I watched a small bird take flight from a stalk of mullein, only moments ago. As it did, the movement of the bird initiated a counter movement in the stalk so that it swayed back and forth in still air. It was 5:40 AM.
I was walking.
I spent the early morning, as I often do, walking in the last glimmer of darkness, watching the world form into color and shape. These are golden moments for me, but of late my mind has been restless. I have much to do, like everyone else, and my mind, made rigid with my strategic thinking, has had a difficult time settling into the soft elegance of real attentiveness. Grieving my loss, I picked up a small pile of dirt and passed it back and forth in my hands as I walked, slowly rubbing its tiny grains into the folds and creases of my hands. The palms, the backs of my knuckles, the wrists.
Today is June 3rd. Memorial Day has come and gone and school is out. I see signs of it everywhere, children I never encountered before suddenly shouting in backyards, riding bicycles down the street, eyeing me, a thirty-something Caucasian male in uncertain clothes, suspiciously. But the Earth Children, Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, continues. Just two days ago we were at Farmer Ron’s, bottling grasshoppers and mulching raspberries. Next week we’ll be back in the forest and maybe even catch a waterfall.
Silke decided long ago that her school year would go through summer solstice, ending June 22. This has been a mild point of confusion for parents and students alike. Like it or not, summer is here. The excitement and boredom is palpable. Griffin, one of the Earth Children’s mainstays, had his last day on Thursday, while two older children, now out of school, joined us. Something is ending, and something new is taking its place.
All this was on my mind this morning, creeping into the silence I would otherwise have preferred. The moon had already set and it was black as black as black. I once wrote stories about a fictionalized woman, based largely on myself, and the rocking motions of her steps. Crunch, crunch, crunch, the sound of gravel underfoot. Now I write about children, and the olive trees are blooming again. I’ve been waiting so long.
I ladled another scoop of dirt into my hands, watching plumes of dust drift into the air as I passed it back and forth, the light and warmth of a summer’s day already stealing back into the black silence.
I’ve been working with Silke since last fall, about the same time I’ve been writing this blog. Children. Me. Pooling the dirt back and forth between my palms, I listened to its quiet song play under the clear tones of the acequia trickling nearby. The songbirds, who in the dead of winter would not have made a sound, were like a landscape of noise. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Cheer up, cheerily. Cheer up, cheerily. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Missing loneliness.
Two days ago, after dropping the kids off after school, I found myself at the library, scrambling to get inside to use the internet for a couple hours of paid work. As I trampled through the prairie dog dens in the parking lot, a familiar fragrance caught my nose and I immediately smiled. Russian olives. Last year I had become so intimate with this scent, like the inside pocket of a vest. It was so small, so erotically and sensually mine.
Russian olive trees are everywhere in Taos, a legacy of the Forest Service and its precursors, which recommended them as drought-hardy trees well into the 1900’s. Eventually, they established themselves so successfully that they were redefined as an invasive species. Such a human story. With their dry, silvery leaves and nitrogen-fixing roots, the plants are masterful survivalists, but, like litter and plastic bags, I have mostly only heard people disdain them as a problem. So when I discovered an enticing fragrance wafting in the air a year ago, it took me some time to track it to its source. Turns out the trees are somewhat known for their perfume, but discovering it for myself was a rare treat. Trees. I get it. They are a nuisance. So are people and beavers, and uncomfortable silences. But oh, the joy of tactile discovery, of real apprehension between two species; fleeting moments of appreciation.
This year, May had come and gone and never had I rediscovered that special scent. I waited and watched as the elms, another introduced and now invasive species, bloomed. The cottonwoods, apples, apricots and oaks. Flowers before leaves, that is the pattern, no? I assumed the same for olives. So when their silvery leaves began to come out a few weeks ago I was curious but a little wounded. Had I missed the flowers? Had I lost my attentiveness? Like a man who has lost his wallet, I looked over and over in the same places, not so much concerned about the wallet or the trees, but my mind. Clutching their thorny, copper-colored branches, I found the velvet leaves were already sheltering long drupelets of tiny early olives. The fruits, miniscule and pulpy, are not palatable for humans, but birds make a feast of them when they ripen into rust-colored pips.
