DETROIT AND THE HISTORY OF GREEN
In the 1990s, Detroit Summer was a cauldron for local activism, community empowerment, and radical acts of reclaiming an abandoned urban core. I took a class of 15 Antioch college students with me one summer to help out. The organizers first showed us some of their exciting projects. My favorite was in an abandoned block of falling down two story clapboard houses. Here was an alfalfa field in a burned-out lot, garages with goats and chickens, baled hay from their alfalfa plot stacked neatly in what was once a living room with a bay window. There was a row of singing beehives beside dwarf fruit trees weaving their branches through rusted wire gates and broken yard fences. It was amazing. Amidst shattered glass, rusted cans, chipping lead paint, was food, activity, rejuvenation. They were illegal squatters in this landlordless forgotten place. They were late twentieth century urban bioneers.
For me, the work in Detroit represented critical spiritual activity. Specifically, it demonstrated the role of human community working directly with the will of Earth to re-establish a pattern for mutual flourishing. It was an assertion against doom and gloom. It was an affirmation of creativity. The ability to both envision and enact an alternate future by changing the conditions of the present was at the heart of Detroit Summer.
The collusion of Christian theology and certain environmental rhetoric predicting great calamity and finality to the human race is the exact opposite of the spiritual activism I speak of here. My spiritual practice is rooted in the worldview of Midewiwin. This Anishinaabeg[i] cultural term has been translated as, “The Grand Medicine Society,” in many anthropological texts. The elder, Kewaydinoquay, who introduced me to this worldview in 1978 translated Midewiwin as meaning “mysterious things happening here.” I served as one of her chief oshkibewis (helpers) from 1979 until her death in 1999.
A basic tenet of this belief system is that all is interconnected, inter-related, conscious being. By ALL, I mean: animals, birds, reptiles, fishes, winds, stars, clouds, rivers, oceans, springs, rocks, mountains, plants (etc.) and human beings. We, too, are part of the ALL that IS.
This belief gives to the lead-poisoned, depleted soil of inner city Detroit a certain consciousness, a living beingness. Despite neglect, abuse and abandonment, the soil remains alive and aware of its purpose to hold the seed and harness the root. The soil retains its memory and history as well as its desire to once again flourish freely. For me, the men, women and children in Detroit touching that soil with a clear commitment to restore and revitalize it were also demonstrating their own capacity for resilience. Through this action they were embodying an ancient sacred trust between humankind and the natural world: We will honor and care for you and all of your children, Mother Earth, and you will support our lives and the lives of our ongoing.
This exchange between human and nature can be demonstrated in a million different ways. We exhale carbon dioxide as the trees inhale carbon dioxide. Trees exhale oxygen as we inhale it. This is but one simple demonstration of our holy interdependence. We are wholly dependent upon nature. We humans do not thrive when the air, soil, and water around us is polluted, depleted, and no longer able to sustain its own or our health. When we are out of balance, nature suffers, too. This is the foundational concept upon which elaborate lifeways were built not just in the Great Lakes region but across the myriad ecosystems of the world.
In 1992, I attended The World Parliament of Indigenous Peoples in Rio de Janeiro where the native peoples of the Americas, Africa, Australia and New Zealand gathered to prepare their own statement in regard to the future of life on Earth. The gathering was held simultaneously to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also called the Earth Summit. These indigenous nations have no official recognition in the U.N. and are structurally excluded by the nation states that now occupy their ancestral territories. They gathered in protest and in proclamation. Working across multiple languages, they summarized their own findings and infused it with their sense of political and spiritual purpose. I sat as witness to this remarkable gathering. The preface to their Rio de Janeiro Declaration reads as follows:
We cannot heal the Earth until we heal ourselves.
We cannot heal ourselves until we heal the Earth.
It is with all of this in mind that I arrived in Detroit in June 1997 in a worn-out broken-down van with fifteen students. We came to be willing workers as part of a three-week intensive summer block course. One requirement I had of my students was to explore and understand the history of how the land they call home switched hands from the original peoples to the current population. I wanted them to understand the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the rest of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand as settler states. Most of my students were the descendants of slaves and immigrants. Their parents, grandparents, great and great-great grandparents fled Russian pograms, German concentration camps, Armenian genocide, southern plantations, or the poverty, civil unrest and wars of the Caribbean and Latin America. They knew something of their own family stories but very little about the native peoples of North America.
From our overview of Detroit history, we learned that the French called this area Des Troits for the three rivers that converge there. Prior to that it was a muskeeg, a swamp. Unlike the Eurocentric notion of swampland as wasteland, to the Anishinaabeg, the swamp is the source of the most powerful medicine plants. It is a sacred territory inhabited by wise beings, including the Great Blue Heron. It is a place of joyful abundance protected by the fierce little warriors we call mosquitoes.
Though the written history of Detroit often begins with the French, this earlier knowledge was passed to me through the oral tradition. I was told the area was so vital that it sometimes became the site of skirmishes between the Anishinaabeg and their neighbors and sometime-enemies to the East, the Haudenosaunee, a people you may know as the Iroquois nation. The resistance leader, Tecumseh of the Shawnee, is said to have been killed in the region near Detroit. The border between the U.S. and Canada was in flux and native peoples drawn into the fighting between these two fledgling nations suffered mightily. Still many resisted European colonial powers and the new nation-states. They fought, died and survived in and around present-day Detroit in an attempt to protect both their lifeway and their territory.
