothers and sisters and I have entered. When I meet a celebrated mountaineer who perceives icy heights, it turns out, the way a trucker regards a highway, I’m disappointed he failed to become a mystic seeking cosmic oneness. Accomplishment that’s solely technical remains devoid of unity. No, I’ve already learned that birds along the way are not just birds; my Teacher’s gardens nourish more than a stomach. In a circle of heavenly order as well as disintegrating debris, Kokopelli and I prepare a clearing and settle for the night. Observe planetary and lunar motions. Greet the sunrise. All natural phenomena give birth in an opening, should you find it. Likewise, locating a personal opening, an enclosed space within a universe, can bring recovery, renewal, healing, and salvation. To sit at the center of one’s birthright repeats an ancient journey made only on foot. There have always been charlatans who gain large followings by pandering to appetites for instant gratification, these days offering the comforts of jetliner or Interstate automobile. In reality, the aspirant must abandon even camel or mule along the way — eventually jettison everything, including his own backpack and affection for the very form he practices. In time, even his intentions. Step by rocky step follows a pathway that regresses through that origin. Perhaps the aspirant’s teacher has been there; perhaps he’s lost. At last, with his very life is at stake, if he turns back, he bears a haunted look in his eyes forever. I’ve come far, answering a call in the night, goaded by some deep wound and an overwhelming loneliness. In this exploration, dreams and mythologies correspond to trail markers. Once you discern how paradox differs from contradiction, you embrace its place in the teaching. To climb a higher ridge requires first descending to a valley.

Kokopelli, of course, knows all this and much.

He knows you may have taken any of a number of pathways to the holy garden. One may have played high school football — likely on the offensive line. One may have been an Eagle Scout, backpacking through winter forest. One may have built theater sets or lighting. Analyzed interstellar noise or constructed parquet flooring. One may have repeated violin scales, like me, or cared for younger siblings. The stories Kokopelli’s heard are endless. The common thread through all is this: the commonplace is never good enough. The spider’s thread climbs higher.

It’s no accident I came to dwell in desert, the timeless opening for religious surrender and ecstasy. By good fortune I also encounter great mountains, summer snowfields, crystalline air, unrelenting winds, a circle of fascinating comrades, and a new fullness of myself, no matter how briefly. From those heights, my art and intellect extract an essence, an inspiration to share with brothers and sisters who remain in suburbs and cities, often by necessity or by the duties of urban economy and civic obligation. My goal as poet, priest, artist, philosopher, naturalist, explorer, teacher, or prince — whatever that call — is somehow to preserve a sense of this supernatural potential and cosmic harmony.

Kokopelli says we can do all this when we play a dance. “They can feel it, and that’s enough,” he explains.

To be authentic, such an extended sojourn must somehow reflect other facets of existence as well: violence, savage revolt, a wide ranging lack of dignity or purposeful employment — at least, a recognition that socially valuable work seldom offers adequate compensation. In this preparation, the pilgrim may be propelled backward through history as well as forward into science fiction and interplanetary speculation. How curious that desert is so often perceived as a place of escape: gazing into its vast inhospitable space, you’ll detect nowhere to hide. Such terrain strips and confronts. No other environment, excepting surfaces of large water, is as mirrored with brilliant sunlight. All reflections turn back on the very thing you might most desperately seek to escape: yourself, especially.

If you hide behind a boulder, it evaporates. If you raise your hand to block glare, a Greyhound bus hisses past in a cloud of dust and thunder. If wearied by this torment, you retreat to the house, you’ll find that boulder waiting in the bedroom. A note on the kitchen table will divulge your beloved has taken that bus to the seacoast. You cannot sleep in her absence.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

NOMADS

Some cultures believe a man’s spirit exists in the soil of one’s ancestors. My grandmother’s ground furnished my own, with her muddled knowledge extended in part through Grandpa. But I never knew Mom’s parents, who had been born in other states. Here, though, apart from the Indians, we are all nomads. Many of us, spiritless nomads.

