Big Springs, Neb., to Avoca, Iowa

As you drive along Interstate 80, the people you meet in desert places, like in Winnemuca, tend to be friendly, tolerant of eccentricity, with a live-and-let-live attitude towards the world. The people you meet in mountainous places, like Laramie, tend to be outdoorsy and a little bit macho or macha, mountain-men and mountain-women who like to prove themselves. And the people you meet in the Midwest are courteous, pleasant, and just plain nice.

As anecdotal evidence to prove this theory, I offer the desk clerk at the Motel 6 in Winnemuca: friendly and tolerant even when he had to chase people out of the motel pool after the posted closing time, and on the edge of being eccentric himself. And I offer the clerk in the food coop in Laramie, who works in the ski industry, who obviously lives for his time outdoors, who was polite but uninterested in anything but outdoor sports. And I offer the waitresses as Ember’s Restaurant in Avoca, Iowa, who were unfailingly polite to me though I was the last customer of the night, the only customer in the place; they even chatted pleasantly with me and made me feel welcome while they were cleaning tables and mopping floors around me.

Of these three regions, where would I prefer to live? The idea of proving myself to the junior Paul Bunyans of the mountainous regions is not very appealing to me. I like the niceness of the Midwest, but I’m too much of a New Englander to trust constant niceness. But I’d like to live with the desert rats: I like friendly and tolerant people, and I’d fit in pretty well with the eccentrics.

East of Kearney, Neb., I saw a sign that said “Rowe Audubon Sanctuary Next Exit,” so I took the next exit. I crossed over several channels of the Platte River, turned right onto a gravel county road where a sign told me to, and soon pulled into the parking lot of the sanctuary headquarters, a stone’s throw from where the Platte River rushed by under cottonwood trees.


A staffer in the the headquarters building told me that they were experiencing a “high water event”: heavy snow in the Front Range in April, followed by heavy rains in May, caused high water in the Platte River in June. I found that the water was indeed high, right up to the main trail in places, and covering a number of small side trails completely.

It was hot — better than ninety five degrees, with humidity that made it feel hotter — and the mosquitoes were biting. But I hardly noticed. Northern Bobwhites were calling everywhere, and I saw several, running along the edge of a field, bursting into flight when I got too close, flying from a low perch in a cottonwood into the brush. I haven’t seen that many bobwhites since I was a child, and their calls brought me back to childhood, listening to them call in the fields behind our house: “Bob — white! Bob, bob, white!” over and over in the mysterious dark humid summer evenings.

It wasn’t just the Northern Bobwhites that drew my attention away from heat and mosquitoes. Dicksissels sang throughout the fields, a female Baltimore Oriole screamed at me when I got too close to her nest, a three-point buck stared at me from the edge of a corn field then sprang away, Tree Swallows zipped past just a few feet above my head. Overhead, high cirrus clouds refracted the sun into red, yellow, green, and blue; and since cirrus clouds are made of ice, this created a partial ice bow.


A big old rabbit stretched out in the shade with its legs splayed out fore and aft, so that its belly was on the cool, damp ground. It looked at me imperiously, daring me to come any closer, ready to spring into action if I did.


But I went back by the other path, because I suddenly realized how hot I was, and how good the air-conditioned car would feel. Besides, I had been walking around for two hours, and if I were to get to Avoca, Iowa, at a reasonable hour, I had better start driving.

Diné bahané, part five

7. The Fifth World

First Man was not satisfied with the Fourth World. It was a small barren land; and the great water had soaked the earth and made the sowing of seeds impossible. He planted the big Female Reed and it grew up to the vaulted roof of this Fourth World. First Man sent the newcomer, the badger, up inside the reed, but before he reached the upper world water began to drip, so he returned and said that he was frightened.

At this time there came another strange being. First Man asked him where he had been formed, and he told him that he had come from the Earth itself. This was the locust. He said that it was now his turn to do something, and he offered to climb up the reed.

