The Long Nights of Winter: The Earth’s Sleep and Our Own

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Madronna Holden (copyright 2014)

Sleep is essential not only to memory and formation  of new neural connections, but also to our brain’s physiological maintenance.  Thus sleep researchers explain why we evolved this physically dangerous activity—picture humans asleep on our ancestral African savannah with nocturnal predators on the prowl.

The dreams that lace our sleep, in turn, are as crucial to our mental function as our daylight rationality. In laboratory experiments those deprived of REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming) sleep grow increasingly disoriented in their waking lives, finally hallucinating visions they are deprived of in sleep. REM is apparently our most crucial type of sleep, since it the type our bodies make up first after sleep deprivation.

Perhaps we most need dreams to remind us of the connections by which our world operates. Theologian Matthew Fox and biologist Rupert Sheldrake propose that in sleep we fall back into the experience of the primal oneness of life, bridging the boundaries that separate us from one another in the light of day.  There is something to be said for this, since our dreams are associative in nature, exploring connections of every kind, from the fantastic and the visionary to the mundane and spurious.

These nighttime associations alert us to what we might otherwise ignore — as in Gail Tremblay’s poem in Indian Singing in the Twentieth Century, in which the Coyote comes down from museum walls at night to dance with his curators. Like Coyote’s night business, ancient ceremonies honor the earth’s season of sleep in the long nights of winter by increasing awareness of what we may ignore in the light of habit. The early Roman Saturnalia that took place at the time of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year) shifted the ordinary order of things, closing courts and schools, interrupting wars, dismissing old grudges—and reversing social statuses of master and slave.

Unfortunately, under the later Roman Empire, the Saturnalia degenerated into a licentious spree. Likewise, Coyote stories illustrate both the need for creative action and the need for balance in applying it.  Coyote tales in indigenous North American sometimes portray Coyote as a wise transformer and other times as foolishly self-defeating, his escapades destroying himself and those around him.

Thus Coyote tales explore the impulse of experimentation within us– but not everything we think of should be done. In like fashion, indigenous tales from pioneer days on the Olympic Peninsula warn that certain pioneer technologies had their downsides—making humans work harder when they were meant to make things easier.

Doing whatever he thinks of is Coyote’s method, but as his stories show, this is not a wise course of action. Without moral standards and critical assessment, our creative impulses generate unintended consequences—as do too many forms of technology in the modern day.

Our dreams with their associative structures are here to remind us what we might otherwise forget—that we live in an interdependent world. They create awareness as do the salmon-shaped stickers placed on storm drains that announce, “Drains to stream”. Our world is made up of connections—and thus the waste we dispose of goes somewhere to affect other lives.

Traditional winter ceremonies, in turn, make conscious associations like those our dreams make spontaneously.  Ceremonies in the indigenous Pacific Northwest emphasize the connections between the living and dead, for instance, and designate the long nights of winter as the occasion of storytelling, bringing ancestral memory to consciousness.

This parallels the case in old Europe, where the archeology tells us Stonehenge is both a monument to the solstices (especially the winter solstice) and home to the ancestors–  a five mile circuit  there linking the living and the dead.

Vision and memory merge in winter ceremonies as they do in our dreams–and these are linked with healing in its root meaning of “wholeness”.  This shamans know as they travel to the land of the ancestors to access healing power in long winter nights—and Merlin practiced in a folk history of Britain. building Stonehenge from stones with medicinal power.

Winter ceremonies thus honor the similarity between the physiological housekeeping that cleans our brains of waste chemicals in sleep and the winter housekeeping of earth, whose cleansing cold destroys particular viruses, bacteria, and molds— and thus inhibits the spread of certain diseases—a concern if global warming allows these to proliferate instead.  Indeed, the most recent meetings of the American Society for the Advancement of Science included a paper given by Michael Grigg, 0f University of British Columbia and the National Institute of Health, who observed that “ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens”–and thus the current “big thaw” is resulting in the “liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc”.

Fleas and lice are destroyed by a month in a deep freeze—as are the larvae of the wax moth that trouble honeybee frames. Winter cold is necessary to other things as well: without a certain number of hours of winter chill, the apple tree will not bear—nor will other fruit trees that have their own winter chill requirements.

Beneath the snow the soil works transformations that support life, composting waste into fertility. Like the resulting black soil, our deep selves are rendered fertile in what they remake from our psychic wastes—our pain, our confusion, our illness, our weakness, our vulnerability.

Black soil is life-sustaining. Light soil, which has taken on few wastes to transform, is feeble by comparison.

Many of us in the industrialized world live at conscious remove from the earth’s seasonal cycles.  But this winter’s storms have brought us back to that connection in no uncertain terms. For all our technological expertise, we are still embedded in the natural world—and we cannot escape responsibility for carbon pollution and ensuing climate instability.

The vanishing ice that the polar bear would rest on, the melting glaciers that cause sea levels to rise in island nations, and the melting permafrost that makes swamp of former solid ground in the Arctic, are a few of earth’s reminders of the necessity of honoring the balance of seasons.

Such reminders are a grave part of life in the Philippines and the Arctic—and thus their leaders are among the strongest advocates for reduction of the global carbon output.

Seasonal cold even has a role in keeping us warm. Raising temperatures– and thus melting polar ice sheets– may well cause North America and Northern Europe to suffer colder winters due to the influence of melting ice on ocean currents.

