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A story of cedars and flutes

The Eastern Red Cedar is a vital source of shelter for birds and mammals in winter and the popularity of its berries is evidenced by its ability to quickly populate abandoned fields and disturbed areas. Berries are borne on female plants; the males have tiny cones that spread pollen in late winter. Due to its resistance to rot, the wood is often used for fenceposts or in furniture making. American Indians use the wood for flute-making and LauraO at Natural Notes 3 prefers them for her Christmas Tree.

Laura’s mention of flute-making in that post sparked my curiosity and I found this American Indian story to explain why cedars are prized for flute-making. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the sound of one, but this wonderful story gives me an idea of what it might be like. It’s long, but like all good stories, worth the read.


“The Legend of the Flute “

Well, you know our flutes, you’ve heard their sounds and seen how beautifully they are made. That flute of ours, the siyotanka, is for only one kind of music, love music. In the old days the men would sit by themselves, maybe lean hidden, unseen, against a tree in the dark of night. They would make up their own special tunes, their courting songs.

We Indians are shy. Even if he was a warrior who had already counted coup on a enemy, a young man might hardly screw up courage enough to talk to a nice-looking winchinchala — a girl he was in love with. Also, there was no place where a young man and a girl could be alone inside the village. The family tipi was always crowded with people. And naturally, you couldn’t just walk out of the village hand in hand with your girl, even if hand holding had been one of our customs, which it wasn’t. Out there in the tall grass and sagebrush you could be gored by a buffalo, clawed by a grizzly, or tomahawked by a Pawnee, or you could run into the Mila Hanska, the Long Knives, namely the U.S. Cavalry.

The only chance you had to meet your winchinchala was to wait for her at daybreak when the women went to the river or brook with their skin bags to get water. When that girl you had your eye on finally came down to the water trail, you popped up from behind some bush and stood so she could see you.

And that was about all you could do to show her that you were interested. Standing there grinning, looking at your moccasins, scratching your ear, maybe.

The winchinchala didn’t do much either, except get red in the face, giggle, maybe throw a wild turnip at you. If she liked you, the only way she would let you know was to take her time filling her water bag and peek at you a few times over her shoulder.

So the flutes did all the talking. At night, lying on her buffalo robe in her parents tipi, the girl would hear that moaning, crying sound of the siyotanka. By the way it was played, she would know that it was her lover who was out there someplace. And if the Elk Medicine was very strong in him and her, maybe she would sneak out to follow that sound and meet him without anybody noticing it.

The flute is always made of cedarwood. In the shape it describes the long neck and head of a bird with an open beak. The sound comes out of the beak, and that’s where the legend comes in, the legend of how the Lakota people acquired the flute.

Once many generations ago, the people had drums, gourd rattles, and bull-roarers, but no flutes. At that long-ago time a young man went out to hunt. Meat was scarce, and the people in his camp were hungry. He found the tracks of an Elk and followed them for a long time. The Elk, wise and swift, is the one who owns the love charm. If a man possesses Elk Medicine, the girl he likes can’t help sleeping with him. He will also be a lucky hunter. This young man I’m talking about had no Elk Medicine. After many hours he finally sighted his game. He was skilled with bow and arrows, and had a fine new bow and a quiver full of straight, well-feathered, flint-tipped arrows. Yet the Elk always managed to stay just out of range, leading him on and on. The young man was so intent on following his prey that he hardly noticed where he went.

When night came, he found himself deep inside a thick forest. The tracks had disappeared and so had the Elk, and there was no moon. He realized that he was lost and that it was too dark to find his way out. Luckily he came upon a stream with cool, clear water. And he had been careful enough to bring a hide bag of wasna, dried meat pounded with berries and kidney fat, strong food that will keep a man going for a few days. After he had drunk and eaten, he rolled himself into his fur robe, propped his back against a tree, and tried to rest. But he couldn’t sleep, the forest was full of strange noises, and the cries of night animals, the hooting owls, the groaning of trees in the wind. It was as if he heard these sounds for the first time.

