By Ben Boomer
Every summer growing up I would tuck my pants into my socks and prepare myself for battle. The enemy at the time was Russian Thistle that grew relentlessly in the meadow that spread 40 acres in front of the house. They loved to grow where the soil has been disturbed. The ranch was a few thousand acres on the Navajo reservation, and was tended by my mother’s family. My parents raised me there along with some Aunts, Uncles and cousins. My dad was a farm boy from California descended from German/European stock. This created the perfect life to explore some differences, some similarities, and to ultimately begin to discover harmony between cultures and eras.
My mother’s clan, the Dibe Lizhini (Black Sheep) were adopted into the the Dine people by the Salt clan several generations ago after fleeing the Spaniards from Zia Pueblo, or so the story goes. Long story short the family lives on a ranch with cattle and sheep at the base of the Chuska mountains. My grandmother’s house sits at the edge of one meadow, with my uncles houses and barns clustered nearby. My father, being an artist and never totally comfortable living in grandma’s house, endeavored to build a beautiful double hogan in the next valley over the hill. The meadows there would be plowed and sowed with alfalfa for winter hay, but otherwise left alone. He built near the majestic red rock cliffs, a little way from the stock pond where Herons and other migratory birds nested. Every year he would host an art show and sometimes a couple hundred people would show up and park near the house, in the meadow, where all the thistle loved to grow. My job was to destroy all thistle.
Some people look at the vibrant purple blooms of the thistle and see the beauty and color of life, but if you have to walk through them you are introduced to their thorny, slightly toxic prickles. If you have the opportunity to dig in and around them you discovery they play host to vast legions of tiny biting black ants. The black ant bite isn’t terribly painful, at least for the first 50. I would often take it as a game, wielding a wooden sword, socks over pants, long sleeve shirt and gloves in balmy June. I would dance through the thistle, severing purple heads as Conan of the meadow. This frolick never lasted, because like the Hydra, a severed thistle head will sprout two. The only way to truly rid the yard of them was with a shovel. My father’s haunting refrain “Pop the tap root” reverberated through my stuffy head. I developed a severe allergy to the thorny demons early on, and would shovel and hoe my way through a haze of snot and tears until there was enough clearing for several dozen cars, and people to park, camp and mill about for the annual art show. Even childhoods that are a wealth of character building must come to an end.
I moved on to college and adulthood, and had many opportunities to reflect on this and other childhood experiences. I began to take note of the very different cultural attitudes toward lawn care, landscape, and even garbage. It came into beautiful clarity recently when I saw a photo on the interwebs of a Navajo friends family gathering around their suburban backyard pool. The pool itself was immaculate, and the children were filled with that first day of summer break unbridled joy as they leapt into the deep end. There were other beings present also in full bloom of the early desert summer. Weeds, or at least that’s what most people call them. They were special, they were untouched, unpoisoned and majestic in their own right. You might call the family lazy (they certainly are not) but I saw something else. My mother had a saying growing up, ‘If it wasn’t perfect it wouldn’t be’ and this is what I saw in those weeds. I remembered being on the Amazon river and tossing my banana leaf food wrapper guiltlessly over the side of the ferry. I remembered the old hogan in the old meadow where a relative had died before I was born. In Dine tradition the family abandoned it, leaving it to the elements to take back to the earth, it wasn’t built of anything that didn’t belong. I realized what looks like trash, or an unkempt yard is really just echos of an older attitude toward the earth, and stuff. Trash and weeds are foreign concepts, and the mess you see on the reservations is the result of a square peg being hammered into a round hole. The native culture is slowly learning how to fit some of the old ways in with the new. Times are changing for us all, even character building childhoods must come to an end.
I found victory over those purple helmeted demons eventually. My cousin-in-law is a world champion grass dancer. These are the first guys out at a Pow Wow, and their dance tramples down the grass for the other dancers to shine. I think this is where his magic comes from, but he would laugh at that idea. Aside from the couple acres around my father’s house, there are another 40 acres of meadow/alfalfa field that used to be flooded long ago by the annual rains. One year my Grass Dancer cousin was able to divert enough water to fully flood the meadow without sowing any alfalfa, and everyone thought it was a terrible waste of water and resource, but the alfalfa had become too hard to manage with all the weeds.. The next year as spring came the meadow was transported back to a much earlier time. There was only a lonely handful of thistle remaining and I swelled with inner triumph when I saw it. The meadow was a green ocean alive with waves of various greens talking to me about harmony with the dance the wind provides them. So I honor the lesson of those weeds, and realize that trying to be Conan of the meadow isn’t always the best course to victory. Sometimes you have to let the weeds grow, and jump into the deep end with a big ol’ smile. Sometimes you have to remember that if it wasn’t perfect it wouldn’t be. It can take a little work to let go of the idea we have a lot to change. When we settle back into our true nature we can let things be as they will while we wait for spring dance of the grass.