We cannot escape the necessity of seasonal balance any more than we can escape our daily patterns of sleep and waking. Just as the earth’s rhythms remind of the necessity of her seasons, our bodies alert us to our own cycles of light and dark.  Should we neglect either of these, we suffer reminders such as the wild weather this winter in North America—and the upsurge of breast cancer among shift workers.

Like the transformation of wastes into fertile soil, the caterpillar wrapped in its cocoon reminds us that that which is sleeping is also being remade.  Admittedly, it may be inconvenient to experience such melt—and the dissolution of all boundaries as the caterpillar must before it can realize its future as a butterfly.

But it is a wise society whose stories allow us to see beyond the boundaries habit and convenience describe. With their good work of exposing the results of our choices such stories release our creative vision as they allow us to remember our past and avoid its mistakes.

We could use a few such stories to shift the habitual order of things, giving us an occasion to loosen old grudges, stop wars—or reverse the roles of factory workers and CEOs.

We could use ceremonies that bring to awareness those ideas—or people—our society excludes, like the homeless who filled “warming centers” during this past December’s unprecedented cold (ten below zero) in my home of Eugene, Oregon.  Those tending these shelters re-gather into community men and women more easily ignored in fair weather when they are not so likely to die on our streets, as did the man for whom Eugene’s shelters are named, Thomas Egan.

We cannot escape the fact that these homeless are members—and results– of our society any more than we can escape the seasons.

As the earth’s ancient ceremonies indicate, the long nights of winter are put to good use in psychological and social cleansing cold.

Winter is a perfect time to remember we are creatures of vision as well as daily habit– to re-gather our memories, extend our community, and dream our future well.

Wolves and the Wild: Expanding the Human Household

By Madronna Holden

“‘We are waiting for the wolves to answer. We want a healing, a cure for             anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories.”

—  Linda Hogan,  “Deify the Wolf”


Pioneers in the Willamette Valley gathered in the so-called Wolf Meetings” to establish a territorial government.  Why this label?  Given their personal disagreements, the pioneers  failed to create a common government.  But the one thing they did agree on was the extermination of local wolves.

In those days, in the words of PBS’s “The Wolf that Changed America”, wolves “were the very embodiment of America’s vanishing wilderness”.  That wilderness was vanishing according to the rubric of Manifest Destiny, which saw both wild creatures and indigenous peoples fated to fade away before the onslaught of ” civilization”.

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, reflects this view in children’s terms.  Here the wolf represents the savage wilderness, and Red Riding Hood the naïve girl-child delighted by birdsong and flowers, who puts herself in mortal danger because she has not yet learned to fear the land and its creatures– and must thus be saved by the huntsman. This fairytale dates from Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries —the heyday of the colonial takeover of the Americas.

But there are notable exceptions to the image of the wolf as mythical evil: as the in case of wolf hunter Ernest Seton turned environmentalist explored in the PBS documentary above.  The intelligence of a particular wolf, his communications with the wolf hunter, his self-possession and dignity—and finally, his dying loyalty to his mate—all moved the wolf hunter to see the world entirely differently.  Indeed, we might say this wolf domesticated Seton—if, tragically, at the cost of his own life.

Seton spent the remainder of his life fighting to save habitat where wild creatures might have a natural home.  He helped persuade Theodore Roosevelt to preserve US wilderness and founded the Boy Scouts—in line with his belief that humans needed intimacy with the wild.

Willamette Valley Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman relates how wolf skins brought in for bounty to the trading post at Scottsburg, Oregon, were stacked in shoulder high piles before being pushed into the Umpqua River to dispose of them. We can only imagine what this meant for those whose origin story told how First Woman entrusted her children to the care of Mother Wolf when she went out to discover her land.  First Woman found her children well cared for on her return.

Mother Wolf thus gave human children an experience of the natural world as family. We might well follow this model of learning from the natural world that succors us.  And we might hope to do so in a way that does not require the death of other natural creatures as happened with Seton’s wolf-hunting.

Mary Tallmountain spoke a telling poetic acknowledgement to the “last wolf”who made its way through the  “ruined city” to lay its muzzle on the hospital bed where she battled cancer. “Yes”, she told the wolf, “I know what they have done”.

What they had done was wage a war of extermination on wolves and their wild kin. Shortly after the “Wolf Meetings”, wolves were largely gone from Willamette Valley– though there were a few hold-outs in wilderness areas until the last wolf in Oregon was killed for bounty in 1947.

But the wolf gone from official records was not gone from sight.  There were mysterious wolf sightings long after this, as in the gray wolf sighted in the Opal Creek Wilderness half a century later.  As wolves will do, this creature would stand and look back at a human for a moment before it turned to vanish.

I don’t know anything more about the wolf at Opal Creek. Young wolves generally disperse about 40-80 miles, but they have gone as far as 500 miles to find a new family.  Until they find their family, in turn, they cannot realize their nature as a wolf.  It was a wolf’s fierce loyalty to his  mate that caused Seton to write WHY? in his journal with respect to his own actions —and to turn from wolf killer to wolf protector.

He is not alone in this change.  According to a recent US survey 74 per cent of US citizens now agree that the wolf should have a place in natural ecosystems. The Nez Perce did not need a survey to determine their own opinions on this: they offered their land as a site for wolf reintroduction– and then held a ceremony to welcome the wolves back.

