Orion Blog

Visiting Rachel

“PRIMAVERA SILENCIA.” So reads the cover of the Italian edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It sits on the desk beside me—the small built-in desk looking out on a thicket of cedars and pine—a desk with one simple drawer holding some pencils and not much else, in the cozy pine-paneled study where Carson wrote much of her landmark book during the summers of 1960 and 1961. Other foreign editions are lined up on the bookshelf too, but the Italian title grabs my attention.

Primavera”—a singsong word evoking pasta with spring vegetables, or something related to “first.”

Prima, prime, primary, first. First silence.

Granted, it’s a butchered interpretation, but “first silence” makes sense to me. The primacy of silence—and its offspring, attentiveness and awe—has been the essence of my week here on the coast of Maine, staying in Rachel Carson’s cabin. More than that, this silence, this attuned reverence, I’ve come to believe after reading her journals and soaking in her presence, is what fed Carson’s scientific curiosity. Ultimately, it was her quiet hours here by the coast, and in the piney woods, that led her to become the fierce, paradigm-shifting voice for environmental activism that she is.

 

 

My trip to Carson’s cabin has been a pilgrimage of paying attention. I am here thanks to my friend Ann, who, after reading a New Yorker piece about Carson, followed internet crumbs to discover that her cabin is still owned by the family and can, on occasion, be rented. So we scooped up the only time available—the last week before the non-winterized cabin gets shuttered from October to May. Here we are, two old college friends, both from the Carolinas where summer refuses to relinquish its humid grasp, happy to don fleece in the brilliant fall chill and drive past Route One’s many lobster shacks to reach Southport Island, then eventually, the rutted gravel of Carson’s Lane.

The cabin is spare and perfect. Honeyed pine paneling everywhere, a main living room with a fireplace and windows fronting the Sheepscot River, a tiny kitchen with a Lilliputian 1950s oven, two cozy bedrooms off the main room, Carson’s side-porch study off her bedroom, and importantly, a well-stocked woodpile out back. That’s it.

Having read Carson’s A Sense of Wonder umpteen times, I had a clear image of the cabin’s picture window where she described watching the fog roll in. I could envision the nearby beach where she writes of taking her young nephew Roger to watch ghost crabs at night. Where they’d look up at the “misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear…” And where, she writes,

“It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen once only in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants gave not a thought to the beauty overhead, and because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they will never see it.”

This sentence has haunted me since I first encountered it in college, and it’s why I said hell yes when Ann suggested we go to Maine. We would be a two-woman throng of spectators to this world’s everyday marvels. 

Tucked away in Carson’s cabin, we savor quiet days spent listening to loons and laughing gulls, tuning in to the gentle lull of waves lapping up on the steep slope of rocks below the cabin. Silent hours spent reading Carson’s books and her letters; sitting at her desk and writing, doing my damnedest to channel her wisdom and resolve. We tend fires in her fireplace, long charred from flames she stoked. We eat simple meals on what may well have been her china, decorated with fir boughs—a naturalist’s cup-of-tea. Mornings at low tide I wander the shoreline from Deep Cove to Cozy Harbor, poking around tidal pools, marveling at the dense tiramisu of detritus washed up on these rugged shores—snail shells by the thousands, mushy tangles of seaweed, rocks bedecked with barnacles and lichen. Carson knew their biological names; I just know their beauty.

 

 

Because it is late fall, pumpkins, hay bales, and Halloween decorations abound—fitting, as I’m here to explore hallowed ground, to seek the ghost of someone who once lived here. I imagine Carson’s fingerprints lingering on these doorknobs, these pine kitchen cabinets, hoping some residual DNA will osmosis its way into me. What does it mean to inhabit a place? To habituate, “to settle in a place or habitat; to dwell in; to be present in.” To be present in. Both this place, this moss-carpeted, cedar-scented corner of Maine; this cabin built, loved, lived in by a prescient scientist with her nimble pen; and our planet, our larger shared habitat—the one under such current distress, the one Carson spent her life first loving and then trying to protect.

While many credit Silent Spring for sparking the modern environmental movement, Carson’s intent was simply to connect the dots for a public unaware that poisoning insects with DDT in turn threatens songbirds and other wildlife. Neither alarmist nor agitator by nature, she preferred her microscope to the spotlight. She’d rather meander along a pre-dawn beach than testify against big chemical companies before a Congressional hearing—though she did the latter, heroically, despite being critically ill with cancer.

Carson’s gift was combining scientific knowledge with a poet’s love of language. Her three books leading up to Silent Spring were love letters to the sea, lyrical testaments to mysteries of the deep and the minutia of marine life. Ultimately, they are about being present, about looking closely, about noticing Amphitites tucked in muddy pockets among rocks, about heeding the age-old interplay between tidal zones, about appreciating the mesmerizing, swaying aquatic forests of Laminarias (seaweed) and understanding the role they play in the larger coastal web.

In this time of escalating climate change, it is comforting to discover that little has changed at Carson’s beloved cabin. The trail leading from her front porch down to the broad brow of granite and triangle of beach below looks as it did in photos of Carson and her friend Dorothy walking down it nearly fifty years ago. The cabin’s sturdy rattan furniture and vintage floral curtains look identical to those in photos of Carson and her mother sitting by this picture window in 1956.

But as I watch the incoming tide flow into the Sheepscot, I’m distraught knowing that much has changed. Major heat waves have impacted the Gulf of Maine, affecting the lobstermen puttering along these very waterways. Ocean acidification—a direct result of greenhouse gas emissions—could lead to mass extinction of marine organisms, especially shellfish.

