I am pleased that this piece, published in Stephanie Pope's wonderful e-zine, was nominated for a best of the web prize in experimental nonfiction. You may check it out at:
or read it here. Thanks Stephanie!
It strikes me as odd, even startling, when I realize that every piece of earth, each plot of land, a rock outcropping, or a grassy knoll, has a history. Sometimes the history of a given place is a secret lost to the ravages and amnemonia of time, the earth’s arcane arts buried and interred beneath the developer’s promiscuous blade. But in some instances, the history of a particular place is so powerfully compelling, so majestic or horrific, that the place forever after becomes a memorial and its events are preserved in the collective human memory. Such a memorialization is often, it seems, not through human agency alone but rather through the insistence of the earth itself whose purpose is to manifest images within us human beings that link us to the earth’s intelligence and make us remember. We have forgotten that the great body of the Earth is as alive as you or I. And like us, the earth is just as sleepily awash in memory, reverie, and dreams alternating with exhausting intervals of emotional, intellectual, and physical activity. The world thinks and feels and imagines. It is alive with its own desires and experiences which interfuse with our own and influence us the way children are influenced by the way their parents feel and think and live. This is among the first things we forget in order to go about our living.
We forget that a most remarkable thing about this planet is that it literally hums with energy, a magical energy which inexplicably creates and sustains all life on it. Because it is largely inexplicable it may be regarded as magical, yet through this energy the different aspects and emanations of the world are united. Giordano Bruno insisted that the force of all magic is constituted of love, and as I will hope to ultimately illustrate, it is love that is essential to healing ourselves and the earth:
The work of magic is a certain drawing of one thing to another by natural similitude. The parts of this world […] depend on one Love […]. From this community of relationship is born the communal Love: from which Love is born the common drawing together: and this is the true Magic.
I grew up along the Minnesota River, a beautiful river valley teeming with wildlife, densely wooded by hardwood forests, and deeply aesthetically satisfying vistas that can be apprehended from any number of spectacular rocky cliffs and promontories along its entire length. This river valley was formed relatively recently--recent in terms of geologic time--13,000 years ago when Glacial Lake Agassiz burst through a natural earth dam creating an incredibly massive tsunami which carved the river valley into the flat and relatively featureless grassland plain. The river which previously ran over the plain in a much smaller, inoffensive form is known to geologists as the ancient Warren River so as to distinguish it from the modern Minnesota River. There were almost certainly people, though perhaps not particularly great in number, living along the peaceful, bounteous river when the earthen dam broke. To them, such a natural disaster would have been catastrophic. People and animals died, ecosystems were destroyed; life and ways of life were obliterated.
If such an event happened today, there would almost certainly be plaques placed, memorials erected, and the geographic area—the earth as well as the river--would be regarded as sacred. But 13,000 years ago no such memorialization would be undertaken. However, it would be a silly, even grotesque, misunderstanding of human nature to think that in regional narratives of place (which is to say, mythologies) this event was not recalled with solemnity, trembling, and awe.
In fact, there are memorials placed alongside the Minnesota River to the event that heralded its inception. And it was the Earth, herself, who placed them there. Periodically along the banks of the river one finds outcroppings of a particular kind of Granite rock called Gniess. This type of granite is over three billion years old; three billion-year-old rocks on a planet that is perhaps 4.5 billion years old itself, and these rocks were first exposed by the same hydraulic forces that formed the valley some 13,000 years ago. Since it is so unfathomable, so unimaginable and utterly inconceivable, we forget the vast, unknowable expanses of geologic time. We tend to think that memory cannot see into nor see past “the dark and backward abysm of time.” But such thinking is merely a convenient forgetting because the past infuses everything present. Everything from the three billion year old ancient granite rocks and their troves of antediluvian memories, perched like sentinels along the banks of the Minnesota River, to evidence of a growing human presence like the spearheads, knives and other Neolithic stone tools found there from around 6,400 years ago, to a vastly diminished yet still visible 19th Century agrarian way of life dependent upon the river’s fertile deposits, to modern farmhouses supplemented by solar panels and wind turbines.
The ancient memory of place leeches into the contemporary psyche and without much effort one may imagine ancient inhabitants of the river valley preparing for the buffalo hunt while at the same time half way around the world, Sumerians were measuring the foundations of the first great civilizations; a great flood formed what is now called the Black Sea; and religious practices centered upon the powerful creative energies of ample, fertile goddesses took hold around central Europe. Image and imagination, feeling and sensation, and intuitive knowing may well have been the most common and the most effective ways in which our ancestors communicated with each other and with the Earth as well. Writing would not be invented until three millennia after these events.