Among the 26 per cent who do not favor the wolf’s comeback are ranchers who see their livestock at risk with that return. Tactics to support both the ranchers and the wolves are being worked out in the wake of Oregon’s “no kill” court ruling. One side effect of this process is that humans are spending more time with the domesticated animals they raise for meat– since the primary method to inhibit wolf killings of this type is human presence.

Now we are also learning more about wolves–and thus how to treat them according to their own nature.  A recent editorial in the Oregonian concurred with the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to kill two yearling lamb-killing wolves that refused to be relocated and were roaming without a pack.  That editorial also argued we should not be killing wolves in the wilderness who are doing what wolves naturally do.

There is much to learn about wolves’ essential roles in ecosystems:  observations of reintroduced wolves in the Yellowstone indicate their presence fosters the return of aspen groves, changing the way elk graze—higher up on the branches, so they can keep a lookout.  Wolf kills also feed at least twelve other species—not counting insects.

Even in the Red Riding Hood story, there is embedded an older memory of wolf as kin—indicated by his dressing in the clothes of the young girl’s beloved grandmother.  Though the moral of this fairy tale is the foolishness of such a guise, there are those who find a different moral—and a different possibility—in our relationship with wolves.

As Chickasaw Linda Hogan sees it, the wolf is “a relative inside our own blood, an animal so equal to us that it reflects back what we hate and love about ourselves.”

Indigenous peoples are not alone in this view.  In a much older European story than that of Red Riding Hood, twins suckled by a wolf founded Rome.

Here we find two contrasting stories of domestication. In the one humans domesticate the wild by setting it under human control—and in the other humans and wild creatures share the common household of earth. In this latter view wild  creatures domesticate us as much as we domesticate them.

Paul Shepard’s thesis is that the latter has been the predominant type of domestication– whether humans realize it or not.   He argues that though humans assume they are domesticating animals and plants, the latter are really domesticating humans, since they have changed our humanity over time so we might accommodate them in our lives.

We are all too familiar with the contrasting idea of  domestication as control, which affects both what industrial societies consider wild and what they consider feminine.  In this framework, both women and wolves according to Clarrisa Estes, “have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious.”

We presume to own what we thus domesticate even as we presume to control it:  thus genetically engineered lives are patented by their designers.

But in the older view of domestication, both the wolf and the feminine are empowered by their wildness: by their intuition, their attention to detail—and most of all, their loyalty to family (a family that extends to all natural lives)—and their protection of their children with a singular fierceness.

In this view, humans are familial partners with the wild world, as illustrated by the case of lions who shared their kill with certain indigenous peoples of South Africa, and the dolphins who fished with the indigenous peoples of Australia– a practice initiated by the dolphins.

This view of domestication is not about taming the wild, but in the apt terms of ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson, about tending the wild.  Rather than shrinking the lives of other species into an arena controlled by humans, this type of domestication seeks to extend human consciousness to embrace the whole of the natural world as family.

There were the wild hedgerows in indigenous farms in Peru, and peasant farms in England and Eastern Europe—where hedgerows both fed and provided habitat to other species and provided a reservoir of learning for the farmers.  They obtained many seed varieties from them, for instance.

Here there is no line drawn between the “weeds” that are not under human control and a single plant chosen by humans. Indeed, research published this month supports Vandana Shiva’s observation that the plants declared “weeds” in agribusiness monocultures constitute essential nutritional, medicinal, and material (e.g. housing and basket making) resources for indigenous farmers.

Instead of attacking biodiversity to bolster the one seed or one animal—or part of an animal as in the case of genetic engineering—humans favor at the moment, the Kalapuya who sustained themselves for at least six thousand years in place, fostered an abundant diversity of local animals and crops–such that their valley was known as the “gourmand’s paradise” by early European explorers for its abundance of available food.

Kalapuya also echoed the practice of the wolf in their hunting:  early pioneers near Albany witnessed native hunters surround a herd and conscientiously let its strongest animals go before their took their own kill.

Wherever humans have lived they have interacted with and thus changed the natural world.  They have taken what they need for survival, as do all natural creatures.  But there is more than one way than one way to do this.  We can attempt to bring other lives under our control, making monocultures of our favorites—and declaring war on all other natural lives as we erase natural habitats.

Or we can embrace other natural lives as our kin—expanding our sense of family to all natural life.  Creatures that share our gardens, our farms, our cities, and our houses—as well as the habitats we dedicate to them—take us, in Hogan’s words, “across the boundaries of ourselves,”  teaching us the language of life which may yet sustain us.

Honoring the Water: Third Annual Willamette River Blessing led by Agnes Baker Pilgrim

Madronna Holden

Update:

Grandma Aggie’s words are featured on the theme page of the latest issue of YES magazine’s “water solutions issue”, which is full not only of ideas but good news in ways that small communities have made headway against corporate ownership.

Here are the words Grandma Aggie is fond of saying:   “We are all water babies.  It’s never too late to save the world.  Wherever you are, take care of the water- if you really want  to live”.


This past Sunday,  Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers came to Eugene to lead the third annual honoring of the water ceremony to bless the Willamette River.

Grandma Aggie smiles after traditional drummers from the Cottage Grove Longhouse sang and drummed to the river while she prayed.  Afterwards, others shared songs and poems in honor of the river.

