tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: tribes

Three Days Before Tomorrow

If you go back with me two days, we would be in the desert west of Phoenix. We would be standing with a late morning cup of coffee and might be talking, but probably not. We would be looking out at the desert to the north where the world bends off, out beyond that bend and into the haziness. And over there is the place to where the mountains have marched off and donned their purple coats and then, even farther lie the mountains that barely exist, close to the color of the sky. Closer in, there are red faced cliffs and mesas that some old ocean left behind and above which old plesiosaurs swam through swarms of sharks under a long-long-time-ago sky. And maybe bat-winged birds glided through the rays of a younger sun.

I watched the raggedy, black ravens fly their tricks off the edges of ledges and I barked my best raven tongue talk. Only one broke off and swung closer to see who was sending false messages from below, who was singing out this semi-sense song. One wing tuck, a side-long glance, two held tilts and small chortle was the response. Curiosity is the charm behind those ebony eyeballs, ravens are really quite amazing to me, I wonder the size of their soul.

The revery stayed with me. The thoughts of the distant canyons and the hidden places stir the old desire to walk out and be gone from things for a while. I drove the dolphin and watched the red cliffs snake closer to the road until they towered over-head. There were signs that read a warning about painting on the sacred stone, put there to deter graffiti artists and lovers who like to paint symbols of love in wild places. This was reservation land. Around a bend I saw a dozen or so plastic, life-size tee-pees and beyond that, a giant, gaudy, poorly executed painting of a blue lizard on the side of a beautiful red cliff. I couldn’t help but wish the “artist” had heeded the sign that warned of painting on sacred stones. Undoubtedly, this was commissioned but nonetheless awful. Above and to the left were full-size plastic natives hunting plastic elk and plastic buffalo and a plastic bear. Below read a sign about seeing where Chief Yellowhorse lived followed by a smaller sign that read, “buy authentic beads and blankets.” I didn’t stop to shop or try and make sense of any of that business. I drove trying to pretend I didn’t care. Then more plastic tee-pees and some huge, goggle-eyed dinosaurs intermixed. I wanted more open desert and no more wrenching thoughts about how the old ways are lost. There’s more to be written about the tribes and why they’re glamorized, why they were disbanded and “civilized”–I’ll tackle that someday…maybe. I think we always like the idea of wild things, but we don’t like it when wild things bite. Tribes were unpredictable and wonderfully, terribly wild. Couple that with smarts and pride and it just doesn’t line up with modern government. Imagine Crazy Horse trying to find sense to anything that is said in modern politics or what he would think of someone like Donny Trump.

The drive ended and I had to dump some of those thoughts outa my head. I’m not really equipped to figure my way out of some of the problems I create for my conscience. Instead, I retreat and find a calmer, less complicated place to dream. I try and explain life as I see it, that certainly doesn’t mean I have it figured out. Mostly, it’s an exploration similar to the meanderings I take in the mountains and the deserts. After all, the difference between what we see and what we think is sometimes difficult to separate. So thinking and living are inextricably linked. Dark thoughts will draw you toward dark deeds. I find it very difficult to sustain a bitter heart when I’m sitting at the edge of the ocean watching a herd of whales as they follow their secret courses through the ever-loving deep! And hate? Hate can’t withstand the song of the aspen and the silent colors that swirl behind a long-eared owl as she drops through a blue-dawn, winter skiff, her eyes ablaze with an older knowledge that tells her of the mouse beneath pines.

