The Secret Knowledge of Water

Hoodoo Gap, Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Last week's posts, from Tuesday onward, were all connected to the theme of water in one way or another: Mr. Punch by the seaside; a riverside walk with Ursula Le Guin; the folklore of wells and springs; and the lush green riverbank of Wind in the Willows. We started this week with water music, and I'd like to carry on by recommending some favourite books containing water in its various forms -- beginning with one from the deserts of the American south-west, where water is scarce, precious, and sacred.

The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Child was one of handful of books that sat permanently on my desk when I lived in Arizona: books that served as talismans of all that I loved best about life in the Sonoran desert, and that I would carry with me when I crossed the sea to the wet, green hills of Dartmoor. Child's book begins in the vast wilderness of the Cabeza Prieta on the Arizona-Mexico border -- a place I also had the great good fortune to spend time in over the years -- and then moves through a wide variety of desert terrains in northern and southern Arizona, Mexico, and Utah. What I love about the book is not only the author's deep knowledge of and passion for the land, but the way he writes about it in prose that is as poetic as it is instructive. For example, Childs begins his text with this arresting passage:

Shiprock at Sunset,  Navajo Reservation by Stu Jenks"My mother was born beside a spring in the high desert, just north of where West Texas and Mexico meet along the River Grande. Born three months premature, she was kept alive in an incubator heated with household lightbulbs. And eyedropper was used for feeding. The water from the spring bathed her and filled her body, tightening each of her cells. It filled the hollow of her bones. Years later, as the water passed from mother to child like fine hair or blue eyes, I grew up thinking that water and the desert were the same.

"Beyond the spring grew piñon and juniper trees, their wood grossly twisted from years of drought, while here, where my mother was born, cress and moss grew from the spring. A weeping willow, imported from an unfamiliar place, dusted the surface with seeds. I traveled there once, walking up and pushing away the downy willow seeds with the edge of my hand. I dipped two film canisters below the surface. I capped these, and walked back to my truck, and drove away before a stranger could appear from a nearby house to run me off the property.

"I figured the water might come in handy someday. If my mother ever grew ill and her death were near, I would bring this water to her. The spring had kept many people alive before her. It was an essential stopover for Spanish explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries and for whomever traveled the desert for the previous millennia. I would slip its water between her lips, tilting her head up with my palms. Her body might recognize it, the way salmon make sudden turns to follow obscure creeks, the way dragonflies work back to the one water hole held between desert mesas.

"An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember three things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of cliffs and boulders. The second is tadpoles worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything."

Seven Saguaros, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Hoop Dancing With Ghosts, Coalmine Canyon, Navajo:Hopi Joint Use Area, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Later in the book, Childs describes the miracle of water in a dry terrain like this:

"Parched land wrinkles to the horizon and in one place, a rock outcrop, a seep emits a drop every minute, a light tap on the rocks below. The drop is sacred. Doled in such apothecary increments, this scarce water is almost deafening, surrounded by total silence, by hot sand fine as confectioners' sugar. It is a single word, a mantra.

"In places it gathers speed, finding pathways, turning from seeps to springs to streams to rivers. To be near such moving water in the desert is like being a vacant concert hall with a solo cellist, like standing on tundra with a grizzly bear. You must listen. You must make eye contact. The water cannot be resisted. Drops become elaborate cadence. The flow becomes song. It burbles from the ground, tumbling down hallways of isolated canyons. Life bends into preposterous shapes to fit inside, plying the narrow thread between drought and flood. Orders are given: you must live a certain way, and do it swiftly, elegantly, because this is a desert, this water is only here, and then a hundred miles of nothing.