Grandma Aggie reminded us we are all “water babies”, instructing us to “introduce ourselves to the water” as a way of thanking it and blessing ourselves. Each of us touched the water on the bowl in the chair beside her before she gave it back to the river along with water from all the rivers of the world she personally gathered in her  travels.

Grandma Aggie shared her concern for the rivers that she witnessed drying up in Australia in the past few years since she had last visited there.  She observed that perhaps Mother Earth is taking the water back, since we are not treating it properly.

She reminded us of all the ways water sustains and enhances our bodies and set out concrete tasks for those present, such as finding out how the water from things such as carpet cleaning gets disposed of– and making sure it does not contaminate our water in the process.

Grandma Aggie also  listed  some of the  ways in which we should continue to be grateful for the lives that supports our own, giving the example of the “one leggeds”– the trees whose bodies built her house whom she daily thanks.

She takes heart that honoring our rivers is catching on:  she has been asked to lead a similar ceremony on the Columbia and in Eastern Oregon.


In the back along the river behind Grandma Aggie you see these banners placed by the Fresh Water Trust of Corvallis in honor of Earth Day.

Each of these gorgeous banners was designed and painted by a middle school student in honor of the salmon celebrated by the traditional Tlingit story of Salmon Boy.

 

Here is a portion of the text that explains the banners:

“The Salmon River banner is inspired by a salmon trap stake, crafted and then fastened upright to a fish weir by a Tlingit trap owner who would place the stake and weir near the mouth of a salmon spawning stream. Doing this represented the highest value of respect to other humans and the valued and necessary salmon.

What would the jumping salmon see? A wonderful fully crafted representation of the Salmon Boy story, an announcement of the knowledge of and intent to abide by the requirements of that charter. But further, this is an object of great beauty and wonder, something that the salmon would appreciate in its own right as well as reflect upon the respect demonstrated by the state presenter through the exquisite quality of the carving.  In this way, it is not a representation to “lure” or “attract” or even merely a “reminder “, more a statement of intent to insure the sustainability of a species.

The Salmon Banners represent the image used on the trap stake, so in the event the salmon do return, they are given a gift of beauty to behold, offered by those how seek to sustain a relationship and welcome them back. It is a testimony to the power of the mythic charter to generate behavior by humans that respect salmon.

‘In order to understand how we treat salmon, you have to realize that we treat them like we would like to be treated.'”

-Eighty-two year old Tlingit elder James Osborne.


Any of you in the Eugene area will not want to miss the stunning exhibit, “How Water Speaks to Us” ,  at the Museum of Natural History through June 13.

A Solstice Story: Putting the Pieces Back Together Again

By Madronna Holden

Just after the US set up their space program, NASA hosted a group of Asian scientists, treating them to a tour of their facility– with which the visitors were duly impressed.  There followed a presentation of the benefits of Western science, during which the NASA administrators touted the importance of specialization.

The visitors listened attentively, but when the time came for questions, one asked, “Your technology is excellent at taking the world apart.  What is your plan for putting it back together again?”

To me, that is one of the central questions of the modern age.

There is an ancient answer to that question, in the storytelling technology that bridged so many aspects of the world, bringing them together.

Such stories bridged generations– and brought human culture itself into being.  Though we might not recognize passing stories between generations as a technology in the age of digital phones, such stories are the basic human tool that empowered us to expand our reach in both time and space.

This technology is  a powerful tool for not only bridging generations, but for linking human life with the larger community of natural life. When Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim tells the story of the salmon’s struggle to return to their home waters to carry on the the generations of the salmon people, that story brings humans and the salmon into  special solidarity.

Such stories not only bring communities together across generations and species. They have the potential to bring us from times of relative hopelessness and fear into vision.

The Chehalis knew how valuable such stories were, since they would bring those who heard them to a place where they “could take care of themselves”;  where they knew “how to get along with one another.”

Children would “pay” for stories by doing a task designated by the storyteller. The nurturance and wisdom of such storytellers was signed by the tasks they designed for these children. A child afraid to go to a certain place in the woods, for instance, might be told to fetch a stick from a place nearby–and then to repeat that task until he or she drew so near to the feared place, their fear would disappear.

Thelma Adamson’s  Chehalis fieldnotes (drawn up in 1926) record the profound insight that the power of our past will haunt us until we turn and face it. At that point it will become a vision power for us to use.

There is working knowledge here of the links between past and future– between wisdom learned from our past and vision for the future.  There is the working knowledge of how human generations depend upon and may nurture one another.

According to Jacob Bighorn, former administrator of the Chemawa Indian School, Native American education works from the premise that each child is given a natural “life plan” by the Creator that is theirs alone.  Certainly, giving children the understanding that each of their lives is a unique story the Creator waits to hear is an antidote to any future smallness imposed on them.

In this context, education is a “natural process” of supporting the child as his or her spirit-calling emerged.

In cultures throughout the world, the time of year surrounding the winter solstice is the season to draw inward and pay close attention to our dreams–and to tell stories.  Indeed, many indigenous peoples  only tell their traditional stories in the winter.

As Adamson’s recorded statement about the haunting of the past that chases us until we can learn to face–facing up to it may take considerable courage.  But certainly each of our pasts as well as our past as a society will continue to haunt us until we face it. Only then might we gain the wisdom of our past and the power to guide our future with vision.

This is the process that traditional stories enable.

Today we stand together on the verge of the longest night of the year, which is also the moment when our dreams are strongest. This is the moment when we need stories and their vision– when we need the hearth of community in which elders and young people come together to share their gifts with one another–and with our precious ravaged world.

