Jesse Wolf Hardin's Earth Magic
“ ....‘primitives’ strive to be conscious of the paradox ; ‘moderns ‘ strive to escape it. But the paradox shows us an ontological maze we cannot sanely deny, destroy, or overleap; we have to learn to walk it again, to dance it, as our ancestors did, with grace, strength, and awe-full wisdom.” — Barbara Mor _The Great Cosmic Mother_
Along the southern coast of California, a great fist of rock extends like muscle into the restive waters of the Pacific. Called Point Conception in the vernacular of the invaders, it was known to the Chumash and other indigenous peoples of the then-paradise as the Western Gate. Many of the rock faces around the missionary city of Santa Barbara are graced with petroglyphs honoring the unique power of this hallowed place. There are concentric circles and spirals of infinity common to all peoples of spirit and blood. Stick figures with wild hair exuberantly dance the world into being. One figure is obviously a bird of some kind, its exaggerated proportions carved in telling scale, dwarfing the designs beneath it. It’s a story once told in foot-long feathers gently laid upon a trail for our exploring minds, now preserved on the hardened pages of the prehistoric cliffside.
I’d chosen to climb the southern face of a particularly difficult granite promontory, its slick sides all the more dangerous from the constant ministrations of wind-borne spray. I stayed to the oval depressions that staggered ever upwards, obviously cut with a craftsman’s hand, then polished like gemstone by the tips of the tempests’ swirling fingers, and thousands of years attention from bare native feet. I was but a child, smaller and lighter than anyone else my age. It seemed the higher I went the more determined the winds were to wrench me from my white-knuckled hold, and toss me like the son of Icarus to the sand and rocks below. They kept whipping me harder and harder, so that by the time I bellied up to the summit I didn’t dare raise my head above its tempting lip. I was frightened, but my fright had failed to trap me inside the safety of my friend’s car below.
Instead, fear had driven me up the mountain higher than muscles alone could have ever carried me. Waves of fear washed me onto this sky-high beach, a peak where eastward gales blew the commentary from my mind, made me powerless to doubt and glad to be alive.
I could hardly open my eyes. They kept filling with tears, as much from the folly of my vain existence as from the sting of salt-laden air. It was then that I first saw the shape, gliding towards me like an omen, bright as the setting sun. A condor— the largest ever North American bird, expertly riding the coast’s thermal lifts on rigid wings! Surely I was in no danger of being attacked, and yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that this ancient one was coming for me! That I in particular, was in this place on this day to face some grim reckoning.
Closer and closer it came, a direct and steady force, unchallenged by the shifting direction of fickle winds. It did not fly so much as it loomed, infinitely bigger with the passage of each moment, until it was larger than any nightmare that ever pursued me. It was as if who I thought I was, was about to be swallowed by a shadow— as if my very identity were about to be relegated to sterile history, marked by the plummeting screams of my shredded being. In a flash the bird was less than six feet away, single-minded purpose with a nine-foot wingspan, closing in on a pale and frightened teenage boy. I braced for the cut and slash of razor blade talons, the merciless hammering of heavy black wings dislodging my precarious grip on mortal existence, alleged reality and hopeful purpose.
And then just as quickly it passed.
For four complete laps it circled the wind blown peak. The condor was the world, and the world revolved around me as if tethered to the rock, or to a boy’s unflinching spirit. It seemed to be leaving something behind for me, even as it carried heavenward some part of who I am.
The local Chumash spoke of the Western Gate as the place where departing souls embark on their final journey to Paradise, back to unabbreviated oneness, back to their true spiritual selves. Packed aloft by the feathered giants, the souls of the dead follow the setting of the sun.
I, too, had died. I, too, had barely begun.
