Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Writing, Teaching, Language, Landscape, Life


Mother Tongues: Two Writers Explore the Words and Cultures that Shape Their Connection to Place

Morpho Butterfly of South America

Morpho Butterfly of South America


Two Writers Explore the Words & Cultures that Shape Their Connection to Place

Dawn Wink & Susan J. Tweit

(Originally published in Langscape: Voices of the Earth, Part I, Summer 2016)

Of all the arts and sciences made by man, none equals a language, for only a language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable world. I saw this once, in the forest in southern Mexico, when a butterfly settled beside me. The color of it was a blue unlike any I had ever seen… There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrúa Spanish-Maya Dictionary, but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth. –Earl Shorris

When you talk about plants, I think languages.”

“When you talk languages, my mind goes to the land.”

We sat propped up against pillows in our hotel beds, laptops open, preparing for our conference workshop “Soul of the Land: Place as Character and Inspiration.” As we each scribbled presenter’s notes, our conversation returned again and again to plants and languages.

Prairie in Bloom © Susan J. Tweit

Prairie in Bloom © Susan J. Tweit

That hotel-room conversation evolved into an ongoing dialogue about what we call “mother tongues,” the critical importance of biological, linguistic, and cultural diversity to the health of whole landscapes and human survival. The more we exchanged stories and learnings—drawing on our respective backgrounds (Susan’s in plant biology, Dawn’s in multilingualism)—the more we focused on the diversity of plants and the diversity of languages as intertwined symbols of biological and cultural richness. Just as native plants “speak” of the diverse genetic adaptations and sustainability of the ecosystems they create—each individual species representing a set of relationships and adjustments that help the whole system survive disruption—so do native languages carry the unique stories and knowledge about the places and people where they evolved. Both are, in essence, the mother tongues of place: the plants of the biological realm, the languages of the cultural realm.

Dawn: What I find amazing is all of this research about the correlation between diversity and vibrancy of plants, animals, and languages. As the diversity of the land, plants, and animals deteriorates, so too does the diversity of languages and their cultures. We are exterminating languages faster than at any other time in human history. For example, many of the Indigenous languages of the Americas are now endangered. This is true of Indigenous languages around the world. If we keep going at the same rate we’re losing languages now, 90 percent of the world’s languages will be extinct within the next 100 years. Tens of thousands of years of wisdom, lost.

Susan: Plants speak the mother tongue of the landscapes I call home. I first understood these rooted beings as the living vocabulary of the North American West in my childhood, long before I claimed science as my second language or had any notion I would spend a career and a life listening to plants, parsing their relationships to each other and to us oxygen-breathing beings. My initial inkling about plants’ role and parlance came on a sunny morning in late June, at the beginning of one of my family’s weeks-long camping, hiking, and naturestudy expeditions through the West. My father was driving, gas-pedal to the floor, reveling in the open road of brand-new Interstate 80 west of Laramie, Wyoming. My mother, as chief navigator, sat in the front passenger seat; my brother was perched between them, scanning the landscape for birds new to his life list. I sat in the dinette in the back, head down, absorbed in a book.

“Homogenization of a landscape … reflects the ill health of a landscape, just as the homogenization of language diversity … reflects the weakened health of a culture and people.”

The van engine knocked hard on a steep grade. Dad pressed the clutch pedal and shifted down. I looked up. Elk Mountain, its top still splotched with snow, rose out of the expanse of shrub desert like a massive ship, its prow cresting wave after wave of sagebrush, silver-green and spangled with spring moisture.

Sagebrush Country ©Susan J. Tweit

Sagebrush Country ©Susan J. Tweit

Lupine exploded in purple flower spikes between the flat-topped shrubs, and the air pouring in through the open windows bore a fragrance that has always spoken to me: a mix of turpentine and piney resin touched with honey and orange blossoms. Sagebrush, I said to myself, rolling on my tongue the name I had recently learned for the shrub. Years later, with a new degree in Botany, I would identify the plant that is the inland West’s most common shrub by its scientific name, Artemisia tridentata, the plant with the three-toothed (tri-dentate) leaves, named for the Greek goddess Artemis, feminist, hunter, and herbalist. I would detail the plant’s relationship with hundreds of other species of animals and plants that depend on its sheltering over-story to thrive in these harsh landscapes. But that June day, I only knew what the shrub and its fragrance said to me: Home.

My heart swelled with feelings my nine-year-old self could not explain. I went back to my book.