The locust made a headband of a little reed, and on his forehead he crossed two arrows. These arrows were dressed with yellow tail feathers. With this sacred headdress and the help of all the Holy Beings the locust climbed up to the Fifth World. He dug his way through the reed as he digs in the earth now. He then pushed through mud until he came to water. When he emerged he saw a black water bird, the Grebe, swimming toward him. The Grebe had arrows crossed on the back of his head and big eyes.

The bird said: “What are you doing here? This is not your country.” And continuing, he told the locust that unless he could make magic he would not allow him to remain. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part five”

Diné bahané, part four

5. The Flood, and Journey to the Fourth World

The people moved to different parts of the land. Some time passed; then First Woman became troubled by the monotony of life. She made a plan. She went to Atse’hashke, the Coyote called First Angry, and giving him the rainbow she said: “I have suffered greatly in the past. I have suffered from want of meat and corn and clothing. Many of my maidens have died. I have suffered many things. Take the rainbow and go to the place where the rivers cross. Bring me the two pretty children of Tqo holt sodi, the Water Buffalo, a boy and a girl.

The Coyote agreed to do this. He walked over the rainbow. He entered the home of the Water Buffalo and stole the two children; and these he hid in his big skin coat with the white fur lining. And when he returned he refused to take off his coat, but pulled it around himself and looked very wise.

After this happened the people saw white light in the East and in the South and West and North. One of the deer people ran to the East, and returning, said that the white light was a great sheet of water. The sparrow hawk flew to the South, the great hawk to the West, and the kingfisher to the North. They returned and said that a flood was coming. The kingfisher said that the water was greater in the North, and that it was near.

The flood was coming and the Earth was sinking. And all this happened because the Coyote had stolen the two children of the Water Buffalo, and only First Woman and the Coyote knew the truth.

When First Man learned of the coming of the water he sent word to all the people, and he told them to come to the mountain called Sis na’jin. He told them to bring with them all of the seeds of the plants used for food. All living beings were to gather on the top of Sis na’jin. First Man traveled to the six sacred mountains, and, gathering earth from them, he put it in his medicine bag.

The water rose steadily. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part four”

Diné bahané, part three

4. The Men and Women Live Apart

Now at that time there were four chiefs: Big Snake, Mountain Lion, Otter, and Bear. And it was the custom when the black cloud rose in the morning — as there was no sun, and no true division of night and day, time was counted by the black cloud rising and the white cloud rising — for First Man to come out of his dwelling and speak to the people. After First Man had spoken, the four chiefs told them what they should do that day. They also spoke of the past and of the future.

But after the harvest, the Turquoise Boy from the East had come and visited First Woman. When First Man had returned to his home, he found his wife with this boy. First Woman told her husband that Turquoise Boy was of her flesh and not of his flesh. She said that she had used her own fire, the turquoise, and had ground her own yellow corn into meal. This was corn that she had planted and cared for herself.

When First Man found his wife with Turquoise Boy, he would not come out to speak to the people. The black cloud rose higher, but First Man would not leave his dwelling; neither would he eat or drink. No one spoke to the people for four days. All during this time First Man remained silent, and would not touch food or water. Four times the white cloud rose, and still he would not come out.

Then the four chiefs went to First Man and demanded to know why he would not speak to the people. The chiefs asked this question three times, and a fourth, before First Man would answer them.

He told them to bring him an herb which was an emetic. He made a hot brew from the herb, and drank it, and it caused him to vomit, and in this way he purified himself. First Man then asked them to send Turquoise Boy to him. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part three”

Diné bahané, part two

2. The Second World

Because of the strife in the First World, First Man, First Woman, the Great-Coyote-Who-Was-Formed-in-the-Water, and the Coyote called First Angry, followed by all the others, climbed up from the First World, the World of Darkness and Dampness, to the Second World, Ni’hodotl’ish, or the Blue World.

When they came to the Second World, they found a number of people already living there: Bluebirds, Blue Hawks, Blue Jays, Blue Herons, and all the blue-feathered beings.

The powerful Swallow People lived there also, and these people made the Second World unpleasant for those who had come from the First World. There was fighting and killing.

The First Four found an opening in the World of Blue Haze; and they climbed through this and led the people up into the Third or Yellow World.

