Peter Shelton

Hopi chants and ski sacrifices

Posted in Columns, How the West was Lost by pshelton on November 14, 2009

Here’s a column from November 1995, a year the snow waited until after Thanksgiving.

I rode the bike up high, up to almost 10,000 feet, and still the ground was pretty bare. I stopped and walked out on a ledge and listened for snow.

There was the sound of wind in the bare aspens down below in Beaver Creek. Or was that the creek itself? A trickle running over autumn-gray stones? Wind and water sometimes sound alike.

There was the distant grinding of cars on Dallas Divide, the sound rising and fading with the breathing of the wind. There was a jet, its muted roar reaching far in front of the shining silver seed.

A murder of crows rode the scarp’s updraft diagonally above me. Their wing feathers rustled like tissue paper. I couldn’t hear the snow coming.

I poured some of my water onto the ground. Watched it soak in around the oak leaves and the ponderosa needles. Still no sign. Just the jets overhead. And now and then the jake brakes on a galloping truck that had misjudged the grade on the divide.

My daughter Cloe wrote a beautiful paper for her freshman humanities course. It was about how the ancient Greeks and American Indians of the Southwest both believed that they could curry favor with the gods, that they could influence nature with their own righteous behavior.

Cloe’s class read in Homer how Odysseus feared the sea and how, with the right words, and the proper sacrifice of a goat, he believed he could ensure favorable winds, and safe passage. The Hopis, Cloe discovered, depend on good relations with the spirit Kachinas for, among other things, rain to grow their corn. During Powamu, in February, they gather green fir boughs in the mountains and bring them down to their mesas, figuratively transporting the life-giving moisture from on high.

Later in the year, after the corn has been planted and at the conclusion of the Snake Dance, dozens of captured snakes are released to slither down the cliffs like so many rivulets of rain water. More than symbolic, the ritual is actually meant to create the desired weather. And more important even than the snakes—or the fir boughs or the masked Kachinas—are the hearts of the people. The heart must be made right before the gods will even begin to listen.

If you live in Colorado, or anywhere in ski country, and especially if your livelihood is connected to sliding on snow, then dry ground at Thanksgiving inevitably messes with your head. Why won’t it snow? you ask. Is it El Niño? Or are we being punished? Have we failed to perform some important ceremony? Failed to purify our thoughts, to strive for the harmony that underlies all good things?

As sophisticated agnostics, we know better than to panic. We learned in the drought winter of 1976-77, for example, that not even a bonfire built of all the rock skis in Telluride, a fire that lit the canyon walls deep into the night, could bring snow.

Copper Mountain tried, a few years later, to entice the white stuff by hiring full-dress dancers from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. A front-page picture in the Rocky Mountain News showed a miraculous, momentary blizzard. But the effect evaporated when the dancers went home.

Maybe it’s global warming, you think. Perhaps we really have offended the gods. Angered them with our carbon emissions and concrete bike paths, our careless consumerism and short-sighted stewardship of the land.

Before I got back on the bike, I looked west along the range, toward where the weather usually comes from. I looked for a hint of high cirrus, “hens’ scratchings” or “mares’ tails,” any sign of an approaching change. And then I spent a second—untutored and out of my depth, but I tried anyway—to to make my heart right. In order to (in the Hopi Crier Chief’s call): “Hasten clouds from the four world corners; / Come snow in plenty. . . that the planting may yield abundance. / Let all hearts be glad!”

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