My Moccasin Maracas

The previous post ended with a reference to over 30,000 people from Oxford going down to London to watch the Yellows in a football game. In the event there were 32,500, and there was righteous celebration as Oxford won the game by 3 goals to 1. My son’s badly sung message on the voicemail service betrayed a very hoarse throat.

Coincidentally, 32 – 33k is roughly the entire population of Yukon, give or take the odd ‘cheechako’ (newcomer). And Yukon could hold 4 UKs…or goodness knows how many Oxfords.

So there is something very intoxicating about the sense of spaciousness here. You apprehend it through your five senses, but you can only begin to comprehend it with your heart and your mind. It is a rich, positive sense of space…not an absence of energy.

There’s an old gospel song called Fifty Miles of Elbow Room. In Yukon you can have elbows the size of an Ikea store and still have at least fifty square miles of room to do the funky chicken.

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I have had the honour of being invited to a rattle-making occasion, led by Shirley, a remarkable lady from the Carcross / Tagish First Nation. Including Shirley we were a group of four and we met for over 5 hours yesterday and 7 hours today. I now have a self-made ceremonial rattle that is beautiful in my eyes at least, and in the eyes of the others in the group. I have to say, however, that to an external eye mine is not quite as aesthetically pleasing as the others!

I will simply describe what happened. If you catch some hints of my deep appreciation and quiet thrill so much the better. But I will steer clear of emotive language and let you follow the process.

Shirley began with a ‘smudging’ ceremony. She burned some powdered sage on a terracotta cast of a large bear paw print and we took it in turn to wash the smoke over our heads, faces, neck, heart and body. The smoke was wafted all around the room with a huge eagle feather. Smudging is repeated before each new session and element of an activity and is designed to cleanse and to get rid of any bad presence.

We then rolled out a large, creamy cloured caribou hide that had been dried and then saturated with water for 5 days. We each cut out 2 identical pieces, roughly the shape of a child’s drawing of a bushy tree. We sewed these together with tough fibre (this is where the nimbler fingers of the others put mine to shame…I sew buttons etc but the neat overlapping and criss-crossing was a fumble too far!). Even so, I ended up with a workable gourd.

We were asked to leave a hole in the base of the ‘tree’ shape, and we then poured dry sand into the carefully sewn but still sopping wet gourd. We had to pack the sand very tight to expand the elasticity of the caribou hide into a nicely rounded shape. The gourds were then left overnight in front of a fire to dry and contract into small oval drums.

During all this we told each other stories and Shirley sang songs in her native language. We ended that first day with a fine potluck meal.

After the appropriate smudging ritual, on the second day we went up onto a particular ridge high above the Yukon River to collect tiny stones to put into the gourds to make the rattle sound. We went to a place where you can look down onto a pair of eagles nesting 50 yard s below. The chicks will be born in about a week’s time. I collected my stones and mixed them with some hard juniper berries to soften the sound of the rattle a little.

Back at the working room we inspected the now dried gourd shapes. The pale cream of the wet caribou hide had dried to a tough, resinous grey. My stitching had held! We then emptied the sand out, ‘smudged’ the stones we had brought back from the ridge and the river, and poured them into the hollow gourds.

For a handle I chose to keep the unity of caribou by sawing a piece off a set of antlers that Shirley had brought along. One of the beautifully tapered prongs fitted perfectly into the ‘trunk’ of my gourd, and the main swoop of the antler made a good handle (it has a fine pink-hued line in the fibrous grain all along it). We then bound brightly coloured twine and stretchy hide bands around the join to ensure that the gourd is securely attached to the handle.

Each of us chose different ways to add decoration. I had found four identical eagle feathers on the hike and stuffed the quills into a series of yawning gaps in my sewing. They look good and sum up the relaxed, mindful bonding of the group. I then drilled out two small hollows in the handle. When I get back to my home in England I will embed a tiny cowry shell in each, one facing up and one facing down, one from within sight of the Welsh mountains and one from within sight of the Scottish mountains.

After more stories and food-sharing Shirley taught us a song that she had used during the two days. Shirley’s own rattle, full of symbolic add-ons, will be presented to a Buddhist leader from Bhutan who is attending the solstice celebrations in Carcross on June 21st.

After the final sharing of thoughts we all found it hard to leave.

