Two Bur Oaks and a Crawdad

A group of swamp white oaks Healthy soil is important, but for whom?  In the Garden  The young bur oak would not be kept down. Yet again it revealed itself among the standing dead stalks of a large patch of purple bee balm, a good three feet tall and leafing out. In spring, a bur oak’s leaves look like sharp-edged, glossy cutouts. They are not green, but shade delicately among soft corals, tans and pinks. The green comes a bit later, like a slow-motion wave gently pervading each leathery leaf. The question, as it had been for several years, was what to do with this young newcomer to the garden.  About ten feet away and across the walk from house to garage stands a second bur oak that I’d started from an acorn some twelve years ago. I’ve enjoyed watching it grow its first sets of true leaves, become large enough to attract birds and then mature enough to bear acorns. This winter I limbed it up three feet from the ground, mainly to give the sedges and wild geraniums growing underneath a

January Notes: Making Peace with Our Ancestors

The Des Plaines River at
National Grove Preserve
Last May, the Center for Humans and Nature, headquartered in Chicago, published a remarkable, environmentally-focused book, “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be” (U. of Chicago Press, 2021). This compendium of poems, essays and dialogues contains the voices of a range of writers and speakers from widely disparate cultures, traditions and ethnicities, speaking out as they grapple with this question. 

The question itself causes one to pause, containing, as it does, an implicit instruction to consider one’s own ancestors and their/our relationship with the future. Who were they and what has their impact been upon ourselves and the world? How should or might we, ourselves, carry their influence into the future, while adding the work of our own lives to that stream? Anyone who has engaged in this kind of investigation and introspection knows the process can be fraught, even uncomfortable. It requires effort, honesty, and tolerance for discomfort. Not one human being alive today has ancestors who were uniformly kind, helpful and beneficial in their lives and effects on others. Many of us have ancestors who actively caused others harm, the effects of which linger on. 

In the fall, a five of the book’s contributors came together on Zoom to discuss the same question in light of the Seventh Fire prophecy of the Anishinaabe. After describing earlier periods, or “fires,” the story goes that we humans have come to the time of the Seventh Fire, a period of fateful bifurcation and choice: each of us can decide to join others on the green, regenerative path of life or stay on the charred road of destruction. Those who choose the sustainable way to the peaceful time of the Eighth Fire are charged with finding and picking up ancient bundles to carry into the future—the cultural gifts and teachings that our own ancestors have bequeathed us. These five women, all of indigenous background, talked about their own ancestry, personal history and their efforts to use traditional environmental knowledge to help create a cultural context in which an ethic of care of both nature and humans comes to the fore to create a sustainable way of life for everyone. 

Like so many others, I first became familiar with this story of what we should carry with us into the future and what allies we should be on the lookout for through the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer. Originally, these prophecies circulated among the Anishinaabe Three Fires peoples of the upper Midwest: the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa. At present, the situation has become so dire in our earth household that the circle has expanded to include pretty much everyone, because each of us has an ancestral tradition that we can search for useful knowledge, whether of plants, animals, ethics, or cultural ways that teach how groups can function in non-destructive ways. Each of us has the power within ourselves to make that choice and to then become co-journeyers. 

During the discussion, several concepts stood out: the idea that seeds, in some very real sense, are our ancestors (along with, of course, plants and animals are also our relatives and our ancestors); that we all have intergenerational trauma of one sort or another; that we all can do the internal work of healing ourselves and the external work of healing the earth, and that as we heal ourselves, we are healing our ancestors, too. This last is wildly counter-intuitive, yet if one sits with it awhile, it begins to make sense. Whether we never think about them, or, conversely, conceive of them as ever-present spirit beings as some religious traditions do, our ancestors have great influence on our lives, genetically and culturally. Thus, it makes sense that it would be helpful to place ourselves within this context of inheritance and generativity by understanding who our ancestors are and where they came from and sifting through what they’ve bequeathed us to find necessary and helpful cultural treasures.

And just who are these ancestors? Myself, I’ve been finding this deep winter season between the solstice and the old Celtic seasonal marker of Imbolc/St. Brigid’s Day (the midpoint, February 1, between the solstice and the spring equinox) to be a good time for reflection. You don’t have to know your own specific family tree going back ten generations, or start connecting to genetic cousins through the various ancestry companies unless you want to delve into that branch of this work, though some, for different reasons, might find that necessary. Some knowledge of what cultures they came from, and possibly old family stories might be enough to start with. As I’ve been thinking about my own forebears, I’ve realized that these include ancestors both known and only speculated about, genetic, adopted, intellectual, spiritual, human and non-human. For some of us, books are our ancestors, as poet Gary Snyder put it a long time ago. Every person on earth has thousands, if not millions of ancestors, even if we confine the field to humans within the last, say 10-15,000 years. Beyond that, all bets are off—and really, who can posit a definite beginning time, since biology has no boundaries.

