The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.

Ancestor Wounds and Healing

I’m on my way to the Wild Maine Witch Camp!  My friend Sylvia and I are leading one of the morning workshop series (called a Path), on the topic of Ancestor Wounds and Healing. 

Our intention in this path, is to open our lives to the blessings of our ancestors and to healing the wounds we carry from them. This work, for us, is rooted in our understanding that our path as witches is tied up with collective liberation from colonization and oppression, from patriarchy and racism. Connecting with our ancestors is a way to wrestle with our collective history and all that it includes, in order to bring healing and liberation in our times.

I have been blogging about this process with my own ancestors for the last several months, discovering more about the experience of my German and East Frisian immigrant ancestors, and the Quebec story of my French, Innu and Scottish ancestors. I’ve been asking questions about how the stories of my ancestors fit into the larger story of colonization, of relationship to the land, of migration, and belonging. Perhaps I have also been wrestling with the question of whether my European ancestors might have any blessings to offer me. That story is so tangled and broken.

I am looking forward to sharing this work with a group of people in the context of our lives as witches. Our tools will include experiential magical practice, music and chanting, personal sharing, guided meditation and trance work, sacred herbs, and the wisdom of each person in the circle. We will draw on Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects which is based on a cycle of four movements that we will use through our four days together. We will begin with gratitude, then move into honoring our pain, then seeing our connections with new eyes, and finally, going forth.

Perhaps I am hoping to discover if this message from Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer, also might apply to me:

Walking. I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

Biddeford Pool beach

Meanwhile in the Garden

Winecap MushroomsA few fun surprises this week in the garden. Way back in May, I had inoculated the wood chips near the fruit trees with Wine Cap mushroom spores.  Then nothing happened all summer, so I figured maybe it wasn’t moist enough and didn’t take.  But this week suddenly, beautiful big mushrooms started sprouting with a reddish tint to their caps. Being cautious, I checked the package again, and also researched Wine Caps on the internet–I was relieved to discover there are no poisonous look-alikes. First Mushrooms

Since then we’ve had fresh mushrooms in our eggs and in a batch of spaghetti sauce. The mushrooms keep popping up all over the orchard. They should come back again each year now.  What a marvelous thing to get food right from the ground!

Speaking of food from the ground, the squirrel was excited to discover that one of our volunteer sunflowers had seeds on it. Just like she would do on our bird feeder in the winter, she hung upside down to get to the meaty morsels.Squirrel on Sunflower

Were they really there? Later, I checked for myself. Certainly enough for a little snack. I think this is the same squirrel that decided she should build a nest this week under our solar panels, in a spot behind a cross board that supports our deck roof.  Not good!  (Squirrels can chew the wiring and mess up the solar panel system, we discovered.) Each morning and evening Margy or I would climb on a ladder to pull out small branches and leaves and grass to undo what she had built. We’ve got a plan to cut off some branches on our ornamental crabapple that form a super-highway from the materials to the roof.

But one day, while I was on the ladder pulling out stuff, she came running down the gutter and stopped short when she saw me. I said to her, “You can’t build a nest here! This is our house. Go find a nice tree.”

I don’t know if it was my stern suggestion, or the pile of “stolen” nesting material that was scattered on the deck beneath the ladder, or sheer discouragement from all her work being undone each day, but the last two days she has not replenished her spot. (We’re still going to prune the tree though!) Maybe the sunflower seeds were a little something to sweeten the agreement. We try to find a balance with our plant and animal neighbors in this place. Giving and receiving in gratitude.

Sunflower Seeds

Ancestors: Clearing the Forests

I just finished reading Barkskins by Annie Proulx. It is a 300-year-plus epic novel, beginning with the stories of two French settlers who arrive in Quebec in 1693, who become involved in cutting down the trees of the forest. One runs away to make a fortune starting with the beaver pelt trade, and the other ends up marrying a Mi’kmaw woman.  We then encounter the lives of the descendants of these two men, through a relentless series of clear-cutting the forests of this continent and beyond, partly from the perspective of lumber company entrepreneurs trying to get wealthy, and Mi’kmaw logging laborers risking their lives and health working for the lumber companies, when they can no longer live in their traditional ways because the forests are being destroyed.

