Thursday, October 30, 2008

Condor Talisman

I'm such a die-hard, I was figuring out how to do this design even as I was watching the condors fly in the Grand Canyon on Sunday! Yesterday I got out the very last of my silver PMC and crafted this pendant from the image at the top of my last post. I wanted it to be recognizable as, and capture the feeling of a condor in flight, but not be too fussy on the details. (For fussy details, I'll post images of my paintings sometime!) Instead, I went for a primal look and feel, something that evoked the high-desert environment and ancient rock art.
I'm pleased with the result, and am thinking about taking a mold from this and doing a limited, signed edition of it in silver and/or bronze, and donating a portion of the profits to the condor restoration project, probably either the Peregrine Fund or the Grand Canyon. Other designs are coming to mind to be offered as one-of-a-kind originals or limited editions. I would appreciate your feedback on this if you're interested!
'Till later...Dawn

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Condor Dreams

They are like nothing else. No other birds even come close. With a 9 1/2-foot (3 meter) wingspan, the California condors are the great shamans of the air, flying with a pure, stately grace through the vastness of the Grand Canyon and beyond. As I write this, two days after seeing them for the first time, I can see them in my mind's eye, but I struggle for words. It felt like a visitation from one of the great Powers.

My husband, Michael, and I had taken a brief trip to see Steve Roach in concert in Flagstaff (for photos of that, see his website at and for a few days of R&R in Northern Arizona. Mike suggested that we go up to the Grand Canyon again, and so had arrived at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, actually found an available room, and were just wandering around deciding what to do with ourselves.
A talk on the condors had been scheduled at Mary Coulter's beautiful Lookout Studio, but I figured I already knew most of what they would say and I hadn't come to stand around in a crowd. We decided on a walk down the rim trail for sunset and were heading back to the X-terra for warmer clothes when we came upon the talk already in progress, so I said what the hell, let's hang around for a few minutes.
And then I saw it: a large bird circling out over the canyon. As it turned, I saw what looked like a white head and assumed it was a bald eagle. Others saw it, too, and began to point and exclaim. Then the guide turned, took one look and said "Here comes one now!" I couldn't believe was a condor!!
We and everyone else in the vicinity scrambled for a good view. As we watched, more condors came to investigate until there were five in all; apparently they are drawn to crowds and activity. We watched them, and they watched us. At times one would fly by at eye level, so close we could hear the air rushing through their wings. It was an awesome sound, like the wind through the pines. They had a good look and then landed on some outcrops on the cliffs below, took off again, and circled away and back again, playing in the air, for a good hour.

Their flight is rock steady, with wings perfectly outstretched on either side, primaries spread like fingers at the tips. They'll spend hours like this, going as high as 15,000 feet and hundreds of miles in a day. And I can tell you, these pictures don't do them justice.

Nearly all of the condors in canyon country today have been released there from the breeding program (more on that below), and bear plastic numbered ID tags on their wings, as well as radio transmitters. At times, they were so close we could read the numbers through binoculars.

Meanwhile, here are Michael and I, as I took our picture just before the surprise of a lifetime. Nice camera shadow...did I mention I was a professional? Mike's already scanning the skies.

One of the condors perched on a ledge, just hanging out. They relax and wait for the wind to be just right. Taking off, they expend as little energy as necessary: just one or two flaps of those incredible wings, and then they're soaring on the thermals for hours.

The same view, pulled out to show the condor in context with the canyon.

Beautiful in flight. Mature adults show the classic white on the underwing, with an orange and yellow head and gorgeous red eyes. They often fly with their white feet hanging down, and so look a bit like planes with the landing gear down. I would guess this helps increase drag, so they can slow down when they want to get a good look at things, like us. They strike me as very intelligent and full of character.

Hours later, still watching the condors from the Rim Trail in the afterglow of evening. They will fly until darkness falls.

This was the unexpected culmination of a dream of a lifetime for me. Condors captured my heart in the 1980s and became sacred animals for me, even as I learned that they were in grave danger of extinction. I drew pictures of them and even named my studio Whitecondor Studio. In the spring of 1987, just as I was taking my first tour around the Southwest, the last wild condor was captured and brought into captivity in Southern California for a controversial breeding program. It was an almost desperate measure to try and increase their numbers and someday release them back into the wild.

When their numbers were at their lowest, there were only 22 condors left alive.

The captive breeding program was a success, and in 1992, the first captive-raised condors were released in California. In 1996, the year we moved to our home in New Mexico, the first condors were released at the Vermillion Cliffs north of the Grand Canyon, part of their ancestal territory. They quickly discovered the Canyon, condor nirvana, and have become--incredibly--a common sight on the South Rim.