~*~

In this Census round I ponder multiple categories of Hispanics: Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, other Spanish, Hispanic. Also, some of the other categories I keep encountering in the Valley: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Asian Indian, Hawaiian, Guamanian, Samoan, Eskimo, Aleut, other (specify). Indian (Amer.) print tribe.

I have no idea what I am other than a homogenous WASP. English? German? Norwegian? Czech? Not a clue.

Kokopelli, for his part, is offended there are no distinctions between Hopi and Navajo, even if he’d checkmark both and a few more.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

ALONG WITH THE REZ

When you drive, details pile up.

Where mat-house villages once stood, Highway 21 now runs along a large irrigation canal. Because the roadway goes nearly straight, a few subtle curves become especially treacherous.

Illegal aliens buy cars but have no driver’s license or training. No insurance, either. There’s a headlamp out, few repairs, or brakes gone bad. Talk about trouble.

In the dark, a big white furry wing sweeps in front of my windshield. An owl. An omen, nearly colliding. It’s hard to say who’s more startled.

It might have told me the Pom Pom or feather religion, Washat, remains the most practiced old religion on the reservation.

Kokopelli was a member.

Twenty cars park in a hollow point toward what appears to be a white frame meetinghouse. Inside is a congregation of dove hunters.

There isn’t a cloud in the sky, only one jet contrail as crows circle some relentless screeching. As they flap up, slaughter moves out of the shadows and coyote pursue the only antelope in these parts, the ones on the Army reservation.

On the bright side, the State Fair is a three-hundred-pound pumpkin multiplied. Its doe-goats are judged by measuring and weighing their teats in a beauty pageant stripped to essentials.

Back home, her moodiness could be impossible.

Downtown, about nine at night, a wino-cowboy walks into the office. “Where’s the city desk?” He has no place to stay. “It’s a long story.” A quarter in his pocket, stub of a cigarette, and scabies — mites that are highly contagious. “I don’t want to spread them the way some bastard did to me.” So he went to the hospital from the Gospel Mission, received medicine (how’d he know to do all this?). Didn’t get back in. (“He refused to stay for the service,” they explained.) Angry, turns to ask: “Where does a stranger go for help in this town?”

How should I know? I’m just filling in for somebody else.

“Well, if anybody whizzes you,” the stranger says, “it was a matter of amphetamines. Maybe you heard about ‘The Duke’ in Traders? The trial dismissed on procedural grounds?”

He buried $67,000, but when he returned, the money was gone. So he says, far too articulate for the typical migrant.

Later, Kokopelli tells me that guy’s trouble.

Details pile up as I stay downtown at night and taste the psychic toll of economic theories in wasted, untapped talents. The stench stirs tears. Lonely men at counters stretch cups. Icy evenings of waitresses, cowboys, GIs, prostitutes drive from many towns, a migrant worker family whose car broke down, out-of-work loggers, midnight mechanics and nurses. Add to them an assortment of skinny wannabe rich bitches or real estate and insurance brokers. Clerks trying to live on earnings from clothing stores. A few lumpy bag ladies. Walk in, and all look up from their coffee with vacant eyes. It could be Dickens.

I see another hunger, but my own faith isn’t strong enough — I’d yield to despair.

Later, I sing to Kokopelli, “All of man’s good resolutions turn sang froid in the seasons of samsara.” Noticing his quizzed expression, I translate: “Our good intentions turn cold-blooded in the web of life’s illusions.”

It’s the spider again. Coyote’s cousin. Their damned net.

“Sometimes, Bozo, I wonder about you,” Kokopelli says, exhaling blue curlicues.

“There’s no Dedicated Laborious Quest, no magic without the strength of sitting or dancing.”

