Been thinking. Putting two and two together. Thinking, “Some things are so obvious that you can’t see them for a long, long time, and then you see them and you think, whoosh, how could I have missed that?” Well, it happens. Grew up in the grass, you know, and in the wind (ah, the Similkameen wind that never stopped and hasn’t stopped yet), and the one thing I always said was that I would always live where I could see the stars. So, I was sitting in the Sinlahekin, where it was too hot to sleep, and I was watching the stars fall through the branches of the ponderosas, and it was right. That was two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the Sinlahekin Valley, at the western edge of the grass, where bunchgrass spills down off the hills, and I’ve been thinking about the Chilcotin, at the northern edge of the grass, where it looks like this:
The river is far below, in the trench it cut in the old post-glacial lake bottoms on that day it cut itself a path through the mountains to the sea. It happened awfully quickly. The Gang Ranch is in the background. Beyond the hayfields, a million acres of grass are pretty much in the same shape they were in 4,000 years ago. And that’s just the bottom corner of this grassland. It goes on, to the North and East.
That’s an old story about that grass, but there’s an older one. I want to tell it to you, because it’s important, but I can’t, because we’re in this electronic world and not out in the grass, where the soft wind never stops and your body stands there between the earth and the sky and sometimes you don’t know up from down, because they’re just all the same thing. This story comes from thinking when thinking means to use the land as your starting point, when you start here, when here is your world. It comes from belonging here, but it doesn’t come from thinking your way into it, or talking your way into it, and you can’t get there by looking, either, and what else do we have here in this blog? Talking and thinking and looking. Still, it’s so important it’s worth trying, to see what I can manage to find words for. This, for example:
Harold Among the Dunes Above Farwell Canyon …
… in his certified wasp-attracting black shorts. Take it from me, the shorts are fine in the grass but when you get to the firs nestling by the active dunes (to the left of this image), you’ll wish you had worn Any Colour But Black!!!!!!!!. Wasps do so sorely love black. No charge for the tip. Photo by Judy Macpherson.
That’s not the story. The story’s about the grass. Well, no, not really. It’s about a map of the stars. It’s about the universe. And the grass. So, a poetic story. A mythic story. Forget names, let’s just go closer, and maybe, maybe, maybe that’ll make some sense. So, to the grass. The grass in this last complete grassland on temperate earth can look this…
Since these grasslands are arranged on the planes of old glacial lake bottoms, where vertical distance determines drought and heat in a direct reverse image of the Coast Mountains to the west and the rain forests that collected all the water that is not here, there are, really, three separate kinds of grasslands, working three separate kinds of drought conditions, moving up and down, from and towards the Fraser River far below, with its willows and cottonwoods and gravel. Photo by Judy Macpherson. Thanks, Judy.
No, that’s not the story, either, although it’s a good story. Lots of science there. Lots of awe at this planet floating among the stars. Lots of geology and tectonic plates and uplifting continental shores (OK, I didn’t tell you that part, but it’s there), and, you know, good stuff, but there’s a different story, and it’s important, too, so let’s go closer yet, and this time, let’s leave the science behind and be our bodies walking, if that’s possible here, in this electronic everywhere-nowhere land. I think it’s possible, maybe, with a little good humour, perhaps, but what else do we got? Dunno. Ahem, cough cough, so, here’s some grass in the Methow Valley, just over the hill south of the Sinlahekin…
All that’s missing here is the blue-green algae that should be covering the soil between each plant. Grass like this doesn’t exactly bring the idea ‘field’ to mind, does it. More like: pit houses, summer houses made out of reeds, more like people standing there, beautiful people with green arms raised to the sky, beautiful people dancing. Ah, there goes the poet in me again.
But, still, there’s the grass. You can see how it grows. Clumps, right? You can walk between them. They brush your thighs. And between them sprout balsam root, lilies, yarrow and a kazillion other flowers. Butterflies flit and flutter. Sparrows nest in their shade. The wind blows, and at night there are the stars, and there’s nothing between them and the grass, except, maybe, you. The wind brushes through your hair. So, let’s pretend we’re walking here for awhile, nothing but the earth below, nothing but the sky above, and that wind, drawing us out through our skins, and the pounding of our hearts like a drum, and, well, then there’s life.
Bitterroot in Bloom, Summerland
The roots of this early spring flower were once an early season staple for the Syilx and all the other peoples of the Plateau. They are now extremely rare, because they require succesional burning to survive. For them, the world must be continually made new.