Today, there are nearly 300 condors alive, and several dozen call the Grand Canyon and the surrounding country home.

I watched them fly away into the distance of evening.

When I first visited the Canyon in '87, the idea of seeing condors flying in the Southwestern skies seemed like an impossible dream. At most, I hoped someday, once in my lifetime, to see one flying free somewhere. On Sunday, October 26, 2008, that dream unexpectedly came true as I returned to the Grand Canyon and saw not one, but five breathtaking condors flying wild, so close that I heard the wind whistling in their wings.

If you would like to contribute to the restoration of the condors, please visit

thanks...until next time,


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ogg Goes to the Used Atlatl Lot & Other Prehistoric Misadventures

It was a chilly, grey day on October 4th in Santa Fe, muting the yellow of blooming chamisa and golden aspens on the heights of the Sangre de Christo mountains high above. I had driven up to visit the Sun Mountain Gathering, an outdoor interactive festival of prehistoric southwestern craft held by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on the east side of town. Most of the action took place down behind the museum complex, along a network of paths that ran through the pinons...

My first stop was the atlatl-throwing range, where you could try out a selection of atlatls and darts and try to hit targets that consisted of pictures of large, friendly-looking animals stuck to hay bales. For those of you who haven't brushed up on your prehistory, an atlatl is a stick with a finger handle attached that's used for throwing spears and darts; it predates the bow and arrow and at one time was used all over the world. This lady pictured above kindly displayed her really nice one that she ordered from a guy on the internet.
That's right folks, you can order you very own atlatl on the internet.

Naturally, I had to try one myself. They gave me some 4-foot darts and, after failing miserably on the first two tries, I got lucky and hit the rabbit right in the jugular! Well, just barely, but hey. I took a picture of it so I'd have proof. (Of course, this proves nothing so you'll just have to believe me.)
I was hooked. It was easier that I thought, and came back later for a few more throws, killed the deer and was rewarded with a badly aching shoulder the next day. I want to make my own atlatl now. It's on my To Do list.

A little further down the trail, I came upon Ulysses Reid of Zia Pueblo (not far from us at home) just as he was opening a firing pit full of his Mesa Verde-style pots. This is something he's just been getting into, and pit firing is tricky business. Above, he's removing the potsherds that covered the new pots in the pit, which are visible upside-down on the left.

This beautiful bowl was one of the first to emerge. The Mesa Verde style pottery is one style of many from the old days, and is characterized by black designs painted with Rocky Mountain Beeplant (I believe) on a white slip background.

Here's everything just as it came out of the pit. They still need to be rinsed off, but the firing was a partial success; there was no breakage but smoke had blackened much of the white slip, obscuring the designs. Better luck next time, Ulysses! I did take one of the bowls home for my studio, though.
Next stop: the Archaic Hunting Camp...

...where I met John from Portales who, fueled with a large bag of peanuts, was busily flintknapping arrowheads from obsidian. John was a delightful guy who quickly taught me the basics, thus making it appear much simpler than it actually was. Nevertheless, I was able to make one edge of an arrowhead look pretty serviceable, and he gave me a bunch of pieces to take home a try out. Which I will, as soon as my hands heal.

Another flintknapper (whose name I didn't recall, unfortunately) had a display of points and knives he'd made from obsidian, stone and glass. The knife points are set into flattened sheep horns and bound with sinew. Pretty neat stuff.
The only tools the original knappers used were a stone, an antler point, a piece of leather, and a sandstone block. John had made his own tools of copper which worked beautifully, but I've made my own from elk antler tips just to see how it goes.

The day was going by really fast and I realized I wouldn't have time to learn all the techniques, so I made a beeline for the yucca fiber display, part of the Navajo Sheep Camp. I didn't see any Navajos, nor any sheep, but I did meet Mary Weahkee, Santa Clara Pueblo-Comanche, making fabulous things out of yucca fiber. Above, she's set up a partially-completed blanket of rabbit fur strips woven into yucca fiber on an upright loom.

And here is a length of yucca rope she made. The dark, fuzzy strip above it is the beginning of a turkey feather blanket, which will be woven together in the same manner as the one made with rabbit fur. Some turkeys in a neighboring exhibit had serendipitously had a fight earlier in the day, and thus Mary was able to obtain a good quantity of fresh down feathers for her blanket. I had always assumed these blankets would be terribly itchy due to the combination of yucca fiber and little ends of feathers sticking out, but this had been woven so skilfully that it was incredibly soft. I'll take one of these over a coat any day!

