Gods Among Us

Photographs by Fazal Sheikh

Monument Valley is a hallucination without drugs. It is a kaleidoscope of colors that turns by the sun’s wrist. Red sandstone bleeds into pink and deepens into lavender, fading into blue until sunset offers a surprise encore of golden light, and we watch the desert glow. We spent the night here after a full day of storytelling shared inside the Diné Welcome Center. We were in Indian Country. From dawn until dusk, stories wrapped around us like Pendleton blankets. Everyone was invited — Hopi, Tewa, Ute Mountain Ute, and Diné (or Navajo), native and non-native people alike. Time expanded; what we imagined in the telling became truth.

I was with Fazal Sheikh, an American photographer who lives in Switzerland. We were guests of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting Bears Ears National Monument.

We had been traveling together in a spirit of collaboration, experimenting with image and text, visiting friends along the way. After President Trump’s evisceration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, these desert lands seemed much more vulnerable.

The spring winds had come, and with them, dust devils that whipped up the sands like banshees. It’s a volatile time in the red rock desert. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had just held an online oil and gas lease sale in Utah, successfully securing bids from fossil fuel companies for 45 parcels of lands, 51,400 acres, the majority of them in southeastern Utah. Many of them are near the ancestral Puebloan villages of Hovenweep, home to 2,500 people between 1200 and 1300 ad who left a rich and distinctive record of habitation, from towers built on boulders to intricate mosaic-like stone-constructed dwellings and ceremonial kivas.

The United States government is continuing the destabilization of other national monuments with its insatiable appetite for fossil fuel development, as if gutting Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments was not enough. Add Hovenweep National Monument and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument to the Department of the Interior’s list of desecration sites, yet another violent assault on native people and ancestral burial grounds.

The National Park Service asked the BLM to hold off thirteen of their leases in close proximity to these archaeologically rich monuments. The BLM refused.

What does it mean to refuse?

REFUSE r ‘fyooz (verb)

indicate or show that one is not willing to do something. “I refused to answer.”

indicate that one is not willing to accept or grant (something offered or requested). “She refused a cigarette.”

And what are other ways to refuse?

  • decline
  • ignore
  • protest
  • rebuff
  • reject
  • turn down
  • withdraw
  • withhold
  • demur
  • desist
  • disaccord
  • disallow
  • disapprove
  • dissent
  • dodge
  • evade
  • nix
  • regret
  • repel
  • reprobate
  • repudiate
  • shun
  • spurn
  • beg off
  • brush off
  • dispense with
  • hold back
  • hold off
  • hold out
  • make excuses
  • not budge
  • not budget
  • not buy
  • not care to
  • pass up
  • refuse to receive
  • send off
  • set aside
  • turn away
  • turn a deaf ear to
  • turn from
  • turn one’s back on

It is the last synonym that feels the most accurate to me: to turn one’s back on.

Donald Trump’s Bureau of Land Management is turning its back on beauty.

My belief in the federal government’s ability to steward an American ethic of place is eroding. We must decouple environmental protection and the health of our public lands and the communities adjacent to them from both the political Right and Left. Neither side is to be trusted. And those we can trust may not be able to go far enough.

We must look to each other to find enduring ways to honor, respect, and protect the life that surrounds us.

I refuse to comply with the rules and ruthlessness of this administration’s actions. I believe, as Abbey said, “We will outlive the bastards.”

 

Belief is tricky. One day I do. One day I don’t. There are things I believe that have never wavered, but my belief in God is not one of those.

Not long ago, I made a list, my attempt to address the question: “Do I believe in God?” It went like this:

God as an old white man with a beard — No.
God as a human — No.
God as a being — No.
God as energy — Yes.
God as consequential — Don’t know.
God without definition — Yes.
God as a creative force in the Universe — Yes.
God as natural processes in motion — Yes.
God as evolution — Yes.
God as gravity — Yes.
God as love — Yes.
God as forgiveness — Yes.
God as beauty — Yes.
God as a no and a yes — Maybe.
God as wrathful and merciful — Perhaps. This one scares me.
God as Mystery — Most certainly.

I realized through my exercise that my problem is with the word God, for all the limitations it has placed on my imagination, such as “God the Father.” Looking back, this was the beginning of my erosion with Mormonism in particular and religion in general. It happened early. I watched and studied birds. If I dreamed of a great horned owl and saw one the next day, that was normal, to be expected. If a yellow warbler came into my mind, it was not unusual for me to hear one. As a child, I came to understand that my relationship with nature was reciprocal and that nature had a relationship with me. We called to one another. We called one another into being. What I mean by that is we have evolved together. I still have a tailbone. I trust what I see, and I believe what I feel. Trusting direct experience is the open door to revelation. This was my foundation for faith. It still is.

