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The Blackened Land

The Blackened Land

It’s been four months since the Pinery Lakes wildfire which seared 685 acres about ten miles from our house.  My daughter and I were lounging in her Manhattan apartment when we heard the news via Facebook:  “Pinery Lakes Fire, 2009“.  I remember feeling so sad with memories of cross-country skiing (and falling on my butt way too many times) and hiking with Denise and her dogs and the Anishinabe “spirit houses” in the nearby cemetery.  How could the land be burning?  How could this be happening?

Please read this FIRE!!!  blog if you would like to learn more details about the actual May 20 fire.

Lately I’ve been wanting to return to the fire scene.  To see what difference four months (well, almost 4 1/2 months if we want to be a bit more accurate) might bring.  My last memories were of ash and smoldering logs.  Fried landscape.  The acrid smell of fire.  The remnants of fire crews standing by. 

What would it look like now?

Black trees, black stumps and green ferns

Black trees, black stumps and green ferns

OK, here’s what it is like. You get out of your car and head into the woods.  Ferns and plants are growing up everywhere.  Some of the brambles are already chest high!  The ground still lies covered in black ash, but Mother Nature has waved her magic wand across the landscape and there grows wintergreen, labrador, ferns.  There bloom asters, raspberry, Queen Anne’s lace.  New life springs up everywhere from the ashy soil.  Ahhh, the soul sighs in relief:  Life Returns!

Yellow flowers bloom against black trees

Yellow flowers bloom against black trees

I wandered for a long time, up hills and down.  Let me tell you, it’s a bit dangerous.  Roots have been up-rooted and holes punctuate the earth everywhere.  If you’re not very careful, you will trip in a hole.  (Yes, I tripped.  But not to the point where I fell unto the ashy earth.)  You must, I repeat, be completely alert.  The fire has consumed so much.  It’s not a hike for the unwary.

Looking up...

Looking up...

I really wanted to show you photos of the Native American Spirit Houses which sit atop the graves at the Indian Cemetery.  But I can’t.  For some reason it seems sacrilegious to do so.  Perhaps not to me (after all I casually put in photos of cemetery graves from the Marquette Cemetery for a June 26th blog).  But it seems this might perturb some of the local Native Americans who do not believe the graves should be photographed.  So I shall leave them photographically undisturbed. 

Half burned

Half burned

The weather has turned lovely today, by the way!  The temperature soared to 52 degrees and the sun nudged the clouds away for a while.  The weather forecast has the “S” word in it for the weekend (that would be “SNOW” for any of you non-Upper Peninsula folks) but we’re thinking that means the Highlands.  Not the lowlands around the lake.  Surely we won’t get snow.  It’s not even October 15th for goodness sakes.  And my parents are coming to visit.  No, snow is not allowed.

One charred pine cone on autumn leaf

One charred pine cone on autumn leaf

That day, last May, when my sneakers almost started smoldering while taking photos of the fire seems so long ago.  How strange nature is.  On that day in May the temperatures soared up into the 90’s and the fire sparked.  How many other times did we reach the magic 90 degree mark during the summer?  Once?  Never?  How very unexpected the weather can be.

The bones of a tree

The bones of a tree

I think of us humans and how fires sometimes sear our hearts.  How death and pain and suffering can uproot our trees, our sense of security, our confidence.  And how, if we let them, the ferns and the wildflowers and the trees grow back.  The landscape heals.  Perhaps slowly, but it heals, if we let nature ease our sorrows.

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

I am glad the land heals.  New seeds sprout.  New flowers bloom.  New life bursts forth from the wildfire ash and the ancestors smile in their graves as the cycles of life turn again and again.

Looking down on Duluth from the revolving restaurant atop the Raddison Hotel

Looking down on Duluth from the revolving restaurant atop the Raddison Hotel

Yep.  On Friday afternoon Barry and I motored westward through the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin and into Minnesota for a weekend get-away.  We were headed for Duluth, Minnesota, located at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior, halfway between Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Canadian border.  As some of the old-timers around here might say, “We go Duluth.”