Dine Bahane: First Angry Coyote

Above: Illustration of First Angry Coyote, drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school after seeing images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

3. Arriving in the Third World

The Bluebird was the first to reach the Third or Yellow World. After him came the First Four and all the others.

A great river crossed this land from north to south. It was the Female River.

There was another river crossing it from east to West, it was the Male River. This Male River flowed through the Female River and on; and the name of this place is Tqo alna’osdli, the Crossing of the Waters. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part two”

Diné bahané, part one

Here’s the first installment of an abridged version of the Diné bahané, or Navajo creation story, that I put together for a small class of 5th and 6th graders a couple of years ago. This version of the Diné bahané is adapted from a public domain source edited by Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, (1956), pp. 1-13. (It’s in the public domain because it is a U.S. government document.)

When I presented the Diné bahané to the 5th and 6th graders, they were fascinated. They quickly noticed this story is very different from the two creation stories most familiar to Western culture, the creation story in the Bible where God creates the universe in seven days, or the creation story of ancient Greece in which the universe comes into being from Xaos (Chaos). They also noticed the story has a different understanding of gender roles, particularly in light of the character of Turquoise Boy, who is of ambiguous gender (who will appear in a later installment). They also noticed that this story does not assume such a strong distinction between humans and other animals, as do the Western creation stories. Reading such a different creation story helps us to reflect on the dominant stories in our own culture.

Here, then, is my abridged version of the Diné bahané:


The Diné bahané is the traditional Navajo creation story. This long story has never been written down by the Navajos, even though it is as long as a book. Instead, there are people who have memorized the story, and who retell it to others. This version of the Navajo creation story that you’re about to read came to be as follows:

These stories were told to Sandoval, Hastin Tlo’tsi hee, by his grandmother, Esdzan Hosh kige. Her ancestor was Esdzanata’, the medicine woman who had the Calendar Stone in her keeping. Sandoval told these stories to Aileen O’Bryan at Mesa Verde in 1928, and she wrote them down. Here are the stories of the Four Worlds that had no sun, and of the Fifth, the world we live in, which some call the Changeable World.

Dine Bahane: First Man and First Woman

Above: Illustration of First Man and First Woman drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school, after having seen images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

1. The First World

The First World, Ni’hodilqil, — which was also called Red Earth, One Speech, Floating Land, and One Tree — was black as black wool. It had four corners, and over these appeared four clouds. These four clouds contained within themselves the elements of the First World. They were in color, black, white, blue, and yellow.

The Black Cloud represented the Female Being. For as a child sleeps when being nursed, so life slept in the darkness of the Female Being. The White Cloud represented the Male Being or Substance. He was the Dawn, the Light-Which-Awakens, of the First World. Continue reading “Diné bahané, part one”

Persephone and Demeter Meet Again

The fourth and final installment of the story of Demeter and Persephone.

Rich-haired Demeter still sat apart from all the blessed gods, wasting with yearning for her daughter Persephone. She caused a most dreadful and cruel year for humankind all over the earth.

The farmers and their oxen plowed the fields in vain. Farmers sowed seeds of the white barley, but the ground would not let the seed sprout. It seemed that Demeter would destroy the whole human race with cruel famine. And without humankind, the gods and goddesses who dwell on Mount Olympus would no longer receive the gifts and sacrifices that meant so much to them.

Zeus knew he must do something. First he called for golden-winged Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to bring Demeter to Mount Olympus. Iris sped with swift feet to Eleusis, and found dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple.

“Demeter,” said Iris, “father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods. Come and do not ignore the command of Zeus, who rules over all the gods and goddesses.”

But Demeter’s heart was not moved, and she refused to go with Iris.

Then Zeus sent forth each of the gods and goddesses. They went to Demeter one after the other, offering many beautiful gifts, and godly rights and privileges.

But Demeter was still full of anger, and none of them could persuade her to go to Mount Olympus. Demeter said she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus, nor would she let food grow from the ground, until she saw her daughter again.

When all-seeing Zeus heard this, he called for Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of trickery and travelers and thieves. Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld, to convince Hades with soft words to allow Persephone come up from the misty gloom of the underworld, so that her mother Demeter might see her with her own eyes.

