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The Legend of Coyoté Oak
A blue-silver ribbon drapes across the prairie horizon, marking the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow. The thin, luminous band reminds that we gather spiritual insight oftentimes, only in present darkness. All around me, the dome of night masks the colors of life, but from the distant ceiling stars singe the blackness and the wisdom of their ancient rays merges into the promise of morning. By their light, the stars testify that well-aged truth crosses time’s boundary, bridging the knowledge of deeds remembered with the challenges to come. I watch as the ribbon widens and the once clear edge of daybreak, no longer poignant, diffuses upon a waking world.
The tall woods stand high on an eastern slope where the growing dawn silhouettes the trees’ knurled branches and their swollen buds are waking from winter slumber. With primeval presence they stand, as they have for tens of thousands of mornings, awaiting the warm wash of sunlight. I wait with them. Etched in silent revere, their branches stretch the four directions against the sky and Owl perches far out upon a north-reaching bough.
Darkness is fading quickly as Owl posts watch over the remnants of his nocturnal kingdom. The night eagle’s swift flight is over for a time and he must surrender the sky to creatures of daylight. Drawing a great breath and with all his being, Owl leaned forward, giving a great hoot toward the coming sun. Repeatedly, Owl thrusts his body forward, propelling his salute skyward and ruffling his breast feathers with each declaration as if to punctuate its importance. Then with nonchalance befitting his wisdom, his large golden eyes directed at me, he proclaims, “You have come on a special morning. Watch this day, learn, and remember.” Without another word, Owl raises one last commanding cry, then swoops from his roost and glides into a nearby hollow.
I thought myself only an observer of this scene, peering for a moment into the depths of a vivid imagination, but the piercing glance of Owl made it clear that I am also the observed. I am a full participant. Encircling me, the daily shift-change of nature’s workers scurried to and from burrow and nest to the accompaniment of the twilight songbirds that announce this transition twice daily. Never have I witnessed earth’s circadian exchange so vividly where, unconcerned by my presence, animals of all kinds passed, adapting their routine from night into day. Owl’s greeting had jerked me from silent contemplation and pushed me into the thick of life.
Sparkling in the first rays of light, Spider finished the last stitches of her night’s weaving and settled for a moment’s rest at the center of her remodeled web. She knew soaring insects would soon take flight in the warm sunlight and bring nourishment for her night’s labor. Coming up the trail just beyond Spider’s web, Coyoté, her head down, approached with a weary gait. “You look sad,” I thought to myself, upon which Coyoté raised her muzzle and said, “It was a hard night. Rabbit was very clever, slipping into that bramble thicket. My pups will be hungry today.” I was astonished she had heard my thoughts, but Coyoté picked up the cue and immediately continued my education.
“Do you know where you are?” Coyoté asked, causing me to realize that I didn’t. I last remembered being atop the hill above my vineyard waiting for the sunrise and had no recollection of how I got to this curious place. Coyoté gave a cunning smile and said, “You are in the ‘Tall Wood,’ before time. Things here are probably very different from the world you know. All beings are more connected here and haven’t suffered the separation. That is why you knew Spider’s thoughts and I understood your kindness to me. Everything here communicates with everything else and we are all grateful for the gift of each other. The same way the Tall Wood appreciates the rocks and rain that bring it nourishment, I thank Rabbit, whose sacrifice feeds my family.” I interjected, “But you were so discouraged because you didn’t catch Rabbit last night.” Coyoté answered, “If I caught Rabbit every night, there would be no Rabbit at all. This forest would overgrow with trees and I would have no food. It’s all a balance. Rabbit’s victory is ultimately my own, for it keeps our dance going.”
“How did I get here?” I asked, intrigued by Coyoté’s willingness to teach me. “You are not the first to visit,” Coyoté remarked, “but visitors are few and find their way here for good reason. You slipped across the border between the past and future, the ribbon of light preceding the sunrise. You could have gone many places but Spirit brought you here. ‘Watch this day, learn, and remember,’ as Owl advised, for he speaks truth and you should pay attention to his counsel. He does get a bit pompous, though, with all that ruffling and hooting, but I suppose he thinks me a bit mad, howling happily at the Moon. I guess we appreciate each other’s antics. Well, I am tired and need to get back to my den, so if you have no further questions, I’ll be on my way.” Overwhelmed that I had had this conversation at all, I could think of nothing further to ask and wished her and her pups a good rest. As Coyoté loped off, she turned to say, “Oh, while you are here, time will be different; a few hours or many seasons may pass. Don’t be concerned; merely follow Owl’s advice. Good day to you, my friend,” and with that, she dashed around a bend in the trail.
The encounters with Owl and Coyoté all happened so naturally. It wasn’t the least bit strange to communicate, and I suspected they knew much more than they revealed. Now I was starting to question if I had gone quite crazy or if I would ever return to “normal,” whatever that had been. I couldn’t remember that, either. I found a rock outcropping over the hollow and thought it a good idea to rest while I coped with this new world. With joking courtesy, I asked Rock if it would be OK for me to rest on it. Of course, it answered me with a welcoming, “Yes.” At least my delusion is consistent, I thought, to which Rock replied, “It’s no delusion. You are really welcome to rest here.” I gave up and sat down, thinking it better not to argue with something as hardheaded as a boulder.
The sun was only a thin crescent on the horizon. It felt as though my exploits had taken hours, not the few minutes the crescent confirmed. Vivid colors gilded the sky; gold and orange overlaid splashes of magenta all in contrast to the azure blue of space. It was as beautiful a sunrise as I have ever seen. Rock whispered up at me, “The view is resplendent from here, isn’t it?” I agreed, impressed by Rock’s sentient acuity. The sunlight streamed down on the trees below, making the buds swell up and open to reveal the fresh green leaves of spring. Each leaf was perfect, unblemished by wind and weather. Each tree embodied both the stalwart wisdom of antiquity and the lithe exuberance of youth. My eyes wandered down to the rich soil beside me where the earth slowly pressed upward. In a few moments a small green shoot pushed its way through like a tiny bulldozer, stood itself upright, and unfurled two primary leaves that promptly turned sunward. Beside the seedling lay the two weathered halves of the acorn shell. I bent forward and said, “Welcome to the world, Little Oak. May your roots be deep, your heart grow strong, and your limbs carry the blessing of life.” I was pleased to be part of this birth and act as if I was a veteran in my newfound world. The Little Oak excitedly asked, “Is it always this beautiful?” Rock, sensing that I didn’t know, quickly responded, “Yes. The Earth is good but life comes with struggles. Let the beauty fill your heart, young one, and you’ll be fine.” With that, the seedling stretched with joy toward the dappled sky.
With the sun fully up and its warm light flowing down the hillside, I decided to explore the trail where Coyoté had departed earlier. Perhaps I would see her but in daylight, the night creatures safely nested out of sight. A short way around the bend, the trail descended into the hollow and I could see a stream flowing. Carefully, I moved downward over the sandstone ruff when I noticed the outcropping above where I had watched the sunrise. To my amazement, the Tall Wood had already grown dense with foliage, and the seedling was now a young sapling standing a few feet tall. Just as Coyoté foretold, time was different here.
I accepted the shift in time for, after all, in this world all the rules are extraordinary. I looked back up at Little Oak, who seemed another few inches taller, as Squirrel rippled along the slope and scrambled up beside him. At least Squirrels still move the same in this world with their hurry-scurry impertinence, I mused. Squirrel sat up on his hind legs furiously expounding. “No! No! No!” he chattered. “I buried your acorn here myself last fall as part of my winter supply. I chose this spot because it was high and would remain dry. You were never supposed to grow here, NEVER! NEVER!” he repeated stamping his foot. “Furthermore,” he prattled, “there is not enough moisture for you on a hill. You had just better move along. This is my winter storage cellar.”
Little Oak looked wilted with his small limbs hanging low. Squirrel’s scolding had clearly hurt his feelings, and the incessant rebuke continued until I felt compelled to hurl something at his tormentor. The little verbose piece of fur had to know his place. I took aim on the contentious rodent, but then Little Oak stood erect and with great determination pronounced, “Enough. I’ll move.” That is impossible, I reasoned, until wriggling root after root out of the ground, I saw Little Oak, fully twice his height atop them, ambling downhill towards me. Moving with centipede-like precision, the roots flagellated in synchronous waves as the little tree approached. “How did you do that? Don’t you have to grow where you’re planted?” I asked, and was stunned when Little Oak replied, “I don’t think so. Can’t you move on your legs and toes?” I shook my head thinking, “Maybe if you don’t know what you can’t do, you can do anything.” Little Oak just gave me a perplexed look and continued his synchronized saunter until he found a perfect spot beside the stream.
The young sapling, reversing the earlier process, wriggled his roots back into the soil near a grove of large oak trees. The only thing still amazing was that each event I saw seemed more amazing than the last. Certainly there had been much to watch this day, and I couldn’t help but remember such phenomenal encounters. Nevertheless, what was I to learn? That remained unclear; nothing I had seen applied to the world I lived in. It was beyond description and only further questioned my sanity.
I walked down the trail, occasionally engaging an insect, field mouse, plant, or bird in conversation and stopping to smell the roses. They informed me, as they smelled me back, that my after-shave wasn’t so pleasing. This was a world without guile or pretense, and all things being equal, ALL things seemed particularly equal here. Some time must have passed when I became aware that the sun was very warm, so I headed for the grove of oaks at the bottom of the hollow for a little shade.
The cool shadows were a welcome change as I entered the woods. Filtered beams of light streamed through a delicate brume, giving a feeling of high magic. The densely grouped oaks grew in deep soil, which gave them massive, erect trunks. Column after column, they evoked reverence. Their towering carriage humbled me, yet I felt a penetrating peace as I advanced into their community. High above, their canopy guarded the space and its verdant light illumined the arched branches like trusses of a great cathedral. There, resting quietly, slept Owl. In the hush of this sacred place, I walked in silence.
With solemn strides, I moved into the center of the grove, where concentric circles of stones surrounded a fire pit with seven stones, each bearing a petroglyph on the innermost row. I didn’t recognize the marks, but they seemed hauntingly familiar. Some reminded me of Aramaic letters while others resembled cave paintings, and every carving evoked a primal response. In this undisturbed surrounding, my footsteps alone entered uninvited on holy ground and I quietly made my exit. As I left, the intensely spiritual ambiance wafted though my being as if the meaning of one of these cryptic symbols had engraved itself upon my heart.
The stream flowed down from the grove and, drawn to follow its course, I found the oak trees interspersed with marshes and grassy banks. The water widened into a small pond and I saw Little Oak standing just across from me. A natural dam stretched across the waterway where Beaver and her young were swimming with a good-sized branch in tow. I watched while she carefully wove the branch into her lodge as if she were following an architect’s blueprint; completing her work with exact precision, she promptly dived back into the water and headed for the opposite bank. With pointed determination, she swam directly to the bank beneath Little Oak, crawled up and began gnawing away at his four inch trunk. In minutes, Little Oak tumbled over, succumbing to her sharp teeth and builder’s determination. Dragging him to the shoreline, she towed him into the water and then inserted him in her lodge wall. Responding to my alarm, her thoughts rang urgently in my mind: “Winter is coming. Winter is coming; the lodge must be finished before it becomes too cold.”
Mirroring my mood, the skies begin to cloud over. A thick gray overcast brought a chill to the air, the wind shifted to the north and the day changed as quickly as my feelings had. Looking across the pond at the stump remaining where Little Oak stood, I saw a new shoot had already grown a few inches tall. It had started snowing heavily by the time I excitedly returned to the tree, and above the white blanketed landscape Little Oak’s heartwood gleamed a bright golden orange. Unlike the venerating silence near the hearth, the trees on the outskirts of the grove murmured and stirred among themselves. The ruckus seemed focused and charged with emotion. Finally, a nearby tree bent towards the exposed stump and dogmatically announced, “You are not one of us. You have to go!” “But I am an oak,” Little Oak protested. “I grew from an acorn, just like you! Squirrel planted me on top of that ridge.” Another tree replied mockingly, “Look at your heartwood. That is not the color of our wood. You are not an oak like us. Go!” With that pious censure, all the trees turned away, shunning him, and the distress showed in his sagging stance. He squirmed from the soil beneath him, exposing large, radiant, golden-yellow roots, and ambulated towards a barren knoll.
Attracted by the bright orange wood, Rabbit bounded from the underbrush and nibbled the tender shoot right down to the ground. Surely, I thought, this disheartened little sprout won’t survive this time, and I sadly knelt down over the masticated stub of remains, my tears dripping onto the colorful heartwood beneath me. As if replying to my anguish, a shoot burst upward from the besieged trunk which, quite different from the last, was stronger and covered with rigid thorns. Little Oak then quietly told me he must now rest for the winter. Would I still be in this world when spring returned? I wondered. I rose to walk away when a humanoid form startled me from behind. The being appeared to be a primitive human, although his arms and legs attached strangely in that his legs projected more from the front of his torso while his arms fastened slightly towards his back. He wore pelts of various animals and a helmet-like feather sheath with two long, curved antelope antlers protruding from his head. Curiously, there were no footsteps in the snow other than my own.
“You need not be concerned; the young tree’s transformation is complete,” the frightening man-beast extolled. “He is not prisoner to his form. From his first glimpse of the sunrise, he learned to change, drawing dawn’s beauty into his heart. Its colors live in his heartwood and golden roots; even when rejected, that beauty did not fade. He sacrificed himself to sustain others and with each gesture, he grew stronger, learning to alter his form for protection while avoiding harm to others. He is the first of a long lineage that will spread across the plains and serve for lifetimes. They will call him by many names, but I call him The Coyoté Oak, for his wisdom burgeons and he shape shifts like Coyoté and me. Now, you must seek warm shelter.” As if to emphasize his message he jumped into the air, became Raven, and with a penetrating squawk, flew away before my eyes.
My body shivered as the cold wind cut through me. I jogged towards the grove. My questions raced as quickly as my feet. Had I met a shaman, a Medicine Man, and if so, where was his tribe? Whom did he serve here? In the cloistered hollow of the grove, the temperature was comfortable; the winds quieted and my pace slowed reverently to a walk in the sacred emanation of the place. A fire glowed from the pit within the stone circles and, as I gratefully moved to its warmth, one intriguingly large feather awaited right outside the fire’s reach. I imagined the feathered shaman might reveal himself, but in sacrosanct seclusion, I was alone.
Larger than an eagle’s or hawk’s, it was a tightly knit wing feather made to endure the winds of flight. Most striking, it displayed an array of colors with unusual iridescence in shades I have never seen. Absorbed as I lifted the precious plume, I abruptly hurtled upward with dreadful speed and in an instant was well out in space before falling quickly back towards the earth. Terror struck; my heart pounded wildly like a drummer in a seventh grade garage band, and understanding a completely new meaning for shooting star, I saw my burnout looming. Almost instinctively, I stretched out my arms trying to control my trajectory and remarkably, I was flying. Gliding a pathway along the edge of sunlight and shadow, I cruised downward towards the Earth, the rising slopes of the Andes before me. Approaching above the equatorial Amazon, I followed the great river inland.
The flight brought me from the early daylight back into the pre-dawn shadows as I sailed above a hunting party of Orinoco Indians along the river’s edge, who pointed skyward at my passing. Looking back, I saw a multi-hued wake tracing my flight across the sky. I had traversed the span of space with no comprehension of flight. My path somehow guided me to land in the dark rain forest, where a trail beckoned me to a destination glimmering in the trees.
Forward I progressed towards the light until I was amidst a crowd filling concentric stone circles around a fire pit. The group included every race. Deeply carved lines of hoary sagacity etched the faces of these men and women gathered in their diverse dress. Common to all was a single, unknown purpose, and such a wise counsel I approached modestly, questioning my place. Flamboyantly garbed in a feathered cape and headdress, a shaman stood at the center, motioning me to come forward. Standing in the shadows beyond clear vision was another being that appeared as if it was a bird arrayed in human form. Cautiously I approached as summoned, hearing the shaman announce to the group, “This is James.” When all eyes fell upon me, I was instantly atop my familiar hillside above the farm.
A blue-silver ribbon of light draped across the horizon, marking the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow. The sun still hung like a sliver on the border of earth and sky, so this must have been a delusion transpiring in an instant. Yet, alone in the tall grass, my hand still clutched the feather. My feet sodden by the wet spring kiss of morning dew around me, I saw only the small grove of hedge trees beside my vineyard. The Amazon rain forest and the Tall Wood were gone from view. I will remember this day; the feather trophy from a far off vision insures that, but it doesn’t belong in this world, nor can I explain how I ventured into its domain. How can I recount such magical events and mysterious transport from that realm to this? How could I explain it to Andrea, let alone clarify it for myself?
a Signed Copy from the Author