Aren’t you surprised to discover my husband and I actually vacationed together?  We don’t often travel together.  Since this blog started I have been to Florida, New York City and my hometown of Yale, Michigan, without the fellow.   I’m the traveling fool; he’s usually half-way reluctant to leave home, but always has a good time once we’re traveling.

This trip proved no exception.  We had an awesome weekend! 

Statue of interlocking hands with bird of peace atop

Statue of interlocking hands with bird of peace atop

We really splurged.  Usually we travel very inexpensively, but this time we opted to stay at the Raddison downtown.  We really wanted to stay downtown (where all the action is, you know) but all the hotels were booked or too expensive.  We almost decided to forget it, but Barry said, “We’re celebrating your birthday…let’s splurge!”  So we did.

My birthday isn’t for a week or so.  But he’s going over to Isle Royale for a fishing expedition soon, so we did a pre-birthday outing. 

The foot bridge from the convention center toward Lake Street rises to let boats through

The foot bridge from the convention center toward Lake Street rises to let boats through

We must have walked ten to twelve miles in the forty hours we spent in this port city.  The city boasts an incredible skywalk system which leads walkers across expressways, roads and buildings.  My legs still ache.  Always remember to bring two pair of shoes when you visit cities.  Once a blister starts to form, switch shoes.  It works. 

Duluth is a major world port.  It welcomes over 1,000 ocean-going and Great Lakes freighters annually.  We were lunching on salads at Grandma’s on Saturday when suddenly people started running toward the shore.  What could be happening?  One of the bridges rose and stayed in upright position for a long time.  We decided to scurry down and see about the flurry of activity.

People lined up along the boardwalk, cameras in hand, breathless for...

People lined up along the boardwalk, cameras in hand, breathless for...

The Edgar B. Speer

The Edgar B. Speer

Oh, dear, I have way too many photos for one blog.  We shall have to divide this up.  But here’s a preview of some of the things we did:  ate out at magnificent places.  Ate out at more magnificent places.  We especially liked a kind of natural foods hippie-place called “At Sara’s Table” where we ate breakfast Saturday morning.  And Saturday night’s Thai food was out of this world.  We had the cutest young waitress named Danielle who is studying something like graphic design at the university there.  If you ever visit Duluth be sure to stop at the Thai Krathong restaurant.  Oh yum.  You will not regret it.

We also visited the Maritime Museum, the Aquarium, and the Omni Theatre.  The Omni Theatre showed a presentation about the Mysteries of the Great Lakes.  Mostly it was about the Sturgeon.  The Sturgeon is a pre-historic looking bottom-feeding fish which can grow to maybe seven feet long.  It’s like a gentle shark, without teeth.  Actually this fish has no bones, so if you catch one, handle it very carefully and let it drop gently back into the water.

The sturgeon have been going extinct, and this program taught us about the efforts underway to save the spawning grounds of this huge fish.  The Native Ojibway revered the sturgeon.  And after this weekend, so do I.  Barry said he always did.

Underwater in the aquarium world.  Perhaps a salmon in the forefront.

Underwater in the aquarium world. Perhaps a salmon in the forefront.

Until tomorrow then!   🙂

Dead bird, still warm to the touch

Dead bird, still warm to the touch

Everywhere you walk in the woods Life and Death greet you.  In the springtime the flowers and the leaves and the grasses and the plants burst into joyful being.  But it’s impossible to walk two steps without being reminded about the inevitability of death.

I found the above bird, not long passed away, lying near the trees.  It probably crashed into one of our windows and died instantly.

A dangling explosion of a tree bud (anyone know what kind?)

A dangling explosion of a tree bud (anyone know what kind?)