Prairie Grasses © Jodene Shaw

Prairie Grasses © Jodene Shaw

Dawn: Diversity can be fostered, encouraged, and expanded. Homogenization of a landscape—reducing a biological community to a single type of grass, for instance—reflects the ill-health of a landscape, just as the homogenization of language diversity—a single language replacing multiple languages, for example—reflects the weakened health of a culture and people. When my dad walks the land of our family ranch on the Great Plains of North America, his eyes scan the ground to pick up the different grasses. One summer my mom picked as many different types of grass as she found on our ranch and taped them to a sheet of white paper. One piece of paper became two and two became three. The Great Plains and its grasses were new to me then, as I was raised on a ranch in the Sonoran Desert in the North American Southwest. I studied and memorized the grasses of the body of this new world. Now, it was just a matter of learning them.

Prairie Grasses

Prairie Grasses

I held the pieces of paper with the grasses in my hands and walked out onto the prairie. The endless prairie wind whipped the sheets between my fingers. I watched for the bluish tinge that Big Bluestem casts on the prairie. Wild Rye bobbed above many of the grasses, its flowering spikes curving to the ground. Side-oats Grama, its oat-like seeds sprinkling downward from the stem. Prairie Brome, Blue Grama, and Buffalograss grew in small clusters under Bottlebrush that cast its sprays skyward. While the grasses were new to me, the focus on their diversity was not. In our family, we knew: the more types of grasses, the better. To many of us, it has become clear that multiplicity of languages is as vital to the land and her people as the necessity of diversity of plants and animals. Without diversity of language and culture taking center stage, along with plants and animals, the potential conversation remains limited. Biologists look to the diversity of plants and animals as a reflection of the land’s health. A single type of grass reflects a monoculture inherently limited in potential. So it is with languages and cultures. A monolingual, monocultural state weakens all inhabitants.

Susan: I was born to a small tribe— my parents are both only children, and their brood numbered just two, boy first, and then me, the girl. In the 1950s of my childhood, our country’s culture was envisioned as a huge pot that melted away individual cultures and languages, leaving English as our home tongue. Still, my family spoke a second language: science, our lexicon bursting with the names of plants, animals, rocks, stars. Nature-study was our shared culture. Drawers in the basement cabinets of my childhood home held neatly labeled collections of seashells and rock specimens, plus a black light for identifying minerals. TV dinners in our kitchen freezer were stacked side-by-side with roadkill for study; my mother’s tidy garden borders included

“Multiple languages, multiple cultural understandings, rhythms, and ways of walking through this world reflect healthy linguistic landscapes and cultural landscapes expressed in languages of every place, spoken with freedom in all spaces.”

one lively section devoted to wildflowers rescued from development sites. Our family “car” was a tradesman’s van converted for camping, our conversations peppered with the names of wild birds and plants. My suburban schoolmates’ heads were filled with G.I. Joes, Barbie Dolls, and the opening bars of “Goldfinger”. Mine held the courting songs of robins, the habitat of ladies’ tresses orchids, and the geology of glacial valleys. Other families’ vacations took them to Disneyland or the beach; ours took us on hikes and backpacking trips into the wild reaches of state and national parks and wildlife refuges.

Butterfly Susan Tweit

Susan J. Tweit; year: 2014 (That’s a two-tailed swallowtail on Rocky Mountain Beeplant in my yard…)

I learned how to focus binoculars and read nature field guides before I learned arithmetic and cursive in school. I began to look for patterns in nature and the relationships that create them—plant to soil and rock, plant to plant to plant, creating whole interwoven communities; mushroom to tree root, bird to prairie or mountain forest, frog to lily pad, wolf to elk, grizzly bear to spring flower bulbs—the way other kids learned baseball statistics and players’ names, or movies and movie stars.

As I grew older, my family’s language of nature split on taxonomic lines: my father and brother spoke bird, while plants gave my mother and me a shared vocabulary. Even after a lifetime of studying and writing about plants and their patterns and relationships on the land, I still cannot entirely articulate why it is sagebrush, a shrub so ubiquitous many never notice it at all, that to me speaks for the region I call home. I do know that it is the culture of plants—those seemingly mute beings rooted in place but so much more attuned to their environment than us wandering verbal creatures—that gives me the words to explore my species’ role on this living planet.

Yucca and Echinacea on Great Plains

Yucca and Echinacea on Great Plains

Dawn: In Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso writes of how to the White Mountain Apache, the land speaks in languages that span time, their messages pooled and embedded within the earth to become place-worlds. Basso cites Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) and his observation that most American Indian tribes “embrace ‘spatial conceptions of history,’ in which places and their names—and all that these may symbolize—are accorded central importance… Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.” With the loss of language comes the loss of place-worlds; with the loss of place-worlds comes the loss of the sense of self.

