Getting Our Land Back 5: A Land of Stories

In this series of posts I am exploring a path towards unity from the scars and threads of the introduction of history with the energy that flows as the land. This is the fifth post. Why not follow the argument by reading the first four posts, and then plunging in?

Becoming the Flow

The Local and the Universal

Rivers of Place

Returning the Land

And now, A Land of Stories

Conventional maps make a grid, tied to fixed points of measurement of the Earth, showing ways around natural obstacles.

Prosser, Washington

A Powerful Tool

It is these maps, not the land outside the grid, that are the nation state. The land is something else, yet it is in that energy field that we live, not in the map or, actually, the nation state. It’s quite the contradiction.

Ranch House, Kiona Ranch, Kiona (Yakama)

The contradiction means that we start treating our selves as maps as well, which we decorate not with the motifs of the land but with those of the industrial and design capacity of the nation state, such as the poplars, power pole, road bumper, road, driveway, orchard grass, potatoes, stairs, single wide mobile home, portable outhouse and cherry orchard you see above. Nothing in the image above is of the land. Everything here must be maintained by the nation state, most likely through payments of money for the cherries grown here, some of the earliest in Washington, and sold in supermarkets in major regional administrative cities such as Seattle or Portland. It is a pure expression of power. It is complex and finely-tuned and creates wealth. It also creates poverty. There is no grassland in the image above, only a use to which the grassland is put. None of the wealth generated here has returned to this place. That should give one pause. Here’s the great Washington poet David Wagoner speaking of coastal wind and sand caught up in the same energies as the wind and sand of Kiona.


Notice that this “personal expression” or “poetry” is also a documentation of the formative principle of the nation state coming to its limit of understanding in the billows of the deep energy of the Earth which we call our land. The certainty of naming vanishes in this record, replaced by the uncertainty of wind and experience. That’s the principle of a country founded on taking land and putting it to use: it can’t go back before the taking and remain itself. It remains forever in the moment of first discovery, when energy passed into it from the Earth. The Washington poet Kathleen Flenniken takes up the theme:

Notice how the poem can be very expressive about the power of the individual over the world and the language that controls it but choses to set that power aside. When it does, however, it enters wordlessness and suggestion. The nation state and its people can only enter the first moment of suggestion there, witnessed by human bodies. Just to demonstrate, here’s Wagoner again. It could be Flenniken.


And the sandbox?

In this conception, the land is not its own. It is harnessed, like a horse to a plow. As Flenniken and Wagoner continually express (and possibly subconsciously, as the land pleads for recognition through them) if we keep expressing the complex relationships between the grid points of the nation state, humans, and energy, we are taking on personal responsibility for the grid, a power that exceeds our grasp, as Christian doctrine wisely puts it. Given that the grid is not entirely healthy, that’s not entirely healthy either. One thinks of Apocalypse.

Prosser and the Yakima Valley from the Horse Heaven Hills (Yakama)

Settled energy is surveyed land. If it’s not surveyed it is not settled but eternally full of possibility. Once it’s settled, its possibilities extend into social realms and encounter the ur-energy as weather and a certain frustration at being corralled, as Wagoner and Flenniken express with their leaps into wordlessness. And that’s an interesting thing. In the remaining unbroken story of Pahto…

Pahto (aka Mount Adams) (Yakama)

… that was once four stories, or four valleys, not the one that remains as the Yakama Reservation, the land is both surveyed and not. It has been drawn by officers of the U.S. Army and surveyed by agents of the U.S. Government, who have produced maps that are, no doubt, extensively used by many, including by the Yakama. Nonetheless, the land does remain as a story, bound together by far different grids than surveyed maps: grids of story, body images, patterns of land use, and the narrative that springs up out of the land as one walks the old trail from Naches to Cowiche and Tieton, through Ahtanum, over to Mool Mool, and along the crest of the land high above the Columbia before descending either on Slo-om’s eel trail down the Klickitat or down the old chert trail to The Dalles and the Wishram Fishery at Celilo Falls, where the whole world came together into the roar of the river. This story was replaced by a treaty in 1855, which has expressed itself back onto the land like this:

Treaty Negotiations Frozen in Time at The Dalles

I don’t hint at this old story to romanticize the past. I hint at it to demonstrate that the land is not the past, that it can be read as a story, and that the story is itself a map. What’s more, any other map gets read back onto the land, because humans stand at the intersection of energies. How we organize them makes a huge difference. We can, however, resist choosing. The image below, for instance, is many things at the same time:

Dry Falls (Sinkiuse and Many Other Salishan and Sahaptin Speaking Peoples)

It is the bed of a waterfall in a cataclysmic flood, a rare and nearly undisturbed grassland, a state park under severe budget constraints, an eroded chunk of the Columbia Basalt, and sacred ground holding ancient stories.  In the same way, in a walk through Yakama Territory the mountains tell their story…

The End of the Story, or its Beginning. Mount Hood from the Ancient Garden at Horsethief Butte (Wishram)

a story that remembers multiple volcanic explosions, and relates the land down to a human frame. Effectively, it stresses human relationships with the land. Surveyed maps stress usefulness and use. Relationships are secondary. Relationships like this, which record, I think, Flenniken’s experience:

Woman at Horsethief Butte (Wishram)

However, if we step back just for a moment …

We are in the story and have a map of the land in time. With such a map, a poem like this is superfluous:

The way out of settler culture, in other words, and its fences…

Superfluous Fences at Lapwai, Idaho (Nimiipu’u)

… is to treat history as just another story written on the land, no different from the others, and with no break. It is the path that might have been told if Euro-American settlement here had not been insistent on racial difference and peoples had come together. It is not too late.

A Pair of Pigeons Enjoy Each Other at Horsethief Butte (Wishram)

People who live in this energy called “the land” do not need to draw their identity from their connections to the United States, or maintain a difference from the people who draw theirs from their connections to Canada, or maintain a distance from the people of the land and their stories called “the land.” The electrical terminus below, drawing power from the Bonneville Power Administration grid to pump groundwater over the Walla Walla grassland to grow, incongruously, peas for the frozen pea market, is both a powerful connection to the U.S. administrative grid, unsustainable without it, and, ultimately, a story. It is an artwork. It is a man standing in for his place in the world.

South of Pascoe (Walla Walla)

We can tell that narrative within the narratives of the land instead of within the narratives of the nation state it prefers to be viewed through. In the short term, it makes no difference, only art. In the long term, however, it will rewrite the maps and give us words where now there is only silence accessible only through the transcendence of Christian imagery, as we saw in Flenniken and Wagoner, however informed by the land it is. There are words for the silence they enter as transcendence and witness. The first step is the step into the world. The rest follow.



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