Zuni Fetish: Living Stones

zuni coronado

Coronado Sets Out to the North, Frederick Remington

In the distance silver helmets and breastplates reflected the brilliant July sun, as Spanish soldiers mounted on majestic Lipizzaner stallions marched toward me in a swirling cloud of dust.  Franciscan monks carried crosses and the flag of Spain. Leading the desert procession is Francisco Vazquez de Coronado y Lujan, searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola in 1540.  They came upon the Zuni homeland of Shiwannagan spread out over six towns, where the A:shiwi have lived for about 4,000 years.

I imagine this scene as we retrace the Spanish explorer’s route in our journey from Gallup, New Mexico on Highway 602 to the Zuni Pueblo.  We note weather-worn pickup trucks parked off the highway.   As we drive by we are unable to spot anyone, but since it is October, families must be out among the pinyon pines gathering pine nuts.

Coronado did not find the Seven Cities of Gold, only the isolated pueblo villages of the Zuni.  Today about 10,000 Zuni live in the largest of New Mexican pueblos. There are adobe ruins of former settlements.  The homes that we could see were of simple cinder-block construction.  Isolation from other pueblos of New Mexico made their language and culture distinct.  The physical presentation of the place did not have the romantic aspect of the terraced old adobe buildings of Taos.  But if you spend the night at the Inn at Halona or talk with some of the notable artisans, you will have a deeper sense of Zuni.

Roger Thomas, owner of the Inn at Halona shares:

“You have to want to come here. Our visitors tend to be better educated and more culturally aware. Their reward is often a very profound experience.” (“The Boundaries of the Sacred”).


Zuni Bear Fetish

For years I have collected stone-carved Zuni animal fetishes and used them in my college lectures on native American spirituality.  I had a vague understanding of their sacred power, but I wanted to visit the source of the fetishes to understand their connection to the sacred.

Another spiritual explorer as myself visited the Zuni Reservation in 1879 with the J. W. Powell Expedition. The U. S. Government sent Frank Hamilton Cushing to investigate the mysterious power of the legendary fetishes. Could they be a threat to America?

Cushing immersed himself among the Zuni, gained their trust and learned the obscure language. He was initiated into the Bow Priesthood as a War Chief and given the name Medicine Flower.  You can read about his experience and what he learned about fetishes in his book Zuni Fetishes.


Zuni Girl With a Jar, Edward Curtis, 1925, LOC

 Cushing encountered an enticing animistic world where “all inanimate objects as well as plant, animals and men, belong to one great system of all conscious and interrelated life. Any element in nature is endowed with a personality analogous to that of the animal whose operations most resemble it’s manifestations.” (Cushing, p. 9).

For Cushing, the Zuni stone fetishes were sacred living stones.

“It is supposed that the hearts of the great animals of prey are infused with a spirit or medicine of magic influence over the hearts of the animals they prey upon, or the game animals; that their breaths, derived from their hearts, and breathed upon their prey, whether near or far, never fail to overcome them, piercing their hearts and causing their limbs to stiffen, and the animals themselves to lose their strength…..Moreover, these powers, as derived from his heart, are preserved in his fetich, since his heart still lives, even though his person be changed to stone.” (Cushing, p. 15).

Thus, the Zuni fetish is a vital spiritual aid to a successful hunt.

How did the Zuni translate the power of the great animals into the stone fetishes?

Kent McManis reveals an answer from Zuni mythology in his book Zuni Fetishes:


Zuni Eagle Fetish

“The Zuni believe that the world was once covered with floodwaters, which left it swampy. The Sun Father, revered by the Zuni as the giver of life and light, created twin sons. The Twins realized the world was too wet for humankind to survive and needed to be dried. The Sun Father had given his sons a magic shield, a bow (the rainbow) and arrows (lightening). The Twins placed their shield on the earth crossed the rainbow and lightning arrows on top of it, and shot an arrow into the point where they crossed. Lightning flew out in each direction creating a tremendous fire. Although this dried the earth, it made it too easy for predators to catch and eat people. So, to save humans, the Twins struck these animals with their lightning, burning and shriveling them into stone. But deep within, the animals’ hearts were kept alive, with instructions to help humankind with the magic captured in their hearts. When a Zuni finds a stone that naturally resembles an animal, he believes that it is one of these ancient stone beasts.”

(McManis, p. 6).

Janice, Erik and I stop at the Visitors Center on the north side Highway 53, half way through town.

Zuni tribal drummers beat a loud cadence behind me as dancers swirl and stomp, feathers flutter and bells tingle on their costumes.  At this Fall Festival in front of the Zuni Cultural Center artisans have set up tables to display their work.  I approach a woman seated at her table, head bent over in concentration as she works with a lump of native turquoise.  I want to be respectful and not ask too many probing questions.  I walk cautiously forward, close enough so that my shadow covers her work and she looks up. She greets me with a beautiful smile and twinkling eyes.

“Hello. Please sit down.”

I am meeting the Zuni fetish artist Verla Lasiloo Jim.

I do not need to ask a lot of questions, because Verla may see my interest in her work and she shares her story.

“My husband passed away several years ago.  He carved the fetishes.  I always watched him at his work and wondered how he decided what animal he would carve. He said he could see the spirit inside the stone and what he was doing was helping the form become what it was meant to be.  When he died, it was a tough time and I didn’t know what to do.  I began to work with his tools and some of the stones that he had.  I began with turtles and frogs.  Sometimes what came out was ugly.  But I would save it to remind me.  There is one over there.”

I could see on the table some very small fetishes, which looked as if they could be placed in a medicine bag as a kind of sacred talisman.

The Spanish invaders and the Christian missionaries tried to stop the practice of fetish making as it seemed like idolatry.

Ms. Lasiloo-Jim had a friend who was a buyer and he began to sell her fetishes and slowly her popularity grew. She is a member of the Mahooty, Lasiloo and Laiwakete interrelated family clan, known for their use of a variety of materials such as stone, wood and shells.

The drumming is growing louder and I must draw closer to Ms. Lasiloo-Jim, as she has a soft voice.

I asked, “Are all the fetishes sacred?”

“If the medicine man blesses them, they should be used in the traditional manner. They need to be cared for by feeding them with blue corn meal.  Some people keep them in turquoise encrusted pots”

“Are they alive?”

“I can tell you that if I am bothered by a problem or worry, I can pray over a fetish and the answer to my concern will be given to me.

She seems to be inviting me to stay as long as I wish, as she continues to work on the turquoise.

“What will it become.”

“I don’t know yet, but I think it is a bear.”

I purchase a fetish.

As I decide to leave and join my family, she says:
“Here is my card with my address.  Let me know if you want me to make something for you. You can even send me a drawing or a photo.  I see your black poodle over there.  I can make a poodle for you. Please let me know.”

A few days later we are at a gift shop at Grand Canyon National Park. Sheltered within a glass case are an array of Zuni fetish.  I see a stone bear with a turquoise line running from its mouth to the heart.


“An inlaid, carved, or painted “heartline” represents the breath path leading to the magical power in the fetish’s heart…A bundle consisting of various stones, shells, and/or arrowheads is sometimes tied onto a fetish. The bundle serves as an offering that empowers the fetish to better aid the user.”

McManis p. 10.

How do you choose a fetish?

Kent McManis suggests:

“I  have simple rule of fetish selection; if the fetish talks to me, I buy it no matter what the animal is or who carved it. I believe that fetishes usually pick you out.”

McManis, p. 139.

I am at Richardson’s Trading Post on Route 66 in downtown Gallup, New Mexico.  In my hand is a turquoise bear fetish, which somehow caught my attention. The red heartline runs from nose to heart.  Was it calling to me?  Am I holding a quaint relic from a “primitive” culture?

Tutored in the mindset of the Enlightenment, I feel dissonance.  Philosopher Charles Taylor summarizes his helpful insights from A Secular Age (2207):

“Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.


Like my European ancestors five hundred years ago, the Zuni world today is a porous world, aware of demons, witches and dark forces that can threaten, and at the same time open to ecstatic and mystical experiences with the Creator.  We “modern” folk with our buffered self are closed off to both kinds of powers

Yet there continues to be a fascination, a longing, a restlessness that brings spiritual seekers like me to Zuni and Vera Lasaloo  Jim.

Johnathan Napier describes the divide between the spiritual and the secular in Charles Taylor’s work and how it is not relevant to Native American world views.

“…..Taylor introduces his “immanent frame” which describes how people understand their relation to the supernatural. People either live in interaction with the supernatural or live separate from it. Taylor depicts this as a divide between the porous and the buffered self.  The porous self has an enchanted worldview; it see itself as interacting with the spiritual world; it is vulnerable and open to forces beyond the physical realm.”

Napier pp 83-84.

Sacred power is found in objects (e.g. Zuni fetish) and places. In the West, with the influence of the Enlightenment, Science and a focus on human reason, a process of disenchantment set in and the buffered self dismissed or compartmentalized spiritual experiences.  Initiated by the philosophy of Rene Descartes, this new modern self turned radically inward, becoming personal and private.

Indigenous cultures as the Zuni, in contrast, focus outward toward nature, the land and communal relationships. There is no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm: all is infused with the sacred.  While the West compartmentalizes, the Zuni seek harmony and balance in a unified world.

As I hold the bear fetish in my hand, a soft-spoken, patient Navajo saleswoman speaks to me across the glass display case about the fetish.  A porous soul speaks to a buffered soul about the sacred.

“The bear is the best mediator with the Creator because it has the closest resemblance to humans.  The bear has power, strength and intelligence to help you.  The bear can help you make peace in times of conflict and guide you when you have spiritual challenges.”

