a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Lake Champlain churned in the ferry’s wake. I watched the Green Mountains retreat, their contours a steady backdrop to my life. The resting lion of Camel’s Hump. Mt. Mansfield’s rocky chin glinting above early October’s blaze. Layers of smaller peaks pulled north into Canada. I thought of the sheep at home and calculated the depth of shade on that warm day. Wondered how many hens’ eggs would be secreted between hay bales while we were gone.
Leaving my family’s farm in Vermont for a night can seem undoable; years had passed since we’d taken even a weekend trip all together. Now we were driving to Montana. I gave a last look home before turning my attention west.
“I didn’t realize it would be so built up,” I confessed the first evening of our trip. Ada and Steve glanced at me over their bags in polite disbelief. Ezra pulled his pack from the backseat and scanned the mostly vacant parking lot.
“Niagara Falls is one of the natural wonders of the world, Mom,” Ada said. “Where did you think all the people would stay?”
“I wasn’t thinking about that part of it,” I said. Vague images of falling water were as far as I’d taken the day’s travels.
The mostly empty streets were windswept. Food wrappers and paper scraps from the Columbus Day weekend caught in sidewalk cracks and the back corners of shuttered shops. Beyond the closed kiosks and the remaining flashing lights of hotels and casinos, beyond the spent holiday and the mess it left behind, we could hear the falls.
The next morning, the pull of the current was intense and luring, and we turned as one to follow the river downstream. Mist sprayed up from the roil of the water. Whitecaps grew then just as quickly disappeared. The morning sun slipped in and out of clouds as it coaxed away the residue of the night’s rain. Everywhere the river, the rush, the roar.
Walking so close to the water, the Niagara seemed to vanish as we approached the top of the American Falls. Facing the full crush of the falls, I felt more than thought, “I’ve been here before.”
A pulse of knowing worked its way from my eyes to my feet. I drew in a breath and stood still not so much in the power of the water, but in the power of the place. Time fell away like the river. In my mind’s eye, the high rises and trappings tumbled down and the manicured park lawns grew tousled. Fences and handrails crumbled. The past hung in the air along with the mist. I was a visitor, but in the sound of the water I felt the solid pull of belonging.
I’ve never been a spiritual person. The rigors of the mind and work of the body are my mainstays. In Vermont, I cover the same ground every day, walk my own worn paths through pastures and woods, carry the same old hand tools, fill the same buckets. I recognize generations of animals from birth by the look in their eyes—grave or playful, sweet or aloof—and the level of certainty in their gait. I plant seedlings in the heavy, rocky soil. But then a sunken handprint next to wisps of dark kale offers a momentary, fragile edge of mystery: on that hill I exist and am part of the spin of something much larger than my own press upon the earth.
Away from the focused physical care of my homeground, it’s easy to lose any slim thread of connection. The falls carried me far from the narrow range of my stories, my comfort, my life.
For a snatching moment, I could almost have jumped in.
“I feel like I know some of the people from before, before all of this,” I said to Ezra and swept my arm in a slow arc, as if I could brush away the buildings and busloads of tourists, conjure chert from pavement, white oak and sugar maple from steel bridges and gates. I wanted to make space for relations less fleeting than merely passing through. “It must have been such an important place.” I hesitated before asking, “Do you feel like that too?”
Ezra nodded yes, he could feel the past alive around us as well. He lingered in the last stretch between childhood and adolescence, and I wondered what he would think of the western lands we were headed toward. We watched tourists in red or blue raincoats fill the decks of the American and Canadian river boats, then we posed for Ada’s camera. In this moment, but aware of another.
Late that morning we continued west.
A photo had brought us this far—a stunning picture of the Absarokas and the Yellowstone River alongside news of a writers’ conference. Somehow I hadn’t expected the light. Mid-October: sunlight glanced off the Wind River Range, washed the Tetons in early morning alpenglow, sharpened the Absaroka’s crags. During our travels in northwest Wyoming into Montana, the sun warmed the stretches of sagebrush and yellow-brown grasses, warmed us to the west. We pitched tents in the last of the open campgrounds in Grand Teton National Park and in Yellowstone. Iced-over breakfast bowls and t-shirt afternoons. Water taps drained for the season.
Our eyes had adjusted to the open landscape over the days of the cross-country drive. In the parks, pronghorn, mule deer, moose and bison enlivened the late autumn scenes of leafless aspens and dry ground. Rumps of elk flashed between willows. We looked, and watched, for grizzlies, but didn’t see any.
