Saturday, October 26, 2013


Once years ago I was taking a workshop around the Unitarian circuit that was about “place” and the importance of knowing the place where you lived.  A man pondered this and objected, “But there’s NOTHING under my house!  I live in a housing development and there is nothing there!”  This produced an image of his house floating in the air.  But -- just like every other place -- there was plenty of history and geology under his house -- he just didn’t have a consciousness raised enough to get past the bulldozers.

Indigenous and autochthonous and First Nations and aboriginal are all about the place where the people found a way to survive that melded them together into a tribe.  The values, the “ethical space,” of those conditions is what has made them what they are.

I don’t know how I failed to meet Candace Savage when I was in Saskatoon and visited Eastend.  A woman who kisses giraffes is fairly memorable!  It appears that I just missed her, coming after she left for a few years and leaving before she returned.  She is ten years younger than I am, which means nothing, really, except that time is always a part of place.  Stan Rowe, a soil scientist and also a Saskatoon person, talked about “slabs of space-time.”  Our slabs didn't coincide but they echo. 

Here’s a quote from Candace’s generously illustrated photo book, “Prairie: A Natural History.” It’s the epigraph to the preface in the second edition:  “There is no way to hold back the future.  But we can shape the course of events by engaging -- fully, deeply, and passionately -- with the present. . .  This approach is sometimes referred to as a strategy of “no regrets,” because the work is worth doing now, no matter what happens next.”  The accompanying photo shows a huge moon hanging over prairie where faraway cows graze in what is called “wolf light,” when the sky is dark purple and the land is shadowed.  It is liminal time, but especially on the prairie where there is nothing to block the horizon.

This book makes an excellent “bible” for those who are autochthonous to this place in the rainshadow of the Rockies and a little farther east.  It includes the point of view expressed by a scientist when we stood in a group near Eastend at a site where a dino skeleton had been found.  He said,  “You must understand that at that time here was not here.”  He meant that the continents had shifted radically so that this point on the planet had moved far away from where it had been at the time, and the skeleton came along for the ride.  So ancient a land is revealed by the constant erosion that exposes new bones from the past around Drumheller and the Tyrrell Museum which some people exclaim is a temple to evolution. “Features ten signature galleries devoted to paleontology, with 40 dinosaur skeletons with more than 110000 fossil specimens.”

One of the great grasslands of the world, though seemingly inexhaustible to the First Peoples, has suffered from constant resource exporting, the limits of water use, and inexorable climate change that have certainly altered and are exhausting the great resources left by the glaciers who ground across the land ten thousand years ago and then melted, leaving a huge underground aquifer.  The wind blows away and storms run off topsoil, so that carcinogenic chemicals must be added in order to achieve ag goals.  Now the land is criss-crossed by railroads, pipelines, highways, high tension electrical wires, drainage canals, and wind farms with their red night lights that drown the stars in blood.  The profits do not stay on the rez and, in fact, do not even stay in the United States or Canada, since the investors may be in Japan or Europe.

Eastend, Saskatchewan, where Wallace Stegner’s early years were spent (for the specifics, see his memoir, “Wolf Willow”) is now a writer’s retreat, thanks largely to the efforts of Sharon and Pete Butala.  The ranch that Sharon writes about so eloquently in "The Perfection of the Morning" is now a refuge where the original grasses are grazed by today's buffalo.  Stegner has been an object of love/hate for some people because they feel he ought to have given more attention to the indigenous peoples.  The truth is that in the years Stegner was there, the Indians had been extirpated: removed to reservations.  He never knew any -- but he knew the land in much the same way they did, and came to about the same conclusions.  In a way, his love/hate relationship with his wildass father is something like the struggle of the indigenous against the empire builders.  Stegner’s desire to be a proper academic, more in the frame of his mother’s world view, took him to universities and New England which separated him from indigenous tribes even more.

Those who remain are divided between lovers and opportunists.  I will say that opportunists' pyramids are somewhat shorter than those of lovers.  They will not reach as far up as transcendence, nor do they touch the ground.  The same division exists on reservations among the enrolled tribal peoples.  All those people who thought the key to life was getting a degree from a fancy university were not wrong, but it’s not enough.  If they want to be Real People, Nitzitahpi, they will need to return and walk all day through the grass like Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavy Head, just as the ancestors did.  You could take your dog along.

When all those children, sent away at great cost in both dollars and emotion, come back to the high east slope -- which they have been doing for years now -- they have a lot of questions and a lot of new ideas.  They will not be backpacking mountain climbers who try to get higher than everyone else, but rather prowlers of the sliding shale where one can find the old dream beds.  They might even try lying down in them for a while.  The songs up there are not from meadowlarks, those operatic carolers, but rather the harsh and incisive “grawk” of ravens that may remember the old timers who came to fast and hallucinate.  (Well, maybe YOU think it’s hallucinating -- but maybe it’s something else entirely.)  Consult a raven.

In sci-fi vids and movies we often see floating islands of cities and even jungle and that can give us the illusion that our lives can separate from the planet, escaping from all the pitfalls of history and the bedrocks of geology.  But it can’t be done.  Shouldn’t be done.   Instead my advice is to deepen and intensify your own “sensorium” so that no matter where you are, you really hear the rustlings, smell the dust, taste the wind, feel some big boulder erratic pressing against your back when you lean there to rest, and possibly stoop to pick up a buffalo stone from the grass, somehow hearing its small seductive chirps left over from when it was part of a sea creature long before here was even here.  Then you’ll have something to dream about.

Quoting Stan Rowe:  "The reality of the world is not people and separate 'other things'. . . it is -- beyond all understanding -- an integrated ecosphere of marvelous creativity."

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