I purchase the bear fetish and she wraps it carefully in cotton and places it within a protective box.  She smiles as she hands me a transparent plastic bag with the fetish and a tiny zip lock bag filled with what looks like blue cornmeal.


Zuni Fetishes by Frank Cushing. 1990. Facsimile edition by KC Publications, Las Vegas, Nevada, from the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, submitted by J. W. Powell. Original Printing 1883.

Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis (Tucson:  Rio Nuevo Publishes, 2004).

“The Boundaries of the Sacred—a Visit to Zuni Pueblo”, April 27, 2015. http://www.aroundtheworldineightyyears.com/visit-zuni-pueblo/


Spirit in the Stone: A Handbook of Southwest Indian Animal Carvings and Beliefs by Mark Bahti.

“Interfaith Dialogue Theory and Native/Non-Native Relations”, Jonathan Napiter, University of Calgary (Illumine: Journal of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society: Graduate Students Association), Vol. 10, No. 1, 2011, pp 77-90.




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Leaving the House of Prayer


Entrance to the House of Prayer

“However, (Thomas Merton said), the usual road to contemplation is through the desert, a barren land with no trees, beauty or water. This prospect is so frightening that we are afraid to enter. In that desert God is nowhere to be found. Yet some people sense that peace is to be found in the heart of darkness, so they keep still, they stop trying to force prayer and meditation and other spiritual exercises, and they patiently trust in God. In the midst of darkness and emptiness, God leads them to the promised land.”

William O. Paulsell, Rules for Prayer.

The heavy feeling hit the pit of my stomach as I walked through the portal into the House of Prayer for the last time.  Another June heat wave descended over southern California and these dry foothills of Orange Park Acres, but the desert plants surrounding the complex of Santa Fe style adobe casitas radiated resurgent life.  On my left, I admired a thirty-foot high agave century plant in full glory, the thick green stem topped with a huge vanilla colored flower.  Soon it will wither and collapse unto itself. But I can see baby agaves emerging around the mother plant.  This is a fertile place for desert plants and desert souls.

I have come to my last spiritual direction session with Father Gordon Moreland, SJ, before he departs to a new pastoral assignment.  I first came to this priests’ retreat center for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 1992, five years after Father Gordon arrived and only six years after our son Erik’s catastrophic health crisis.

I walk about the desert garden planted along the walkway leading to individual retreatant rooms and the chapel.  I take photographs to help me remember this place.

Father Gordon greets me as I enter his office.  I sit in a chair facing him and the windows behind him frame images of more desert plants outside, more agave and cactus.  We often shared information about growing and caring for desert plants.  Too much water will kill them.


Walkway to the Chapel

For twenty-five years I sat in this old chair once a month facing Gordon and the desert outside.  This has been a sacred place as I have passed through spiritual deserts.

Walter Bruggemann writes:

“Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued.”

(The Land p. 5)

As I look about Gordon’s office for the last time, I gaze at a large portrait of St. Ignatius Loyola. Behind me hangs a calligraphed Chinese poem flanked by two Chinese figures. Father Gordon has visited China every autumn over the last few years, connecting with his Jesuit missionary roots.  My attention returns to Gordon. Behind him a coyote dashes through the garden.

In this last visit, I reminisce about my life before coming to the House of Prayer.  In 1990, after Janice and I returned from Massachusetts General Hospital, where Erik had hospitalization for a month as he fought the raging brain fever of encephalitis, I visited Sister Jeanne Fallon of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange at their Spirituality Center.  My initial motivation was help in dealing with the aftermath of Erik’s return home and our daily routine of care for a severely disabled child.  But deeper down, it was my life of hidden secrets that compelled me to seek Sister Jeanne’s counsel.  As I look back, this was a grace of God that was compelling me.


Walkway to Retreat Casistas

Sister Jeanne saw the inner turmoil gnawing at me and urged me to begin the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius with her.  For one year we met weekly.  I followed this five-hundred-year-old curriculum of daily contemplation of a Bible passage, leading me through the events of the life of Jesus and his resurrection.  We focused on becoming more aware of God’s presence and the movements of grace in my life.

After more than fifteen years of ministry as an Episcopal priest, you would think that at this point in my life I had my spiritual life moving along at a good pace.  However, in these weekly sessions with Sister Jeanne, I came to know Jesus again for the first time.  Scriptures upon which I meditated each day had been in the past lessons upon which I preached sermons at Sunday mass. But in my contemplation, the words seemed as if they were written today.

Sister Jeanne warned me that the Spiritual Exercises were a process not a program to calm and sedate me in the stresses of life. She warned me that there are no secrets with God and the invitation for me was to be real and honest with God.

In this context, my addicted life opened up to the light: how I had been using credit cards to pay for family needs, personal pleasures and parish projects.  I owed about $12,000 at this point and my wife Janice did not know this.  Yes, I could have rationalized that eventually I would pay the bill off and our tight income necessitated this overspending.  But I was barely able to make minimum payments and I was hiding this from Janice.  I began to reveal my fears with Sister Jeanne about being discovered.  Finally, one day I resolved to tell Janice about the credit card debt.  I thought the world was going to end, but her own experience with Al Anon urged me to go to an addiction recovery group. That first night I went to an Open Alcoholic Anonymous Meeting in Dana Point.  I was feeling a spiritual high, as the Secret was out.  When I came to the door to the AA meeting, greeters were at the door to welcomed me.  There was joy in this place. New Life. In the Open Meeting, three persons in recovery shared how they first decided to come to AA. The surprise of the evening was the testimony of one of my current philosophy students at Saddleback Community College.  He shared how his life had collapsed. He had been at the verge of suicide because of his long-time addiction to alcohol.  But something led him to his first AA meeting and his life changed. This was like hearing the best sermon on Easter Day.

I began to attend Saturday morning meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics at the psychiatric facility in San Juan Capistrano.  I learned that my compulsive spending and secrets were common to many persons coming out of an alcoholic family.  The antidote to secrecy is honesty.  My life had become disordered and unmanageable.  The grace of God and working a program of honesty and transparency will lead me through each day.

Ron Rolheiser writes:

“Sobriety is ultimately not about alcohol or some drug. It’s about honesty and transparency. And, like honesty and transparency, it is not all or nothing, but has degrees. We are all sober according to more or less, according to the degree that our lives are an open book with nothing hidden in the closet.”

Honesty as Sobriety (8-31-2008)

He adds:

“To live in the light means to live in honesty, pure and simple, to be transparent, to not have part of us hidden as a dark secret.”

“All conversion and recovery programs worthy of the name are based on bringing us to this type of honesty. We move toward spiritual health precisely by flushing out our sickest secrets and bringing them into the light. It’s the hiding of something, the lying, the dishonesty, the deception, the resentment we harbor toward those who stand between us and our addiction, that does the real damage to us and to those we love.”

To Live in the Light, (4-22-2012).


Sister Jeanne sent me to Father Gordon to continue spiritual direction.  He is a revered retreat leader and spiritual director.  He is not a therapist.  He brought me back to the practice of some of the essentials of the Spiritual Exercises, reminding me of God’s deep love for me and the invitation to friendship with Jesus.  I practiced the Examen of Conscience each night before sleep, which goes something like this:

  • Presence: I invite God’s presence and help.
  • Gratitude: I recall two or three things that happened today for which I am grateful. I savor them and thank God.
  • Review: I review the day from beginning to ending. I notice where I sensed God’s presence. I try to remember everything from large to small. When did I feel and give love, joy, hope and peace?
  • Sorrow: I may have some regrets about today and offenses I may have committed and ask for God’s forgiveness.
  • Grace: I ask for God’s grace for the next day.

As I prayed this Daily Examen, it helped me to see my entire day as an ongoing prayer.  I could look back to see and remember where God was with me and be grateful.

I walked through many life deserts with Gordon and Jesus. In those first ten years at the House of Prayer, we did not know if Erik would live much longer, because of many ER visits and hospitalizations.  Life at my parish was sometimes messy with conflicts with my bishop, parishioners or staff.  I had several opportunities to move on to the episcopate or a larger parish.  Through all of this Father Gordon helped me with the tools of the Spiritual Exercises for discernment: how to make the decision to which God is guiding me, when spirits of light and darkness pulled at me.  I always seemed to have short term memory of the grace events where God brought my family, my parish or myself through a crisis.  I could rejoice briefly in amazing grace and then, as a new crisis or challenge arose, I would forget that grace.  If there is one gift Father Gordon gave to me that I most treasure, it is his ability to help me remember again those graces that have brought me home.

I contemplate how remembrance of amazing graces and this place, the House of Prayer are connected.  As I prepare to leave, the feelings of longing and dis-place were strong, because of the gift of Father Gordon’s friendship.

Memory is embedded in a place, this House of Prayer. The memory is more than my personal story. There is also the narrative flow of all those who have received spiritual direction, stayed here for retreats, participated in support groups and the daily mass in the chapel.

“Each person effectively reshaped (this place) by making his story a thread in the meaning of (this place), and also has to come to terms with the many layers of story that already exists (here at this House of Prayer).”

Phillip Scheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, p. 16.

I will remember all that God has done for me through these years at the House of Prayer.  While I will continue to visit Father Gordon for spiritual direction at his new location, I leave this House of Prayer grateful for the peace, joy and hope that I have found here. I leave some of my own spirit here as a blessing for those yet to come.


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I need your help as I write my new book

Fr. Brad at Hatali Hogan

Fr. Brad at Hatali Hogan

Dear readers of the DesertSpiritPress Blog,

I am currently working on a new book on Desert Spirituality: Desert Spirit Places.  I am expanding explorations into the greater Southwest.  Many of the chapters are based on blogs that have already appeared on this site.  I need your help.  How has your reading of the blogs been helpful to you?  If you have visited some of these sites yourself, please share with me your experience.  My plan is to include some of your responses in the last chapter of the book.  If you look for the Contact item on the blog menu, you can share your response there.  Below is a draft of the Introduction to Desert Spirit Places, which will give you a feeling for the direction of this project. Faithfully, Fr. Brad Karelius.

