a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
This piece is a meditation on reconciling my own mourning for deep ancestral ties to the land. Last summer, I visited Svaneti, Georgia (the country), a mountainous region where an ethnic group called the Svans still lives in their traditional ways. This journey followed on the heels of a trip to Russia on which I visited the area where my grandmother’s family was from. The juxtaposition of how little my own family passed down about our heritage with the chance to witness the traditional lives of the Svaneti stirred many feelings about finding connection with the earth as a settler in a land far away from the one that my ancestors were from. This essay is an attempt to cope with those feelings and understand my ability to find rootedness in the world.
I took a deep breath of goat, hay, cow. The crisp smell of glacial air wafted in as an afternote. By the ruddy potholed road, a small sow guided her piglets through the grass.
After a nine-hour-long van ride, I’d finally arrived: Ushguli, a cluster of tiny hamlets in the soaring mountains of Georgia, a tiny country to the east of the Black Sea and south of Russia. It’s perhaps the highest continuously inhabited human settlement in Europe, in an area called Svaneti. Largely sheltered from the outside world by the rugged Caucasus range, an ethnic group called the Svans still lives much as they have for thousands of years.
Manure has a presence here. The barnyard never really ends. Cows lumber around ancient towers that now store their grain; sheep mill about humble stone dwellings built by long-ago ancestors known only by legend.
Boulders that seem tossed from the sky sit in the bold green carpet of the valley, testament to glacial ages past.
Dogs looking for someone in need of herding wander about, asking for head scratches.
And everywhere, people ask if you want to ride a horse—even if they don’t seem to know another word of English. I swear a three-year-old said to me one day, “You want a horse?”
All this lay beneath mountains looming so high they gave me shivers. I lived among mountains in Utah. What is it about these ones that so inspires a sense of the sublime—that feeling of awe that one often gets when gazing at powerful forces of nature? I wondered. It was, I realized, the wholeness of them, the total presence. Whereas at home, mountains are often partly obscured by foothills, these behemoths leapt to their full height from the flat plane of the valley, like angry giants startled awake by some rogue beanstalk climber. One’s eyes could journey unhindered all the way from the grassy base where small horned cattle grazed to the snow peaks puncturing the clouds.
When I’d left home for Russia, I had no plans to come here. I knew nearly nothing about Georgia; hardly anyone I knew could place it on a map. “Georgia…what continent is that part of?” some had asked. But while in Russia, whenever I mentioned that I planned to travel to other parts of eastern Europe, people inevitably responded with, “Go to Georgia!” clasping my hand in theirs and pleading fervently with their eyes.
I would hear the song “Georgia on My Mind” playing regularly in St. Petersburg cafes. When I asked my friend Julie, who’d come to study in Russia, if this was normal, Julie didn’t remember having heard the song. Could it be a sign?
I decided that if the next person I mentioned my plans to begged me to go, I would.
When new acquaintances invited their photographer friend to join us for drinks one night, he asked about my plans—and of course responded, “Oh, go to Georgia,” his eyes traveling somewhere far away.
“Looks like I’m going,” I smiled.
Deep in the land where wine ages under cellar floors,
A man moves a stone slab, dips it up
by a ladle.
A hidden underground lake,
Held in smooth ceramic, sealed by beeswax.
He hands me a cup of tart treasure: The secrets
of nameless dynasties.
Throughout my travels, I’ve tended to gravitate to the rural, the deep country. Glamorous cosmopolitan living? Nah, give me manure, sweat, the sweet smell of straw and horses.
The countryside both is and isn’t a novelty to me. I grew up by a small cow farm; you could smell the cows as the bus drove by after school. Other kids held their noses and screamed “Eww!” but I secretly loved it. I’ve mucked out my share of horse stalls, and was a teenage barn rat; I reveled in the scent of sweaty leather, stale grain, freshly cut alfalfa.
The earthy smells of Ushguli reminded me of home—but it was also nothing I’d ever known.
In these tiny mountain hamlets, they don’t spruce up their ancient stone towers and humble hillside churches. They haven’t received grants funding renovations of historic sites, as far as I know; they aren’t overpowered by a gift shop or other tourist gimmicks. Additions are minimal and authentic, like the museum of Svaneti culture that’s really just an old Svaneti house with artifacts from cookware to a cradle. You can imagine a family living in this house, because hey, the family next door probably has a similar setup. And up the hill, people attend religious services in a humble church with frescoes over a thousand years old, half-faded terra cotta faces crying out from the ceiling.
