a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
From the top of a hill I looked down on a small bridge crossing a stream and over the forested hills under their mantle of rain clouds. A pile of logging debris and slash heaped on top of the bridge formed a barricade. It was raining gently. I stood and watched as a figure before the bridge was at work with a two-gallon jug of fuel and a butane lighter, attempting to set a fire. The wet, blackened morass of sticks and debris periodically burst into flames, flaring up and going out, whereupon the man made another attempt. After a prolonged effort, he put down his jug and walked away, leaving the pile of sticks intact.
It was 24 kilometers from Route 138, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, where the utility giant Hydro Quebec had begun construction on its newest hydroelectric project, SM3, on the St. Marguerite River. This was “crown land” – meaning it was aboriginal land, where the Innu people had lived for thousands of years, and which they had never ceded to Canada or Quebec by treaty or otherwise. Innu opponents of the project from the community of Mani Utenam had set up a blockade in protest. Our delegation had come to provide an international presence and to bear witness to their dissent. This would be the fourteenth large dam in Nitassinan, the Innu homeland – the coastal, mountainous region extending along the eastern part of the province from the Saguenay fjord into Northern Labrador – on rivers that had been used by the Innu for thousands of years. For a culture that was in its eleventh hour, this assault would be, they feared, “the straw that broke the caribou’s back.”
Having waited for days in Mani Utenam for the ice to clear off the lake where we would make our landing by float plane, we arrived at the location of the Camp de la Paix on the last sunny day before a week of solid rain. The glacial lake was a brilliant blue, shouldered by dark green conifer forests, the tops of the cliffs looking down on the St. Marguerite river rising above the forest canopy. The air smelled of snowmelt and evergreens. We unloaded our gear and carried it along a footpath to the top of a hill where it joined the gravel access road under construction. From there the road dropped down to a bridge crossing a small river, and then disappeared into the forest on the far shore. It was there, at the top of the hill and in the middle of the road, that we established our camp.
The next morning, when the work crews arrived, they would find the bridge obstructed by a great pile of logging debris. Waving from its summit was the Innu flag.
The turn off to Mani Utenam would be easy to miss. We had been driving Route 138 since Quebec City, for some fourteen hours, a mountainous two-lane highway that follows the north shore of the St. Lawrence River almost as far as the Labrador border. It was mid-March – three months before I would return to participate in the blockade – and the northlands were still in the grip of winter. I was traveling with two University of Vermont students, on their spring break, who had recruited me to join them, in response to the Innu’s appeal. At the time, Vermont electric utilities were negotiating a long-term contract with Hydro Quebec, and the Innu had come to warn us that by importing electricity from the north, we would be participating in the destruction of their homeland and their way of life.
We made our way into the village, a warren of government-built Monopoly houses walled in by two-story-high snow banks. The street and traffic signs were no longer in French, but in an ancient Algonquin language that was spoken by the Innu who had been present on this coast for millennia. Linked to the industrial port city of Sept-Îles by a fifteen kilometer stretch of road, Mani Utenam was another world, set high on a bluff overlooking la mer, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where a close-knit community spoke a unique language and shared a history and way of life that set it part from the Québécois society that surrounded it.
I was reminded of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Light is Like Water,” about two children who discover the magical power of turning electric light into water. There should be nothing mysterious in this – if the electricity that floods our living rooms is produced by hydropower, then, at the other end of the magical equation, where there is light there is flooding. In the story, it takes a child to make to leap of imagination to see the illuminated objects around him floating in a tide of water. But I could see the rising water – if I paid attention – whenever I switched on the lights.
During our short stay, we were invited to attend a meeting of the Coalition, the group that had been organizing against SM3 for more than two years – held in an unheated, smoke-filled trailer, where elder women in kerchiefs and men in flannel jackets and hunting caps, young women wearing porcupine quill earrings and their husbands and brothers and boyfriends in parkas and fur-trimmed caps, spoke in the Innu language for two solid hours and we understood not a word.
In the morning before we left, an activist with the Coalition took us on snowmobiles to see the Moisie River, which would be affected by the proposed dam complex. His family, he told us, used to travel up the river in autumn, poling their way in the shallows and portaging around some two dozen sets of rapids. They returned in spring to their summer village at the confluence of the Moisie and the St. Lawrence, where they fished for salmon and hunted seals. The river was broad and calm near its discharge into the sea, where we stood looking over the slate-colored water towards the snow-dusted spruce and balsam trees on the far shore, far from the narrow canyons and gorges and countless rapids that were further upriver. There were no roads or powerlines or houses in sight. This, our host said to us, speaking in French, is our line in the sand. “They will mess with this river over our dead bodies.”
