Butterflies and Bandits

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Things have gotten pretty bad in Michoacan (one of the 31 states of Mexico) in recent years. The murder rate has skyrocketed. Politicians are being assassinated in record numbers. Crimes against women are among the highest in the world. The Universities are under siege with students battling against municipalities and against non-students who are clamoring to get in.

A vigilante group who call themselves THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR, organized to fight the ZETA criminal cartel. After a decades long bloody battle, the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR have

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

taken over most of the ZETAs criminal activities and have opened trade with organized crime syndicates all over the world. Now a new vigilante movement has taken hold and there is open warfare between them and the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR and remnants of the ZETAS. Soldiers in the new vigilante movement include members of Latino gangs from the U.S., who have either been deported or who have voluntarily left United States jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.

The Mexican government has sent in federal troupes because the municipalities are corrupt and the police can’t be trusted. The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings advising citizens to avoid all but essential travel in Michoacan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling by land in The Mexican state except on federal toll road 15D during daylight hours.

Monarch Sanctuary

Monarch Sanctuary

So my wife Margaret said to me, “Lets visit the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan while we’re in Mexico,” and I said, “Sure, why not.” Ignorance is bliss.

Who wouldn’t want to see the Monarchs? There are undeniable mystical overtones to the Monarch migration, perfect for a writer who dabbles in Magic Realism. Up to a billion of these delicate creatures leave their home in eastern Canada and fly 2,500 miles to the mountains of central Mexico. They arrive when locals are celebrating the Day of the Dead (October 31 to November 2).

Monarchs clustered in pines

Monarchs clustered in pines

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the holiday, it is a remnant of an Aztec festival that was celebrated at the beginning of summer. The Catholic Church tried to eradicate it but was only able to shorten it and move it to a time that coincided with a vaguely similar All Saints Day festival. On the day of the dead, the spirits of the ancestors visit the living. The living throw a party for the occasion with feasts and costumes (mostly skeletons) and parades. The locals in the mountains of Michoacan say the butterflies are the ancestral spirits. The timing is right, and it does seem like quite a coincidence.

There’s more. The typical Monarch life cycle lasts 4 to 5 weeks, starting as an egg, going through the larva period, morphing into a pupa until it reaches the adult stage when it reproduces and then dies. But when summer is over in Canada and temperatures drop drastically, a special generation is born. This new group will fly all the way to Michoacan where they can hibernate, feed, mate, and then travel back home. This different kind of Monarch is known as the Methuselah generation. These migratory Monarchs live as long as eight months. This age old miracle is observable, measurable, and totally without explanation—practically the definition of Magic Realism.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

We hired a driver—I’m so glad we did—who took us to the Butterfly reserve. We climbed the mountain and witnessed millions of Monarchs clustered in the pine trees so thick they bent the branches. When they swarmed, we could hear the sound of thousands of wings moving the air. It was a spectacle I will never forget.

Follow this link to see and hear Monarchs taking flight IMG_0344

I never thought once about the dangers—or knew about them truth be told—until we were on the highway to Morelia, the second part of our trip. The toll booth (yes, they have those in Mexico too) just before we got into the capitol city of Michoacan had been taken over by about 20 young men our driver called “the boys”.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

They were students, he told us, or they would be students if times were better. Until things moderate, they hijack toll booths and demand money before they let cars pass. The going rate was 100 Pesos (about 7 U.S. dollars). There were several Michoacan police cars on the other side of the booth. They didn’t intervene.

“Sometimes the boys get aggressive,” our driver said. “Sometimes they block traffic for hours. This time we were lucky.”

For better or for worse, that’s what it’s like in Michoacan these days. Luck is an inexpensive inconvenience that could have been worse. There are butterflies and there are bandits. Unforgettable, but I don’t think I’ll make that trip again.

 

The Red Stick War & Magic Realism

Why am do I write about Native Americans?

Why am do I write about Native Americans?

“Why do you write so much about Native Americans?” is a question I get all the time. In practically every story the hero and / or the villain as well as multiple supporting characters will be tribal members.

“I think Indians are about the most interesting people in the whole world,” doesn’t sound nearly intellectual enough—even though it is exactly right—so I usually say something like this: “The unbroken thread of mysticism that runs through Native American culture fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.” If that doesn’t clear things up, I try a little harder.

Drawing of the Great Comet of 1811

Drawing of the Great Comet of 1811

Great events we don’t remember have mainstream Euro-Americans throwing salt over our shoulders, avoiding black cats, stepping over cracks, and leaving the thirteenth floor out of our buildings for reasons we don’t understand but must believe on some level. The same thing applies to Native Americans. They have a history that reaches back fifteen thousand years. Most of it isn’t written down but it’s been carried into the present by legends and ceremonies and lessons learned around the evening meal. It’s part of who they are.