Desert Spirit Places


  “The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to God.” Ancient Arabic proverb (Belden Lane p 124).

 Loose rocks on the edge of the trail fall into a ravine several hundred feet below, as I walk with our disabled adult son Erik beside me.  I securely hold on to his left arm, keeping him on the safer inside of the winding desert path carved within a massive granite shelf.  Behind me walk my wife Janice and our vigilant service dog and standard poodle Ms. Ella.

Early afternoon sun beats upon our Stenson straw hats, but a cooler wind caresses us, coming up from Monument Valley.  We are hiking into Cedar Mesa, an ancient plateau west of Blanding, Utah.  Numerous canyons were inhabited by the Clovis people, going back 13,000 years.  Extensive ruins attract hikers into this remote area. Many of the ruins have never been seen by Euro-Americans.

Hopi Mesa Village

Hopi Mesa Village

As we hike toward one of the more accessible public sites, I continue to give focused attention to Erik.  His sturdy, muscled legs and calves testify to the miles he walks each day back home with his caregiver, Bill Remington.  We almost forget his appearance a dozen years ago, when he was in a wheel chair, with a weak skeletal frame, surviving on IV nutrition. Today at the age of 30, he is taller than me, almost six feet, with broad shoulders and chest. Twenty-five years ago, he was struck down with encephalitis, which left him with a severely scared brain and the mind of an eternal four-year-old, with daily seizures.  The early MRIs warned his pediatric neurologist that the motor area of the brain was so damaged he would not be able to walk.  But here Erik is, walking beside me, step by step, into Wonderland.

His gaze is faraway, perhaps an absence seizure, but that will change and later as we walk he will begin to chatter with us.  We say he is now on “one bar.”

For our short-term attention spans and fixation on iPhones, the good news is that there are no bars here.  Only the sun, thunderclouds moving in from the west, the brown tailed hawk circling above, and the rabbit rustling in the juniper bush, hiding from Ms. Ella.

Our trail twists and turns around blind corners and I am thinking about how this trail we are on is like the trail of these past twenty-five years with Erik, twisting and turning around blind corners.  He wakes up one morning singing lyrics from a 1950s rock and roll song, and in the afternoon he is in the ICU.

As you proceed into “Desert Spirit Places”, Erik will be a guide. Some of the sites we visit, he will share his experience  in his own way.  The narrative for other sites comes from my own desert retreats, where I have found solace and strength to continue to support our family on the uncertain road on which our family journeys.

For forty-five years, I have had the dual vocations of parish priest and college professor. For thirty of those years I was pastor of Messiah Episcopal Church in Santa Ana, California. The historic church building is located in the Logan Barrio, densely crowded with five story high apartment buildings. A different family could live in each room of a three-bedroom apartment.  Grinding poverty and resurgent gang violence gnawes at the lives of children and youth.

In my first years in Santa Ana, I was taught to read, write and speak Spanish by a charismatic Cuban teacher, Raquel Salcinez.  This opened the door to celebrating mass in Spanish and working with Father Christopher Smith, of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange to create programs to counter the evil forces haunting our neighborhood.  Together we started Hands Together—a Center for Children, three early childhood centers, including one for homeless children; St. Joseph Ballet for young Latinas; Taller San Jose work training for ex-gangsters and young Latinas; Noah Project after school learning centers to provide tutoring and club activities for junior and senior high youth; Catholic Worker ministry to the homeless; and an AIDS Hospice for homeless persons.

Spanish drew me into the lives of my Latino parishioners, many whom were undocumented, celebrating the sacraments, Quinceanera (rite of passage ceremony for fifteen-old Latinas), primera comunion (First Communion), and powerful public processions through the streets of the barrio and downtown on Good Friday Night, Palm Sunday and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  In the midst of desperate lives, the sacred permeated daily life, which contrasted with the compartmentalized spirituality of my Anglo parishioners. For my Latino parishioners daily conversations with deceased loved ones and petitions to the saints were ongoing relationships.  For my Anglo parishioners prayer and worship were scheduled events.


Bishop Vann prays at site of gang-related violence

I became immersed in the indigenous spiritual traditions of these immigrants.  I ministered to the sick with Mexican curanderos and Cuban Santeria priests. Parish life was complimented by animistic, pre-Columbian traditions from Latin America.  One future parish leader is the son of an indigenous chief in a remote Mexican village near Puebla, where the people only speak Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language.  David Vazquez would become a parish leader and renowned teacher of Nahuatl, featured on local television and the Public Broadcasting System.

The church was often filled with an extensive Belizean family, descendants from Caribbean slaves, who found a warm welcome at the parish.  I remember many funerals, where at the cemetery the male members would insist on burying the casket themselves with hand shovels, while the women stood in the shade of surrounding trees singing gospel hymns.

All of this is to share with you that I have enjoyed years of deep connections to indigenous immigrant spirituality.  I experienced the deep passion for native spirituality which pervaded daily life.  I believe this fostered an intuitive interest and appreciation for the indigenous Indian tribal and Hispano traditions I encountered in the Southwest and which I will share with you in this book.

I will also share with you some reflections from my philosophy classes at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, California, where I have been an instructor since 1973.  We will look together at desert spirituality and some of the philosophers who speak to our modern secular minds as we encounter the sacred: Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Thomas Merton and Charles Taylor.

As I share with my students at our first lecture session every semester, I know that there is a chronic restlessness, dissatisfaction and longing within our hearts that possessions, other people and peak life experiences do not satisfy.

As Father Ron Rolheiser writes in Holy Longing:

“…we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to simply rest….We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living live of quiet desperation.”

How we respond to these desires and passions is our spirituality.  Spirituality is about how I find love, hope, peace and joy in a world of distracting and enticing energies.  My promise to my students is that if they journey with me with open hearts over the next seventeen weeks of classroom lecture, reflection and outside exploration, they may find resources that will enrich and give ballast to their personal spirituality.

However, I warn them that Euro-American culture has been inoculated with suspicion and dismissiveness of personal spiritual experiences and anything that sounds like mysticism.

The old world of my Latino and Belizean parishioners, their animistic rituals and traditions, has been displaced by the modern world of reason and science. The disenchantment of the modern world was sparked by Rene Descartes, who counseled that the best antidote to the encroachment of the old superstitions was a “buffered self.”

Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age:

“The buffered self is the agent who no longer fears demons, spirits and magic forces. More radically, these no longer impinge; they don’t exist for him; whatever threat or other meaning they proffer doesn’t “get it “from him.”

“This super buffered self….is not only not ‘got at’ by demons and spirits; he is also utterly unmoved by the aura of desire. In a mechanistic universe, and in a field of functionally understood passion, there is no more room for such an aura. There is nothing it could correspond to. It is just a disturbing, supercharged feeling, which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses, and take on our full, buffered identity.”

As you and I journey into desert spirit places of the Southwest, we have been unconsciously tutored by this Buffered Self to keep a safe distance.  As we encounter Indian tribal and Hispano culture, and their porous sensitivity to the Sacred, that inner restlessness and gnawing dissatisfaction rummages about within us.  We keep a safe distance, take photographs and ask too many questions.  The dancing and singing we witness at ceremonials is perceived as cultural expression, rather than deeply felt prayer to the Holy.

I believe that porous sensitivity to the Sacred and our longing for communion with the Holy have not left us.  The wonder and gift of experiencing desert spirit places is that it can be like persistent grains of sand blown by the wind against a resistant granite boulder.  Through time the shape will change.  Through time, I believe the Sacred reshapes us.  That can be a gift of these desert spirit places for you.

In conversations with readers of my previous books, I hear a deep longing for encounters with the sacred; not so much as the collection of “peak experiences”, but a seeking for metanoia, life-changing encounters.  As Ignatius Loyola would encourage, we may find ourselves visited by deeply felt spiritual presences, that have given us an awakened awareness of a Benevolent Presence of peace and joy.  Although sensations of that direct encounter with the Holy may leave us, the memory remains. Ignatius calls this a foundational experience of the Holy, which we can revisit in our prayer and meditation.

The deserts of the American Southwest will be our stage for exploration, which Richard Francaviglia sees as “a fusion of spiritual history and spiritual geography resulting in a spirituality of place.”

In 1967, as a grad student Francaviglia initiated a study of the people who lived in desert lands. He writes:

“I asked residents in the southern Great Basin to identify the type of environment that most conveyed a sense of religion or spirituality. Significantly, when 95 percent of them chose ‘the desert’ in both word and picture, I was not surprised.” (Francavigilia, xix).

I lay on a cold steel slab covered with a thin cotton pad. My legs are confined to a molded form. I cross my arms over my chest and close my eyes.  The Ultrasound machine checks my body placement and that my bladder is completely full.  Oh, that does hurt!  I hear the Linear Accelerator warming up and beginning to slowly rotate around my body, the machine that will hit my prostate with 360 degrees of radiation.  I have high grade prostate cancer. This will be the first of forty-five days of daily radiation treatment.  I close my eyes as my body slides into the circular tube of the Linear Accelerator.  My mind journeys back to a foundational desert experience.

I stand with my wife Janice and son Erik at a split rail fence on a bluff outside of Goulding’s Trading Post in Monument Valley, Utah. A full moon rises in the east over iconic mesas, moonlight illuminating the landscape. The night is quiet and I am aware of the holy embrace of a Benevolent Presence.  I remember that desert spirit place as the nuclear machine attacks the cancer tumors and I pray for healing.

My this book invite you out into other desert spirit places, opening your Porous Self to the gifts and blessings that are waiting for you.