 

 

Rachel Carson was the Greta Thunberg of her day—a petite, determined woman who no one knew quite what to do with. Her fearless witness catapulted the public and government regulators into action. She was bold and emphatic, grounded in science but motivated by reverence. Her strong voice, I believe, was only possible because she first embraced the silence. In silence she heard the wood thrush. She waited and watched for geese migrating north. Her passion for the sea grew from her fascination with ghost crabs and shorebirds. It all evolved from paying attention, from “being present in.” Here on her beloved Maine perch, peering into tidal pools and observing their “many moods,” she saw her reflection—our human reflection—in its proper place, alongside wonder and mystery, alongside dingy snails and washed up Laminarias and the ebbing tidal perfume of salt rime. I see it, I sense it, too.

Carson published Silent Spring a few months before I was born, and she barely lived long enough to see its monumental impact. She was fifty-six when she died—my age now. I feel her urgency. Battling cancer, Carson knew the enormity of her deadline as she finished Silent Spring. I feel something similar with each climate change report, like I’m huddled with all of humanity in some bleak waiting room struggling to grasp a dire prognosis.

Here at Carson’s cabin, with autumn’s sunshine turning the water’s surface into a disco ball of light, I embrace the hushed coastal beauty. I am present. In this quiet I fortify myself for the work ahead, for standing with Rachel and Greta, for standing outside on the night-fallen headlands under a chandelier of stars, for standing beside the tide pools and honoring their ancient truths, for listening to the gulls call and the tides ripple, and then speaking out. First silence, then action. O

 

Stephanie Hunt is a freelance writer based in Charleston, SC, where she is Editor at Large for Charleston Magazine, and has published in The Washington Post, Veranda, Coastal Living, and others. She serves on the board of Charleston Moves, a bike/ped/mobility advocacy organization, and chairs the board of the Ibu Foundation, which supports global women artisans.

Judy Drew Fairchild is a passionate nature advocate and South Carolina Master Naturalist who doesn’t go anywhere without a camera and binoculars. Since COVID began, she has been making one-minute nature videos as a way to connect housebound kids (and their parents) with the wonders around us every day. 

Read More: “The Fracking of Rachel Carson” by Sandra Steinbgraber (September/October 2012 issue)

 

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Crossing a Riven Country, Part Two

 

This is the second installment in a two-part pandemic travelogue by frequent Orion contributor Joe Wilkins. You can read the first installment here.  

 

THEY MET HER ONLY ONCE, years ago, on another cross-country trip, a summer swing from Iowa, where we were living then, back west. Walter had just turned three, Edie was only one, and Mary Ahern Maxwell, my grandmother, their great grandmother, this survivor of the Spanish flu, this emissary from another century, was ninety-four.

She was mostly blind by then, thin and doddering, though her thick Irish hair, cloud white, was as ever a storm about her face. We pulled chairs up to the old wood table, and she set out bread and butter, a half gallon of milk, a quart jar of strong iced tea. After, we sat in the front room, where Walter and Edie rooted around in the box of ancient toys my grandmother hauled out of the closet and bounced on the cracked leather couch. Whenever the kids came near, my grandmother gathered them in her arms, held them close. On the sly she slipped Walter candies, though the candies—a rainbow of saltwater taffies—later proved stale. Walter didn’t care. For days he kept them in his pockets, got them out to study and arrange, as if bright rocks pulled from a river.

My grandmother died just six months after our visit. Walter and Edie still claim they remember that day at her house, way out on the plains of eastern Montana—milk in tall glasses, a cardboard box of rusty toy cars and tattered comic books, candies wrapped in wax paper. But whether they remember the day itself or only the story of the day doesn’t matter. Across time and distance they held one another; they laughed together.

These last months I think of our elders cut down by COVID-19. At the vigil in the park, they said aloud his name and age—Tamir Rice, 12 years old—and my daughter turned to me, as if I could explain.

I know only that we’ve lost too many grandmothers, too many children.

 

♦♦♦

 

With the border closed, we charted a course from the North Country down through New York and Pennsylvania and into Ohio. From there, we’d cross Indiana and leave the Great Lakes behind as we made our way into middle Illinois. Then Iowa, then South Dakota, then, finally, the West—Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and home to Oregon.

We had two vehicles, one pulling a U-Haul trailer, which meant both Liz and I had to drive, which meant we’d push ourselves as far as we could each day, but we’d need decent sleep. For fear of spreading anything we might pick up along the way, we couldn’t stay with family and friends, as we’d initially planned over the winter, so for hotel stops, we decided I’d check in, then go wipe down the room and open the windows before we hauled our stuff in. We’d breakfast and lunch on whatever was in the cooler. As much as possible, we’d stay out of rest areas and gas stations and take our necessary pit stops along empty interstate exits. We had our hand sanitizer and our masks, our sunglasses and water bottles and mixed CDs. Though not without risk, like the trip itself, like so many things these days, we thought we’d let ourselves order takeout for dinner each night, and, if we could keep socially distanced, jump into whatever hotel pools were open, just to cool off and move our bodies after a long day sitting down.

We’d been boxing up books and toys and keepsakes for weeks. We biked around town to deliver parting gifts of Oregon wine to friends and colleagues. Our North Country neighbors left goody bags for the road on our steps, then retreated to the sidewalk to say goodbye. The kids had me take Polaroids of them and their neighborhood friends, one for everyone, so they could all remember. “It’s hard,” Edie said, as she studied one of the shots, “not to hug a friend for a picture.”

We packed the trailer, and near sunset we took a last walk along the river trail, a storm in the distance, silent lightning forking down. As much as we could be, we were ready for twelve days on the road and three thousand miles across the country.

 

♦♦♦

 

We left in a light rain, the sky gray and shadowed and close.

We waved goodbye to our rambling, white house, to the park and little downtown, to the Grasse River, and not long after—I’m not sure exactly where, maybe north of Syracuse, our first mixed CD still spinning—we entered, suddenly and completely, that other world: the fast, loud, American universe of the interstate, of movement and hurry and the next stop, the next thing. After a year in the quiet of the North Country, after four months of sheltering at home, it was a shock. But perhaps even more shocking was how quickly—we weren’t even out of New York State—I found myself adjusting to it again, the rushed rhythms, diesel stink, and breathlessness.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Along the verge, I named sumac, maple, spruce. Across these months at home, I have grieved the delights of travel and sport, the sustenance and texture of community, yet this time has reminded me, taught me once again, how myriad and lovely are the slow and close at hand, how much we might see when we take the time to look carefully, that the pace of our wider culture, of capitalism, often obliterates what is near and intricate and dear.

