Saturday, October 31, 2009

Powerful Petroglyphs

It’s difficult to get away from the responsibilities and dailiness of the ranch. But earlier this month, Pete and I knew that it was time to make time after a full and productive summer season. Our decision about where to go was made easier after viewing Ken Burn’s recent documentary series on the National Parks. Pete and I decided a trip to the nearby southwestern region of Colorado and Utah to visit some of these national treasures would be a satisfying time away. Of particular interest was Capitol Reef in south central Utah.

Established in 1937 as a National Monument by President Roosevelt and then later a National Park in 1971 by President Nixon, Capitol Reef’s rugged canyons and expansive desert lands invite one to explore not only the visible but one’s personal interaction with its grand landscape and the history it holds in its canyons and red-rock formations.

I felt quite drawn to the history of the earliest humans who occupied parts of Capitol Reef. The earliest human inhabitants belonged to the Fremont Culture, which existed around the 9th century. The Fremont people lived in pit houses and natural rock shelters. They hunted and gathered and supplemented their diet by farming the Fremont River bottom where they grew corn, squash, beans, nuts, rice grass, berries, and tubers. As a part of their art and culture, petroglyphs, carvings etched in rock surfaces, and pictographs, art colored onto rock surfaces, still survive and can be seen on the many canyon, boulder, and rock wall surfaces in Capitol Reef National Park.

Bruce Hucko, author of Art on the Rocks: Stone Wonders, writes that petroglyphs and pictographs, the symbolic art of the Native American people, are thought to communicate and record a variety of significant events, thoughts, and religious experiences. Frequently seen and repeated images include the bighorn sheep, the shaman, the coming of the horse, the spiral, the flute player, a universal spiral, shield-like designs, handprints, and stylized or masked faces. Each Native American Indian culture interprets the historic imagery according to their specific tribal beliefs.

In Hucko’s book, he says the Navajo believe that when the Holy People decided it was time to leave the material world, “they cast their images upon the rocks thereby leaving the Navajo people with their prayers, songs, and guidance for living imprinted on the land.” The Navajo ritually return to these symbols in order to remain connected to their people and receive guidance for their own lives. As we continued down the road to Arches National Park, Mesa Verde, and Monument of the Ancients, I wondered if there were similiar symbols within my own landscape providing me and others with the memory of and guidance from those who have gone before us.

Interestingly, in the Elk River Valley there is the story of a Ute Indian woman whose face can be seen in the contours and seasonal colors of Elk Mountain. I can see her most clearly when the colors reach their fall peak. As you search her face, you realize there’s a tear coming down from her left eye and across her cheek. The story goes that she is mourning the loss of Ute Indian lands to the white settlers in the late 19th century. This woman continues to remind me of change and loss in our valley. The rural way of life fades with each generation as families leave the ranching life. Our nearby forests are being descimated by Beetle Kill at a staggering rate and will take a generation and a half to be renewed. As the Ute Indian woman watches over the valley, I imagine she will continue to offer anyone who is watching a reminder to value the inter-connectivity of the landscape, its natural resources, and the communities within.

After remembering her story, I turned toward my own landscape for the “petroglyphs” left by my ancestors and the place I call home. I first found a few personal reminders: the photo on my bookshelf keeps me close to my maternal grandmother who taught me about devotion, humility, and family; the Christmas card from a man I knew as a child reminds me how important it is to listen for joy; and a red football helmet reminds me of a brother who taught me to believe in the power of possibility. Then I recalled, as a part of a larger inspiring landscape of the Elk River Valley, the hillside outside my window also faithfully beckons me to commune with the oak brush, aspens, and a larger view of my life no matter what the season.

Our journey to the Southwest was renewing. I returned home not only rested but enriched by the Native American belief in the power of images. Carved or painted, printed on a card or photo, or those experienced in the natural world, they do act as comforting reminders of the long held connections to those who touched my life and are now gone and to the importance of protecting what’s of value in my daily living, both in the personal and the natural landscapes of my life.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lessons From My Potato Patch

My potato patch struggled this year. Each time I’ve taken my shovel out to the garden to dig up a strainer full of potatoes for dinner, I find it necessary to dig up more than the usual amount of plants to fill the strainer. Most of the plants produced fewer and smaller potatoes. Even though I’ve never had a crop quite like this---our country is perfect for potatoes---I imagine our very wet and cool June delayed some growth as well as the more moderate temperatures in July.