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Penitentes Brotherhood of New Mexico


Penitentes Good Friday Ritual, photo Charles Lummis 1891

“A click; the room was darkened; and suddenly, on the screen above the Master’s head, there were the Penitentes of Acoma prostrating themselves before Our Lady, and wailing as John had heard them wail, confessing their sins before Jesus on the Cross, before the eagle image of Pookong. The young Etonians fairly shouted with laughter. Still wailing, the Penitentes rose to their feet, stripped off their upper garments and, with knotted whips, began to beat themselves, blow after blow. Redoubled, the laughter drowned even the amplified record of their groans.”

“But why do they laugh?” asked the Savage in a pained bewilderment.

“Why?” The Provost turned towards him a still broadly grinning face. “Why? But because it’s so extraordinarily funny.” (11.54-6)

Huxley, A Brave New World


Traveling the back roads of New Mexico can be disorienting. The Old Pecos Trail and the Old Santa Fe Trail may pass through the outskirts of Santa Fe, but before I know it, the narrow roads can suddenly turn off to a dirt road winding through six-foot high walls of tumbleweeds, sagebrush and mesquite. I am lost! I punch in Google Maps in the I phone, my campground destination, and the calming, confident female voice guides me back to home base. Amazing.

However, in two recent journeys to El Santuario del Chimayo, as country roads wind through Indian pueblos and old Hispano villages, I come to a cross roads with no directional signs and my digital guide through unfamiliar territory goes blank. The phone works, but no voice and the map on the phone makes no sense. As I look back now, I understand.  I have entered mystical spiritual territory where I must carefully feel my way intuitively toward my destination.  God give me a sign!

On Highway 76 (The High Road to Taos), we are driving north of Santa Fe through the Carson National Forest. On this warm spring day the dry, thin air is fragrant with the scent of pinyon pine and juniper.  There is a village ahead, Las Trampas, and we turn off for a rest stop at La Casita Café. Warm frybread coated with cinnamon and sugar compliment spicy pinyon coffee.  I am listening to conversations around us: English mixed with Spanish.  I am fluent in Spanish and have a challenging time understanding until I catch some antique phases that remind me of the “thee” and “thou” in the old Episcopal Spanish prayer book.  Now I understand.  Local people are speaking in an 18th century Spanish colonial dialect, vestiges of four hundred years of Hispano occupation in these isolated New Mexican villages.  As we pass the Church of San Jose de Gracia, I see an obscure square adobe building next door which I later found out is a morada sanctuary for the Penitentes or Brothers of Light.

We travel on looking for some direction toward Chimayo, but some unseen power has again disabled the GPS.  We pass through Las Truchas. I recognize the market and other buildings from my favorite film by Robert Redford, The Milagro Beanfield Wars (1987).”  When I play music from the film soundtrack, it captures the spiritual powers in this place, where villagers regularly consult with santos and angels in their daily life.

God give us a sign! And there it is! At this midpoint in the holy season of Lent, I can see just ahead of me four men walking together, barefoot, following a bearded young man, jet black hair flowing freely to his waist, carrying the heavy beam of a huge wooden cross. Penitentes are walking toward Chimayo.  I should get out and walk behind them to find my way. Just then I hear bells. Church bells. It is noon. The 11am mass has just ended. I must be near my destination.


Good Friday Penitentes RItual, Charles Lummis 1891

Students of cultural anthropology will have studied the penitents of New Mexico, Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno  (the Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene).  Popular media through the years have observed the strange rituals of flagellation and crucifixions.  The  1937 film “Lash of the Penitentes”, which is mocked by the Etonian students in Brave New World, derides the primitive rituals as “horrible” and “abusive”.

Perhaps some of the best photographs of the Penitentes in New Mexico were taken by Charles Lummis.  In his book, The Land of Poco Tiempo, Lummis wrote

“so late as 1891 a procession of flagellants took place within the limits of the United States. A procession in which voters of this Republic shredded their naked back with savage whips, staggered beneath huge crosses, and hugged the maddening needles of the cactus”. (p. 56).

Ironically, Lummis fostered trust in order to photograph these private rituals in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and used his images to feed an insensitive, critical Anglo press which fostered a sensational stereotype of the Penitentes.

The curious rituals attracted many spiritual seekers.  However, they belittled the primal practices of the Brotherhood.  Visitors to New Mexico were enchanted by the Hispano-pueblo culture. But when they reported back about their experiences with these local spiritual rituals, it seemed to come from a disconnected realm of reality.

Pulido shares:

“What is critical to remember is that Lummis’s work would establish the framework for the hundreds of popular and scholarly publications that, like his own work, ignored the importance of penitente understanding and thinking about the sacared in their lives.”

P 37 The Sacred World of the Pentitentes.

However, the procession of the cross which I witnessed on the side of the road is a vestige of a profound spirituality deeply imbedded within the hearts of the people who live in the pueblos which dot the lands around Sanctuario del Chimayo.

The roots of the ascetical practice of flagellation go back more than a thousand years to Spain and Italy, identifying with the Flagellation of Jesus during his Passion. Ascetical practices were a very early part of Christian spirituality.  The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, as a Roman Catholic monk in Erfurt, Germany, had a whip hanging on the door of his cell for regular mortification. The Roman Catholic Church suppressed the practices in the 14th century, but as we will see, the Church cannot put a damper on popular piety.

The Spanish ascetical traditions came to New Mexico. After Mexican Independence in 1821, the Church replaced the Franciscan, Jesuit and Dominican missionaries with Diocesan priests.  But as today in Mexico, there were not enough priests to go around, and little villages, like the ones around Chimayo, might only see a priest once a year.

Marta Weigle reflects:

“(a) century or more of improvisation in religious expressions, necessitated by the lack of ecclesiastics to minister in time of need, and to celebrate the important events of the Christian year, may well have resulted in a varied conglomeration of lay practices, prayers, penances and procession.” (Weigle 1976: 51).

Thus, the Penitentes filled this spiritual vacuum.

But the spirituality of the people is still vibrant.  The men of these villages banded together for mutual support and community charity.  Walking in the way of Jesus in his Passion on the Cross led these men to gather in moradas, enclosed adobe meeting houses. Is this a connection to Indian kivas? The village would know when the men were worshipping by the vibrant sound of their alabados songs. Their piety peaked during Lent and Holy Week with private flagellation rituals in the moradas and public processions of the cross.

The institutional church historically seems to have been very nervous about mystical experiences and this kind of popular piety.  Archbishops Lamy and Salpointe tried to suppress these ascetical practices in the 19th century during the “Americanization” of the Church. The public rituals of penance and flagellation threatened traditional Catholic orthodoxy. As you would expect, this drove the brotherhood underground, becoming a secret society.  There was a breakthrough in 1947, when Archbishop Bryne opened a new relationship with the brotherhood.

However, Enlightenment culture, which had pushed spiritual experiences off to the backroom closet in the assertion of human Reason, still had a fascination with this kind of popular spirituality.

Today at Santuario del Chimayo I could sense the powerful presence of the brotherhood and its continuing influence in villages of the Upper Grand Valley.

Jeffrey S. Smith writes:

“Not only have the Penitentes been the spiritual leaders of the community, but throughout the year they have provided services that might otherwise have gone undone.  They have cared for the sick and poor, interred the deceased, organized wakes and rosaries at funerals, assisted the widowed, and administered the law and order within the village”

  1. 73.

From the early history of the Christian Church, these actions describe the ministry of the Order of the Deacons.

Alberto Lopez Pulido offers a deeper understanding of the brotherhood in The Sacred World of the Penitentes. He brings the reader to the inner heart of this spirituality, which includes care for those in need, prayer and meditation, and modeling Christ-like behavior. Pulido shares the personal stories of members of the brotherhood, whose familiar roots go back many generations.

Pulido contends that writers and historians, in their insensitivity to things spiritual, have undermined the primal place that the Penitentes have had in popular piety.  As he shares personal testimonies from members, his book reveals the passionate Christian spirituality which infuses their rituals.

In Carl N. Taylor’s Agony in Mexico (1936), we find an example of a negative narrative. He witnesses the brotherly solidarity of this spiritual movement within the life of the Hispano pueblos in the area.  But he was upset by the flagellation and crucifixion rituals.  This reinforced Euro American negative stereotypes about the Penitentes.

The “canary in the gold mine”, is a metaphor coming from the California goldfields that relates to social injustice.   The miners of ’49, as they dug tunnels deep into the Sierra Nevada,  carried little bamboo cages holding live yellow canaries.  Because the moist interiors of the mine tunnels often exposed poisonous gases, the canary in the cage was a first sign of danger.  Dead canary, run for your life!

In the prophetic tradition of the Jewish scriptures, how the community cares for the widow, orphan and sojourner was the “canary in the gold mine” for the People of God.  Oppression of the poor and vulnerable would bring God’s punitive judgment.

The Brotherhood of the Penitents inherit this Biblical consciousness in their attentive care for those in need in the community.  This is a core value for them, “an act of charity.”


Fr. Brad Karelius with Miguel Conniff, Via Crucis, Santa Ana, CA, Paul Rodriguez OC Register

Walk with me as we follow a procession on Good Friday evening, moving slowly on the city sidewalk in downtown Santa Ana, California.  We wait at the signal for dense homebound auto traffic to stop and we follow the direction of the police officers as we cross the street.  Latino mothers, wearing dark head covering, gather little children hand in hand as a nurturing mother hen gathers her chicks.  The sudden rain shower from an hour ago has cleared. Wispy steam rises from the street.  Thunder in the distance is the last sound from the departing spring storm.

