Quotations: “We are here . . .”

— from Sam Sussman’s mom:

“We are here to take the pieces of the universe we have been given, burnish them with love, and return them in better shape than we received them. . . “

She said she hoped I would escape the troubles she had faced, but that I was choosing a difficult path as a writer and I would have to find my own resilience for times when it would be easier to give up . . [I]t’s your heart that makes you special”

— (Sussman, Sam, “The Silent Type: On (possibly) being Bob Dylan’s son” in Harpers’s Magazine, May 2021, p. 46-47.

Be resilient — and burnish your piece of the earth with love. Aloha, Renée

Sam Sussman is a writer based in New York. He knows “the infinite gifts of being my mother’s son” (47).

Banner photo: by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Quarantine Kitchen: Eggplant & Chickpeas

Although Barry and I are now vaccinated, thankfully, we continue being cautious. In carrying over the lessons we’ve learned from this past year, we know to look around, be thankful for what we have, and be flexible about almost everything.

The other day when Barry was out walking the dogs, he checked out a neighborhood produce stand and met a very friendly Filipino farmer who encouraged him to try these eggplants:

“Winter eggplant” is the name I found on Google, but I doubt the Filipino farmer calls them that.

I looked up Filipino eggplant recipes, and the closest one I could find based on what the Filipino farmer told Barry was an eggplant omelette, but I didn’t want that — and I wanted to use at least one can of the garbanzo beans that we stockpiled over a year ago. So I kept looking and then adapted this recipe from yummy. com:

Roasted Chickpea, Eggplant, and Red Potato Arugula Salad. (I left out the arugula because Barry doesn’t like it). What we got was a hearty stew that is gluten free and vegan.

Ingredients

US|METRIC2 SERVINGS 3 

  • 2 red potatoes
  • eggplants
  • 1 can chickpeas/garbanzo beans
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 2 cups arugula [add if you want a salad dish]
  • salt (as desired)
  • ground black pepper (as desired)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder (ground)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons bbq sauce (organic, optional) I put in diced tomatoes instead
Chop – what you have

Directions

  1. Boil the eggplants until slightly soft. Let them cool and peel off the skin.
  2. Chop the vegetables into bite-size pieces (approximately 1/4-1/2 inch in size). Toss the vegetables and chickpeas with the olive oil and spices and then sauté until the vegetables are tender.
  3. Serve immediately or store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Nutrition – if you use the arugula:

480CALORIESSODIUM37% DV880mgFAT26% DV17gPROTEIN24% DV12gCARBS25% DV74gFIBER68% DV17g

I sautéed everything

That’s it. Tasty, vitamin and protein rich — and I got to use a can of the garbanzo beans!

Although Barry and I have gotten our second vaccines, the COVID numbers are up here in part because over 6,000 visitors arrive every day on our little island.

We will continue to wear masks, wash our hands, keep physically distant from others, but now we feel safer going out and can visit with others who have been fully vaccinated. 🙂

Wishing you access to the vaccines wherever you are.

We hope this pandemic can be stopped — and that we will act on the many lessons we’ve learned in the last 15 months.

Be well. Be grateful. Have fun in your kitchen using whatever you find there — and enjoy.

Aloha, Renée

Book: “The Hidden Wound” by Wendell Berry

“Berry wrote [The Hidden Wound] during winter break at Stanford in 1969-when student riots were breaking out around campus and students were voicing the need for a Black Studies program. In his typical style Berry unflinchingly lays out the tangled web of race relations in this country by focusing on the role of black people in his own life. The starting assumption is that racism creates a hidden wound in everyone-whites as well as blacks-and Berry admits that while he has been aware of the wound for a long time, he had tried to ignore it or cover it up until he sat down to write his essay,” says Briana Saussy in a review of the book.

Although written over 50 years ago, what Berry writes rings true today:

From The Hidden Wound:

“No man will ever be whole and dignified and free except in the knowledge that the men around him are whole and dignified and free, and that the world itself is free of contempt and misuse.”  . . .