These messages extend into distinct languages through each distinct plant and animal, each unique and integral. Grasses and plants and languages and cultures—the more diversity, the healthier the land, the healthier the people. We often see photos of an unhealthy environment side-by-side with a healthy environment, a fence-line the divider. A healthy environment is reflected in a multiplicity of grasses, plants, and animals, while in the other photo a barren monoculture reflects that land’s lack of health. Birdsong of unique trills, chirps, and caws float on the winds, above the varying textures of the grasses and plants, the flaxen, the bluish-gray, the emerald, among ochre.

The mother tongues of plant and language carry the critical stores of knowledge—genetic and cultural— that we need in order to continue to thrive on this singular, living planet.”

Multiple languages, multiple cultural understandings, rhythms, and ways of walking through this world reflect healthy linguistic landscapes and cultural landscapes expressed in languages of every place, spoken with freedom in all spaces.

Landscape of the heart © Susan J. Tweit

 Landscape of the heart © Susan J. Tweit

Susan: I call plants the living vocabulary of landscapes; they are the lives that restore the structure and function of healthy ecosystems. They provide the basic food all life on earth depends on, complex carbohydrates made using the sun’s energy and carbon dioxide plus minerals from the soil; they grow the structure that supports nests and burrows and homes for other species; they synthesize a wide vocabulary of aromatic chemical compounds which they use to communicate with other species. Native plants are the vernacular, the dialect of individual places. Like unique human languages, these local plant-voices connect humanity—breath, story, and soul—to each other and to place.

Dawn and Susan: We know that plants benefit us in many ways—as food, as fiber, as raw materials, and as beauty to nurture our spirits. But our connection with these rooted, photosynthesizing beings goes deeper. They are our “breathing buddies,” as the poet Clifford Burke writes, inhaling and fixing the carbon dioxide that we and our industrial processes exhale as a waste gas, and exhaling the very oxygen we require, the breath we depend on. Language and culture root us individually and collectively to the earth and to Place. With the loss of each language, so go generations of wisdom, belonging, and identity. So goes peace. These mother tongues of plant and language carry the critical stores of knowledge—genetic and cultural— that we need in order to continue to thrive on this singular, living planet.

Further Reading

Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Moore, K.D. (2010). Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Maffi, L., & Harmon, D. (2003). Sharing a World of Difference: the Earth’s linguistic, cultural and biological diversity. Paris: UNESCO.

Tallamy, D. (2009). Bringing Nature Home. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

White, C. (2015). The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press. Wilson,

E.O. (2006). The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Susan J. Tweit and Dawn Wink © Nancy Fine

Susan J. Tweit and Dawn Wink © Nancy Fine

Dawn Wink Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores the beauty and tensions of language, culture, and place. Author of Meadowlark, Teaching Passionately: What’s Love Got To Do With It? (with Joan Wink), and “Raven’s Time: Critical Literacy in the American Southwest,” Wink is Director and Associate Professor of the Department of Education at Santa Fe Community College.

Susan J. Tweit A plant biologist in love with life, Susan J. Tweit is the author of twelve books, as well as essays and articles featured in publications including High Country News, Audubon, the Los Angeles Times, and Popular Mechanics. Her writing “melds the passion of a poet with the precision of a scientist,” and has won numerous awards.

~ * ~*~

Thank you to Langscape for including our piece in the issue Voices of the Earth, Part I. Langscape also published Wild Waters: Landscapes of Language. Please find more below about the work of Terralingua and this issue of the magazine. 

Langscape Volume 5 Issue 1 Cover-small“We are marking Terralingua’s twentieth anniversary by “going back to our roots” with this issue’s theme: “Voices of the Earth”. In 1996, we chose the name Terralingua to suggest two things at once: the language of the Earth—the voice of Mother Nature; and the languages of the Earth—the many voices of the world’s diverse peoples, which have evolved through intimate interaction with the Earth in each specific place. We wanted to hear from and about the Voices of the Earth, and so we did! This issue brings you fascinating stories and images of biocultural diversity from all over the globe.

To get a taste, take a look at the Editorial and the Table of Contents.



Of Graduation, a 50th Anniversary, the Ranch, Laborers—and Sunsets


With Luke at his graduation party.

So, sometimes life is a ripple and sometimes it’s a tidal wave. The past month has been a tidal wave kind of life, resulting in both my being OBA (Officially Behind in All, including writing to you!) and so awash in gratitude that it drops me to my knees. I swing back and forth between the two and grab firm ground when I can.

Last I wrote, dirt was flying, cement was being poured, and flowers planted in preparation for Luke’s high school graduation. The flurry of activity continued up until the last minute (reminding me Noé and my wedding!), including the great ramada-raising, which now included the arrival of the mounties to help.