The faith in the returning sun celebrated by solstice ceremonies is more difficult to hold to today, in the face of such things to face as climate change — or the 252 toxins recently found in the umbilical cords of 10 babies.

If you were an elder, how you would create the stories that are called for at this moment?  What gift would you share? What trust would you express in the actions of the next generation?

These questions were answered in the wisdom, generosity, and trust of the speaker at a gathering honoring indigenous environmental knowledge at OSU.

Here is the story she created, a story that truly brings us together as it teller Val Goodness notes, in relating a bit about the event where it took place, which she helped to organize.

The speaker, Elder Gail Woodside held a handmade clay pot in her hands.

This clay pot was decorated by native hands and she proudly said it was her Grandmother’s pot. It showed wear, and even had a small crack, which Elder Gail said happened when her daughter dropped it when she was young.

This pot was 100 years old. Elder Gail told us that the pot resembled her Grandmother’s knowledge about things in nature, full and complete knowledge handed down generation after generation through oral history. Her Grandmother’s indigenous knowledge about sustainability and the practice of her father’s use of fire to help things grow.

Elder Gail then held the pot up over her head and let the pot drop.We were shocked, and held our breath as the pretty little pot broke to pieces.

In her soft voice, Elder Gail bent down, picking up a piece of the broken pot, and said, “This….is the knowledge I have.”

She said the old ways and the knowledge are broken. Small pieces are used–borrowed from Native peoples– while the rest ignored as un-specialized or not scientific.

Elder Gail then asked all of us to come forward and take a piece of the pot. She challenged us all to come back this coming spring to put the little 100 year old pot back together as a symbol of unity in sharing our efforts to present indigenous knowledge in sustainability as an all day event for spring term.

So that the knowledge of sustainability can once again be whole.

Kiowa writer Scott Momaday once noted that oral tradition is as fragile as it is precious, since it is always “one generation away from extinction”.

The story created by Elder Gail illustrates this.  It is only the fact that pieces of this precious pot of tradition are in the hands of community that it has a chance of remaining whole.  But only if its members are each willing to keep and share and enable their piece so that it remains alive in the whole.

Night-Mares and Horsepower: Domestic Partners in the More than Human World

march 2013 006

By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves related an ancient story from the British Isles that tells how– after men captured wild mares and kept them in stalls and bred them at their whim– the Night Mare visited these men’s dreams with her long teeth and punishing hooves.

As a girl, my family once had a mare who was a nightmare for a man who wished to control her, a huge thoroughbred with her ancestral wildness still in her. Since we were moving two thousand miles away, we sold the mare to a man who wanted to train her as a jumper.  But I got a phone call from him complaining she was unrideable.

I went immediately to the stable and the ring—the like of which the mare had never seen—to show just how well she handled.  I let her reins go slack as she read my body, turning on a dime and cantering like a dream.

As I slipped off her back, the trainer drawled, “No offense, but you can make that mare look like an old plug”.

That odd complement was centered in the Western worldview: the idea that I was a good rider because I made that mare look so tame.  I knew this man was wrong.  I didn’t do it. The mare did– as many other examples in the Tao of Equus demonstrate other horses as doing.

Though this mare would do anything you asked her to do if you asked properly, she refused to be manhandled.  She broke my heart with her grace that last time I rode her.  I hope she somehow understood it was out of my hands to let her go—and that she taught her new “owner” something about getting along with the world larger than himself.  In this case, about 2000 pounds larger.

After all, it was the job of mares to socialize others in their wild herds.

There is danger involved in assuming that such creatures are at our service just because we purchase  them– as this man found out.  And as we ourselves find out in our attempt to control the natural world with inappropriate technological development– though we still try.

As illustrated  in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we and our technology inevitably shape one another.  Human life in the machine age has become increasingly mechanistic even as we project our own psyches onto our machines. Advertisers know this as they sell trucks with the not so subtle claim that they will increase the masculinity of their drivers.

But the understanding of our psychological entanglement with our technology is not complete if it stops and starts at the human psyche.  There is something else to consider:  we are not alone in the world.  Domestication does not merely shape our consciousness.  It is about the relationship between human consciousness and other natural life.

Such lives cannot be simply reduced to the energy we measure as the “horsepower” of our machines.  Different cultures have very different ideas of domestication than the contemporary industrial impulse to count “horsepower” as force harnessed on our behalf.

Indigenous peoples in Western Washington very much valued the horses introduced into their territory after the coming of whites to this continent. They loved to race them and sometimes, to travel with them—though canoes made better vehicles of transport on landscapes so crossed with rivers. Horses were more useful for travel in the open areas across the Cascades and along the Columbia River.

Stories from pioneer families I gathered in Western Washington record astonishment at how an Indian might labor for months to obtain a horse he  favored from a white family—but then never keep that animal under fence.  One Indian man explained that if the horse came back after he turned it loose, that was great–and if it didn’t—well, it had a life of its own.

At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nez Perce entered with a display of horsemanship that left the US cavalry in a state of wonder, as reported by a cavalry lieutenant who observed it.  But he also wondered at the fact that those who rode such magnificent mounts let them graze the open prairie without any human restraint.