It is, then, not simply a question of black power or white power, but of how meaningfully to reenfranchise human power. This, as I think Martin Luther King understood, is the real point, the real gift to America, of the struggle of the black people. In accepting the humanity of the black race, the white people will not be giving accommodation to an alien people; it will be receiving into itself half of its own experience, vital and indispensable to it, which it has so far denied at great cost. . .

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them.” 

from: <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/227313.The_Hidden_Wound&gt;

Wendell Erdman Berry (born August 5, 1934) – American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer.

Wendell Barry

Let us all be free. Aloha, Renée

Books: from “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”

In his 2011 book that seems relevant today, Parker Palmer notes, “Democracy itself . . . helps us transcend the fight or flight response . . . [Democracy] is a political process for creating a common life that builds on millennia of human attempts to transcend our fight or flight reflex. The tension-holding structures of a democracy allow the best our leaders to speak meaningfully against reflexive decisions, as Abraham Lincoln did in his first inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War . . .

Like language, the arts, religion, and education, democracy does not propose to bring life’s tensions to an end. Instead, it offers us a process for using them creatively, providing political structures that promise to turn the energy of tension toward constructive ends. Instead, it offers us a process for using them creatively, providing political structures that promise to turn the energy of tension toward constructive ends (84-85) . . .

Of all the levels on which we live, the private is the one we value most. Here our basic needs for food, shelter, and love are met, and we try to meet those needs in the people closest to us. America’s founders made it clear how much they prized the private life when they established a nation that promised each citizen the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The founders believed that citizens who took advantage of that right to improve their own lot in life would turn around and use their gains to contribute to the common good.

Something happened on the way to the modern era. Many Americans seem to believe that this nation’s entire reason for being is to secure such a self-contained private realm that we can pursue our own happiness without regard for the needs of others, even at their expense. Proof of that point is not hard to come by. It is difficult to gather Americans around issues of the common good, such as our shared responsibility to fund public education. We are quick to rally, however, when it looks like the government may ‘invade’ our private lives by passing laws requiring the use of seat belts, banning us from owning assault weapons, or mandating the purchase of basic health insurance, [or for wearing masks to protect others from COVID]. . . .

Some Americans believe that a powerful central government is an unambiguous evil. Perhaps they have never been in a country where the government is so weak that private well-being is threatened by unchecked lawlessness and the absence of vital public services: that is a picture of evil. Nonetheless, it is true that a powerful central government–especially when it is neither transparent nor accountable–can deform the shape of our private lives in ways that isolated individuals are powerless to resist.

Many Americans have recently had vivid and painful reminders of that fact. Millions of us have lost jobs and homes because of high-level economic and political machinations that created great wealth for a few and devastation for the many. [And now COVID-19 has shown that inequality vividly again]. A significant number of these victims are, or were until recently, middle-class people who valued private life so much that they did not concern themselves with politics. America had always worked well for them [or at least some of them], and they believed it would continue to do so.

Those of us who fall into that category are now getting a glimpse into the perennial plight of people for whom America has rarely, if ever, worked well. They have much to teach us. For Americans on the margin, who value private life as much as the rest of us, the private has never been an arena of security, sanctity, and strength to which they could retire. That is why most movements for social change have come from the ranks of the dispossessed. The poor–at least those whose capacity for action has not been gutted by debilitating poverty–have long understood that the power they need to pursue their private interests comes only as they band together as strangers with shared public interests to make their voices heard on high. . . .

Yes, elected officials are held accountable by voters at the next election and are therefore sensitive to public opinion. And yes, corporations are often subject to consumer decisions and, in theory at least, to governmental oversight and regulation. But political power includes the ability to manipulate information and mitigate regulation in order to protect special interests against whatever threatens them.

Big money provides cover for political power, and political power provides cover for big money. The result is a closed system that can be held accountable only when “We the People” are sufficiently coherent to exercise countervailing power. And that, in turn, can happen only when we have access to a healthy public life in which we are willing to invest our time and energy (92-94).