Molino Falls, Arizona by Stu Jenks"In the Kama Sutra, erotic sounds are said to come in seven categories: the Himkāra, a light, nasal sound; the Stanita, described as a "roll of thunder"; the hissing Kūjita; the weeping Rudita; the Sūtkrita, which is a gentle sigh; the painful cry of Dutkrita; and finally the Phutkrita, a violent burst of breath. I have heard all of these in water, and then a hundred others, none of which have been offered titles besides plunk, plash, swish, or splash. I have heard the Phutkrita in the snapping of a tree limb during the sudden upwelling of a flood, and the Sūtkrita sigh as that same water slowly spun itself into a downstream eddy. Horse trainers have so many names for horse breeds and colors, and Arctic dwellers have entire dialects for the nature of snow, yet few names have been given specifically to the sound of water. It may be that water is too commonplace. Since it must pass your lips every day, and you wash your hands with it as a habit, it might seem too pedestrian for study. If this is true, if water is so prosaic, come to the desert and listen to moving water. I have been held for days in a single place not because I needed the water, but because I had to listen."

This is a writer after my own heart. I, too, have sat beside water in the desert, unable to tear myself away. Needing to listen. To hear its stories. Like my life depended on it. 

Navajo Horseman by Stu Jenks

The art today is by my friend Stu Jenks, a Virginia-born photographer who has spent many years in southern Arizona. We've known each other for a long time now, ever since we had neighbouring studio spaces in the old Toole Shed art building in downtown Tucson; and to my mind, there's no one who captures the elusive magic of the desert better.

To learn more about his work, please visit Stu's Fezziwig Press and blog Fezziwig Press.  You'll also find it here in previous posts, including The Borders of Language and Days of the Dead.

Catalina State Park, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Words: The passages above are from The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs (Little, Brown & Co, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The photographs above are by Stu Jenks; all rights reserved by the artist. Titles can be found in the picture caption. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The border between the US and Mexico

My years of living in Tucson gave me a deep love of the borderlands between southern Arizona and Mexico: the dramatic beauty of the desert landscape, the vibrancy of border culture, the complexity of its history, dark and bright. Tucson itself is a dusty modern city grown out of an old, old town, continuously settled for over 12,000 years, marked by its distinctive blend of Mexican, European, and Native American influences. Today's music comes from a much-loved Tucson band, Calexico, founded by Joey Burns and John Convertino, who have been crossing cultural borders for two decades now. Calexico Tucson postcardencapsulates everything I love best about Tucson: the fusion of laconic cowboy and dynamic Mexican styles; the exuberant mix of Sonoran cultural traditions, aesthetics, and languages; and the ever-present dusty heat of the desert, which is almost palpable in the music.

Calexico's work has a strong mariachi influence, and they often join with Tuscon's great mariachi bands for hometown gigs. The single best concert I've ever been to in my life was one of these combined performances, at the Rialto Theatre in the spring of 2008: Calexico, two full mariachi bands, and a host of other musicians...there must have been 30-odd musicians on stage by the end, and it's a wonder they didn't blow the roof off the place with their energy, their passion, and their big, bold sound. It was beyond good, it was absolutely sublime, and I was high from it for days. (And sore, too, from hours of dancing.)

Above, the video for "Crystal Frontier," a song about border-crossing containing references to the La Llorona folktale.

Below, Calexico joins Mariachi Luz de Luna onstage in Tucson to perform a classic son jarocho tune, "El Cascabel."

Above, crossing musical borders of another kind: Calexico performs their song "Fortune Teller," backed by the Radio Symphonieorchester Wien and the audience, at ORF Radio Kulturhaus in Vienna, Austria (2012).

Below, Calexico and the Greek band Takim combine musical traditions for the Lizard Sound Sessions in Athens, Greece (2014).

Calexico's latest album, Edge of the Sun, was inspired by the music and culture of Mexico City. The song below, "Cumbia de Donde," is from the new album, performed with Guatemalan singer/songwriter Gaby Moreno a few months ago.

Lordy, this is making me miss Tucson this morning....

The driveway to my old house in Tucson

If you'd like  little more music today, try the new video of Calexico and Neko Case performing "Tapping on the Line," which is also from Edge of the Sun; or "Alone Again," a classic Calexico song performed live in Germany in 2011.


Stones in My Pocket:
On Grief, Change, and Myths of Death & Rebirth

A winter day in Devon


Winter

The earth now lies through nights drenched
in the still dark benediction of the rain
and dusky houses and branches stand out bleak
each day in mist, in white, and in the rustling wet.
All, all is rich and restful, with heavy
and secret and rich growth finding its way
through warm soil to every leaf and shoot
and binding everything – near, far – mysteriously
with moisture, fruitfulness, and great desire
- till one clear afternoon suddenly we see
the glistening grass, the tenderly rising grain
and know that life is served by rest.
How could I ever have thought of summer
as richer than this season’s mystery?

- N.P. Van Wyk Louw


Van Wyk Louw's poem "Winter" has become a touchstone for me during the dark part of the year, for it reminds me not to measure my days by action and accomplishment only; it reminds me that life is also "served by rest," and that winter is the natural time for retreat, hibernation, and introspection. I seem to need a lot of rest these days -- obstensively because I am healing from an illness, but my spirit is in need of rest and healing too: of time in the dark, in the underworld of the psyche. It is winter. It is not yet time to bloom.

One year ago I was in Arizona closing down the Endicott West Arts Retreat, which was my last and longest home in the desert, and the final home of my American life. The closing of E-West was anticipated, planned for, and accomplished in the best possible way -- and yet I mourned its lost, and I've continued to mourn with each new season of the passing year. In folk wisdom it is said that the sharpest phase of grief must be weathered for a full year and a day, and I find this prescript strangely accurate, as though loss must be carried through all four seasons before its weight begins to lighten and life goes on.

 winter day in the desert

I didn't, however, expect to be quite so rattled that E-West had come to its end. "It's just a life change," I tell myself firmly, exasperated by the strength and persistence of the feeling. "You wanted to move to England full-time. For heaven's sake, no one has died."  

But, in fact, someone has died: the person I used to be in Arizona. My desert self. My younger self, who seems so different than the woman I am now, for she was physically stronger and thus quicker, bolder, In Arizona, 1990smore intrepid in adventure than I am today...if also less wise, less tempered, less steady: the gifts of age and experience. That young woman is inside of me, of course, but I am not her; I will never be her again; and packing up my last home in the desert brought me face to face with this "little death."

For many months I have carried the weight of loss like stones in the lining of my pocket -- stones rubbed smooth by handling -- finding comfort in their feel, their rattling sound, their familiarity. But eventually we must empty out our pockets, for life is full of these "little deaths" and if grief is left to accumulate, then the garment of our soul becomes threadbare, misshapen, and our spirit just as heavy as the stones. Death, as myth constantly reminds us, is not an end point but a station one passes through as life turns on the Great Wheel of renewal: each self (representing the stages of our lives) dies so that the next one can be born; death and birth, endlessly repeated. We can't move forward (with our lives, our art) without these endings, these little deaths, these acts of letting go, which create the space for new ideas and fresh momentum.

Saint Francis holding stones

In the mythological calendar, the passage from winter into spring is the perfect time for giving stones back to the earth. The Corn King/Year King/Winter King has died, and will be re-born with the greening of the hills: a virile young consort for the Goddess, his seed ensuring the land's fecundity...until he, too, withers with the dying of the year and emerges again next spring.

This ancient theme of an agricultural king who dies and regenerates each year is reflected in the traditional British folksong of John Barleycorn:

          
There was three men come out of the West

Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in
Throwing clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

They've left him in the ground for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John's sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They've left him in the ground till the Midsummer
Till he's grown both pale and wan
Then little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man . . .

(Read the full lyrics and hear the song here. )


Mythic scholars have linked John Barleycorn to Beowa (the Anglo-Saxon god of barley, grain, and agricultural), and to Byggvir (the Norse god of barley, grain, and the art of milling),  for similar stories of sacrifical death and resurrection are associated with all three figures.

