21 June 2009

Solstice At Sundial

I Solstice at Sundial (21Jun09)

Despite all efforts to shake it, the flu virus followed me through to the last sleep of the flower moon, keeping me miserable and mostly bed-ridden. Even on that final morning going into misamsootaa, the new moon of long-rains, I woke up with a deadly headache. By that point, I'd given up on natural therapeutics. I stumbled and groaned my way from bedroom to kitchen, popped two extra-strength Tylonol, and went right back to sleep.

When I got up again, around noon, residues of the cold medicine of days previous could be felt lingering in my body like a toxic afterbite. I needed to sweat this junk out of my veins before evening, because I'd promised to meet my students for an overnighter at Sundial Butte, one of our sacred sites, and it wouldn't do any good to show-up in my semi-doped, zombie condition. I figured a nice walk around the pond with Piipiiaakii in the heat of the day might cure me.

A couple hours later, there we were, Sspopiikimi. The cottonwood seeds were still floating around like summer snow in the dry breeze. And though we'd been just two days absent, both the showy milkweed and Indian hemp had come into new bloom.

As we walked toward the south end of the pond, passing under large poplar trees, we again heard the cadence of our recent mystery bird. We set down on the grass and shade, and began peering into the high canopies. There we were able to spot robins, cedar waxwings, yellow warblers, goldfinches, a downy woodpecker, and (the song source, taa-daa) a Baltimore oriole. While we sat there, the gosling couple and their three ever-more-goosy offspring came to pick at the grass beside us. They eventually sat down in the poplar shade to rest, and we took our leave.

A few minutes later, on the south end of the pond, we found most of the resident ducks crouched down in the cool island grass - three mallard drakes, two mallard couples (including the bent-feather mother with her three ducklings), a redhead couple, and our man-coot. The mayfly swarms were finally gone, replaced by thousands of little bluet damselflies. And the water level had dropped, allowing us to wade easily across one of the beaver canals to check on the spotted sandpiper nest, where we found a first hatchling had arrived. Three other eggs were still unopened.

Continuing around the south bend, by the duck blind, we caught a glimpse of peripheral motion and looked over just in time to see the female harrier come down on her nest, badgered all the way by several angry male redwings. Our assumption, at this point, is that her eggs must have already hatched, and that she's spending most of her day at the nest with the hatchlings waiting for the male harrier to drop-off his occasional morsels. This is the only sense we can make of her continued diligence in tending the nest, without risking eyeball and scalp to investigate and test this theory.

Far less dangerous to inspect are the smaller bird nests. Just below the blind, for instance, we find that the first redwing fledgers have left their basket. There were four born there, yet we find only one of them hiding in the reeds. There's now a second nest placed beside the first with brand-new eggs in it. And though the resident male raised a fuss and occasionally launched a swoop at our faces, the threat was relatively minor.

After this stop by the duck blind, Piipiiaakii and I made our way out through the forest. Far above, the Wilson's snipe could be heard diving audibly every few minutes. At the far north end of the pond, just before reaching the truck, we found the mallard with six ducklings and, to our surprise, a third mallard mother with five ducklings. These birds' breeding was very successful here this year. We never found a one of their nests and, apparently, neither did the other would-be predators.

Back at home, I was feeling quite a bit cleaner. The mid-day pond sweat had done its work. Piipiiaakii cooked a nice taco dinner. And when we were pleasantly full, it was time to pack-up and head for Sundial Butte.

Sundial is an ancient stone cairn, an enormous pile of lichen-encrusted rocks, ringed by two concentric circles of stone, with a long, defined entry path. It's one of several such monuments described as aitapissko in Blackfoot, a place-with-living-presence.

Piipiiaakii and I were the first to arrive, and had our tent set up already before the students (most of whom opted to carpool in the college van) began to pull in. They came just in time for us all to climb up to the cairn and catch sundown together. It was a beautiful one too, casting a pink beam of light straight up from the mountains to the clouds, with a strength of definition I've never seen before.

Having witnessed this brilliant show, our group descended the hill again. Some of the students worked on setting up their tents, while others (along with Piipiiaakii and I) climbed in vehicles and began scouring the surrounding grasslands for any bit of odd firewood. I'd pointed out that, in the old days, when the tipi camps were set up below that butte, the natural fuel of this tree-less location would have been dry buffalo dung, kaamsstaan. But understandably, there wasn't a whole lot of interest in roasting our hot-dogs and smores over burning cow crap. So we scoured. Piipiiaakii and I drove one of the fencelines, picking up a couple good pieces of old posts along the way. The big haul, however, came from a group of students who chanced upon the remains of an old broken-down cattle barn. With the take they gathered, we had plenty of wood to last the night through, a couple of the boys keeping a steady vigil to first light.

There was surprisingly little animal activity during the night. Just one lonely coyote howled on-site near our camp. All other packs we heard crying had muffled voices that betrayed their good distance.

Just before the birds started singing in the new light of the next day, rains came. At first there were just light sprinkles, but soon it pounded a regular rattling on top our tent. I got out of bed to find the boys make a sopping dash for the van. Above, the skies were thick and dark-grey as far as the eye could see.

