Growing up, my grandmother had a set of books on her shelf from a Southwestern storyteller, Joe Hayes. Like me, Hayes grew up in Southern Arizona, fascinated by the desert, and fascinated by stories. He read every regional folktale he could get his hands on. Later, he traveled throughout the Southwest collecting stories from Native Americans and Hispanics and preserving them on paper.
Hayes compiled these stories, and as a young boy, I would curl up in my grandmother’s armchair and read them for hours. There were tales about gum-chewing rattlesnakes, coyotes hiding under kitchen tables, and of course, “The Day it Snowed Tortillas.” They were fantastic. They were absurd. They taught me about life in the desert.
But there is a caveat to these stories. You never tell them in the summer. Some say it’s because a rattlesnake might hear the stories and be upset and bite you. The Navajo say telling the stories in the summer might change the weather patterns. In any case, from the first lightning strike of the monsoons until the first freeze of the fall, the stories are off-limits. Save them for long winter evenings, gathered around a fire.
The problem is, winter doesn’t come anymore. We control the clouds with a thermostat, the seasons with a greenhouse. Cold evenings are no longer spent in hogans, hanging on an elder’s every word as he unravels coyote’s exploits; however, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to hear the stories.
The fluorescent lights of the academic halls also threaten us with perpetual summer. We read books and write papers, and think that knowledge is a reasonable substitute for wisdom. But then we walk outside, we walk across the river, and we realize that we don’t understand the world around us. We don’t know why bears have short tails, why rattlesnakes have fangs, or why Saguaro cacti grow on the south side of hills. For all our academic pursuits, we don’t understand why Harrisburg is so small. We don’t understand why the white kids don’t venture past 2nd Street. We don’t understand why beautifully built houses are falling apart.
Perhaps we don’t understand because we never listened.
Summer is my favorite season. The days are long. The heat is invigorating. But there’s a reason summer only lasts for a time. When the heat breaks and the cold wind sweeps in, we’re supposed to gather at the elders’ feet and be reminded of a time when Rattlesnake didn’t have any way to protect himself. We’re supposed to pull a blanket tight and hear how the Sun God gave “soft-child” thorns from the Devil’s Claw plant to put in his mouth to protect himself from Rabbit’s tricks. We’re supposed to cross the river, to knock on doors, to sit in living rooms and be reminded that things weren’t always this way. Someone had to create the boroughs. Someone had to sell the houses.
Hogans are harder to come by now. In fact, there might not be any left. We might have to build one. It would have to be a gathering place, this hogan open to everyone so they could share the stories of their people: a center for public humanity.
Joel Johnson is a senior double major in English and Sustainability Studies at Messiah College. Next year, he hopes to attend Northern Arizona University to continue pursuing applicable research in sustainability by exploring the interplay of nature and environment.