As you gaze ahead to the start of the long procession, you see a long-haired man bent over, carrying a heavy, huge wooden cross.  The crowd beings to sing

Perdona tu pueblo senior

The procession stops at the front door of the University of California Clinic.  A short step ladder is set up. A woman climbs with assistance and begins to read one of the Stations of the Cross. At the end of the mediation she offers her own prayer:  for those incarcerated at the Orange County Jail near by and for her own son, who has been there for the past month.

The Procession of the cross, Via Crucis, proceeds, winding through the busy streets, singing penitential songs on this Good Friday Night, praying the fourteen Stations of the Cross.  Men and Women alternate, carrying the heavy burden of this cross.


Via Crucis Procession, Good Friday, Santa Ana, CA, Paul Rodriguez, OC Register

As you imagine this scene, how do you think it would be received if it were passing through the main street of your home town today? Surprisingly, as the procession carefully walks through the dense streets of downtown, families out shopping or going to dinner, pull aside from the sidewalk, and reverence the procession by removing hats and making the sign of the cross.  This Good Friday Procession with a large, heavy cross reminds these Latinos of their hometown pueblos, where the same procession could be happening on this night.  Some of these observers interrupt their evening plans and join the procession as it winds its way back to my parish.

In this Via Crucis, participants walk with Jesus in his passion toward the cross and crucifixion.  This was a spiritual practice spread throughout the Western world by the Franciscans.

In another chapter on El Sanctuario del Chimayo, I share the moving experience my wife Janice had with our disabled son Erik at the shrine of the healing sand.  El Sanctuario at that time only had the sacramental part-time presence of a very old priest.  However, one layman was the guardian of the shrine of the healing sand.  It was he, who with tender compassion, guided our son to stand within the sacred hole from which the healing sand is taken.  He laid his hands on Erik’s shoulder and prayed for him.  The pastoral, deaconal charism of that man convinces me that he was a member of the Penitentes brethren.



Lash of the Penitentes, directed by Roland Price & Harry Revier (1937) – excerpts

The Sacred World of the Penitentes, Alberto Lopez Pulido. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

The Sacred World of the Penitentes, Alberto Lopez Pulido. Washington:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000


“Roads to the Real New Mexico”, by Lawrence O’Toole, New York Times, November 8, 1992.

Brother of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest, by Marta Weigle (Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1976)

The Land of Poco Tiempo, Charles F. Lummis (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1969)

Los Hermanos Penitentes: An Illustrative Essay, Jeffrey S. Smith

The North American Geographer, 2 (1), pp. 70-84, 2000.

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Eyes to See

lone-pine-02-06-0231.jpg“Sometimes you can see a whole lot of things just by looking”

Yogi Berra

“Nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. If nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I mean by the love of God would never had existed.”

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves

“You are next, Father Karelius,” the nurse barked as she wheeled another patient into surgery.

Warm blankets created a cocoon effect over me, as the IV dripped and my heart raced. Eye surgery! It was hard for me to conceive of how they surgically could open my eye and operate on it.  I had had several serious surgeries involving long stays at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. But eye surgery; what would it be like? This vulnerable part of my body is the “window to the soul.”  One of my students at Saddleback College who was in the nursing program confessed that she would trade a clinical in eye surgery for gastro intestinal surgery any day. Eye surgery: too gross!  What would eye surgery be like for me?

I am wheeled into the operating room, and our friend, Dr. Paul Prendiville, speaks in a low, quiet, calming voice. Anesthesia takes effect and I am watching a kaleidoscope of vibrant, flaming, luminescent colors turning and twisting, like a Tibetan Buddhist mandala.  The movement of crystalline colors slows and I can hear voices again: Dr. Paul and my wife: first in the distance, then very close.  I awaken with a patch over my eye.  Everything was successful.

Over the next seven days, sight slowly returned to the right eye and I could see again.

Annie Dillard writes:

“When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it.’ It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forest of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I am still spending the power. Gradually, the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

  1. 33-34, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.

There is a seeing that involves the delicate body parts that create the eye.  There is a deeper seeing, called illumination, that is an inner, mystical seeing that cannot be conjured, mentally directed or manipulated.

Annie Dillard writes:

“….the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and total surprise.”

One of the reasons I have written these chapters on spirit places in the desert is to invite you to enter, walk, wait, and watch.  I have found that with fatigue from long hikes during desert retreats and several days of silence and solitude, aha moments of intuitive insight flash into consciousness.  This Southwestern landscape is a doorway into mystery and wonder. The gift often involves a Benevolent Presence offering peace, joy, hope and love.


Erik in a field of wildflowers

Interstate 40 out of Kingman, Arizona, flies across high desert chaparral into a vast sea of sagebrush, twisting and climbing through volcanic and granite mountain passes, heading east toward Flagstaff.  As Janice, Erik and I travel this route every October, I am still amazed at what I see: a rainbow of wildflowers bursting from the sandy soil: violet puffs of Arizona lupine, and clusters of white desert chicory and desert sunflowers.  Back home in Orange County, California, the hillsides around our home are blowtorched dry in the absence of rain.  But here in Arizona, speeding past ocotillo, cholla and saguaro cactus, Cruise Control set at 75 miles an hour, I watch the dramatic landscape flash by like an IMAX movie.

At 7,000 feet the highway straightens, as we pass through a windswept plateau of deep green range grass, sustaining hundreds of sheep and cattle. Not a tree in sight.

These desert and mountain journeys through the American Southwest bring us into vast open spaces of  geological wonder.  But after the first 50 miles the Vastness swallows up our vision and becomes familiar.  I confess, I can be walking through the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, trying to slowly savor the colors and textures of great artistic masters. But after a while a malaise and sensory overload possess me. I am done. This same malaise sets in, as we pass through amazing beauty that has become familiar.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Our perennial spiritual and psychological task is to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again.”

Seeing means more than good eyesight.  We can do a lot of looking at the world around us without seeing much. Our eyes can be wide open, but we see nothing.  How can we look at the familiar until they look unfamiliar again?  We need help to see through this familiarity that surrounds us in order to see  into wonder.

Guidance comes to me through our disabled adult son Erik and the Jewish mystic Martin Buber.

After our arrival at J and H Campground in Flagstaff and setting up camp, Janice, Erik and I head north on Interstate 89 a few miles to Loop Road, which leads to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.  In one mile we park at the Ranger Station and walk into a pine forest.  I hold Erik’s hand, as we walk the winding path around dense piles of pine needles.  Erik’s eyes are unfocused, gazing off into nothing.  His significant brain damage from encephalitis in 1987 has meant years of suffering and our struggle to minimize his seizures. His far away gaze could be an absence seizure. But as we walk, this handsome young man, mentally four years old within a strapping six-foot adult body, slowly awakens.  I pick up a pine cone and he feels the sticky pitch, the sharp spines and senses the sweet sap.  We walk further into the dense wood. I call his attention to sounds of squirrels fighting over another pine cone, squawky blue jays and the distant yelp of a coyote. “Listen, Erik, what is that? A bird? Squirrels fighting? A coyote calling to her children?”  I call Erik’s attention to sense, sound, touch, smell and taste and he is becoming more alert, more present to this natural world.  As I do this, the familiar sounds and sights become unfamiliar again to me.  There is a slowing into which Erik is pulling me, a slowing of time and space. And I am present to him and he to me.  We reach the edge of the forest and encounter a vast meadow of  wildflowers, clusters of bulbs that have burst forth into four-foot high columns of yellow and orange.  Erik sees the shapes and colors and begins to walk into the meadow, passing his hands over the tall tubers.

I found also help in seeing nature in a new way through the Jewish mystic Martin Buber and his book I and Thou (Ich und Dich).  He shares his personal experience about how encounters with Nature can be transformative and can lead us into deeper communion with each other and God.

Buber contends that we have two ways of connecting with the world around us.  The world of reason and science has shaped our consciousness to approach the world around us with the scientific method to collect information, analyze and classify it and create theories. Buber calls this mode “Experience” and we approach creation as a detached “it” from ourselves and can apply this information to some project.  But there is a detached distance between us and creation (I-it). Reality is found in a material world.

Buber helped me to understand that there is another way to connect with the world around me. He calls this “Encounter”, wherein we enter into relationship with the object we encounter.  I believe this is why the setting of the American southwest is helpful, because the tribal Indian and Hispano traditions invite a porous receptivity to animate and inanimate creation.

Through his personal experience in meditating on a tree, Buber experiences the dissolution of distance between himself and the tree and a merging into oneness

“I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background. I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—-and the obscure growth itself.”

I and Thou, p. 14.

As Buber contemplates the tree and its descriptive qualities something changes.

“I can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer an it.”

I and Thou, p. 14.

Living only within the world of I-It has psychological fallout like anxiety about the future, loss of sense of meaning and chronic dissatisfaction.  You know that feeling when you awaken at three a.m. and can’t go back to sleep.

If we allow our porous selves to open up to encounter nature, and like Annie Dillard we are receptive, the tree with the lights in it may visit us.  We cannot force the encounters, but we can be ready. And we are never the same after this encounter.

Buber reminds us that all of these encounters are transient and that soon the I-thou connection will change, by our reflection and analysis, back into I-It.  The lasting I-thou relationship, Buber confesses, is in the state of love and wwith God. We call this Revelation.

You and I visit this Southwestern landscape as children of  Enlightenment Reason.  We have been tutored into the I-IT world and to discount mystical and spiritual experience.  The gift of this desert land, nature’s creatures and the people who have lived here for centuries is that the place will work on your inner self, as patiently as sand and wind wear down a massive granite boulder.  If we are open and searching, transformative encounters may visit us.

Here is one memorable encounter from psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep — the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the

unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with He who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit

with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exultation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the

listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not anymore have doubted Hewas there than I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (New York, Harper and Row, 1974)

I and Thou, Martin Buber.


Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, John R. Stilgoe (New York: Walker and Company, 1998)

What is Landscape?, by John Stilgoe ( Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 20150


The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James.

Communing with Nature: A Guidebook for Enhancing Your Relationship with the Living Earth, John. L. Swanson.

Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World, Paul Krafel.

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Searching for Treasure

lonepinevolcano“(George Lewis of Independence reports) the richest gold ledge ever found in this or any other country….Every piece of the quartz is said to show free gold.”

Inyo Independent, June 7, 1895

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”

Matthew 6:21 (King James Version}

The volcanic lava flows towards me like a slow moving luminescent crimson and yellow river, halting briefly, building up mounds of molten liquid, exploding, sending meteor-like projectiles toward me.  I can sense the intense heat and the choking sulfur fumes.  I stand upon a mountain of smoking volcanic debris, looking across at the volcano.  My imagination rests and I return to the present moment, as I gaze across the Owens Valley toward the Inyo Mountains to the east.  The volcano and the lava flow are frozen in time, a vivid visual memory of an event that took place 2,000 years ago.

I stand on a high point in the Poverty Hills, fifteen miles north of Independence, California, Mount Whitney behind me and Highway 395 far below.

All around me are the foothills created by several huge volcanoes, which have covered the desert with a vast lava flow and clusters of volcanic rock.  It is this volcanic activity millennia ago that cooked precious metals like gold and silver and forced the liquid through cracks in quartz to become veins of precious treasure imbedded is these Poverty Hills and the Inyo Mountains.  The history of the Owens Valley beginning in 1860 includes treasure seekers searching for gold and silver.  Today as I hike the old mining trails that wind up and down these hills, I can easily identify dark lead Galena rocks, with crystals of silver ore. With a magnifying glass I can see specks of gold.

lone pine cabin

Rock Walled Miner’s Cabin

Fifteen miles north of Independence, CA, Highway 395 meets the cross road of Elna Road, leading toward the Owens River.  At that intersection turn left toward the Sierra Nevada and into the Poverty Hills.  High clearance SUVs do best here.  At a turn in the road, on your right is a rock-walled miner’s cabin.  The walls are intact, protected by a tin roof.  A stove pipe projects from the back of the cabin. As you enter the cabin, you can see how the miner chiseled into the base granite rock in the mountain and created something that looks like a fireplace. But I think it could be some kind of primitive furnace to process ore samples.

Returning to the dirt road, I chose to leave my car and walk up hill.  The road climbs steeply into the hills, and I Can see to my right and left evidence of “rat hole” exploration pits and further up.


Let’s practice some elementary mining archaeology together.  As we walk the winding uphill trail, we will need to stop and rest occasionally, as we adjust to the 4,000 feet altitude.  Where do you think they searched for gold and silver? Look for mounds of excavated dirt.  The size of the mound is a clue to the depth of the search.  You will find some open mine tunnels (adits).  Stay out for your safety.  Where do you think they would have had a tent cabin? Look for leveled space at the base of the hill and explore the debris: bottles, cans and nails.  If you find a square sided nail, you will know that this site was from before 1900.  Where do you think the privy/outhouse would have been?  Look for excavated pits with lots of tin cans and broken bottles around the site? Bottle hunters have been digging there for intact bottles to sell on Ebay.  As you explore, you will see some of the equipment used in the expensive mining enterprise: heavy cables for hoisting the ore or supporting a tramway; rails for ore cars; pipes bringing water from Birch Creek three miles to the west.

George Lewis’ discovery in 1895 of a gold vein six inches wide, worth about eighty dollars a ton, sparked a gold rush into the Poverty Hills.  But the “million dollar” discovery faded away.

In 1902 Alonzo Casler of Ohio bought several mines in this part of the Poverty Hills that we are currently exploring. As this Buckeye Mine project developed, Casler invested thousands of dollars into mining. It was low grade ore and the most economical way to access the ore was using a steam shovel taking the material out as at a quarry.

lone pine mill

Mill Ruins in Poverty Hills

As the project became more complex, a mill needed to be constructed near the site of the mines to lower the cost of processing the ore. Over $100,000 was invested in building the mill, piping water three miles over the Poverty Hills from Birch Creek to the east.  The mill only operated for about year and then only intermittently through World War I.

Walk with me toward the hillside southwest of the dirt road leading into the Poverty Hill, across from the stone cabin, and we will find extensive ruins of the mill for the Buckeye/NeverRest/New Era mines.

Janice Emily Bowers writes:

“At the mill site: concrete footings for mill equipment, stone cabin with corrugated metal roof; concrete pad for small building; abundant detritus including milled lumber, metal cable, disassembled telephone poles, water heaters, vehicle gasoline tanks, metal buckets, etc. At the powerhouse site: cement walls along ditch in bottom of Birch Creek ravine:”

Fish Springs and Black Rock: Forgotten Towns of Owens Valley, Janice Emily Bowers, p. 274

These Poverty Hills and the Inyo Mountains to the east are pocked with hundreds of mines following the lust for gold and silver.  But the mines never lasted. More often investors will spend more money than would ever come out of the mine.  But the whispering hint or rumor of another strike would set off a frantic frenzy of searching and exploration for buried treasure.

The stories make excellent material for western movie scripts, many of which were filmed 30 miles south in the Alabama Hills, between 1925 and our present day. However, as you hike in the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, highlighted by geological wonders, the silence and solitude work on our inner selves, our souls, in a porous action, penetrating our busy mindsets about tasks and concerns from the past and future. This silence and solitude in this desert place pulls us down into a deeper space asking us: where are you searching for treasure?

We are forever restless and searching for someone or something that will bring us a sense of security, peace, serenity.  But no one and nothing seems to satisfy.  We are haunted by endless dissatisfaction.  I can divert my disappointment by working harder, creating new projects, or taking or drinking substances to give me short term tranquility or buzz. But nothing lasts. And if you walk this vast empty land for any amount of time, the silence and solitude will work on you just as the wind and sand and water work on the boulders around you.  But this penetrating process is nothing to fear.  I have welcomed it, because my years of walking in these desert spaces have brought me to the Treasure, a Benevolent Presence.

Ron Rolheiser writers:

“At the center of our experience lies an incurable dis-ease, a disquiet, a restlessness, a loneliness, a longing, a yearning, a desire, an ache for something we can never quite name. For what are we longing? What would satisfy our restless energy?”

“Anne Frank, in her famous diary, asks exactly this question:

‘Today the sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I am longing – so longing – for everything. To talk, for freedom, for friends, to be alone. And I do so long … to cry! I feel as if I am going to burst, and I know it would get better with crying; but I can’t. I’m restless, I go from room to room, breathe through the crack of a closed window, feel my heart beating, as if it was saying, ‘can’t you satisfy my longing at last?’ I believe that it is spring within me; I feel that spring is awakening. I feel it in my whole body and soul. It is an effort to behave normally, I feel utterly confused. I don’t know what to read, what to write, what to do, I only know that I am longing.’”

The Holy Longing”, Ron Rolheiser,  11-23-2008

What is the treasure that would satisfy our restless hearts?

 The story is told of a man named Isaac who lived in Cracow. He was very poor, so when he dreamed three times in a row about a great treasure buried under a bridge in a distant city of Prague, he set out on a journey to find it. But when he arrived in Prague, he discovered that the place he had seen in his dream was patrolled day and night by the king’s guards. He circled the spot, watching it from a distance, until finally the guards noticed him. When the captain called to Isaac and demanded to know what he was doing there, Isaac told him about the dream.

“You mean to tell me that you believe in such dreams!” laughed the captain. “If I believed in them, I would have to go all the way to Cracow and find some man named Isaac, because I have dreamed that a great treasure lies buried beneath his bed!” Isaac thanked the captain, returned home, pushed aside his bed, and dug up the treasure that had been there all along. (A Hasidic story).

For forty years, I have made spiritual retreats to the desert spaces of the Owens Valley, Death Valley, and other spirit places in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico.  I found these words from Ron Rolheiser helpful as an invitation to those who seek spiritual treasures:

“The desert does this for you. It empties you. Hence it is not a place wherein you can decide how you want to grow and change, but is a place that you undergo, expose yourself to, and have the courage to face. The idea is not so much that you do things there, but that things happen to you while there – silent, unseen, transforming things. The desert purifies you, almost against your will, through God’s efforts. In the desert, what really occurs is a cosmic confrontation between God and the devil; though this happens within and through you. Your job is only to have the courage to be there. The idea is that God does the work, providing you have the courage to show up.”

The Desert: a Place of Preparation, March 12, 2000.


 Fish Springs and Black Rock: Forgotten Towns of Owens Valley, by Janice Emily Bowers (Big Pine, CA: Three Gardens Press, 2014)

The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser,  11-23-2008

The Desert: a Place of Preparation, Ron Rolheiser 11-23-2008

The Diary of Ann Frank, Ann Frank (Modern Library 1958)





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Mansholmen: Our Family Island in Sweden


Text Erik Eriksson Photo Karl Erik Törner

Translation Lena Ekman


View of Mansholmen

(This is a magazine article translated from Swedish about our family island in Sweden. My mother’s family came from here and my daughter Katie and I visited the family in June 2016. Access to the island runs through another island, Musko, which is the site of a “secret” deactivated underground Swedish Navy Base, which may soon reopen. My cousins Sven Lindstrom and Britta Haglund still live on the island during the summer. There are some gaps in the translation)


Cousin Sven Lindstrom rows us to the island

Jan-Erik is busy repairing his wooden fence, now he stretches his back and walks once more along the fence to ensure that all the flaws are repaired. It’s the end of April, spring is early this year. The ice has melted and it’s warm, you might even let the two cows out to graze in just a couple of weeks, and this is why Jan-Erik has hastened to get the fence ready in time.