Suddenly there was a entirely new sound, of a kind neither he nor anyone else had ever heard before. It was mournful and ghost like. It made him afraid, so that he drew his robe tightly about himself and reached for his bow to make sure that it was properly strung. On the other hand, the sound was like a song, sad but beautiful, full of love, hope, and yearning. Then before he knew it, he was asleep. He dreamed that the bird called wagnuka, the redheaded woodpecker, appeared singing the strangely beautiful song and telling him, “Follow me and I will teach you.”

When the hunter awoke, the sun was already high. On a branch of the tree against which he was leaning, he saw a redheaded woodpecker. The bird flew away to another tree, and another, but never very far, looking back all the time at the young man as if to say, “Come on!” Then once more he heard that wonderful song, and his heart yearned to find the singer. Flying toward the sound, leading the hunter, the bird flitted through the leaves, while its bright red top made it easy to follow. At last it lighted on a cedar tree and began hammering on a branch, making a noise like the fast beating of a small drum. Suddenly there was a gust of wind, and again the hunter heard that beautiful sound right above him.

Then he discovered that the song came from the dead branch that the woodpecker was tapping his beak. He realized also that it was the wind which made the sound as it whistled through the hole the bird had drilled.

“Kola, friend,” said the hunter, “let me take this branch home. You can make yourself another.”

He took the branch, a hollow piece of wood full of woodpecker holes that was about the length of his forearm. He walked back to his village bringing no meat, but happy all the same.

In his tipi the young man tried to make the branch sing for him. He blew on it, he waves it around, no sound came. It made him sad, he wanted so much to hear that wonderful new sound. He purified himself in the sweat lodge and climbed to the top of a lonely hill. There, resting with his back against a large rock, he fasted, going without food or water for four days and nights, crying for a vision which would tell him how to make the branch sing. In the middle of the fourth night, wagnuka, the bird with the bright red top, appeared, saying, “Watch me,” turning himself into a man, showing the hunter how to make the branch sing, saying again and again, “Watch this, now.” And in his dream the young man watched and observed very carefully.

When he awoke, he found a cedar tree. He broke off a branch and, working many hours, hollowed it out with a bowstring drill, just as he had seen the woodpecker do in his dream. He whittled the branch into the shape of the birds with a long neck and a open beak. He painted the top of the birds head with washasha, the sacred red color. He prayed. He smoked the branch up with incense of burning sage, cedar, and sweet grass. He fingered the holes as he had seen the man-bird do in his vision, meanwhile blowing softly into the mouthpiece. All at once there was the song, ghost like and beautiful beyond words drifting all the way to the village, where the people were astounded and joyful to hear it. With the help of the wind and the woodpecker, the young man had brought them the first flute.

In the thick of it

Emerging briefly from my sinus-infection-induced-stupor to mention that you might want to reconsider purchasing a pre-lit Xmas tree because someday you may have to re-string all those lights. My poor dear patient husband has been at it all day. Innocently I asked what we could do to prevent his having to ever do this again. He said he’d take it outside and light it on fire and dance around it before he’d do it again. Well!

Back to the couch and my blankie and a full box of tissues. The house is beginning to look glittery. Everything is sort of glittery; I guess because my one eye won’t stop running. Why is it that when I get a cold it’s all on one side of my head?


“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge-
That myth is more potent than history.
I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts-
That hope always triumphs over experience-
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.” – unknown

Anyone remember Robert Fulghum, he of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” fame? I loved his books when I was in college! At some point I lost track of his writing, or lost interest, but was reminded of him this evening during the ongoing holiday clean-up project to straighten out the bookshelves. I poked around on the internet and found that he has a website where he publishes occasional journal entries, if you’re a fan.

