To call that area a Reserve would be an overstatement; wasteland seemed more appropriate a term. Referring to the man standing in front of me as one of the Native American Chiefs was also factually correct, but neither his SUV nor the western attire reflected any signs of the heritage.
It was difficult to imagine him as the majestic legacy of the complex society which galloped on bare horseback and mastered the seasonal hunting of the massive bison.
It had taken me multiple rides on dusty roads to meet him and I wondered if the arduous journey was worth the trouble.
In all fairness, I suppose his urbane appearance should not be entirely surprising because various treaties and broken promises by the government had long constrained native tribes under regulatory laws opposed to their cultural heritage.
‘You look disappointed.’ He gave me a knowing smile, ‘I suppose you expected to see me wearing an eagle-feathered war bonnet …’
‘Well, sort of,’ I replied sheepishly. ‘Was I that obvious?’
‘Not from your face, but the aura gave it away.’ His guttural laugh was short but relaxed.
It was comforting to know the Chief could see beyond the obvious. I began to grow slightly more confident that my trip might not be in vain.
‘You were very specific about the month, even the week when I could visit you...’
‘Oh!’ He laughed, ‘when you mentioned you were a storyteller from halfway across the globe, I thought I might as well make your visit worthwhile.’
‘That’s very interesting... and how did you plan to do that?’
‘I timed your visit to the gathering of the celebrating clouds.’
‘Is this some native mythology?’
‘No, it’s a natural phenomenon,’ he replied in his guttural intone. ‘Nature communicates, if only we care to listen.’
It was his eyes that smiled this time, and I knew he had some tales for me.
‘Would you like some coffee before we head into the wilderness?’ He asked.
‘Sure,’ I replied, ‘I’d appreciate that.’
‘We usually go for coffee in a fancy café but end up assessing the mugs and the creamy froth on the brew. Our subsequent visits to that café are more for the environment than the coffee itself.’ He commented as we sat in a not-so-fancy roadside café.
‘Hmmm, you do have a point.’ I reflected.
‘Lured by these entrapments, we forget that the frills are the distractions that pull us away from our actual objective. We face similar distractions with our understanding of nature because we ignore the living surroundings and constraint the focus to our species.’
He paused for a while, ‘I suppose you would understand what I am saying. After all, you are a traveler and a storyteller....’
Actually, I had little clue on what he meant but nodded in agreement.
Watching him as we drove, I gradually began to see the man behind the modern facade.
Somehow it felt like a voyeur with ripe imagination, a peeping Tom if you will, furtively observing him, disrobing him.
As we drove deeper into the reserve, I discovered a subtle change in his presence. He seemed to look older, his face more creased, but his presence more imposing.
‘We are almost there,’ he said as he noticed my silence. ‘We’ll be camping out in the open and with the rain coming, you best carry something warm to wear.’
I looked up at the cloudless sky and laughed. ‘Looks like the weather cycle might pull a fast one this time.’
The Chief wasn’t offended at my remark and replied in a dignified, confident voice, ‘The land of cloud-birth is eighteen days of horse-ride away. The winds then herd the clouds towards a playing nursery where they befriend one another, a place just beyond the horizon. My grandfather had seen their birthplace and, as a child, I once visited the area where their nursery lies.’
It was sobering to watch him talk with such conviction.
‘Did your father take you to that place?’ I managed to ask.
‘No, my father was killed as a young warrior by the cavalrymen.’
‘Oh, I am sorry to hear that. Must have been difficult growing up an orphan.’
‘There are no orphans in a warrior tribe. Each lactating mother feeds those children and all elders guard like a father...’ His voice momentarily trailed off, then he softly repeated, ‘…there are no orphans in a warrior tribe.’
I could not tell if he recapped the words as a reminder, or a reassurance, to himself but the Chief had peeled off his urbane fascia, and finally come back home. This was the barrier I had wished him to cross, now I could differentiate between folklore and folk wisdom; something I had traveled from afar for.
We parked near an overhanging rock with a view deep into the reserve. Even before the sun drew closer to the horizon, a soft, cool breeze began to surround us.