Wyatt, Noé, Dad

 Luke graduated in fine style with the most enthusiastic cheering section.


Noé, me, Wynn, Wyatt, Luke, Dad, Mom

Every minute of planting, building, copious amounts of watering and wine was worth it. 

View from the roof. ©Rosemary Dunston

View from the roof. ©Rosemary Dunston

‘Twas the season of celebration. Immediately after Luke’s party, we headed to the ranch to celebrate Mom and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. We arrived just as the sun was setting on the lane.

Wink sign arrival

If you look closely, you’ll see Wyatt and Wynn fishing amongst the clouds here. 

Fishing in the clouds.

Fishing in the clouds.

Wynn and I went to spend time with my favorite horse, and inspiration for Mame in Meadowlark, Josie. 

Wynn and Josie

Wynn and Josie

I was taken with Wynn’s hair next to Josie’s mane – the colors and textures of both…


…and made a ring from strands of Josie’s mane, now in my jewelry box. 

Horsehair ring

One of my all-time favorite photos of Wynn, now on the ranch. I have no idea why we called her the The Pink Pistol…

Wynn, the Pink Pistol

Wynn Elizabeth, The Pink Pistol

What began with this June 4—50 years ago…

Mom ad Dad wedding

Dean and Joan Wink, June 4, 1966

…now looks like this. What a life Mom and Dad have created.

Whole fam-damily

Whole fam-damily, June 2016. Bo, Austin, Garrett, Dad, Mom, Wyatt, Wynn, Luke, me, Noé

Cousin time!

Cousin time—Wyatt, Austin, Wynn, Garrett, Luke

Came back to head to Tucson for Orientation, where Luke will be studying International Business at the University of Arizona—because, he is the luckiest guy we know.

Bear Down, Wildcats! #WildcatMom

With Luke Orientation

And then to Chicago to meeting again with two incredible communities that come together once  a year at the Annual Instructors Conference (AIC) for the LIUNA Training and Education Fund. Once a year in Chicago, instructors in the Laborers’ International Union of North America and international educators from all over the world come to work together in an incredible week. Through the years, I’ve come to love the people of these communities deeply. People always ask me what we do at this conference. There is so much happening here, better to watch for yourself.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/131241866″>The 2014 Annual Instructor Conference Recap</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user17215533″>LIUNA Training &amp; Education Fund</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Home to teach three classes of Orientation to the Teaching Profession. Clearly, we needed flowers and stones for our first night of class. 

Flowers for first night

After class, watched this sunset unfold from our roof…

Sunset 1

Sunset 2




Backyard Tango

Cara's bouquet

Cara’s bouquet

Of course, the first mason-jar bouquet of the year in our new home had to be in honor of Cara.

Our home—more specifically, our yard—has been a swirl of activity lately in preparation for Luke’s upcoming high school graduation festivities. We kicked off Mother’s Day with all that I asked for—working in our yard with loads of planting and digging. Despite the wind and rain, the kids dove in and we spend the day outside. 

Flowers to plant

Wynn Luke working on the yard

The next day, we poured the slab of cement for the ramada. A couple of Noé’s friends from work came to help. I felt as if I were in Cascabel—large machinery, Spanish flying everywhere. The guys constantly referred to the other as, Mi rey (my king), a common term of endearment in Spanish. 

Pouring slab

Couldn’t resist.

Casa Villarreal Wink 2016

We moved on to laying flagstone.


Wyatt Wynn laying flagstone


I hope our neighbors don’t mind classic 80’s, 70’s, and 60’s music, as that is what is playing to rock us through our work. 

Work cre

El Blanco has pulled through like a charm. Cannot imagine how we ever made it without.

Dawn El Blanco

When you need more room for 18 foot boards, improvise! Noé said people were anxious to pass and get ahead of him on the highway. 

Noe el blanco

Saw first rattlesnake of the year on my run. I saw as my foot almost came down on its head. I was deep into mile six and my mind a million miles away thinking of everything needing to be done. Then suddenly, the “rattlesnake hop,” when suddenly your heels grow wings and you find yourself flying several feet forward. Rattlesnake

Today is Sunday and Luke graduates tomorrow. The day will be filled with putting up the structure for the ramada—a “ramada raising,” the southwestern version of the Amish barn raising. My bonnet is ready. Then, on to decorating the ramada and trees with as many little white lights as I can wrap around everything. We’re starting early, in hopes of actually finishing and getting some good work time in before the late-afternoon southwestern winds kick up. Breakfast of egg burritos, made with fresh eggs from a colleague. I love their mosaic. Fresh eggs

As I was looking around yesterday, thinking of the yard last year and even last week, I said to Luke, “We may actually pull this off yet, buddy.” 