After a week of camping and hikes, we drove on to stay with my friend Carter’s family in Bozeman. Carter and I had met in a flood of relief and kinship, both starting graduate school with children at home and a shared dream to write outshining any incongruous moments with our younger classmates. When she offered for my family to join hers anytime for a visit in Montana, I thanked her but couldn’t see ever making it happen.
The Spanish Peaks: from Carter’s backyard I could see the snow-tipped range Steve and the kids would hike into the next day. Their muscles and senses would guide them through days in the mountains while I feared I’d come all this way to chase words around a page—different words, I hoped, but words just the same.
I wanted to know why it seemed so imperative to watch the bison, to look for grizzlies, to sift shiny bits of obsidian through my fingers. I wanted to think about the Lakota pannier “possibles” bag I’d seen in the Museum of the Rockies the day before. Green, red, black and white glass seed beads were sewn in a symmetrical pattern of half-diamonds, like mountains tipped left and right. The cream-colored unsmoked buckskin was trimmed with dyed porcupine quills and tin cones stuffed with red-dyed horsehair. The utility of the bag was graced with beauty and a meaning beyond my ken.
I wanted to think on what it meant that the Abenaki presence in my home state has been rendered largely invisible, the original human connections to hills and river valleys displaced by assimilation or hidden under layers of green. But there, in the west, with a hint of it already in Niagara, lines of relations past and present between people and the land were starker. I needed to think about what it meant for a white, northern New England woman on a trip to feel and consider any of this at all. I was only on the surface, a tourist.
My eastern compass askew, open to the needs and realities of that land, I helped Ezra choose what to carry into the mountains and what to leave behind.
Carter and I drove to Paradise Valley for the workshop. At every break in the schedule, I watched the face of Emigrant Peak shift slowly through the pass of daylight. The meeting and dining room thrummed with the nerves and aspirations of hopeful writers. Outside in the early morning air, steam rose like desire from the hot water flowing through the resort.
On the second day, Carter and I left the buzz of gathered writers to find a group of grizzlies predictably seen from a nearby gravel road. We knew the faded grasses of the neighboring basin had been parted by feeding bears each late afternoon that season.
A sow and three cubs tumbled out of an aspen grove. The bears ran down the hillside. I half expected them to start rolling down the hill, through the thinly-leafed aspens. Another sow and three cubs appeared from behind a long ridge in the grasses. The cubs sat back and batted their front paws at each other. One sow humped up her enormous back and began to dig. What were they feeding on?
A half moon rose above the snow-dusted range behind us. Gold light threaded each layer of the valley below. I watched the bears by the aspens, the ones by the rise. They were beyond the park’s boundaries, within sight and scent of ranches, the road, us.
The grizzlies were the most powerful animal I’d ever seen, feeding and playing in the blur between wild and settled ground. Their agile strength precisely of the terrain. I felt the excitement of watching the bears clash with the threats to their lives here at the far reaches of the greater Yellowstone. Habitat fragmentation, the loss of whitebark pine and spawning cutthroat trout, their precarious endangered species listing, the early springs. I didn’t know yet of the sacred role of the bear as creator, healer, guide through transitions and messenger between worlds. I knew so little about the ethics of this place.
That night, I dreamed of grizzlies. Just past midnight, I awoke half out of bed calling, “Oh my God,” as I lunged from the covers. I’d dreamed the bears were outside the room, trundling past the lodge with noses to the ground. Toward morning, the same bears in another dream poked the screens out of windows in my house in Vermont, let themselves in to look around my home as I had theirs.
The last day of the workshop, I attended a seminar with naturalist, wilderness advocate and writer Doug Peacock. I recognized Peacock’s face from photos but was surprised by the power circling him, the power of strength and vulnerability, both. A Vietnam Vet, Peacock said living with grizzlies in the northern Rocky Mountains helped him “recapture elements of my humanity” after the war’s atrocities. He’s spent the last forty years paying the grizzlies back.
“The experience has been more important than the recording of it,” he said to introduce his life’s work with grizzlies and wildlife conservation.
He told us briefly about his childhood in the woods of Michigan and college years as a civil rights activist before describing his path to Vietnam as a Green Beret combat medic. Throughout his military training and tours, following the contour lines on his folded, worn map of Yellowstone was a keystone of sanity.
Peacock was pulled from the combat field on March 16th, 1968, flown out in a helicopter directly over the My Lai massacre.
The violence, horror and fear that Peacock witnessed and participated in and took into his body in Vietnam was evident on this bright sunshine fall day in Montana. His words took me to the village in Vietnam where he stitched the flesh of women, of children and of the elderly caught in the indiscriminate violence of war. As he spoke, it seemed villagers’ screams echoed off walls hung with sublime, earth-toned mountain landscapes of the painter Russell Chatham. I let the sounds and sights wash over my mind’s eye and pass through my skin to a place I didn’t recognize, my whole body listening to the terror.