I knew this. I grew up way out on the plains of Montana long before cell phones and Wi-Fi, grew up miles from neighbors, the land itself close at hand. But barreling down I-90 just east of the Pennsylvania state line, I had to remind myself.

I think we will have to keep reminding ourselves.

 

♦♦♦

 

That first night we stayed at a golf resort out of Painesville, Ohio. I am in fact actively anti-golf, but the price was right—cut rates on all rooms through the pandemic!—and the stop was just off the interstate east of Cleveland, which we didn’t want to hit at five p.m. Squirrel Hill, which is what I’ll call said resort, is past its prime—the air conditioning just barely dribbling, all the hallways perfumed with smoke—but still trying, with its high ceilings and polished wood, to offer a little slice of luxury in northeast Ohio. While Liz stretched and meditated, I took Walter and Edie to the outdoor pool. A few other kids splashed in the shallow end, and a scatter of adults stared at their phones from the sunny side of the deck, so we skirted the shadowed edge and lined up at the lip of the empty deep end—and plunged in.

The water held us, cooled us as we splashed and swam, the waves glancing with Ohio light. One after the other I tossed the kids up out of the water, and they crashed back in. Soon, another child, a boy, maybe Edie’s age, began, in the way children do, to sidle closer to us, to, simply by proximity, attempt to join our play. Of course, we can’t play. Edie, ever observant, was already out of the pool. I got Walter’s attention and told him we had to move away. He didn’t think it fair. I told him it’s not about fair; it’s about keeping everyone safe. We huddled in our towels, watched the other kids slowly take over the deep end.

One of the essential facts of my life is that I grew up poor, but am no longer poor. I am so deeply glad my children do not have to face the indignities of poverty, but at times, I struggle with having left one world for another, with my and my children’s privilege, which is why we choose to live in a mixed-income neighborhood, which is why Walter and Edie go to public school, which is why we try in as many ways as we can to be active parts of our wider, fuller community—but we couldn’t, then, join this sudden, makeshift Squirrel Hill community. We couldn’t jump in the pool.

 

This time has reminded me, taught me once again, how myriad and lovely are the slow and close at hand, how much we might see when we take the time to look carefully.

 

The other kids jostled and shouted and, since I’d retreated, tried to get one of their own parents to come play, to toss them into the air too. Finally, a mom peeled herself out of her lounge chair. Tall and almost frighteningly thin, she wore a bright red bikini. Among her many tattoos, I noted a pearl-handled Winchester inked across the left side of her hip, as if in holster.

She cannonballed into the deep end, all the kids jumping in after her, and I wished Walter and Edie could jump in too, wished—for all the ways we are already away from one another—that we didn’t have to be away from one another here, at the pool, in this soft, slanting light.

 

♦♦♦

 

A few early road notes:

  • The Midwest begins as Ohio gives way to Indiana—hills flatten, trees thin, and fields of corn unroll. In the distance silos rise.
  • Just out of Holmesville, Indiana, beneath the noon sun, a man walks the railroad tracks with something slung over his shoulders—a shovel? fishing pole? bindle stick? He flashes by in a moment, but Walter and I talk about him for hours. Where’s he going? Where’s he been? Maybe he’s stopped now in the shade of Reynolds Creek?
  • Chicago at rush hour is a real face-melter—and we’re not even driving through the city proper, just skirting the southern edge. Edie walkie-talkies us: “Hope you’re okay, Dad. We’re okay, but Mom did have to honk at a couple of assholes.”
  • Ensconced, after a long, hot day, in a nearly vacant Comfort Inn in nowhere, Illinois, Liz and I cross the heat-shimmered blacktop to pick up dinner at a sandwich shop. Inside, even for the roaring of fans, it’s hot as blazes. Only half the workers wear masks. Liz, standing back, gives our names to the woman at the till for our takeout order, and the woman—her face pitted, little flyaway hairs plastered to her temples—says she can’t hear. Says come closer. Or take off that mask.

 

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We crossed the Mississippi into Iowa on the third day, and it felt, as it always does, like a ritual of passage, like we ought to pull over and offer thanks and oblations. To the slow, wide, turbid roll of the river, of course, dividing the nation east and west, and, too, because Liz and I spent six years in Iowa, started our family there.

So, as we lifted up from the great river—in every direction green fields, the taut threads of section-line roads, the wide Iowa sky—we started telling stories. We told them again about the respective days—one morning bright and warm, one night icy and cold—they were born, about the backpacks we used to plop them in to go hiking in the prairie park, about gathering buckeyes in the front yard.

We drove the last fifteen or so miles down gravels roads, dust piling up behind us, and pulled up to our friend’s empty farmhouse late in the afternoon. They were traveling as well, to see for the first time their new grandbaby, born just as things shut down, and had offered to let us stay at their place for a couple days. We were more than happy to get off the road and out of hotels, to cook a few real meals for ourselves. And it felt, in so many ways, like a return, a homecoming. First, we were back to sheltering in place, to being together, the four of us. And, too, here again was Iowa: butterflies in the crab apple, fireflies in the lawn grass at night, swallows and killdeer crying above me as I jogged down the road, the dust of a pickup visible from miles away.

 

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The Fourth of July found us in Chamberlain, South Dakota, a little town perched on the bluffs tumbling down to the Missouri.