Any attempt to summarize does an injustice to the complex multi-generational stories Proulx weaves from the characters she creates, and the overarching sense of doom one feels, looking at it from our current perspective. I was glad to see that she consulted with Roger Lewis, a Mi’kmaw scholar, ethnologist and curator of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. I would be curious what my Mi’kmaw friends think of the stories she wove of their histories.

While I was reading the early chapters, I also was researching my Scottish ancestor, (great-great-great grandfather) Peter MacLeod (sometimes spelled McLeod), who came to Quebec in the late 18th century. He too was involved in the beaver pelt trade, and then in the logging industry, and married a Montagnais (Innu) woman, (or possibly two.)

Peter MacLeod

Peter MacLeod, senior

I found this excerpt about his activities, loosely translated from the French by Google:

The Simard-McLeod tandem is behind the construction of the first sawmill on the Riviere Noire, whose work began in 1834. Thomas Simard, assisted by Charles Dufour, Peter McLeod Sr., who was responsible for the construction of the building, worked with the merchant Hubert Simon to build the Port-au-Saumon, Port-au-Persil and Riviere Noire mills.

“[…] Many of these characters employed by the lessees of the king’s posts will later participate in the early days of the Saguenay colonization. The best known are the brothers Thomas and Michel Simard, Peter McLeod father and son, Cyriac Buckell, Alexandre Murdock, Simon Ross and the Verreau family. Associates in several Charlevoix companies, Thomas Simard and Peter McLeod Jr. represent the pivotal era of the opening of the Saguenay to colonization, at the time of the transfer of an economy based on the fur trade to that of logging. “

Peter MacLeod Jr., my great-great-great uncle, was half-Scottish, and half-Montagnais/Innu. He was the founder of the city of Chicoutimi, and he is more well known than his father.  But the Dictionary of Canadian Biography under his entry, says this about his father:

Engineer, surveyor, and officer in the British army, he entered the service of the North West Company, and on its merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 he became the confidential agent of William Lampson, the lessee of the king’s posts. He occupied this position until 1831, when the HBC secured the leasing rights.

It was during his time as Lampson’s agent that McLeod Sr became interested in lumbering in the Charlevoix region. Acting virtually as a timber contractor, he built sawmills for rental in La Malbaie, served as a timber supplier, and obtained felling rights. From 1827 to 1836 he became one of the principal sources of timber for William Price, who was then established at La Malbaie. In September 1836 he entrusted his eldest son with the responsibility for his facilities and commitments. But Peter’s assumption of control evidently did not produce very satisfactory results. From 1837 to 1842 the McLeods’ debts to Price continued to grow, and by the end of the latter year had reached £2,200. It is in the context of indebtedness, and also of Price’s desire to be the first timber contractor established as far up the Saguenay as Chicoutimi, that the partnership between Price and the McLeods must be seen.

Price could not himself acquire the felling rights and the letters patent on mill sites or on land in the region because of the prerogatives over this territory granted to the HBC until 2 Oct. 1842, and its antagonism towards him. He therefore proposed to use McLeod Jr to push farther inland along the Saguenay. With the help of the Société des Vingt et Un, McLeod had established himself between Tadoussac and Grande-Baie by 1837. Since, as a Montagnais on his mother’s side, he had natural rights to circulate freely among the king’s posts and to settle there, Price would be able, through him, to thwart the HBC and achieve his goal of exploiting the region’s rich pine stands. This prospect prompted the agreement between Price and the McLeods.

It is probably true that most of the settlers were engaging in the logging industry, if they were not clearing land for farming.  But learning this information while reading the novel Barkskins made it really come alive for me, in such a sad way.  These men who were trying to make their fortunes, these men who were caught between two worlds, these forests that were thought to be never-ending, but weren’t.

So much was lost, so much was invisible to the settlers, who saw trees as merely a way to sell lumber and make money, and saw the rivers as a way to power the sawmills and transport the lumber. My ancestors in Quebec were a part of all of that. It feels heavy. But I am grateful for the novel Barkskins that revealed so much what it must have been like for those who lived it.