When not digging holes, Luke’s 1600 meter relay team took First in the New Mexico Track and Field Competition. More on that, and how life gave me a second chance, in a future piece. For now, the State Champ himself.

Luke's team #1

Luke’s cheering section.

Luke's team

And his very proud Mommy Lady.

Dawn and Luke



A Mosaic for Mother’s Day

A sunrise run.

Sunrise run.

A mosaic of photos for Mother’s Day. Bits of beauty from the past few weeks to share together.

Early morning writing by candlelight.

Early morning writing.

Layers and textures of clouds overhead.

Layers of clouds over Santa Fe.

First lilac in honor of Cascabel and Grandma Grace to bloom.

First lilac

A new discovery for Friday Night, Family Night. Highly recommend.

Hatch Red Chile Wine

Running trail and partner.

running trail

Postcard from Switzerland of the incredible library in St. Gallen. Heaven. One day I’ll go.

Postcard St. Gallens

Postcard from Kay Schimke. Thank you!

The guitar inspired by Song in Meadowlark unfolds…

Meadowlark guitar Song
The artist, Jodi Shaw, at work. I must say, this makes me a bit teary.

This photo hangs above my writing desk. I adore. I lose myself in this image and all it evokes. Photographer unknown. Wings to all.

Woman and wings

In honor of mothers the world over. My maternal great-grandmother, Lucille Clark, age 13. Or, as I knew her, Grammie Cile.

Grammie Cile

My grandmother, Janet Clark Richardson.

Grandma Janet

With my incredible, phenomenal mom.

Dawn baby and Mom

In honor of beauty, wings, and mothers the world over. 

Rooftop sunset.

Rooftop sunset.



A Cascabel Birthday

Cascabel Birthday Cake

Cascabel Birthday Cake

The month of March in our family is known as March Madness for the multiple birthdays. Luke kicks off the month the 10th, then Grammie on the 20th, Wyatt is the 25th, and I bring things to a close on the 28th. I’m 48 this year. No need for mystery. I love growing older. A friend recently referred to our family’s Birthday Gauntlet, which I loved and is a perfect description!

Mom, Dad, and Wyatt all came for our tradition Birthday Party (all thrown into one lump day), which included an ecumenical walk around the Plaza for Palm Sunday.

All Family

Wyatt, Wynn, Grammie, Bop Bop, me, Noé, Luke – Palm Sunday

4 bop bop grammie

Palm Sunday walk around the Plaza.

Road to Cascabel. As Mom said, "The road to Dawn's heart..."

Road to Cascabel. Mom said, “The road to Dawn’s heart…”

Dad hauled a pickup, El Blanco, that has been in our family since 1984 and the Cascabel Years. It has been a ranch truck all the past years. With all of the garden work and hauling we’re doing in our new home—and for unabashedly sentimental reasons—I wanted El Blanco in Santa Fe. Dad hauled it down. As most trips involving my dad and vehicles, this one also included an adventure. His pickup and the trailer hit black ice in Colorado, the trailer jack-knifed and his F350 pickup and trailer all plowed for several hundred yards down the interstate. Spinning the steering wheel back-and-forth throughout, Dad kept all tonnage hurtling down the interstate on the road.  Somehow, no one was hurt and the truck and trailer didn’t flip. He was pulled over by an officer several miles later for “losing control of his vehicle.” 

“If I hadn’t kept control of the vehicle,” Dad told the officer, “I’d have been in a ditch back there!”

What Daddy didn’t tell me was that he’d had new magnetic signs made for the side of El Blanco, exactly like what had been painted on there 30 years ago.When I saw, it hit the Cascabel Button and immediate tears. 

Dawn sees Cascabel sign

Dad Dawn El Blanco Close up

Wyatt and Wynn helped unload.

Wyatt WynnPickup


A 30-year old ranch pickup from Cascabel? I am soooooo ditching our mini-van!

Reflections of memory. Cascabel bluffs. © Joan Wink, 1983

Cascabel bluffs. © Joan Wink, 1983

I have had exactly one kind of birthday cake in my life that I remember—the Cascabel Birthday Cake. Cascabel (‘rattle of a rattlesnake’ in Spanish) is the area in southeastern Arizona nestled within the San Pedro River Valley where I grew up. We’ll refer to it as The Holy Land. The sandstone bluffs overlooking the river of Cascabel framed the valley and framed my childhood. These bluffs, these years, these memories, and this cake are inextricable intertwined.

Mom said that original recipe was in some a magazine long lost to memory. In our March Madness of birthdays, this cake is sort of the grand finale of fireworks for me. The rest of birthday rhythms can be consumed by the waters of life—but the cake, the Cascabel Cake, we do not miss. Traditions ground us in the whirlwinds of life. This cake remains one of my own anchors. 