We had thrilled to the grass going tough and dun, the first hints of draws and alkali and sage—it meant the West!—but the hotel was filled with folks hauling fishing boats and Jet Skis, and no one, not even the staff, wore masks. The looks we got, as we hauled in our things, masks on all our faces, were pointed, sneering. In the cramped hallway we stepped aside, and a big, round-shouldered white guy with a goatee and blue ball cap stepped that much closer to us.

Liz and I found ourselves shaken. The North Country wasn’t the city, but it was the same state from where we all heard every morning and afternoon news on the body count, stories of overcrowded hospitals, of doctors and nurses without proper PPE scrambling to take care of desperately sick patients. Even though the North Country tends red in elections, everyone kept their distance and wore masks in the grocery store. Everyone took taking care seriously. And it is a terrible blindness, a misreading on a colossal scale, to make distancing and masks out to be anything other than a commitment to community safety. This blindness is exacerbated by lack of leadership at so many levels, but it’s more than that as well—it exposes a deeper division, a fuller othering. As someone who has often, by dint of birth and then the privileges afforded by education, passed back and forth between rural and urban spaces, between working-class and cosmopolitan coastal culture, this division hurts all the more. I do not want to be away from my people, any of them, but to be safe I have to be.

We holed up in our room for a time. On the television, the news played snippets of Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech from the night before. Edie frowned at the screen. “He’s trying to make us not like each other,” she said. “We don’t have any reason not to like each other.”

And so we thought we’d try again. Can we do anything but try again?

We waited until the hallway was mostly clear, then hustled out the back door of the hotel. We parked on Main Street, and along with so many others, each group now, thank goodness, keeping to themselves, we walked across the Missouri bridge, the trusses rising above us, the black water moving far below, and on the far side pulled up our own patch of highway to watch fireworks bloom and shatter.

 

♦♦♦

 


 

More road notes:

  • The highest, brightest clouds always build over the Black Hills.
  • The sky beginning to bruise with far-off rain, Walter declares to me that he’s an atheist. Then he thinks a bit, and asks if you can be an atheist if you believe in magic. I tell him believing in magic means you’re making room for mystery, which is more of an agnostic position. “Okay,” he says. “That’s what I am.”
  • Liz and I almost forget, but then remember our anniversary and splurge on adjoining rooms—one for us and one for the kids—at the low-slung Best Western in Gillette, Wyoming, where we celebrate with Indian takeout.
  • When you drive into Montana, you drive up and up and up. Even on the eastern side, antelope and sage flats and oxbow creeks, you can feel it, the land tilting inexorably toward the Rockies, toward the Big Horns and Beartooths, toward the Crazies, mountains beyond mountains.
  • We make a gas stop in Laurel and risk going inside—and it’s as clean as could be, arrows on the floor directing foot traffic, all employees in masks. We haven’t seen anything like this in Montana yet, haven’t seen it, really, since we left New York, and we ask the guy at the till about it. He rings up our drinks and says his boss, the lady who owns the place, requires it. Says he appreciates it. Makes him feel safe. We thank him. We ask him to thank her. And we get back on the road.

 

♦♦♦

 

In Livingston, we escaped the sad hotel—another busted air conditioner, the clerk clearly strung out—and drove down to the Yellowstone River, pouring cold from between the mountain folds, and in a slow eddy near the bridge waded up to our waists and shivered and dared one another and finally dunked ourselves in the snowmelt waters.

The next night we pulled up to my cousin’s place on Flathead Lake. The house was even nicer than we expected, perched on a high cliff above the waters, polished log beams and floor-to-ceiling windows facing west, and I worried—as I always do in such spaces—that I might break something, do something wrong. So we hustled outside. Chipmunks scurried along the rocks, a doe with three gangly fawns eyed us from behind a veil of tall grass. We shucked our clothes and pulled on our suits, banged down the long stairs that led through a crack in the cliff to the water’s edge. There, again, we plunged in. “When I see a stream,” writes Richard Hugo, “I like to say: exactly.”

Stream, river, wide lake—I say exactly to them all.

 

♦♦♦

 

One last round of road notes:

  • In this light like no other, we drive south down the Mission Valley, the stone shoulders of mountains gray and snow-laced.
  • There’s no gas or much of anything but wind in Dixon.
  • Most of northern Idaho is a snarl of mountain, though broken now and then by threads of rivers, the sudden blue cloth of lakes.

 

♦♦♦

 

Our final stop, in Kennewick, Washington, offers a hint of how things might have been. Here, the governor has issued a mask mandate, along with clear guidelines for different types of businesses, and in the hotel lobby we find plexiglass dividers, walkway arrows, a poster detailing distancing requirements and cleaning and disinfecting measures. Even breakfast the next morning is handled with care—a buffet converted for a made-to-order cafe, all meals to be eaten in room—and when the kids want more pancakes, we dig deep to tip the servers.

 

 

Our last day on the road we thought to picnic along the water. Walter and I checked the gazetteer and spied a point of land jutting into the Columbia, a little Forest Service road with a loop at the end. It looked lonely and perfect, and we’d be able to turn the trailer around. We walkie-talkied Liz and Edie the exit number.

We pulled off the interstate and crossed the railroad tracks and drove over a short isthmus, swampy backwaters on either side, and turned onto the point—and half a mile in, a padlocked Forest Service gate blocked the road.

I parked in the shade and got out, the heat a sudden hand on me, the stink of blackberries and dust. Liz cranked the truck’s wheel, pulled this way, backed up that way. Tried again. Once again. It was impossible. She couldn’t get turned around.

We were maybe an hour and change from home.

Liz swore—Edie, like always, noting every curse word for later—and straightened the truck out. Started backing up.

“It’s over half a mile,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

And as I backpedaled down the road, in front of the trailer, just make sure, Liz backed the trailer down the road, curving over the point and across the thin isthmus. At the railroad tracks, I looked both ways as far as I could see and quickly waved her across. I stood in the ditch weeds and watched as she turned the trailer up the interstate off-ramp, the nose of the pickup pointed finally the right direction.

I leaned in the open window, told Liz how damned impressive that was.