It is a conceit of human nature to assume that it is only the human mind and its relationship to the collective unconscious that accesses and stores memories of distant pasts. However, I believe that the land itself, the very land that sustains and nurtures us, the land that challenges and tests us, and ultimately reabsorbs us, also holds memory and emotion. And we, the current residents of a given place, are influenced by the landscape’s memories and emotions. At some level of consciousness we are made aware of the trauma, the resilience, the hope, and—I mean this quite literally--the dreams of the earth.
One usually doesn’t take the time to consider why one feels certain emotions in particular places. Why do some places feel receptive, safe, and comfortable while others feel forbidding or threatening, or even still more places seem filled with a sense of despair or grief that pervades one’s own consciousness and brings to mind an uncomfortable sense of a lack of domesticity, a disturbing, even frightening sense of the uncanny? One often finds that the history of a place accords with the feelings one has of it because the earth whispers her story to human ears that are open and attuned. It shouldn’t be a surprising or whimsical notion but it is, and such intuitions are dismissed as fantasy or wild speculation. But in fact, the soul of things wants to be seen, the soul of things wants to be known, and the soul of the world seeks out the often murky and barely conscious depths of the human experience to communicate her story.
When I was eleven or twelve years old I spent much of my summers roaming freely through the woods near the river, often alone. In doing so, I escaped the mundane demands of childhood, and yet oddly, perhaps, I didn’t feel free. I was alone (as far as I knew), far from any house or road, in a pathless wood. Yet I could never escape the disturbing sensations I had, the eerie feeling that I was being watched by something or someone. I often had the premonition that over the next hill or around the next bend of the river I would meet with some stranger who in challenging my right to be in this place, would simultaneously challenge my existential right simply to be. What I now believe to be true about that childhood time of wandering the river is that the feelings of dread weren’t generated solely by my own experience or consciousness. I was being watched; watched by the earth herself and unconsciously absorbing her memories and emotions as they related to the history of the Minnesota River valley; I was connected to the landscape by the suffusing properties of the earth’s intellectual activity and her own processing, her own attempts to understand her experiences. Just as it is a principle of human psychological life that we attempt to heal ourselves through remembering and making others aware of our experiences to which they (hopefully) respond with empathy, the Mundi Intellectus, or the mind of the world, works in exactly the same way, just more subtly. For communion with the earth is simultaneously effortless and mundane and yet it is, at the same time, also true that it is a deeply sacred act requiring conscious intention.
Prior to my ancestors arriving in the Minnesota River valley from northern Europe it was home to the Dakota Indians, but by the early 19th Century the Dakota were no longer home alone. People who must have been utterly strange to them and who seemed to dress impractically or practice odd customs and a convoluted religion, were making claims to ancestral lands. These settlers broke promises and treaties; they lied, and cheated the Dakota. They seemed to treat everything, even themselves, with disrespect, and the Dakota became strangers in their own land. Their right to exist as they had traditionally existed for centuries was challenged at every turn. By the middle of the 19th Century, a dehumanizing and cruel self-interest was as abundant in the river valley as sources of food were scarce. For the very first time the river was arrested by human-built dams; land was partitioned and fenced off with barbed wire; swamps and marshes were drained. It must have been shocking for the Dakota to see their Great Mother—their benefactrix—so enslaved. Traditional Dakota life was turned upside down and a catastrophe of unimaginable scope unfolded in an intense and bloody conflict.
I married my first wife while standing upon the Minnesota River. It was one of those Minnesota winter days when the sunshine is so bright that it’s too bright and it hurts one’s eyes. Moreover, the air temperature was so cold that the first breath drawn out of doors painfully seared the lungs. The river was frozen solid, a silver and white ribbon winding through a dense welter of barren Ash, Oak, and Cottonwood trees. I failed that day to grasp the metaphor the earth was conveying to me for my impending marriage. Eighteen months later my marriage was in total disarray, we were living apart and my wife was involved with someone else. In another eighteen months we were divorced amid the thick, acrid air of recrimination, rancor, and deep enmity—feelings that often arise from desperation. Between two people these kinds of feelings cause a divorce; between two cultures, they start a war. And as wars always do, this war, the Dakota War of 1862, produced unspeakable atrocities and ultimately a program of genocide undertaken by the Federal Government and heartily supported by the white settlers. Each individual (as well as his or her descendants) exposed to the horror of a war and its inhumane cruelty is forever altered. Life in the valley will never be the same again.
