Valentine: The Voices of Trees 

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship.  But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.  Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves.  No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.  ~John Muir


How the land must have pulsed with the magnificent movement of trees. Impossible to comprehend what the great primeval Redwood and Sequoia forests of California must have been like before we chose to cut them down. In 1850, old- growth redwood forest covered more than 2,000,000 acres of the California coast, until the rush for gold and resources changed the situation.

The trees' dusty green needles knitted a fresh carpet each year when they floated down to the earthen floor.  Their branches forming an evergreen canopy mirrored by their deep roots, keeping the enormous vertical giants in place. What our ancestors must have witnessed we can only imagine.


Recently, I mourned the passing of beloved poet, Mary Oliver and noted how close she, as well as Muir, lived with trees.  She writes about her green sisters and how she loved to climb up into their branches and attempt to count their leaves.  She was admonished for this. Some said it was risky behavior for her age and she might end up in hospital.  She replied,

"I try to be good but sometimes a person just has to break out and act like the wild and springy thing one used to be. It's impossible not to remember wild and want it back."

Oliver's trees must have delighted in her wildness and the feeling of her walking upon their branches, praying attention to their every leaf. It seems she embraced life fully and the great arm of Cape Cod, which held her will not be the same in her absence. Nor will the many who drank up her words like a spoonful of medicine.  Remedy for grief: We have her poems, yes, and all the meaningfulness of them. We have the many voices of nature through her words of trees and leaves and all her feathered friends.  Certainly, the wrens who are singing through the branches around her dear Black Pond.


A Dream of Trees

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

 ~Mary Oliver

We love you Mary Oliver and we love you John Muir!





Acoma Water Vessel 

A hand-cut staircase was the original way to enter Sky City, the place of the People of White Rock. The stone stairs lead up a cliff wall to the top of the mesa, where the Acoma people have their centuries old village; the place Willa Cather called, “cloud-set  Acoma.” An island rising out of a vast expanse, still much as it was hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. The place of Sky City is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the United States. Once an ancient ocean bed, high sandstone rocks like fortresses grow up from the old ocean floor. Sky City rests upon one of these mesa tops, 357 feet up, built between 1100 and 1250 AD. It is still inhabited today by the Acoma people.

Simon Ortiz said in the book of photography by Lee Marmon, The Pueblo Imagination:

Aacqumeh stdah. Daistih-meh studah.

   I am an Acoma person.  Here is wherefrom I am.

When you see Aacqu in the distance, say looking from the mesa to the north above Ghoomi Springs, just before you descend into the Acoma Valley, you think that or you say it out loud. 

An exceptional place, a place it is said, "that always was." Even though the dwellings are austere and small, the views alone are worth any sacrifice of comfort. There is no source of water, so those who live there must bring up all they need for cooking, bathing and drinking just as they always have, though now they can bring it up by truck.

Francesco, came to replace the water heater (our contemporary water vessel) in my city residence last fall. While he was working we had a conversation about the convergence of cultures here in New Mexico. He shared with me that his wife is from Acoma pueblo. They reside and work in Albuquerque now with their five young children. His wife is the honored lineage bearer for her Grandmotherʼs water vessel. An earthenware jar that was used to hold precious water, it is painted with patterns which encircle the form, in the style of the Acoma people.

Francesco told me that his wife had this pattern tattooed on her left shoulder in reverence to her ancestry, her Grandmotherʼs history and her own. It is a pattern that runs deep like the water itself. I cannot imagine how the vessel has survived at least four generations.

Acoma pottery is traditionally painted with fine geometric patterns that have a curvilinear grace, a oneness with the roundness of the vessel. They often have absolutely exquisite designs. Usually three colors, a white ground with black lines and red-ochre details. I believe that the Acoma pueblo descendents must have a centuries old connection to the Mimbres and Anasazi pottery designs, ancient pottery from the southwest region which is now part of New Mexico. 

One contemporary Acoma artist, Dorothy Torivio, uses just black lines on the white clay, striking a net of connections with the forms of circles, and six-pointed flower shapes. The pots have very smooth surfaces made from fine clay. The lines are painted on the vessel, not with brushes but with fibers from a yucca plant. Yucca are spiky plants with long thin and pointed leaves. An Acoma potter, with a beautiful smile, showed me how to cut a spike and pull back the skin with his teeth, to expose the thin hairlike
fibers within. When the fibers are exposed they spread out into a fan shape and the resulting tool looks just like a brush, an organic natural brush. Holding it in my hand, there is a delicacy to it that invites me to try it with paint on canvas.

