It’s a rainy day in January here in Tucson. Someone who is here visiting from a wintery place for only a day or two might be disappointed in the weather, but those of use who stay through March and April, know that it’s the winter rains that give rise to the proliferation of brightly colored flowers that grace the steep hillsides and the roadside shoulders later on every spring.
I’m spending my time today in the hushed silence of Special Collections at the University of Arizona Library. In the early years of the last century, one of America’s best selling authors of the time, Harold Bell Wright, developed tuberculosis and was advised to seek out a high, dry climate. He came to Tucson and settled near the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. Because of those spent years in Tucson, these days Mr. Wright’s papers reside at the University of Arizona Library.
Harold Bell Wright was a storyteller par excellence. Once settled in the area,he soon made friends with other nearby storytellers, most notably the ones from the Desert People, the Tohono O’odham. Wright felt a kinship towards those new storytelling friends, many of whom suffered from the scourge of TB just as he did.
At some point early on, he realized that if no one captured the stories being told around Indian campfires, those oral traditions would soon disappear from the earth. In the early twenties, with the help of a number of translators and a woman, Mrs. Kitt, who went along to take notes and do the transcriptions, he set out on expeditions whose purpose was to capture some of those stories, some of which I’ve been honored to relate to my readers in the Walker Family books.
Today I’ve been able to sift through the original drafts of those stories, some of them dating back to the early 1920s. Many of the old-fashioned typewritten pages feature edits and corrections inked in Mr. Wright’s own handwriting. I’ve scanned through the dictionary he created back then. I suspect that in the 1960s, when Dean and Lucille Saxton were working on their Papago/English dictionary, that they, too, made good use of Mr. Wright’s work.
Among the Tohono O’odham and among many other American Indian tribes as well, storytelling is a winter time occupation. Tohono O’odham stories can only be told only between the middle of November and the middle of March. I learned about the winter-telling-tale prohibitions during my time as a librarian on the reservation. Someone took me aside and gave me the warning– if you tell one of the I’itoi stories—I’itoi being the Great Spirit—during the spring and summer when the snakes and lizards are out, one of those may swallow the storyteller’s luck and bring him harm. Since I didn’t want to run the risk of losing my luck, I’ve faithfully complied by the rules ever since.
In the May of 2001, someone from a Tucson area botanical garden, Tohono Chul, (translated as Desert Corner) contacted me about their annual party for the Night Blooming Cereus. The Night Blooming Cereus is a spooky sort of plant that only blooms one night a year—a night when all the plants shape up and bloom at the same time. No amount of computer modeling has succeeded in predicting exactly when in any particular year the bloom will actually occur. It generally happens sometime in the early summer but the exact timing is up in the air and varies according to some mysterious combination of high temperatures succeeded by high humidity. Scientists have studied the process in great detail, trying to decode it, but so far they can only issue timing predictions within 48 hours of the actual bloom.
Trust me. The bloom is a big deal and well worth the wait. The night of the bloom, literally hundreds of people stream into the garden to walk the luminaria-lit paths looking at the breathtakingly beautiful white flowers and breathing in that distinctive aroma—a cross between orange blossoms and plumeria—that the Tohono O’odham refer to as “Ghost Scent.”
When the party organizer called me that day in 2001, she asked if I would be willing to come to the event. She said that every year at the Bloom Party, someone would read the story of Old White Haired Woman and the Night Blooming Cereus as written in my first Walker Family book, Hour of the Hunter. She was hoping I’d be wiling to come and be that year’s reader.
I lived around reservation folks long enough to be infected with that age-old Tohono O’odham belief philosophy that dictates “Yes is better than no.” As a consequence, I said yes on the spot. Later on, however, I began to suffer a sincere case of buyer’s remorse. I realized that the bloom party would be happening sometime in the dead of summer, long after that March 15 storytelling deadline. Not wanting to break the rules, I called the party planner again, telling her that I’d be unable to tell the story that night and explaining my reasons for same.
Tohono Chul specializes in indigenous plants and seeds, and it turns out they had medicine man/consultant on retainer to give them advice in just these kinds of sticky situations. When the party organizer related to him why I wouldn’t be reading the story at the event, the medicine man issued the following opinion:
“We no longer tell these stories in the villages, and this is the real story. I can’t imagine that I’itoi himself—I’itoi being the Spirit of Goodness—would object if Mrs. Jance read the story the night of the bloom.”
When I heard that, I felt as though I’d had the Tohono O’odham Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval planted right in the middle of my forehead. I went to the bloom party on a hot night in early July. Although there were any number of rattlesnakes who made their presence known that night, as far as I know, my luck is still just fine.
The point is, however, that I could only relate the story that night—the real story—because eighty years or so earlier , Harold Bell Wright had the foresight and industry to make sure it was written down and preserved.
It’s been an honor to spend my day today paging through papers that Harold Bell Wright once touched and annotated. From the notes he made in the margins it is clear that he respected the beliefs behind the stories as well as the stories themselves, and when I pass along my versions of some of those age-old legends, I try to do so with the same kind of respect.
The years have taught me that there’s a very real kind of magic to be found in the art of storytelling, and I’m honored to be able to count myself as a member of the storytelling circle.
PS By the way, when I opened an early bound but type written copy of Mr. Wright’s invaluable Long Ago Told, I noticed that the outside margin, especially toward the back of the book were riddled with narrow oblong holes. When I looked back at the inside of the front cover, there were two small greasy spots corresponding with what started as very small holes, holes that grew larger and larger later in the book. I’m here to tell you, folks, there really are bookworms out there—real book-chewing,wriggly beasts. And here, all this time, I thought bookworms were nothing other than people who read too much.