 

We had been brought into a waking dream where hundreds of people gathered in the desert somewhere between Utah and Arizona. (State lines mean little in Indian Country.) We climbed up a hill with our vehicle and abruptly dropped down into a sizable clearing of sage where dozens of pickups were parked. We parked next to them and walked to where eight bonfires burned, four on each side of an open space reserved for what was to come. Families and friends gathered around the fires in silence. Some stood. Some sat on folding chairs. Waiting. Watching. We were the guests of Jonah Yellowman, a medicine person and the spiritual advisor for Utah Diné Bikéyah. Tonight was the last of the Yeibichai dances. Jonah had spoken of the Blue Bird People. Our host gave us this explanation in his pickup truck before we entered the community in firelight: ceremony moves us from sadness to joy, from feeling numb to feeling alive, to being part of a community instead of being isolated, as one often feels on long winter nights in the red rock amphitheater of wildness. We drove the rest of the washboard road with the constellations as our maps. Orion was rising above the southern horizon.

We were touching the outer circumference of something that was not ours, but something we could feel in our shared desire for balance and renewal on the eve of the spring equinox. What is the reach of ceremony?

Piñon smoke rose from two structures where the dancers would begin and where they would end. The smell of burning cedar permeated the grounds. And then, the sound of rattles began. Before our eyes, faces the color of midnight blue became birds became dancers whose high-pitched voices called forth the spring as winter surrendered. The repetitive chants wrapped us into a trance, and I forgot the cold and closed my eyes, remembering the sweet songs of bluebirds that greet us each April. Those in need of healing were met   by the winged ones, who restored their spirits by calling out the wounds of grief and discord housed as disease in the body. We watched sparks from the fires rise as exclamation points.

It was just as we had been told, but could not have imagined. The Blue Bird People arrived through a haze of wafting smoke, dancing and singing through the corridors of fire, realigning the world with each deliberate gesture. Hands raised, rattles held, shimmering apparitions born of the stars. These night dwellers have a name that will not be named. Those who called for a healing will remain unknown. Those who stood in the ripples of their power were stirred. We were folded into the tightly woven cloth of community, even as guests.

 

We left the gathering in the wee hours of the morning,  and Jonah drove us back to where we were staying. He got out of his truck and walked us to our rooms. With the Pleiades above us, he turned to me and said, “Now, you have a story to tell.”

“But this is not mine to tell,” I said.

“You will find it — the story that is yours.”

 

Back home in Castle Valley, Fazal and I got out of the car. Two bluebirds, male and female, were flying over our house. They landed in the cottonwood not yet clothed in leaves. Brooke met us at the front door and noted they were the first bluebirds he had seen this year.

We set the table and cooked dinner. We talked. We slept. We dreamed.

When I awoke in the morning, I saw the shadows of birds, wings hovering outside, silhouettes appearing inside on the blinds. Bluebirds. Through the wooden slats I watched a female bluebird treading air with her wings, her blue-feathered body suspended. She was staring in my direction, with her small black eyes and black beak slightly opened. I believed she was seeing her own reflection in the window.

Another bluebird, turquoise in sunlight, came up behind her. She rose, he rose, in a fluttering of wings, and then both disappeared into a circular opening in the overhang of the roof that once housed a light— a perfect place for a nest. The courting birds flew out, each in a different direction. The female returned to the window— hovering — and our gaze met once again. I held my breath so I wouldn’t scare her as she flew in place, our eyes never leaving each other. I left the window and moved to the window seat, where she followed me— still hovering — still focused. It was as though she wanted to come inside. He, too, followed her and pulled his turquoise wings forward and backward with an intensity that bordered on urgency or panic or both.

Brooke was my witness. Together, we opened all the doors in the house, and then he left for the day.

Fazal rose, and we prepared breakfast. The table was reset. The coffee was made and poured. Scrambled eggs, mixed with onions and green chilies, were steaming on the plate. We were about to sit down together. Instead, as if called by something unheard, I walked out of the kitchen to the far window in the bedroom, where I had last seen the bluebirds’ flurry of wings. In the corner, the male bluebird sat between the blinds and the window. To my astonishment, he was not anxious, but calm. I slowly raised the blinds and knelt beside him. He let me slide my right hand beneath his breast and cup my left hand around his back. I felt his beating heart through his feathered chest. I stood up with the bluebird in hand, and as I walked into the living room, he cocked his head and I saw my own reflection in his small black eyes. I quietly called to Fazal. He met me in the living room, smiled, and gently stroked the bluebird’s head. We carried him outside, where a flock of bluebirds were flying near the house. I opened my hands; the bluebird flew, joining the others, and then, disappeared.

