“When the flowers bloom … that in itself is the extension of all life, of all beauty.” Those are the words of a Navajo medicine man commentator Scott Thybony met some years ago when winter was on the verge of spring. Through their conversations, he came to understand that landscape is not separate from our own lives. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Thybony takes us back to Navajo Mountain where he learned the changing seasons are one of our greatest teachers.
Some years ago I sat beneath the cribbed roof of a hogan as a piñon log burned to embers in the woodstove. It was late winter and a break in the weather had given me a chance to reach Navajo Mountain, the most isolated community on the Navajo Nation. The medicine man I came to interview had tied his horse outside his home and let his sheep graze nearby.
Buck Navajo, then in his 70s, sat bundled in a coat with a watch cap on his head and a turquoise-studded watchband on his wrist. I sat next to him explaining the purpose of my visit, while he studied me with the direct gaze of someone who lived without distractions. Using a relative to interpret, he began by telling me about his early training to become a healer. “Back then,” he said, “learning was a very serious undertaking.”
As a young boy he stayed up late on winter nights listening to the medicine men practice their songs and prayers in his family’s hogan. He had to memorize more than 450 songs, each with four parts, which formed the core of the Blessingway and Protectionway ceremonies he practiced. As a rain bringer, he would leave offerings at a spring on the mountain during times of drought.
“Medicine people,” he said, “would go to War God Spring where the clouds are born and give offerings and request rain. Within the Navajo system of living there’s always pairs. You got the male cloud which is the thunderhead and then you got the cloud which produces the slow rain, the female cloud. You need male and female rain in equal amounts. A major focus of the prayers made for rain is the nourishment of life for people, for animals. They pray for water so that plant life may grow and blossom, give off pollen and reproduce.”
He then talked on subjects ranging from flash floods to what he called “the fearing time,” when soldiers swept the Navajo country more than a century before. As evening approached his sheep began to drift off. Before leaving, Buck added a final thought on the meaning of beauty. The medicine man had spent his life in a landscape of great natural beauty where the sacred mountain near his home angles sharply upward to a height of more than 10,000 feet. Flanking it are sheer-walled canyons twisting through an expanse of slickrock domes and ribs of sandstone. But the older Navajo, I’ve found, have no concept of the land as scenery, as something set apart from their own lives.
“You would think,” he said, “the Navajo would make reference to beauty in terms of a woman, or a horse, or something that is really magnificent. But to the Navajo, beauty has always meant when the flowers are in bloom. You look around and see when the plants come into bloom and how beautiful they are. That in itself is the extension of all life, of all beauty.”
He left as twilight sifted through the smokehole and filled the interior of the hogan with a dim blueness. In a few weeks spring would return, and those living close to the seasons were anticipating its arrival.