On our return, I would take note of the sign for Betsiamites (that now reads Pessamit) as we passed, the largest Innu reserve and the oldest, established in the mid-19th century. There lived the descendants of the Innu who traveled the Manicougan, the Betsiamites, the Outards and Peribonka rivers – all great big turbulent rivers with stupendous waterfalls that had all been dammed. If we were to travel further northeast, beyond Mani Utenam, we would pass by Ekuanshit and Mingan and St. Augustine. Impossible to miss would be the Reynolds aluminum plant, the colossal transmission towers, the Tim Horton’s franchises, and the monster tractor trailers with their cargoes of spindly spruce logs, destined for pulp mills. Paved over by roads and festooned with powerlines, scarred by clearcuts and polluted by refineries, the rivers dammed up, diverted, and flooded, the aboriginal world had been overwhelmed, at least along the seacoast, over the last fifty years or so, the Innu confined to reserves where they had been made invisible.
A few months later I would return to support the Coalition Pour Nitassinan in their largest action to protest the construction of SM3, a seventeen-day blockade of construction on the hydro project to which the Innu had not given their consent. It would hold back the forces of development, only for those two and a half weeks, forces that seemed to be as unstoppable as the flood of white settlers who overtook the Americas in a frenzy of violence and righteousness in centuries past. There were no military campaigns, no small pox blankets, but this was another form of violence to communities who had been here since the retreat of the glaciers, in what was to them a sacred geography that gave them everything they needed in order to live.
The rain began on the second day, and under its cover, we went to work erecting tents, digging ditches and putting up tripods as anti-helicopter devices. We cut firewood and collected fir boughs for our tent floors. We patched up our leaky canvas tent with tarps and we bundled up in heavy army navy sleeping bags to get us through the cold damp nights. We collected our water from the clear glacial waters that tumbled under the little bridge; we ate bannock and caribou and porcupine. And salmon. We fell asleep at night listening to the wailing song of the loons and woke in the morning to the sweet whistle of the white-throated sparrow.
We were there before the black flies arrived, in the changing seasons. The little river that sprinted over a jumble of boulders beneath the bridge swelled with every passing day as the winter loosened its grip on the frozen north. The elders frowned and shook their heads when they saw us bathe in the frigid waters, saying it was too cold to bathe, we would get sick (we did). Then they showed us how to cure our colds and our bronchitis by heating the sap from pine trees and making a poultice, and by boiling willow brambles into a potent medicinal tea.
We did not wander far. The forest was impenetrable – the trees interlocked like the fingers of a loom and the ground was a morass of downed trees and deep, soggy patches of sphagnum moss. From the top of the hill, looking north toward the Labrador tablelands, where the river begins its long and tortured descent through the mountains, we could see the canyon bracing the St. Marguerite, where the peregrines and eagles flew from their nests in the granite cliffs. A vast velvety canopy, crested with pointed firs and splashed with the vibrant spring foliage of birch and poplar trees, covered the land, pock-marked with glacial lakes and ponds, marshes and bogs.
When the sun at last came out, and the weather warmed, we began to join the elders on the sandy beach beside the lake, where Marianna and Philomena demonstrated the art of baking bannock in the sand, buried beneath a hot fire. It emerged hours later, a charburned lump. They scraped away the blackened crust where underneath was a light, steamy dough, sweetened with raisins. Sitting beside the water, the women washed clothes, scrubbing them on a washboard. The elder women wore large silver crosses around their necks. Their daughters wore necklaces of porcupine needles and beads. They let us know when it was warm enough for us to bathe. They laughed as we cried out when we jumped into the frigid water.
We listened to their stories.
Who were raised in the time before the Innu’s story was overshadowed by another people’s history. For them the period the Innu call “traditional” was a living memory. They were young hunters who traveled the land, living according to the patterns followed for generations by their ancestors, by listening to their dreams, by hunting and fishing, by giving back to the land in gratitude for what was given. A hunter who ascended a hilltop would look down over the forests, the taiga, the lichen-covered barren grounds, and what he saw was not an empty land, not a wilderness, but a land infused with animals and their signs, a land that told their stories. It was vast and yet intimately known. He would look to see where the clouds were gathering, or where the geese were nesting; he might see a mist-wrapped mountain, or a sunbow illuminating a patch of ground, and the meaning of what he saw had already been suggested by his dreams and through his various and trusted means of divination. He would look for the presence of others – in plumes of wood smoke, in a spray of shavings from a crooked knife, or in the fresh marking of an axe on a tree stump. It was a land that required him to listen closely, to take in his surroundings and to remember them well, and it required a complete and utter self-reliance. He saw a land made holy by the presence of spirits everywhere, by the bones left on scaffolds, or transfixed to poles, by the shafts of light that speared the clouds, blessing the ground where a sign was given. Over this land the People traveled everywhere. Over epic distances, from James Bay to the Atlantic coast, from Ungava to Gulf of St. Lawrence, hundreds of miles by foot and toboggan, canoe and portage, for weeks and months at a time – only the Caribou Mountain was forbidden, a mountain range whitened not by snow or ice but by a thick layer of caribou hair, from where no one had ever returned.
