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The midmorning sun cascading across the Chuska Mountains filtered downward into the wind- and water-carved canyons, revealing the stark beauty of the Dinetah, the land of the Navajo people. Rose Destea stood by the open kitchen window, a cup of herbal tea in hand, enjoying the sweet scent of sage and piñon pine that drifted into her warm kitchen.
With her granddaughter Dawn at day-school, and her daughter, Ella, a police officer, at work, mornings at home were quiet these days. The peaceful hours had become her time to think, to remember, and, most important of all, to reinforce the hózhqeverything that was good, orderly, harmonious, and beautiful in her life.
Rose stood alone in the silence, at peace with herself and her surroundings. She'd spent most of her adult life here, in this house that Raymond, her husband, had built for her almost fifty years ago. Memories whispered from every corner. These walls had seen life, and endured the emptiness and loss a death always left behind.
Their marriage had been stormy. She'd remained faithful to the Navajo Way as a traditionalist, while as a Christian preacher, only the Anglo God had held Raymond's complete respect. But after his murder, the fire at the center of her world had given way to a coldness that nothing could penetrate. Lena Clani, her lifelong friend, had helped her crawl out of the deep abyss of sorrow that had almost destroyed her.
Raymond's passing had signaled the end of an era for her. Not really needed anymore by her adult children, Rose had known that she'd need to find a new purposesomething that would sustain her and give her directiona reason to get up every morning.
She'd found herself again through her love for the tribe. The Dineh, The People, defined her and centered her. Now Rose frequently spoke on behalf of Mother Earth, which had been devastated by the various mining companies that had come to their land with promises of new jobs and a better life. The Dinetah was a sacred place given to the Navajos by the Holy People. To honor Mother Earth, harmony would have to be restoredto the land and to the tribe.
The phone rang, interrupting her musings. Rose picked it up, knowing who it was even before she heard the voice of Jennifer Clani, Lena's granddaughter. Jennifer took care of Dawn, Ella's daughter, before and after day-school.
"Thanks so much for calling back so quickly. I need you to come in early today," Rose said. "I'm going to be leaving shortly and I want to be sure that someone will be here when my granddaughter gets home. They're getting off early."
Getting Jennifer's assurance that she'd arrive in a matter of minutes, Rose went outside. She'd heard a truck coming up the road and suspected that Herman Cloud would be pulling up to the house in a moment or two. If she was there to greet him, he wouldn't have to wait by his car.
Herman always honored traditionalist ways by never approaching anyone's front door unless invited to do so and Rose appreciated the courtesy. Having a modernist daughter meant that the old ways got swept aside often. Although she'd grown to accept it as inevitable, she missed the small courtesies The People had extended to one another in times past.
Seeing her wave at him, Herman came up to meet her. Herman, whom she'd teasingly named Bizaadiiwhich meant the gabby one because he was usually so quiet, stood around five-foot-seven and had broad, erect shoulders. His face was leathery and rough, and marked by a multitude of deep lines that attested to a lifetime of hardships and the spirit of determination that had kept him strong through the years. His deep-set eyes sparkled with intelligence and alertness. Although a man of few words, he was easy to talk to and cared about the tribe as much as Rose did.
"Good morning," he greeted. "Are you ready to go gather the medicinal plants you wanted?"
"Almost. Come in while I prepare a jug of iced tea. It's going to get hot outside quickly today."
"We all keep hoping for some rain, but the clouds come and go without so much as a drop."
"The rains will start later this month. The Plant People have learned to be patient," she reminded, referring to all plant life in the traditionalist way. "We have to do the same."
Rose brewed some mint tea and cooled it quickly with ice cubes, then poured it into a large thermos. They were almost ready to leave when Jennifer arrived. Today she was wearing a long, full denim skirt and a vivid red cotton blouse.
She gave Rose a bright smile. "Is there any special job you want me to take care of today?"
"Could you water my herb garden, Boots?" Rose said, using the nickname Jennifer had been given as a child. "I'm running a little behind and didn't get a chance."
"I'll do it now while I'm waiting for your granddaughter."
"Her friend's mother is bringing her home today, but it's possible my granddaughter will want her little friend to stay and visit," Rose advised.
As Rose and Herman got under way, Rose gave him directions to her favorite collecting site near Pinedale, a rural community north of Fallen Timber Ridge. It was about one hundred miles southeast of Shiprock. "I know the journey is a long one," Rose said, "but 'blue pollen' grows there in abundance, and also 'wondering about medicine.'"
"I know 'blue pollen.' Outside our borders it's called wild larkspur. I remember that from an essay my son did for school once."
"That's the one. The blue flower petals can be dried and ground with other plants and used for sacred pollen. I like carrying some in my medicine bundle." She pulled out her jish, a small leather pouch that contained soil from the sacred mountains, white shell, and other items of power. "I also carry a rock crystal in here. The crystal stands for the prayer and the power of the spoken word, and the pollen signifies well-being. Together, they work to make all prayers come true," Rose said.
Herman nodded in approval. "What's the other plant you mentioned?"
