A few years ago I spent several weeks outside of Chinle, Arizona, camped on the rim of Canyon de Chelly. I had come there to learn Navajo weaving, a class arranged by a faceless agency. I didn't meet my teacher, Alita Begay, until I arrived at her hogan early in the evening after a too-long drive from Denver. We barely exchanged words as I set up my tent in the lengthening shadow of a stunted juniper, and our good-nights were mutual in the night-hawked darkness. I was exhausted but my first night in the desert was restless. An owl hooted. I know the calls of many owls but this one wasn't familiar. The rhythm was steady and unvarying, a monotonous "who, who" that was more like an imitation of an owl than the voice of an actual bird.
The next morning at breakfast we were joined by a large calico cat. "That one had babies last month," Alita informed me with flat, toneless precision. "She lost them all to the owl."
I spoke quickly, eager to exploit the connection. "I heard that owl last night."
The transformation in Alita's face was instant, her rigid smile replaced by concern. For several seconds she didn't speak. I realized I'd blown my chance with her. "Navajos believe that a owl's call signals death." Another awkward pause, then a forced laugh. "But you're not Navajo. It probably doesn't mean anything when you hear one."
My laugh was as artificial as hers.
Every night that followed, half-asleep in my tent on the rim of the canyon, I marked that owl's generic hoots. I knew enough not to mention it again to Alita. During the day, I worked at deciphering the mysteries of Navajo weaving. In the heat of the afternoon, frustrated by the wool and even more frustrated by Alita, I abandoned the oak-shaded ramada and wandered along the canyon rim. Canyon de Chelly isn't spectacular: it's not colorful or gaping or intense but I was told that it is sacred to the Navajos. Or maybe they just invent its religious significance to maintain a connection with it -- to establish a home turf apart from our dominant American culture. Whatever the reason, non-Navajos are not permited to go beyond the rim of the canyon without a native guide.
That first afternoon, I cheated. Ambushed by one of the desert's sudden storms -- a gush of rain like an open faucet -- I found shelter in a nook of a cave a few feet below the rim. Shallow, the ceiling barely high enough for me to sit up straight, the mouth was a garden of scarlet gilia and soapwort fed by a hidden seep. Water from the storm sluiced off the table rock in a thousand waterfalls that dried instantly as soon as the rain stopped. Without the curtain of water, the view from the cave was crisper, as fresh as blood.
A week goes by: seven days of weaving, of afternoon storms scented by gilia and soapwort and rock, of baths in waterpockets and awkard, stilted conversations with Alita. This morning Alita tells me that she is going to Chinle and asks if I want to join her. I weigh my desire to see the trading post's selection of rugs with the discomfort of the confined car ride next to Alita and tell her that I need to work on my rug. Free of Alita's critical presence, for a while the weaving comes easily. But in the early afternoon I pull the batten out of the warp and abandon my loom.
There are bees in the white flowers of the soapwort and a black-chinned hummingbird mines the blossoms of the gilia. I startle a lizard in the dry shadows. The clouds look like a canyon in the sky. I listen to the silence. Time passes. The world sleeps in the afternoon heat. I doze but wake abruptly to the hoots of an owl. I sit up dizzy, disoriented. It's still full day, the sky clear now and relentlessly blue. But there it is again: loud, steady, the owl's voice seems to be coming through the wall of solid rock at my back. For perhaps an hour, the incongruous hooting continues. When it is over, I'm surprised by the trembling in my hands and the weakness in my legs. Back at the ramada, I weave as the late shadows yearn toward night.
Alita returns at dusk. I'm eager to point to my progress at the loom but she is distracted. "That night when you first came here. What direction was it that you heard the owl?"
I gesture vaguely to encompass three quarters of the horizon. "That way, I guess."
"My neighbor. Just down the road. She died this afternoon."
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources