Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sacred Willow

Weather: Warm afternoons continue to dry the mud; when temperatures drop at night, the moisture hovers above and keeps morning temperatures in the middle to high 20's; last precipitation 2/17/12; 10:08 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming: Black mustard coming into bloom along shoulders.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on hybrid roses and young chamisa; leaves on grape hyacinth, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia seedlings, snakeweed, anthemis, strap leaf aster; cheat grass.

What’s red: Cholla; branches on Russian olive, tamarix, sandbar willow, apples, apricots, spirea, wild roses and raspberry; leaves on coral bells, pinks, soapworts.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf seedlings, beardtongues, golden hairy and purple asters.

What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae; branches on weeping willow more intensely yellow.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Small birds.

Weekly update: The use of willow for sacred objects made to ensure a bountiful food supply goes back thousands of years, to the time when corn wasn’t yet an important part of the diet.

By then, the large mammals hunted with Clovis points around 9500 bc had come and gone with the peripheral environment of the last glaciers. The bison hunted with Folsom points around 8000 bc had moved on when the climate continued drying. The people who remained in the southwest adapted by following annual crops of seeds and berries and eating rabbits.

Then, about 2000 bc, the rains returned. Big horned sheep were in the area stretching from Grand Canyon west through the Mojave to what is now China Lake Naval Weapons Center at the base of the Sierra Nevada. A new technology, Gypsum points, developed and foragers perfected coiled basketry.

With the animals came hunting rituals whose artifacts were found at Newberry Cave southeast of Barstow on the Mojave river in the 1950's. They included quartz crystals with pigments and adhesives still attached, feathers wrapped in sinew, sheep dung wrapped in sinew and some petroglyphs.

Most important were small figures made by forming strands of willow into animal shapes then wrapping them with the same piece of willow. They found 11 in tact and fragments of another 1,000 that dated to 1500 bc.

Such figurines have been found in at least 15 sites in the lower Colorado basin and have occasionally been made with skunk bush or cottonwood. The earliest were found at Stanton’s Cave in the Grand Canyon from 2000 bc where they were associated with deer. They persisted in the Canyon Lands at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers where they evolved into social totems.

The petroglyph tradition persisted for another two thousand years in the nearby Coso Mountains. There drawings etched in volcanic rock show big horn sheep and animal-man figures. David Whitley argues the ones made a thousand years ago were done by Shoshoni shamans who traveled miles to seek contact with spirits of big horn who controlled rain. The details of the drawings came from their trances.

Alan Garfinkle suggests the ones made three thousand years ago, those contemporary with the willow figures, often show leaping or running sheep without hunters or depict long lines of animals emerging from crevices in the rocks. He believes they were done in communal spring rituals by people who believed animal spirits reemerged annually from the underworld. The glyphs were attempts to ensure a large population of edible animals.

Garfinkle notes many were more practically located near ambush sites, suggesting a more direct link to hunting magic. There are something like 35,000 glyphs scattered over 90 square miles.

Hunting techniques from 3000 years ago are difficult to understand when only stone points survive and petroglyphs show only the most symbolic interactions between man and animal. In more recent times, men in Wyoming first drove sheep into traps. There’s evidence they also used juniper bark nets to snare animals who could then be killed.

If such techniques were used earlier, wrapping an animal figure in the willow from which it would be formed would be more than a representation of a fixed moment. It’s creation would be a symbolic dramatization of the hunt itself.

Unlike the Coso petroglyphs which exist in open areas, the split twig figurines tend to be found in caves, many inaccessible today. Their location in a pluvial period may have been different, but there’s little indication Newberry was entered for any reason other than rituals. There’s little evidence of stratigraphy and no signs of occupation.

The use of willow may have been pragmatic: it was available, it was used for nets, it was pliable enough to form the figures. If the association of sheep with rain predates the cultural complex described by Whitley, the use of willow to capture the spirit of the sheep may have been meant more in a society more dependent on plants than animals for food.

Notes: All dates are general approximations.

Coulam, Nancy J. and Alan R. Schroedl. “Late Archaic Totemism in the Greater American Southwest,” American Antiquity 69:41-62:2004.

Crockett, Stephanie. “The Prehistoric Peoples of Jackson Hole,” in John Daugherty, A Place Called Jackson Hole, 1999.

Davis, C. Alan, RE Taylor, Gerald A. Smith. “New Radiocarbon Determinations from Newberry Cave,” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 3:144-147:1981.

Garfinkel, Alan P. “Paradigm Shifts, Rock Art Theory, and the Coso Sheep Cult of Eastern California,” North American Archaeologist 27:203-244:2006.

Whitley, David S. A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada, 1996.

Wulbrecht, Sally. “The Mountain Shoshones: Sheep Eaters,” Wind River Historical Center website.

1. Sandbar willow on ditch banks near Española, 13 January 2012.

2. Sandbar willow on banks of Santa Cruz river just before it merges with the Rio Grande, 29 December 2011.

3. Globe willow, 30 January 2012, just acquiring its winter color.

4. Weeping willow growing down the road, 27 January 2012, with winter yellow branches.

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