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.