Cascabel Birthday Cake

Cascabel Birthday Cake

Always the same cake: Angel Food cake with the topping of a mixture of whipped cream, crushed pineapple, and lemon Jello. Always cut into thirds with layers of the topping amidst. Whip the jello, so all blends together. Essential to the Cascabel Birthday Cake are the purple irises atop. Purple irises ringed two of the trees in front of the ranch house in Cascabel. They always bloomed right before my birthday. Mom always decorated my cake with them. Yes, bulbs for purple irises will be planted in the gardens of our new home. 

Mom 4 years old

Mom, 4-years-old

Mom’s birthday this year was an especially poignant one for all. Ten years ago on her birthday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Five years ago, Noé and I walked the Pilgrimage to Chimayó to celebrate her five years as a survivor. This March 20th, she celebrated her 10 years as a survivor. Mom writes of this beautifully here: Joan Wink – 10 Years Cancer FreeMy Uncle Jim surprised us all with this photo of her taken when she was four-years-old. 

My mom and dad, my heroes. Always and forever. 

With the passing of the incredible Cara Esquivel, all feels especially vulnerable and tender. In the midst of these national and international times so filled with so very much tragedy, the events in Brussels and conversations and happenings impossible to understand, a tiny group of people who loved Cara have come together around her passions and fierce love of Oaxaca and the the world. These past weeks, amidst all, I’ve experienced the very best of this tiny circle of people giving all to bring beauty to the world, out of love, out of passion, and out of loyalty. This experience again and again reminds me of what really matters in this world. What a blessing to experience the very best of humanity. 

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead

Spring buds



Cara Esquivel: Extraordinary Spirit


Cara Esquivel in her beloved Oaxaca

Cara Esquivel in her beloved Oaxaca

If we don’t speak up for the people in our society that are not represented, then we do not have a society that is fully engaged and functioning and healthy. And to me it’s very simple, we all have a responsibility for seeing how we can help people in society that are not able to either help themselves or not able to speak up, or don’t have rights…all of the things that my father did were to defend people’s rights, so I guess that just in me. To me, I don’t understand any other way of being.

– Cara Esquivel

Dios no sabe lo que le espera. (God doesn’t know what awaits). So began the eulogy for the extraordinary Cara Esquivel and amidst the tear-streamed faces and hands clutching sodden tissues within the sanctuary, there were smiles from those who knew and loved her, Cara’s among them. Cara of passion, Cara of love, Cara of life, and Cara of energy. Dios no sabe lo que le espera. Last week, an extraordinary woman of incredible love, passion, and joy passed away unexpectedly and far too young from complications that started with the flu. Cara was 47 years old, a fiercely loving mother of her four children and wife to her husband, tireless advocate, lending her voice for those unheard, passionate teacher, and second mother to many of her students.

Cara and her family

Cara and her family

As word spread of her passing, Cara’s spirit shone through in the outpouring of love. 

Altar for Cara © Giselle Piburn

Altar for Cara © Giselle Piburn

Cara on Window

Altar for Cara © Jennifer Nevarez

Altar for Cara © Jennifer Nevarez

So laden was the altar with candles, that in true Cara-style, it caught fire, bringing fire engines to surround the school and dousing the Gathering Room in water, and a new altar created. Of the many words that describe Cara—passionate, fire-filled, irreverent, loving, funny….subtle is not one of them. As was demonstrated by the Celebration of Life held in her honor.

In loving memory

For Cara, a cuatro vientos (Four Winds) ceremony.

Four Winds Ceremony © Jennifer Nevarez

Four Winds Ceremony © Jennifer Nevarez

Cuatro Vientos ceremony

Cuatro Vientos ceremony

“In honor of my beautiful hummingbird,” her husband, David, paused and took a deep breath, “¡Que viva la fiesta!” Cara loved to dance and among papel picado, flowers, and piñatas, Cara’s community of friends and family of all ages danced.

Dancing for Cara

Dancing for Cara

David and Cara

David and Cara

We dressed in our finest to honor Cara’s love of color, texture, Oaxaca, and all things vibrant. “I thought maybe this was too much,” one friend said, stunning in her skirt decorated with mirrors and threads, a delicate crocheted shawl over her blouse. “Then, I realized, nothing is too good for our girl.”

Another friend wore her necklace, a hand-painted portrait of a young girl, ‘My own patron saint. For Cara.” The sheer energy of Cara’s spirit did rock the house.

Cara rocked the house.