In Russia, I’d traveled to the place that I believed my grandmother’s family was from. I’d been searching for some sign that I’d come to the right place, and I believed I’d found it—a grave marker with the same first and last name as my great-grandfather, perhaps a cousin of his. Planting my feet on the ground, standing on the fields they might have farmed, I could envision them hunkering down in these tiny wooden cottages over the winter, or going out to pick mushrooms deep in the pine forest surrounding their field. But as it turned out, the village was in part of the Chernobyl fallout zone, and few people in the already tiny village had remained. Even if I spoke Russian, finding relatives would’ve been unlikely. I left with the satisfaction of knowing what this place smelled like, what its vast forests, lush ravines, and expansive fields looked like, but a sadness at being twice estranged—first, through my family’s journey across the ocean, and second, through an environmental catastrophe.
To save all Moscow,
they murdered the fields and the forests—
for five days, commanding the clouds
to rain down
upon farmers, old women gathering birch sap.
I learn this while en route,
protect my arms and legs from the lush green toxic life
as I hike to the forsaken village.
Eat no food, drink no water,
though old women live from berries and mushrooms still.
I’d long felt it important for white people in America, the descendants of settlers, to reconnect with our roots. We need to develop a sense of connectedness to the places our ancestors evolved with, the places that sculpted our bodies and nourished them into their current form, I believed. The places that told stories teaching us how to live. Otherwise, we develop a profound sense of envy for the depth of connectedness others have with the earth, which leads us to steal from others’ cultures—and usually from people who have been heavily oppressed (because we have oppressed pretty much everyone else around us). Such people may have kept their rituals alive at risk of death, only to see them stolen by the very culture that has spent centuries terrorizing them. (Just look at the prevalence of contemporary white people appropriating Native American beliefs.) Instead, we should look deeply to rediscover our own traditions and understand our ancestors’ relationship with the land where they lived, I believed. I felt that walking through the land that my ancestors had lived with for centuries would help me envision how they had lived—and, I hoped, to feel a connection with that place that had birthed their traditions.
In my early twenties, when I began to learn about indigenous cosmologies, I often wondered if I, as a white person from settler culture, could ever feel the same sense of belonging to the earth that a person living in a traditional society might feel. While I knew we can’t simplify how indigenous peoples relate to the earth—even within one culture, individuals might describe that relationship in many different ways—in general, such societies lived a sense of connectedness with the rest of creation that white culture just doesn’t have, as Sioux activist, lawyer, and scholar Vine Deloria explains in God Is Red. When our formative years don’t instill that sort of bond with the earth, is it ever possible to develop it? I’d questioned.
While reading House Made of Dawn by Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday, I felt struck by his description of domesticated animals as estranged from the wilderness. When they die, he writes, “they are gone away from it as if they had never been. Their dust is borne away in the wind, and their cries have no echo in the rain and the river…” The earth refuses to harbor them, because the child has turned into something its mother no longer knows.
The “later” creatures, as Momaday says in House Made of Dawn, “have an alien and inferior aspect, a poverty of vision and instinct, by which they are estranged from the wild land, and made tentative.”
All that rang true—the shortsightedness of those of us from my culture, our estrangement from the land, living far from the place that harbors the bones of our ancestors. But is the rift forever irreparable? I wondered.
The bones of my ancestors call me from across the earth
Telling me of this place that needs mourning,
Speaking of a rift
my own bones could one day fill.
Am I a mere shadow upon the land?
As I hiked toward the glacier, a scruffy little dog met me on the path. He seemed hungry for companionship—whenever I’d stop to look at the wildflowers or rest, he’d circle back and plop down beside me. After I’d hiked through the boulder field and admired the billowing clouds encircling the snow peak, he began to follow me back when I called him. But he seemed uncertain. He’d dart into the woods, occasionally meeting up with me again but seeming none too sure about going back to the village. Where did he belong, this raggedy little mutt?
Nowhere and everywhere, he seemed to say.
At my guesthouse the next morning, I chatted with a young woman named Ana as she fixed me breakfast. She had a certain dreaminess about her that reminded me much of myself at her age, and sure enough, she loved to write. I asked her if she enjoyed living in such a remote village. “Oh, yes,” she said, with that same look of rapture that every Russian acquaintance displayed when asked about Georgia, “I love the mountains. I live in the city most of the year. But in summer, I come here to help my grandfather. I’d much rather be here.” Ana said some families would leave during the coldest, snowiest months, but a large portion of the village stayed. People had found ways of living with the snow, ways of hunkering down and hibernating as it piled up around them in meters. I thought of stories of how indigenous peoples in the Pacific northwest, in the U.S., had occasionally experienced a snow so heavy it trapped them in their dwellings, leading to starvation. Such events were so infrequent that people weren’t prepared. Here, snow was a way of life, and people survived by bringing their animals into the house, huddling together in a little shared cocoon.
I went into the village’s small “ethnography museum,” which, as mentioned, turned out to be a traditional house, complete with all the accoutrements of daily life—a cradle suspended from the ceiling, a loom, the special ornately carved chairs that men sat in—to see what a home meant for survival in such conditions looked like. It was one big room, with a loft spanning part of its perimeter for the whole extended family to sleep on. On the outer edge, there was an area for cows, pigs, and other animals, adding more collective body heat to the space.