I don’t know the orchestration of the olive tree. I have read about beavers, and even seen videos, but their intimate lives are foreign to me. Even the magpies, who call attention to themselves in every possible way, are strangers. The grasses, purple, green and blonde, grow under my feet without any formal paperwork. Names, you see, make things invisible.
Two days ago, before visiting the prairie dog town at the public library, I had been at Farmer Ron’s with the Earth Children. Our task, Ron had told us, was to catch grasshoppers and shuttle them, alive if possible, into some plastic bottles and cans he had scrounged up for the purpose. We ran into the field, excited, pouncing on the little buggers, which littered the landscape. Last fall we harvested rows and rows of blue, red and purple corn here, but nothing was planted just now. “A grasshopper can eat three times its weight a day,” Ron told us, maturing and reproducing at breakneck speed. I cupped my hand and grabbed one, then another, a third. They were everywhere, but each individual was too fast. Plus it was hot, and the tiny insects had the kick and vitality of the midday sun. Every time I opened my hand - nothing but empty air. It became instantly clear that if they matured and reproduced at anything resembling the speed of their frantic movements, it would be impossible to stop them. Without chemicals, that is.
I managed, with great calm and lightning reflex, to catch half a dozen or so over the course of the hour. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them. Aside from Griffin, who probably caught more than I, the children largely gave up, as did most of the adults. The whole swarm of us moved idly through the field, kicking up a dust of grasshoppers. Organic food. Local farmers. Kids. My God.
“I got one!” I shouted, pinching the squirming abdomen with my fingers. With just enough pressure to stifle, but not kill it, I could feel it writhing uncomfortably in my hand, sending eerie signals through my skin and nerve endings, into my brain. “Who’s got a bottle?!” I asked, standing tall, as the children rushed to collect my treasure. Pema, who shadowed my movements closely, had received the bulk of my victims and now began to boast, “I caught five, no six!” She held up her bottle for everyone to see the crook-legged insects stirring about uncertainly. She hadn’t caught a single one, but neither, for that matter, had most of the kids. As some of the grasshoppers climbed over others, it was evident that two or three were already dead. Gentle as I tried to be, I’m certain every one of the bugs I caught was fatally injured. I wiped the smear of green-brown blood from my moist hands.
I have been debating about the future of this blog. My work with children, far from over, has only just begun, but what began as a creative side project has become but one small piece of a much larger vision. I am a storyteller, a weaver of sorts, and the story has gotten dense. I often have the sense that my mind, or hell - call it the soul, pieces stories and language together of its own accord, while I bear witness. And no one has to listen to my stories more than me. I catch moments like raindrops and turn them into channels and streams of consciousness. It’s tiring, actually. Since last fall, I have been slowly watching the rivulets form behind berms and leak into cavities, visiting ponds. Each story, each small cupping of the earth, seemed distinct, the thread of consciousness merely a finger’s breadth in the wet sand. It was small, silent, mine.
But I am not, it turns out, as soft and silent as I wish. My mind, pulling and channeling the rain, eventually follows all those little elbows and slants to the creek bottom. It stalks the pattern of rivers, of otters and geese. I am still silent. I am still observing. But I have woven raindrops into plumes of water, and watched as the heavy rush of snowmelt heaves stones and loosens tree trunks. Patterning. Observing. Naming. I am so tired.
Softly, gently, hands in the earth. Spilling dirt palm to palm, the sound of gravel underfoot. The problem with being a storyteller is that I believe too much.
Just yesterday, I took Pema, Ruby and Francis down to the pond. A small declivity in the natural curl of the land, it was dammed up with dirt years ago. Still, it’s much too dry here, so the pond only brims with water when filled by the ditch, the acequia.
The people in this land did something interesting years ago. Taos is an old city, much older than most of the towns and communities of the American west. The first Europeans to come here in the 1500’s were Spaniards. Scouting out the rivers and springs, they eventually dug a system of canals in the earth to redirect the steeply flowing river waters to irrigate their houses and fields. Being Spanish, they named these small ditches acequias, and they are still the lifeblood of human activity in New Mexico. Every little community has its acequia, and its story.