Some words I came upon in a gallery in downtown Albuquerque, where Dorothy Torivio shows her work, describe the process of creating the pottery:

Authentic Acoma pots are made from local, slate-like clays. When traditionally fired, these clays produce a very white vessel. After they are fired, these clays also are strong enough to allow the production of very thin walls. ... the Acomas use both mineral and vegetal based paints for their designs. The characteristic white backgrounds allow the Acoma potters to produce crisp black images, as well as rich polychrome designs.

The people knew how to live in connection with the Great Spirits of the air and land and little water, in harmony with all that is.  Their vessels were not art for arts' sake, but considered constuctions with beautiful function. I wonder if we as a society would be more cautious with our water usage if we had to carry our water each day, not in plastic vessels but in ones carefully crafted and hand-formed of fired clay?

Something of a holy relic now, this water vessel from Acoma, I want to know more.  I want to ask a whole lot of questions.  And I want to see the holy water vessel in person, but Francesco does not respond to my message to interview his wife.  I am still thinking about the story of the vessel over a year later.  Like a vessel, the story holds.


Excerpt from a book in progress, The Forever Wilderness of Mother


From the book Spiritual Ecology:The Cry of the Earth

Hozho by Lyla June Johnston


It is dawn
The sun conquering the sky
and my grandmother and I
are singing prayers to the horizon.

This morning she is
teaching me the meaning
of hozhó.

Although there is no direct
translation from Diné Bizaad
(the Navajo language)
into English
every living being knows
what hozhó means.

For hozhó is
every drop of rain.
It is every eyelash.
Every leaf on every tree.
Every feather on the bluebird's wing.

Hozhó is undeniable beauty.

It is every breath we give to the trees.
And every breath they give us in return.

Hozhó is reciprocity.
And my grandmother knows this well
for she speaks a language that
grew out of the desert floors
like red stone monoliths.

A language like arms
out of the earth
reaching into the sky,
praising creation for all
of its brilliance.

Hozhó is remembering that we are a part
of this brilliance.

It is finally accepting that
you are a sacred song that brings the Diyin Diné'é
(the gods)
to their knees in an almost
unbearable ecstasy.

Hozhó is re-membering our own beauty.

And my grandmother knows this well
for she speaks the language of a
Lók'aa' ch'égai snowsstorm.

She speaks the language
of hooves hitting the dirt
for she was a midwife and would
gallop to the women in labor.

She is fluent in the language
of suffering mothers;
fluent in the language of
joyful mothers;
fluent in the language
of handing a glowing newborn
to its creator.

Hozhó is an experience.

But it is not something
you can experience

the eagles tell us

as they lock talons
in the stratosphere
and fall to the earth as one.

Hozhó is inter-beauty.

And my grandmother knows this well
for she speaks the language of the Male Rain
which shoots Lightening Boys through the sky,
pummels the Green Corn Children
and huddles the horses against cliff sides in the
early afternoon.

She also speaks the language of the Female Rain
which sends the scent of dust and sage
into our hoghans
and casts rainbows in the sky.

Us Diné, we know what hozhó means!

And deep down I think we know what hozhó
does not mean.
Like the days we walk in sadness.
Like the days we live for money.
Like the days we live for fame.

Like the day the conquistadors came,
climbed down from their horses
and asked us
if they could buy
the mountains.

We knew this was not hozhó
because we knew
you could not own a mountain.

But we knew we could make it hozhó once again.

So we took their silver swords
and we took their silver
and we melted them
with fire and buffalo hide bellows
and recast them into beautiful
squash blossom necklaces
and placed it around their necks.

We took the silver helmets
straight off their heads
and transformed it into
a fearless beauty.

We made jewelry:

Hozhó is the prayer that carries us
through genocide and disease.

It is the prayer that will carry us through
global warming;
through this global fear
that dances like a shadow
in our minds.

This morning my grandmother is
teaching me something important.
She is teaching me that the
easiest (and most elegant) way
to defeat an army of hatred
is to sing to it beautiful songs

until it falls to its knees

and surrenders.

'It will do this,' she says, 'because it has finally
found a sweeter fire than revenge.
It has found Heaven.

It has found Hozhó.'

And so my grandmother is talking
to the colors of the sky at dawn
and she is saying:
(beauty is restored again...)