These were a people who had forged an enduring relationship with their mountains. Those giants gave them shelter from the outside world, and with it, autonomy. Over the centuries, they’d remained unconquered no matter which empire was storming the land. Even the snow served as a protective cloak of sorts, giving them months of total security from attack. In the spring, they watched from their towers to make sure no invaders were traveling up the valley—and the mountains probably made the path of any potential attack pretty clear.
With such a legacy, it was no wonder people refused to be lured to cities, I thought.
One tiny village even sat on top of a smaller mountain looming above this hamlet, Ana’s uncle told me when I visited them in the tiny café where she worked that afternoon. I imagined an ice-encrusted world where people rarely left their frosty precipice—and certainly not in winter, which must have lasted well over half the year. What brought them to that spot? I wondered. Maybe their destiny was to steadfastly act as lookouts for their valley-dwelling brethren.
The next day, as I walked back from a hike up the windy road leading toward the Russian border just eleven kilometers away, I heard the clip-clop of hooves behind me. Since visitors frequently went on guided horseback tours, I thought little of it. Then, as the horse strode up alongside me, I heard a greeting in Russian: “Stravstoitsya.” I looked up to see a camo-clad man with a rifle, descending from his horse. Although it caught me off guard, I realized from his gestures that he was offering me a ride. “Nyet, spaciba bolshoy” (“No, thank you so much”), I replied, fumbling for a few more words to explain that I’d rather walk.
These were a people who would never relinquish their right to autonomy, to continue living in this glacial wonderland of goats and ancient relics. Deemed a World Heritage site, they would share this place with the world—a few visitors at a time—but they would do so on their own terms. Rather than take a tour, you can wander down the cracking road petting dogs and peeking into barns, or resting against a tower to sketch the village, as I saw one visitor doing.
I accepted a horseback ride offered by Ana’s grandfather. Though Alia was a gentle chestnut mare who seemed content to slowly plod along, Ana’s ten-year-old little brother insisted on walking beside her, holding the reins, though I told him I’ve ridden for many years. At first this felt a bit frustrating—it must look like it’s my first time on a horse, I thought, though I’d yearned to gallop up the green valley. I felt the curious stares of locals and tourists as we passed a little café run from someone’s front porch. But then I realized, I’ll have the chance to ride a horse again. When else will I get to talk to a ten-year-old boy from a mountain village in Eurasia? He spoke some English, though he wasn’t yet as fluent as Ana, and despite his shyness, I coaxed him to tell me a little about his life here. It seemed he took great pride in caring for the horses and learning to guide guests around; horses had been a part of his life almost since he learned to walk.
Then it hit me—I feel more alive, more fully human, because this family exists. The sense of yearning that once struck me, when I questioned my own capacity to truly belong to a place, was banished. Living here in their traditional way, and allowing me to know them, they showed me the strength of the relationship we humans are capable of having with the earth.
It draws minerals, nutrients, nitrogen
that feed the shorter, more fragile tendrils
its companions send down.
Rootedness, perhaps, is never given up lightly.
There’s always a trauma; there’s always a break.
Can we accept nourishment,
when we’re always afraid of taking more than we should?
My ancestors’ homeland had been profoundly damaged, to the point where people are warned not to drink the water or grow their own food. But there are places yet where people still vigilantly hold guard against outside invasion, not just with watchtowers but with their choice, snow after snow, to remain. They’re not untouched, but they retain the right to decide what they’ll keep and what they’ll reject; to invite you in or kick you out. And the sense of feeling deeply invited, not just to see but to linger long into the night with new friends, sheltered by stars and snow peaks—it made me think that perhaps life is not so linear as my culture often portrays it, and the moment we stop grasping for that thing that felt forever elusive, we often catch its reflection in the most unexpected of places. Perhaps, even, a country we barely knew existed several months ago, much less could imagine.
The cluster of faintly sparkling stars that makes up the Pleiades glimmered over the mountaintop. One can’t see it by staring directly. I find it often, but never by searching—only by gazing upon it out of the corner of my eye, as though tricking it into revealing itself to me. But I wasn’t tricking it, I realized—the only trick had been the illusion that it wasn’t there all along.
And whether I think about them or remain oblivious to their presence, their ancient light is falling over my shoulders and illuminating my path, I thought as I walked back home.
Melanie Jae Martin’s creative nonfiction writing has been published in Kudzu House Quarterly (current issue), Catalyst Magazine, and Ocean, and her scholarly work has been published in two anthologies: Animals and the Environment: Advocacy, Activism, and the Quest for Common Ground (Routledge, 2015) and Of Mice and Men: Animals in Human Culture (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).