Local native people on the Oregon coast indicated their attitude toward horses in their lack of bridles and reins.  Coquille elder George Wasson came to speak in my Linfield College class shortly after the film Dances with Wolves was released. He pointed out the glaring cultural misstep in this film in the portrayal of Indian riders as using bridles.

Norman Dick was a pioneer child whom Siuslaw man Andrew Charles sat in front of him on his horse and took for long rides.  The Indian man used his arms to hold the toddler securely, since he rode his horse “Indian style”– without reins.

There is an essential lesson in the attitude toward “horsepower” that does not forget that there is a life behind it —a life that is more than the harnessing of it for human purposes.  It is better to cooperate with such life than fight its rebellion.

To try to  “break” any other life for our use, as the old West terminology has it., is bound to cause  us problems.  We may try to “break” a horse—or a cow that stands unmoving in a milking stall all day given hormones and antibiotics to keep it alive and maximally producing– or a plant that is genetically engineered to rein in its DNA to our use.  But there are results that are not predicted by those whose vision of  natural  life starts and stops in the barn or the laboratory—or the pocketbook.

There is mad cow disease that results from feeding these captured cows rendered brain and spinal cords from other mammals.  There is the spontaneous migration of genes between plants over unforeseeable distances in a process we have no idea how to accurately predict, much less control.

Natural life may shrug us off its back as easily as it slips houses down the hill below a clear cut—as has happened throughout the lower Umpqua River drainage.

The genetics of plants is better observed by those who,  like Barbara McClintock, derive their insight from speaking with the corn. Though her findings eventually won her the Nobel Prize, she could not find funding or professional placement for decades.  As both a woman and a scientist with this novel approach, she struggled to do her work in isolation until her colleagues finally recognized the importance of her finding.

Such scientists have much in common with traditional farmers all over the world– like the Czech farmer (her grandfather)  my student Iveta Habartova eloquently describes:

“My grandpa knew every branch and every tree so intimately; he spoke to the trees. He always told me that he had to talk to the trees to give them love so that they would grow well. Every time I entered my grandpa’s orchard, it was like entering a church. It was where all the wisdom, love and years of experience that my grandpa collected were kept. It was where he shared all those things with me. “

This is a profound expression of Wendell Berry‘s “agrarian mind” and its intimacy with the land–and contrast with industrial farming.

Domestication in its root means to bring something into our home with us:  to make it a part of our family.  As opposed to Monsanto’s battle for secrecy to prevent its agricultural products from being labeled for their consumers, caring for a Palestinian olive tree is a public affair, whose care is inherited by particular family members, and whose harvest is undertaken by a whole community.

During the year I lived and taught under Israeli Occupation, I once had dinner with a Palestinian family who used traditional methods of grafting to turn less than an acre into a garden overflowing with abundance.  As I sat in the shade of the trees this family cared for with such tenderness, I was for the moment sheltered from the winds of violence that blew all about us on this land.

This is certainly a profound lesson of appropriate domestication:  if we tend the land, it will shelter us.

And it will teach us about the vital processes  of natural life.

If we learn to “domesticate” with integrity as we bring other natural life into our homes and hearts, we might also learn to treat other  natural life—including humans—with respect, tenderness and generosity.

It is certainly past time to turn our technological nightmares into these better dreams.


I have received many wonderful comments since this essay was recently published, but I wanted to call reader’s attention to this one in particular from my student Susan Riley:

“Like Iveta’s grandfather, my grandmother treated her plants and livestock as reverently as she did her family. I distinctly remember her talking to her pansies, cupping them in her old weathered hand and telling them how beautiful their ‘faces’ were. Of course we laughed and thought she was being eccentric (heading toward senile) but no one could deny, that woman could charm a stick into growing into a beautiful, productive tree. Grandma’s chickens and her one old cow also got the best of care and attention and gave her eggs and milk long after what might be considered ‘normal’. Mostly I remember her wonderful vegetable garden. She had to share with the deer that wandered freely through her property but always managed a bumper crop of peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Nothing has or ever will, I think, tasted as good as grandma’s fresh spring peas creamed with Betsy’s fresh whole milk. While I’m sure Grandma felt she owned her property and animals, I’m also sure she considered that ownership more of a caretaker position than one of domination over the land and livestock. From her we learned to appreciate and respect even the smallest of creatures and we learned to talk to the pansies.”

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

Some years back, my then three year old daughter and I were sitting in our front yard when a decidedly threatening man appeared and insisted I hire him.

For what, he never said.

In fact, without listening to my answer–which was an instinctive “no”– he let himself through our side gate and went around to the back of the house.

I barely had time to register my alarm at the fact he didn’t leave when I asked him to than he came out of our yard again, shouting that he was being attacked.

He was indeed. He had a swarm of yellowjackets in hot pursuit.

We never saw him again.

We ourselves came into daily contact with the yellowjackets who had a nest in our yard, but they never bothered us. I felt no qualms about sharing our garden with insects that had the capacity to be a nuisance, but also assisted us with pollination in the spring and consumption of other insects to feed their young later in the year.

I liked to imagine they refrained from stinging us since we tended the place where they found their sustenance—and they sensed this in whatever way yellowjackets might sense such things.

I liked to imagine that our daily rounds had become an accepted element of their world like rain and grass.

I know there are less poetic explanations for the yellowjacket attack on the stranger when they were so peaceable with us.  But I am reminded of the response Albert Einstein gave when asked if humans might one day reduce everything in nature to scientific explanation. His answer was yes, but that would be like explaining Beethoven through the measurement of sound waves. We could do it, but it would tell us nothing about the music.

