Not Yet Out of Breath

Yesterday I heard the Del Sol String Quartet with special guest didgeridoo player Stephen Kent play a piece called String Quartet #14 composed by Australian Peter Sculthorpe for string quartet and didgeridoo.* The score was based on a legend that Tasmanian colonial government soldiers once drove a tribe of Aboriginals to a forbidding mountainous bluff where they had the choice of being shot or jumping to their deaths. They chose to jump and as they did, they yelled, “Quamby, quamby” which means “save me, save me.”

stephen kent picture copy

Stephen Kent, master didgeridoo player, host of world music show on KPFA (Thursdays at 11:00 am)

The piece had four movements: Prelude, In the Valley, On High Hills and At Quamby Bluff. For me, when the didgeridoo entered he song, I felt a great sense of relief, of being held by forces unseen, as if instead of people jumping to their deaths, the earth came up to meet them and carry them home. It felt almost as if the strings were the human mind telling this gruesome story and the didgeridoo heralded a larger, ancient planetary story that is not yet ended.

Western culture is still, as it were, driving the indigenous people off the cliff and yet their very breath, the breath needed to play the didgeridoo still circulates around this planet, surrounding humans with the knowledge that we are part of the earth, that we are all connected, no matter how many times we drive try to that wisdom over the cliff.

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Aboriginal style artwork

Last fall I visited an overlook at Canyon De Chelly in Arizona that reminded me of this Tasmanian story. In the 1800’s there were people living in the caves along the rim of Canyon De Chelly and a massacre took place. Some soldiers stood where we were standing and shot into a cave across the way and some soldiers made their way into the cave to kill the remaining people. The cave is called The Place Where Two Fell because one of the native women grabbed a soldier and took him over the cliff with her. I read the story before my traveling companion, Viviane, and I went to the overlook and I was reluctant to even go there. But we decided that for the sake of healing, we would go and I would play didgeridoo into the canyon.

When we arrived, we heard haunting Native American flute music drifting towards us. I not only played into the canyon from there, but I began to collaborate with the Native flute player, D’von Charley. We played for a long time with Viviane singing and Lu from Belgium dancing. The whole tableau was a prayer for healing.

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

The human race is not out of breath yet and neither are the indigenous peoples. A Navajo man that Viviane and I talked to near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico told us that in the Diné language, to say the word for “thank you” to someone, one must engage deep inside oneself at the diaphragm, taking a huge breath that penetrates one’s being. And one does not just thank the person, but the entire context in which that person arose, the ancestors, the plants, the animals, the land that supported that person’s life.

With the breath we make this healing music. With the circular breath of the didgeridoo, we acknowledge the circle of life that sustains us, the ancestors and plants and animals who came before us. We make a way for that breath that sustains all life. And we give thanks for that breath and for those who write and play such music. Thank you Del Sol String Quartet, Stephen Kent, composer Peter Sculthorpe and all those who  have lost their lives in this struggle to keep humans in right balance with the rest of the natural world.

(*the didgeridoo is an Aboriginal drone instrument made out of a eucalyptus branch hollowed out by termites that is used for ceremony and hunting)

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Integration is making me wait

I am still dealing with my injured foot/ankle and feeling as if I need to tell more stories from the National Parks trip to allow myself to continue to absorb what we encountered in those sacred lands.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (29)

After meeting the Bristle Cone Pines (on a mountain between Mono Lake and Death Valley), our perspective on time had changed. If those trees had survived for 6000 years and they continued to learn and adapt, our bouts with the cold, wind, sun were such specks of sand in a desert. I began to feel the expansion of myself filling in the spaces between the trees and me—we weren’t so different. Maybe I had some Bristle Cone Pine in me and now that I had met them, I could get in touch with that part of myself that was timeless, enduring, and appreciative.

We made our way back down the mountain and continued to Lake Diaz to camp for the night. Lake Diaz was a bit strange and at first it looked like we would be camping right near the road but it turned out that the campsite was in a small oasis on the other side of the lake with trees and stiff breezes. We set up in a sheltered spot, hoping the winds would not blow us away or irritate us too much. There were very few other people there. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (37)

We  cooked and ate our dinner of polenta and soup and then admired the stars before curling up in the little tent and getting much needed sleep (the night before at Tuolumne neither of us slept much at all even though we were warm and cozy, but perhaps because of the excitement of starting such a trip, we couldn’t settle in).

We got going the next morning fairly early again, getting better at breaking camp and stowing our stuff (of which we had too much) in the car and moving out. We were near the entrance to Death Valley and the scenery demanded our constant attention as the terrain changed drastically from moment to moment—stark yet ever-changing desert, rock, mountain, valley, the subtle colors that Death Valley’s elements materialize so beautifully.

Just before we officially entered the park, up on a ridge above the valley, we stopped and Viviane collected larea, a strong anti-cancer plant. These plants were healthy and growing in this most magnificent place. A raven watched our every move as we collected the herbs.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (49)

Then down into the valley where one feels as if one is going back in time. The ancient is what rules the valley—no Congress or President can begin to think they can close or open this park—it wields true power. The sheer drops, the subtle colors, the expanses, the growth of an occasional Joshua Tree and larea plant or sage brush. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (39)Our clocks seem so puny there where so much has happened over such a long period of time. Even the Now cannot hold it. It is a place of yesterday, today and tomorrow all at once.

As we drove time telescoped and microscoped around us, a playground for the atomic and the galactic all at once.

At the Artist’s Drive where the mountains show off strange colors that look like a palette of different colors, strange blues and reds and oranges. Viviane stopped and painted a sketch of the area as I played the didge to it and to different rocks that were strewn about.   I discovered that volcanic rock seemed to have the strongest response (reverb) to my playing. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (62)The hungry winds quickly swallowed up the sounds of the didgeridoo. In such a place where my human form is diminutive and the place ancient and still, some ineffable part of me seeds itself into the surroundings and the boundaries separating me from the land, the animals and those who came before me, soften and spread out like shifting sand.

We were lucky that the temperatures were in the 80’s that day and not into the 90’s or 100’s as they often are. Their record for the summer was 128, six degrees shy of the top heat recorded in the Valley of 134 degrees.

Our timeline did not allow us to stay overnight in Death Valley, and we traveled on through to Tecopa Hot Springs on the south side of Death Valley. The campsite we found was challenging in many ways: gravel under the tent, no picnic table, surrounded by RV’s. But we made the most of soaking in private tubs containing the special mineral laden waters that underlay the area.

At about three in the morning we were disturbed by a drunk man and woman who came by to use the springs and who were noisy and vaguely threatening as they were swearing loudly and just seemed out of control especially to two women lying in a tent, vulnerable and awake. But they finally left without incident, and we tried to resume our night’s sleep. No one in the RV’s seemed to hear them.

The next morning in order to have our breakfast, we carted all of our stuff up to the building in which the hot springs were housed and took over the foyer there to cook. Since it was windy, we also rolled up the tent there and then had a morning soak before heading out for our longest day drive to Holbrook, Arizona, almost at the border to New Mexico.

Our aim was to get to Grants, New Mexico by noon the next day to meet our cohort Connie for her 75th birthday. Look someday for the U-tube video of us singing the song we wrote for Connie, inspired by both Connie and her creative life and by what we had been seeing along the way. It is called She’s a Julep and features a chorus that goes like this:

Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone Pine (repeat).

Don’t let your energy be caught in a bind,

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

Standing tall and feeling fine

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

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