And here I am, killing heavy thoughts with a dose of here and now. Thanks for joining. Maybe together we can all stay on the lighter side of heavy. Maybe while I’m stumbling around trying to find my way, we’ll bump into one another and laugh and look up at the sky and see the sun, and be thankful that we are here. I think that’d be cool.

leaving less

by the time i was 15 i had read the tracker by tom brown at least 3 times. i poured over his words and the advice he gave about how to move through the world. i had read every tarzan book that edgar rice burroughs wrote and cursed him for stopping at volume 26 (i mean, i would’ve put a pen in his hand on his death bed and asked him if maybe he shouldn’t just scribble out one more tale…two if he was feeling up to it). the louis l’amour books held some secrets for me as well. those mountain men that lived alone for months at a time were heroes as far as i was concerned and i dreamt of a time when all the rivers ran wild to the sea; the idea that the land to the west went on into infinity was as good as it gets for my teenage passions.

i spent time in the woods, lots of time in the woods. i did my best to figure out tracks and follow animals. i even thought about saving up and going to one of the schools on native cultures to learn more primitive technology. when most dudes were trying out for the football team i was thinking about my future as a mountain man in the woods of whatever place was the wildest. i lamented not being raised by apes. i think back on it now and i gotta laugh. my sweet mom and my tough ol’ dad had this kid that wished they were members of the "mangani". so silly. sheesh.

some of those desires never went away. yesterday, in the perfect mojave sun, i walked out with a couple buddies into the wonderland of joshua tree. there’s always lots of human tracks when you start out from one of the parking lots. tracks last a long time in those washes where the wind doesn’t reach. ethan grew up here. he was a kid in this desert before paved parking lots and rv spaces were available. now he hops rocks with his son as we wander farther out. if you know where to look, there are messages from the past in those winding corridors of granite. ethan has a knack for finding the old places where the elders gathered and re-created history with words while the young men chipped stones and made fire. the wild tobacco plants still sprout at the mouth of these caves; planted from the seeds in the flowers that the elders smoked. in these spots the ground is black from the fires that were built and used for cooking and light. these "midden" sites are usually rich with little artifacts that tell the story of the people that lived before us. there are poorly made points that were from kids learning to make weapons. there are shards of pottery and blunt stones for grinding. all these things are old tracks, the puzzles of our ancestors. i leave the things where they lay because i like the story to stay intact. as a kid i would’ve plundered, but all these things don’t belong in a house or a vehicle, they belong where the wind still howls and the stars shine and the rocks remember. it’s illegal to take this kind of stuff anyway, although i’ve always thought how stupid it is that so many artifacts sit in the drawers of museums, hidden from light and sight so that someone with the proper letters next to their name can study them and tell us about some theory about the way it was. if i die someday in the back of some cave or under the roots of some old tree, leave my bones alone, please, leave them be so they can go back where they belong.

in the cowboy camps there are different things. even in the old days there are signs of the carelessness that were less when the nomadic folk occupied the land. tin cans and bottles were tossed to the side. the birth of disposable. seems like when us humans have more we care less. don’t get me wrong, i like finding these old whiskey bottles, but they indicate a grim future. they foreshadow the time when a swirl of trash the size of texas will be in the middle of our ocean.

in a time when it seems like everyone wants to be noticed, i find myself looking back at when there were these bands of people who did their dead-level best to go unnoticed as they crossed from one hunting ground to another. they used what the earth gave them and danced with wild eyes by the midnight flames. they worshiped the sky and the stones and the sea. they loved one another and created life as naturally as they braided their hair. they told history through beautifully woven stories and songs. pictures on the walls of the caves. dances under shining moons. teeth gleaming in the lights of the fires that were made from spinning sticks. words and actions were life.

as we drove out of the park rowan (who is 13 years old) was talking about a new phone. his dad said he’d need to wait. technology in the truck began to come to life. phones beeping and dinging. radio buzzing. seat belt alarm telling me to buckle up. we pulled into town and a carload of twenty-somethings pulled into the parking lot of ethan’s store (coyote corner). i glanced over because no one was getting out of the vehicle. there were 6 people in the car, every single one of them was looking down at their phones with the snazzy covers. no one was talking, just flipping and touching and staring. i thought about where i had been just an hour before, the still spaces with the drawings on the stones.

it’s my opinion (which is admittedly too forceful at times) that the more we depend on these devices for happiness, the farther from the truth we will wander. the old ways are the secrets that can give us everything we need. when we are together and laughing, we are returning. the feeling of love and contentment is as tribal as it gets. caves are not nearly as empty as the feeling i get when a room of humans is staring into a device designed to take the place of human contact. put your phone down, smile at the hottie across the room, kiss your lover in the mouth, remember a song and sing it out loud, dance like a fool to the beat in your head, climb a tree for a piece of fruit and thank the sun for what you got. give more, and when you leave, do it with humility because we are all lucky to be here. and guess what, you can’t take your phone when you go.