 

First Quote from:  UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC, MÉMOIRE PRÉSENTÉ À L’UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC À CHICOUTIMI COMME EXIGENCE PARTIELLE DE LA MAÎTRISE EN ÉTUDES ET INTERVENTIONS RÉGIONALES PAR ÉRIC TREMBLAY , L’OUVERTURE DU SAGUENAY À LA COLONISATION (1821-1842), JUILLET 2015

Garden Updates

Elderberries ripeThis week there were a few exciting new developments in the garden. We harvested our very first elderberries—maybe a whole half cup of them! Earlier in the summer, I was worried about whether something was wrong with the elder flowers, and perhaps there was, but eventually they created a spotty bunch of green berries. I must admit, I hadn’t gone by the bush for several days, but when I went out the other day, they were purple. I ate one that was quite sweet, but Margy tasted a sour one, not as ripe. Elderberry harvest 2019Not enough to make elderberry syrup, or really much of anything, but enough to be enthused about future possibilities. Margy and I will have to celebrate with a berry eating ritual.

Another new development: I saw a few catkins on our hazelnut bushes! I hadn’t known to expect them, but when I  looked it up, I learned that these are the male part of the plant’s reproductive system. They will stay on the plant through the fall and winter, and then in very early spring they start lengthening and unfurling.  When the female flowers open at the tips of branches, they pollenate. Hazelnut catkinsThere are only a few catkins right now, but they are a harbinger of future crops of hazelnuts. In my last batch of pesto, I used hazelnuts from the Food Coop to add to basil, parsley, chives and garlic from the garden, plus olive oil and lemon of course. So we can’t quite do it only from our garden, but maybe more and more.

I also processed oregano and thyme that had been drying in the basement herb dryer for longer than they needed to be, and did another batch of frozen chives, and frozen kale for the winter. Our harvest is limited more by my own energy than by the earth energy.

If anyone local would like oregano or thyme or chives, please let me know—they are flourishing in the garden still, and I’d be happy to share—also lemon balm, comfrey, and dill. They have all been very enthusiastic.

Miracle of Ocean

Crescent Beach September

Yesterday late afternoon, with the weather up to 80 degrees, I went to Crescent Beach. Would it be the last day warm enough for me to go in the water? Maybe, maybe not. But without expectations, I set up my chair on the sand, and walked down to the edge of the water to feel the cold splashing on my feet. Its temperature was mildly cold not frigid, much warmer than early summer. There were a few more waves than usual. Only a small group of children were in the water, jumping into the waves as they broke on the shore.

I have become a bit timid about waves, as I have gotten older. The tide was low, and there were lots of round stones to walk over, so I came back to my chair and put on some swim shoes, so I’d have better balance. Then I walked back out and stepped right in. I moved quickly through the breaking waves and past them to about my waist level. The rhythms of the water rose up to my shoulders, and then back down, lifted me up and down, too, but gently. I dove into one wave to cover my head, but then I just stood facing the sea, watching the waves come in, letting them carry me up and down.

Here’s the amazing thing: after being in the water, the waves, for a long time, and then staying longer still, I began to be washed in a sense of joy and happiness. It felt miraculous because this whole past week, I had been feeling exhausted and achy–a classic flare up of the auto-immune conditions I struggle with. But somehow the water washed all of that away, and I was filled with a physical sense of well-being and playfulness.

When I go into the water, I usually pray to the Mother Ocean, I give her my worries and struggles. She is one kind of divine presence, larger than I can ever be, and the source of all life. But it wasn’t my small prayer that shifted me–it was the very energy and power of her presence all around me, it was the waves dancing with me, it was my body responding to the waves. It was unexpected.