Hale Bop Comet

Hale Bop Comet

Native American history is unique, so the way they approach the world is unique too. Whether they are lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers, artists, writers, politicians, unskilled workers, soldiers, or criminals they put an American Indian spin on everything they do. That spin is what makes them the most interesting people in the world.

To get an idea how different background leads to different world-view, consider the Red Stick War.

Tecumseh

Tecumseh

In March of 1811 the brightest comet in recorded history made an appearance in the night skies over the United States. The Great Comet of 1811 didn’t lose the title of the biggest and the brightest until the appearance of the Hale Bop Comet in 1997. Remember what happened in southern California then? If you don’t, Google Heaven’s Gate.

When a Shawnee mystic named Tecumseh saw the comet he took it as a sign. He traveled around the country telling everyone who would listen that the fuzzy light in the sky was a supernatural message. The very nature of the Indians’ relationship with their tribal lands was about to change.

He encouraged tribes to unite against further white incursion on their lands before it was too late. He found a willing audience when he visited the Muskogee Creek, whose tribal territory (most of what is now Alabama and part of Georgia) was starting to look very good to white farmers.

Tecumseh promised a sign would follow his visit, which would prove his prophecy was true. When the New Madrid earthquake struck in December, a large number of Creek were convinced.

The Muskogee who joined the Tecumseh Confederation were known as the Red Sticks. The name may have come from red war clubs they carried, or from bundles of red sticks they used to count the days between strategic events. Half the Creek Nation joined in the movement and the other half were firmly against doing anything that would provoke the U.S. government. The division started a civil war inside Muskogee territory.

Ordinarily, the Red Stick war would have played itself out on tribal land but the War of 1812 had just started. The British armed the Creek Red Sticks and their Seminole allies and encouraged them to attack U.S. Army positions. When that happened, General Andrew Jackson moved his troops into Creek lands and by August 9 of 1814 he forced the tribe to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson.

In memory of Tecumseh

In memory of Tecumseh

Despite protest of the Creek chiefs who fought the Red Sticks alongside Jackson, the Creek Nation ceded 23 million acres (93,000 km²)—half of Alabama and part of southern Georgia—to the United States government.

Eight years later, President Andrew Jackson forced the Creek to sign the Treaty of Cusseta, relinquishing their remaining lands east of the Mississippi and accepting “voluntary” removal to Indian Territory. The Army force-marched nearly 20,000 Creek across Tennessee and Arkansas starting in 1834. Three thousand five hundred Indians died in the process.

The Great Comet of 1811 really did portend a significant change in the Creek’s relationship with their land, even if it didn’t go exactly as Tecumseh planned.

That’s the unbroken thread of mysticism that fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.

Spiritualist Church Service

 

The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

The Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

The Spiritualist Church of Central Oklahoma City is a small well-kept white frame house with a sign in the front yard. You enter through the kitchen. A hand written note posted on the door reads, “Services on the first and third Sundays of every month.” It’s a tiny congregation, far to small for an interested skeptic to attend anonymously, so I called the pastor, Juanita Oyer, and made certain that services were open to the public.

The congregation sits in on blue upholstered kitchen chairs in a gray paneled

The back door of the Centralist Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

The back door of the Centralist Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

room. On one wall is a large tapestry sunflower, which I believe is the symbol of the National Association of Spiritualist Churches. A portrait of Jesus is mounted on the wall behind the pulpit.

I was interested in the spiritualist hymnals that were on every chair, and I didn’t have to wait long to have my curiosity satisfied. Music plays a large role in the service. The songs sound like ordinary church music, but some lyrics deal with contacting the departed. The purpose of the songs is to “raise the vibration” in order to attract friends and relatives who are “in

Inside the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

Inside the Central Spiritualist Church of Oklahoma City

spirit” (deceased).

The collection plate was passed while the congregation sang “The Magic Penny.

The first half of the service was not much different from other Christian churches I’ve attended with two major exceptions: the pastor made repeated references to spirits being present in our daily lives (including a spirit guide which we all have), and she read verses from the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ.

aquarianThe Aquarian Bible came (theoretically) from translations of the Akashic Records. It deals with Jesus’ relationships with people around him and the “missing years” that aren’t addressed in the New Testament.

The service included to a healing prayer that focused on those present then gradually expanded to include everyone in the world and then to include life on other planets. It progressed very much like a hypnotic trance induction and by the time the pastor was finished we all felt relaxed and open.

Juanita Oyer is one of the most charming people I have ever met. Everyone in that room was on her side by the time she brought us, “to the part of the service that differentiates us from other Christian churches.” She prayed for strength and clear communication and started receiving messages.

