Lessons from the Incorrigible Kokopelli
By Jesse Wolf Hardin



“As I walk through the winter forest, the courage that I sense is a quiet courage, not the courage for great heroic deeds, but for humility to live with loss. We need such courage to face those losses and see in them the source of new visions: a courage to nourish the seed beneath the snow.”
       — Fred Taylor

The lessons of Native America are found not only in the shared teachings of existing peoples, but it also resounds from the land that inspired them... and the incised rock art of the ancients.

On the sacred crimson and vermillion cliffs near where I live one can find the visage of the Green Man of the Southwestern Deserts, the mountain emissary of the ancients who lived here up until a thousand years before my arrival. He is the symbol of fertility, the agent of the peoples of the South, the bearer of magic and medicine:  Kokopelli. Ko-ko-pelli! His name once called out from the escarpe-ments, his visage now pecked or painted into volcanic rock. They call him the hunch-backed flute player, but that is no deformity. It is, rather, his burden basket.

Both physical and metaphorical, the “burden basket” is yet another shared concept common to a wide range of primal cultures. The basket may contain nothing but the personal quandaries or seemingly overwhelming responsibilities of an individual’s life, or be filled all the way to the top instead, brimming with the joy, needs and anguish of an entire planet as experienced by each sensitized bearer. Its freight is a product of our emotional engagement, and the degree of sensory input we allow access to our psyches. The more conscious, alert and caring the person, the heavier the load.  The more we allow the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the heart to feel, the more we pack into the basket.

 Enter the cooing of babies, the weight of parental relationship, the redeeming reality of familial love. A lifetime of lessons. Accomplishment. Dreams of the night and visions of the day. The experience of and desire for smells and sights, new sounds and a familiar touch. The passion for fruit. The coming and going of lovers, and the lessons they each leave behind. People and places and ideas we become attached to, stored carefully where we can find them. Kisses and art next to laughter and sighs, retrievable memories at the top, with precious hope lying deepest in the basket.

 But do leave room for disappointment and the strength it engenders. For personal failure and the humility that comes with it. For the certainty of bodily death, the frustration of failed campaigns to save the life of the planet, the silent screams of humanity’s unrealized dreams.  Enter the hurt of unwanted children, the saddened wife, the hopeful actress who never really gets to live the roles she has no hand in writing. Add the taste of disappointment and the scent of lost lovers. The fumes from the foundry, the refinery, the smelter, the paper mill, the freeway. The latest wars of hegemony, intolerance and profit, and the so-called “war against terrorism.”  

Then if we add conscious identification with the non-human world, the basket strains at the seams, stuffed with the flight of birds and the celebrations of indominatable coyotes, the desires of elk in Fall, the contentment of shellfish, the anxious calling of the salmon. Followed for balance and truth by mountains groaning at the hands of strip mines, earth pierced by fence posts and oil wells, leveled for golf courses and condominiums. Pack it with the majority of rivers, dying behind dams. With creatures big and small, shot, trapped and poisoned, crushed by unfeeling cars and trucks, denied more and more habitat until  faced with the complete and irreversible extinction of their kind.

For the truly sensitive, for the conscious and awakened examples of humanity making use of every unhampered sense, every vital instinct — it can be one heavy basket. Those who see and feel enough, those given to love, truly can be said to carry the weight of the world. On willing shoulders.

The key word here is willing.  One usually has the option of “keeping it light,” of ignoring the gravity of unfolding events while suppressing intuition, instinct and emotion. In modern society illusions receive widespread support, and denial is seen as an acceptable way of dealing.

On the other hand, for the most conscious and engaged the basket may house the accumulative transgressions of our kind, the mistakes of the past and the formidable weight of our future choices. Yet always it is a load we voluntarily pick up and carry. Unlike the powerful metaphor of the cross, no authority figure assigns the burden of the basket, no vested human judge sentences us to carry ponderous awareness through the streets of a new Jerusalem.