The quote and artwork above, which Fulghum calls the Storyteller’s Creed, were included on a postcard that came with his second book. I liked it and it’s hung beside my desk ever since. In the preface to that second book Fulghum requests that readers approach his book like the game of Show and Tell. He says his essays are like the odd treasures that children bring to school to share with their classmates. He asks that when we find something that resonates strongly – we share it – because he believes that, like children playing show and tell, there are some things that we as individuals attach a strong amount of importance to, thinking that we are the only one who values it, or cares about it, or thinks it to be true. But, he says, once a thing is shared, we oftentimes find that we aren’t alone in the meaning and importance we’ve attached to it.

I tried to remember things that as a child I might have brought to school for Show and Tell because they were so important to me or worthy of showing off. I can’t remember a single thing, of course. But I have to wonder if I were to play that game today as an adult, what one thing might I slip into a paper bag and bring to show off to my friends? What would you bring? What if it weren’t a *thing* that can easily fit in a bag or a box, but instead a *quality* – a way of thinking or feeling or being?

I’d like you to play along with me and share a quality that you value. I’ll go first. I value imagination. I don’t have a picture to show you what imagination looks like, but instead share this quote from J. Ruth Gendler, copied onto looseleaf paper and tucked in my wallet many years ago:

“When Imagination walks, she writes letters to the earth. When she runs, her feet trace postcards to the sun. And when she dances, when she dances, she sends love letters to the stars.

Some people accuse Imagination of being a liar. They don’t understand that she has her own ways of uncovering the truth. She studied journalism in junior high school. It gave her an excuse to leave school early and interview interesting people. She was surprisingly good at writing articles. When in doubt, she just made things up. More recently, Imagination has been working as a fortuneteller in the circus. She has this way of telling your fortune so clearly that you believe her, and then your wishes come true.

Imagination is studying photography now with an eye to making films. She has no intention of working in one of those factories where they manufacture images that lull us to sleep. Her vision is more complex and very simple. Even with the old stories, she wants us to see what has never been seen before.”

Your turn. 😉

Putting out fires

Gosh it’s great to be back at work! (I’m trying to be upbeat about the end of my vacation.) I’ve missed getting up before dawn, sitting in a stifling hot office all day, and then driving back home in the dark. Really, I have!

My coworker Linda likens our job at social services to that episode of “I Love Lucy” where she and Ethel are working in the chocolate factory. Remember that one? They can’t keep up with the candies as they make their way down the conveyor belt so the girls start popping the chocolates in their mouths…? Our job is something like that, but instead of chocolates, it’s paperwork. An endless stream of casefiles of families needing help. If you spend too much time with one client or get too involved with a particular case (or take a few days off!) the work backs up even worse than usual. There are a lot of people looking for help and good management of my caseload is something that has escaped me lately.

I think of it like putting out fires. Where are the hottest flames and the most smoke? Who sends out the loudest alarm? Have other departments been called in for mutual aid? You get the idea.

Where I run into trouble is being objective about how to spend my time. I suppose I should work first on the case that has been on my desk the longest, and in a good month that’s what I’ll do, but there’s often a contradiction in the work I want to do and the work that should be done. Between deserving and needing.

After spending most of this morning returning ridiculous *urgent* phone calls about overdue paperwork, I tried to get some of the really urgent cases off my desk. The family of illegal aliens whose wife and mother was killed in a car wreck last month, the kids ending up in intensive care and none had medical insurance. The teenager who just *discovered* she’s pregnant at six months and hasn’t had any prenatal care. The eldery lady who can’t afford her medicine and pay her rent. In the midst of these real emergencies, the fire I had to put out was that of the single mother who let her (free, on you and me) insurance coverage lapse because she couldn’t be bothered to send back the paperwork. She yelled the loudest today. She and her kids need the help, but are they deserving of my time, before the others? You see why I have a problem.

In case you’re interested, the fire pic was taken from my front stoop last May. An old farmhouse across the street burned down while the neighborhood stood and watched. It took the fire department forever to get water on it.