Just like that.

 

Can we ever know the reach of ceremony?

 

My brother Hank works with his hands day in and day out, digging trenches, laying pipe that natural gas or water or sewage might flow through. At night he makes art, creating sculptures from the cut and remaindered steel pipe he puts in the ground. He also uses the discarded detritus of machinery he finds to make his pieces. I cannot name the parts, but when Hank welds them together, he creates objects of wholeness and beauty: a dancer in an arabesque of twisted metal, a woman in prayer, lovers entwined.

For Christmas, Hank made me a Bird Man — his arms outstretched like wings, now rusted and mottled. His eyes look straight ahead. The beak is pronounced. The Bird Man’s right knee is bent; his left foot is about to be raised in dance. I did not see the full measure of my brother’s creation, nor how prescient the Bird Man would be, until now as the flock of bluebirds encircled him.

 

My belief in nature is the nature of my faith as a human being humbled before the gods we live among. The god made in my own image that I was introduced to as a child now circles the fire with all the other gods — those with feathers, fins, and fur, scales and tails and multiple legs that crawl among the flowers, plants, and trees. Stories can be understood in a myriad of languages. Translation becomes a matter of listening to what one feels as well as to what one hears. I do not view this communion with other species as acts of idolatry or witchcraft or momentary madness, but rather the practice of good manners among neighbors, where peace is maintained through mutual respect and consideration. We learn from one another. Without manners, violence enters the room. Without the decency of imagination, narcissism leads.

The god made in my own image that I was introduced to as a child now circles the fire with all the other gods—those with feathers, fins, and fur.

For many of us raised in Christian traditions, a personalization of God in human form is eroding. Human exceptionalism is destroying the living world. For me, a providential faith rooted in religion has evolved into a cosmic faith that supports a conscious unity within all Creation. When I held the bluebird in my hands, I was also holding my own liberation. This is not a metaphor but “an ecology of mind,” where we can change  the nature of reality through our focused attention, which is another form of prayer.

Earth has always been a sphere of geologic forces capable of rupturing the surface of things, but now we too are force fields of consciousness capable of shifting fixed patterns of thinking. This is the enlightened Anthropocene, not just the destructive one.

If we are to flourish as a species, an erosion of belief will be necessary, one that says we are not the center of the universe but a dynamic part of an expanding and contracting future that celebrates and collaborates with uncertainty. The perpetuation of biblical self-identification is harming us and everything else on this planet we call home. Recognizing the dignity of each living thing, mobile or fixed, insect, animal, tree, or mushroom, has broadened my love for this world and diminished my need for a god in heaven. We have multitudes of gods on Earth.

What is ceremony but a reminder of the power we can summon together? A sense of harmony is remembered and comes to us in the way of dreams that present themselves outside the normal parameters of time and space. It is also sacred teachings passed on through time. A guide appears with an invitation to participate in something mysterious where we yield to that which cannot be named. We can say yes or no, but sooner or later we can no longer deny that if we continue to stand on the front lines of pain without a deeper understanding of what we intend for our children and those who follow them, we are a species devoted to death. The future is created through actions — good and evil. We are called to serve the beauty that hovers just beyond our reach, outside, because we intuit what we lack inside — enthusiasm — which comes from the Greek word entheos, meaning “the god within.” Our task is to open the doors for this reunion.

 

 

We are a species known as Homo sapiens, often paralyzed by despair, having forgotten who we are together in our adamant claims of difference. Fortunately, we live among other species, many unknown to us, who show us how to enter the home of another and offer the gift of attention and presence, which is an exercise in vulnerability. We learn to listen. Night after night, when all is dark and quiet, the shock and recognition of coyotes’ voices rising unexpectedly — howling, singing, yipping — remind me I am not alone. It is not without its fear. We can get hurt.

In circumstances too strange and private to recount, I found myself standing in a room trying to get to sleep with an enormous bat (easily registering a two-foot wingspan) and a wasp the size of my index finger, both flying aggressively around me. I kept ducking, running around the room corner to corner, trying to dodge their attacks. It would have been funny if I hadn’t been so scared. The bat could have been carrying rabies and the wasp is known for a venomous sting that can send one into shock. It was a game of hide-and-seek. They would hide and I would seek cover, until they would emerge, flapping terror into the room, and I would bolt once again to a safer corner. When the bat finally perched itself upside down on the mother-of-pearl frame of “The Last Supper” hanging on the wall, I took that as my exit. I fled into another room to sleep. The only problem was there was no bed, only a chaise with a musty woven throw that I put over myself. I quickly fell asleep with all doors and windows closed.