The Spaniards that dug these life-giving channels probably had no idea that the name, acequia, was originally Arabic. The name derives from Al-saqiya, rooted in saqa, to give drink. Andalusia, that unique romance of Christians, Jews and Arabs that thrived for centuries on the Iberian Peninsula, had, by then, been ravaged. The European conquest of the new world, led largely by the Spanish, was fueled by that brutal infighting. In 1492, a conspicuous year to be sure, the conquest of Granada wiped the last speck of Arab blood from the country and its collective history. That is, their story was erased. But nothing can be truly forgotten, certainly not something as magnificent as the Andalusian culture. It just went underground, coursing in the veins and the language of the very people who denied it. Acequia, to give drink.
Our acequia, the Acequia Madre del Llano, flows on the south side of the property, at the top of a steep hill, where, once the gates are opened, the water courses down through a series of switchbacks till it levels out at the bottom of the valley. From there it passes through our chickens, waters our gardens, and irrigates our fields and trees, many of which are Russian olives. Water, chickens, vegetables, trees. Europeans. Grasshoppers. Invaders. Finally, at the far northern edge of the property, the water drains into a series of sloppy curves and berms till it is ultimately deposited in the pond.
“Will you take my alligator for a ride?” Francis asked. He was talking to Ruby, directing her from the shore. “No, that way!” he shouted. Having only just turned three, Francis was reluctant to go in the “deep end”, where Pema and Ruby, now four and five, walked in to about chest height. Last year, Pema and Ruby stalked these depths with hilariously oversized life jackets, a sort of security blanket like Dumbo’s feather. Totally unnecessary. All magic. Stories.
“Bring it here!” Francis shouted, immediately demanding the return of the small piece of wood that, for him, formed the essence of an alligator. Pema had one too, so did Ruby. There were four alligators all told, baby alligators in fact, each one a sliver of an old board that had been left rotting in the pond years ago. Last year, when we had first discovered it, it had a v-shaped gap at one end and I had playfully called it an alligator, dragging it around the surface of the pond. Pema and Ruby quickly took it up, and every time we visited the pond they would run for the alligator, that is, a 1x6 piece of rotting lumber about five feet in length. There is a knot in the wood just above the mouth, giving a hint of an eye.
A few months ago, when the acequia still ran dry (in winter), Silke had joined us in making fairy houses on the dry bottom of the pond. We gathered red willows and multi-colored rocks, dry sunflower husks, soft green sage, and grasses. Silke, being resourceful, found an old piece of wood and shattered it in pieces with her bare hands to make a commanding little palace. “Oh, the alligator,” I said, not without some heartbreak. “What?” asked Silke, oblivious. Pema just shrugged. Everything is filled with meaning.
Now the summer’s heat warms the pond and has awakened the real salamanders and frogs that live, buried deep in the earth, through six dry months and freezing temperatures. The board is still here too, just in pieces, and, as it turns out, the baby alligators are much more manageable. Francis, heaving the board above his head, threw it far into the water. “Get it!” he shouts. The story continues. In the willows, barely two or three feet above the children’s heads, two red-wing blackbirds shuttle back and forth, feeding babies. Some of them will grow up a non-distinct brown. Others will be jet black, with lovely patches of red and orange on each wing. Both will sing like mercurial waters.
I quit my job recently, not that I had much of one. I usually spend about fifteen hours a week working freelance as an administrator for a local non-profit, but that will be shifting in the fall. I’ve decided to focus full time on Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, the Earth Children. We just released the website last week. After another year with Silke, I plan to take Pema and three to four other kids through the 8th grade. There is much to do, but there’s plenty of time to do it. If those eight years go anything like I suspect, we will do spectacular things. Education has become my lifestyle. These kids, me, hell - how can I pass up that opportunity? I will figure out a way to make the finances work.
As I walked through the dark this morning, I had all this and more on my mind. So many transitions. So many stories. So many ponds and rivers and smeared courses of blood; people I used to be. I still catch raindrops, like that tiny bird taking flight from a stalk of mullein (God, that beautiful sway), but my mind is more often wrestling with rivers and ponds, Al-saqiya, giving drink. The vision that is forming in my mind, the story if you will, is a life’s work. I can tell that I am up to the task, but there are moments when I miss the deep silence of black on black on black.
Ed. Note - Check out the Taos Earth Children at www.taosearthchildren.com