When I first arrived in Abiquiu the Pedernal stood out above the other mountains with its imposing triangular shape and flattened top. Initially this mesa fascinated me because Georgia O’Keeffe painted it so often, but after a while, although I liked the Pedernal it became one mountain amongst many others… However, I also knew that the Navajo’s mythical Changing Woman was born on this flat – topped mesa and that story continued to intrigue me.
For the Navajo, Changing Woman is the daughter of the Earth and Sky – a personification of the Earth and Universe. She represents the cyclical repetition of the seasons – spring, summer, fall, and winter – aligning each with a different aspect of human life – birth, maturation, old age, and death. In this seasonal round Changing Woman lives out the different stages of her life as a child, daughter, mother, and old woman who dies, but who also is born again each spring…
The legend tells us that as a young woman Changing Woman was dressed in white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet, and blessed with bee pollen… While bathing she was impregnated with two twins –monster slayer and child of water – who after their births soon left their mother to journey westward to seek their Father, the sun. Changing Woman was lonely so one day she created the Navajo People from the skin of her body with the help of the holy people who came down from the mountains to assist her. Changing woman also created the Blessingway, a sacred ceremony for young girls that is still used today to celebrate the first bleeding or menstruation. After the original teachings were passed on the holy people left Changing Woman, but they promised that she would always feel their presence in the sound of the wind, the birds, and through the first green shoots of corn.
Pedernal, the imposing butte with its flat top or ridge, lies in the heart of the Jemez mountain range at ten thousand feet. Seen from one side it appears wide and flat, the way I see it from my house. However, an hour’s drive will take you into the startling Indian red, orange, ochre, grass green mountains behind the mesa, and from the other side the top appears peaked and narrow. The high butte is ringed by a long sheer cliff band almost impossible to climb, although ancient Pueblo peoples found their way to its summit.
The name Pedernal is the Spanish word for flint, the stone that can be found in abundance on and around this volcanic mountain. Pueblo peoples used the rock to make beautifully crafted tools like arrowheads and scrapers for hunting and skinning animals. Worked pieces and flakes of this rainbow-like chert can also be found at many ancient Pueblo ruins.
The Pedernal was settled around 1161 CE and Indigenous people stayed until 1275 CE when the area was suddenly abandoned, possibly due to drought. The remaining artifacts include pottery shards that are typically black on white and jars with rounded bottoms so that they could be laid in a bed of hot ashes in the fire pits. Chert is abundantly common here.
Because I am so intrigued by the sharp, opaque, translucent flakes I collect them and spend a lot of time arranging them in different ways, much like I do with pottery shards. “Play” allows my mind to become still. This practice has become a daily meditation, much like bird watching from my window that overlooks red willow river.
After gazing at the Pedernal for months I developed a peculiar longing to get physically close to the actual mesa. I wanted large pieces of the stone to line my path to the birdfeeder, but there was something more ethereal pulling me too and so – two days ago – my friend and I drove out towards the base of the mountain… This drive takes about an hour and is absolutely stunning – a visual feast – crags, and sandstone statues, oyster to red dirt, thick Juniper, Pinion, and deep blue green Spruce and Ponderosa pine forests, huge clumps of black sagebrush. Colder temperatures and the occasional clump of snow left me with the sense that I had entered another world, one where bears and elk found home. Seeing the mesa from behind gave me a sense of belonging to this place that I simply cannot describe beyond believing that I was called here by Changing Woman. Perhaps other Indigenous voices and holy people were also calling, and live here too, in spirit if not in body.
The night after this excursion I had a dream of my dearly loved grandmother that died in my early twenties. In the dream I was at her bedside, telling her I loved her, washing her face, rubbing cream on her hands and pitifully thin arms, listening to her rapid shallow breathing, feeling so helpless, and so guilty – all this while she lay in a coma. The next morning, thanksgiving day, she died at dawn.
My dream repeated the original experience with one dramatic change. Instead of the numbness and terrible nameless guilt I experienced at her death, in the dream I now knew that my grandmother had been waiting for me to make the trip down from Maine to the New York hospital to be with her, and that once we had said goodbye, she could die in peace. Astonished, I felt for the first time in fifty years that my presence had been enough. When I awakened from the dream the lifetime of guilt I had carried was gone and I was free to feel, to grieve as much as I needed to, which seemed to me to be some kind of miracle. Surely, Changing Woman had wrought this change.
Today the Pedernal is no longer a mountain in the distance, it is a holy dwelling place where Nature still sings the song of creation and those of the grandmothers who inhabit this sacred space in between worlds.