The Meaning of Public Life

From anarchies to democracies to dictatorship, every kind of society has a private and political life of some sort. The distinguishing mark of a democratic society is a robust layer of public life — the natural habitat of “We the People” — which serves as a buffer zone between the private and the political. The presence of a public life does not guarantee democracy, but its absence guarantees that democracy cannot survive. Where there is no public life worthy of the name, the most likely political outcome is some form of authoritarian rule. And once authoritarian rule sets in, there can be no private life worthy of the name (92-94) . . .

In the company of strangers, we can learn that we are all in this together despite our many differences; that some of our differences are enriching and those that are vexing are negotiable; that it is possible to do business amicably with one another even in the face of conflicting interests. In the company of strangers, we can speak our minds aloud and listen as others speak theirs; in dialogue we may discover a common good in the midst of our diversity; and we have a chance to raise our voices to a level of audibility that none of us could achieve alone. . .

Of all the tensions we must hold in personal and political life, perhaps the most fundamental and most challenging is standing and acting with hope in the ‘tragic gap.’ On one side of that gap, we see the hard realities of the world, realities that can crush our spirits and defeat our hopes. On the other side of that gap, we see real-world possibilities, life as we know it could be because we have seen it that way. We see a world at war, but we have known moments of peace. We see racial and religious enmity, but we have known moments of unity. We see suffering caused by unjust scarcities, but we have known moments of material and spiritual sharing in which abundance was generated. Possibilities of this sort are not wishful dreams or fantasies; they are alternative realities that we have witnessed in our own lives. . .

Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives. We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light. We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace, and justice for everyone. Meanwhile, we live win the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys. It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us” (191-193).

Parker Palmer

So engage with your neighbors, act on community projects, do what you see needs to be done — wherever you are.

You are needed. Our democracy need you.

Aloha, Renée

Poem: Jacarandas and George

There are some things that try as I might,

I am powerless to resist.

Coffee with cream enough to match a paper bag.

Cool, dry champagne in a Waterford flute, or a red plastic cup.

I can’t resist salt, or butter with salt, or a matinee 

on a hot day with buttery, salty popcorn.

Sometimes I nap in that cool dark theater,

popcorn spilling silently from my drooping arms.

If a rainbow makes an entrance, I risk it all to pull over in a sometimes perilous place and search for my phone.

My heart races, fearful that it will vanish before I capture the 

yellow, pinkish, pale purple miracle before me.

I am enslaved by the jacaranda.

I can’t concentrate if those purple blossoms are out. 

It is like George Clooney just walked into a party.

How can you possibly listen to a polite conversation

Or even reach for a crab Rangoon?

Jacarandas and George have all of my attention. 

I can’t resist old men talking in coffee shops, 

puppies and toddlers as they discover their world, 

laughing with a stranger while waiting in line, 

people singing for no reason in a public restroom.

Face it. Most things I deem delightful hold court in my head

and I am guilty of surrender. Every time.

– by Sally Sefton

Kula, Maui. 2018

Photo by Mike Neal.

. . .The jacarandas are in full bloom, making it hard to keep my car on the road. – Sally 

Thank you, Sally. Enjoy.

Aloha, Renée

Poem: “Spumante”

Weeks diffuse into each other like
they’re sprayed; jetted, they shoot certain:
days, times, doodles, kept appointments,
next is lull, pool, fading, flash-disperse.

I was shook and shocked by death,
chanced upon it on a winter walk,
proof of plod for miles behind me
swept in fog, a wet so thick

it blended with the snow that
settled plenty on the sand. It
was not yet daybreak, and I’d driven
miles to walk and think,

find peace in sweat and sea racket,
that ancient wise asthmatic sound.
The light took its lazy time for lifting.
In the shift I saw a darker shaping

than the gray—at two miles a boat
of some proportion, at quarter mile a whale.
Since then I’ve been lamenting,
moving as if held in gel.