Life shines out so new and beautiful at this time of year.  There’s a potency to the energy.  The Native Americans advised us to eat the parts of the plant where the energy is the strongest.  In the spring you eat leaves and buds.  In the summer, you eat the fruit and by autumn you’re nourished by the deepest root in the earth.  That’s how the energy in a plant travels.

Rotting decaying birch tree

Rotting decaying birch tree

The forest is constantly decaying.  There are downed trees everywhere.  Branches askew, losing bark and rotting.  Dried leaves molding and deteriorating.  Scat on the ground.  Plants dying.  Molds and fungus.  Everywhere that which once grew and tingled with new life is returning to the soil, composting the land, enriching the earth, in order to break down and nourish new seeds.

Trout lily

Trout lily

After a long winter of snow and freezing temperatures, our forest plants seem to burst.  They seem to grow faster than in warmer climates, as if attempting to reach the sun before the next snow falls.  The world cascades into green.  And then the glorious paintbrushes of nature paint vibrant colors everywhere.  We live in Paradise, perhaps.

A carpet of red maple buds beneath a tree

A carpet of red maple buds beneath a tree

The buds fall on the earth without a fuss, it seems.  They simply drop onto the earth and begin their next stage, their next transformation.  They simply let go when it’s time.  No rushing life, no prolonging life.  Simple:   now it’s time to burst and bud, now it’s time to let go.

Acorn beneath giant oak

Acorn beneath giant oak

Then there’s the acorn.  Is it alive or dead?  Or is it both?  It released from the oak that nourished it for so long, and now lies on the forest floor.  Will it be planted into the dirt and create a new oak tree?  Will it be simply break down to compost the old oak from which it birthed and died?  Is it about to rot, or create new life?  Or perhaps both?

Let’s say your mouth is watering for some spring wild leeks.  Let’s say you’re dreaming of Wild Leek Soup. 

What to do?  First, one must locate the wild leeks.  This is not necessarily an easy task.  I’ve hunted the woods near our house for years, and have never found wild leeks growing nearby.  Doesn’t mean they’re not around.  Just means I can’t find ’em.

So you have to get clever.  Ask around, casually.  “Anyone know where there’s some wild leeks?”  And of course people know.  But the good growing spots are always halfway across the county, on somebody else’s property, or on a two-track that’s almost impossible to find.

So you get really crafty.  You find a spot, I’m not telling how.  I’m sure you’re all as crafty as I am.  You’ll find a good leek-picking spot, if you keep looking and asking and looking some more. (Latest theory:  I think they grow near rivers, streams and wetter terrain.)

The first glimpse of the wild leek

The first glimpse of the wild leek

So I stumble through a swamp, get lost…surely you don’t want to hear all the sordid details..and finally determine it was all an error of judgment when…YES!  Look at those beautiful green wild leeks! 

Of course there’s only a few, so one must dig carefully.  Only take one here, another there.  Remember that we must be conservationists.  The Native Americans counsel to remember reciprocity and leave a gift when you harvest wild foods.  So I said thanks and offered a pinch of sage to the earth as she yielded her first two marvelous leeks.

Troweling up the first wild leeks

Troweling up the first wild leeks

You dig carefully.  If you’re too quick, you’ll injure the slender roots and then forget about your leek bulbs.  They’re actually quite similar to green onions, for those unfamiliar with the wild variety.  They can be quite slender…or they can be as thick as a cultivated green onion.  The smell is quite unique though!  I can’t describe it.  Aromatic tang of onions and soil and a sharp pungency that overwhelms.  In a good way.

So you’re cultivating carefully and trying not to take too many, when suddenly you look far in the distance and see what appears to be a field of green.  A FIELD OF GREEN?  In early May?  So you wander over and gasp in disbelief–

Field of leeks, oh my!

Field of leeks, oh my!

So you pick until you think you have enough, without getting greedy.  Only you will know what “greedy” means in your kitchen.  You drive home near ecstasy with your precious find and dump them in the sink.  Now comes the oh-so-tiresome part.  Cleaning ’em.  Sorry.  It must be done.  Hopefully your husband will not feel a need to photograph you at this task.  And insist it should be included in your blog.

