Living in this World

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Claiming the history beneath our feet

I recently had the opportunity to learn a little more about the people who lived in this part of our country before colonization. Their short name means “the people”. Their longer name means “the true people”. Their society was based on matrilineal clans, with land held in common by the clan. They raised maize, or corn, hunted in the forests, and fished in the rivers of this watershed where I now live. With the arrival of the Europeans, there was a period of relatively peaceful interaction with colonists of relative integrity, followed by the ugly trajectory of history that we know so well: death by infectious disease and conflict, broken treaties, ultimate transportation to a reservation far away. Those few who remained went underground, hiding their identity to avoid persecution, and blending in so successfully that they and their story were easy to forget.

Just before learning all this, I was in a new city, and found a walking history brochure on the immediate neighborhood. It described change on different blocks over the last 150 years: poor housing giving way to rich; institutions changing hands and missions; different groups of people excluded, drawn in, pushed out; blocks demolished by fire, reduced to rubble by riots, rebuilt in new configurations. What was visible to my eye reflected hardly anything that had been there just 150 years ago, much less 300 or 1000. There had been layer upon layer of tragedy and opportunity, hard work, injustice, vision, changing populations and changing fortunes. These few blocks, I realized, were a microcosm of similar forces of change over time in lands the world over.

What are we to do with this history beneath our feet? How many of us are living on land that at one time was taken from others by force? How much are we benefiting from events that brought unspeakable loss to others? It is important to be aware of the history of our people and of our place. If there are themes of injustice or discrimination--or genocide--we need to take those in, and consider whether there is work to be done in the present to make something that has been broken whole. In a very real way, we ourselves cannot be whole until this happens.

In another real way, however, we occupy this place in time and space by chance. Each of us came into this world without choice, and without sin. It is not ours to take onto our shoulders all the wrongs of history and, much as we might wish to, we cannot change the past.

To find our way through this paradox, perhaps we can learn from those who came before. I think of the stories I’ve heard about our native people, how when they killed a deer to eat, they would give thanks for the life of that deer. It was a promise to honor the spirit of that which was sacrificed to give them life. Is there a similar way that we can honor the lives that were lost and damaged, upon which our lives in the present have been built?

I think of the tiny plot of land in the community garden where I now grow vegetables--and consider the layers. On top is the good rich soil that I have built up over the years. Underneath is the rubble of a burnt-out warehouse, the end of a business on a city street that was once a turnpike between towns. It was likely a field before then. And before then, there was forest--sustaining the lives of native peoples, and before then animals, and before then...

Perhaps the best I can do is to remember all of these things, and know that there is no way I can have any real ownership of this bit of our planet. What I can do is contribute to the integrity and beauty of this layer in this time, hold it with great respect, open myself to the possibility of sharing it with someone whose claim is as good--or who may need it more--and give thanks for the gifts it brings to my life.

November surprise

Romaine lettuce
in tall stately heads
planted in abundance
at summer’s end
with seed gathered last year
and nothing to lose.
Not a surprise this November
but doubly welcome,
still standing fresh and crisp
after the threat of frost.

The surprise
is the peas.
Some of spring’s pods
had been left unpicked
for next year’s seed,
but they stood untended
dried and opened
dropped their treasure,
finally noticed
almost too late.
A hurried scrabble in the earth
to pick them out,
each one a promise
for the year to come.

But some were missed
sprouted and grew
before their time.
Out of season
they could never fruit
before the freeze
of winter.

But purple flowers came
then slivers of tiny pods
that lengthened and started to fill,
gathered in handfuls
this cool November--
a fresh sweet taste to savor,
an unexpected gift
to gladden the heart.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The amazing capacity of mushrooms to break down nasty pollutants and render them harmless,

The thoughtful committed vision of senior early childhood leaders in the Obama administration,

The proven potential of instant run-off voting to produce more civil and less expensive election campaigns, as demonstrated in towns in New England,

The decades-old network of industrial cooperatives in the Basque Country in Spain that employ more than 100,000 worker-owners.