For example, anyone who reads Elsa Panciroli’s “Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution” (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2021), about our mammalian ancestors in deep prehistory, shortly understands how just deep, deep time is; how chancy evolutionary processes really are, within the context of planetary biogeographical change; and how strange are the other members of our mammalian family and our early hominid cousins. It is not just in belief structures that we are all relatives, but in point of genetic fact; thus continues the evolving partnership between western and traditional environmental knowledge. Yes, at some late point Homo sapiens branched off, but a huge amount of pre-existing genetic material carried through. There are no lightning bolt de nova species. This might be overwhelming enough. But then, contemplating the idea that seeds and plants and fungi and fish and birds and turtles are also our ancestors—and relatives—the mind boggles. One achieves a mental condition that feels like swimming in a sea of ongoing being, as though intuitively apprehending the interconnected processual state of life on earth—the full and complete biosphere, or maybe one should say, the biogeochemico-sphere. 

 *** 

My own, more proximate ancestors are northern European, various of whom apparently came from England something like four hundred years ago, but who, on my mother’s side, later arrived from Ireland in the aftermath of the Famine, from Scotland as result of the Clearances, and from Germany to escape oppressive Prussian relatives—a common enough story among Euro-Americans. My maternal grandmother and great aunts, keepers and practitioners of a long tradition of expert needlework and skillful gardening, always reminded my cousins, siblings, and me that we were, in the main, a Scots-Irish family. Whatever that means now. My full life is here, on old Potawatomi land in the Chicago region, among people from many different ancestral traditions, tending the northern Illinois landscape, drinking the waters of Lake Michigan, eating food grown in this soil. The Irish and Scottish people I’ve met are in many ways foreign to me, which is one reason the novels of Tana French and Sarah Moss exert such fascination. Any American who spends time in England will find that despite surface similarities, British society seems to grow odder the longer one stays there. Still, I’m aware of connections, particularly since there is the shared language and to some extent culture laid heavily atop the older Gaelic languages and ways.

During this period of winter contemplation, I read “In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), a lyrical book by Niall Williams and Christina Breen about their life together on a small farm on Ireland’s western edge, the Wild Atlantic Way. Thirty years ago, for youthful reasons, he, from Dublin, and she, from New York, married and moved into the cottage her grand-dad had left to try his luck in America. In alternating sections, they describe and muse upon not only upon aging, change, the natural cycles of death and decay, but also the consolations to be found in writing, the garden, family, the land, and the overall tenor of the life they’ve made since they first arrived. In a way, Williams and Breen are writing an Irish answer to the “ancestors” question. This has helped me to some extent understand a thread in the weaving of my own history in the course of working out how to consider my own impact on the future, that future that changes in relation to who we are and what we do during our time on earth.

The book is suffused with understated nostalgia, yes, but also “solastalgia,” the “emotional/existential distress caused by environmental change” in the forms of climate chaos and environmental destruction. Anyone connected with the land, as are Williams and Breen, as are indigenous peoples, my fellow restorationists and gardeners, climate scientists, water protectors, environmental justice activists, the people bringing “rights of nature” lawsuits—all of us already on that Seventh Fire path—are suffering consciously, because we see and know these changes and their causes only too acutely; we experience them in our bones, a deep body ache that never goes away, that darkens our thoughts and warps our dreams even as we work to do right by and heal the earth so its inhabitants may thrive.

Actually, everyone is suffering this, whether understood, acknowledged or not. It underlies other, more immediate kinds of terror, anxiety and depression—and bodily suffering-- brought on by climate catastrophes such as fires and floods, the pandemic, or by anxieties over food, water, precarity in general. The current spasms of warfare, authoritarianism, ascendant governmental-criminal gangs, ethnic and religious strife, and desperate migration might partly have this solastalgic loss at the root, which people try to compensate for, in often immensely destructive ways. 

 *** 

 So how, indeed, can those of us of colonialist heritage and good will do the serious work of deconstructing, then reconstructing and healing our ancestral heritage in our own minds and lives, while sorting out and holding fast to the beliefs, attitudes, practical knowledge and skills that might be useful and beneficial? Another version of the prophecy says that it is the especially “the light-skinned race” who must intentionally make this choice and do this work to avoid disaster. 

