Eagles, owls, sumac, unity, and oneness

On January 10 I hiked up to the Westwater tower and then down to a lower trail, thinking Oggie was right behind me. Once I was down, I decided to take a shortcut to the north so I could see the Abajos covered with snow against the brilliant blue sky.

When I finally paused to examine a tiny pinyon growing out of sheer sandstone, I realized Oggie hadn’t caught up with me and knew she’d been distracted by a deer bone.

I backtracked but couldn’t see a black-and-white dog meandering down through the trees. I whistled, which usually brings her running, but still no Oggie.

Worried, I wondered if she’d missed the shortcut and had taken our normal northern route. As I scanned the area, an older Navajo gentleman came strolling down the trail, carrying long wrapped branches.

“Good morning,” he said. “Great day for hike!”

“It’s gorgeous.” I started to ask if he’d seen Oggie, but before I could speak, he said something I didn’t quite catch about a nest.

“It’s about two miles that way in a big cottonwood.” He pointed south.

He had my full attention. “What was it?”

“Owls,” he said, “two of them. I heard them whoo-whooing.”

Occasionally, I heard owls near our home at night, and once, while walking in town, felt a surge of shock when a tiny owl, probably a northern saw-whet, stared at me, eye level, from the branches of a blue spruce, but I rarely heard them in Westwater. “That’s amazing!” I said.

“Yeah, you don’t often see them during the day.” He seemed awed by the encounter rather than concerned even though owls are often considered harbingers of bad news in the Navajo tradition. “I think they were telling me to stay away. And four or five miles that way,” he said, pointing south again, “where there used to be a bridge, there’s another big cottonwood tree with an eagle’s nest.

This time of year, they raise their eaglets, but I didn’t go that far today.” He held up the small bundle of branches. “I was gathering these for my wife. She makes baskets with them.”

He must have seen the question on my face because he said, “Sumac. They’re nice and supple this time of year, but I couldn’t find very many.”

I knew where a lot of three-leaf sumac bushes grew, and when they were fruiting, loved to pop the tart berries into my mouth. One of the easiest places to describe was by the stream, so I explained the location as well as I could, wanting to foster the basket-making process.

“I think that’s where I was today,” he said. “Well, I’d better get these to my wife.” He started walking. “Have a nice day.”

“You, too,” I said. “Thanks for the visit,” and I meant it. I’ve visited with a few people on the Westwater trails, but none had ever shared such tantalizing information.

After he disappeared, I whistled for Oggie who came trotting down the tower trail with a doggie grin on her face, eager for a treat.

The next day, curious to see if the sumac shrubs had been clipped, I walked down to the stream, but they hadn’t been touched. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad since I tend to get attached to plants, but sumacs are hardy and grow back after pruning or even burning.

Although I’ve always eaten the lemon-flavored berries casually, when I researched the rhus trilobata, also known as skunkbush or sourberry, I discovered they’re a superfood, full of vitamin C and other phytochemicals which are powerful antioxidants.

Not only do the berries support robust health, but all parts of the plant have been used for medicinal purposes by native peoples in the United States and in Mediterranean countries where the powdered berries are regularly used as a potent spice.

Perhaps even more impressive, as my new acquaintance shared, sumac is used to make Navajo ceremonial or wedding baskets. After debarking and splitting the sumac stems, the artist coils them from the center outward, creating a portable, mythic terrain that depicts the creation story although many interpretations exist explaining the specific symbols.

The artist begins by coiling the center of the basket where everything comes into existence and where the Navajo people emerged through a cane or reed into this world, the Glittering World.

The whorls around the center portray the origin of the earth as well as the birth of an individual. As the basketmaker continues to spiral the sumac outward, the collective and individual journey begins across a landscape of sacred mountains, male and female rainclouds, sunshine, and rainbows, the road of holy spirits.

That journey entails the joys of marriage and family as well as inevitable obstacles, disappointments, and grief.

As the artist weaves this mythic topography, she creates a white “spirit line” or path from the center to the edge of the basket which symbolizes many things, including the pilgrimage toward light and oneness.

Now, as I contemplate the humble sumac and the creation of ceremonial baskets, I think about my journey across the landscape of time, about the “spirit line” flowing through my own life, and about the basket’s rim where the great Artist braids together owls and eagles, dogs and deer, canyons and mountains, human and divine into the numinous terrain of unity and oneness, something we all need now.

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