Exclusively a scavenger, the California Condor illustrates how one must die, in order to be reborn again on wings! And theirs are the largest wings on Turtle Island, easily transporting them hundreds of miles in a single day. The last free-born Condor was captured and incarcerated in
1989 after years of being hounded by the helicopters of frustrated wildlife biologists, with the first captive bred birds released back into the wild some six years later. Thanks to artificial insemination and the stiff laws protecting them, a few of the great birds have begun reassert their claim the sky. Their efforts seem doubly heroic, in the face of habitat usurpation by politically-backed California investors.
Development of private land accelerated two-fold immediately after the last 14 wild condors were captured. Only through diligent efforts of southern California conservationist has any of the bird’s last and favored habitat been protected. Areas within the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles contain the rugged cliff sides and cover the condors prefer, with more acreage under consideration for wilderness classification. The sole justification for any captive breeding plan is if without one the species would certainly perish. The avowed aim of all such programs is the eventual reintroduction of the species into their historic habitat. It goes without saying, that if in the course of building the population back up the remaining habitat is turned over for other uses, there can be no substantial release. No habitat, no reintroduction.
Sespe Canyon once hosted one of the handful of condor preserves set up in the 1940’s, and remains a prime candidate for a reintroduction site.
Researchers are also looking into the feasibility of establishing a population in Big Bend National Park, which takes in a long stretch of the Rio Grande River separating Mexico from the United States. Given that only a few hundred years ago they occupied much of the North American continent, as far east as Florida, and as north as Washington state, Texas canyon country is one of several places outside of overdeveloped Southern California where the condor could be reestablished. As usual, the biggest threat to them there would be indiscriminate shooting by hombres on both sides of the border. “As usual,” I say, because for at least the last ten thousand years the greatest threat to these magical animals has been “ma.”
Remains of the giant condor that flew Pleistocene skies were perfectly preserved in the tragic hold of La Brea’s tar pits. “Gymnogyps amplus” remained essentially unchanged for millennia, at least until the time of the relatively recent fifteen thousand old La Brea specimens. Our earliest human ancestors slaughtered them at night in their roosts, when they were most vulnerable, and robbed the eggs from their nests.
Predation by humans, both for food and as an object of ceremony, was the essential factor in the extinction of “amplus.” Ancient Indian ruins along the Columbia River in north-central Oregon surrendered vast amounts of bird bones, primarily eagle and the smaller “Gymogyps californianus,” condor. Strangely enough, they suffered a decrease in numbers as a result of the very rituals that celebrated their spiritual lifeforce! It was, then, the comparably low human population densities more than reverence that made it possible for their proliferation on into modern era.
They were more adaptable as well, and responded to increased hunting pressure by nesting exclusively in inaccessible cliffs, “fenced in” by dense and thorny chaparral. In addition, the eggs and chicks began to receive constant attention from both the mother and father, alternately.
The adults began developing deceptive behavior, including stopping first on nearby perches, before chancing disclosure of the nest’s location by going right to it. Still dependent on their mother at seven months and older, guardianship of the nest was paramount.
The first historical record of a condor sighting occurs in 1602, when Sebastian Vizcaino, a Spanish friar, observed them feasting on a beached whale at the bay of Monterey. Rio del Pajaro is named after a native ceremony witnessed by Gaspar de Portolá in 1769. He was apparently quite impressed with the imposing form of the suffocated bird, stuffed with dried grass, wings outstretched as if for the flight to the spirit world.
One such coastal Indian ceremony involved displaying a captive condor on a raised altar. All the younger, unmarried women gathered around the huge male, paying him exaggerated compliments. They honored his size, an avian embodiment of fertility. They petitioned his assistance in carrying them across the seemingly vast skies of their lives.
Afterwards, he is carried at the head of a festive procession, to a sacrificial altar at the opposite side of the village. There he is killed so as not to damage the hide, which will be used in the making of an elder’s mystical cloak. The body was then buried facing the rising sun, the oldest women wailing and moaning for the end of its fertile life, and the closing of another cyclic journey.