Walking back home he crosses the hill, stops for a while at the top of Månsholmen and lets his eyes wander round the little island in the beautiful spring evening. Beneath him is the little cow-house, connected to the barn and threshing-place. Close to the shore of the lake sits the cabin, where there is smoke from the chimney. Mother Anna is cooking their evening meal. By the Stone bridge beneath the cottege the two row-boats lie on land. North of the cottage the wooded North point stretches like a long arm. Jan-Erik calls the wood ‘Månsholms Storskogen’ (the big wood, or forest, of Månsholmen). His eyes wander further to the East; there in the North Cove his grandchild Nils, a sturdy youth, is taking down some fishing nets from the wooden racks. Nils swears at the ‘albrommen’  ̶  the alder cones  ̶  that have got stuck in the yarn. From the North Cove there is a path eastwards past the well to the ‘Östra Läggningen’, a field that is to be sown with oats in the spring. Close to the ‘Östra Läggningen’ there is a small bog, which Jan-Erik calls ‘Månsholms Mossen’ (the Månsholmen bog). His eyes go to the south, over the big field ‘Södra Läggningen’, that stretches along the west side of Månsholmen down to the South point. Outside it, in the Södra Fladen, a couple of mergansers draw two dark lines on the calm surface of the water.


Original Family Farmhouse

Jan-Erik lingers for a while on the hill, looking out over his domains. This is his world, a miniature world, to be sure, but in possession of all that the big world owns, and he is the master of it all. He gets up and walks slowly down to the cottage and the evenening meal that is waiting for him.

Today Mother Anna has cooked a more substantial meal than usual, she is serving boiled roach and boiled potatoes. It is customary in the archipelago, when the ice is broken and the waters are again open, to lay out a couple of nets and catch ‘ismört’ (ice roach) as it is called. Especially the yellow roe is delicious, but otherwise roach is not valued a lot as food, but ‘ice roach’ is always eaten a few times every spring. Now the three people are sitting round the table enjoying the meal with an appetite. It is generally Nils who is doing the fishing, he is a fisherman and a hunter  ̶  on the wall he has his two guns, one modern double-barreled gun and one oldfashioned shotgun with one pipe, a so-called ‘enskottare’. They go to bed early after the meal, tomorrow they have to rise at dawn to sow the ‘Östra Läggningen’.


My Aunt Mary Ann, Great Grandfather Sven Erik, my Mother Linnea Burman, Great Grandmother Anna, and Grandmother Ingerborg 1922

The cultivated area at Månsholmen is too small for them to afford a draft animal like a horse or an oxe. For plowing and harrowing they have to hire a man with a horse. This morning the neighour Ersholmarn (which means ‘a man living at Ersholm’) will come with a horse and a harrow on the Arbottna ferry which has been borrowed for the transport. Ersholmarn harrows all morning and by midday the field is ready to be sown. But first you go inside the cottage to eat. Mother Anna serves a dinner of sea-fowl, she has fried two mergansers  ̶  she is a master of cooking sea-fowl. The mergansers have of course been shot by Nils, the hunter.

After the meal they all head for the field again, now Jan-Erik and Nils have a bushel each with them for sowing. They fill the bushels with oats and hang them over their shoulders so that the bushel is resting on their breast. They walk beside each other with a little distance between them, looking in front of them so that they can go as straight across the field as possible. They walk in step, left foot forward and the right hand swinging to the side in a wide sweep, right foot forward and the left hand making the same movement. It requires a certain skill to sow by hand, to be able to spread the seed as evenly as possible.

When the field is sown, Ersholmarn takes a little harrow that he has brought with him, runs through the field a couple of times to put the seed down and cover it with earth. When all is done they head for the cottage again, to Mother Anna and a cup of coffee. Then they help Ersholmarn to get horse and harrow onto the ferry to row back to Ersholmen.

A few days after the sowing, the field is rolled. They use a roller made from a thick log. Jan-Erik and Nils pulls it by hand to and fro across the field until the earth is thoroughly packed.

After the sowing it is time to plant potatoes. The potato field is dug and loosened up by hand. The furrows are laid with a simple little hand plow. Nils, who is strong, has to be the ‘horse’, Jan-Erik is steering the plow and Mother Anna puts potatoes in the furrows. Then they cover the furrows and can only hope for the Lord to give them enough rain to gain a good harvest.

Now the two cows are grazing in the pasture, a new little piglet it grunting in the sty and Mother Annas hens have started to lay eggs again. The animals are tended by Anna. Apart from the chores of the little farm they fish constantly, setting out traps among the reeds for pike. The fish that they don’t use in the household, is sold. Jan-Erik will row ‘to shore’ as they call it, that is, he sells fish on Muskö (an island), at the manors Ludvigsberg and Arbottna, but also to others who live on Muskö, and who don’t have access to waters to fish themselves. Sometimes when Mother Anna’s hens have laid a lot of eggs, he sells eggs as well.

Time passes quickly during the spring and early summer weeks, and soon it is time for hay-making. One evening Jan-Erik and Nils whet their scythes, and the next morning at dawn, when the dew is still on the land, they set about mowing the ‘Södra Läggningen’. The two men work with their scythes in straight lines, and Mother Anna goes after them with her rake, making a string out of the cut grass. At the end of the day they have mowed the whole field, a good day’s work. They leave the hay in the field for a couple of days to dry. Then they ‘cock’ the hay, they make little pointed heaps of it, ‘volmar’ or cocks, while the people on Muskö mostly pile their hay on drying racks.

When the cocks have dried, the hay must be carried to the barn. As they don’t have a horse they carry the hay on a kind of litter. One morning when the weather is fine they spread some of the cocks, as many as they think they will manage to carry inside during the day. Then Jan-Erik and Nils start to carry the hay, one at each end of the litter. If they are lucky as far as the weather is concerned they manage to carry the hay into the barn in two or three days.

After the hay-harvest Nils begins to watch for ‘bad-idea’ (the ‘bathing idea’) – an idea that each year at the end of July comes from the sea outside and from the bay Mysingen, through Fårfjärden (the ‘Sheep bay’) and further on into all the coves. They swim in great schools near to the surface, and sometimes leap above the water, it ‘bathes’ as they say in the archipelago – thence the name ‘bad-id’.

Nils is on the lookout every day, he brings his binoculars. One day he catches sight of the ides splashing in the waters of Södra Fladen. He runs home to tell Jan-Erik and they both make for the southern point of Månsholmen. There is a cove there, where the bathing ide always go in. Nils has already placed a boat at the mouth of the cove. Nils and Jan-Erik sit down on the shore to wait for the ide. Suddenly they come swimming into the cove, which is soon filled with fish. Carefully they shove the boat, the oarlocks wound with shreds of fabric so that there will be no sound during the rowing. In the boat they already have the wide-meshed net. They lay the net across the mouth of the cove, silently and carefully. Then they go ashore, following the shore to the innermost point of the cove, and there they start to shout and scream and throw stones into the water. The school of fish is frightened off and goes headway towards the net. Jan-Erik and Nils go into the boat and take the net up. Now it is full of fish – 30 to 40 ides of one or two kilos each. A good catch. Then they row speedily to the North Cove, where they have a big corf. There they can keep the fish alive for some time. Once more they manage to get some bathing ides into the net, then the ide fishing is over for this year. Now Jan-Erik sells bathing ides on the island, and he also sends a couple of cases with the Vaxholm boat to Stockholm.

The hay-harvest at Månsholmen is seldom enough for the cows through the winter, their fodder has to be eked out with reeds. The first week of August is the time to cut reeds; Jan-Erik and Nils then take a row-boat each and go out on the water. They cut the reeds with small handwrought sickles, reed sickles. They bind the cut reeds to sheaves with a band, twined from a couple of reeds. When the boat is full of sheaves they row them ashore and place them to dry somewhere where the cows can’t reach them. When the reeds are dry, the sheaves are carried on the hay litter to the barn.

In August they also begin fishing for pike with a ledger-line. First they lay a fine-meshed net they use to catch small roaches used for baiting. Round Månsholmen there are poles for the ledger-lines stuck into the bottom outside the reeds. Nils rows around hanging the lines on the hooks and baits them. When Jan-Erik or Nils row round the little island emptying the hooks they always row clockwise, for luck with the fishing – you never row counterclock-wise, you even avoid turning a boat counterclockwise. The pike they catch are put into the corves, and when there is enough they pack them in cases and send them to Stockholm. The ledger-line fishing continues more or less till the water freezes over.

This month they fish for flounder as well. They use one of the two row-boats, which is built on Aspö, by ‘aspöarn’ (a man living on the island Aspö) – it is the best one for rowing far, easy to maneuvre. Jan-Erik and Nils row, with a pair of oars each, out into the Fårfjärden (the Sheep bay) and lay the flounder nets outside Grytudden at Elvsnabbslandet. The flounder is considered one of the finest fish for food by the inhabitants of Månsholmen.

During the sunwarmed days of late summer, the oats have ripened. Jan-Erik and Nils whet their scythes once more, now to cut, not to mow, which makes a considerable difference. Cutting means that using the scythe and its handle in a swift movement, you gather the straws to a bunch, or ‘lock’ (curl) as it is called. They are laid on the earth in a neat row. Jan-Erik and Nils walk with a little distance between them, cutting row after row of ‘curls’. After the men Mother Anna comes ‘taking up’, that is, binding the curls together to sheaves, or ‘bands’ as they say on Muskö. She takes two or three curls, moves them together to an even heap, takes a small bunch of oat straws and twists them together to a band that she uses to tie them together, a work that demands a certain skill, wraps the band around the ‘oat curls’ and ties them up with a particular knot and throws the completed band in the field.