As I dug for just a few more the other evening, I also discovered a twist to the summer’s minimalist crop: a rather large red potato with a crease in the middle causing it to conform into a rounded fetal shape. How odd, I thought.

Its uniqueness and the unusual nature of the rest of the crop quickly reminded me of how my gardening life is full of imperfection. In the spring, as I plant my first rows of spinach and lettuce I imagine my returning to the raised bed in a couple of weeks to plant successive rows so we’ll have spinach and lettuce throughout the season. I never returned this summer to the lettuce patch. The yellow beans I planted as companion plants to the potatoes barely germinated. The whole summer’s crop produced enough for three servings one night for dinner.

When I tangled with errant meadow grasses along the western border of my largest garden bed early in June, I thought I’d won. I didn’t. It came back up through the newspaper and mulch barrier. My perfectly placed arctic blue willow bushes have been unfortunately damaged by the dogs running from the back door to the outside; the path the shortest distance from the house to the open spaces. I let the raspberry patch invade what I refer to as my meditation garden and never made time to turn it back. Every time I walked by I felt the peace disturbed.

So, as I pruned, weeded, and made room for spring bulbs yesterday afternoon, I worked at allowing myself room for imperfection both in the unknown of the growth of the potato patch and in my imperfect attention and work in my gardens. I will continue to allow myself to imagine a perfect gardening season and when the air chills and the season slows, I’ll try and fondly remember both the bloom and inherent imperfection in the gardening life. For the minimalist potato patch with its large fetal-shaped exception and my failures in tending to my gardens appear to be an outcome of life naturally living itself out: perhaps hope with its ideals of perfection and the natural anomalies of imperfection are simply not one without the other. I am gratefully reminded, as autumn brings a vibrant gardening season to a close, that life is clearly rich in both its perfection and imperfection.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

International Horsemanship Camps

Cassidy recently returned from a three-week trip to Sweden and Germany conducting horsemanship camps with Texas A&M University. The annual camps are sponsored by the AQHA. On this particular trip the camps were hosted in Sweden and Germany by the SQHA and the DQHA respectively and presented by Cassidy’s student group from Texas A&M. The teaching group included Cassidy, three select undergraduate students, and Texas A&M faculty member, Dr. Clay Cavinder. The AQHA also sponsored additional student groups from numerous American universities that presented at other European locations.

Cassidy’s group flew to Stockholm, Sweden and traveled to Sala, Sweden for their first camp which was held at a riding school. Each horsemanship camp was four to five days long and consisted of teaching the fundamentals of horsemanship, reining, trail, and pleasure riding. Their students ranged in age from youth to adult and from beginner to intermediate.

After their camp in Sala, the Texas A&M team presented camps outside Malmo, Sweden at an arena as large and beautiful as Cassidy had ever seen. After a few days in Copehagen, Denmark and London, England, they presented a final camp outside Hannover, Germany at a private riding facility in Wenden. She says, “The horse world is different (over there). It’s a real privilege to own a horse and only those who can afford the horse, the trailer, and a special licensing for the trailer can afford to participate.” Another often added expense is the importing of performance quarter horses from America. The quality breeding is highly valued and preferred. So, the world of horses, at least in Sweden and Germany, is understandably suited to those who can truly afford it.

Sharing her teaching experience, Cassidy said the most difficult obstacle was communication. If the translator understood both the language and the fundamentals of riding, the communication between teacher and student succeeded. If not, as a teacher you were apt to lose the “teaching moment” to confusing communications. While she was quick to say she learned it was important to keep it simple, she more importantly learned not be afraid to challenge people—“they are capable of more than they think they are.”

As Cassidy looked back on her experience, she found traveling to be one of most valuable experiences: to be immersed in a new environment—the sights, sounds, and differing cultural and social mores that make each country unique. She wishes to return to Stockholm and Sala where she felt a fondness for the land and the people. Cassidy also hopes to continue teaching. She felt the excitement of that teaching moment: the instant the learner, when focused on the task, is able to master the challenge and in this case, experience success in partnership with his or her horse.