It is dawn my friends.

Wake up.

The night

is over.

-Lyla June Johnston.

from the book, Spiritual Ecology.



Feather: Colaptes Aurastus

"ATTENTION," A VOICE BEGAN TO CALL, AND IT WAS AS THOUGH an oboe had suddenly become articulate.  "Attention," it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone.  "Attention."
-Aldous Huxley, Island

I lost my keys. The car key, house keys, mailbox key, all on a clear plastic stretchy- cord that had been hanging from my wrist like a clunky bracelet.  I was walking in the woods with my puppy, Belle, when I noticed the all important keys were missing.   Just when we had started our walk, I heard a woodpecker, tap tap tapping on a tree.   Later, I thought I heard the same distinct sound above my head when I noted with a shock, that the keys were no longer around my wrist.

A terrible sinking feeling passed through me as I realized we had been walking a long time, two hours perhaps, and I had no idea where I dropped them.  Everywhere underfoot, crunchy dry leaves and dusty earthen paths, much the same coloration as the gold and silver-toned metal keys.  It seemed impossible to find them.   I thought, "maybe I dropped them when I took off my sweater and tied it around my waist, but where was that?”  Talking to myself, "just maybe if I go back and retrace my steps, I will find them."   Each step back seems to bring up more dread, impatience and fear.  "How will I get out of this mess?" Cell phone locked in vehicle.  Feet hot and tired.  Thirsty.   I become increasingly agitated, but a small clear voice of intuition tells me twice to go back toward the sound of the woodpecker.

This is a story in two parts and I am telling it a little out of sequence. The day prior, I met a young man visiting New Mexico on a spiritual quest.  He was spending a night at the end of his trip with my friend who co-parents Belle, our shared puppy.   Belle lives with my friend full time and I get to visit her each afternoon.  That day Belle and I went for a walk just after meeting this young man, Kyle, to a place along a clear ditch.  When we came to my favorite spot, I looked down and there was a beautiful feather, a flicker feather, at my feet.  Colaptes Aurastus is named for the brilliant flash of coloring under it's wings and tail feathers. I made earrings from their magical feathers a couple years ago and then immediately lost one, so I was grateful to find this one, so similar, a near match, to the feather that flew off my ear.   Tears welled up in my eyes when I saw it bright on the ground. I picked it up and turned it over and then carefully put it into the breast pocket of my coat, where it would be protected while we walked.

Flickers live across America, yellow shafted in the north and east and bright orange/red in the southwest. Common along the river and ditches here, this winter I watched one perched on a branch at a close vantage point.  They have a bib of dark feathers, like a necklace, just below the throat and a breast almost polka-dotted with black and white feathers, a dashing red brushstroke under their black round eye. Very handsome birds. 

     I feel certain that all of life is consciousness and that we only have to recognize that mysterious wonder, to be open to receive.  Communication is happening between all aspects of nature-humans, animals, plants-all the time.  The more I connect on this level of unity, the more I find it to be true. 

When we returned that afternoon to my friend's property, Kyle was resting in a hammock, reading a book by Aldous Huxley, Island.  There is an awesome illustration of a bird on the cover of the book, but I didn't catch that synchronicity at first.  We chatted a bit and I shared that I have been working on a series of paintings for several years of specific birds, bird wings and bird feathers. He said, "Oh, let me show you a feather I found ..."   Somehow, I knew in that moment, that he was about to show me a flicker feather. Indeed, he pulled out the same exact species feather from between the pages of Huxley’s final book, a story coincidently, about a place of utopia.

His feather was the same length, with the same striking black and orange pattern as the one I had just found.  I showed him my feather and we compared them. Both were black on one side, except for the shaft and orange on the other with a thin quill, a shock of orange almost neon, running through the center. His was a right wing feather and mine, a pointed tail feather.

The next day, when I lost my keys, it was the same type of woodpecker, the northern flicker, who called to my attention with it's drumming-like sound.  "Go to the area where you noticed the keys missing from your wrist..."   So I turned around for the second time, unsure and feet dragging, calling Belle along, we walked to the area where we originally entered and where I first heard the woodpecker drumming.  With very little effort, I found the keys laying in dry leaves, near a crumbled old can, I had noticed earlier. The current keys to opening my all important doors, were in hand. It would be an understatement to say, all my anxiety lifted at the sight of them.