At night I dream it, see it stretched
across the wrack of high tide,
belly to the stars—flung shells and gravel—
throat-part grooved, fins unflappable,

balletic flukes symmetric
in their pointing, how they fused:
all this in half-light, all this in sea dirge,
wet air matte, toned silver,

and I hunched in the hood of my parka,
God-awed before shavasana,
stilled as if the glassy eye that looked to me
had fixed me in a century of tintype.

Ah-gah-pay. I’ve only recently discovered
love of animals—well, Kili, Nan, and Rebus,
three dogs. Now I’ve partly taken leave
of language, have given incoherence due.

I know what it’s like to be mammal
filled with deepest ocean sounds:
oblivion, solitude, stillness
intermitted by quake roar,

tectonic slipping, lava fissures,
ship propellers drilling,
the human croons of whales.
There is slave in me, fat heritage,

no fluke I’m invested with hurt,
echo of the hunted, located, natural
rights redacted, meagered to resource.
All is flux as I’m collapsing

love and distance, moving through the gel,
my life, edging the canals of my city,
clomping up its hills, memory aerosol,
head in self cloud, getting Melville

as I should have, watching at him
contemplate the vista from a landlocked house,
hills becoming pods of transmigrating giants:
Greylock. Berkshire range.

There’s thirst for music in this less than solid
state. Ampless back in my office,
I knee-prop my Fender, ancient black thing.
Strum it casual, weep;

suck salt in darkness, fingers guessy,
lazing up the sound. Still, something
brusque runs up me: shuddered
wood, that deep flesh shook

that makes string music fuse to you.
The thumbing further breaks the thing in me.
I know what now love is,
know tentative for sure its

incoherence, jelly analog, is mine for life.
The windows stay black and phlegmatic
as the air outside begins to heave with rain.
I hum, thumbing, fashion something of a home,

some succor, pulse quick but steady as I deep dive
to dub. With it comes the baleen
wheeze of mouth organs, plangent blue whoop.
I am dub and dub is water.

Exile, I wish you could have lived in me,
plunging, life spumante. I’d slip my hold
on you like magma shot for islands
every single time you breach.

  • by Colin Channer

Enjoy – Aloha, Renée

Published in the print edition of the The New Yorker November 16, 2020, issue. Colin Channer teaches at Brown University in the Department of Literary Arts. His books include the poetry collection “Providential” and the novella “The Girl with the Golden Shoes.”

Banner photo by Dida Cunha on Unsplash

Quarantine Kitchen: Quick Cashew Cheese

The recipes I’ve found for cashew cheese require soaking the cashews overnight or at least for several hours. However, in a quarantine kitchen, you learn to be creative. So, the other day, when we wanted a cheese replacement right away, my son took half the container of unsalted, raw cashews from Costco that we had on the shelf and a can of black olives.

Use about 20 ounces of unsalted, unroasted cashews and one 8 ounce can of olives

John pulsed the cashews, the black olives with all the liquid in the blender – and instantly, we had creamy, delicious, healthy (gluten-free, dairy-free) cashew cheese. That’s it!!

Quick cashew cheese

I’m planning to try different flavors: with sun-dried tomatoes, perhaps with capers, artichokes, . . . The “secret” may be to have enough liquid to create a good, smooth consistency with the cashews.

Low in sugar and rich in fiber, healthy fats, and plant protein, cashews are also a good source of copper, magnesium, and manganese (nutrients important for energy, brain health, immunity, and bone health). Besides the health benefits, the cashew cheese is delicious and creamy – great as a dip or for spreading.

Healthy snack – with cashew cheese dip – delicious!

For the “7 Benefits of Cashews,” read https://www.zestslc.com/blog/2014/7/31/7-benefits-of-cashews

What do you still have stored in your cupboards? I have lots of cans of garbanzo beans – hummmm. What will I do with them? Stay tuned or if you have a good idea, let me know.

We are coming up on our one year of mainly being in quarantine – March 13th. Because Barry and I are older, we are in the 1C category here for the vaccine in Hawaii – after the front-line essential workers, medical personnel, teachers, and really old people. We have just gotten our first COVID vaccine!! Hurrah!