For Kokopelli, the flowers are as important as the crown of thorns they fell from. They are to be worn not on the forehead,  but as pointed messages of awakeness on those prickly bushes that line the trails of our mortal lives. The basket also differs from the cross by being a testament to aware, voluntary participation rather than to blind obedience. But both speak of the essential ingredient, devotion.

For Kokopelli, for the non-human world and for primal humanity that devotion is to sacred life, to flesh and God in unbroken unity. Sensory, emotional and spiritual interaction with the rest of the Earth-body in a glad and holy communion. The lifting of the basket is a matter of tuning-in to the ecstasy as well as the agony of uninsulated, unmitigated perception. It is willing participation in destiny, the response-ability inherent in consciousness, and the acceptable consequences of our acts of love.

 The nice thing about the basket is that you can always put it down when you need to. Nobody is watching and besides, you were the one who put it on in the first place. You’re trying to do everything on your list, but who wrote the list, after all? Lay down the cross for even a minute and the Roman Centurians, the dream police, the eye-in-the-sky will see to your immediate punishment.

The burden basket is a different story altogether. Set it down, and be assured you will be the first to know when you’ve rested enough, and when the time has come to move ahead with it again. There’s no way to post a basket in the ground, or to nail you to it. “This basket is made for walking.” When you’re not moving, it simply lies in full view in the corner. When it is really felt is when you move with it, carrying out the course of action it inspired in you, instigating through you the necessary cures to the specific malaise.

 Ignorance, the developed ability to ignore and to suppress, is a successful defense against the highs and lows of a more receptive existence. The result is at least a muddling and greying, a temporary objectification, an emotional distancing from threats and challenges. While we often hear about the “blissfully ignorant” rural underclass, it is more often the educated, the financially secure, and the intellectuals who are best at this deliberate obfuscation of reality.

With sufficient effort one can avoid most primal, direct experience up until the imposing physicality of the hospital ward, and our society can ignore the worsening condition of the natural world right up until the moment when it impinges on the survivability of our own kind. The basket is a mixed-blessing, containing both the high price and ultimate reward for our willingness to feel — our willingness to share a living world’s pleasure and pain, our inspiration to actively and accordingly respond.

Wherever the image of Kokopelli is found, with bent, laden back and flute in hand — cast into silver earrings, misappropriated for trendy cafe menus or carved into crimson canyon rock — a single message cries out: No matter how heavy the load, one must dance their dance, live their song.

To fail to enjoin is often to fail to enjoy. Interestingly enough, those who eschew the burden of the basket are the least likely to dance, the least likely to fly. But for the load-bearers every movement is a dance, gracefully and powerfully making their way between the obstacles and pitfalls, delights and desires of their destined paths. For basket wearer, every utterance is a sincere demonstration, every shout both an urgent warning and exclamation of gladness. Glee that reverberates off of looming high-rises, as off these rising Anasazi cliffs.

As I write this we mindfully set a match to the wood in the fire circle, practicing the vulnerable widening of perception, the opening up of our individual baskets to the instructive world around us. Tonight is a night of power, and we remain vigilant for the arrival of new experience, new revelation, new depths of compassion, to pack in with all the rest.

Off to the side of us, just beyond the reach of firelight, we feel a certain power entertaining the darkness. Somehow, from his place of concealment he’s able to excite our physical and spiritual engagement. Able to encourage the intensity of our assigned quests. It is the spirit of Kokopelli, providing us with a magical, visual metaphor. Setting the example of a basket so heavy. And a heart so big.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is an ac-claimed teacher of Earth-centered spiritual practice, living seven river crossings from the nearest road in an ancient place of power. He is the author of “Gaia Eros: Reconnecting To The Magic & Spirit of Nature” (New Page 2004), and he performs on the GaiaTribe CD “The Enchantment” Wolf and his partners share a riverside sanctuary where they host folks for retreats and quests, intuitive counsel, wildfoods gathering, special resident internships and the annual Wild Women’s Gathering: The Earthen Spirituality Project & Sweet Medicine Women’s Center, Box 820, Reserve, NM 87830. Please see

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