"'Wondering about medicine.' The Anglos call it silvery lupine, I believe. My son needs it for a Sing he's doing for a patient, and I'd like to transplant a healthy plant or two into my own garden. The lotion we make from the leaves is a good treatment for poison ivy. With my granddaughter going everywhere these days, I think I should have a supply on hand."
As they traveled south toward her plant-collecting site, Rose gazed with concern at the familiar upland desert country they were passing through. These days the Rez seemed more barren than the Dinetah she remembered from her youth and could visualize so easily in her mind's eye.
"The reservation has changed so much since we were young," she said sadly. "When I was a girl, we'd see sheep grazing almost everywhere. We could eat sumac berries and hashk'aan, the fruit of the yucca, when we were hungry. Now look at that old rusted-out drilling equipment. Everything around it is dead, even the earth itself. Mining has destroyed so much of our land." She exhaled softly. "I wish I could make my daughter and others of her generation understand what we've lost in just their lifetime."
He nodded. "It's the same with my two nephews, the ones in the same profession as your daughter. To them life goes by fast, and sometimes it seems that the moment is all that really matters to them. But I believe, deep down, they do know that change isn't always for the betterthat you have to pick and choose what you give up and what you allow to take its place."
"All things are connected. That's why I'm so worried about all our Plant People. Some of the areas near the mines, not far from where we're going, used to be filled with Indian rice grass and there was goosefoot as far as you could see. Yet nothing but snakeweed grows there now. I know snakeweed has its placeit can cure snake and ant bitesbut it also poisons livestock. The imbalance caused by mining is making many of the Plant People leave, and without them, livestock grows weak and dies. Eventually, without the animals, The People will go hungry too."
Off the interstate east of Gallup, they traveled down a graveled road through the piñon-juniper-covered hills adjacent to Fallen Timber Ridge. At long last they pulled over, and Rose walked with Herman across a large field. Herman carried a small shovel, while Rose brought the soluble fiber plant pots they'd need.
"Blue pollen" plants were plentiful. Rose left an offering of white shell beside the plants she'd be leaving behind, and explained why she'd be taking two of their neighbors. Then, after a brief prayer, Herman dug up the plants and she potted them. Afterward, she buried the plant fragments that remained and said a final prayer.
Carrying the pots, they continued their search for "wondering about medicine" for another hour, but, despite their efforts, the plant was nowhere to be seen.
"It should be growing all around here," Rose said. "The flowers are grayish lavender in color, and the mature shrubs should be almost two feet tall by now."
At last, in an area where Rose remembered having seen the shrubs once, they found two sickly plants barely a foot tall. Rose studied the ground, puzzled. "There are several holes around here," she pointed out, "and they're not the work of prairie dogs. I think someone must have dug up the other 'wondering about medicine' and left only these two little ones behind."
Herman crouched down. "Whoever it was used an entrenching tool."
"It's something originally used by soldiers to dig foxholes and trenchesa short shovel that folds up and can also be used like a pick. The business end is pointed."
Rose nodded toward the marks on the ground. "That seems about right. But who would harvest the plants so indiscriminately and without leaving any offerings? Our people know to take only what they need and leave the best and strongest behind so there'll always be a supply."
"It's undoubtedly someone who wasn't taught that there's a right way to collect plants," Herman said.
"Some are saying that the Plant People are moving away because they don't feel we honor them," she said softly. "Maybe they're right."
"This was probably done by someone in a hurry and willing to cut corners."
Rose looked at the small plants. "I'll take the smallest of those two. Maybe with some natural fertilizer and proper watering I can help it grow strong again. If these plants are becoming scarce, we need to try and save some."
"Agreed. I think if you leave that one there it'll die, so by taking it, you're giving it a chance. Its neighbor has better odds of survival left on its own."
Once she finished transplanting it, Rose patted the earth back in place with her hands, then looked up. "The earth smells strange. I've never noticed that before around here." She held up a small clump of sandy soil and sniffed it closely. "Maybe that's the reason all the plants around us look so weak and spindly."
"Could be," Herman answered, looking around. "We've walked farther than I realized. I can't see the truck from here. Let's start heading back."
Herman helped Rose to her feet and they began walking back, carrying the plants they'd collected. "That sure is an odd smell. What do you think it is?"
Rose considered it silently, not wanting to alarm him. But it was clear to her what it was. Here, the earth itself was dying.
Herman looked across a low spot where a few underweight cows were grazing. "I don't think they should be grazing livestock here," he added.
"What other choice do they have? Animals have to eat what's available."
They headed back slowly, each immersed in thought. Suddenly Rose heard a low, rapid scuffling close to her right, followed by a soft, plaintive cry. "There's something in trouble over there, near the arroyo. I'm going to see what it is."
As she drew near, she heard the mournful cry of a calf. Rose looked around, but she couldn't see the animal anywhere.
"It must be down in the arroyo," Herman said, having heard it too. "Maybe it wandered away from the others and got trapped. We should try and help it out."