Persephone by Virginia Lee

Persephone by Virginia Lee

One of the best known stories of death and re-birth is the Greek myth of Persephone, who was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, fertility, and patroness of marriage. (Demeter's name derives from "spelt mother," spelt being an early form of wheat.) When Persephone is abducted to the Underworld by Hades (god of the dead), her mother's grief causes the seasons to stop, love-making to cease, and all living things to fail to grow...until Zeus intervenes and Persephone is returned, but only for six months of each year. The girl has eaten pomegranate seeds in Hell, binding her to Hades in the autumn and winter. Each spring, she returns to her mother, and the greening of the earth begins anew. 

The veneration of Demeter, Persephone, and the cosmic cycle of death and re-birth was at the core of the Eleusinion Mysteries, whose initiatory rites took place each year just as the crops were sown. Beginning in an old cemetery in Athens, the participants walked in procession all the way to Eleusis, stopping at certain places along the route to shout obscenities. (This was in honor of Iambe, an old woman who's earthy stories had made Demeter laugh during her season of sorrow.) In Eleusis, the initiates fasted for a day (as Demeter did during her period of grief), then broke their fast with a special medicinal brew of barley water and mint. Little is known about the final rituals as the participants (sometimes several thousands of them) gathered together in the sect's great hall, for it was strictly forbidden for such sacred things to be spoken of in public.

Demeter Mourning Persephone by  Evelyn De Morgan

Demeter, often pictured wearing a wreath of wheat or corn, has much in common with Selu, the Corn Mother of the Cherokee Nation, also associated with agriculture, fertility, and the sanctity of marriage. When her grandsons break a strict taboo and spy on Selu's mysteries, she tells them she will have to leave them and die -- but that even in death she will look after them, provided they restore the harmony they have broken by performing certain rituals. "Clear a circle of land in front of the house," she says. "Take my body and drag it seven time around the circle. Then you must keep watch all night and see what happens."

The boys follow their grandmother's instructions, and from the places where Selu's blood speckles the ground comes the very first crop of corn, a sacred food which is still an important staple of the People today. In some versions of the story, however, the lazy boys clear only a small piece of land, and drag Selu's body only twice around the circle, which is why corn doesn't grow everywhere and we must work hard to cultivate it.

Selu sculpture by Raymond Moose on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina

Many carnival celebrations around the world are rooted in older pagan rites honoring the passage from winter to spring:  anarchic, riotous affairs in which laughter and satire are given a social outlet and a sacred context. Alan Weisman described carnaval as it's still practiced in the villages of northern Spain:

"In Laza, the event is known by its Galician name, entroido: introduction, entry. Elsewhere in Spain and Europe where it is still observed, and in Latin America, where it has been transplanted, it is called carnaval. Centuries ago, when Christianity superimposed its holy calendar on the cycles of nature, the formerly pagan celebration became a brief, sanctioned burst of scheduled excess before 40 somber days of Lenten abstinence and repentance. (One theory holds that the word carnaval derives from 'carne va'—'there goes the meat.') Lent concludes with Easter, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, coinciding handily with the spring equinox -- resurrection of the pagan sun god."

This, notes Alan, is the  one time of year when authority figures are ignored, or mocked, and the people reign. "Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule; the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and -- most prized of all -- fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again."

(To read Alan's full article, go here.)

Spanish Carnaval

Photograph by David Bacon

Re-enactment of the mythic cycle of death and re-birth can still be found in many sacred traditions, from the ritual practices of Siberian shamans to the Easter pageants of Christianity. In the Border region of southern Arizona, where Mexican American, Native American and European American cultures all come together, the Easter ceremonies of the Yaqui (Yoeme) tribe contain a fascinating mix of religious traditions (similar to those of the Mayo and other tribes of northern Mexico).

Private spiritual rituals practiced in the months between Christmas and Easter, most intensively during the weeks of Lent, culminate in a public drama enacting an unusual version of Christ's Passion, blending ancient Yaqui mystical  beliefs with 17th-century Spanish Catholicism. The "three Marys" (figures of the Blessed Virgin) are Yaqui Deer Dancerguarded in an open-sided church by hymn-singing women, matachins (a dance society of men and boys), pahkola dancers (a kind of holy clown), and the deer dancer -- an enchanted figure from the old Yaqui "religion of the woods." Opposing them are the forces of Judas: faceless fariseos, dressed in black, and chapayekas wearing elaborate masks, strings of rattles, and painted wooden swords.