Filled with this lovely happiness, when I came out of the water, I walked along the shore looking at stones and shells, and I found several pieces of sea glass. I love that the ocean can transform these broken bits of human invention into tokens of beauty. Since I have been thinking lately about the ancestors, it came to me that sea glass is a kind of gift from people who came before. I’ve read that it can take 20-40 years in the waves, sometimes longer, for glass to be tumbled to create this patina. So someone a long or short time ago made the glass, touched it, discarded it.  I am holding this connection, broken yet made whole again, and so I prayed for friends and family who needed healing.Seaglass

After my walk, I sat in my chair and ate some yogurt mixed with cocoa, honey, cacao nibs, and blueberries. I started reading the novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx, which begins with French settlers in Quebec taking down the forest. (Another way to try to understand colonization.)  Isn’t it a picture of happiness, to read in a chair on the beach, sun on my shoulders?

monarch catepillarOn my walk back to the car, one more fun surprise. This colorful monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant just past the beach roses.

I wish I could share with you the happiness of being in the ocean, of walking on the shore finding sea glass, of reading on the beach on a September evening, of finding a monarch on a milkweed.

But the happiness was triggered by actually being in the ocean with its waves dancing me up and down. So if you are feeling timid about walking into the waves, whether literal or metaphorical, please know that on the other side little miracles might happen. Joy might find you.

 

Conflicting Survival Strategies in early Quebec

(More reflections on colonization in Quebec, jumping off from the book Helene’s World.)  Author Susan McNelley writes:

Summer days for the French settlers were long and filled with hard work. This was not the case for the indigenous people. Life was much less demanding in the summer. Fish, fowl, and small game were readily available in the river and nearby forest. The indigenous peoples along the St. Lawrence didn’t worry about storing food to last the winter. To the consternation of their French neighbors, the natives spent much of their time sleeping and socializing with their friends. There were games, story-telling, feasting and opportunities for young people to meet and court.  Summer was a time of replenishment and fortification for the rigors of winter.

A common factor for both Montagnais/Innu people and French settlers in early Quebec was surviving the long hard winter.  But they had quite different strategies for doing that. The French worked very hard in the summer to clear fields, and plant and harvest crops. Bread was their primary food. They were agricultural people, and in the early years were also reliant on ships arriving in summer with new supplies, to replenish their stores of wine and oil and spices and grains. They preserved food and stored it for surviving the long winter. Winter included much less activity, so in some ways it was an easier time, but they were on their own, and their strategy for survival was to carefully ration what food they had among the people in their families.

For the Montagnais, on the other hand, summer was the easy time–they camped by the river, fished & hunted, gathered fruits and nuts, feasted and celebrated with each other, and generally felt a sense of abundance in all sorts of food. As the fall came, they caught and dried eel, and then they left the summer encampment and began to hunt small game in the nearby woods. In winter, they traveled in small family groups into the interior, where they relied on heavy snow cover to slow down the big game: moose, caribou, deer, and bear. When they were successful in the hunt, they shared their feast with nearby families.

hiver_transports_11Susan McNelley describes a winter incident recounted by Champlain when some of the Montagnais/Innu came to the early French settlement, because they were starving, and asked for food.

Although the French did try to be generous, they rationed the distribution of provisions to the aborigines out of necessity. Otherwise, the food would not have lasted a month.

The French believed that the Innu were irresponsible because they didn’t store food, and because when they acquired food in the hunt, they ate all of it, or shared with their neighbors.  But if you are traveling to follow big game, it wouldn’t be practical to carry large quantities of preserved food.  It would be practical to share the abundance that came sporadically depending on who had a good hunt.  Reading between the lines of this incident, I could imagine the Innu noticing that the French had food while they had none, and expecting, according to their own values, that of course the French would be willing to share with them. Their strategy for survival was sharing what became available, as it became available. The French strategy was about storing up and rationing.

And isn’t that just like capitalism, really, and how our modern mainstream society works.  “Save what you don’t need now, to use later. Try to accumulate as much as possible. That is the definition of wealth.”  (But perhaps rampant consumerism and planned obsolescence have superseded that model too.  Some things to think about.)

I feel the pressure of this time of year to preserve what we can from our garden, small as it is–making pesto from basil and chives and parsley, freezing kale, drying herbs–in our own way getting ready for the long Maine winters. We certainly wouldn’t know how to survive on our own, without being able to go to the Food Coop or grocery store. So perhaps both the French settlers and the Innu had better survival skills than we have now.Kale