Cleaning the leeks

Cleaning the leeks

Then comes the part we’ve all been waiting for.  EATING the wild leeks!  I don’t recommend eating them raw.  Some people may…but they’re much more luscious cooked.  Here is my made-up recipe for soup.  Hope you find some wild leeks so you can try it.

Wild Leek Soup (serves 2)

1.  Make some vegetable broth if you want really good veggie stock.  I took some celery, an onion, 1 carrot, a bay leave and 2 dried wild mushrooms and cooked it for 15 minutes.  Then blend it in the blender.

2.  Cut up 1 cup of wild leeks.  Use mostly the white bulb part, but add in some of the green.  Saute them in some olive oil (1-2 teaspoons) sprinkled with some salt at medium heat for a couple minutes.  Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook for 15-20 minutes stirring regularly.

3.  Add some stock.  Oh, you’re going to want amounts.  Gosh.  How about 1-2 cups of stock.  Then 1 cup of milk or soymilk.  (We use soymilk.)  Now those of you who have some white miso handy, dissolve a tablespoon or two in some of the stock.  Stir it back into the soup, mixing well.  If you don’t have white miso, don’t worry.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

4.  If you don’t want to be a purist, you can add some diced celery and potatoes with the stock mixture and cook til they’re soft.  But really…it is quite gourmet in its simplicity without the additional vegetables.  Or you could add other herbs.

Bon appetit!  You are now a gourmet wild leek chef.  Honest.

Wild Leek Soup

Wild Leek Soup

Baby spruce trees at twilight

Baby spruce trees at twilight

I ventured outside twice today.  The first walk, down by the Silver River, at mid-day.  An access site leads down to the frozen river where sparkling snow frosted branches and the sun peeked its head briefly from among ominous clouds. 

Later, this evening, as darkness descended upon the land, I meandered in the silent world outside our house.  The whine of a snowmobile broke the quiet as a machine squealed across the end of our driveway, headed down towards the bay.

I’m feeling reflective these days.  The Native Americans say winter is a time for reflection and quietude.  While summer energy finds us busy and outwards-directed, winter is actually perceived as a gift from the Creator to turn us inwards towards the realm of dream and pondering and thoughts and silence.

For the first seven weeks of this blog, I’ve felt very outward-moving.  Doing lots of activities.  Moving.  Snowshoeing.  Skiing.  Visiting snow sculptures.  Overcoming fears and climbing on the roof.  Shoveling.  Walking. 

Suddenly this week the energy feels more quiet.  I felt like asking the Earth today, “What do you want?  What message do you have for us?”  And then just have been listening in silence, watching, waiting, walking slowly, being still.

Frozen Silver River

Frozen Silver River

Have you heard it said that the Earth speaks a slower language than we humans?  The heartbeat of the Earth pulses at 7.8 Hz or some similar number.  We men and women resonate at a faster beat; therefore to truly “hear” the language of nature we must slow our thoughts, become quieter, listen to the silence.  And then the silence begins to teach us.

I have no idea if this is scientifically true.  But here’s a quote which points in this direction by Andrew Wyeth:  “I prefer winter and fall when you feel the bone structure in the landscape–the loneliness of it–the dead feeling of witner.  Something waits beneath it–the whole story doesn’t show.”

Snowy branches jutting across the river

Snowy branches jutting across the river

Spiritually there’s a depth and beauty in the winter which we sometimes miss in the more active spring, summer and autumn.  I’m beginning to connect with the subtle language of it.  Here’s what Fiona MacLeod says in “Where the Forest Murmers”:

“Go to the winter woods:  listen there, look, watch and ‘the dead’ months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have found in the forest.”

While some people prefer brisker walks, heart-pumping activities, there’s something in me which prefers the slow contemplative pace of listening to what’s beneath the surface. 