“Yeah,” Edie said, nodding. “That was pretty damn impressive.”

And it made sense, somehow, that we nearly got stuck on a backwater road so close to home.

We’ve all been stuck at home, we’re all trying to re-understand home, make some sense of our strangely distant neighborhoods, the many distances between us in places we call home. What we face now is not novel. We have known pandemic. The injustice has been here all along, and it is good and right that we turn our attention toward it. What is unprecedented, though, is the utter abdication of coherent leadership at the highest levels, and this lack of leadership has meant so many have fallen back on tired, easy answers, have put their faith in perverted myths of freedom, in an unimaginative capitalism that is itself diseased.

Later that day we pulled up to our old blue house in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And now, weeks on, I am thankful we are not sick, that we are home and tired and safe. But the virus spreads; the divisions we found across the country are here as well. A river cuts down through the rocks and is the same and ever changing. We are all travelers, all at the mercy of a given day’s lovely, frightening variations, though we travel on, and in so doing might learn something of nearness and distance, of history and scope, of who we are and who we might be. O

 

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Forming a “More Perfect Union” Through Indigenous Values

How might we unlock hope in an expansive spirit of democracy for present and future generations in this time of upheaval? This new conversation series on “The State of American Democracy” invites us to explore this question with some of our most creative thinkers and public intellectuals. The first episode on September 17, 2020, focuses on the moral foundations of democracy we can draw for guidance. The article below on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy highlights the early roots of democracy in the United States. – Mary Evelyn Tucker

 

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“It would have been much to the purpose, to have inserted a more accurate investigation of the form of government of the ancient Germans and modern Indians; in both, the existence of the three divisions of power is marked with a precision that excludes all controversy. The democratic branch, especially, is so determined, that the real sovereignty resided in the body of the people . . . exercised in the assembly of kings, nobles, and commons together.” John Adams

“It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies . . .” Benjamin Franklin

MANY THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, the Peacemaker arrived at Onondaga Lake to deliver instructions that would unify five warring nations together under the Great Law of Peace, thus establishing the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. At this time the Hiawatha Wampum Belt was woven to reflect this union, with the central tree to represent the Onondaga Nation. This peace endured for thousands of years, and the image of this belt is used today in the Haudenosaunee flag. The Founding Fathers of the United States took inspiration in this history and created a new form of democracy—one rooted under the Haudenosaunee’s Great Tree of Peace.

Skä·noñh (“peace and wellness”) is a Haudenosaunee greeting and, as Tadodaho Sid Hill reiterates time and again, can only be obtained when human beings are in proper relationship with the natural world. Skä·noñh evokes the Peacemaker’s original instructions, not only as to how this proper relationship is established, but also how it is to be maintained. It is a message of hope, because it offers a way out of chaos and grief.

Relationship with the natural world—reengagement with the life force of this planet—occurs, to the Haudenosaunee, through the women who are life-givers. This matrilineal clan system is the oldest participatory form of democracy recognized in the world today. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Grand Council still meets, as it did thousands of years ago, at its capital and place of origin—the Onondaga Nation longhouse. Onondaga remains the heart and Central Fire of what is now six confederated nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca.

There’s no doubt that the Founding Fathers were influenced by these ancient protocols, but they failed to incorporate what was most foundational to the peacemaking process: the role of women, the condolence of grief, and the protocols that continually reveal ever-changing new ways of living in proper relationship to the natural world.

To fully understand how the Founding Fathers received the story of the Great Law of Peace, we have to meet the figures central to that historical moment: the Peacemaker, Jikonseseh, Hiawatha, and the Tadodaho.

Jikonseseh, Mother of Clans: The Rule of Compassion

In the midst of war, the Peacemaker arrived and encountered a woman named Jikonseseh. She exhibited great compassion for the warriors, regardless of which side they fought for, by welcoming and feeding all who were hungry. Because of her generous heart, the Peacemaker guided Jikonseseh on to a different path that would more effectively begin the process of healing. She was given instructions to guide forty-nine women of the village to reacquaint themselves with their lost relatives of the sky, earth, and water. This would begin what would become the foundational matrilineal clanship of the Haudenosaunee. These forty-nine Clan Mothers were given titles, assigned for life. Among their many responsibilities was choosing a male counterpart who would represent their clan. These forty-nine clan Hoyane still convene in Grand Council at Onondaga today.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is not structured on a hierarchy of chiefs, but rather on Hoyane, loosely translated “Men of the Good Mind.” Each Hoyane counsels with his Clan Mother, and, should his responsibilities be neglected, is subject to “dehorning,” or the removal of his title by the Clan Mother. Clan Mothers determine when ceremonies are held. They also determine if and when their Nations enter battle, which is rare. Clan Mothers are also responsible for naming each child within her clan. The name she assigns is unique to the clan and to the child. It becomes the child’s clan identity to the natural world until death, whereupon the name returns to the Clan Mother for redistribution to the next child born. Clan Mothers are the foundations of the Confederacy, and maintain their clan’s identity by assuring that each person remains connected to their relatives in the natural world.

Hiawatha, the Great Orator: The Condolence of Grief

The Peacemaker also encountered on his travels the great orator, Hiawatha, who had been consumed with debilitating grief due to the recent murders of his daughters. The Peacemaker realized that without condoling this grief, Hiawatha would be unable to receive his instructions. The Peacemaker used wampum shells to help restore his stricken body.

Shells recall the primordial sea—the waters that connect us in life—the great expanse that Skywoman saw as she fell from her celestial home. Had birds not intercepted her fall, cradled her with their wings and gently set her upon Turtle’s back, she would have surely drowned. It was the sea animals that dove deep to locate the fistful of soil from beneath the all-encompassing waters that would sustain her life on Turtle’s back. Skywoman’s feet immediately began to massage the soil, as she took tiny steps that began to move counterclockwise, which turned into a dance of gratitude for all the special beings that created Turtle Island. As she danced, the soil grew. Today, Skywoman’s first dance of gratitude is re-created by the women during longhouse ceremonies.