Reportedly the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski once grew impatient with the Trobriand Islanders as they related the reverent actions that made their yam gardens grow. Attempting to elicit a more pragmatic basis for their methods, he asked them whether they didn’t notice cause and effect.

They told him that was the simple explanation. The one reserved for things that didn’t have any meaning.  And growing the garden that gave them life did not fall into that category.

Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel once observed that it is an ” arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

I agree.  I prefer the story of natural creatures who express themselves in their own ways—and sometimes, if we are lucky, do so on our behalf.

I like to think that such creatures—even those we may be least apt to recognize as brethren—might choose to accept us into their communities and form alliances with us.

If we take a different view of the natural world– that of a “mere puzzle to be solved”, we lose considerable capacity for both wonder and vision.

The following Plains Indians story of a vision quest is illustrative.

A man who is seeking a vision fasts for several days.  He cries for his vision, humbling himself before the spirits of the world.

When he has done this for many long days and still no vision comes to him, he becomes desperate.  He climbs to the top of a great waterfall, determined he will live with a vision or die without one.

He jumps, abandoning himself to the roiling water.  And at that moment a magnificent white buffalo appears and swims him safely to shore.

From that day forward, the white buffalo becomes his spirit guide.

For the Indian audience that is the end of the story.

Still, the storyteller knows non-Indians will have questions:  “Was that really a white buffalo that pulled him out of the water?  What would someone standing on the shore see?”

So the storyteller adds something for their sakes:  “Something pulled him out of that water,” he asserts, “And whatever that was, belongs to him.”

It is only because the observer is a mere watcher on the banks of the river of life that he questions the life-saving vision another has found for himself.  Such an observer, with his self-proclaimed “objectivity”, is all too ready to declare his view of reality superior to that of the one who has chosen to dive in.

When I worked among the Chehalis Indians several decades back, elders were indignant that members of non-Indian culture might deem their traditions as “just stories”.   In such stories, passed down through thousands of years, was the collected wisdom of a people.

For their part, the elders who kept this knowledge on behalf of their people expressed considerable epistemological sophistication.  They understood that their individual views of the world were not reality.  To make such an assumption would be to insult those who shared their world. They honored all their unique voices as they asserted, “No one speaks for anyone else”.

By contrast, “even the best scientists” in Western tradition have made the profound mistake of believing, as Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute, put it, “that the world operates by the same method they use to study it.”

With parallel arrogance, colonizers regularly deemed the beliefs of those whose lands they usurped as “superstition”.  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict had a response to that:  an analytic response that makes the way modern industrial society uses technology the real superstitious behavior.

According to her, superstitious behavior is based on adhering to simple stimulus and response. (This is the view of cause and effect without deeper understanding that the Trobrianders decried).  We do something—wear a black sock– and something happens—our team wins.  And so we continue to wear that sock every time our team plays in hopes of controlling the outcome.

Superstitious behavior attempts to control the world through magical thinking.  And thus we cast our lot not only with the black sock but with science’s magic bullets.

Incidentally, the story of the yellowjackets with which I began this essay could  also become an instance of such superstitious thinking  if I interpreted it to mean that I might blithely trounce through the natural world without ever worrying about yellowjackets.

Like all stories, this one belongs to a particular time and place.  I have been elsewhere–out in the woods–in the front of a line of other humans on a hike when I inadvertently stepped too close to a yellowjacket nest and was stung.

And I can tell you a yellowjacket sting is no fun.  But the appropriate response seems to me not to try to get them because they got me– but to pay attention.  I have not learned to magically control all yellowjackets but to live with some of them for our mutual benefit.  They still are very much creatures of their own.

By contrast, our characteristic pesticide use is an instance of superstitious behavior by Benedict’s criteria.  We spray pesticides and insects die—until they no longer do because they have grown immune. But our behavior has becomes a reflex action.  So we spray more, still hoping to control the world for our convenience–not noticing the effects on the environment and our own health that a deeper assessment would bring us.

According to Benedict, the contrasting attitude is based on dialogue. It is about reverent communication with the world.  Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the same view when he stated that the world is not a “collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”

The first kind of behavior—the manipulation of our world—has left us with climate change and cancer epidemics and skyrocketing autism rates. The other one left us with sustainable models by which humans lived in harmony with their natural environments for thousands of years.

Wonder cannot be commanded, but if we view the world with humility and respect, there is just a chance it will respond to us with marvelous rather than deadly surprises—as happened in the modern community of Gaviotas in Colombia.

The consequence of their careful partnership with place was the serendipitous restoration of the rainforest in all its biodiversity on once ravaged aluminum-laced llanos.

We should all be so graced.

How to Love a River

By Madronna Holden

Updated April 2012.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee obtained his own long life from sharing it with the river his people named themselves for. Hum-m-m-ptulips, that river was, its name humming along on the tongue the way its rifles hummed along, so that it cleaned itself out in three days after a rain.

His elders had taught him to dive deeply in the river when its water was “alive”, when it was at its most powerful– and the greatest challenge to humans.

Cultee told me of a cousin who simply wet his hair to give the appearance of diving.  His elders might be fooled, but the river knew who really dived there.  His cousin passed to the other side many decades ago while Cultee lived on in concert with the land.