Hoping you have access to the vaccines. May you and all you love stay healthy.

Aloha, Renée

Banner photo: Cashew cheese dip with IWon Protein Stix

Barry’s Gleanings: “The Black Wealth Gap”

From: The Week – Featured Article:

https://theweek.com/articles/939413/black-wealth-gap

Decades after the civil rights movement, African Americans still hold a fraction of the wealth of white Americans. Why? Here’s everything you need to know:

How big is the gap?
It’s staggering. The net worth of a typical white family in 2016 — including home, retirement accounts, and all assets — was nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family, at $171,000 to $17,600. This gulf even includes African Americans whose households are headed by college graduates, who actually have less net worth than white households headed by high school dropouts. Wealth begets wealth through generations, and African Americans have missed out on that transfer for centuries. Just 8 percent of Black families receive an inheritance from parents or grandparents. For someone with no ­buffer of savings and no family member who can help, any financial emergency — a sudden illness or job loss — is a catastrophe.

How did the gap start?
After the Civil War, Reconstruction was supposed to begin making up for the hundreds of years of slavery during which African Americans had wages, property, and even spouses and children stolen from them. But the “40 acres and a mule” promised by Gen. William Sherman was yanked away by Abraham Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, and the little land that had been parceled out was returned to the white former slaveholders. Most Blacks in the South after the war were forced to toil as sharecroppers, perpetually in debt to white landowners. Blacks who managed to succeed despite all this fell victim to white terrorism, as in the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, massacre that wiped out a Black-led government in the nation’s only successful coup, or the 1921 Tulsa massacre in which jealous whites attacked, burned, and even bombed from the air a thriving neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. With segregation and Jim Crow laws depriving them of the vote and of economic opportunity, many Blacks abandoned the South in the Great Migration, only to find more-subtle discrimination waiting in the North.

What kind of discrimination?
The New Deal was meant to help the poor across America, but it had racism baked into it. Rather than overturning racial covenants that kept Blacks out of desirable neighborhoods, the new Federal Housing Administration promoted them. The government Home Owners’ Loan Corporation marked majority-Black districts in red on maps, so banks would not extend government-insured loans there — suppressing both Black homeownership and business development. The corrosive effects of that “redlining” persist to this day. After World War II, the G.I. Bill, which paid for college or vocational training for veterans and offered subsidized mortgages, was administered by the states, which funneled the benefits away from Blacks. And the 1956 Federal Highway Act that helped create the suburbs bulldozed and isolated black neighborhoods, creating ghettos.

Didn’t the Civil Rights Act help? 
The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination and strengthened voting rights and the desegregation of schools. But even as it “struck down legal barriers,” says historian Leon Litwack, “it failed to dismantle economic barriers.” The wealth gap was already so large that even if Blacks were paid the same as whites for the same job — and they were not — they were unable to catch up. Meanwhile, the era of mass incarceration had begun. By the 1980s, Black men were 11 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites, thanks partly to laws punishing use of crack cocaine an order of magnitude harsher than powder cocaine, which was favored by wealthier whites. Our educational system also perpetuates Black poverty: Unlike in most other advanced nations, schools are funded locally and are tied to the local tax base, which means that people growing up in poor neighborhoods go to inadequate schools. Far from shrinking, the racial wealth gap has in fact grown over the past few decades, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, which wiped out much of the progress blacks had made. While median white household incomes rose by a third from 1983 to 2016, typical Black household incomes actually dropped by 50 percent.

