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Into The Ortiz Mountains: Ravens, Coyotes, and Flowers that Bloom in the Night

From the blurb for a recent show... "James Andrew McConnell’s new photographs chronicle his move off-grid in the Ortiz Mountains, where he is visited each dawn by 20 to 60 ravens and simultaneously a family of coyotes. He has assembled several dozen portraits of these creatures along with the summer night-blooming flowers of Datura and barrel cacti, shot in moon- and candle-illumination; the flowers are wilted by mid-morning. “It is impossible not to feel the deep and complex spiritual presence in this ancient land. At night the coyotes sing, yip and warble, and at dawn the first light turns the earth and underbrush the color of honey, or more correctly the color of coyotes’ eyes. Then the ravens arrive, a raucous circus, as the night’s exotic blossoms desiccate in daylight…”

On my third trip to my new home, a hay bale adobe, a bird ran across the road before me. For a second I pondered the bird’s identification only to realize that the bird running across the road was, indeed, a road runner. Pulling onto the ruts leading to my new place, I saw a coyote standing quizzically in front. The question drifted through my mind… have I just moved into a Warner Brothers’ Cartoon?

The genesis of my move from Santa Fe into the Ortiz Mountains dated back twenty years. I had hiked the region and photographed the moods of the place and was drawn to the dawn when the first rays of sun paint the earth and then dissolve. On windy mornings, clouds of ravens roil the currents, ridge-soaring the crests of arroyos, reminding me of the birth of hang gliding, hovering thirty feet above the cliffs and dunes of Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast and recalling how feeble my efforts were in contrast to these magnificent birds. Ravens are airborne acrobats.

Zoologists place ravens with two other non-human species, dolphins and chimpanzees, as the most intelligent. Ravens make both tools and toys, are thought to mate with the same partner for life, mimic human speech and alarm rangers with sounds such as chainsaws in Wilderness Areas, and live in nearly any environment, from desert, to alpine, coastal and urban. They have intricate social relationships and are known to express compassion and grief when one of their fellows passes or comes up the loser in a fight. They seem to engage in sport — sliding otter-like down snowbanks, wild competitive aerobatics, and what appears to be macho nagging and pecking of large predators, including wolves and coyotes, just for the cussed fun of it. Or perhaps it is a feathered form of "counting coup", an Indigenous practice for accruing status in warrior societies by touching, rather than killing enemies and emerging unharmed. It is impossible not to anthropomorphize ravens.

European and Asian cultures assigned the raven a darkness in mythology (the English language terms a flock an “unkindness of ravens” — guess that’s better than a “murder of crows”, their biological cousins — and also a “conspiracy of ravens”, perhaps a more apt phrase for our present moment). Native peoples of this contenent often see far greater complexity and depth of spirit in these creatures, from Creator, to teacher, guide, trickster, divine messenger of all kinds, to the bringer of what outsiders call magic. The diversity of North American mythology is astonishing.

As I learned to photograph ravens at first light I noted the number of small and, to me, exotic cacti blossoms wilting in the summer sunrise. There were datura as well. I learned that these cacti and datura bloomed between 11:00 PM and midnight, only to desiccate in daylight. I photographed them by moonlight and occasionally used candles as well. On several long night exposures with partial moons I “painted” the plants with a penlight.

I recalled my first awareness of datura while at work on my thesis in Anthropology years ago. My advisor asked if I would host and escort a young Anthropologist around campus for two days; his thesis had just been published the previous week and my advisor handed me the book, an utterly unknown tome at the time. It was titled The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I read the book that night, found the data fascinating, and spent the next two days with its author, Carlos Casteneda.

Carlos was warm, funny and open. His description of the effects of datura were frightening to me. I learned later of deaths of people in New Mexico who had eaten wild honey from bees who had pollinated datura plants. When I photograph the blooms, I never touch them. The extreme toxicity somehow amplifies the other-worldly, and nocturnal, beauty. Thinking of Carlos and his guide, Don Juan, who was likely not a Yaqui, but in reality — if that is the word — a member of the Huichol peoples of what is today Mexico — I recalled that Don Juan said he transformed himself into ravens and crows while in the embrace of “the Scared Datura”.

Life in a Warner Brothers’ Cartoon had morphed into something deeper and more ethereal.

On my daily dawn excursions to conduct raven portraiture I began to encounter coyotes at close range, including three glimpses the most beautiful coyote I have ever seen… and was not able to photograph. She has almond shaped eyes that slope upwards and outwards. She must have been on a quest for territory, a transient, as Zoologists classify them. I learned my place was claimed by a mated pair of other coyotes and their adolescent offspring. I would see them singly and together off an on, and hear their songs in the night while photographing flowers. Are those songs of solace, remembrance, lost love, territorial branding, or perhaps the joy of an improvised jazz solo? Or were they just roll calls to check on the resident population?

I also learned that the dominant sense of coyotes is smell, said to be forty-five times greater than our own. Hard as I try, I cannot imagine that -- the world can stink plenty through my own amateur nose. Additionally, coyote nostrils function during exhaling and operate independently as well, giving them a form of stereo olfactory location, which means I always seek downwind concealment when out with my camera.

Coyote, like Raven, is a complex, powerful and frequently contradictory spirit among the hundreds of Native cultures in North America. In some, the coyote is a shape-shifter, a trickster who brings both hardship and doom, a seducer of women who comes in human form with a mustache, and can heal illness and impart hunting wisdom. The coyote is also often portrayed as a vain naif and buffoon, perhaps including kinship with his relative from Warner Brothers. In the Pacific Northwest, Coyote labored with Raven to steal the sun, bring light to humans and make and arrange the stars in the heavens. Coyote was selfish and ego-driven, and when given the choice by Raven to create or not create death, he wanted death to exist so there would be limitation on his competition, an irrevocable decision that left Coyote heartbroken after the death of his own son.

Seen by many Anthropologists as the basis of the 5,000 year-old religions of the continent, the Way of the Coyote is complex, nuanced, intelligent and contradictory; coyote nature can be said to be a mirror of human nature.

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I like your photos a lot Jim, and really appreciate all you share about the wondrous and magical beings that you cavort with out there in the Ortiz mountains. It was lovely to meet, and talk with you a bit, at GLC in SF last week. Hope your haggling was successful. Melanie Hegge

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