The keys in the leaves had the look of something real, for sure, very real, indispensable to getting into my vehicle, that I very much identified with as more than metaphor.  Witnessing the interconnectedness of everything was further underlined for me, with the momentary taste of utopia, when everything worked out perfectly. As I consider all of this now, I am aware of “key” as something else, having to do with the way, the path, as in the key to the mystery.  Or “key” meaning someone pivotal, as in an individual of significance. I am turning the key, turning around these metaphors in my mind as a way to appreciate, to deepen this experience on even more levels.  I imagine it will be with me for a long time to come, I can’t resist saying, this opens new doors of perception.


A Confession

One intelligence flows through all creatures, but as it is channeled it is focused in many different ways through the various dimensional levels, like high-voltage current moving through a series of step-down transformers.  - Ken Carey

At first, I cannot believe my eyes as I catch a glimpse of a large bird in the sky.  I am used to seeing lots of geese flying here in their customary V-clusters, some families of Sandhill cranes, also ducks and smaller birds love this spot along the clear ditch which runs parallel to the Rio Grande.   On this mid-January day with my new pup, Belle, grace soars above us.  We have been coming to this place everyday for a week or more in the afternoons to walk along a narrow path protected on the east side by residential fences.  Belle can be free to run off leash and play at the waters edge along the trailhead.  This afternoon, I feel inclined to walk farther. It is windy, cool and the sun is angled in the southern sky, a bright radiance against a cerulean blue hue. Just the right direction to light up the white head of the bird in the sky.

Above the clear ditch on the west side the landscape rises above my eye-line.  I can see bare-branched cottonwood trees moving with the wind as I catch sight of two floating forms.  Snow white head and tail, a black body, then another marvel, two eagles soaring above the tree tops.  Incredible, a pair of bald eagles! They seem to be completely liberated from gravity. A feeling of ecstasy rushes through my heart expanse as I watch them sail on the air in tandem. I have never seen a pair of eagles in flight before, it's a gift- rare and uplifting.  Their heads and tails appear to be bleached white against the ever so blue New Mexico sky, there can be no mistaking these magnificent creatures. 

Too quickly one recedes from my view, we turn around toward the other and follow it though it is soon gone swiftly out of sight as well.    I walk on in reverie, expanded by their presence, I can only imagine they must be a mated pair.  Afterward, I note a large round clump of matter in one of the cottonwood trees and speculate if that could possibly be their nest. Or maybe they are just passing through.  I am so grateful to have witnessed them and to Belle, for without her, I would likey not be out on this cool windy January day.  

Something I have been considering for over forty-five years came to a closure this week.  It’s conclusion and this sighting underlines it for me.  A few years ago, I sent an email letter to a professor who had a great impact on my life - for the positive- when I was in my freshman year of college.

I was just seventeen when I started at Kent State in Ohio and not too far from where I grew up in Cleveland.  But far enough away to feel that I was independent from what I perceived as too much control at home.  I was under the spell of the energy of the times, with everything that the late 1960s had brought including: sex, drugs and rock & roll. Never a particularily meaningful combination, it would not help that I was confused and yet oddly determined, disconnected from my sense of self and some how totally self-absorbed. I was elated to be away from home and pursuing art. Free.  And for a time, at least during the first semester, I was a fairly focused student.  William Harper was the professor for my first college level studio art class, a foundational art class.   I was coming in with a strong background in art from high school and throughout my preparatory years, I was engaged with art. Fortunately, in that era, the arts were given respect and support.  Professor Harper was a pivotal facilitator in my art education, as he made the suggestion that I apply to an art and design school, I did, and that absolutely changed my life.  

I looked Mr. Harper up online a few years ago and decided to write a thank you letter to him for how he had helped inform my world.  And also to hopefully start a dialogue of apology in regard to a project I created while I was in his visual studies class. When I did not receive a reply in short order, I forgot about it, figuring he either never got the email- maybe it was an old address- or he was not interested, busy, or perhaps I was just too late.   But this past week, three years later, I received a reply.  

I once killed a bird for art.  It was a beautiful blue parakeet which I purchased live, in a pet store in Kent for an art competition.  In 1972, I did not know this act of murder would continue to be a haunting theme for the rest of my life.  At the time, it seemed okay, I thought I was following directions.  In hindsight, of course, I can look at the bigger picture of my life: a childhood fraught with objectification gets projected onto the world, i.e. the small caged bird.  Emotional turmoil, a disturbing world of war and young men, my friends and peers, being sent off to that immoral war.  Four students killed at Kent State in 1970, by the Ohio National Guard, for protesting the Vietnam war. Nine more students injured.  It was a confusing time to be a teenager to say the least. Disharmony in the nation: an unpopular war, civil rights movements, womens rights all happening center stage on the news each night and in the streets each day with immense outrage between the generations. But all things considered, there is no doubt, my inner moral compass was off.