But don’t some Black people succeed?
Yes, but individual efforts to “bootstrap” one’s way up the economic ladder face enormous obstacles. A 2019 Georgetown University study showed that wealth in youth is a better predictor of success than intelligence. Racism in hiring persists, as numerous studies have shown that pit a résumé with a “Black-­sounding” name against a similar one with a white name. Marriage and stable families help create wealth, and married Black women have more wealth than single Black women. But many Black men with low incomes do not feel marriageable; moreover, a 2017 DuBois Cook Center study showed that wealth differences persist between the races despite marriage status. Structural racism leaves African Americans trapped in a wealth gap that is actually widening, not narrowing. “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear,” Black writer and intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates said in The Atlantic. “The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

How COVID-19 worsened the gap
When the coronavirus hit this year, Black Americans were still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. That downturn had wiped out 53 percent of all Black wealth, largely because subprime lenders had targeted Black communities with loans on bad terms. Then came the COVID-19 shutdown. While 22 percent of all U.S. businesses shuttered between February and April this year, 41 percent of Black-owned businesses closed. Many African-American business owners couldn’t access the Payroll Protection Program, because loans tended to go to large firms that had existing relationships with major banks. One study found that white owners who went in person to a bank to ask for a PPP loan fared much better than Black owners who did so, even when the Black owners had better financial profiles. And many Black-owned businesses are sole proprietorships, which weren’t covered. As a result, fewer than half of all African-American adults now have a job. “The pandemic is falling on those least able to bear its burdens,” said Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. “It is a great increaser of inequality.”

This article was first published in the September 27, 2020 issue of The Week magazine. 

Banner Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash

Quarantine Kitchen: Mango Bread

This bread is an example of the creativity that comes with substitution. It also shows I have wonderful neighbors who share. My neighbor Susan brought us over the most delicious banana bread made from the gluten-free Pamela’s Products Pancake Mix. She’d found the recipe on Pamela’s website — and had added chocolate!! It was amazing banana bread.

Then Susan brought over a bag of the Pamela’s mix, so I had to make the bread. But we didn’t have ripe bananas. In a quarantine kitchen, you look around and substitute. Neighbor Kate has been sharing her most delicious mangoes – thus Mango bread!

The following recipe comes from Pamela’s Products website: “Our original Banana Bread recipe that everyone loves! This delicious and satisfying banana bread is made with our Baking & Pancake Mix

Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix

INGREDIENTS 

  • 4 TBSP butter, melted 
  • ½ cup sugar or honey 
  • 2 eggs, beaten 
  • 1 cup banana, mashed [I used a big ripe mango from Kate’s yard. The mango flavor isn’t as intense as ripe bananas, so I suggest using 2 cups of mangoes]
  • 1¾ cups Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix
  • ½ teaspoon salt 
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla [We are out of vanilla – so I skipped it] 
  • ½ cup nuts (optional) [I mixed in walnuts ]

DIRECTIONS 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat together butter, sugar or honey, bananas mashed (in this case mango). Add remaining ingredients and mix together. Pour into a greased 8 x 4 or 9 x 5 pan [My pan was 7 x 7]. Bake for 1 hour or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

From: Pamela’s Products, Inc.https://www.pamelasproducts.com/recipes/gluten-free-banana-bread

Susan had added chocolate to her banana bread, and although I didn’t have chocolate chips – I did have chocolate bark, which I shaved on the top before popping it in the oven.

It’s easy to make and delicious to eat — this version is gluten free too.

Mango Bread – in friend Denise’s ceramic bowl

Enjoy.

We are hopeful that we will receive the COVID vaccinations soon since we are in the 1C group – the next one being called up as soon as enough vaccines arrive here. It seems we have made it through. I hope you too will be getting the vaccination soon – and then we — hopefully wiser than we were — can carry on with our lives.

Lessons I’ve learned during this pandemic include the kindness of neighbors; there is no need to run out to the store so often, and it’s easy to make substitutions in recipes (although some turn out better than others). This one is good. 🙂 I’ve gotten to do lots of reading too. This bread is perfect to enjoy with a cup of tea — and a book.

I hope you are well — and stay that way.

Aloha, Renée

“Skywoman Falling”

Chapter 1 of Braiding Sweet Grass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

  • by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow, this is the time for storytelling. The storytellers begin by calling upon those who came before who passed the stories down to us, for we are only messengers.

In the beginning there was the Skyworld.