I was no stranger to the majestic beauty of nature and gratefully absorbed its comforting feel. The Chief, however, related to the landscape in an entirely different manner, giving it a wholesome, living, dimension. A concept totally alien to me.
‘What exactly did you mean when you mentioned that nature communicates but we don’t care to listen?’ I asked.
‘What would be your reaction if it begins to rain?’ He replied with his own question.
‘I guess I’d run for shelter.’
‘And as a kid, what did you do when it rained?’
‘We used to play in the downpour….’
My own reply gave me a pause for thought. Why do kids play in the rain and adults don’t?
‘Observe the children, learn from them,' He advised. 'Remember, what the adult casually evades, a child joyfully awaits.’
‘But aren’t we to teach the children, not learn from them?’ I asked.
‘Why can’t we do both?’ He gave me a fleetingly exasperated look, ‘they have the inherent purity to understand the language of nature. Adults visit the beach, but children feel the mesmerizing effect of tingling sand as it sneaks below their feet. Observe a child when the breeze brushes through his hair, can’t we see how he loves the feel of the wind?’
Looking at my silent expression, he continued, ‘It is only when we detach from what seems obvious that we appreciate the building blocks of reality.
‘We know water is a fluid and believe everything about it to be wet. But once we look beyond the apparent, we discover that the atoms that form water are neither liquid nor wet. The essence is different from appearance.’
He paused to let it sink in. I valued his consideration but wished to know more, comprehend the understated.
‘Pain, how much we detest this feeling...’ he continued, ‘but it is actually a favor upon us, a signal to warn about any physical damage that has occurred. It is also a link that communicates emotional turmoil, highlights the value of the ones you care for, by forewarning that without them life is not complete. Similarly love, unlike infatuation, love is a reciprocal feeling, a mutual bond. So if we love to go out in nature, shouldn’t nature be loving you back?
‘Our horses respond to our calls, whistles, and nudges and we think we’ve trained them. In fact, like everything else in nature, they were always communicative but only when we reach out to them, do they tell us they understand.’
I sat silently for a long while.
Although the Chief was right beside me, I no longer felt his presence, or that of the surrounding mountains, the clouds or even the sky.
I realized how much I loved life, so it must love me in turn? Is this why I am still alive? Her love that keeps me pulsating, breathing? So maybe when living turns into infatuation with life, it is time to go? Leave the rivers, the mountains, the forests, and humanity itself behind?
Would it be that there is awareness beyond this life too? If then, is it right to miss the feelings in this lifetime and mindlessly carry the burden of insensitivity into the beyond?
I heard a sharp cry of an eagle in the sky, followed by the acknowledging echoes from the surrounding mountains. I knew why, as I child, when we traveled to the mountains, I would call out loud and excitedly wait to hear back my mountains’ reply.
‘Look up there,’ his voice pulled me back. ‘The clouds have left their nursery and would be gathering over us soon… Can you see the stars are not as bright as the rest of the sky?’
I noticed that the stars were a bit hazy in that general direction.
‘What next now? Should we be waiting for things to happen?’ I asked.
‘Reach within your soul. The deeper you go in, the more you will understand.’
Soon the valleys echoed with the rumbling melodies of thunderclouds.
Nature did communicate and, unshackled from my upbringing, I now understood the language. I heard the eagle cry out again, beckoning me to the skies to witness the excited flurry of the raindrops, eagerly anticipating the leap into the arms of their lovers. Each one tenderly aware of the beloved waiting down below; the pebble, the soil, the leaf, and yes, the animatedly waiting children.
I mourned why I had denied myself this luxury of being loved, sought shelter away from my rain. I wondered if it was not too late, that some love was still in store for me.
As the first drop of rain fell from the sky, the Chief quietly asked, ‘Want to go under a shade now?’
For the first time, I looked directly at the Chief, incredulous at the insensitivity of his question.
How could he even think of it? Deny me my lover’s embrace?
And then the first raindrop found me, comforting me, soothing me.
Assuring me that I was also the chosen one too, the loved one.
And then came another, and another and another…
I kept sitting there, and felt the bliss of being loved; each one of those tenderly cherished, mesmerizing drops.
And I got drenched… by God, I got drenched... Not just by my raindrops, but also in my tears.
Gratefully satiated that it is never too late for love.