Peacock sketched his return to wilderness and the draw to grizzlies after his grim return from Vietnam. He said, “The human consciousness evolved in habitats the remnants of which we call wilderness. Why the hell would I want to adjust to a pathological culture?” He told us about his first encounter with grizzlies, about making a home for himself in their realm, and his great sorrow in what is happening to the earth while we “fiddle as Rome burns.”
“To try to hold that great sorrow while experiencing joy is a hard struggle,” he said. “But words matter. Words count.”
That evening, the writing workshop ended with a faculty reading gala in Livingston. The town had a hardscrabble edge running beside the newly-renovated gleam of the Shane Center for the Arts. Peacock read and then interrupted his own tale of a bear in Glacier, “I could have sat there forever, never feeling quite so alive as in the presence of a great bear.” My heart began to pound and I felt a quick sweat cover me. I knew I would dream about grizzlies again that night.
During the hum of intermission, I took a quiet spot on the stairs. Carter found me and lent her steady company. Our writing mentor joined us and listened to my tear-soaked, half-finished sentences about the day, about the trip so far. He said, “It didn’t make any sense on paper to come out here, but you came with an open heart. You knew there was something here to find.”
My legs were shaking. I wasn’t the one who’d lost my land-based culture and home, my young adulthood or life to war. I felt as if I’d travelled in the wake of colonization and all manner of war since leaving my home—a life trussed up in all that green. Some small cracked measure of the devastation and loss endured by other people, other places, had accumulated like miles on the trip west. Unlike at home, I remained open to the next fracture.
“Do you guys remember the story of this place?” I asked Ada and Ezra the next morning as they pushed away their back seat belongings and unbuckled. Carter had suggested we stop at Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument on our way east. In the monument’s parking lot, I skimmed the glossy National Park Service brochure. I was not ready to leave Montana.
“Of course,” they both answered and climbed out of the car. Their study of history had been more Howard Zinn than schoolbooks, but still none of us knew yet of the red granite marker stones: Little Whirlwind fell here while defending the Cheyenne way of life. Long Road died here while defending his homeland and the Sioux way of life.
We headed to the visitors’ center after looking down over Custer National Cemetery. Along the way, I turned around in a circle, taking in the huge expanse at every degree. The sky was overcast, slashes of rain and sun fell on sagebrush from different directions. Just inside the visitors’ building, I stopped short at a life-size photograph of Sitting Bull.
Behind the glass cases were more photos and examples of the dress, tools and weapons of the cavalry and some of the Plains tribes. I read again about the traditional roles of men and women in Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho life, read again the story of loss and destruction we’d followed all the way west.
“Heroism and suffering, brashness and humiliation, victory and defeat, triumph and tragedy—these are the things people come here to ponder.” What I pondered: the difference between homeland and “wilderness,” between a culture built intimately around relations with animals and “wildlife.” What it meant that I wanted to go outside and lie belly-down on the unfamiliar ground.
I saw a glassed-in replica of a long feather headdress on a mannequin and circled around it slowly. An original, golden eagle feather headdress was on display in the weapons’ case. Loud voices from the nearby movie screening bounced around the room. Army uniforms were a blur of dark blue wool against a far wall. The light sparkled on gunmetal like stars.
Ezra stood by the door. I had watched him take in the exhibit, linger alternately at the cases of guns and bows. Steve and Ada remained in the exhibit room; the orderly thinking they share found a match with the arranged progression of displays.
“Do you want to go outside?” I asked Ezra. He shrugged.
“Is that a yes or a no?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He hesitated, and I softened at his uncertainty. And then he said, “I wonder if they have a Crow dictionary here.”
I suggested we ask in the gift shop. We looked at the display of books, and not finding dictionaries, went to the counter to inquire.
“We don’t have one,” a man in a National Park uniform told me. “We don’t sell them.” Two women on either side of the counter listed off the dictionaries they did have, and handed a pair to Ezra: Dover editions of Native American sign language and a Lakota dictionary.
“Why do you want to learn Crow?” the man asked. “Is it just because you’re in Crow country?”
Ezra would often rather take things in than talk. I encouraged him to tell of his interests in traditional wilderness skills. I thought maybe a dictionary was one more path to the sensibility he’d found in the woods.
“I’m interested in that kind of stuff, too,” the man said to Ezra. “Craig has a dictionary on his desk,” he gestured to the office in back. “Maybe he would show it to you.”