After seventeen days behind the barricades, the police caravans rolled in early with the morning mist. From the same hilltop where I watched the bridge briefly teased by flames, I saw dozens of Hydro Quebec police in their canary-yellow rain jackets moving up the hill toward us. A giant Cat rolled slowly over the barricade, flattening it as if it were soft butter. It was the three journalists who were arrested first, next the observers, and finally the Innu protesters, including the elders, who were taken away in handcuffs with only the trees and the stones as their witness.
Two years later, after endless court postponements, the Innu protesters were found guilty of trespass and property destruction and were sentenced. The irony was missed, of course, of the fact that non-violent protesters were criminalized – who could not succeed in destroying a little footbridge even if they tried – while the violence of tearing up the earth and damming rivers is not called destruction, but development.
I had moved to Vermont a year before I participated in the SM3 blockade, after my mother died. I was living in Paris when I received a call from my sister, who told me that our mother was in the hospital with heart failure, and would I please come home. I booked a flight for the following week, but the next day, I received another call. My mother had a major stroke and was paralyzed on one side of her body. My sister said, she may die.
I had to wait out the night for the first transatlantic flight in the morning. I stayed awake all night, and at dawn, I sat in a café terrace on the Rue Lepic, watching the storekeepers sweep the streets and open up their shops in the quiet of first light. It would be my last memory of Paris.
For the next three months my mother was suspended in a no man’s land between life and death. She fell into a deep sleep that lasted for several days, and then woke; she regained the use of her right arm and was able to bring a cup to her lips, but by then she had lost her ability to swallow. The nurses strapped her one good arm to the bed so she would not attempt to pull the feeding tube from her nose. For many years, my memory of who she was when she was alive, was eclipsed by the image of her as she was on that hospital bed, when she could only grunt and moan. I was deeply haunted by this image, which was a source of nightmares, for many years. I still am. How we die matters, most importantly, because it shapes how we are remembered by those we leave behind.
When I was finally able to leave New York, six months later, I moved to Vermont. I lived in a draughty old farmhouse surrounded by monoculture farming, which I shared with a recently divorced Waldorf teacher and her two dogs. I spent that winter writing and reading and making jewelry, from which I eked out a meager living. I watched the snow pile up in winter, thaw, and turn to ice. I watched the arrival of spring– the first shades of green in the fields, and the emerging seedlings on our windowsills, as if it were a revelation. I sensed something coming to life inside of me. By summer, I had emerged from a long and solitary winter, and from my nightmare.
I cannot say for sure that I responded to the idea of harnessing rivers – of replacing a wild free-flowing river and its seasonal rhythms with artificial flow regimes, fish ladders, and artificial spawning beds – so strongly because it resembles a human being on a hospital bed, kept alive by feeding tubes and managed like a machine. We only think we are in control; our technology has taken on an agency of its own. As Hannah Arendt wrote, we are unable to think about things that we can nevertheless do. One of my mother’s doctors had told us she was a candidate for rehabilitation – when she was surely not. “She is doing fine,” he said. He was no doubt an excellent specialist of hearts and arteries, pumps and vessels. But to make such a statement one must have long ago lost sight of what it means to be a human being.
It is a paradox of sorts that my transition from the via contempliva to the via activa, so many years ago, took place in the far north, in the silence of the boreal forest, beneath the colored whisper of the aurora and the last shudder of winter’s ice. Before a conflagration that never was. We would not feel the need so deeply to heal the world if we ourselves were not broken by it. By traveling to the far reaches of empire, I would discover the roots of our humanity, among those with deep memory, who knew what human beings have always known – what it is to be a “part of everything,” without the presumption – or mania – of control.
Almost three years after the SM3 blockade, construction was well under way when I returned to Mani Utenam in March. The rough dirt track where the Coalition held its ground for three weeks, delaying Hydro Quebec’s construction, was now a 100 kilometer-long four-lane asphalt road, winding through the mountains across numerous lakes and rivers, involving 350 culverts, some more than six meters wide and over ninety meters long. A tunnel was blasted through a mountain, into which the St. Marguerite River had been diverted around the site of the falls and the Great Portage.