Cara rocked the house. © Robert Jessen

The woman who told a first-year teacher, “Forget about the text books, get your students to write about their lives!” shines through in the memories of her students and loved ones.

We love you, Cara.

We love you, Cara

Zara's blackboard.

Blackboard 2

Middle of blackboard

Cara with basketCara blew into my own life over a year ago with her determination to create a program for teachers in Oaxaca. “No, but we really have to do this. Oaxaca is amazing! People need to understand the real Mexico, not the Mexico they read about on the news.” As anyone who knew Cara knows, there was simply no saying No. Her passion, dedication, and energy swept you up in their flow. Oaxaca, here we come!

“Cool,” the Head Learner at Monte del Sol High School said when he first met Cara, “Monte has its own Frida Kahlo.”

It is those small moments that one remembers—her radiant smile, her scarves flying around her, how she forgot to brush her hair, her love of Oaxaca, how she drew all into her energy of passion, love, and dedication. Cara cussed like a sailor in two languages, and usually mixed them together with wild abandon. Her eulogy with its reference to el “pinche güero” Trump would have her full approval. “She hated that wall. She spent her whole life trying to tear down that wall.”

Somos WindowA friend expressed beautifully what so many of us feel, “I woke up keen to the uncomfortable feeling that there is a hole in the world this week. An awkward and uncomfortable large empty space in my life, where Cara use to be. For a regular person in a regular body, though, the empty space she leaves behind is phenomenally large, much bigger than her physical form. It leaves me feeling pretty darn discombobilated … and oddly and persistently leaky. Now I am staring into blank space and thinking we had lots of good work to do together… and I miss her. And I don’t like the feeling of this hole. I dont like that I can’t just call her or see her bounding into yet another coffee shop for yet another life convergence (and listo meeting) over chai, missing that flurry of unbounded energy and passion. Its strange now. Like writing or reading a sentence with the main word missing. It’s confusing and disconcerting. I am writing about ……..! So very different that the same sentence that concludes with the word Cara. A word far bigger than itself. A word that defies definition amd limitation. A word that is hard to comprehend the magnitude of, unless you actually knew her. And of course, for most of us with a lust for life, to know her was to instantaneously love her, and somehow love life even more because of her. Its odd that she isn’t here to meet me for chai today. I am not sure now how to deal with this hole in the world now, and my heart. But I am drinking chai with my grandson, who is drinking milk and eating a bagel, and I am treasuring the precious tiny moments we have together, which is all I can manage to do today…”

Cara’s zest for life and sheer love expresses itself in her friends and family, as we find one another, recognize Cara in the other’s eyes, and knit together. A friend wrote, “It’s so good to be connected with you and other friends of Cara’s. She had gathered around her and her family such an incredible group of human beings.”

What those of us who knew and loved Cara return to again and again is the sheer disbelief that her energy is gone. Then, I realized, as I experienced the wild love that surrounded her, the impact she had on countless lives, those who will remain forever changed by her, that her energy, her spirit lives on—each time we choose to see the best in all, to believe in each person, to work tirelessly to make the world a better place, to dance, to laugh, and to LOVE. 

Dios no sabe lo que le espera. I have no doubt that God has had a real earful by now about the state of immigrant rights here on the mortal plane. I expect things to change imminently. If anybody can do it, Cara can.

I sat during the Mass and focused on the golden gilt surrounding the Saint painted high on the wall, glowing softly as the sun streamed in from the windows and tried to find meaning where there was none. The only way I can walk with something like this that makes no sense is to carry her spirit forward through our lives and our work. 

Cara with FridaLive passionately.  

Listen deeply.

Write your story and encourage others to write theirs.

Lift your voice for those unheard.

Live with intention.

Love deeply.

Ultimately, Cara taught us how to live

You will be forever missed and remembered, querida Cara.
Que Dios te bendiga. Te queremos.


Write and Retreat: Bone Piles in Silver City, NM

Silver City Sunset

Silver City Sunset

Stories nature our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we’ve been and where we can go. they remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet…No one story can give us the whole picture. We need every voice to speak its version of truth from silence. We need every story to guide our lives.

~ Susan J. Tweit, Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey

This is the sunset that greeted me as my car eased down into the valley after a four-hour drive from Santa Fe to Silver City, New Mexico for a weekend Write & Retreat. Now, what is one supposed to with that—other than to sink deeply into writing and connecting with each other and ideas yet to be discovered.

That’s just what we did.