And with that, I think it’s best to tell you the edge of the story, cuz I want to show you some more pictures and I think maybe they’ll make more sense with a story in your bones a bit. I won’t tell the story, but I’ll point you towards it, just a little bit. In this story, the father of the people, of all the people of the Plateau, was Coyote. No, not this guy …
Coyote Showing Off His Shiny New Airport
This guy is a kind of wild dog that cruises through the suburbs at night looking for cats and small dogs and lazy deer. No, the Coyote we’re talking about is a way of thinking, and a way of being here that goes one way to make wild dogs and one way to make people, and they’re all the same thing and they have nothing to do with scientific nomenclature, or Darwin, or nothing like that, and … well, it doesn’t matter, cuz the real story is that someone, sometimes Coyote, sometimes one of his relatives, sometimes just a guy or a girl, is walking out in the grass and he, or she, climbs a tree, because there are a few trees out there, not lots, but a few, and climbs and climbs and there, ahhhhh, weird, there he or she is back in the grass, how did that happen, dunno, but you gotta walk, right, so you walk and walk, and walk and walk, and walk and walk, and get nowhere. But there’s the wind, except here it’s strange. It’s coming from the tufts of bunchgrass. It’s coming from the lilies. It’s coming from this …
Arrow-Leafed Balsam Root
…well, from balsam roots just like these, but not these ones, cuz these ones are here, on earth, and this story is in the sky. I’m not from Lytton, in the Fraser Canyon, where this story comes from, so I can’t tell it, and I don’t need to, because it’s an old shamanic story. It goes back, I dunno, 20,000 years, 30,000 years. More. It’s everyone’s story. We are migratory animals from the grasslands, who walked across the earth, and here we are, and here some of that grass still survives. This our story. This grass. And the stories that come from it. This is what the mind looks like if you read it as the earth, if you put down your books for a bit and read it there. So the hero in this story bends down, and pulls out a clump of bunchgrass, or maybe a lily …
… and there’s a hole in the earth, and down through it there’s another earth, with the same grassland, and on that one there are people, and villages, and your home, where you belong, but how do you get home again? These stories are about how to do that, which was important knowledge for shamanic cultures, in which journeys to the land of the ancestors, journeys into the depths of space and time and consciousness, were vital, and common, and attended to. They’re all about how to get back home. That story’s not mine to tell, but this one is, because it’s largely lost yet is just as important, and it’s the story that caught my breath because of that night in the Sinlahekin, when the stars fell from the … well, not from the sky, exactly, but from the bunchgrass to the bunchgrass, and the only difference was, one was the night (black, studded with the holes where bunchgrass and lilies had been pulled out of the soil) and one was the day (dirt, grass, flowers, stuff like that), or would be, when the sun rose.
A Fallen Star
Rooting well and prospering at Dry Falls
Call the grasslands what you want, the sky, the subconscious, the realm of ancestral memory or language, throw whatever words you want at it, the past, the dreamtime, eternity, it doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that the stars fall from the sky into the bunchgrass of the Sinlahekin, or the Chilcotin, or the Similkameen, or the Okanagan, and they’re just stars falling from the stars to the stars. Then the sun rises …
Sweet Methow Moon Winthrop
The sky is already covered by the air, but the daytime stars are rising, lit by the sun.
Soon, those daytime stars will start to shine…
First Light Among the Stars
This isn’t grass. It’s a map of the universe. If you can read this, you can find your way to the first day of the earth and to the last, and back. If you’re lucky, you might be able to bring back wisdom. God knows, we need some of that.
Please, don’t misunderstand. This not a poet’s fantasy. I think science has a lot to say about this stuff, and is a powerful spirit path, but I think our bodies have a lot to say, too, and we know a lot that we haven’t given words to, and if we’re going to live on this land, really live on it, we need all the knowledge we can get. What we do with it, ah, now that’s a story we’re working towards (something, I hope, that says it all and is not built on replacing one set of knowledge with a wilderness and then building out of that something entirely new, because it’s hard to work stuff like that out of your head)…
Round Stone at Umatillo Rock
A little awe helps. A little beauty helps.
Hopefully, no matter what story is told now and in the next few crucial years of this planet’s story, in it the whole earth is the taut hide of a drum, or, if you like, a hide spread out over the body (of the earth, of your mind, of the universe, of God, of the Goddess, of Gaia, of your self … it’s all good), and there’s a drumstick there, there’s a story you can read, the way other people read books …
Deer Kill …
… among the stars.
The spirit is dancing. Sometimes the telling of this story is done with a finger dipped in mixed ochre and salmon oil and traced on rock …
Chilcotin River Canyon
…and sometimes it’s written in the rocks themselves…
Turtles in the Grasslands at Umatillo Rock
Rock formations like this have a deep history in this place. They rise out of ancestral space, out of the daytime map of the stars written on that drumskin that is the earth.
This is the work. What that work is is something you have to find yourself, because it’s not written down and the people who knew it once are gone. You can only find it by walking out into the grass, in a way of walking into your own mind, which is to say, into your body, and then you’ll find it there, and it will give you food …
One of the star people. One of the ancestors. One of the spirit beings.
Ancestors. Yes. They live there. In the mind. In our genes. In the earth. Call it what you want. Yes, we are eaters of the dead, but, you see, here’s the thing, call it what you like: they’re not dead, and we’re not eating them. We are dancing among the stars. And now, something beautiful and sad at the same time. Here’s the graveyard in the Sinlahekin, above the grasslands that were flooded over a century ago to make the Conconully Reservoir, to water the orchards of Okanogan. This is a different story yet …
New Ancestors, Planted in the Sky
Talk about finding heaven on earth. Or almost. Or metaphorically. Or a bit too late. A large number of these are the graves of soldiers of five wars.
Maybe it’s a message. Maybe the message is that the boys of the new country here go off to hunt people, and once they’re done with that they go fishing. It’s a proud, heroic story, but it’s just so terribly sad. Maybe the message in this story is that we can just stay home, in the sweet Sinlahekin, that the stories we are told over and over that divide us, the story of the Plateau peoples who have a knowledge of the land that settlers can’t even guess at, and the story of settlers who are chasing the land through metaphors of country and God, are all the same story, that the land was settled out of the collision of two dreams, by people who thought they were different dreams entirely, and the telling of their story as the one dream that it has always been is another story we must tell, but this one we must tell so that we can stop telling it.
History, mythology, poetry, spirit, dreaming, vision, shamanism, geology … these are all one story in this new world that starts today, when the sun rises and we look out and see our selves written across the universe, and step out there, as men and women of the stars.
With a little patience for the pathways of a poet’s mind, it might work, right? Not as a romantic thing, but as a practical path. We could work it up with all the science and history in the world, and still be talking, but we’d be talking together, not all at once but together. That’s what I’m thinking.