(The following essay was submitted as part of Desert Exposure's October 2016 Writing Contest. It was not chosen as a winner. Nevertheless, I would like to share it with our community. Thank you.)
3.3 Million Acres of Heaven on Earth
Many describe specific places on our planet as “Heaven on Earth”. Words used by many to describe these sacred places are "power spots", "vortexes", and even doors to other dimensions. I feel that out of our beautiful Mother Earth birth is given to all of these things and that our Gila National Forest and all of its formations like the Gila River are the greatest manifestations and expressions of her love for us.
Whether we live near or far away, whether hiking, running, cycling, swimming, birding, hunting, or fishing in the Gila this ancient land provides in so many more ways than we expect, demand, and receive from her. The Gila is alive and can never be taken for granted.
I know this because deep within my soul and in the eyes and smiles of my children resides the entire 3.3 million acres. Every morning when the sun rises over the Kneeling Nun and Geronimo nods at us from his mountain in the east, the Gila says good morning and strengthens my heart for the day ahead. Even if times are turbulent and life is challenging, somehow, someway those beams of light, no matter the season, massage my morning eyes and bring peace into my heart preparing me for another day on earth, another breath, another smile and another adventure in our forested lands here in Southwest New Mexico.
Mornings are my most favorite time of day. As I stand in the mist of the dawn, it is that time of day when darkness and light dance together. It is the time of day when the first of female birds announce themselves from the many branches of the thousands of Oaks, Junipers, Pine, and Aspen trees that we are surrounded by. I am sleepy but my ears perk up to listen. This sacred bird announces herself as the feathered one who carries the sun beams that spark the light into another day on earth for us. She is fire and water and we say good morning with the prayers of the night in our hearts.
Greeting Grandfather Sun as we stand on the wild buffalo grass, our face is lifted upward thinking about those who came before us, our ancestors of the Gila who are the mountains, the cliffs, the caves, hills, and the majestic Gila River - all of which is the homeland of the Apaches. Our ancestors are ever present and are listening, watching, and helping us at all times, everywhere. It is at this sacred time in the morning that Mangas, Geronimo, Nana, and Lozen whisper into our ears and breathe into our hearts the message of peace and the eternal call to action in defense of our birthright.
I open my hands and extend my arms for a hug. I want to be embraced this morning and be held like the baby or child that each new day brings in the face of such greatness and ancient harmony that is stoked by every sound, every movement, and every breath of life that resides in this place and in our people. All of this surrounds and envelopes me through my senses and teaches me that heaven and earth are truly one in the same. This is our spiritual path. My day has begun.
Standing on top of any one of the countless hills and mountains after a long trek in the high altitude air that is as fresh and clear as the most pure and translucent quartz crystal, I look around and inhale. My lungs burn slightly and upon exhaling it seems for a brief moment that I can see and feel everything more clearly. I feel energized in my heart too and I know that I am being given another chance to walk upright, straight forward, and immune to the many distractions that create imbalance in our lives. I am thankful for the opportunities the Gila Forest provides in our lives to be better human beings, to be better relatives to each other, and to heal.
I sit on the earth from my rocky perch and look out into the vast wild open lands. The wind begins to blow. Slowly at first and then faster, on to a roar in such a way that while moving through the tall pine trees and their millions of needles and cones I’m reminded of a massive crowd of cheering fans in a stadium who just witnessed their best team score.
I smile at what I perceive to be the Gila’s applause for the intention of balance, respect, and harmony that I carry in my heart and mind that is at its core inspired by much time spent in these mountains and the spirit of co-existence that it cultivates in me. In my genetic code flows the electricity of thousands of years of Native tradition and teachings that admonish us to walk softly and live simply on earth leaving everything as it is meant to be. This genetic vibration, our ancient teachings are cosmic in origin and guide us to let the earth be without interference and to allow those who reside in her womb to be alone to live their lives. It has taught us to humble ourselves and show respect for the existence of her creations and those who dwell upon her whom she gives birth to. This in turn helps us to become more fully human. By taking only what we need and leaving enough alone for eternal future generations to benefit from we can enjoy and be inspired by her forever.
As I continue to meditate, the wind is blowing across my face and through my hair. I close my eyes and imagine that I am with so many things that I’ve seen while in the forest: An Eagle up high floating with open, steady wings spread wide while looking under them and down at what is on the earth below. I feel myself as the red and brown earth that roots the sweet, fragrant sagebrush and provides warm dens for the small animals and insects. I imagine that I am flowing with the water in the Gila River moving ever so swift over smooth, rounded edges of river rocks only to make my way once again to and through every living thing that has ever lived. Like the river water, I feel that I am the swiftness of the deer as it leaps and bounds over tall grasses and skirts around the millions of trees sharing and giving us the oxygen necessary to believe in ourselves once again and to go on living another day and carrying on through the beautiful four seasons of our land and our lives.