These dark figures march and dance around the church for many days and nights...and eventually, on the last day before Easter, they attack. The church bells ring, the deer dancer leaps, the faithful pelt the dark forces with flowers. The watching crowds throw flowers and confetti, shouting "Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!" The dark ones fall back, regroup, march...and then attack once more. Again they're driven back. On the third attack they are overcome by the forces of good: by songs, prayers, armloads of flowers. They strip off weapons, black scarves and masks (subsequently burned on a huge bonfire), and relatives drag the exhausted men back into the safety of the church -- a ritual resurrection, dedicating new lives to the forces of good.

The deer and pahkola dancers have been incorporated into this ritual, yet come from the tribe's pre-Christian past. They are, in one sense, shamanic figures, able to cross over the borders between the human world of the Baptised Ones, the modern Yaqui, to the flower world of the ancestors, a magical people called the Surem.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

When we look at traditional folktales, it's striking how many address the subject of loss. A sizeable number of tales begin with the loss of a parent, a sibling, a fortune, a home, or an identity -- and rarely does that which is missing return, intact and unchanged, at the end of the story. Instead, loss is the catalyst that leads to transformation. 

The older versions of fairy tales were unflinching in their portrayal of calamity: kings abruptly beggared, queens dying young, children orphaned, cursed, and disowned. In The Handless Maiden, the heroine's hands are cut off at the wrist by her own father. The subsequent story of her journey through the world, rendered nearly helpless by her loss and yet still possessed of kindness and courage, speaks to everyone who has ever felt the wound of a loved one's betrayal. In The Seven Ravens, retold by the Brothers Grimm, seven princes lose their humanity due to their The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanekfather's carelessness. Salvation comes from their young sister, who bravely suffers a loss of her own: she must cut off her little finger to make the key to unlock their prison. Beauty gives up her home and future to save her father from a beast; Cinderella is transformed by the loss of her mother from a coddled daughter to a kitchen drudge, until the simple loss of a shoe transforms her again and she becomes a princess. Sleeping Beauty loses one hundred years of life; her parents lose a precious daughter as the vines grow high and her bedchamber is shrouded in roses and silence.

These were tales, in their older forms, meant for adult audiences, not the nursery; and in some of them, the depiction of grief and loss is sharp and brutal. This is particularly true of the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which were beloved by adult readers across Europe in Andersen's lifetime. Here, unlike Disneyfied fairy tales today, we're never assured of a happy ending; here, the Little Mermaid is forgotten by her prince, the Brave Tin Soldier melts in the stove, and the Little Matchgirl dies alone, frozen by the breath of winter.

Though children also experience grief (and sometimes love the saddest of tales), the subject of loss as a literary theme becomes more and more resonant as we age -- as the passing years bring with them the inevitable loss of friends and family members; of homes and jobs; of innocence; of wild lands lost to development and memories lost to the ravages of time; of the many things we cling to, mourn in passing, and learn to live without.

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing.

"To live in this world," advised poet Mary Oliver, "you must learn to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

Like myth, the great fantasy tales of our day have much to tell us about "loving what is mortal" and then letting it go. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, for example, and Ursula Le Guin's early "Earthsea" books, revolve around the adventures of young heroes -- but loss, change, and the impact of life's "little deaths" are also major themes. (In "Earthsea," the aging of the heroes is beautifully explored as the series progresses.)

Ellen Kushner -- who entered the fantasy field, like me, as a young writer/editor in the 1980s -- has pointed out that our generation of fantasists is now middle-aged or beyond. "Our concerns are different now," she muses. "If we stick to writing fantasy, what are we going to do? Traditionally, there's been the coming-of-age novel, and the quest novel, which is the finding of self. We're past the early stages of that. Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever? I don't think so. Tolkien's books are not juvenile. The Lord of the Rings is about losing things you've loved, which is a very middle-aged concern. Frodo's quest is a middle-aged man's quest, to lose something and to give something up, which, as you age, is what you start to realize is going to happen to you. Part of the rest of your life is learning to give things up."