When Professor Harper gave the assignment for a competition in his studio art class, one on a list of requirements was "something that was once living."  Looking back, I am certain the idea was meant to inspire the use of something like a leaf, a tree branch, a dried flower or a found feather, bu not to cause cruelty. Unfortunately, I took it quite literally and though I could not face the act of killing the parakeet personally, a friend, Tony, did the deed for me, I take full and total responsibility.

I wrote about this piece last summer, in relationship to another artist’s work recently on view in an Albuquerque gallery, before I had heard back from Mr. Harper. (see below at  My piece, an assemblage in the manner of the artist, Joseph Cornell, was constructed with a wooden cigar box I painted a  dark- blue glossy enamel and lined it with blue cotton velveteen, a remnant from a dress I wore to a high school prom. The metal prongs inside the box for holding cigars, I painted metallic gold and placed the dead parakeet between them.  I remember the piece clearly:   on the inside lid, mounted upside down, I glued a small classic 1950s image of Jesus, from Sunday school, about the size and shape of a credit card.  It seems obvious to me now that I was an angry adolescent. Inspite of that, the little coffin remained only a subconscious expression of my inner turmoil. 

The piece won the competition, however, when I was asked where I had acquired the parakeet, things changed dramatically.  Word got around school that I had killed a bird for art and someone I didn't know came up to me in the cafeteria and told me off.  Mute, I recall, I didn't know how to respond.   

But this week, five decades later, I made an apology to my former professor.  When I opened his email, three years after my initial letter of appreciation, I took the opportunity to write back to him about the parakeet  and my regrets. This time, he responded immediately that he absolutely remembered the incident, and the blue bird that was intended to be a pet.  He said, “the faculty was irate,” and that he thinks of the parakeet every time he sees an animal abuse story on the news.  Even now, those words cut to my heart.  Then he reminded me of the work of Damien Hirst, in particular a piece Hirst created using a specific shark, a Tiger Shark. When it started to deteriorate, his collector wanted to have it replaced, which led to a hunt off the coast of Queensland, Australia to kill another.  Here are a few notes found at Wikipedia on the history of the piece:

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is an artwork created in 1991 by Damien Hirst, an English artist and a leading member of the "Young British Artists" (or YBA). It consists of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine. It was originally commissioned in 1991 by Charles Saatchi, who sold it in 2004, to Steven A. Cohen for an undisclosed amount, widely reported to have been $8 million. However, the title of Don Thompson's book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, suggests a higher figure.
Owing to deterioration of the original 14-foot (4.3 m) tiger shark, it was replaced with a new specimen in 2006. It was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from 2007 to 2010.[1]
It is considered the iconic work of British art in the 1990s,[2] and has become a symbol of Britart worldwide.[3]

Mr. Harper also wrote me about a piece of his own in which he had used an ivory chopstick-later replaced with a found animal bone- before it was bestowed to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.   

During the days that followed this email exchange. I imagined the assembled coffin I created, burning on a funerary pyre and with it, going up in smoke, my guilt. I don’t imagine I will ever forget that beautiful bird. I live now with a handsome yellow canary and I don’t take him for granted, his presence in my life has been a great joy. His intelligence and life force is astounding. When I see/hear him singing opera trills in his cage, as well as many wild birds, each one in their distinctions :  a Great Blue Heron I saw today, a speckle-chested woodpecker in a tree, a brilliant red Summer Tanager, or the recent spectacle of two eagles soaring, I am humbled.

For the past few years I have been painting portraits of specific birds, to honor them and their gifted wings with this story in the background of my consciousness.  I cannot lay judgement on Damien Hirst for his work but I know where I stand with my own.  And hopefully, I have repaid the karma.

Notes, 1-3 from a Wikipedia article on Damien Hirst’s piece:
Smith, Roberta (16 October 2007). "Just When You Thought It Was Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2007.

Brooks, Richard. "Hirst's shark is sold to America", The Sunday Times, 16 January 2005. Retrieved 14 October 2008.

Davies, Serena. "Why painting is back in the frame", The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2005. Retrieved 27