Rose set down the plants, but Herman held on to the shovel as they walked down the slope into the arroyo, which meandered as far as she could see in a north-south direction. As they reached the bottom, Rose discovered a half-starved calf on the floor of the trenchlike wash. The hoofprints along the steep rim of the embankment told the story. The animal had fallen in and was now lying on its side, obviously exhausted from repeated attempts to climb back out.
"From its condition, that poor animal must have fallen in here some time ago. With the lack of grasses around here, my guess is that it went off looking for better grazing and ended up where it is now," Herman said.
"I know the woman who owns this animal and the others we saw. She has four or five cows and probably double that in goats, and lives about a half mile from here. But I don't think she has a truck or a horse she can use to get this animal out. Last time I saw her, all she had was an old station wagon that was barely running. I think we should try to get her calf out of this arroyo before it dies of exhaustion or lack of water."
Herman walked up to the animal, and it turned its head, letting out a sad cry. "You're right. It's young, and it may still survive if we can get it out. I'll walk back to the road and bring my truck. I have a tow strap, so maybe we can find a way to pull or lift the calf out."
While Herman hurried back to his pickup, Rose began trying to figure a way to get the stranded animal out of what was essentially a ten-foot-deep, steep-sided ditch. A cave-in had toppled a section of embankment, probably the same spot where the calf had fallen in. The mound of soft earth had blocked off the arroyo in the direction that apparently led downhill, and tracks showed where the calf had walked back and forth several times. The arroyo was probably blocked at both ends.
Rose decided that the best bet might be to try and carve off more of the sides, shaping a slope gentle enough to allow the calf to climb out with their helpif it could get on its feet again. Getting closer to the edge, she found a crack in the ground where the embankment was starting to break away. It would eventually topple into the wash.
The sound of Herman's pickup got her attention, and she waved to him as he pulled up within ten feet of the bank, the front of the truck facing her.
"Don't get any closer. The sides have been breaking away, but that gave me an idea," Rose called out. "Do you have anything we can use as a lever to pry off more of this embankment?"
Herman stepped down out of the cab of the truck. "Thinking of making a wide enough ramp so we can walk the animal out?" Seeing her nod, he added, "It could work, if we plan it right."
"There's a sturdy-looking branch over there"she pointed toward a juniper"that we can use."
It took about ten minutes and two branches, but together they managed to carve off enough earth and sand to fashion a gentle slope leading into the arroyo.
Rose went down and walked over to where the calf was. It had managed to stand up on its own. Using the tow strap like a lead, they coaxed and pushed the weary animal back up to the surface.
"Can you load her into the back of your truck?" Rose asked.
"Yeah, she's small. I think I can lower the tailgate and we can help her up," Herman said. Moments later, with Rose pulling and Herman pulling, the task was accomplished.
"I'm sorry to put you to all this trouble, but Sara Ahasteen is a widow and would have had a lot of trouble handling this by herself. Although her daughter comes to help from time to time, she's pretty much on her own."
"Her daughter lives off the reservation?"
Rose nodded. "She works in Albuquerque. That's where she got her job after college. She's asked her mother to come join her many times, but that's hard on the older ones, you know? All Sara's ever known is the reservation, and she feels that she belongs here between the Sacred Mountains."
"What about her clan?"
"Most of them live in Arizona. She could join them, but she wants to stay here where she raised her family."
Ten minutes later, after loading up the plants they'd collected, they pulled up in front of a small stuccoed, wood-frame house. The pine-branch corral next to it was in good condition, but it now stood empty.
They waited in the truck, and soon saw a Navajo woman about Rose's age walking in their direction from over a low hill. She was wearing a long skirt and a loose blouse. Her skin was weathered and dark, but there was an agelessness about her that attested to a spirit as tough as the land itself.
Rose climbed out of the pickup to greet her as Herman went around to the back of the truck to lead the calf out.
"Yáat'ééh," Rose greeted.
Sara Ahasteen smiled as she saw the scrawny calf that Herman led out of the truck.
"There she is! I've been searching for that poor animal since the sun came up," the woman said. "I can't afford to lose any more livestock. All I have left are a few cows and that calf."
"Something has happened to the land around here, hasn't it?" Rose asked.
Sara nodded. "There was an old settling pond from the uranium mines near here at one time. After the water evaporated, they buried the waste chemicals that were left over. That was about thirty years ago, but I still remember the man telling us that the chemicals would never leak out of their containment area and harm the soil. But now it looks like they were wrong. Near as I can tell, some have seeped into the groundwater." "Have you reported it?" Rose asked.
Sara shook her head. "Most of the families who used to live here had so much trouble with the land that they just moved away. I'm the only one left these days and no one's going to do anything for just one person."
"I'll report it for you anyway. Maybe someone can help,"
Rose said as Herman led the calf into the corral.
Rose watched Sara take a bucket of water to the animal, then give it a small handful of grain and a flake of old hay. When she looked up again, Rose recognized the emotion she saw mirrored in Sara's eyes. It was the ch'ééná, a mourning for what could never be part of their lives again. When the land cried, Navajos like Sara cried with her.
Copyright © 2003 by Aimée and David Thurlo