The Scribe by Alan Lee

Learning to give things up.... 

I'm thinking now of my last night at Endicott West, saying goodbye to a place that had held so much of my life and so many of my dreams. I'd wanted to let it go lovingly, gracefully, and I was surprised by just how hard that was. The ghost of my younger self stood beside me, growing thinner, paler, more insubstantial with every moment that passed.

My partners and I lit one last blaze in the campfire circle beneath the stars, and thanked the spirits in the old tribal way: with sage, cedar, and the desert tobacco that I'd grown and cured on that beautiful land. Then we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and reminisced about the days of building the Retreat, acknowledging all the blessings we'd received there, all the blessings we'd carry on from it. This is what I wanted to take back home to England: this good fellowship and these good memories, not the stony weight of loss and grief for a phase of life that had reached its natural end. But of course we don't control these things. Grief comes when it will, and takes the time it takes, and there's no short-cut to moving through it. Grief must be honored. It's the heart's clear measure of the value of what we've loved, and what we've lost.

Endicott West fire circle at dawn.

Mesquite kindling, reading to be lit

"In my own worst seasons," wrote our former E-West neighbor Barbara Kingsolver (in her essay collection High Tide in Tucson), "I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.''

Stones

Well, I've not been in "despair" exactly, I've just been feeling a little bit...off. Blame it on poor health. Blame it on the weather, which is wet and cold, unlike the winters of the desert. Blame it on exhaustion; I've been carrying these stones for a full year and a day, and it's time to put them down.

Here on Dartmoor, it's been a long grey winter...but every now and then the sun breaks through. I put on muddy boots, whistle for the dog, and we squelch our way through hills that glimmer "in the rustling wet" (to quote Van Wyk Louw's poem) like the saturated colors of a watercolor painting.  These colors remind me that grief will pass. Winter will pass. The months, the seasons, the Great Wheel will turn. I have re-learned joy many times before, and I am simply doing it one more time. The land that is now my home lifts and sustains me.

And spring is coming.

Woodland snow.

The first wild daffodil shoots in the woods.Image credits and descriptions are in the picture captions. Run your cursor over the pictures to see them. This essay is dedicated to Ellen & Delia.


Guest Post: Days of the Dead

Dionicio Remembered by Stu Jenks

Today's Guest Post concerns the annual "Día de los Muertos" festivities in Tucson, Arizona. Started by a single artist in 1990, Tucson's All Souls Procession has grown into a weekend-long event with close to 100,000 participants, including numerous art instalation and altars and a pyrotechnic Finale.   - T.W.


Dancing skeletons
Tucson's All Souls Procession
photographs and text by Stu Jenks

Many in Western culture today seem to believe that we will never die. If we eat right, exercise and think good thoughts, we’ll live forever, and if not that, we’ll all die in our sleep, having been perfectly healthy the night before at the ripe old age of 107.

But we all know that’s not true.

Death is many things: The end of long suffering and illness; a sudden death due to accident, violence or overdose; a child dying far too soon; a peaceful transition from one life to the next; a quiet entering into the void; a life everlasting; or simply a great big dirt nap.

Any, all, or none of the above.

But one thing is not mysterious.

We will all die, every single one of us, and after we have died, friends, family, and loved ones will remember us, and most will miss that we are no longer around.

Annie Gordon by Stu Jenks

Leon's Mom by Stu Jenks

Tucson’s All Souls’ Procession Weekend is a remembrance of those who have died and the mysteries that surround them.

The weekend begins with an afternoon for children, and finishes with Sunday’s All Souls’ Procession and Finale -- when the Urn of full of prayers gathered from the crowd is spectacularly set alight -- leaving people stunned and awake, crying and smiling, somber and laughing, fearful and full of faith.