Hermes straightaway flew down to the underworld. He found Hades in his house, seated upon a couch, and his shy wife Persephone with him. Continue reading “Persephone and Demeter Meet Again”

Kearney, Nebraska, to Rock Springs, Wyoming

By the time we got to the Wyoming border, Carol said she was ready to leave Nebraska. I didn’t say so, but I enjoyed the drive through Nebraska. Near Kearney, I liked the way the highway followed the broad flat valley of the Platte River, every so often crossing over one channel of the river or another, passing between green fields of corn and hay fields and lines of trees along the river channels and the very occasional small city. As we got further west, we saw fewer and fewer trees, and more cattle, and here and there a field of golden wheat. The land gradually rose up and up until we were in the high plains, and most of the land was range land. Now and again we passed cattle, mostly clustered around stock ponds in the heat of the day, and I thought about the story that I had read in yesterday’s issue of the Kearney Hub — “125th year, 230th issue”; “At the center of Nebraska life since 1888” — that told how the U.S. Farm Service is going to allow “emergency grazing on about 900,000 acres in Nebraska because of the ongoing lack of forage for livestock”; Western Nebraska is one of the regions where emergency grazing will be allowed, for conditions continue to be drier than normal, even though “conditions appeared to improve at the beginning of the year.”

Once we got into Wyoming, the scenery did get more dramatic. Not long after we passed over the border, we saw sagebrush growing by the side of the highway, and not long after that we saw our first oil derrick bobbing slowly up and down, and then we caught our first sight of tall mountains in the blue distance. We drove past strange rock formations, and watched the railroad wind its way around the sides of hills and buttes. The railroad reminded me of something we saw yesterday: As we drove out of Yankton, South Dakota, before we crossed over the Missouri River on U.S. Route 81, we had to stop at a railroad crossing for two Union Pacific trains to go by; the train headed west consisted of a long line of empty hopper cars, and the train headed east consisted of a long line of hopper cars filled with coal; I suspected that the coal came from the huge Powder River Basin mines on federal lands in Wyoming, since something like eighty train loads of coal come out of Powder River Basin each day.

We stopped in Laramie to visit the food coop there, and stock up on good food. We happened to arrive just when the farmer’s market was taking place, so we wandered around, talking to people in the various booths. Carol got a small bag of summer apples, and some spinach. I got some raw honey and a loaf of olive bread. Carol got some raspberry leaf tea, and an inexpensive necklace made out of a seashell by the nice young man who sold it to her. I found Second Story Books in the next block, browsed for a while, and came away with a biography of Hans-Georg Gadamer, and a book published by the University of Nebraska Press written by a man who had traveled all over the Great Plains for several months, stopping in small towns and talking with whoever came his way. We finally made it to Big Hollow Coop. The man who took our money was from Jackson, California, and had come to Laramie because his girlfriend was in graduate school there. He told us that Big Hollow is the only coop in the whole state, which surprised me; I expected that there would at least be one in Cheyenne.

We stopped to eat our dinner at a highway rest area outside Laramie. It was very windy, but the picnic table had brick walls surrounding three sides, and a wooden roof, so we could shelter from the wind. A pair of Barn Swallows was also taking shelter in the picnic, and they had built their nest up in the rafters; I could just see one swallow’s tail projecting out a little beyond the mud walls of the nest.

We stopped just before sunset at a parking area just before the exit for Creston Junction, Wyoming, and got out to stretch our cramped legs. We looked out over the sagebrush tinged gold by the setting sun, the mountains in the distance now turning pink and purple, the picturesque white clouds — and I realized something out in the sagebrush was looking at me. “See that?” I said to Carol. “An antelope.” She spotted two more. One of them looked at us, saw that we were too far away to be a threat, grazed on some sagebrush, and began moving west; the other two were also moving west, heading towards the setting sun.


Fredonia, New York, to Joliet, Illinois

After breakfast served on the front porch of the White Inn in the village of Freedonia, we got back on Interstate 90 and started driving west. We drove through the hills of western New York state and northwestern Pennsylvania and the Western Reserve of Ohio, the waters of Lake Erie (elevation 570 feet above sea level) invisible somewhere off to our right.