He was in his mid-eighties when I first met him and still living in season in his “fishing shack” on the Humptulips, tending and mending heavy nets on his own.    He was ninety-nine when I last went to see him. Then he had given up the heavy labor at his ancestral place on the Humptulips.  He was living with his son Richard on the Skokomish Reservation, where the only medication he took was an occasional aspirin-and where he and Richard had taken in two small boys.

“Here we are, bachelors with children”, Henry Cultee quipped.

“Wherever you found a river”, Cultee once told me, “There you found Indians”.

The fluidity of the river mapped the flow of the land, rather than the frozen north or south of paper maps-and certainly-rather than fence lines, which Cultee complained stopped the flow of natural life

To the Northwest’s river people the treaty promise of the US government:  “as long as the rivers shall run” was no fleeting thing-even if Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens wrote to his superiors, that as soon as the US gained more strength in this area, they would no longer have to honor the treaties they were making.

Indian peoples themselves soon learned that to the US government, treaties held “as long as the rivers shall run–or thirty days, whichever comes first”.

Richard Cultee’s Skokomish people had another joke:  “We knew the whites had arrived when we woke up one morning and the river was moved.”

It was no joke that Tacoma Power stopped up the entire north fork of the Skokomish River with a massive dam at Cushman to generate electricity.

That whole section of the  river didn’t run at all any longer.  Neither did the salmon, whose care was outlined in traditional Skokomish tales, which instructed the people to allow the salmon to release their eggs so as to perpetuate and strengthen the runs.

There wasn’t any advice in those old stories about how to help the salmon up a dry river bed.

But the Skokomish fought the dam that blockaded their river.  Recently they achieved a settlement with the Tacoma utility that it would release enough water from its turbines to allow the river to flow again.

There won’t automatically be salmon back on that water. The water flow comes all at once, in a steady blast from the turbines rather than in an ebb and flow.  But the Skokomish have visions for changing that too.

And someday they may be able to follow the injunctions in their ancient tale for caring for the salmon on their river again.  They have dreams about that:  and like the Chehalis who earned their long lives on the land in conjunction with the rivers, they plan on persisting.

So do the Takelma, represented by Takelma elder, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who will conduct the second annual ceremony “honoring the water”-blessing the Willamette River-this coming Sunday, April 26 at the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon.  Grandma Aggie has international stature as chair of the International; Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. But she has local status with the salmon.

On her website Grandma Aggie conceives of her role as a “voice for the voiceless”-for all those things, that is, whom we have neglected because they may not speak in a human voice-or if they do, may speak only the language of the privileged.  In this sense she works to actualize a “democracy of all life” as East Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has put it.

This phrase is an apt term to describe the “commons”- that natural life upon our own depends, no matter what our status in human society.

We are only now beginning to see what happens when we ignore the natural sources of our lives.

This is a lesson we would not have to learn the hard way if we had traditions of honoring the rivers in the way of the Takelma or Chehalis or Skokomish.

We might learn from the river instead.

There is nothing that can teach us more about the democracy of nature than a river.

And nothing that can teach us more about reciprocity and balance:  since what we put into the river ultimately comes back to us.

This is one tragic lesson in the current state of the Ganges River, sacred to millions, but one of the top ten most polluted rivers in the world whose flow is also threatened by global warming. Hindu ecofeminist Lina Gupta has analyzed how the idea of transcendence without reciprocity has led to the pollution of this river. There is a belief that the river is a goddess who can cleanse anything-and thus anything can be dumped into her with impunity.

It is the understanding of reciprocity and balance, Gupta writes, that is most dangerously missing from this perspective.  fortunately, since this essay was first posted here, the plight of the sacred Ganges has become a cause (cited in a news story in April 2012) for uniting Hindus and Muslims in cleaning this river.

Conceiving of the river as transcendent in this way implies that she never has to be cared for herself. Gupta argues that this attitude contradicts true Hindu belief about Dharmic (duty)  responsibility for one’s actions.  Gupta also ties this into the notion of dominance in the industrial world that denigrates the sources of nurturance that it designates as feminine-like the Mother Ganga.

Thus those who say they revere the river as transcendent can actually use this as an excuse to pollute it.

Global warming is currently affecting the glacier that feeds this river-and as its source dries up; millions downriver are affected by drought.  And the e.coli and heavy metal content from industrial pollution is directly affecting those who use this river as the source of their drinking water.

From a short-sighted human perspective, it might look like we can dump anything into our rivers and have it simply carried away.

But in fact, the river teaches reciprocity:  how what we dump there ultimately comes back to us.  It teaches karma, that is, in Hindu terms.

It also teaches another revered Hindu idea, according to Gupta: the idea that all is one.  In its flow it negates the modern industrial divisions between spirit and nature, humanity  and  the natural world.  When we pollute the rivers, we pollute our own bodies.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, Grandma Aggie specifically requested that a sign be made for her blessing of the river that reads, “The river is not a garbage dump”.

Coming back to the question that began this essay– how do we love a river?

By caring for it, as have the Skokomish with the long court battle to free its water and as does the Chehalis River Council today.

By knowing it-following the example of the Corvallis Environmental Center’s mapping of the water quality in the Willamette River in conjunction with the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State. University.

By fighting its being bottled up in plastic and sent elsewhere, as are the Winnemem people currently defending their sacred McCloud River in Northern California.

By learning from rivers everywhere what they have to teach us about fostering the length of our lives on the land.