Write & Retreat Tribe

Write & Retreat Tribe: Melanie Budd, Pam Keyes, Cherry Jamison, Judy Grout, Susan Tweit, Bonnie Hobbs, Linda Jacobs, Dawn Wink, Cindy DuBois, Will Barnes

Write & Retreat creator, Susan J. Tweit, our group of fearless writers, and I spent a lot of time in the “bone piles” of each of our individual stories in Silver City. “Ranchers walk up to most bones,” writes Teresa Jordan in Riding the White Horse Home. “They look physical danger right in the eye and don’t blink. But there are other bones that scare them.”

Silver City charm

Silver City Charm

That’s where we went in our writing—through physical mapping and writing, creating word rings, passages of other writers read aloud to inspire, and ever deepening writing.

We also wandered the streets of the incredibly charming Silver City, walked the creek, and talked about how the land can inspire and tell its own story, explored the incredible art shops, drank coffee and talked about writing and life, drank wine and talked about writing and life, and enjoyed meals together around conversation and friendship. 

We each returned from our weekend together transformed on some way. Our community share their experiences:

Along the Creek

Along the creek. ©Daniel Grout

“First, trust. We talk so often as writers about the ways in which writing can transform our lives, and I know I totally depend on my writing practice each day, just to stay sane. But it isn’t just the daily practice of crafting and making. It’s like the answers are actually in there! There is something really magic about this. In that strange vortex of inspiration and creation, if we can follow it, and trust our imagination and instinct, the pathway will become clear, the words tell us what to do. I think my poems are telling me where to go, and how. So the real work is about listening and about trust. I am not sure how this came to me, but something about all of you did it! And it makes me very happy.” ~ Will Barnes

Together Eating Silver

Community and Conversation ©Daniel Grout

“I was the only person in the retreat who has not had something published but I was treated as a colleague and honored as a writer. This experience solidified my determination to quite wishing I was a writer to identifying loud and proud, I AM A WRITER! I know that by this time next year, I’ll be able to look back and say my life changed for the better that weekend.” ~Cindy DuBois

“Thank you for providing such a safe, supportive, and thought-provoking atmosphere at the retreat. The group energy and sense of kinship was very encouraging. The experience inspired me and broadened my vision of what writing can be.” ~Melanie Budd

Cherry Bone pile

Word Ring © Cherry Jamison

“Among the things that I particularly value about the word and concept of a “bone pile” is that it is so much more elegant than saying that we must each face and go through our own (and our family) “shit” to get to truth, essence or even grace at times. I also appreciate that there is always a choice about whether or not we share what we find in the bone bile. Sometimes facing it is enough, and sometimes it isn’t. I think that we all probably are looking for freedom in our writing and in our lives.” ~Cherry Jamison

~ “Yes, this group was phenomenal. We seemed to meld into such a solid, self-confident, intelligent, supportive, creative bunch. I suspect it had something to do with the leaders teaching us and the lovely environment and perhaps the writing gods zinging us with positive energy. I am honored to be considered a part of this enclave and rejoice that we seem to express a mutual desire for the support to continue.” ~Judy Grout

“Thank you for the wonderful and stimulating retreat. You have a way of bringing out depths of thought which one didn’t know were there!” ~Linda Jacobs


Hatch, NM

For myself, ideas swirled through my mind on the return drive home through the wonderful town of Hatch, ristras of strung chile lining every shop and street, and the long stretches of desert of New Mexico. I returned with a chapter for LOVE STONES that it would not have been complete without and a focus on “re-imagining” areas of life.

Something about our weekend shifted something deep within me and this past weekend found me home—not traveling or teaching or attending any sporting events for kids for the first time in weeks and weeks. I sank into the rhythms of the home, “the sacredness of puttering” or something like that is how Anne Lamott describes this. I checked out of anything online and added another laying of tending to our new home. Inspired by my own clustering and our conversations, I sank into Being Home. I lined linen closet shelves, cleaned bathroom cabinets, and went on long morning runs. I brought order to some of those dark, clogged corners that tend to take us so much emotional energy. I’ve learned to trust that ebb-and-flow of energy and writing and went with it. Oh, and I read and took naps on both days! Heaven.

Beauty of stained glass, stained sky

I returned transformed. That transformation has strengthened my writing and life rhythms these past few weeks in infinitely healthier ways.  

One of those rhythms includes a return to running, something that I have not made time for in my life for the past several months due to life and work commitments. Every morning, with a mutual text from a member of our Write & Retreat tribe, she heads out the door in Tucson for her walk and I head out the door in Santa Fe for my run. The “re-imagining” of other areas of life continues. My journal fills with clusters and maps.

The weekend inspired Susan and I to reserve the weekend of February 17-20, 2017 at The Murray Hotel for the Second Annual Silver City Write & Retreat. 

Sometimes one needs to get away to find what deserves discovery.

Early morning run with swirling sunrise and moon.

Early morning run with swirling sunrise and moon.

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