Thus begins Robin Wall Kimmerer’s retelling of the beautiful creation story of Native American peoples around the Great Lakes. Love and care create a world of gratitude and shared responsibility.

“She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze.* A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall. In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand.

* Adapted from oral tradition and Shenandoah and George, 1988.

Hurtling downward, she saw only dark water below. But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light. They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them.

The geese nodded at one another and rose together from the water in a wave of goose music. She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath to break her fall. Far from the only home she’d ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers as they gently carried her downward. And so it began.

The geese could not hold the woman above the water for much longer, so they called a council to decide what to do. Resting on their wings, she saw them all gather: loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds. A great turtle floated in their midst and offered his back for her to rest upon. Gratefully, she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of his shell. The others understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need. The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water and agreed to go find some.

Loon dove first, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts. One by one, the other animals offered to help—Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon—but the depth, the darkness, and the pressures were too great for even the strongest of swimmers. They returned gasping for air with their heads ringing. Some did not return at all. Soon only little Muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all. He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully. His small legs flailed as he worked his way downward and he was gone a very long time.

They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative, and, before long, a stream of bubbles rose with the small, limp body of the muskrat. He had given his life to aid this helpless human. But then the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and, when they opened it, there was a small handful of mud. Turtle said, “Here, put it on my back and I will hold it.”

Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle. Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle’s back until the whole earth was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home.

Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed. The bundle was still clutched in her hand. When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches—fruits and seeds of all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hole from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere. And now that the animals, too, had plenty to eat, many came to live with her on Turtle Island.

Our stories say that of all the plants, wiingaashk, or sweetgrass, was the very first to grow on the earth, its fragrance a sweet memory of Skywoman’s hand. Accordingly, it is honored as one of the four sacred plants of my people. Breathe in its scent and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten. Our elders say that ceremonies are the way we “remember to remember,” and so sweetgrass is a powerful ceremonial plant cherished by many indigenous nations. It is also used to make beautiful baskets. Both medicine and a relative, its value is both material and spiritual.

There is such tenderness in braiding the hair of someone you love. Kindness and something more flow between the braider and the braided, the two connected by the cord of the plait. Wiingaashk waves in strands, long and shining like a woman’s freshly washed hair. And so we say it is the flowing hair of Mother Earth. When we braid sweet-grass, we are braiding the hair of Mother Earth, showing her our loving attention, our care for her beauty and well-being, in gratitude for all she has given us. Children hearing the Skywoman story from birth know in their bones the responsibility that flows between humans and the earth.

The story of Skywoman’s journey is so rich and glittering it feels to me like a deep bowl of celestial blue from which I could drink again and again. It holds our beliefs, our history, our relationships. Looking into that starry bowl, I see images swirling so fluidly that the past and the present become as one. Images of Skywoman speak not just of where we came from, but also of how we can go forward.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 9:35 a.m., I am usually in a lecture hall at the university, expounding about botany and ecology—trying, in short, to explain to my students how Skywoman’s gardens, known by some as “global ecosystems,” function. One otherwise unremarkable morning I gave the students in my General Ecology class a survey. Among other things, they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. These were third-year students who had selected a career in environmental protection, so the response was, in a way, not very surprising. They were well schooled in the mechanics of climate change, toxins in the land and water, and the crisis of habitat loss. Later in the survey, they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions between people and land. The median response was “none.”

I was stunned. How is it possible that in twenty years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day—brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl—truncated their ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like? If we can’t imagine the generosity of geese? These students were not raised on the story of Skywoman.

On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the sweet juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast.

Same species, same earth, different stories. Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are. We are inevitably shaped by them no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness. One story leads to the generous embrace of the living world, the other to banishment. One woman is our ancestral gardener, a cocreator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants. The other was an exile, just passing through an alien world on a rough road to her real home in heaven.

And then they met—the offspring of Skywoman and the children of Eve—and the land around us bears the scars of that meeting, the echoes of our stories. They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and I can only imagine the conversation between Eve and Skywoman: “Sister, you got the short end of the stick . . .”