With woven strings of wampum, the Peacemaker began the condolence of wiping away the tears of grief from Hiawatha’s eyes to restore his vision. The dust was brushed from his ears so he could hear the message, and the lump from his throat was cleared so he could speak clearly. Today, wampum is used to condole each newly raised Confederacy Hoyane. Special wampum strings identify each title. All treaty belts are woven with wampum beads that, for the Haudenosaunee, hold this primordial memory of gratitude and peace, while acknowledging that if not maintained, can lead back to chaos and grief.

 

 
In the Photo: Tadodaho Sidney Hill, condoled spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee, holding the Hiawatha Wampum Belt that depicts the “Great Law of Peace” which brought five warring nations together in peace over 1,000 years ago at Onondaga Lake. The Great Law of Peace influenced the Founding Fathers to develop Western democracy in the eighteenth century and the “Founding Mothers” of the women’s movement in the nineteenth century. This is the first public displaying of this wampum belt—which is over 1,000 years old—at Onondaga Lake in 2016.

 

Tadodaho, the Sorcerer: The Great Transformation

The Peacemaker had heard about this most powerfully wicked sorcerer, the Onondaga, Tadodaho. The Peacemaker understood that change required the Tadodaho to listen and accept his instructions. It was agreed that all five Nations would first unite under the Great Law of Peace, if they were ever to successfully “comb the snakes” from Tadodaho’s head. Hiawatha set out to condole each of the remaining forty-eight Hoyane. After bringing their minds together as one, they then approached Tadodaho, and they finally succeeded. This transformation turned out to be the most radical: the Peacemaker made Tadodaho the spiritual figurehead of the Confederacy. His title represents no clan, and is the only title chosen by the men, which completes the fifty Hoyane that comprise the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

The Weaponization of History

The Founding Fathers were astute enough to recognize the virtues of the Haudenosaunee government. They could obtain a powerful edge by appropriating the tenets of strength through unity. They acknowledged that real sovereignty resided with people and government together—the image of bound arrows still seen in the presidential seal is taken directly from the story of the Peacemaker. And today, as then, Tadodaho remains neutral during deliberations across the two houses of Older Brothers (Mohawk and Seneca) and Younger Brothers (Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora). This distribution of power served as a model for modern America’s three separate branches of government.

But the Founding Fathers had no intention of honoring the spirit of the Great Peace in its entirety; their objective, it soon became clear, was to occupy, colonize, and exploit this land. European laws, at this time, had already adapted fifteenth-century papal bulls called the Doctrines of Christian Discovery, into law. These were decrees calling “for Catholic sovereigns to seize lands of heathens . . . capture, vanquish, and subdue all [Non-Christians], put them into perpetual slavery, and take all their possessions and property.” This was coupled with the most prominently read Roman philosopher of the time, Machiavelli, who provided the “how-to” text on obtaining power through the art of political deceit.

The conquest of the “Americas” required the silencing of certain voices—as similar efforts had already shown across the sea. Its success would be contingent on the exclusion of women, the enslavement of people of color, and the unabashed exploitation of Mother Earth. Haudenosaunee women in particular needed to be silenced, so the church targeted our matrilineal Clan families and restructured them into patrilineal families. Clan names that identified with the natural world were soon replaced with names derived from imagined saints. The clergy issued last names to the fathers, to reorganize the family into a patriarchal unit to be entered into the church registry. By diminishing the role of women, colonists attempted to destroy our Clan system—our connection to Hoyane, our Clan Mothers, our ceremonies of gratitude, and the very name that tied us to our earthly relatives.

Next, we were run out of our territories by George Washington’s Sullivan-Clinton scorched-earth campaign of 1779, which was targeted at Onondaga. The following year we returned to find that Washington had paid his soldiers with tracts of our land, creating a military presence in what came to be known as the Empire State.

As we are now confronted with environmental devastation, global pandemics, an economic system that fosters chaos in the world, and an inability to think clearly or collectively toward a viable way to the future, perhaps it is time to pick up where the Founding Fathers left off and continue to learn from the Haudenosaunee. What better time than now to consider the ancient wisdom of our ancestors who, for thousands of years, sustained a more equitable way of living in proper relationship with the natural world? Who better to model a world where women reside at the center of deliberations and nature exists as our relative—not just a resource?

Skä·noñh,

Sandy Bigtree | Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne
Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center | Collaborative
Indigenous Values Initiative

Philip P. Arnold | Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, Syracuse University
Skä·noñh—Great Law of Peace Center | Founding Director
Indigenous Values Initiative

Between Earth and Sky, Choices Remain

 THE MORNING WAS QUIET with the scent of wet earth outstretched and welcoming. Our surroundings were sharp-edged as white clouds seamed into the pale blue sky, and the silhouettes of trees, like veins, protruded against the horizon.

“Listen,” my mother said. I did.

A swoosh from a passing car — a haunting remembrance of the fading pre-pandemic normal. Then, a blanketing of sound: staccato chirps, long barreling calls that heightened at the tip, fluttering, scatty caws, and sweet whistles.

“We never hear nature like this,” my mother said.

For a few weeks, my mother and I rose early to sit outside, to listen, to watch the birds that made their residence in her backyard: the jays, goldfinches, hummingbirds, and others whose names I had yet to discover.

At some point during our watch, another glided into view: a hawk, graceful and light, perching with predatory privilege at the tip of the pine tree next door. The branch bowed beneath its weight. Its head swiveled, absorbing a scene I could not see, and somewhere between the distance of our gaze, I remembered. Birds suffer too. They experience sickness and disease. At just the right angle, a connection exists, though difficult to catch if one did not watch or listen.

After a moment of stillness, the hawk’s wings outstretched. Encouraged by the breeze, it was delivered.

