“Apply yourself to stories as soul vitamins, observations, map fragments, little pieces of pine pitch for fastening feathers to trees to show the way…Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important when the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases and hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wise doors in previously blank walls…” –Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves
On January 16, as a part of my ongoing exploration within my EcoFaith Recovery internship, I attended a trauma training with Lakota elder Dr. Martin Brokenleg. Dr. Brokenleg told a story of a Lakota man lost in the wilderness. The man was without food and water and soon the time came when the man knew that he was going to die. Every Lakota baby is given a song. This song is for the most important moments of that person’s life: their birth, major changes or celebrations along their journey, and their death. As the man grew weaker, he knew that the time had come to sing his song. As he opened his mouth, another voice joined his. The voice rang out from the dry hills and desert shrubs behind him and seemed to reach his heart and give him strength. He was able to go a little further. This continued. He would weaken, open his mouth and begin his song, and the same voice would join his and enable him to keep walking for a little while longer until he realized that his village was over the next hill! He was able, with the help of the song being sung for him, to make it home. At the end of the story, Dr. Brokenleg asked us if we knew who was singing with the man. We did not. Dr. Brokenleg’s eyes smiled, “It was a deer.” In times filled with division, turmoil, and suffering, when it seems like all we have been fighting for might be lost, let us turn to stories. When our song, our story, is too deep inside of us—covered with anxiety, sadness, addiction, and exhaustion—let us hope that we have friends who know us well enough to sing our song for us and help us find our way powerfully home.
I set out at the beginning of this year to learn the song of my place: this 1/8th of an acre in the Tischer Creek Watershed next to Lake Superior. I was fortunate to access the life’s work of neighborhood storyteller Diane Oesterreich, as compiled by Heidi Bach Hansen, and learned that nearby Woodland Avenue began as a Lakota trail and then the route for a streetcar. Lumbermen who came through the area in the 1830s fell nearly all of the majestic white pines that once populated the area. There was a horse track that would have been directly in front of our house built in 1892. The foundation of our house was built in the early 1900s, probably after what was described as a “flaming hurricane” blew through the area in 1918, scorching 1,500 square miles of woods and farmland. Nearby Rock Knob, an indigenous sacred site, was briefly a meeting place for the KKK in the 1890s until a local population of Dutch immigrant teenagers set fire to the bottom of the hill during one of the Klan meetings and burned them out. The KKK never met there again. The story of my neighborhood is rich: filled with the sacred and the desecrated, violence, extinction, and resistance. The task of a Responsible Settler Gardener is to learn the history of habitation and settlement of their place. We often forget that we inherit something with a history. Just as we bring with us imprints of what has happened to us in our lives, so too does the land. In which chapter have we met one another?
I was walking every day in the woods of red pine and birch that surround my house as I started to know the story of this place. I began seeing it with new eyes: acknowledging what had come before me and what would exist long after I was gone. Soon, something began to happen. When I brought what had been moving in me to my spiritual director, she wisely encouraged me to engage my own story (what has grown, what has been destroyed, my wounds, my power) as I listened to the story of colonization and trauma on this land. I didn’t know exactly how to start that process but I was becoming aware of a deep sense of sorrow and disconnection (from myself, my ancestral story, from the wilderness here) that was related to my personal experience of trauma. I have an amazing community of women who are my team of healers and from their combined wisdom I began a practice of sitting with trees. First I would offer the tree a culturally appropriate gift (for me this is holy water) and then ask it to accompany me in my sorrow. I would sit or lay with the tree and feel my story go deep into the earth and up into the sky. Doing this helped me to feel calmer as the painful part of the healing journey gripped me.
In July, a terrible windstorm ripped through the Lake Superior Watershed, uprooting and breaking thousands of trees. My partner Nathan and I were returning from a canoe trip with both sets of our parents, and drove back home to a disaster. Entire neighborhoods were changed, including ours. In the days to come, I was visited by immense sadness. I kept feeling myself called to the woods to put my hands on the felled trees and cry. Everyone was devastated, but my mourning went deep. One day, leaning my head on a giant toppled cedar, I realized that the trees had let me into their pain. I had spent months asking them to journey with me in my scars and sorrow, and here, they had returned the relational ask. I had been invited into their community of lament.
If we want to accompany the land, we have to learn its song. And we learn its song by bringing our own songs into the land’s story. The work of storytelling must be vulnerable; we must bring the pieces of ourselves that hurt (first into the light of ourselves and then to the light of our fellow journeyers). We can be braver when we do this work together. In the spring, new life will grow up from the holes the fallen trees left behind. Creative and resilient new beginnings will be possible because the trees were strong enough to bend and break. By becoming people who are brave enough to look our wounds in the face, we access our power. We build transformed, resilient communities by becoming transformed, resilient people. Learn the stories of the land and one another. In this fight against desecration, we will need to be able to sing all of our songs.
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