There are many more details of the occasion, and this is only a thumbnail sketch, but I do feel privileged to have learned from it and to have contributed to it in some way. The chain of connections that explains how I came to be invited goes back to my journey here in 2007 and poems I have written since, and I am still not aware of all the links myself! But I will happily live the links…

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On the way to the second day of the rattle-making I was surprised to see a truly exotic stunning blonde crossing the South Klondike Highway. Porcupines are full of surprises. It was mainly the low angle of the bright morning sun, but it looked like a spiky Golden Spaniel, with a bristlingly proud set of quills radiating out from an inner tousle of honey-coloured tufts. One of those tubby cacti that has big needles woven round with fine hairs…only mobile and grumpily self-possessed.

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One reason I feel at home here in this house-sit is that there is no television. There is a dvd and a monitor though, and Jan and Lucie have left me their dvd rental card. I have managed to catch up with a couple of films I missed back home.

If you have not yet seen The Road to Koktebel, a Russian film that won some prizes a few years ago, I’d urge you to track it down. Lots of good stuff about it, and partly a father-and-son road movie that reaches the parts others in the genre don’t reach. A nice antidote to the mash-up that Hollywood made of the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road.

It’s a shame that McCarthy has become famous via his last two books, The Road and No Country for Old Men. He is one of the few male writers who are capable of writing in an emotionally intelligent way about men. But he did that in The Border Trilogy (especially The Crossing) and in Suttree. His last two books have contained tantalising elements of his greatest writing, but have essentially been cash-in jobs…and good luck to him, he must have got tired of being a cult choice with a small bank balance.

Women authors tend to write more insightfully about men than male authors (I wonder why…or rather, why wouldn’t they??). There are obviously exceptions, but this massive generalisation came to me from having just finished Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. And in a Canadian context there is Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels.

Oh, and one more movie plug: Frozen River. A low-budget American film about how strong women get through a particular form of hardship. And it’s one of those films where good actors who usually get bit parts play the leads and make it count.

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My inviting, tenderfoot-traveller-from-Europe flesh has today received its first mozzie bite. The warm weather here has brought out a few big zeppelin ones that have somehow survived the winter, but they fly so slowly that they are easy to avoid or swat. However, one must have snuck up behind and got me on the back of the neck. Can the Muskol be far behind? I’ll defer that guilty pleasure a few weeks longer till the new season no-see-ums start their summer schedule.

One of the compensating joys is that there are already masses of swallows here, learning how to work the pools and lakes. I watched a posse of the gorgeously (and appropriately) named Violet-Green Swallows rehearsing their best moves a couple of days ago. Smart communities build swallow villages on high poles to encourage the insect-greedy swoopers.

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I shall be putting a photo of my rattle on flickr soon (though, of course, it would take the Medicine Buddha himself / herself to do it justice in pictures or words). Along with a couple of other images.

I wish I could take a picture that would faithfully convey the colour of the Yukon River below where we gathered the stones today. I kept thinking of a volcano that could pump out great gouts of molten jade, creating a whole river of that uniquely pastel-cloudy green.

Please do pass on this blog address, and comments are always welcome.

with love from,

Ted xox


  1. thanks for taking the time to discuss this i feel strongly about this and i benefit from learning about this subject if possible as you gain facts please add to this blog with more information i have found it enormously useful


  2. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!



    1. Yes, Paul is a National Geographic photographer who lives in the Lewes Lake area. Check out the web site quoted by Jack. Paul has a new book out. He and his partner, Lyn, kindly had me over for supper last week.
      Ted x


  3. Eyup. I reckon Shirley was singing for the Yellows!

    And there was no betrayal with my hoarse voice – that was visceral damage at its finest from cheering on the boys, and singing throughout the day across the streets of London… I nearly totally lost my voice by Wednesday.

    Your writing of the development of the rattle sounds like I was there with you.

    p.s. The photo of your rattle is great. It looks like ‘Grabby Duck’ going across the cut on Port Meadow.

    Love for now.



  4. Ted, what an incredible experience to participate in. Amazing too how humble verbs and concrete nouns can evoke emotional response without describing it. Bravo.
    Kari xo


  5. What an amazing adventure, you wrote it all up so beautifully I felt I was there with you. It cerainly connected with my inner being.
    love Suex


  6. Hi Ted!

    Was thinking of you yesterday – congratulations on the promotion…your exile finally finishes!

    Really enjoying your blog and very pleased to read that you’ve settled back in over there as quickly as before.

    I’m playing in the West Mids racketball tournament this coming weekend, might try your famous top-spin drop shot!

    Take care!



    1. Good to hear from you, Andy. Yes, looking forward to the Shrewsbury – Oxford games next season! Good luck in the tourney…if you play that shot make sure you do it left-handed!


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