This early story of Detroit was not woven into the activism of Detroit Summer. Their focus was on more recent immigrants, including Eastern Europeans and the in-flux of African Americans moving up from the South following the de-segregation of factories by Eisenhower during WW II. Detroit was Motown, the Moter City, a multicultural frontier on an international border. Detroit, marred by racism and white flight to a safe suburban fantasyland. Detroit as a brown-skinned poor broke orphan; as wasteland; as nobody’s beloved. Detroit as down on its luck, as gangland, as exploited labor. Detroit Summer as savior, as hope, as possibility.
I went to Detroit with an open mind and an open heart. I went to work alongside my students under the leadership of those who were trying to make change. We had read HOME! A Bioregional Reader as one of our texts. In it the term ‘reinhabitation’ described the efforts of urban gardening and the restoration of native species to city yards as part of a movement to live consciously and deliberately in urban places. What was happening in Detroit went beyond what the book described, or anything I had imagined.
Detroit Summer as a site of spiritual activism is my own perception and not necessarily the perspective of the activists themselves. I think what may have motivated those on the ground in Detroit was more akin to the words of beloved leading local activist Grace Lee Boggs. As I sat on the floor beside her rocking chair in a church basement alongside my students, she explained that the urban rebellions of the 1960s were not a revolution. A rebellion expresses mass discontent. A revolution changes everything.
The effort to bring material changes to the local environmental, economic and social fabric of inner city Detroit was an inspiration. Months later I began to write the poem, The History of Green. The images and ideas in it are rooted in my dream of Detroit’s past, present, and future.
The History of Green
begins when rock yields to water
and the devouring thirst of the sea
is quenched by morning,
when stone holds day close
until pebbles rain
seed from their embrace,
then green gathers itself
from fringes of sunlight
like the shadow of moss
Turquoise is green’s prayer
gracing the edge of stone
humming pollen’s melody
until birds sing their green songs
making an egg in a nest
a poem to wheel the sun
across open sky
Yes, green is what happened
in the time before
we were born
before continents drifted apart
before summer surrendered to ice.
Green loves itself
in dawn’s slippery light
in northern lakes lined with cedar
in malachite, emerald, jade
lime, dill, pistachio, each cold-pressed olive
the pungent cleansing smoke of sage
and in the glove around the sinuous streak
called snake. Green gives itself away
and still has more
becomes another word for gold.
Then green is hoarded into acres
cut into measured squares called money
locked and guarded
by soldiers in green camouflage
Green becomes the billyclub of greed
the hideous accounts of the corporate
who hide behind armies
reducing the hours of our days
to wages worth less than
the total sum of tragedy
Green waves of nausea
wrack the body of the man
who cannot get enough to eat.
Green envy strangles the throat
of a woman who has nothing to sell
but her body on the street of the city.
And green is the prostitute’s wages
laid down on sweaty sheets
Green fear rises with mounting terror
as police in riot gear fling tear gas
at the protestors marching.
The boot of the rich kicks back
screaming more, more, give me more
the feverish craving, the addict shaking
the CEO and the crackhead
have much in common
Green had once been alive
on every branch and meadow grass
the Gardening Angels in Detroit remember.
They begin gathering green
hidden in rust-colored, bean-colored seed
planting green in burnt-out brownfields
harvesting green to feed their families
and the honey-loving bees
return to sweeten the torn-up alleys
but their sting, a flying thorn
still carries the pain of green flames
destroying green woods. Oh, green,
please remember hills, valleys
verdant, fertile, a woman’s belly, her breasts
the very beginning
Green is the birthing cry
which brings into being
algae, slime, fern, fig
and all manner of feathered leaves.
Green is the fist of the forest.
Green is the shoot
the unfurling flag of Spring
the food for all that follows
Green, first born of star and wave
ancestor to all animals
unceasing despite misuse
cracking through cement
sprouting in a jar
wetting the gardener’s hands
renewing itself after drought
Green, I take you in my mouth
bite, chew, swallow, excrete.
You give hunger
and the means to satisfy
Green sustains the memory
of God as
the spiraling cycle
in seed, stalk, flower, root
praising aloud the name
of everything that survives
[i] The word, Anishinaabeg, literally means The People. It refers to a large group of Algonkian speaking peoples who refer to themselves as The Three Fires. This includes the Ojibwe/Chippewa; the Potawatomi; and the Odawa/Ottawa. The Anishinaabeg consider the territory now known as Detroit to be among the Easternmost of their ancestral homelands.
Ann Filemyr, Ph.D. serves as the Academic Dean of the College of Contemporary Native Art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Prior to that she was a professor at Antioch College in Yellow Springs,Ohio for 15 years. Her parents still live on a 140 acre farm in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin where they moved from Philadelphia when she was twelve. She is a poet and author of The Healer’s Diary (Sunstone Press, 2012); Growing Paradise (LaNana Creek Press, 2011); Skin on Skin (Starfire Press, 2000). She wrote a chapter for Goddesses in World Culture (P. Monaghan, ed.) and has contributed to numerous other books and journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention from the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Award for her poem, Love Enough. Her concerns involve sustaining love and life on our beautiful home planet.