Grampa Peña and the Blue Heron
Waking on a wintry day can be like stepping into any winter, any year. The snow blankets the earth, securing beneath its white cloak all sounds. Quietude reigns. All signs of the shambled foundations of old cabins disappear from the forest landscape, as do the dirt track roads that lead to them, buried beneath the pristine purity of fresh snowfall sparkling in the new morning’s sun. Deer and rabbits, huddled away in a cozy spot, have not yet scored their movements with foot tracks in the virginal lay of snow.
In such a moment, this, this is when one can sit beneath a bow bent with the weight of the previous night’s blizzard, and observe the otherwise invisible traces of the Spirits who have glided through the world. Shimmering blue wisps trail the passage of Ancestors and the Unknowable beings who co-inhabit this earthly realm with those of us embodied in physical form. I reach into my pocket and pull forth a pouch of tobacco. Holding a pinch in my hand, I speak without words, so as to not disturb the holiness of silence, offering a gift of tobacco to the Spirits. Rolling a smoke, a puff is offered to the Earth, to Sky, and each of the directions. Touching my heart with the tobacco, another puff connects me to Place, to the center of all creation, to the here and now. Only then do I ask the Spirits, if they would, to show me the medicines that reside in this place. With a thick cloud of sweet tobacco smoke blown from my heart to the world, the white cloud of smoke drifts. Like a laser lighting the plume of prayer smoke, a pathway becomes visible. I arise from my spot beneath the juniper tree and follow where it guides.
It is not that the blue light is leading me. Rather, the blue thread is of a tapestry that is woven in creation. It resounds in my Soul. I move, not by analyzing and figuring out, but by Knowing. That Knowingness moves me, as a leaf upon the flowing stream of the continuum of the Ancestors that lifts into consciousness, then submerges into the Infinite, to resurface as Knowledge in my perceptions.
A House in the Forest
I smell the smoke of a fire before I see the chimney from which it is pouring. I know this forest, this Piedra River canyon of Southern Colorado. It is my home. I have traipsed it up and down in all seasons. This house is known to me. I walk up to the porch and stamp my feet upon the wooden floorboards, as much to announce my presence outside the door as to knock the snow from my boots. The door opens and a familiar face greets me. “Jade! Come on in out of that cold!” I shake the proffered hand, then after kicking my boots off, reach down and grab an armload of split firewood to bring in for the fireplace. Life in the wilds is based upon courteous graciousness. “Howdy, Bearfoot, Sweet Maggie” I say to the young-as-I-am couple who have welcomed me into their home. Bearfoot, as he tells it, was given that name by the Blackfeet people when he lived in their territory up in Montana. It seems that he would go barefoot, even in winter. And his feet were huge. So the Blackfeet called him Bearfoot. Now, you gotta understand, people think having an ‘Indian name’ is some kind of honor. In actuality, it is generally a humorous jab at some evident foible or attitude of the person named. Then there was Sweet Maggie. Not just Maggie, but Sweet Maggie… well, because she was just about the sweetest hippie girl you could imagine. Bearfoot and Sweet Maggie took care of this big log ranch house for the owner, a local rancher grown too old and feeble to maintain it anymore, so he had moved into Pagosa Springs with his grandchildren. He was just happy to have someone love his life-long home enough to keep it up and cared for.
Blue Heron Wing
“Cup of coffee, Jade?” Sweet Maggie asked, as always, with a twinkle in her eye. “That’s be mighty fine, Sweet Maggie. Thanks.” As I sat by the fire shooting the breeze with Bearfoot my eye was drawn to the one item in their home that shimmered, to my sight, with that blue light. Upon the shaved-down log mantle of their big rock fireplace, ablaze with a toasty fire, was a blue heron wing propped up against the chimney wall. I got up from my chair and went up to it, checking it out. It was dried from the excess heat, and covered in a fine black soot from the fireplace. Spiderwebs laced between the feathers, though these were now trapping only soot. “Hey guys, what’s the story on this heron wing?” Bearfoot replied “Oh, Sweet Maggie found the remains of that heron down on the river last Spring.” “May I pick it up?” I asked (because you never just handle someone else’s feathers and such). Bearfoot nods. I pick it up. Dust and soot and spiderwebs fall from it when I give it a gentle shake. Sweet Maggie glances over with a bit of a shoulder shrug, and smiles. As she brings the coffee over to her husband and I, she speaks up saying “I guess it needs better care. Would you like to have the wing, Jade?” My heart thumps. “Yes, I know someone who would really appreciate this blue heron wing,” The moment I had touched it a vision of my Grampa Peña, the old man who was my mentor and predecessor in ‘the Ways’, as he called them, came into my awareness. “I don’t usually pick up feathers. Now I know why,” Sweet Maggie says with a happiness in her voice. “So Jade, “ Bearfoot says, “what are you doing out and about in the forest at this early hour?” I look at him and say, with all sincerity “Tracking medicine.” He chuckles, shakes his head and then shakes my hand. “Good hunting, bro!” I give my appreciation of the coffee, company and the fire and head on my way, blue heron wing in hand. As I step back into the forest I swoop the wing through the cleansing snow, then in an arc into the sky, squawking out the pterodactyl-like sound of a blue heron call. Returning to the juniper tree I sat, took a pinch of tobacco and placed it upon the blue pathway of Spirit tracks that had led me to this gift.