Here's Mary showing a newly-twilled segment of yucca fiber to another participant. I'd tried at home to figure out how to make this, but never got the hang of it. Mary taught me how to do it, and it was actually very simple, if hard on the hands. You can either soak the leaves for a long time or just cook them for a couple of days in your turkey roaster at home; the goal is to soften the pulp in the leaves so you can scrape it off. You're left with the pure fibers, which can then be twisted in a variety of ways, and spliced together . Her tools were prosaic (a piece of PVC pipe on a cafeteria tray, an antler scraper and plastic buckets filled with water) but the results were very impressive. I'm still getting the hang of it, but if you see any of my jewelry for sale with handmade yucca fibers, you'll know where I learned it!
All in all, it was the most fun I'd had in a LONG time, and I came away feeling as if, should civilization collapse, I would at least be able to provide us with meat, clothing and footwear. I stopped in town for groceries and some fresh roasted chile and headed for home just as the first autumn storm blew in, which deposited a layer of snow on the mountaintops during the night. Can't wait till next year!!!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bisti Sojourn

With beautiful autumn weather comes wanderlust in New Mexico, and last week I and my son Max decided to make the 3+ hour trek out to the Bisti Badlands, a wilderness area in the northwest corner of the state. A fair portion of the drive is on dirt roads (REAL roads, by God!) like this one, as I shot it out of the window en route...
...heading west across the sagebrush steppe of the San Juan Basin. This is Navajo country, despite the fact that the official border of the rez is out there ahead of us. An occasional house or two is the only evidence that this land is inhabited, and there have been times I've had to slow down so a dusty herd of sheep can clear the road.
We arrived at the dirt parking lot for the wilderness, where a group of somewhat bemused-looking out-of-staters had just wandered back to their vehicles. They had no idea that the really interesting stuff, seen above and following in no particular order, is a good mile up the wash. Which keeps the riffraff out, incidentally.
The above image is pure Bisti: dark hills of shale and clay seamed with coal, bonewhite clay hoodoos, and huge petrified logs. One of the logs is visible resting on a pedestal of clay in the bottom center of the photo.

The hoodoos and other formations look like living things, graceful and something that has only briefly transformed to stone and clay...

An intriguing side passage.

A towering hoodoo. This one is over 15 feet tall; many of the formations in Bisti are actually quite small. Wonderful and strange things happen just above ground level, and the feel is intimate, like a sculpture garden, rather than the monumental formations of canyon country. Hoodoos form when a layer of harder strata erodes away until only isolated caprocks remain. The stems that support them are of softer stuff, and once the caprock falls will quickly erode away.

Small, exquisite hoodoos in the glow of evening light.

During a rest, Max contemplates the meaning of life, the universe, and beef jerky.

I've never seen another place quite like the Bisti. Truly another world...the most desolate, eerie, and fascinating place in the Southwest.

At one place, and only one as far as I know, there is a field of stone eggs which have cracked open and seem to be evaporating back into the dreamtime...

Stones take forms here that I've never seen elsewhere, and wouldn't believe were possible unless I'd seen them myself. Wind seems to be the prime sculptor of these shapes. Many fantastic formations were impossible to photograph in a way that showed clearly what they were, but some, like those above, literally composed themselves.
...We stayed out for a good six hours which went by very fast, and arrived back at the suv just as the sun had slipped below the horizon. Then a long, dark drive homeward...
Next time in the Drylands Journal:
Ogg Goes to the Used Atlatl Lot!
Stay tuned...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Desert Jewels and the Glittering Land

Late sunlight turning the bonelands golden at Bisti, turquoise, silver...the scent of juniper smoke at twilight and a chill in the air at night... Autumn has come to the high desert in Northern New Mexico.

Welcome to my new blog! I've created it as a sister site to my online jewelry store, Desert Talismans at

I'm looking forward to giving you an expanded, more in-depth look at my world, my work, and my creative well as works in other media and works-in-progress.

But for now, I thought I'd include a couple of favorite images from recent days in my first posting to my blog, as a taste of things to come. One was just taken this morning as the first rays of sun fell across my worktable and illuminated a wind-carved stone bowl full of Nevada turquoise cabochons. At the top left of the page are the Bisti Badlands, taken on a day's hike with my son a couple of weeks ago. The Bisti is out in the San Juan Basin, in the northwest corner of New Mexico. I was hungry for new shapes and forms that would inspire my work in PMC (precious metal clay), which I've just begun to use. I wasn't disappointed! An expanded post will include more images from this otherworldly place in the future.

'Till then...