It feels suddenly like it’s not only me walking outside the door to see what’s outdoors….it’s also like the outdoors is wanting to get inside of me.  That this year the language of nature is the teacher.  And it’s important not to go too fast.  Silence and slowness can be teachers for us all.

Looking down our road towards the bay

Looking down our road towards the bay

Squat way down and peer up at that fungus

Squat way down and peer up at that fungus

The last time I drove out to Roland Lake alone, maybe four years ago, I was listening to CDs by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  She’s the author of “Women Who Run with the Wolves”, an incredible book of myths and stories of the “Wild Woman Archetype”. 

She uses stories to teach, instruct and empower women (heck, I think the stories would empower both sexes!)  The CDs came from Sounds True, and I believe they were called “Theater of the Imagination”.  Stories like The Crescent Moon Bear, Skeleton Woman, The Three Old Ones and The Fisherman’s Wife sparked such deep feelings and spiritual connections.  I thoroughly recommend her works to anyone in love with magical words and stories, in love with the power of stories to wake us up beyond our everyday perceptions.

Today, without any stories in the background (except for the running stories in my mind interspersed with precious silence) I buckled on the snowshoes and began the slow meandering through swamp and woods, keeping the eye alert for treasures of nature.

First, tracks imprinted in the snow appeared.  I think I probably failed Tom Brown Jr.’s wilderness survival school all those years ago, because I had no clue as to the identity of the tracks today.  I probably failed Tracking 101 (if we’d received grades, which we didn’t), except in the case of deer, rabbit, squirrel, chipmunk, mouse and bird.  Perhaps I could identify a bear track in the heat of summer if it was encased in good dirt and accompanied by scat.

Today’s tracks looked like dog, coyote or wolf.  I imagined they were wolf tracks, probably due to the romantic myths dramatized by Clarissa on the CD during the last trip.  I pondered the appropriate behavior if meeting a wolf in the woods.  Run?  Stand still?  Growl?  Shout?  Look big?  Avert eyes? 

I am hoping some sort of instinct or guidance just happens.  You’ll see the wolf, perhaps even eye to eye, and a voice in your head will instruct, “Walk slowly away to the left with confidence” or “Run like hell!”  Anyway, that’s my back-up plan.  When meeting flesh and blood wolves or bear (as opposed to mythical story-wolves) , something inside will advise the appropriate course of action.   If it doesn’t….goodbye blog!

On that rather gruesome note, let’s interject another photo:

Mystical ladder into the heavens (or at least up in the tree)

Mystical ladder into the heavens (or at least up in the tree)

I know!  Just at the right moment, when a wolf or bear crosses your path, a ladder will appear in the middle of the woods.  You’ll calmly walk up, smiling down, admiring the fur and wildness of the beautiful creature down below.  You’ll begin writing a story in your head for the next blog as you peer down from the hand-hewn wooden structure. 

Speaking of stories, our local Annishnabe (Ojibway) say that many stories can only be shared in winter.  Years ago I remember asking about some of the traditional myths and stories to the elders.  “No,” one man told me, “We only tell that story in the winter when the snows are deep.”

Because it’s winter and the snows are deep, I am going to share this link:  http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-141.html  You’ll notice the first story is about Wenebojo and the Wolves.  Wenebojo (there’s many different spellings of the fellow’s name) is a trickster spirit.  All sorts of strange and funny and odd things happen to this man.  The stories were used to teach the young ones growing up, to instill moral lessons, to give strength and courage.  I must admit I was challenged reading some of these stories tonight, but I have faith that you’ll be better able to discern the teachings. 

Stories were considered medicine.  Instead of going to the pharmacy when you were ill, traditional societies often told stories as a first approach to healing.  The magic within them was known to heal, to open, to strengthen.  Of course, traditional medicines were also utilized, but I like the idea that a good story can teach us, wake us up, interject a little magic or faith into our dismal spirits.  What better time than deep winter?

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