A few days later, when the snow had melted down, I made my way over to my Grampa Peña’s cabin. He lived alone on the Colorado side of the San Juan River that separates New Mexico from Colorado, in an old train stop called Pagosa Junction. It was once a town, now just the remnants remained. Grampa was originally from the San Juan Pueblo (now returned back to its original Tewa name of Ohkay Owingeh) in Northern New Mexico. As a young man he met, and married, a Southern Ute (Nuche) woman. As is the way in a matrilineal society the man goes to live with the woman’s people, which is how he came to be living in Southern Ute territory there in Colorado, he once told me. Though his wife had died many, many years before, the Utes let him continue living there because he “helped them out.” After his wife died Grampa Peña burned to the ground, with all belongings inside, the cabin he had built for them. The cabin where he now lived he had then built for himself. That’s just how things were done back then.
It was a sunny but still chilly day at the beginning of January. Grampa had his door open. The smell of tobacco mixed with juniper wood burning in his wood cookstove wafted out the door. Stepping inside I greeted him and sat at his table. He indicated with a thumb that there was a pot of coffee on the stove. I grabbed the pot and refreshed his cup and then poured myself one, sat back down and sipped the black bitter brew. Neither one of us spoke. Chatting was not something done between us. Besides, when he spoke it usually meant that he was sharing one more thing for me to absorb, integrate, learn and apply in my life. When the cup was near empty I said “Grampa, I have something for you. It’s in the truck.” As I got up, he did as well and followed me outside, waiting just beyond his stoop.
I returned to where he was standing and told him this blue heron wing had called him when I picked it up. Gramp Peña was trembling as I passed the wing over to him. He received it to his chest, swooped it down to brush the earth, then waved it in a circle overhead in the sky, then brought it back to his chest. This old man (he was 98 years old, soon to be 99, back then in early 1977) proceeded to jump up and down and in circles, crying out “Oh! Thank you Grandson! I have been waiting all my life to be given the blue heron! Now I will never ever be thirsty again!” Gleefully, like a child, he spun and danced and laughed. “You wait right here!” he commanded.
Emerging from his cabin, he had the heron wing still in one hand, and in the other he held a tail fan of macaw feathers, brilliant red tipped with blue. “Here” he said, with conviction in his voice, “This is for you. These are Grandfather Fire feathers. With these you can speak with Fire.” Presenting the fan to me, he added “I’ll tell you about these next time. Now let me tell you about blue heron.”
We went inside to the warmth of his cabin. I stoked the fire, re-poured our coffees, then sat again at his table. After a bit of contemplative silence, Grampa spoke. “Grandson, with blue heron one can talk with the Waters. If you need water, you just talk with blue heron, and water will come to you according to your need. You gave me this blue heron” he said as he swirled it overhead, “so now you can speak with the Waters as well. That’s how it works Grandson. And those people up on the Piedra, they need never worry for water in their life either, because they gave you this wing.” I had not yet mentioned where the wing came from! Grampa, he just knew things.
A few years later I was at Sundance. A few of my bro’s were dancing. They each took time to come sit at our shade house to gather up prayers for the people. One of them, Grizz, expressed his concern because he was committed to dance for all four days, fasting from both food and water during this time. Grizz was… well, aptly named. He was a big guy, 600 lbs, and a heart even bigger. He was wondering if his kidneys would hold out, as the summer was a very hot one, and while his health was weakening, his Spirit was not. He would dance for the people. “Grizz, hold on. I have something for you.” I went into my bundle and pulled out a blue heron feather I had recently found down on the river. I gave it to him and told him of how, if he really, really needed water, ask the blue heron and he will bring you water. Grizz smiled, saying “Thank you, bro!” He then and there tied that blue heron feather to his eagle bone whistle he had around his neck.
Day three of the Sundance was hot and dry. No rain had fallen the entire tine. The dancers were parched, as they are not allowed to drink any water unless it rains upon them or otherwise comes to them by magical means. Word came back from the corral that Grizz was having a hard time and there was talk of calling an ambulance. Grizz, being the Warrior of Heart that he was, insisted that he dance one more time. We had all gathered up at the corral to support Grizz. The power was tangible. Then, as Grizz approached the central dance pole, he reached out to it and half fell into it. Looking up at the buffalo skull and sage tied in the ‘Y’ of the pole, Grizz began tweeting his eagle bone whistle. From out of the end of his whistle, suddenly, a fountain of water shot up and rained down upon him as he gulped mouthfuls of water down. The other Sundancers rushed up and, heads tilted back, shared in the miraculous fountain of water raining down upon them. With heavy recuperative breaths, Grizz leaned back from the tree and danced in rhythmic steps backwards towards his stall.
When the dance was done Grizz came by the shade house to give his appreciation for the prayers and support coming from the people. He then proceeded to tell us of how, on that third day, he danced that one last time, thinking it could just well be his last time. Then, he says, as he danced forward and fell into the embrace of the Tree, as he looked up he saw that blue heron feather dancing at the end of his whistle. Remembering what he had been told, Grizz sent a prayer forth through his whistle. It was then that the water magically shot out of the end of his whistle, providing water for all Sundancers. “Thank you bro, for listening to your Grampa. That heron saved my life.”
Jade Grigori ©2019