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|Located near the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert, Tuba City lies in the Hopi and Navajo Indian Reservation in the North Central part of Arizona. A peaceful place, Rebecca G. Reppert '78 has made it her home. Reppert, who teaches English at Greyhills Academy High School on the Navajo Reservation, details "her side of paradise."|
Finding the Heart of the Yucca
by Rebecca Reppert '78
I live in Tuba City, located along Highway 160, one hour east of the Grand Canyon, four hours north of Phoenix, and eleven miles away from the famous petrified dinosaur tracks.
From my front doorstep where I write, daydream and feed the neighbor's dogs, I can see across a field to tall cottonwoods and Russian olives. Several species of birds can be heard chorusing morning and evening. The grackle has a sharp whistle; the blackbird, a watery warble. The "barren" field is home to yucca plants which bloom for one week in May, tiny lizards, and berry bushes that grow around the perimeter. I was not aware these fruits were edible, or that they even existed, until a Hopi student friend pointed it out to me.
The tiny berries are coated with a highly flavorful powder which could be mistaken for dirt. The fruit itself is tart and crunchy. It can be eaten raw or made into "lemonade." This is one of many interesting discoveries in an apparently unyielding desert.
The yucca plant is used traditionally by both Navajo and Hopi for ceremonial hair washing, but I find the roots hard to dig, and cannot vouch for the claim that the shampoo thickens hair. The hard green fruit has a white edible center, I'm told. Guarded by sharp spears, it symbolizes for me the difficulties of desert life and the secrets I'll never learn.
A short walk, a little under a mile, takes you to a cottonwood grove below the teachers' housing area. The trees turn brilliant yellow in October, the only leaf to show here. A red sandstone cliff rises just behind it against a blue sky that really is always blue. A single coo from a dove betrays its nest high on the western face. Continuing along the sandy road to the reservoir, you see, rather unexpectedly, a world of reeds and ducks. You leave the pleasant shade of the grove, surely a taste of the last century, quiet, unhurried, and find yourself under the harsh glare of the open sky. The surrounding land is sand dunes, sage, tumbleweeds and rocks. The trail leads to a cornfield oasis. Dirt bikers and four wheelers love the hills; runners find a tough challenge in the loose sand. I, an erstwhile outdoor photographer, prefer to amble, and each time, it seems, come upon yet another type of waterbird. On one trip, the usual white egrets were flocked around the far end of the reservoir…with the addition of some newcomers. There is maybe nothing cuter than a baby egret, when you weren't expecting to see one. I returned about a week later to photograph them, a scene out of Africa or the Everglades, long leggers stalking through very green grass.
Around the middle of May sage blooms and the delicate purple flowers emit a fragrant scent that is intoxicating when the plants grow en masse. The original aromatherapy! Desert sage can be made into a tea for respiratory ailments (it is bitter but effective) and is used in sweats and refreshing baths. Sage is also a great indoor air freshener and dries lovely bouquets. You meet these useful residents as you continue along the trail verging left of the reservoir.
Wandering monarchs and orioles, familiar to an easterner, add magic to the evening stroll. Ahead of you is a large hill of sand that overlooks all of Tuba City. You can walk along the base of it, hike up it, or go to the right. Here the path changes noticeably to solid rock.
Into the second mile you are now above the reservoir and entering a kingdom of rock waves, sculpted long ago by wind and water. This drama is obvious to an untrained eye. You are in the cradle of the history of earth. Geologists may call it the Devonian period, but I don't need a name. I can see where water once coursed through and hollowed out this rock chute which is now a "road." I stand on a boulder that overlooks a cornfield sheltered by a small canyon. I think of how the Dine people survived their forced relocation known as the Long Walk and how their descendants live to plant corn in a dry region.
I look to the northwest where the sun blazes down in late afternoon,
silhouetting a ridge of jagged stone teeth. How did these people come
here? How long will any of this last? Small and large worries alike vanish
in the awe of eons. This is about survival, upheaval, restoration, balance.
Bold, unique shapes resulted. The rock that time and gravity split still
stands. Bleached driftwood in a place where there are no trees.
Walking along the rim of Coal Canyon, some 20 miles distant, I was amazed to find a mass of amalgamated seashells at my feet: ammonites, the ancestor of the modern chambered nautilus, thousands of them! The elevated spot which overlooks the Painted Desert was once under sea. Scientists date them to 65-90 million years old. You can read these facts in a book, but nothing takes the place of holding an ancient specimen in your hand, or treading the same soil the dinosaurs trod. I was very pleased with my modest find, a large shell about the size of my palm.
It is time to turn back on our walk through the desert. I have no water and you aren't wearing a hat. But we must come back. There are canyons to explore, river trips to make, butterflies to identify, Native dances to enjoy and plants' names to learn.
But, if you see a lone figure in the distance, posed in a rock with a view, or bending over a cactus flower, that could be a wandering poet. She's an endangered species, but endures, searching for the heart of the yucca or the soul of the sky.
in the Desert
The curved beak of the bird, The curved beak of the seashell: An astonishing symmetry By chance discovered on a barren plateau Known mainly to tumbleweeds and low grass. Compressed into rock millions of years old, Aggregate individuals thickly massed Lay under water, which was once most earth Now on a high plain exposed to wind Far above the ocean floor Where once they slept in secret.
The bird, they say, rose up from Cambrian swamps First as a fish, then a lizard, Then a lizard with wings. Avis, the ancestor, had teeth and claws then too. Giant ferns and timbrelled trees Reduced to seams of coal. Today's cliff walls the only record of this change.
The birds, it would seem, got out early And stayed above the fray And are still observing from their vantage Movement in high and low places. Shell homes long abandoned Look very small indeed.
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