There was no such honoring by those who came after. Those American heroes, Lewis and Clark, explored much of the west for the usurpers and developers that followed. Captain Lewis missed a shot at the first condor they spotted, but their subordinates proved they were better marksmen by bringing down every condor they saw thereafter. The hides and bones of many heretofore unheard of species were shipped back to east coast museums for display. Among these were a primary wing feather and skull of one of the condors. They thus furthered the ignoble tradition of killing life in order to study it.
Which brings up another twist: long after the scientific community figured out that the condors were in jeopardy of extinction, the gathering of eggs for ornithological collections continued to contribute to the reduced birth rate. In the early 1960’s when I made my own first sighting of the great birds, a single egg could legally be sold for as much as two hundred dollars. And right up to the time of the last condor’s capture, nests were being abandoned as a result of disturbance by researchers and photographers, endangering a species in their rush to document the struggle to save them! Scientific reductionism is what we call the process whereby science devalues the spirit or integrity of its “subjects”... What could be more ironic than saving a symbol of freedom, by first imprisoning it!
Perhaps there was no choice. Those last free-ranging condors were dying.
Dying from bullet wounds from L.A. thrill seekers.
Dying because they fed on carcasses killed by DDT and
1080, poisons used to eradicate everything from squirrels
to coyotes in the preceding forty years. And then at
the last, dying from well-meaning but invasive techniques
of the very team assigned to insure their survival.
I’ll never forget the wrenching photograph in the local
paper, showing one such bird who died of sheer exhaustion
and terror after being run to the ground by a research
helicopter. The moral questions always arise in this
kind of case: is the survival, genetic integrity,
and essential spirit of the species best served this
way? Is reintroduction likely, or does the program free
up habitat for a developer land grab? And is the condor
really a condor, born and raised within the artificial
confines of a zoo? The rallying cry of the vocal minority
The condor brings to us a reminder of our tenuous grip on existence— as individuals, and indeed, as a species. As much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, from our first breath onward our personal lives hang on a slender thread, reliant not only on our care and caution, but also on a healthy environment. And on the vagaries of genetic inheritance and those microbes that surround us. The continued existence of the human species on this planet is no less dependent on the condition of the natural environment, on correct individual choices, and on the trends and whims of powers outside of our understanding and control. The condor teaches an awareness of our fragile state, encourages us to assume the risks that comes with our taking wing. Our species, and each and every one of us in our time, are called to make an ascension. And like me that wolf-child so long ago, we cling tightly to our lives. Cling to the advantages of our disappearing youth, to our illusions of an existence safe from change. Year after year we dig our nails into the mountain, out of our fear of a formless sky.
As it is our responsibility to uncover the lessons, and innate “power” of each lifeform, we also have a duty to tend to the needs of that power animal. The condor depends on the decomposing carcasses of small to large animals for its very existence. Their was a short resurgence of their otherwise steadily declining population back in the 1920’s and 30’s, when a high mortality rate among sheep and cattle herds helped offset the eradication of the once plentiful deer and elk. Poetically enough, their new population will be largely dependent on domestic animals dying out on the range, and the “death” of our investment in domesticity.
I pray they’ll be allowed to benefit from their own lesson.
It is the condor, after all, who teaches us how to transform death into flight.
*Jesse Wolf Hardin* is a teacher of Earth-centered spirituality and nature magick, living seven river crossings from a road in an ancient place of power. His latest effort is _Gaia Eros: Reconnecting With The Magic & Spirit Of Nature_ (New Page 2004), a book acclaimed by Starhawk as "a must-read for those who want to worship nature not as an abstraction but in ways sensual, practical, and transformative.” When not presenting at conferences and festivals he can be found hosting seekers for retreats, quests, events, workshops and resident internships at their enchanted wilderness sanctuary: Animá Center PO Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830 email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Jesse's website by going here http://www.animacenter.org/
©Jesse Wolf Hardin 2005 Reproduction in any form is prohibited without express written permission from the author.