Prayers Received by Stu Jenks

Fire-swinger by Stu Jenks

Prayer Collector by Stu Jenks

Prayers for the Urn by Stu Jenks

Every one I know who has participated in a Tucson All Souls’ Procession Weekend, as a walker, watcher, or performer, has a story of being unexpectedly moved, shaken, or awed.

"I saw ghosts rising from that vacant lot. I swear I did," said one acrobat, pointing across the street toward where an old city graveyard once sat.

"I really miss my daddy, so I’m making this," said a five year old girl working on a mini-shrine of twigs and grass in Armory Park for her deceased father.

"I felt my mother’s presence beside me the whole way," said one middle-aged woman, waiting to watch the Finale.

Watching, Remembering by Stu Jenks

Honoring the Dead by Stu Jenks

All Souls Piper by Stu Jenks

"I was brought to tears by the sounds of the bagpipes," said a man in a kilt as we ascended from beneath the Fourth Avenue underpass.

"Every time I saw Lois’s face projected on that big wall, I burst into tears,” said a woman, who stood on the roof of a warehouse along the route.

These stories are at the same time both personal and universal.

Two Poi by Stu Jenks

Green Prayer Urn by Stu Jenks

Passel of Women and Urn by Stu Jenks

Lighting the Urn by Stu Jenks

The Urn Ignites by Stu Jenks

Prayers Burning by Stu Jenks

"What makes All Souls’ so amazing to me," said a long time walker of the Sunday Procession, "is we are all having this very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people, who are also having a very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people. It’s really hard to put into words."

Yes, it is.

Cross and Candle by Stu JenksImages and text copyright by Stu Jenks; used with his permission.  The photo titles are in the picture captions -- which can be viewed by running your cursor over the images.

A book of All Souls images by Stu and other Tucson photographers ecan be purchased here, with proceeds benefiting the Procession.


Tune for a Monday Morning

I'll be travelling home to England from mid-day Sunday to Monday evening (Tucson to Georgia to London to Exeter to our little village at the edge of the moor...it's a bit of a journey), so I'm writing this piece in advance and setting it up for automated posting on Monday morning (UK time). The music today is from Charles de Lint and MaryAnn Harris, who filmed this video for Charles' song "Cherokee Girl" here in Tucson and at Endicott West. It seems like a fitting farewell to the desert. I'll be back of course, and will continue to re-visit this landscape in fiction, art, and dreams, but my life right now is firmly rooted in Devon, family, and the Chagford community.

Rincon Mountains in rain

This weekend, we were blessed with rain in the desert. I know that sounds odd to friends back in Chagford, where we've had so much rain this winter that we're all in danger of turning into fish and floating away. But in this dry, dry land water is precious, sacred, and deeply magical. It deepens the colors of cacti and stone, and smells....oh, the scent of the desert after the rain is indescribable, but it's one of the best scents in the world.

The scents of sage and creosote fill the air

The Rincon Mountains

“A Sonoran Desert village may receive five inches of rain one year and fifteen the next," writes Gary Paul Nabhan (in The Desert Smells Like Rain). "A single storm may dump an inch and a half in the matter of an hour on one field and entirely skip another a few hours away. Dry spells lasting for months may be broken by a single torrential cloudburst, then resume again for several more months. Unseasonable storms, and droughts during the customary rainy seasons, are frequent enough to reduce patterns to chaos. The Papago [a.k.a. the Tohono O'odham] have become so finely tuned to this unpredictability that it shapes the way they speak of rain. It has also ingrained itself deeply in the structure of their language. Linguist William Pilcher has observed that the Papago discuss events in terms of their probability of occurrence, avoiding any assumption that an event will happen for sure..."

"Since few Papago are willing to confirm that something will happen until it does, an element of surprise becomes part of almost everything. Nothing is ever really cut and dried. When rains do come, they're a gift, a windfall, a lucky break.”

Wind chimes

I feel lucky indeed to have lived in the Sonoran Desert. Thank you, beloved and beautiful land. For everything you have taught me over all these years, and for this rain. I'll miss you. And I won't forget.

After rain