The Skywoman story, shared by the original peoples throughout the Great Lakes, is a constant star in the constellation of teachings we call the Original Instructions. These are not “instructions” like commandments, though, or rules; rather, they are like a compass: they provide an orientation but not a map. The work of living is creating that map for yourself. How to follow the Original Instructions will be different for each of us and different for every era.

In their time, Skywoman’s first people lived by their understanding of the Original Instructions, with ethical prescriptions for respectful hunting, family life, ceremonies that made sense for their world. Those measures for caring might not seem to fit in today’s urban world, where “green” means an advertising slogan, not a meadow. The buffalo are gone and the world has moved on. I can’t return salmon to the river, and my neighbors would raise the alarm if I set fire to my yard to produce pasture for elk.

The earth was new then, when it welcomed the first human. It’s old now, and some suspect that we have worn out our welcome by casting the Original Instructions aside. From the very beginning of the world, the other species were a lifeboat for the people. Now, we must be theirs. But the stories that might guide us, if they are told at all, grow dim in the memory. What meaning would they have today? How can we translate from the stories at the world’s beginning to this hour so much closer to its end? The landscape has changed, but the story remains. And as I turn it over again and again, Skywoman seems to look me in the eye and ask, in return for this gift of a world on Turtle’s back, what will I give in return?

It is good to remember that the original woman was herself an immigrant. She fell a long way from her home in the Skyworld, leaving behind all who knew her and who held her dear. She could never go back. Since 1492, most here are immigrants as well, perhaps arriving on Ellis Island without even knowing that Turtle Island rested beneath their feet. Some of my ancestors are Skywoman’s people, and I belong to them. Some of my ancestors were the newer kind of immigrants, too: a French fur trader, an Irish carpenter, a Welsh farmer. And here we all are, on Turtle Island, trying to make a home. Their stories, of arrivals with empty pockets and nothing but hope, resonate with Skywoman’s. She came here with nothing but a handful of seeds and the slimmest of instructions to “use your gifts and dreams for good,” the same instructions we all carry. She accepted the gifts from the other beings with open hands and used them honorably. She shared the gifts she brought from Skyworld as she set herself about the business of flourishing, of making a home.

Perhaps the Skywoman story endures because we too are always falling. Our lives, both personal and collective, share her trajectory. Whether we jump or are pushed, or the edge of the known world just crumbles at our feet, we fall, spinning into someplace new and unexpected. Despite our fears of falling, the gifts of the world stand by to catch us.

As we consider these instructions, it is also good to recall that, when Skywoman arrived here, she did not come alone. She was pregnant. Knowing her grandchildren would inherit the world she left behind, she did not work for flourishing in her time only. It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became indigenous. For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it. In the public arena, I’ve heard the Skywoman story told as a bauble of colorful “folklore.” But, even when it is misunderstood, there is power in the telling. Most of my students have never heard the origin story of this land where they were born, but when I tell them, something begins to kindle behind their eyes. Can they, can we all, understand the Skywoman story not as an artifact from the past but as instructions for the future? Can a nation of immigrants once again follow her example to become native, to make a home?

Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land. As Gary Nabhan has written, we can’t meaningfully proceed with healing, with restoration, without “re-story-ation.” In other words, our relationship with land cannot heal until we hear its stories. But who will tell them?

In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out. They live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld to the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.

I like to imagine that when Skywoman scattered her handful of seeds across Turtle Island, she was sowing sustenance for the body and also for the mind, emotion, and spirit: she was leaving us teachers. The plants can tell us her story; we need to learn to listen” (p. 3-10).

Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), Robin Wall Kimmerer is the author of numerous scientific articles and books. An enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she combines her heritage with her scientific and environmental passions.

Robin Wall Kimmerer – photo from <https://medium.com/minneapolis-institute-of-art/respect-your-kin-2d22143b494e&gt;

May we feel gratitude for all that sustains us and our Earth. Aloha, Renée

Banner photo:  Bruno Figueiredo on Unsplash

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