The next morning, I went on my way.

During the day, I felt strange, not quite queasy, but not steady in mind, either. And I noticed I had something like a mosquito bite on my thigh. Nothing significant; it just itched. Later that night, as Brooke and I were getting into bed, he asked how I got the bruise on my leg.

“What bruise?” I asked.

The bruise on my thigh was a red-brown circle three inches across. I had no idea how I got it. I looked at the bruise more closely; there was a bite mark in the center. As if all that was needed was my examination, the bruise started blistering before our eyes.

I thought of the night before — the bat, the wasp — and then it came to me. Both Brooke and I had the same thought: brown recluse.

Who knows when that throw on the chaise in the strange house I found myself in had last been thrown or wrapped around anyone’s body? I believed this was where the reclusive spider with the brown violin marking on his back bit me. I had disturbed his peace.

I would later learn that brown recluse spiders, ranging from a quarter to a half inch in size, are secretive and shy, finding refuge in dark, undisturbed places. They tend to hunt at night, stalking their prey rather than waiting for insects to be caught inside a web. Their bite releases a necrotic venom that liquefies flesh, causing the dead tissue to eventually slough off and creating an open wound, an ulcer so corrosive it can eventually expose bone.

Depending on the location of the bite, plastic surgery may be required, and secondary infections are common.

The bruise in humans is caused by the spider clipping blood vessels with its bite, leaving blood to pool into the skin tissue. It usually takes six to eight hours for the bruise to appear and up to ten to twelve days for the ulceration to occur. Blistering, swelling, and eating away of skin follows — not always, but that is the pattern.

There is nothing you can do but wait — which is what I did, as I watched the skin on my inner thigh begin to blister and boil before my eyes.

 

Not all bites from brown recluses become necrotic. Mine did not. It cooled down and stopped bubbling after a week. (Our son from Rwanda recommended rubbing the inside of a banana peel on the bite; it helped.) I was lucky; even so, the brown recluse left its mark and a slight indentation on my leg. A friend of mine calls it “Earth acupuncture.” Personally, it felt like a warning and an inoculation — though from what, I cannot say. At the very least, it was an encounter. Brown recluse venom will stay in a person’s body for up to a year and affect the immune system. The smallest of creatures can take us down with their secret powers when we least expect it. We live among highly focused, formidable gods.

Recognizing the dignity of each living thing, mobile or fixed, insect, animal, tree, or mushroom, has broadened my love for this world and diminished my need for a god in heaven.

“The energy of life becomes available when the conditions of single-mindedness are met. It is important to hold in mind that this is the way of life.”

— Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit

If courage is sustained focus, then belief is energy that fuels our spirit. We keep going. Belief evolves over time. If we are curious and committed to growing, adapting, and responding to changing conditions, we must interrogate our maps. My erosion of belief is asking me to let go of what is comfortable, the familiar, and be open to possibilities I haven’t dared to consider, even the acceptance and devotion to other gods outside of my own image, no matter how dangerous. I now refuse to see Earth as anything less than our common place of divine habitation. We can begin to tell our own stories of crucifixion and resurrection. O

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Terry Tempest Williams is the author of numerous books, including the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Her most recent book is The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, which was published in June 2016 to coincide with and honor the centennial of the National Park Service. Her writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and numerous anthologies worldwide as a crucial voice for ecological consciousness and social change.

Comments

  1. Is it possible to learn where the third photograph in this article was taken? I’d love to know.

  2. Terry Tempest Williams chose to launch her newest book, Erosion: Essays of Undoing, in St. George, Utah, on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2019. We had not seen each other in 24 years , the last time at Sundance during an environmental conference . It felt as though we had not been apart all that time. This book shook me to the core, tells hard truths, calls all of us to unite in love and action. I carry it around with me as each essay has opened my eyes and my heart in new ways. An incredible offering from an incredible writer who paints words into poems.

  3. Dear Terry,
    We are fortunate to have you on this planet, with your clear understanding and sight. May the world population read this article and walk lightly on the earth, with reverence in each step.

  4. Chris and Jennifer, It might take some work, but one might be able to find these land forms on Google Earth by searching around places she mention in article.

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