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shining quiet

at 3:53 a.m.  hafiz glows on from the pages of the poetry book on the table. at 3:53 a.m. orion is in full stride and the sky is cold and perfect for hunting. there is such quiet in the air that i think i might hear the stars, i really might. and the 7 sisters are bunched in the hump of taurus’ back and taurus has the sly-eyed knowledge that orion will not get him this night, nor any other. i think maybe eternity takes a little break in these moments and allows the mortals to look into her eyes to see things that are almost within reach; like a mom showing a child the fit of a single piece of puzzle. within that maze overhead are things beyond things and small sparks of light from other darknesses and things that are moving with the forces of an incomprehensible past into my view and then carrying on, dead-set on forever. and as the tiny lights that move in the skies share a glimmering moment with me and then disappear, they then exist in two places at once; they go on as they were into the cosmos but also, they continue to move in the recreated night of my memory. and no one can say if something i’ve seen and re-imagined is not but just another branch of the real deal.

such a wild sky at 3:53 a.m.    such a blend of silence and light.    this shining quiet.

back when things were different, there were real hunters that walked across this continent. they weren’t hunting for 7 point racks or the biggest on record. there weren’t any tags given to hunt in some sought after, herd-rich stretch of land. there were tribes of people that migrated with the seasons and sat under these same stars. and before them, there were others that did the  same. they didn’t need a global positioning device because they traveled by foot, at the speed of life. they made fires and talked intelligently about what was prevalent; the curve of a well crafted bow, the rains that came early or late, the visions that came to the open-hearted. the love that happened in those days was made upon the ground and the heart of the world knew the heart of the people. when food was scarce, the sign showed on the face of those that had not tracked keenly enough, those whose arrow had missed it’s mark. surely there were years where the animals were less predictable or less available and the humans suffered in turn. black elk painted it all so clearly with one quote, “the gaunt belly truly sharpens the ear.”

and all around the world, each race of humans struggled in a similar fashion. everyone’s roots go back to a time when a fire was light and the earth was a bed. we have so much now. there is clutter in our yard and clutter in our soul. apple will surely make us think last years ipad is obsolete compared to this years. somewhere someone will trade their 100,000 dollar, year-old  car in for this year’s model because the headlights are cooler. i’ll burn gas going to some place that is remote and feel guilty for supporting a practice that’s raping the world. it’s a heavy trip, that’s for sure. this life is a heavy trip.

for the moment (and i can hear the seconds ticking on the analogue clock in the kitchen) i am in the shining quiet. it’s 4:41 a.m. now. i will think about what i can do to live in a way that allows my soul to hover closer to the older ways. maybe i need to go watch the frost roll in. maybe a few moments with the chickadees bouncing around the mint that’s gone to seed. maybe a little closed-mouth, time in the woods where the madrones stand all red and the mushrooms start to sneak around in the soft, loamy shade.

“step one: get a drum”

i pedaled back up the hill. it’s chilly tonight. as i rode up on the property that nick and elizabeth call home, i could hear a drum.

a single drum, not a drum circle or a group, just one. i rode in through the gate and parked the bike and followed the sound into the house. there was nick in the half-light, head down, slapping the skin of the drum that elizabeth bought for him.  i think the drum is from senegal or somewhere close. it’s sound is deep and mixes well with nick’s disposition.

i danced for about ten minutes to the beat. nick finally took a break and we talked about drums. i spoke of the movie, “the visitor”, and nick asked me about it. i told him how it was about an old man finding music through a drum. i think that movie changed the way i think about music. it helped me connect the dots about how music is in our blood, regardless our culture or upbringing, it’s there, like a dream waiting to be remembered.

