The Oldest One in Camp
"Come let us sit in a circle and rest." We all sit down underneath a large cottonwood tree on the bare earth. We all watch as our camp guide sits on a tree stump in front of us, our faces dripping in sweat from near 110 degree heat. He is wearing a long sleeve plaid shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, a bandana and a dusty brown cowboy hat. Not a bead of sweat appears from his brow. "Stand still and think of ice cream" He says. We all bicker and chuckle, wondering if it’s close to lunch time and a secret stash of ice cream will appear.
"If you think you will be hot, you will be hot." He says." If you think you will be cold, You will be cold. Feel the cool breeze on your face and ignore the warm breeze."
As we began to wipe the sweat off our brow, the group of us in our early teens did not know what to make of Chief One Feather or our week in the Jurupa Mountains. We had spent early Monday morning in a quite strenuous hike overlooking the valley. It was hot and expected to flirt with 120 degrees all week, without an ounce of a fan or air conditioning. Yet, from that moment on, I did not feel hot. It would be over a decade and a half later while on the brink of heat exhaustion on a hike in the Utah desert, that I would remember my time under the tree and sit down to reframe my mind and adjust my body temperature. They say survival is 10% physical action and 90% mental. I didn’t realize it then, but this early lesson in survival was likely one of the most important lessons learned throughout generations of ancestral people. The rest of that week, through no extra-ordinary effort on my part, I began to learn to pace myself between walking and resting. I purposely listened to my heart beat and slowed down when it was starting to beat faster. Every day right before lunch, we would sit under that cottonwood until all of us, as a group, were no longer hot.
The Jurupa Mountains Nature Center was owned by Ruth and Samuel Kirkby, an older coupled married for over 55 years. Instead of sending each other cards and flowers, they exchanged rocks, minerals and a love for the Earth. They started a center which catered to educating children, a passion they carried through without pay for over four decades. Ruth became known as a world renowned Paleo botanist, with several rare plant fossils named after her. Yet, much of her day is spent sitting in the dusty room in the education center preparing specimens for the afternoon lessons. Sam (One Feather) runs the educational programs and became as much a part of our summer camp as the very trees themselves.
"How old do you think he is?" My friend Cynthia whispers over in my ear." I don’t know, he’s got to be up there", I exclaim.
After lunch, we return to the cottonwood where only earlier we had our first lesson in staying cool. We all put our backs against the large tree, probably four feet in diameter.
"How old are you?" I hear one of my campmates ask? Chief One Feather sits a while and asks us to all turn and look at the tree behind us.
How old do you think this tree is?
"Oh, 100 years or so", Cynthia exclaims.
"Older than all of us, that’s for sure" a voice in the back says.
"Now what do you see on the ends of those branches?"
One Feather says as he gets up with his cane and slowly walks to the tree.
"They look like seed pods to me." I answer as I think about some of the ecology courses I have taken in high school.
He reaches over and pulls a few seeds off the tree and scatters them around the ground. He continues with his lesson as we now are in deep thought about the age of the tree.
"If this tree could talk, he would not like being called old because he has on every branch a seed that was not here yesterday. Someday this tree will succumb to the power of time but before then, they’ll be new trees all around producing seeds of their own. This is the way of trees. As long as they bear seeds, they will never get old."
One Feather walks around the tree and returns to his stump, taking his time to sit down. We have a brief siesta and return to the day’s scheduled events. As the week’s events unfolded, my mind slipped away from the fact that Chief One Feather was over 80 years old and leading hikes into the California desert. When I saw him as a teacher, he no longer was old.
Once we arrive at the botanical gardens, Ruth Kirkby is awaiting our arrival. She has neatly placed two dozen trilobites in egg cartons on two picnic tables. She invites us over and we quickly find our spot on the table. A lizard makes his presence known and quickly scampers into the dense forest of yuccas.
During the course of the afternoon, we spend time in groups, cleaning and preparing several small trilobites. These are from one of her new finds in Arizona and we learn what we are holding is half a billion years old. It is hard to fathom that length of time. But, imagine if every year of this time is represented by one foot. Assuming we walk in one foot strides, we could walk to the moon and back twice in the distance represented by half a billion years. It is much easier to think about time when we can relate it to something we are familiar with.
Ruth Kirkby gives us small tweezers and encourages us to watch her as she methodically removes little grains of dirt between each section of the Trilobite. She tells us about its history as a species, why it is important that we know about Trilobites, and how to properly label our specimen. She gives us a small hole puncher and some glue to neatly place a white dot on the specimen.
"Label this number 1", she says after we are finished.
"For most of you, this will be the first specimen in your fossil collection." Be sure not to lose it, and if anyone asks you about it, I want you to remember what you did here and carefully
describe how you prepared this specimen, what you learned about trilobites and why they are important in the grand history of the Earth. It would be twenty years later, at the Franklin Mineral Show in Franklin, New Jersey 3000 miles away, I would engage a PHD from Princeton in a conversation about how Trilobites are preserved and prepared. I never realized the importance of learning out of an egg carton.