Its flight was an act of praise to God.

 

♦♦♦

 

Days tumbled into weeks. Far too much was happening, despite nothing moving. Our national pause, unfamiliar and foreign, turned civility wild for all to see. With any sense of propriety unraveling, it became clear that this was a new wilderness I could not roam. A hiking pack filled with supplies and gear could not deliver me from the shutdown. And yet, from all my perceived stagnation, nature remained in motion.

Morning walks became extensions of discovery, my gaze absorbing it all: the birds’ bobbing flight, light slipping through gnarled limbs, the foothills’ landskein: a weaving and braiding of horizon lines.

But I also saw brutality. A feathered body with a defeated tail mangled in the gravel, its brightness blurring, voice silenced, wings to never outstretch. 

There were other bodies too. Black bodies against concrete. Black bodies unable to stand, unable to mount up on wings and soar.

Neither sight is new to native inhabitants, but rather for those who have just begun to awaken, those finally able to see bodies caught in the hunt.

I thought poaching was illegal.

To feel shotgun spray. Knees resting within the nook of a neck. Bullets jolting through their bodies — my body. Their limbs collapsed.

Little black birds, fly.

Outside, weighted from it all, I looked up, hoping for outstretched wings.

But no wings were giving praise to God.

 

♦♦♦

 

For a while, there was silence. Enough to produce noise.

Then, there came outrage, not a moment too late but one breath short.

There came pain, enough to string words together that made feelings real and hearing possible.

 

♦♦♦

 

Interpretations informed by racialized narratives distort possibilities. A body pressed against concrete can be at once an individual who committed a crime but also a loving father and kind soul. This applies to a body out for a jog or a man enjoying the simple existence of bustling birds. Those bodies deserve more than one interpretation, but fear overrides the multiplicity for a stereotype. In the wild — man’s wild — the bodies that indeed speak, offering alternative viewpoints of their existence, often have little hope of being heard. Their realities are inscrutable for a lack of interpretation.

Equally interesting is sight, for it is intricately connected to interpretation. Sight gives words to physical expression, present and imagined. Within the brevity of a glance, stereotypes may arise. They sometimes surface when a body of difference is seen. They call into remembrance racialized narratives that sprint across the landscape of reason. If not placed in conversation with reason, they give way to prejudice, bias, and fear. It is from stereotypes, among other variables, that countless individuals were silenced when their crying bodies tried to speak. Stereotypes are not definers of man, but rather, a shared behavior between man and nature.

 

♦♦♦

 

While out back one morning, I looked to the pine tree and noticed that the hawk was experiencing avian mobbing: an aggressive and noisy tactic smaller birds use when a predator is within close proximity to its territory. 

At the end of May, I witnessed another mobbing, this time on screen. A similar occurrence: a smaller, female bird attacking a perceived predator. But the predator was different than a hawk. The anxious female sounded the alarm against him, “pulling the hand grenade of race.”

I heard her alarm rise to its pitch, the threat woven into calculated words. I noticed the privilege of perceived fragility and the curse of being viewed as an unsubstantiated threat. All the while, in the midst of the attack, Chris Cooper remained perched, the invisible branch bowing from the impact.

Little black bird, fly. He did.

I went outside. I looked up.

The hawk’s wings were giving praise to God.

 

♦♦♦

 

Chris Cooper defied interpretation. He wore blue jeans, a navy blue T-shirt, and a filigree-laden bandana, blue and white, tied around his neck as he walked through Central Park. Every paused step prolonged the beauty found in the grace of his watching.

“Flicker. Great crested flycatchers,” he called out, relying on sound to identify the birds. He slowed and briefly paused. “American redstart. . . . You can hear him sing if you listen.”

You can hear him sing if you listen. 

There is a voice that always speaks. It is clear and distinct though muffled because of chaos. It is a voice that gives utterance to twittering birds or groaning earth. This voice remains present in that which is alive, but we have forgotten how to listen, so we know not what we hear and see. 

Cooper remembers to hear.

His story, I hear: that to be witnessed without judgment is a practice of respect, and when our society, challenged by the reality of racial injustice, is unraveled and laid bare to see, it reveals itself as a cultural wasteland.

While I watched Cooper’s interview, I wondered what was buried in his pauses. I wondered if he was listening to a voice only audible to those with the gift to hear. Then I realized that this is a man who has learned to fly. A little black bird whose wings have healed. A man whose wings are giving praise to God.

 

♦♦♦

 

Like so many others, I exist in the middle, not knowing where tomorrow will take this country. The unknown bewilders me so I go outside and look up. The hawk is in flight, and I begin to make connections. I begin to listen so that I may hear.

Wildlands are universal—part of our reality in so much as it is the hawk’s.

Pain is a unifier and a meaning maker for joy.

Plagues are cyclical, death is inevitable, and extinction, permanent.

Broken wings heal and soar again.

In the middle, the wasteland also possesses beauty. A place denying escape can offer sight; it all depends on the angle from which you look.

 

♦♦♦

 

I sit and watch as the gentle summer breeze ripples across the grass.

I listen to the wind growing loud like waves as they rustle through leaves.

I hear a passing carits swoosh, a reminder that there is air yet to be breathed.

I look up.

The hawk’s wings are giving praise to God, and so will I. O

The Opposite of Hunger is Mercy

AT THE FALLS, the Brooks River spills into itself—an endless splitting apart and coming together as the water hits the rocks. It’s where the salmon jump against the current as they make their way upstream to spawn. Even though they’ve spent their lives in the ocean, their bodies remember the river. Brown bears gather here to fish. Watching them stomp through the water makes me think I am being fooled, as if other animals have folded themselves into a bear costume.

I have never been to Brooks Falls, Alaska. I don’t even know it exists until I find it online. I discover the LiveCam during my first few months at a new job where the summer workload is so slow, I’m sure every day the boss will realize how little I’m doing and let me go. Even though there’s barely enough work to carry me through noon, I have to clock eight hours at my desk. The office is in one of those sad office parks where the only sign of life is a restaurant with a name as bland as its food. Ours is Henry’s.