i wondered aloud to nick about the old days, in africa, when tribes pounded on drums to tell other tribes how they felt. we both imagined that feeling. nick and i are not that far away from that kind of communication. he and i could speak through smoke or drums or whistles, no problem.  we talked back and forth about the use of drums in human evolution. he said, “it’s still here. it’s still possible,” and then after a pause, he finished, “step one: get a drum.”

i let my imagination go quite often. i like to imagine what it would be like if our leaders really did believe in the preservation of our planet. no, i mean, like, they really did mean it. what would it mean? first of all, i think there would be more dancing. i think there would be more talking between one another. i think music would thrive.  i think war would abate. the oceans would get cleaner and life as we know it would become more simple. we would need to re-learn basic skills and everyone would get callouses on their hands. hard work would make a come-back and billionaires would become extinct. wrinkled faces would be beautiful and beauty magazines would be used to start fires so we could dance to the beat of the drums. the stars would seem brighter because people would be noticing them for the first time in their lives. the seas would return to their pre-industrial silence and the whales would sing wildly through the blue with their massive, ancient tongues.

and up on the land, the drums, man, the drums.

a broken tusk

i remember the morning I broke my tusk. It didn’t break off completely, not right away…it took weeks. But the first crack woke me from my sleep. I thought it was a tree branch at first. I was in the woods under the grey pines and I know they sometimes shed their branches. I climbed up from my sleeping bag to take a leak and make a fire. While I was gathering wood I glanced at my tusk and that’s when I noticed the fracture.


There’s really no way to describe a broken tusk. No matter what I say you won’t understand, unless of course you’ve broken one. It is a loss so great that words tend to turn invisible as they move to describe it. I don’t remember when the tears began but I remember when they ended. It was exactly a year, one month and nineteen days. It doesn’t matter what I did during that time, I hardly know myself, but I know I carried that broken tusk with me everywhere. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I thought about swimming it out to sea and letting it sink down and settle with the bones of the whales. i dreamt of burying it and seeing it grow again from my face but this time made of wood and sprouting green like a cedar.


I finally decided to make it into a pen. I hollowed it out and filled it with ink and wrote a story about a river, and a tribe.


Here is one of the stories. It is one of many and it is as real as rain.


   There is a place in the mountains where a river runs between granite walls that are a half-mile high. There is a tribe of people that have a village that starts by the river and spills up the hill as far as the granite will allow. In a house, up that hill live the Kerr’s. I go there to eat the pancakes that Nate makes from scratch. He also makes a tiny cup of espresso for me and tells me which cup I am drinking from and what it means. I believe him because the espresso is so damn good. I can sit at the table and watch Calliope and Scarlett eat their pancakes before they run for the school bus. I think the girls are 9 and 7, consecutively. i believe they have the power to heal a broken tusk.


    When Calliope turns her squinty eyes at me and curls the corner of her mouth, I feel a quiet magic that reminds me of seeing a trout slip in and out of my vision in a mossy-bottomed creek. She carries the mystery found in the fern forests where the newts hide among the Morrell’s.  She will read you.


    If you are ever lucky enough to dance with Scarlett, you will better understand forces of nature. She is not looking at who is looking; she is looking at you. If you don’t have the energy to dance, she will leave you and take a little bit of you with her. When she leaves the dance floor, the lights are never quite as bright. She is fire. She is a rock song that can’t be written.


    And who is their mother? Who is Nate’s wife? She is the tall, beautiful woman at the edge of the crowd with the Buddha in her eyes. She is the strong lady putting gear on her harness before she leads you up a climb that you will struggle on. She has the guitar in her hands and is teaching herself a Led Zeppelin song and Calliope is reading about swords in her red velvet dress and Scarlett is screaming the words to the song with her mother and Nate is making me an espresso that will be the best on earth and we are all looking back and forth at one another…and my tusk is healing.