It is now Tuesday morning at 8am. It is already 94 degrees as I greet Cynthia good morning. We all are expecting a morning hike and quickly fill our water bottles in the faucet against the building. The water appears to be anything but clear. Yet, before I can fill my bottle I hear the voice of Running Bear, our other camp leader, exclaim; why are you getting water!?" "We are writing today!"
Writing!? We all look in amazement as he takes out several dozen paper shopping bags and some scissors. Our job this morning will be to cut the bags into paper strips, pile the paper strips together in order, fold them neatly into pages, punch two holes on the left most side, and tie a string between the holes to bind our new book. We pass around a few number 2 pencils with aptly named species of dinosaurs on them.
What do we write about? I ask contemplating my new 20 page book with blank brown pages. Ruth walks over and then addresses the class.
"I want each of you to write about your favorite memory in nature. What did you see, or hear or smell? What made you remember it? Be descriptive and write freely.
We sit in the quiet for a good 30 minutes writing. I can see several of my classmates doodling snakes, cactus and airplanes over their books. Some write and others stare at the blank brown page. Ruth opens up a large journal and starts writing in prominent cursive motions. I start to write about some of my earliest hikes not far from my old neighborhood in Riverside, California where I grew up. I become lost in thoughts and memories as I start squeezing in more and more lines on the rough brown paper.
"Does anyone want to share their story?" Ruth rises out of her chair to peer over at what we are writing.
There is silence as a soft breeze passes through the garden canopy.
"We’ll I’ll start." Ruth says as she picks up her notebook.
"I started writing about taking a morning walk, but then this beautiful butterfly landed right next to my journal. I believe it is a Yucca Giant Skipper and it just sat there looking at me. It soon flew away and showed me two others of its kind that were flying amongst the flowers on the Yucca. Look, there are 4 or 5 now."
Over twenty heads lean to the left to see the butterflies now flying all over in the garden.
She goes on to say; "Butterflies have an important role in nature. They are nature’s pollinators. Yuccas rely on pollination by butterflies and moths such as these for their continued existence."
As we all listened intently and began to share our stories, we learned that writing was not just a means of describing what we see and hear, but rather a means of learning. Each day for the rest of the week, we took 30 minutes to write in our journal about the day’s events as well as what we perceived and experienced. Yet, very often, like her butterfly landing on the table, I too would be disrupted in writing by a gust of wind or a passing lizard. For years, many professors and teachers sat with Ruth to learn her teaching methods. It simply appears that the best lessons are those that are not planned. Nature provides many lessons at just the right time for those who are willing to listen.
We eat lunch and return to the familiar setting of the large Cottonwood for our siesta hour and talk with One Feather. I feel myself getting hot, but remember what I had learned yesterday. He brings with him a box and one by one opens the contents. He has samples of the various native plants to the California desert. We take turns passing around samples of desert sage, buckwheat, Jurupa plant and prickly pear.
"The prickly pear is the lifeblood of the desert." He states as he begins to cut a piece with his knife until it is a soft juicy blob without thorns. He passes small pieces around and we try small bites. It is surprisingly tasty, perhaps a blend between a watermelon and a pear. We then examine each of the other plants in details as we learn about their uses by native people.
Walking through Walnut Canyon National Monument in the Arizona desert nineteen years later, my mind goes back to that afternoon with One Feather learning about native plants. As I pass native ruins on the hillside, I take out my trail guide and note that over 100 species of plants grow in this hidden canyon. The native people used nearly all of them. I can identify prickly pear, sage and perhaps a few others, but nowhere near the knowledge of our ancestors. We have lost this vital connection to the plants of this Earth in less than 1000 years. The fields of botany, medicine and agriculture are vibrant with scientific inquiry, yet this knowledge is largely held captive in the scientific community. Walking through the gift shop later that day, I see a government guide to the Flora and Fauna of Walnut Canyon gathering dust on a bookshelf. I open its dried pages and see references to "unknown use" over the last several pages of text. I hope someday, the echoes of our ancestors will resound loud enough in our hearts that we reclaim what we have lost. If we do, we will understand why it is important to preserve and protect the variety of life on this Earth and we will tread lightly in all that we do.
Ancestral View at Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona
Early the next morning, Ruth greets us with a smile and over a dozen pails of red Earth. We partner up with a buddy as One Feather slowly wheels a pile of dirt on a squeaky wheelbarrow. This morning, we will learn how to build a stone fireplace. We take our pails and wait our turn to mix the red dirt with water. One feather walks around with a pail and sprinkles several handfuls of sand in each bucket. We fill up with water and begin to turn the red mush with our hands until it becomes a pulpy soft mud. It sticks to everything and my arms have turned a crimson red. The heat of the sun begins to dry some of the mud on my arms and it mummifies my arm into lizard-like scales. We start taking rocks from the wheelbarrow and begin to line a circle, methodically placing the larger stones on the bottom and consecutively smaller stones on top. The clay is mixed on top of the rocks and dries quickly in the warm desert heat. Before long, we have a structure two feet high and three feet wide. We smooth out the sand at the base and within less than an hour, we have built a fireplace.