I watch the LiveCam for the brown bears. There’s something about their dull patience that captivates me, their dead stare into the water as they wait for salmon to brush up against them. It’s the opposite of my gaze, bouncing between two monitors, clicking from one browser window to another, checking and rechecking my email, my Slack channel, my Twitter feed. Sometimes I forget about a bear for twenty minutes and, when I check back, it’s right where I left it.

I’m relieved to have this job, which pays me enough to live and does not send me into fits of sobbing at the end of the day, unlike the job I’ve left behind. It’s a step up, I remind myself, though I begin to miss the heft of the stress. It feels like my skeleton is going rubbery in my chair. I watch the bears to be reminded that a world exists beyond marketing calls and committee roundtables. I edit twelve pages of meeting minutes no one will read. I write copy for an email most people won’t bother to open.

I’ve noticed recently that even when I’m alone, I’m aware of the collective gaze. It’s like I’m constantly viewing myself through an Instagram filter, trying to angle the frame just right to make my life seem not perfect but genuine and fully lived. I am the actor and the audience and I’m beginning to wonder if this split can ever be repaired. The bears give me hope. The bears are not smug with their bearness.

With the camera fixed to the shore, I cannot see what the bears see. The water is frothy and opaque. I have to imagine how many fish are in the river based on the bears’ hunched postures and unblinking stares. The only time I can see any hard evidence of the salmons’ existence is when they try to leap up over the falls.

 

 

Someone controls the camera. It shifts to follow the action, but it’s always a step behind. It feels like whoever is responsible for maneuvering the camera has another more important job. The lens shows me the bears but also reminds me of all I cannot see. A bear lunges offscreen and returns minutes later empty-pawed. The camera swings suddenly to the right to reveal a bear and her cubs waiting on the shore. It’s unclear how long they’ve been there. A bear wading into the water moves with its head on a swivel as if it’s keeping track of something out of view. The camera is a constant reminder that the world exists whether or not I’m watching.

The storyline of the bears is impossible to lose track of, but it never goes stale. They are hungry. At first, I’m sure this cannot sustain the 24/7 programming, but I’m wrong. Their hunger is not like mine. Their hunger is singular. I will never understand what it is to feel the first breath of winter and know that all I have to sustain me are my own claws.

The stakes are high—life and death. Never one without the other. As soon as a bear dunks its snout into the water and paws a fish into its mouth, I am filled with a giddiness that spreads through my teeth. But then I see the writhing body of the fish in the bear’s claws—its scales slick and glistening, its mouth opening and closing like it’s trying to ask a question.

The bear is not concerned with mercy. Maybe to a bear there is no such thing. It peels the fish apart like it’s eating a piece of fruit, as if the teeth know no difference between a feeling thing and an unfeeling one. The fish comes apart like a magic trick. Suddenly there’s nothing more than a spine and a head. If I can forget the violence, the bear looks cute as it chomps down, human almost in that way it relishes the moment.

Seeing a bear eat does not undercut the drama. I know that hunger is a bottomless thing. As soon as the bear tips its head back and swallows the carcass, I feel a tightness in my jaw. Already I’m thinking about the next fish.

Little mini plotlines branch out from time to time. Two bears jockey for position at the top of a waterfall. A seagull perches on a rock, waiting for scraps. A mother rushes a male that gets too close to her cubs. But each of these stories is trapped within the story of the bears’ hunger like an organ inside a body.

As the summer presses into fall, I get anxious when I’m not watching the bears. It feels like I’ve left a pot boiling somewhere. My workload hasn’t increased and every time one of the bosses walks down the hallway toward my office, I’m sure they are about to invite me into the conference room to talk.

 

Their hunger is not like mine. Their hunger is singular. I will never understand what it is to feel the first breath of winter and know that all I have to sustain me are my own claws.

 

The days shorten. The glut of the summer is over. Now every time a bear catches a fish, the excitement is layered with a manic sort of fear. Even the bears move differently. They lose their easygoing gait. Scarcity only sharpens the hunger. I wonder if the bears can feel what’s coming, if there’s a dwindling within that prepares them for winter. I lean close to the monitor to try and read their expressions, but the picture is grainy. If their eyes betray anything about what’s to come, I cannot tell.

At night I lie in bed and imagine the bears burrowing into their dens. I’ve always pictured hibernation like curling into a pile of comforters. But now I consider the darkness, the grit of dirt. I think about what it must be like to crawl into the earth with only sleep between you and hunger—to know that if you jolt awake before the snow melts, there might be nothing to do but starve.

The camera goes offline late in the fall. One morning I go through my ritual of flipping on my monitors and, when I open the LiveCam, it says Off Season and begins playing a reel of highlights. I sit there stunned for a few minutes, watching moments I’ve already seen—a bear waiting at the top of the falls, pitched forward with its paws out, a bear crashing through the brush and stomping into the water. The fish are jumping, their bodies arcing out of the water, their tails fluttering. For the first time it occurs to me that although I have been enamored with the bears, I have been coming back to the LiveCam every day for the salmon.

Watching this old footage, I imagine how terrifying it must be for the fish to plunge breathless into the air. Their bodies twist, revealing the silver shine of their bellies. I wish I could ask them how it feels to have something in their blood pull them home. But I know that these fish are already dead. By now, even the ones who’ve made it all the way upstream are gone. Once they spawn, they stop eating. Without hunger, their bodies turn listless and they float downstream, bobbing along the rocks until they become corpses. Their flesh softens and begins to come apart as if the river itself has an appetite.

For now, here they are on my screen. I watch their ghosts lift up out of the water, the sickle shadows of their bodies fall short of the upper ledge again and again. They keep tossing themselves against the current until finally one of them slips up over the falls and disappears out of view. O

 

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