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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Arial View of Hogback

My first stop in New Mexico is the place I used to ride to with my father, to a small coalmine where the mission pickup would be loaded with coal for our furnace. The mine was nestled into a gap at the base of a hogback, a type of  rock formation seen often in New Mexico. Actually, I am at the home and farm of my friend Gloria, which is immediately across State Highway 491 from the two-rut dirt road that winds in toward the defunct coalmine.
As kids we called those two-track roads "paper roads." I don't know where the appellation came from. Maybe we sensed that they were less permanent than the graded dirt road we usually traveled between T'iis Názbas (Teec Nos Pos), meaning "A Circle of Cottonwoods," and Naat'áanii Nééz (Shiprock), meaning "Tall Leader." And, of course, less permanent than the two-lane asphalt roads that were rare in our lives then.
The Diné (Navajo) name for this place where I'm staying is Tsétaak'á (Hogback), meaning "Rock That Tilts Down Into Water," the water being Tooh (San Juan River), meaning simply, "River." The San Juan River runs very close by this rock formation, which extends for miles into the distance, appearing from above to be an ancient, snaking river of slanted rock.
For a long time, no one seemed to use the word Tsétaak'á. The place was always called "Hogback." Then people started writing the Diné names for places. Usually today, it's written Tse Daa K'aan. Written Diné is an artifact of colonization, the first known attempt at developing an orthography being in the late 19th century by military surgeon Washington Matthews, who was stationed at Ft. Wingate near present-day Gallup. Today there is standardized written Diné, but the majority, when they write something in Diné, do it phonetically, rather than in the standard orthography. The Tse Daa K'aan spelling is a phonetic spelling.
Up against the opposite side of the formation are the ruins of Hogback Trading Post, just outside the Navajo Nation, where liquor could be sold and infamously was. Because of the San Juan River, there are farms here. Gloria's farm thrived in earlier times, especially when her parents were living, but today it constitutes just a small orchard.
From time to time Gloria will text me a photo of the hogback, its colors and form changing at different times of day, depending on the sun's light and angle and cloud formations.
When I stay with Gloria, we talk about old times, when she was my boss at the Native American Materials Development Center. We talk about writing, she being a poet whose use of language takes my breath away. She is also a painter and her artist soul enlivens all of her home. My first full day there, we visited two of our artist/writer friends in Cortez, CO to see a magnificent exhibit on the theme of movement/migration––a theme dear to my heart. All the artists and writers, are well known to Ed and Sonja. 


After four days in and around Shiprock, I drove to Regina, just outside Cuba, NM, where I once lived and worked as a school counselor. More about that another time, but my plan is to review a book of poems and paintings by Gloria in my next post. Until then...

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When I have passed my patio, I walk up a flight of concrete steps to the parking lot behind my building. To my right is the garden I shared this summer with the man from the building next door. I only grew heirloom and cherry tomatoes and bell peppers this year. At level with the tomato garden, I turn left and am almost immediately in the shade of a great maple tree. Red squirrels and black ones dash about. There are more of them than usual this year. We've been hearing that it's going to be an extremely cold winter, and I've observed that plants produce more blossoms, hence more seeds, in harsh weather conditions to hedge their bets for survival. I suspect the wild animals may do the same, producing more offspring than usual. The squirrels here spend a lot of time running up and down this tree, sometimes sitting on a branch as still as a deer, observing us humans with curiosity that leads them to dig up what we've planted to see if there's anything worthwhile there. In fact, they are the reason I only had tomatoes and peppers; they dug up my cucumber and zucchini seeds twice.


Two small saplings that are not maples grow in the low cleft of this tree. One is an evergreen, a type of cedar, with dusky blue berries similar to juniper berries. The other, which is now beginning to turn color, is a species I haven't yet been able to identify. I'm hoping one of you will help me out here. So far no one I've asked on the ground has been able to tell me. 


Maybe you've been wondering about that title, "Flogrogn." In fact, I'm sure you want to know––unless you're Norwegian and you know about trees. I sent a picture of this phenomenon to a friend of mine who loves trees and who lives in Bergen. She told me that there, if a rowan tree grows in a niche of a tree of a different species, it's called a flogrogn, a flying rowan. You're welcome.


I know this little tree, making its home in the maple is not a rowan. Rowans have red berries and feathery leaves and are members of the rose family. But it's such a charming idea––that these little trees have flown into the welcoming cleavage of the maple––that I wanted to share it. Trees that do this are epiphytes, not parasites, as they live in companionship but do not take sustenance from the larger tree.There is something lovely about these diverse species sharing space with one another––modeling something good for us all. Getting along, not taking from, but adding their beauty.


I delight in this sight every time I pass it, and that reminds me to mention The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. It's a book that can make you more aware of the delights in your everyday life as Rossy (as he was called as a boy) shares with you a multitude of often quite unexpected things that delight him. He decided to write a mini essay every day for a year about the delights that overtook him in his poetic life. It is a delicious book. 


My big delight yesterday was seeing a monarch caterpillar on the leaf of one of the milkweed plants I grew from seeds I collected on the prairie and broadcasted in one of my little patches last fall. 


Tomorrow I will be leaving for the home country––New Mexico––and I'm very excited about it. It's my intention to interrupt the stories about my walks in Elk Horn (so soon, I know) and treat you to some delights from the Land of Enchantment. And now, if you didn't before, you have the word flogrogn. And you've seen my photo of two little flying trees.

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