I went to the garden center around the corner today looking for a rosemary topiary. There was just one left and it was already half way to dead so I left it there. There were plenty of poinsettias though. I left them there too. I like them well enough when they’re massed together like in this pic, but one or two of them don’t look like much. Plus, if I bought them now they’d be wilting and making a mess well before the holidays arrive. Does anyone like these plants?

The house could use some sprucing up to help us get in the spirit, but today wasn’t the day to be shopping for wreaths and garlands – it was sixty degrees here! That didn’t seem to stop many of the folks I saw today picking out their trees. They seem to be in the spirit, but it’s still escaping me. I think I need some cold and snow before I’ll feel like it. What about you – have you started preparing for the holidays already? Are you one of *those people* that have all the gifts wrapped and hidden away somewhere?

Meet the wheekers

Pet stores are evil places that prey upon soft-hearted fools like me. I kid myself into thinking it’s safe to go in for supplies when I know full well that I’ll be tempted just the same. I’m a responsible person who knows better than to buy an animal from a pet store. I know that it’s important not to breed or buy animals when there are so many dying in shelters. All of the animals that share my home are rescues of one sort or another. The wheekers are pet store refugees.

I never wanted a guinea pig, still don’t in fact, but these furry guys have been here for about two years now. They had been bought from and then returned to the pet store where I buy bunny stuff. They were there in a corner week after week with an *Adopt Us* sign on their cage. Who wants rejected guinea pigs? Certainly not the silly people who come along and plop down $200 on a cage set-up and supplies for their kid’s throw-away pet. If they’re going to spend all that money, you can bet they want a brand-new animal, not some used version! So finally I got tired of looking at them there and brought them home thinking they wouldn’t be much more trouble than a bunny. And they’re not any more trouble, but they’re not bunnies, obviously. I prefer bunnies. Bunnies who can learn to use a litter box. Bunnies who don’t have to live in a cage. Bunnies who don’t squeal bloody murder anytime I think of touching them. Bunnies who smell sweet.

Lately, the pet store has one whole section devoted to *adoptions* of the animals that have been returned or who were never sold before they got over being young and cute. I stay away from that section. Bunnies are usually too well-represented. I’ve talked to the owner about the twisted logic of her for sale/for adoption scheme, but she figures that she’s doing a good thing by taking the animals back in after she’s sold them. After all, people could just turn them loose or neglect them to death. She’s got a point there, but I would suggest she educate her customers better or make them stop and think before buying. I don’t guess educating people about responsible pet ownership would help her business any, would it?

Anyway, I think the wheekers prefer my husband. They don’t squeal nearly as much when he pets them. They don’t run in circles to avoid his hands, kicking up their back legs like miniature bucking horses, when he lifts them out to clean their cage. Plus, he gives them a mountain of hay to burrow into each day. If you look closely at the pic at left, you might just see the tail end of one of them hiding under all that hay. They disappear under there for an hour or more each evening after he gives it to them, coming out just in time for their nightly carrots. A love of carrots is something they share with the bunnies. I just wish they smelled as sweet as they look.


I wonder if all that eating I did yesterday has affected my ability to think straight and do anything besides lie on the couch like a slug. Maybe it was watching tv all afternoon that has numbed my brain. I have nothing but leftovers to offer up this evening.

The pic at left is a leftover from last weekend and a short walk with Buddy to the local woods. Not woods at all, really, as you’re never out of earshot of the road and anymore it seems more like the hangout of the local delinquents than the *nature trail* that it purports to be. The last time I visited with Buddy we came across a group of teenage boys with paintball guns. This time it was graffiti painted on the trees. A depressing sort of walk on all accounts. I put Buddy in the car and drove over to the development across from the woods because the walk there and back would’ve been too much for him these days. The screech-owl box that has been productive in the past had its top torn off – destroyed and unusable for roosting, even. The woods were wet and muddy and we both made a mess of the car on the way home. The one thing that made me smile was a father with a brood of kids in tow. The kids were racing along ahead of him, jumping through the fallen leaves and in and out of the puddles on the muddy trail. He was laughing and didn’t even scold his daughter for climbing up a low-limbed maple that overhangs the creek. They stopped to chat for a bit as Buddy and I had a rest on a fallen log. Buddy almost let the kids pet him before shying away behind me. Some things don’t change, no matter how old he gets.