“Would you like me to speak a little to you?” The taller woman with a kind smile looked Ezra in the eye. He returned her focused gaze and nodded. The woman’s name tag read “Loretta.”
Loretta began speaking to Ezra. I looked somewhere in the space between them and listened. The words were not sounds in my ears, but a warmth in my chest. The sentences were alive, and I understood them with a fluency beyond reason. I heard Loretta greet Ezra, welcome him to the site, offer her name, and then ask his. He looked at her, and over at me.
“Tell her your name,” I said. “She asked your name.”
The three park employees looked at me. “Do you speak Crow?”
“How did you know what she was saying?” the man asked.
“I could just tell.”
“Are you serious?” he asked.
I started to stammer out an explanation, how my tight mind had cracked open the past couple of weeks.
“You must be a sensitive person,” he said, his manner both gentle and matter-of-fact.
The three looked at me and the woman behind the counter said, “Oh, you’re having a moment.” She reached for a box of tissues and continued. “It happens all the time here.”
“This is a humbling place,” she said.
As we turned to leave the shop, Loretta approached Ezra and said, “I am going to teach you a very simple but important word: ahòoh. It means thank you. That’s a good thing to know.” Ezra returned the sentiment, repeating the word in Crow, and then thanked Loretta in English.
Steve and Ada met us as we went outside. “What’s wrong, Mom?” Ada asked as we walked away from the building.
When I tried to put my feelings into words they fell away, unspooling into the sky. A light rain began and covered my glasses with mist. The few tourists made their way from the cemetery to the granite monument for Custer and the soldiers. As the rain fell harder some returned to their cars or the visitors’ center, but we continued on to the Indian Memorial, circular and aligned with the cardinal points. The rain stopped and the sun played out in ribbons all over the land. Dark grey bands blurred the line between earth and sky.
We pushed on through the northeast corner of Wyoming and then into South Dakota. An enormous lightning storm lit the horizon from northeast to southwest. We watched sheets of rain wrung from green and purple clouds. Lightning flashed like broken spider webs glazed pink. I expected to drive right into the storm, but it remained at a distance for more hours than we could believe.
In the last miles of the trip home Ezra grew ill, his senses brimful and blocked. He sat quietly in the back and watched the landscape start to rise with the gentlest of hills, then fold higher into the familiar mountains of home. When we hit the dirt road of the village nearest our farm, the neat clapboard houses and barns seemed to have shrunk, my sense of scale had been altered. Even the old sugar maples, stripped of their leaves in the weeks we were gone, looked less substantial.
We arrived home exactly at afternoon chore time, and fell into the routine of hay and grain, buckets and water troughs divided between us. After most of our belongings were unloaded and put away and a feverish Ezra tucked under a blanket with a book, I slipped back outside for a walk with the dog. At the garden gate he looked back, and my nod toward the beaver ponds sent him tearing to the hillside. I walked over a springy bed of moss while the dog passed through lacework of hemlock and fir. Flush of partridge cut pasture from woods.
The glory of red, orange and yellow that colored my last walk here lay on the ground in shades of brown. Tips of tamaracks glowed in the fading daylight. No ice skimmed the pond, but the cattails and goldenrod, asters and rushes were bowed and bent from hard frosts. The dog sniffed around apple trees, caught scent of deer eating windfall fruit. It smelled like rain but not yet snow.
Back at the main garden, I opened the gate and stepped over the soggy chard to pick some kale for supper. Frost had softened the stalks, but the crisp leaves would only be sweeter for it. With one arm full, I bent to pull a carrot out of the wet soil. I brushed away what dirt I could one-handed and ate the carrot on my way back to the house. Cold, simple, bright: it tasted like home, almost as if I’d never been gone. As if I might forget what had been revealed.
The grief I keep found room to move in the space and sky beyond this old hill farm. The private grief accrued over a lifetime and one more existential. Neither have been eased by diversions of the mind or tasks of the body, the rhythm of planting and slaughter, the crumbling stone walls and grazing sheep. Grief, in all its shades, seems a matter of the spirit, which I did not learn to tend in my homeground.
I met forbearance out west: a patience, a mercy. It wasn’t what I expected to meet, and I do not want to forget. What I was offered, and wish to embrace, is reciprocity, a correspondence through time and relations. Deeper than passing through or even a sunken handprint left behind. To know and be known.
To lie belly-down on this ledge-roughened ground and feel the stories borne beneath its tender skin.
Melanie Viets is a shepherd born and raised in northern Vermont. Her writing has appeared in Narrative and Whitefish Review. She is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program and is at work on an essay collection.