The rain would offer welcome retreat from our recent heat, but I wished it had waited just a couple hours. The whole reason we'd gone to Sundial for the night was so that we could be at the cairn at dawn to see for ourselves if there was any relationship between its design and the position of the rising solstice Sun. Personally, I suspected there was no relationship. These cairns are not "calendars" as some archaeologists and retired physicists have assumed. Rather, they mark the origin sites of certain medicine bundles, and throughout their long history have been revisited thousands of times by people leaving offerings or seeking further spiritual gifts. Their designs are not laid out to mark cartographic directions either. Instead, they are to my understanding (from the origin stories themselves) metonymic earthly gateways to constellations of the same design in the night skies above - the homes of cosmic spiders who can lift or lower vision questers to and from the above world, the nests of mythic swans who might fly a dreamer to the stars.

As our solstice dawn arrived, masked by clouds, the rain briefly let up, allowing the group to climb the butte in comfort again. Once there, I broke off a pinch of twist-tobacco for each student, and together we offered these to the cairn with expressions of gratitude for all that this place had given people of the past, and for all the nourishment it continues to offer us today. As we spoke to this effect and buried our bits of tobacco among the rocks, a distinct trilling began overhead. It came from Sprague's Pipits, birds who - like those of our group - still rely on these rare, undisturbed places to feed a way of life that doesn't belong anywhere else but here.

16 June 2009

From Lonely To The Man

III ) llllllllllllllllllllll From Lonely To The Man (16Jun09)

Woke up especially early this morning, when the robins were just starting to sing-in the dawn. Thought I had broke the fever, but I felt drugged, even though all I’d taken were pain killers. A couple hours later, I was back in bed again, shivering, teeth clattering, feeling miserable. By later in the afternoon, still in and out of bed, I began having wonderfully detailed and exciting fever dreams...

In everyone's life, there’s at least one moment (possibly several) when he or she becomes marked for death. Mine came when I noticed a baseball-sized, luminous white circle, fading back and forth between regular skin tone on my stomach. It was like a beacon for the monster, matapiooyi, the people-eater. The challenge was to avoid being caught and consumed by this monster for eighty-four hours. If successful (which few ever are), then matapiooyi would have to change its life and become more like me.

The beacon first went off while I was speeding along a wide urban freeway at night. I had Dani with me. We both knew what it meant and frantically tried to think of what to do. Within minutes the monster appeared, flying out from the skyscrapers as if using a jet pack. It was tan, thick, and mechanical, looking something like a cross between the stay-puffed marshmallow man and an astronaut. We sped, but it was faster. We cut down an alleyway, jumped out of our car and went through a door. Suddenly, we were in our own house. I was conscious of the fact that all I had to do to make such hyper-jumps in the midst of chase was perform an activity related (even in a vague way) to where I wanted to go, and I would be taken there. In this case, opening a door and wishing it were the door to our home was all I needed.

It wasn't exactly our home, rather a dream rendering of it. Same layout, perhaps even more the usual sense of comfort, but there was way more natural light and wind, as if certain walls had been removed. I knew it would only be moments before the matapiooyi caught up with me. I couldn't just sit still, so I ran downstairs and outside onto the grass, where I was able to hyper-jump again, this time to a tarp-covered squatter's tent belonging to a family who were living out in the prairie. Why they were there, I don't know, but I'd been there before and they knew me. The wife brought me some food, basically a piece of bread, while I talked with her husband about the situation. I told him about the monster, and he related that they knew the one. They'd seen it passing around hillsides and through the coulee-bottoms. It was like their bigfoot. Looking around their little tent, I realized it was a fairly comfortable shelter, but that it wouldn't take them through the winter. I shared this thought with the husband, but he was determined that they’d be alright. I felt a sense of dread for them. I'd been in this area during winter. It was always very cold, and the snow packed tight and high. In fact, I'd been so fascinated by the composition of the snow that I'd taken some home with me and put it in the freezer. This gave me an idea, and quick as that it was realized. I thought about the winter, it became winter. I picked-up a chunk of the strange snow, bit into it, and was hyper-jumped to the freezer where I'd once stored some.

It was not the same freezer we have now. It was from the old duplex on Jerry Potts Boulevard. That place had been refurbished, and so I found myself in some kind of desert junk-yard. Nowhere to hide for hundreds of miles. I started kind of jogging down the road, just tumbleweed and sagebrush on either side. I knew it wouldn't take long for the matapiooyi to catch up with me. And it seemed really that all I had to do was think about the monster, and it appeared. Maybe that was the whole thing about being marked for death. Maybe people do it to themselves with the things they meditate on, with their worries and desires. In order to beat matapiooyi, one has to kind of out-think oneself. Understanding this, the monster's appearance changed. Now I could see that its body was similar to jagged rock, with high shoulders, long fingers, and a jaw that dropped to reveal an array of pointed teeth.