Harvesting is strictly gender bound  ̶  the men cut, the women bind. A woman is fully busy taking up the straws after one cutter, and as Mother Anna is the only woman, Nils sometimes interrupts his work and does some binding, too. Cutting and binding is a skill and as all small farmers in the archipelago, the Månsholmers master this skill completely.

When all of the ‘Östra Läggningen’ is cut, the oats are stooked. One of the bands is placed on end on the ground, four others are raised around it, a so called ‘fembandsskyl’ (five band stook). The top of the stook is bound together with a twined band. The stooks have to stand there until they are dry and ready to be carried on the litter to the barn.

Besides working in the fields they fish pike with a ledger-line; every day Jan-Erik or Nils, or sometimes both of them, row round the little island – clockwise – to empty and bait the nets. Autumn is a rewarding time for ledger-line fishing.

Toward the first of October the potatoes are dug up, and a few days later ‘Ersholmarn’ is back on the ferry, this time bringing a horse and a plow. He is coming to do the autumn plowing in the estern field ‘Östra Läggningen’, where they are to sow oats next year as well. The potato-field is dug by hand. Then they thresh the oats with a flail, the oats are spread on the floor in the threshing-barn and Jan-Erik and Nils beat the grains out with their flails. Jan-Erik does one beat, then Nils, then Jan-Erik again, in a certain steady beat which is very important to keep. Threshing at Månsholmen is heard far and wide, even to Muskö. Nils is strong, his beats are more powerful than Jan-Erik’s, people listen and when they hear the more powerful beat they say: ‘That was Nils beating!’

When they have threshed a certain number of bands, the straw is raked together and removed and the grains are shoveled into a heap in one corner. They have a little hand-driven machine with which they separate the oats from the chaff.

One early morning when the weather is fine, before dawn, they load sacks of oats in the row-boat to row to the mill. The mill is on the mainland at Vitså, and it is a long way to row, they row with two pairs of oars all the way roung Snappudd (a tongue of land), from where the way to Vitså is almost straight. The mill-rowing takes a whole day.

(This was the translation of the first four pages. The remaining three pages don’t seem to be connected to each other, but it may be that only one line is missing at the end of a page, that is impossible to say. I will try to translate these three pages separately.)

In November, Nils is busy fishing small roaches which he keeps in a special corf. The roaches are meant to be bait for the winter’s ice fishing for pike and burbot. In the winter it is impossible to catch roaches, if you don’t have a seine, which they do not at Månsholmen. Sometimes Nils spreads a few bread crumbs or groats in the corf so that the little fish get something to eat. Then they will keep alive and alert.

The darkness of late Autumn comes earlier in the afternoon for each day, it is getting colder and a thin crisp ice appears around Månsholmen, but still you can break the thin ice with a row-boat. Now is the beginning of a troublesome time för the Månsholmers. One morning when they are on the big island Muskö the waters are frozen over. Jan-Erik and Nils take out their ice club and ice hook from the boat-house. They climb aboard, with the club they smash the ice to pieces in front of the stem of the boat and then they take the long ice hook, fix it into the ice and pull the boat ahead while at the same time rocking it, and this way they coax the boat through the ice step by step. The next day the ice is too thick to pull the boat through it but all the same too weak to walk on. Nils takes the otter pike (a weapon, somewhat like a spear, for hunting otters) and tests the ice over to Näsängen, but here also the ice is too thin. The ice doesn’t break nor bear, now they are isolated, they are ‘fox’ on the little island, as the saying goes in the archipelago.

The cold lingers and after a couple of days they can get over the ice to Näsängen. In the Ersholmssund (name of a strait), where there is always a current, you still can’t walk over the ice. By Christmas there is a change of weather and it is again mild but with a strong south-western wind. The ice in the Ersholm strait breaks up and again it is possible to go by boat. The weather is changing, a couple of cold days, then mild weather, and the Månsholmers have to spend Christmas and New Year more or less in isolation. But on the island all their earthly needs can be filled, they have even had time to kill the pig for Christmas.

Then, in January, comes the severe cold, which in a few days throws bridges in all directions, and they can walk on the ice around the whole island. Jan-Erik and Nils get out the big alderwood crotches, as well as cutting some new ones, for now the ledger-lines are to be put out. The big crotches are loaded to a sledge, which also carries a 50 litre milk bottle of the kind that the farmers use for delivering milk to Stockholm. Nils has got it at Arbottna, it is a discarded milk bottle, a little rusty yet not leaking, and it is good enough to keep bait in. It is half-filled with water, because the bait fish have to be kept alive. And so they are on their way round the little island – clockwise, of course – Nils ‘wakes’ holes in the ice with the ice-pick, Jan-Erik places the little crotch with the fishing-line and the hook with the bait in the lower part of the big crotch, and then they place it all into the water through a hole. There is room for a lot of crotches round the island. The big pike corf is dragged out onto the ice, they saw a hole and ‘wake’ it, and place the corf in the hole.

Twice a day they empty the hooks, in the morning and just before sunset. There is time to spare for other chores: they go to the woods to find firewood for next winter. Some is gathered on the island, but most of it is found at Ekersgarn. They are never idle, in the evenings they all sit mending fishing-nets, Nils is even making a couple of new nets.

… from the wall, cleans and polishes it. Hopefully the weather will be clear. It is, and in the bitter cold of the moonlit night, Nils muffles himself up well with warm sweaters and jacket, takes his gun, puts the ammunition in his pocket and walks in the glimmering night across to Strömsund. There is a place there where the foxes pass. As a lure Nils has brought with him a hen, one of Mother Anna’s which has died, a ‘carrion’. Nils seldom has such a fine lure as a hen, usually he must be content with a pike that has died in the corf and won’t do as food for humans. Nils places the carrion in a place where a fox can easily find it, and then he stands there as hidden as possible. He has his gun ready, he has ‘chalked’ the barrel to make aiming easier. ‘If the fox only passes by, I will get him’, Nils thinks, ‘ there is good light for shooting.’

Nils must wait, time passes and the cold bites, but he is well dressed and manages all right. Suddenly there is a fox standing by the carrion. Nils hasn’t even seen him coming, he aims, a shot rolls in the quiet night and the fox lies there, dead. Fully content Nils trots home again, throws the fox on the landing. Tomorrow he will skin the fox, stretch the skin and hang it up. By spring he will get fifty kronor for the skin from the pedlar who buys skins and who always comes by in springtime.

Nils goes fox-hunting a couple of times during winter, always when the moon is out. But he doesn’t always get lucky, most of the time he goes home without a catch.

In spite of the snow and the cold, winter is a good season for the people on Månsholmen. The ice makes it easier for them to travel. They visit neighbours and also have visitors.

Spring makes a thrush with a thaw and a south-western breeze. In Mysingen and Fårfjärden the ice breaks, after a couple of days the waters are open even in Ersholmssund. Suddenly the Månsholmers have two ways of communication with the outer world, over the ice to Näsängen or over the water to Ersholmen.

All the ledger-line crotches have already been taken up, any day now the ice will break and the winter pike fishing will be over. Nils is getting ready for the spring hunt for sea-fowl, which he likes a lot. He takes out the decoys from the little sea house, checks that they are whole and look good, applies strings where needed.

One morning when the weather is fine, Nils loads his row-boat with decoys and clothes, gun, ammunition and food for one week and rows to the Elvsnabben. There he joins up with two men from Elvsnabben and they all row out in one boat all the way to Grän. They row over the bay Mysingen, through the long and narrow straits between Rånö and Utö, past Ålö and out on the open sea. They have one pair of oars and they row quite fast. They go ashore on Österskär, carry their things to the little cottage there in a cleft in the mountain.

The first day they lay out the decoy for a few hours in the afternoon, and they catch a few birds. At dusk, they pull the boat safely on the island for the night. They have brought firewood in a sack, they make a fire and cook … [ – – – ]

… was or is (perhaps ‘were or are’?) owner(s) of the island, the owner is the landowner at Arbottna since long ago.

Jan-Erik and Mother Anna have a leasing contract for Månsholmen, set up a long time ago by one of the owners, a contract which gives them the right to live there and cultivate the soil and the right to take firewood in the Arbottna woods for the sum of seventy-five kronor a year. The contract was to be valid as long as one of the couple was alive. The landowner at Arbottna, the one who drew up the contract, was succeeded by new owners in a long succession: they all took over the contract and fulfilled its conditions.

Now when Mother Anna and Nils are left on the island, Nils takes care of the payment of the lease, which is to be paid once every third month, as is defined in the old contract. Four times a year Nils strides into the office at the Arbottna farm and pays eighteen kronor and seventy-five öre in lease to the new landowner, in his eyes a young ‘whippersnapper’ (? – perhaps ‘brat’ is a better word…), who has inherited the farm from his father and who at every payment complains of the ridiculously low sum, to which Nils answers: ‘You can’t do anything about that, this contract is older than you and you father.’ Which the young landowner knows fully well, but the same phrases are exchanged every time that Nils comes to pay the lease.

Nils devotes himself wholly to fishing herring, Mother Anna takes care of the home, and in her spare time she likes reading. Nils keeps a daily newspaper. which he goes to collect a couple of times a week, Mother Anna reads and thoroughly follows all the new events in the world. She also reads books, that Nils borrows at the little library in the school. Even at the age of eighty, she reads without glasses.

Mother Anna passed away in 1946, at the age of ninety-two. She had lived on Månsholmen for more than seventy years.

Nils died in 1963 and thus the old life on Månsholmen is finally over. But still the wind whispers in the pines of the Norra Storskogen (the North Forest) and the view from the Hill is just as enchanting and, best of all: Månsholmen today is owned, sometimes lived on and reverentially cared for by grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of the old inhabitants of Månsholmen.





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