GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Leslie Marmon Silko is not afraid of rattlesnakes.
She's respectful of the poisonous snakes. She watches where she reaches her hand, or looks over her shoulder when taking a step backward, but she never kills them.
In her memoir "The Turquoise Ledge," Silko shares how she lives peaceably with rattlesnakes and other critters who hang out around her home in the Sonoran desert outside of Tucson. Silko will read from her book at the Language of this Land writers' conference this weekend in Grand Junction.
"People kill them for no reason," Silko said from her home in Arizona last week. "Subdivisions destroy their habitat.
With a broom she gently nudges the snakes away if one ends up in her house, or gets too close to her dogs' water bowls outside near the door. Otherwise, they leave each other alone.
"The Laguna Pueblo Indian people have a deep reverence for all snakes," Silko said. "They believe they are messengers of Mother Earth. So I always knew they were considered by my people as sacred animals."
Silko, who is of mixed ancestry - Laguna Pueblo, white, Mexican - grew up on the Laguna reservation on the edge of the village in northern New Mexico.
Silko's Laguna relatives - her great-grandmother, her great-aunt, her dad - taught Silko the Indian traditions.
Through fifth grade Silko attended Bureau of Indian Affairs schools where she was not allowed to speak the Indian language in which her Laguna relatives had spoken to her. Silko commuted 50 miles off the reservation to Albuquerque to continue her schooling and avoid Indian boarding school from which her father ran away from when he was 6.
A chapter titled "Ancestors" talks about her family. The remainder deals more with her relationship with the Sonoran desert, home of the iconic Saguaro cactus.
Chapters intriguingly titled "Rattlesnakes," and "Turquoise" provide a vivid picture of Silko's home near the boundary of West Saguaro National Monument.
Take a walk in the wilderness after reading "The Turquoise Ledge" and you may find yourself paying more attention to every speck of nature.
Silko is a keen observer of the teeming desert life, including the tiniest of ants and their "ant palaces." On her daily walks through the nearby arroyo, she's always on the lookout for a turquoise rock to add to the collection of rocks that crowd her writing desk.
A natural history of the Sonoran desert could be surprising for a memoir, yet readers learn a lot about Silko - her reverence and connection to nature, as well as her judgment and anger toward those who build huge houses in the desert, and who destroy parts of the arroyo while removing large boulders for landscaping around their mansions.
"I felt there was room for expanding what memoir might consist of nowadays," Silko said. "I wanted my memoir to have a flavor of daily life of a writer in southern Arizona in the desert. I took it as a challenge to expand the perimeters.
"Memories can be full of encounters with natural history and wild things. I wanted it to be about what I love and what delights me."
While still in college Silko wrote the short story "The Man to Send Rain Clouds" for which she was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant. In 1974 she published "Laguna Woman," a book of poetry, and in 1977 she wrote the acclaimed "Ceremony."
Other literary works include "Storyteller," a collection of stories, the novel "Almanac of the Dead," and "Yellow Woman + the Beauty of Spirit," a collection of essays.
She was a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1981, and the Native Writers' Circle of the America's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. Silko was also awarded the Pushcart Prize for Poetry in 1977, and the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities' "Living Culture Treasure" award.
Silko is one of several featured writers at the Oct. 7-9 writers' conference. She will read from her work at a banquet Saturday along with Ute elder Clifford Duncan and Colorado Poet Laureate Dave Mason at 800 Colorado Ave.
For tickets to the banquet or more information about the writers' conference visit www.westerncoloradowriters.org or call 970-256-4662.
By Gloria Schiller
Special to the Free Press
Leslie Marmon Silko is the legendary Southwest author of many poems, stories, essays and novels, including "Ceremony," originally published in 1978, which sold over a million copies and is revered as "the greatest novel in Native American literature" by author Sherman Alexie.
Her new memoir, "The Turquoise Ledge," issued in paperback in October, chronicles her daily walks as she reflects on her origins, searches for turquoise, and shares her extraordinary experiences with nature and wildlife around her old ranch house which borders Saguaro National Park West near Tucson.
Silko recalls that "from the time I was very small, I focused my attention more on non-verbal communication between people, between animals and between other beings." She preferred her "made up stories" with imaginary animals and people, and didn't like to be interrupted by real children or adults; animals were her companions of choice.
In this memoir Silko is honest about her blend of Laguna Pueblo, Cherokee, Mexican, and white heritages. She gathered her history by overhearing information from adults. "By the fifth grade I began to understand how the inequalities and injustice generated an impersonal anger, which sometimes got aimed at me because my paternal great-grandfather was a white man."
At that point, she discovered writing, which came to her "effortlessly," an ability she credits to her heritage of Laguna storytelling and to the "Pueblo people who had recorded and maintained their entire culture."
Her great-grandmother A'mooh, Aunt Susie and Aunt Alice, important women in her life, answered her questions and told her more stories. These women had followed the Pueblo belief that "knowledge from all sources, including books, is necessary for survival."
After her mother's death in 2001, Silko discovered her mother was also a writer, who had won an essay prize. Silko writes that "after death, it may take some days for the spirit to bid farewell to this world and to the loved ones they want to reassure; so they visit us as birds or other wild creatures to let us know they are in a good place not far away." Silko was taught by her mother to "not fear or harm snakes," and four days after her mother's death, Silko encounters twin rattlesnakes, both an "ethereal" blue, and is certain of her mother's message of assurance.
Her household is comprised of people, rattlesnakes, pack rats, macaws, various birds and dogs. In her yard she is a full-time gardener and refuge gamekeeper, determined to maintain and aid the ecosystem.
Her mantra, when meeting wildlife as small as the ants who create "great ant palaces in the desert" or the large Gila monster who resigns over her yard, is: "I mean you no harm." On each walk, she sometimes discovers turquoise. When she finds a "perfectly chipped arrow point" and a "white quartz knife," Silko feels "a great blessing from the ancestors who lived here and made stones into tools thousands of years ago."
Finally, Silko discovers the arroyo she's walked in for 40 years decimated in places by another landowner. Inspired by animal rights activists and guided by "Star Beings," "stars that came to earth" who are based on indigenous tribes, she endeavors to stop the destruction and comes to peace with her actions, dwelling in a place connected to her ancestors where she can "perceive the delicacy of the light, and the dawn moisture and the breeze."
I was delighted to read Silko's memoir, "The Turquoise Ledge." It was a marvelous lesson in history, science, geology and spirituality. I felt the deep connection between nature, animals, the past and the present in these pages.
Gloria Schiller is a senior at Colorado Mesa University, a Writers' Forum intern, and former Criterion reporter. This is her first book review.