Today I spent nearly an hour cleaning and medicating his ears. We’ve been struggling to get rid of an ear infection for more than a year – we do antibiotics and medicine twice a day and I think it’s gone away, but invariably it comes back worse than the last time, it seems. He’s been a trooper about it, but today I realized we need to do something more. My old man dog doesn’t deserve to be so uncomfortable all the time. Not to mention he wakes me up all night with his head-shaking. I’m scared about putting him under for the deep ear cleaning that our vet had recommended once before, but I don’t know what else to do to for him, short of cutting off the offending smelly ear!

Tomorrow I hope to get out in the fresh air and walk in the woods and clear out some of the cobwebs. There are lots of leftovers to walk off.

Give this one day to thanks

We give-away our thanks to the earth which gives us our home.
We give-away our thanks to the rivers and lakes which give-away their water.
We give-away our thanks to the trees which give-away fruit and nuts.
We give-away our thanks to the wind which brings rain to water the plants.
We give-away our thanks to the sun who gives-away warmth and light.
All beings on earth: the trees, the animals, the wind and the rivers give-away to one another so all is in balance.
We give-away our promise to begin to learn how to stay in balance with all the earth. – Iroquois Prayer (adapted)

Kitchen chaos

The kitchen looks something like this – like a small tornado hit – you get the idea – but there’s a pumpkin-praline pie baking in the oven and a pumpkin cheesecake still to make. The DH is peeling chestnuts for our favorite casserole with Brussels Sprouts. The bunnies are attention-deprived. I’m feeling thankful that I don’t have a turkey to cook also.

Happy Thanksgiving to all. Off to attend to that pie in the oven.

Alav hashalom

I found myself wandering around an old cemetery today on my lunch hour. I had gone intending to take some photos of Old Tennent Church, founded in 1692 and used as a temporary field hospital during the Revolutionary War. Instead I wandered around looking at the gravestones, many of which are from the 1700’s. The church building was closed, but some of the pews are said to be scarred from the surgeon’s saws and the blood of soldiers who died here during the Battle of Monmouth and are buried in the churchyard. There are two huge old oak trees that frame the entrance to the church, set on a hill.

It felt strange to be taking photos of gravestones, but many of them are interesting. The oldest are so simple and different in their sentiments on death compared to the laser-carved ones that are seen in the modern part of the cemetery. The modern versions seem to be more about comfort and a sense of prestige for the living, rather than a memorial for the deceased. The oldest tombstones are frightening in the images they depict and the warnings they contain to passerby. A popular epitaph from the 18th century reads, “Behold and see as you pass by, as you are now so once was I, as I am now so must you be, Prepare for death and follow me.”

This curiosity about gravestones and cemeteries comes in part from thinking about them the past few days. I’m wondering what role they play in the mourning process for the people left behind. My closest friend, who lost her dad in the last year, had the *unveiling* ceremony for her dad’s monument this past weekend. It’s the custom in the Jewish religion to hold this ceremony close to the one year anniversary of a person’s death. I guess it’s supposed to be one of the last steps on the path of grief for her. I’ve tried to be with her as she learns her way without her dad beside her. I’ve tried to give her the chance to talk often of her dad and share her grief with someone who understands it, but it’s been hard to see her suffering the most personal loss of her life and not be able to do more than listen.

I hope that she’ll continue to find strength in the practice of her faith and in her family. I know how difficult it must have been for her to see her father’s name insribed on the gravestone. Perhaps the finality of that sight is the reason for the Jewish custom and the delay in seeing the monument. Maybe soon she’ll find a way to see beyond his death, to the impact of his life and his love, and she’ll come to understand that his values and ideals continue in her.