I dare not be entrapped in any desire to move freely through the vertical and horizontal dimensions of wherever I simply am. So far I’ve surveyed past and present. The future must wait. First, I need to map the emotional and sensual planes of this realm. Every dance has distinctive rhythms and expressions, as Kokopelli reminds me.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

STAY FOR THE SERVICE

I’m invited to photograph an Indian funeral for a 109-year-old woman. It’s a traditional affair, with a Pendleton trapper’s blanket on a casket lowered by hand. Even so, young punks surround me: “Don’t you think you’re crazy,” they ask, implying?

I look around for Kokopelli, who might intercede on my behalf. He’s nowhere in sight.

Later, with a Styrofoam cross and dozens of American flags, the casket rides the back of a pickup, viewed by faces in Cool-Ray sunglasses — ancient traditions side-by-side with the cheapest, most honky-tonk trinkets of the New American Way.

I wasn’t permitted to enter the house, either.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

INVITATION TO FLIGHT

On one of my solitary walks with Kokopelli, I admire the fullness of purple-tipped grasses along the canal bank. Some offer bunched, short seeds in clusters. Others have long-shafted seeds in plumes. Or oblong, spiked seeds suspended like bells. “There must be a thousand golden variations,” I tell him. Oats. Wheat. Barley. Bread and beer. Silk-enshrouded ears of corn for sweet butter. Fat tender steaks. Sour whiskey mash. Like some people I knew. The many named needles and strands of whips and brushes reach skyward, flaying the wind, inviting birds to flight.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

ANCIENT VIBRATIONS

Instead, I looked in another direction and discovered that the Yakama people once occupied 17,000 square miles and had three distinct language stocks. So, even back then one tongue was insufficient to articulate the vibrations of this place, even as an open desert. To try relating the qualities of a simple thing, a pane of hundred-year-old glass, perhaps; the interaction of clouds and sun, alkali and volcanic ash is far more complex. You start by learning the names of flora and fauna. Watch, listen, wait. I open a window and consider the current research, which places the first people here about 14,000 years before my arrival. These nomads made tools from bone and mineral. Hunted large and small game. Fished salmon. Collected river mussels. Gathered wild food plants. Given a guide and sufficient time, maybe I could learn to do these things. (Don’t look at me, Kokopelli shrugs. I’m not from around here.) Maybe I shouldn’t feel so strange about being here, either, even though such long perspective makes me feel incredibly insignificant. The Anglo civilization embodied here is only veneer concealing much deeper systems. The ancient climate was cooler and moister. The land was dotted by many lakes and small streams. Grasslands scattered with pine stands and willow flourished where there’s only sagebrush now. Food sources included bison, antelope, deer, foxes, muskrats, rabbits, ducks and geese (their eggs, too), and turtles.

I want to leap through time to join them, dressing the hides of their game, or making rattles and tools. These people used red and yellow pigments, and valued birds for their feathers as well as their flesh — cormorants, geese, condors, turkey vultures, and eagles all had clothing functions. Maybe I need some ceremonial garb. (Come, now! Kokopelli is hooting with laughter. He loves to taunt and mock me.) Tiny bone needles were used as far back as 10,000 years. I have enough trouble with steel needles today. So what do I make of their earliest burials, cremations that send the body back into spirit?

It’s obvious my own difficulties won’t end overnight.

This is a time of sparrows.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

AS FOR WOLF

A wolf is powerful because it eats powerful food, Kokopelli warns me.

As for the girl-chasing man who’s always hungry, it’s “hair-pie,” he grins.

Although I’ve never hunted, I see points at which ancient traditions lurk within modern religious practices. Meditation, high among them, has roots in hunting and gathering. Then, too, there’s the role organized sportsmen have performed in restoring populations of wildlife, and you can learn much from hunters eminently adept at reading animals’ ways in the field. Keep an eye open.

Natures change slowly. The hunt on land and the water has barely begun.

There’s great game beyond food. Much of it, Kokopelli sings, runs through your brain.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.