We have forgotten that trauma such as that which is evoked by the ghastliness of war is not only held in human memory, but is remembered in pain by the earth, too, and much like those mythic countries or worlds that suffer from a miasma (a Greek idea denoting a spiritual pollution that degrades not only a people and a community or state but the very land itself), the land becomes barren and inhospitable; the earth recoils from interaction with its human children and her indulgent benevolence is withdrawn: businesses fail and main streets are shuttered, a spirit of meanness lives in its residents—a stingy penuriousness, shamefulness, and sordidness— and strangers sense an insular or vaguely besieged energy suffusing the community. One of the most salient lessons of the 20th Century has been the growing awareness that where atrocity has happened, acknowledgment of the terrible events through an act of contrition must be undertaken in order to facilitate healing among people. Less salient is the awareness that just such atonement must occur in relationship to the land as well. I have come to believe that if events are not properly memorialized, if they are repressed or suppressed or dismissed, the sufferings of all those involved (especially the wounded landscape which has literally absorbed the blood, and spiritually taken in the trauma) continue to live on in that geographical space—in the earth, herself—and subtly, unconsciously, influence those who currently occupy that land. The wounded landscape itself reaches out to those of us who occupy it by making its own memories, emotions, and traumas seem to be our own. It whispers to us its story, a story we notice first in the form of vague feelings, disturbing dreams, uncanny sensations, and dimly perceived shadows; feelings, sensations, and shadows we are obliged to recognize and honor if we are to understand and heal ourselves and our land.
Forgiveness is the only real healing move available to either us or the planet; it is the material implement of the soul, it is love in action, the tool of loving awareness which is free to be used to astonishing effect in the world. It is not, however, nearly effective enough to think about forgiveness only in terms of the other since forgiveness requires much more than a mere acknowledgment of, and dispensation for, the actions of others; one must become deeply aware of one’s own guilt as well, and realize that there is nothing else to do with it but acknowledge and experience it. The purpose of difficult and often painfully intense feelings is to simply bear them; one needn’t and shouldn’t find a way to avoid them, or try to unload or project them onto others; instead one recognizes them as belonging to oneself and once they are so understood, they may begin to heal. To do so is a very difficult thing, so difficult as to be nearly impossible because, as Macbeth bitterly observes, “To know my deed, ‘Twere best not know myself.” Yet the willingness to know oneself puts oneself in proximity to a deep, very deep truth that at first blush appears to be dichotomous or at best, paradoxical. But as Niels Bohr once remarked, “It is a hallmark of any deep truth that its negation is also a deep truth.” For instance, the reality of human existence is mortality. And yet, while humans are indeed mortal, there is something about human nature that is immortal, indomitable and inexhaustible. Deep truths invite a paradox, and paradox is a singular quality of divine reality. When we find ourselves in such a paradoxical position, we may be sure that the gods are not far away. The concept of deep truth is also useful in regarding the nature of the earth, too. Yes, the earth is a solid celestial phenomenon created from the constellation of space dust and gasses possessing a molten mineral core, and yet its deep truth is that it also thinks and feels and imagines.
Similarly, what we call history is not merely a dialogue between the present and the past; it is a conversation between ourselves and the earth, an intentional creation of a more accepting, loving relationship between humankind and the landscape upon and within which the human drama unfolds. There is no single, eternal, unalterable, or immutable truth that reveals what “the past” means. One’s relationship to the past, like one’s relationship to self or to the world, is constantly evolving, it is a relationship relentlessly renewing itself in a state of continual becoming. We typically forget who we really are and what our connection to the world really is; we forget in order that we may continue to live our lives the way in which we have always done. But there are constantly opportunities for awareness presented to us that force us to re-evaluate and redefine ourselves and the world. For instance: isn’t it stunning to know that our planet is hurtling through space at one thousand miles per hour? If a small detail like that can materially change how we think of ourselves and the world, imagine how being in a vital, creative, nurturing relationship to the earth would change one’s experience of reality. The strangeness and complexities of reality consistently outstrips not only our own experiences and expectations of reality, but those of science as well.
Shakespeare enjoins us to “Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” The heart knows the earth is alive, the heart knows that the supreme adventure is the road that unfolds before us when we begin to acknowledge that deep truth which tells us that we are indeed children of the earth and the umbilical of the human mind connects us to her in all ways and for always. Glaukos tells Diomedes on the plain of Troy that he “[…] always hears my father’s voice in my head: ‘Be the best, my boy. Be the brightest, and hold your head high above the rest’.” Like Glaukos, our parent’s voice is always in our heads, and the voice of our mother, the Earth, should no longer be dismissed or silenced, for it is that voice which instructs us in how to heal ourselves as well as our planet.