I rise and begin to walk. It happens to be summer time and I make my way home to the slow, gentle, rolling thunder off in the distance coming from massive, puffy grey and white clouds that are full of water pulled up from the earth and gathered in the thick cloth of their Monsoon cotton bodies. Returning to us now as heavy droplets of holy rain water being delivered to our communities by the great slopes of the Gila, I am thankful for the mountains that envelope us, that provide for and protect us.
I can smell the electrical pulses in the charged air that the Monsoons bring. Rolling thunder, like all living things, seeks its ultimate expression in transformation. For the clouds over the Gila this always means lightning which is the one of the most powerful sky vehicles in which the energy of our forested earth is nourished and maintains its connection, its path of communication reciprocated continuously and eternally between earth and sky. Knowing this, I pause and take long deep breaths of the charged air. It fills me with the seeds of fire, change, rebirth, revolution, and the spark that the beginning of all life is defined by.
The Gila makes me thankful for my life. In these ways she is a blessing that I cannot even begin to try to understand but to only feel deeply grateful for living in and around. I love her so much that I often times think about her pain. The pain we cause her when we take her for granted. She is so beautiful and has so much to offer that I cannot understand why to those who suffer from the sickness of violence make her their personal target. Sometimes I ask myself why her precious metals - her conductors and transformers - are extracted for profit and it makes me begin to question everything about the way those extractive industries have tried to turn our hearts and minds toward the false idea that a society structured around the abusive, unsustainable use of her flesh and blood is the only way.
What is it in their hearts and minds, I ask God in these quietest of meditative moments, that make it possible for them to continually scratch and claw at her skin opening up deep poisonous wounds that surely energize the stock markets, their bank deposits, their giant tractors, drills and machinery but that leave behind a honey combed earth, deep hollow pits in her bosom, acid burns on her flesh, manmade ponds of poison that have killed the cosmic vibration of that water, and tainted our community’s future water downstream? What is it that makes them try to border, coral, and plug her veins of free flowing waters? Do they not see the legacy they are leaving behind for their children and the example they set for others in every part of the world where sacred forests and land like the Gila are being targeted for exploitation? If we cannot protect our own Mother than how can we expect our children to learn the importance of the sacred acts of self-respect, self-love, and self-care?
Some may say that it is only a very small part of the land that is being affected so it won’t harm much. But I ask them when they shortsightedly justify their actions if any form of cancer takes the entire body all at once or even kills a living thing immediately? I pray deeply for the Gila to touch their hearts and teach them that immediate survival is never more important than the long term health, well-being, and survival of our earth and her species.
When I engage with others like this the hardest thing to come to terms with is that it’s very hard to have a civil discussion or difference of opinion when over many generations they’ve profited from crises and have chosen to adopt and identify with religious tenets and a worldview that is fueled by the tantalizing energy of power, control, and domination over our natural world. It’s even harder to try to resist the way they continue to use science to try to achieve absolute power over nature and empower the fast paced, unsustainable construction of our world that in essence is at the root of every earth crisis and the destructive times we are living in. In the end, the only thing they seem to understand when that way of life is threatened is violent force and unfortunately they have every means for that at their disposal.
But our weapon of peace has always been the Gila. We can always call upon her magical transformative powers to help our fellow human beings heal. Our ancient belief in the power of the Gila, her river, and the harmonic forces of creation that continue to manifest all of her abundance in our lives is the way. It is increasingly becoming apparent that living in harmony with this is our hope and our road to salvation and joining forces with those who have allowed the power of the Gila into their hearts to transform and guide them in their life and relationships is a powerful way toward the life-long pursuit of spiritual evolution and maturity.
There are so many courses of action we can take to preserve our heritage, traditions, and culture that serve to preserve and uplift our beautiful lands, resources, and the forest that grows here. Gardens, Food Forests, small scale water harvesting, growing soil, networking in trade, barter, and sustainable local business that helps rather than harms the earth are the solutions of a new day and a new time.
As we come together this summer to celebrate the 100th birthday of The National Park Service we also begin celebrating and extending the idea that all places in nature should remain pristine and protected for all walks of life. Our Mother Earth, who is a live, sentient being, deserves our recognizing her and validating her as such. The Gila is not in our backyard. The Gila is in our blood. It is our home and the place where we live and grow. As an extension of the protected status we reserve for so many sacred places in our country we have the honor, duty, and responsibility to protect our great National Forest and to do anything and everything in our power to keep the Gila River flowing wild and free.
This essay is written in gratitude for the elements that give us life and to all peoples of the world who are working together to unite, honor, and uplift our voices, songs, and prayers on behalf of our beautiful Mother Earth.
El Machete - ("The Machete serves to cut the cane, to open paths in shadowed woods, to decapitate serpents, to cut down weeds, and to humble the pride of the impious rich.") - Diego Rivera
A resident of San Vicente de la Cienega (Silver City) Mr. Lopez is a husband and father of two sons and a daughter. He is an indigenous Kawiya (Cahuilla) from southern California who is a Social Justice Educator, a Labor Organizer, and teacher and preservationist of Native traditions, language, and culture.