The rapids were gone. Where the roar of white water, as it passed through the deep gorge, echoed for miles around, the voice of a great spirit, was a dry stretch of riverbed. The great pulse of the river that determined the rhythm of life here since time immemorial – had been stopped. Snow covered the site, like a balm on an open wound.
What I could not imagine then – the physical erasure of a living place – I can imagine now, only because I have seen the four-lane highway paved over the site of our former camp. Not only has the little bridge been taken out, but so too has the river that ran under it.
Tar Sands. Fukishima. Katrina. We foresaw these ecological catastrophes and warned against them, but we did not foresee them. Our imaginations cannot be tuned to the unimaginable. We knew that our deepening ecological crises were also a crisis of civilization, but we did not know. We were unprepared for the specifics of it. Children in cages. A gargoyle assuming the shape of an orange pompadour and a pout. Aldo Leopold said, to live in ecological awareness is to live in a world of wounds. In this cruel time, to live as a human being is to live in a world of wounds.
The river valley has been flooded, the falls extinguished, the bones of the Innu’s ancestors have been placed in a museum, the footprints in the rocks erased. The great caribou migrations that engulfed the world in a tide of life, reduced to a trickle. The salmon do not come home.
Among these unfathomable losses we must count the passing of elders who belonged to the last of the hunting cultures, and with them a way of knowing and being in the world that for most of human history was universal. It was indigenous elders who were the firekeepers, keeping the embers alive through the long cold night of the fossil fuel age, a time when nature literacy was all but extinguished; when human societies no longer knew how to sustain themselves from the materials at hand; and when the spiritual illumination that human beings had always found in nature underwent a near total eclipse.
The SM3 blockade, and other acts of resistance by northern peoples at the end of the last millennium, was but a minor roadbump in the trajectory of global capitalism, which would insist on a totalizing domination of all people, everywhere, and would be unstoppable. And yet peoples who have been overwhelmed have a way of turning inward, of turning their pain to song, wherein they keep some irreducible essence of themselves alive.
A decade and a half later I visited Mani Utenam to see how the community had fared in the wake of the flooding. I timed the visit to coincide with the salmon runs, when in the past, everyone would be on the river, tending their nets; and when fresh-caught salmon would be on the table for dinner in every camp and in every household. But that is not at all what I found.
The village elevated above la mer had not changed much, it seemed to me, though there were many new houses, and more cars – shiny new SUVs and trucks. It still looked like a collection of Monopoly houses set down in a great big sandbox. Now there were flat-screen TVs in every home, cell phones were ubiquitous, and everyone was on Facebook. It was the first time I had stayed in Mani Utenam and was not served any wild food – no caribou or porcupine. Or salmon. We ate pizzas and macaroni. It was hard to find anyone at home. It was harder still to find anyone who was going to the river to fish.
Yet the spirit of resistance had flared up again, over yet another hydroelectric project, this one on the beautiful Rivière Romaine. The land protectors staged roadblocks, marched hundreds of miles to Montreal, and established an occupy-style encampment on Route 138 near the entrance to Mani Utenam. Every evening during my visit I stopped by the encampment, where I was invited to join the others inside a canvas tent, who sat together on a carpet of sapinage, curled up on bed rolls or cushions, children on laps or at their mothers’ feet, others asleep on piles of blankets. There was a fire going inside a tin woodstove. On my last night, I squeezed in next to an old man, tall and lean, with large calloused hands and a heavily lined face, who got up to fetch firewood and returned carrying an enormous load in one arm as if it were weightless. A young woman stood up to tell a story in the Innu language, gesturing and wriggling her hips, using her entire body to bring her account to life, while everyone laughed out loud. Away from the houses with the walls that separate, away from the television, I thought, the stories continue.
I said goodnight, for in the morning, I would join them in yet another march.
Alexis Lathem is a fellow at the Black Earth Institute, an environmental journalist, and author of the poetry collection Alphabet of Bones and two chapbooks. Recipient of the Chelsea Award for Poetry, a Vermont Arts Council grant, and a Bread Loaf scholarship, her poems and essays have appeared in About Place, AWP Chronicle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Chelsea Review, Gettysburg Review, The Hopper, Hunger Mountain, Saranac Review, Spoon River Review, and other journals. She has worked as a staff writer and organizer in environmental and food justice movements, received her MFA in poetry from Vermont College, and teaches writing at the Community College of Vermont. She lives on a small homestead farm in Vermont.