After we got through the sprawl of Cleveland, the land flattened out, and we felt that we were in the true Midwest: a less dramatic landscape than the northeast, one that is best appreciated when seen from close at hand. For when the Midwest is seen close at hand, you can see the details that make it charming: creeks and small rivers at the bottom of gullies and ravines, hedgerows and small patches of woodlands nestling in among fields of corn and soybeans, hundred year old farmhouses turned into residences while the surrounding fields have been bought up by agribusiness, old barns falling into quaint and attractive disrepair. Even the industrial buildings that punctuate the landscape, and the high tension lines that tie industry together, and the mile-long freight trains loaded with containers being shipped across the continent look almost attractive, if not quaint, under the gentle clouds and high-arching blue sky.

Carol had some business that she had to take care of during business hours today, so we stopped at two or three different rest areas in Ohio and Indiana so she could use the free wifi connections. I started eating some blueberries at one rest area in Ohio, and thought about how I had picked those blueberries in Massachusetts two days ago with my friend Will, on the farm where four or five generations of his family have lived. We walked along the neatly mowed paths between the blueberry bushes, which grew six to nine feet high, the branches thick with berries, mostly green berries, but plenty of ripe ones for us to pick, and either put in the plastic containers that hung around our necks or pop in our mouths. We picked two gallons of berries while we caught up with each other’s lives: health problems with our siblings, what his children are doing, how our parents are doing, etc.

Before we started picking, I told Will and his wife about the invasive Asian fly that moved into southern New England last year and decimated the blueberry crops for many growers in New Hampshire. I told them how the flies lay their eggs in the berries, and when the farmers get the berries to market, sometimes they find maggots crawling out of the berries; not an appetizing sight for potential buyers. Their eyes got big — it’s not often that you actually see someone’s eyes get big, but theirs did — as they heard about such a devastating pest. Blueberries have been an easy crop to grow in New England, since they evolved here; as opposed to apple trees, which evolved elsewhere, are troubled by native New England pests, and require lots of care.

I had heard about these invasive flies just a couple of days earlier, on Firday, when Carol and I went up to Apple Annie’s orchard in Brentwood, New Hampshire, so that Carol could look at a composting toilet that was malfunctioning. Carol was fascinated because it was a composting toilet that she had never seen before. I was fascinated to hear Laurie tell about the invasive flies, which she had learned about in a course she took to re-certify for her pesticide certification. She said they prefer red fruits, so rasberries are even more vulnerable — raspberries, which used to be yet another relatively pest-free crop in New England.

So I ate my New England blueberries in a rest area in Ohio, thinking that this might be the last easy crop of blueberries grown in my home town. Who knows why that Asian fly finally chose last year to arrive in New England. There are too many human beings everywhere, prying into niches in ecosystems where they don’t belong, moving species from one ecosystem to another at an alarming rate, and warming up the planet so that certain invasive species suddenly have to potential to disrupt native species. I would not be upset if nine-tenths of all humans died off suddenly, and I’m willing to be one of them — but I’m only willing to be one of them if we really get rid of nine-tenths of human beings; although I guess I could settle for a seven-eighths mortality rate.

We stopped again at a rest area in Indiana, where Carol and I took a long walk out through the employees’ parking lot and down a country road. On our right hand side was a corn field. It was not a field of sweet corn, grown to be sold at roadside stands and eaten as corn-on-the-cob. Carol recalled how we had once had a housemate who talked about “cow corn,” tough corn sold for cattle fodder. I said that there was a good chance this wasn’t even cow corn, but rather industrial corn bred to serve as the raw materials for chemical processes that produce ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, corn steep liquor, polylactic acid used to make corn-based plastics, and other industrial products.


On our left hand side was a patch of woodlands, covering at least twenty acres, that made the air feel twenty degrees cooler. We noticed black splotches on the road, and realized that mulberry trees hung over us. We picked as many ripe mulberries as we could reach reach, and ate them, the sweet elder-y taste a perfect complement to a hot humid afternoon.