It is up to us, that is, those of us to whom decolonization matters, to become conscious of our own unspoken, unrealized assumptions, bequeathed by our ancestors, often in the guise of patriarchal social structures, hierarchical religious beliefs, or reductive scientific theory and practice. These can form their own kind of prison, preventing us from seeing the value of other people and other cultures and joining the Seventh Fire alliance. In doing this work, we will be decolonizing ourselves, too, because despite our greater or lesser privilege, we are as surely trapped in the same anti-human, anti-earth systems as the historically colonized. Yet we are not alone in the necessity of doing this work. I believe it belongs to people of all cultures. As Vandana Shiva says, discussing patriarchy and traditions harmful to women in her own country of India, “it’s extremely important to recognize what is a ritual that holds up the web of life and what’s a ritual that is as an institution a symbol of power, and you shed the parts that are illegitimate power.” 

What does self-decolonization look like in practice? What interior work should I do to heal those folks in my own family’s past, many of whom—though not my grandmother and her sisters, or my parents, which is another story—nursed animosity towards and took action against those whose skins were darker than their own? I’m positive my earliest English ancestors who came to this place called Turtle Island were explicitly, violently colonialist, with all the baggage that entails. The later ones? It’s hard to say, though many were, in fact, consciously racist, even while fleeing British oppression within the UK—much as migrants from other countries continue to flee their own murderous governments today. It is all so tangled, so complex.

I’ve been working at this task a long time, since living as a child in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial co-housing situation in which my white skin did not make me “more equal.” An awareness of how that worked came later, in school, when being taught misguided, untrue history belied by what I was learning from my own female-friendly upbringing, the words of Dr. King and others who spoke and acted for civil rights, and my studies of Native American history and culture. Later came the painful realization of how I have benefited. For example, I didn’t have to struggle to get an education, I raised my children in a safe neighborhood without worrying that my son would be profiled by the police, and my life has been easier because certain assumptions others have made about me simply because of markers of race, and class (though made harder because of gender). I could go on.

The task is broad, wide, time consuming, and both painful and affirming—and of the utmost importance, at least if you share the ethical imperative to help heal human culture, and the earth that embraces it. Clearly there are whole hosts of folks who already have, do and will reject both ethic and reasoning and really do prefer and uphold an ethos of domination. Some of these people are very powerful and dangerous. They have and are choosing the path of destruction. No matter how rich and privileged, or how they mistreat the people and land over whom they have power, climate chaos and environmental destruction will come for them too.

The truly existential question, though, is how go beyond the personal, to help heal the intergenerational trauma on a cultural scale. Certainly not by forbidding the teaching of an honest version of history or shutting down open discussion and reconciliation or enacting repressive laws. I believe we persons who happen to be white must confront, understand and then lay aside our ancestors’ guilt and complicity in colonizing this turtle-island landscape, along with their destructive attitudes and practices, so we, allied with others, allied with our non-human ancestors and relatives as well, can travel together. Through this process the kind of ancestor one is begins to change. 

Practicing decolonization involves education, reflection, and action. It most definitely involves taking actions that put one in a relationship with others—not only human, but greater-than-human as well. It requires accepting the three great principles of impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness, for this work will always be changing, always be unfinished and always imperfect, as work involving humans always is. It involves giving love, or I should say, starting with a loving attitude and proceeding from there, to put loving-kindness into action. This also, in itself, is difficult and takes a great deal of practice. One must do the work within one’s own skin, using one’s own brain, physical senses, abilities (and liabilities). Maybe various gods and spirits and some ancestors can help; sooner than perhaps expected, one’s allies, one’s fellow travelers will appear. As one of my own written-word ancestors, Wendell Berry, says, “Guilt as a motive is as bad as anger. The solutions have just got to come from somewhere else. My understanding is that it has got to come from love. Everything else is going to lead us wrong.” 

Notes: 
Quotes are from “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be,” Edited by John Hausdoerffer, Brooke Parry Hecht, Melissa K. Nelson, and Katherine Kassouf Cummings (University of Chicago: 2021). 

The two-part webinar was “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? Indigenous Writers Address the Seventh Fire” hosted by The New School at Commonweal in October, 2021. Moderator Melissa K. Nelson spoke with Rowen White, Rachel Wolfgramm, Kaylena Bray, and Nicola Wagenberg.

Comments