The National Spiritualist Summit Magazine

The National Spiritualist Summit Magazine

“There’s someone over here named Susie. She’s strong in this area.” The pastor pointed to her left. “She’s saying something about strawberries.”

“Probably my aunt,” someone told her. Details were fleshed out over the next few minutes and there were more contacts. Always a spirit wanting to contact someone seated in a specific area in the room.

“Between one of these two people. I think his name is William. Could have been a father or a grandfather. He wants to talk about a family picnic.”

The spirits gave advice about health—all good as far as I could tell—and general encouragement. Some of the “hits” seemed on target, and others missed the mark.

“Well Lillian definitely has something to say, but if no one knows her, I’m going to let her go.”

I’ve seen a couple of psychic cold readings. The process was very similar.

No messages for me. The pastor told me she sensed a nearby spirit, but she wasn’t strong enough to bring her through. The lady sitting next to me thought it might be because my legs were crossed.

The pastor didn’t think so. “Some days I’m stronger than others. I don’t think crossed legs matter.”

I have days like that too.

I want to make it very clear that Juanita Oyer is a true believer. Nothing she did indicated she was out to fool or defraud anyone. Nothing I saw convinced me there were spirits in the room either, but I have to say—from the point of view of a magic realism fiction writer—the process and the people were interesting.

I’m going to give the church another try. It’s not a scary place once you walk through the kitchen door, and the congregation is friendly. If you are interested, maybe I’ll see you there Sunday, June first. The address is 2348 NW 36th Street
Oklahoma City. Dress casually.

 

The Puddle of Genius

Tree size cholla cactus in El Charco del Ingenio

Tree size cholla cactus in El Charco del Ingenio

A mile or so east of the Parroquia in old San Miguelle de Allende—and up hill all the way—is a high desert botanical garden with the unlikely name of “The Puddle of Genius.” It sounds better in Spanish—El Charco del Ingenio—but then almost everything sounds better in Spanish. The garden / ecological park takes its name from a small pool of water at the bottom of the canyon that had spiritual relevance to the indigenous people.

A beautiful location with a mystical provenance and a funny name—this is exactly the kind of Magic Realism detail I like to put include in my fiction (Owl Dreams, Southwest Gothic Tales, Messages).

Back in the old days, when times were tough holy men would head for The Puddle of Genius and wait for the spirits to send them a brilliant solution to their current problems. People did

Cactus in El Charco Del Ingenio

Cactus in El Charco Del Ingenio

that sort of thing all the time before the Internet. They’d sit in the shade, clear their minds and wait for a supernatural connection. It worked for the indigenous holy men about as well as it worked for the Dalai Lama—no math problems or romantic issues please—and if things didn’t turn out well the thinker could always blame it on a higher power.

Puddle magic blessed me with an epiphany as soon as I reached the garden: “Next time I’ll take a cab.”

That’s the spiritual recommendation if you want to visit El Charco del Ingenio. Taxi’s are easy to find in San Miguel. The fairs are zoned and drivers will take out of shape Americans to from the center of town to the garden for fifty pesos (A little less than four U.S.D.). You’ll feel a lot

Old Steel Aqueduct in El Charco Del Ingenio

Old Steel Aqueduct in El Charco Del Ingenio

better about the 250 acres of trails if you don’t start off out of breath and it will please the supernatural park rangers.

The botanical garden has historical features as well as native desert plants. Pre-Columbian tools and ceramics have been found in caves scattered through the valley. You’ll see ruins of Spanish colonial buildings overgrown with vegetation. The walls and sluice of an old mill remain along with the

View of San Miguel on the walk back from El Charco Del Ingenio.

View of San Miguel on the walk back from El Charco Del Ingenio.

foundations of a Hacienda, a functional 19th century dam, and the infrastructure for an aqueduct built in the first half of the 20th century.

With all of its antiquities, you’d think the park has been around for a very long time, but it was actually inaugurated in 1991. Like everything in Mexico, the opening was coordinated with an astronomical event—a total eclipse of the sun.

Celebrations of equinoxes and solstices are common at El Charco del Ingenio. They are timed to coincide with similar festivals held in the old part of San Miguel.

My wife (a master gardener and major plant enthusiast) timed our visit after the first serious rain in the month of March, a few days after the equinox. The Jacaranda trees and the cactus were in bloom, the views from the park were gorgeous, and the spirits were free with good advice.

Southwest Gothic Tales

Southwest Gothic Tales is a collection of three previously published short stories. Pen-L Publishing put this collection on Smashwords, where it can be downloaded for free. It contains: “Boy Witch”, “Soul Kisses”, and “Funeral Service”.