That’s what a Secwepemc man asked me on an evening like this, with this view in front of us. What is the earth doing?
He didn’t mean, what are people doing to her, but how is she responding? What changes do I see? What will she do? “You’re not a white man,” he said to me, “so I’m asking you.” Look at me, I said. My hair is white, my beard is white, my skin is white…I’m about as white as anyone could get! We laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “but look at me.” He looked Secwepemc. “I’m a white man, he said, I have white ancestors, I’m a Mormon, so I’m asking you.”
And that’s what it’s like to sit down on an evening with Coyote the Trickster. I’ll say this much: as long as people turn away from the earth, the earth will replace them; as long as they turn towards her, she will turn towards them. That’s not the same as care. She might want to make us lean. “The animals and plants are early this year, months early,” my trickster said.”Is Earth changing the seasons?” It was the middle of August. The frogs are out, I said.
They’re over a month early, I said.
“The caribou are coming back,” a young Secwepemc man with him said. Well, that’s good, I said, realizing as I said it that no, it wasn’t. It was neither good nor bad. It was what was happening on the earth, and what the earth was doing. It was what we were watching. It was the story we were in: the time the caribou came back to the southern plateau. It is not the story of the why of it. That was the story I was being asked, not, I think, because anyone on that esker thought I had an answer, but because maybe I had seen something, some part of the story.
Well, if you cross the road, I said, it’s a jungle of bear trails over that way. Spooky! Pacing back and forth through the trees, this way and that. They perked up. So I had seen something. He gave me permission to take pictures, but not of him. “My face would break your camera,” he said. I laughed. I told him I didn’t want his picture. “Good,” he said, “because it would break your camera. Blow it up.” He made an exploding gesture with his hands. I laughed, then I walked up the esker to see what I could see.
It’s not dark yet. That’s what it’s like to meet Sen’klip the Trickster, father of all the people in this country. It’s not about pictures. It’s about finding the story that is there. There are no clues. There are no maps. There are no directions. Or they are everywhere.
This knowledge is in complete contrast to contemporary Canadian poetry, which is a moral art, seeking to change identity politics within an unchanging world facilitated by technology and paid for by it, in order to tame technology and harness it to the soul. It is a creative act, meaning one that recombines manufactured objects and ideas into new forms according to the will. I was in Okanagan Falls yesterday. At sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ, the syilx were welcoming the red fish home. Across the river, white folks were listening to an aging man dressed as a black Elvis and his wife singing electrified country tunes at a deafening volume, even though the invitation to cross the river was open to everyone. White folks weren’t going. It’s like going to Palouse Falls, the heart (and this not a metaphor) of the entire Plateau …
… among Americans on holiday, with the capacity to appreciate natural beauty but lacking anywhere else to go or do except to wander wordlessly and in genuine awe.
Nature can be like that. Is that the earth’s doing? Is she rewarding attention? Is she turning from the lack of it? Yes, of course. Both at once. It’s not that she’s a trickster planet, because tricksters are tricksters and earth is earth, but tricksters do come from her, as do people to whom she does not reveal the ancient stories in this rock down by the falls, and those to whom she does.
And the thing is, I’m not telling those stories. The only terms North American culture has for them today is fiction or fantasy, and they are not that. Silence can be respect. That’s why meeting Sen’klip from time to time does one’s heart good. Eight years ago, on the pilgrim’s path to the East, I left my self at Point Alpha, on the old Iron Curtain, and a cherry tree came back. This summer, Sen’klip taught that tree to talk using silence. He led it to the earth, and then he let it go on there, and when it turned around all other paths were closed. Here, let that be said again in North American lingo: This summer, Sen’klip taught me to talk using silence. He led me to the earth, and then he let me go on there, and when I turned around all other paths were closed. The thing is, that second statement is wrong. It has no poetry in it and there’s no way forward from it, except back to town and a community of I’s talking through the reflections off the edges of words, in shadow effects and nuances. I’m going here.
At some point, the question “What is the earth doing?” is the question “What am I doing?” I’m going out for a walk. What about you?