It was quickly gaining on my position. How could I beat it? Suddenly I realized that I still had bread in my hand from the squatter's tent. I started breaking off pieces on the ground, imagining that the monster was extremely hungry. Sure enough, it would stop to eat. Taking the technique further, I began to imagine places where the monster really wanted to go. Not long after I pushed the idea, the matapiooyi would zoom off like roadrunner to where-ever I'd thought about. It was working. I had control. I knew it would still be difficult to keep-up with this work for eighty-four hours, but I now had confidence that it could indeed be done. This contentment pulled me from the dream.

As I was waking, I became aware that I was snuggled up against Piipiiaakii's back in bed. I wasn't cold or hot, but my body was shaking, jittery. Hugging onto Piipiiaakii I felt total comfort. Then a dream sense came about me, and I started wondering where the remote control was hidden. I wanted to “save” my life, like in a video game, so if anything ever went awry I could come back to this same place. Slowly, the disappointing realization came that this was only dream thought, that there is no “saving” in life. Better just keep living it the best you can.

After we got out of bed, Piipiiaakii made a garlic, chicken, and vegetable soup for dinner that was just what I needed. I ate two bowls, sweated the whole way, but felt entirely re-energized, so much so that I was ready to at least go sit by the pond for the evening.

Walking in to Sspopiikimi, we flushed two grey partridge, and I noticed another of those small bluet damselflies. The beavers were still eating water milfoil in the shallows. The painted turtles were swimming around, their heads just above the surface. The gosling couple were moving their brood from the mainshore meadows to the now-green islands. And the lone coot, who was preening on the gosling couple's nest island when we arrived, soon began to swim about directly across from us, eating off the water surface in the reeds.

The pond was covered this evening in cottony seeds, gliding down from the trees like snow on a breeze. As we sat, a female redhead passed by the reeds where the lone coot had been eating, and from deep within one of the denser patches of new growth we heard a second coot give a couple short grunts. Perhaps the lone coot was not so lonely after all, but has only been staying in this vicinity because his mate’s nested in the reeds. If so, who knows how long the nest has gone unnoticed by Piipiiaakii and I. We'll have to check another evening, tonight we just sit.

The mallard mother with her six, maybe seven ducklings (so hard to tell given their tendency to cluster together, resembling a single body) brings her brood to feed in a small bulrush tuft. A few minutes later, the other mallard mother, who we previously believed had only one baby, swam over to a nearby island with three little puffs of black and yellow beside her. We recognized her from before, because she has some feathers out of joint on one wing.

As we watch the mallard families, I notice something odd in my peripheral vision. Coming from the direction of the main beaver canal is the “lone coot”, carrying a piece of dry bulrush stem about fourteen inches long. The coot brings this stem right to the reeds where we heard the other one clucking earlier. He climbs up into the tuft, deposits the stem, and swims back out again. For us, that seals it. Surely this bit of bulrush was a gift for his lady, although she has plenty of other old, dry reeds at her disposal right where she sits.

Now we’re going to have to change Lone Coot’s name to Ninna or “The Man”. After he presented his bulrush gift, he went back to reclaim his sentinel station on the gosling couple’s old nesting island. As he was picking around in the water by one of its shores, a kingbird flew down to inspect the gravel. Right away, Ninna ducked his head and ran at the little bird, prompting it to take wing and settle atop a cattail about four meters away. Then, having experienced this success with the kingbird, the coot swam out to the small bulrush tuft where the mallard mother was dining with her big brood. The two went head to head until the mallard took her ducklings and moved on.

After this bit of drama, there was a long lull in activity immediately around us. Or at least, that’s the way it seemed given our limited sensory abilities. We're all too aware that there's much we're missing as a result of not yet knowing all our local bird songs. I envy those who've come to embody a knowledge of this other sound world. Tonight, there was a seamless stream of bird voices around us. We've come to recognize the familiar, those we watch regularly. Now comes the adventure of learning, just a couple at a time, those we may more often hear than see. I carry an i.c. recorder to aid in our learning, and Piipiiaakii has IBirds on her phone.

From somewhere near the forest across the pond, practically all evening long, we had been hearing what seemed like an inordinate amount of wing flutter. It reminded me of mourning dove flight chatter. But once the Sun moved out of sight in the west, and the sound subsided, and the activities of the ducks around us slowed down, we took a moment to attempt an identification through IBird and come up with common snipe, a shore bird we have seen in the back shallows on several occasions. At the same time, while we worked out this identification, and from the tops of the poplars immediately behind us, there began a very distinct mantra, sung every two or three minutes. I've placed the i.c. recorder up there in the hollow of a branched trunk to capture a sample of this melody. When it too eventually stopped, the coyote chorus began, and we packed up to leave.

Once at home, I downloaded the i.c. file onto my laptop for study. Our best guess, using all the resources we have at hand, was ovenbird. I immediately sent this file to a bird-song expert in Edmonton, Barb Beck, who got back to me a half-hour later with her opinion – possible oriole. It would make sense, given that we’ve seen several orioles at the pond recently. But I won’t be satisfied until we hear the mantra again and see, with our own eyes, who’s responsible.