Twenty years later, I walk into Sand Canyon in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. As I stop to rest and take a sip of nourishing water from my canteen, below me lay an earthen fireplace, neatly lined with bricks and adobe. It appears intact, likely for 9000 years or more when the Anasazi lived here. I touch the stones and adobe, remembering the feeling of wet red dirt in my hands and the weight of the round warm rocks. Not far from the fireplace are what appear to be the tops of several small bowls. I imagine life 9000 years ago and a vibrant community living amongst the rocks. Much of what I see now is the same the ancients would have seen. There are tens of thousands of archeological sites here and most have not been documented. In fact, it is the densest known section of ruins known in the US. Not far from here, is Mc Phee reservoir which likely buried thousands more during the building of a dam in the 1960s. 3.5 million Artifacts were recovered and are sitting in storage at the Anasazi Heritage Center. Less than 20% have been cataloged over 50 years later. 9000 years from now, will all of our belongings of this century end up in some vast warehouse of artifacts? What will our ancestors think of us?
Back at Jurupa, One Feather brings out his guitar during siesta. We join him in singing several old cowboy songs under the large cottonwood tree. A soft breeze blows the tips of the branches and provides a much-needed relief to the heat. It is pushing 110 degrees, but with the breeze under the garden canopy, the warm air feels good against my skin.
The very next morning, Ruth asks if I would like to help with the morning flag ceremony. I take one end of a faded US flag and clip it to the drawstring. One Feather grabs the other end and clips it to the higher clamp and pulls the drawstring down as the flag slowly begins its ascent to prominence. It’s a big flag pole—perhaps 80 feet or so and it takes a good five minutes of pull-yank-pull to display the flag. As soon flag -raising is completed, I return to my spot very militaristically. We then aptly exclaim;
Yo prometo lealtad a la bandera de los estados Unidos de America, y a la Republica que representa, una Nacion bajo Dios, entera, con libertad y justicia para todos."
Spanish. Today is the day we all learned the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish. We all listen to One Feather talk about the importance of understanding another language.
The key to communicating is language. And in language comes understanding. With understanding comes peace.
There are thousands of languages that have been spoken throughout human existence. Many are extinct. The last known speaker of the native Serrano language of Southern California died in 2002. Many languages, such as Serrano were never written- they were typically passed from generation to generation. Today, fewer than 15 members of the tribe have an understanding of the language. There are classes offered, mainly funded by the elders and a few others. A few attend once a month or so. It is an academic exercise. The elders are dying. This is happening all around the world. We are losing our identity.
Donald Steinmetz, the cousin to my mother was a professor of languages at Augsburg College in Minnesota. I never had the chance to meet him, but my recollection comes from hearing countless accounts of his ability to engage people all over the world in their native tongue. For students who spoke a language he was not familiar with, he asked to meet with them and learn. He was unpretentious about his ability to speak close to a dozen languages. He taught many of them. But it was his ability to engage his students on the importance of language to culture that defined his work. Language is a nexus of understanding which bridges cultures together. We must invigorate our desire to communicate.
On our last day of nature camp we listen to Ruth Kirkby and One Feather talk about everything we have done over the course of the week.
"When you look at a rock, I want you to think about the great history of this earth. Think of the Grand Canyon and the moon, and remember why rocks are important. When you think of water, think of their relationship with rocks and with life. Understand that everything in this life is connected and forms a vast circle. Remember to always ask questions and learn. There are never any dumb questions."
"When you are older, I want all of you to return here with your children." Tell them what you experienced here and show them the rocks and cactus. Let them get dust on their hands. When they bring their children a generation later, they will remember as I did."
One Feather walks up to each of us and gives us a small piece of paper with a Navajo prayer. Handwritten across the prayer, he writes; "Walk in Beauty." I put the paper in my pocket as Ruth guides us near the front entrance of the cultural center to meet our families at the end of the day. I watch as One Feather slowly walks back to the rock and mineral discovery center with two buckets of red clay.
Walking along the Jenny Lake Trail in Grand Teton National Park twenty years later, I come upon a moose gracefully walking along the shoreline. It walks slowly with rhythm and purpose, periodically looking at the alpenglow and its own reflection before continuing on its journey. I slowly find that in the process of looking for moose, I found a beautiful sunset, a clump of Douglas fir trees and some fire ants. I see my reflection in the water. I sit and watch the sunset, breathing in the chilled Wyoming air. A soft glittering of stars begins to appear. In the valley, the glisten of Jackson, Wyoming is just as bright. So is the sound of a passing plane. In the silence of the rippling waves, I begin to write in my journal much in the way Ruth had taught me. Major segments of this journal became this book.