Indigenous Roots The Land's Human History
 By
Jesse Wolf Hardin

 

 

We are all affected by our immediate relationship to place, to the spirit and energies felt there, the fauna and flora of the region we have picked, to the weather that sometimes tests - other times pleases - but always helps to shape us. Yet as contemporary and ongoing as this connection may be, it is rooted in both what and who came before.

Our experience of both our lives, and where we live, is enriched by the degree that we understand and appreciate what preceded and still can inform us, the succession of events that transformed land and creature and bonded human kind to the land.

Where your house sits, what changes were made to be able to put it there? Was it graded, a hill leveled, an arroyo or wetland filled to support it?

What plants grew there, and are there any of them in the yard today? How many trees were felled to make room, what species were they, and what kinds of trees were planted nearby instead?

What animals thrived there before your building was first constructed, which of these are extirpated from the area or driven into extinction, and which still survive beneath its foundations or nested on its high-power lines? What were the earliest creatures ever to live there, and what kind of fossil record did they leave?

Pick up a handful of the native soil. What is it like, and where did it get its color and texture? What mountains succumbed to create it, which rocks crumbled, or what period of volcanic activity spewed forth its porous tufa and brilliant crimson clays?

One can try descending into a nearby canyon or arroyo, or finding a spot where a highway has been cut through some ridge, and read what is as much her-story as history. Instead of from left to right, read from the surface down, beginning with the scant few inches of humus, a hundred years of composting leaf and bug and bone.

Read the lives of ground squirrels and moles, whose complex burrows are halved and exposed like the passageways of a child's ant farm. Belts of ancient clay above the bedrock of an ancient sea studded with the shells or Precambrian mollusks. Seams of primeval coal.

Every foot down may represent centuries of the eroding mountains and up-thrusting continental plates, of species that have been birthed and extincted, of cultures flourishing and collapsing, populations rising and falling like the slow inhaling and exhaling of the great earthen body.

This rooting is more than a matter of natural history. The soil that holds the fossils, holds also the artifacts and bones of a human past. Not even a wilderness is free of a history of human association, all the more powerful that it was never written down, passed instead mouth to mouth in myth and song and the resounding petroglyphs of desert canyon walls. Its is a story told in the shadows of its forests, the trails winding above its rivers, and its powerfully painted caves.

I've always thought of older houses as telling their rooted tale in a similar wordless way. The run-down ones stand out stark and skeletonized, yet still meaningful and inspirited like the collected rocks of Stonehenge and the exposed walls of Indian ruins.

Polished oak floors of a vintage L.A. home glisten from tears of joy and anguish as much as polish, brought to a deep luster by sliding stockinged feet, tongue-and-groove boards reflecting the busy shifting images of families growing, dying, changing.

Stairway rails absorb more than the sweat of hands tender and strong, teasing and anxious - little hands reaching up, crippled hands working for a grip. They soak up and then exude the overlapping emotions of resistance and resignation, engagement and denial, loss and gain, love and anger, desire and satisfaction.

Take out the heavy wooden furniture and the dark floral drapes, the heavy woolen rug and the leaded glass light fixtures hanging from the center of the ceiling, bring in bright acrylic pile and trendy aluminum-edged lithographs, but an aged house will still reverberate with the echoes of the past. One can repaint, but something deep and old continues to shine through.

Ask yourself... what sort of people lived in your house before you did? Were children born in its back rooms, were there proud matriarchs who breathed their last where the sun still comes in the east window?

The house may be new, or you may be the apartment's first tenant, but were there structures torn down to make room for one you moved into? Perhaps a row of old uninsulated brick houses scraped aside for a new development, or a flat-roofed adobe casita given way to ranch houses with large windows and bluegrass lawns?

The ethnography of a neighborhood may have changed several times over the course of the last 200 years, from Indian to Spanish and French, French to English, an Italian quarter now considered part of the Cuban enclave, extended Irish families supplanted by Afro Americans, in turn replaced by buyers of diverse racial backgrounds who by chance or fortune can afford the rising cost of its real estate.

Look outside. What people tended gardens in the bottoms, on the constant lookout for raiders, and were these "raiders" the peoples they were encroaching on? What native tribe once gathered shellfish from the edge of the bay and walked the narrow trail where the interstate now lies? And who preceded them? 

I live in a wild Retreat Center that still looks much like it did when it was a primeval wilderness, yet a few miles away our river winds through a valley where the trailers of Anglo retirees sit between the baked mud haciendas of 5th-generation Hispanic residents.

One such casita has been recently gentrified, but I remember it as it was, with the land it rests on an extension of the now deceased Senovio, the little man with the big straw hat. I still see the silhouette with the baggy pants, rooted to his place, contemptuous of anywhere more than a three-hour drive from his needy animals, doubtful of or indifferent to any claims of distant wonders.

Everything he ever wanted, everything that mattered was closer than that. Close enough to see, maybe close enough to smell, certainly close enough to nod at slowly under a dusty Stetson hat.

But there is more. Behind this visage of the Spanish-tongued rancher, camped beneath the cottonwoods or perhaps sneaking up on him from behind the barn, I can seem to make out the outline of the intrepid Apache. And behind the Apache, I sense the pit-house and cliff dwellers that these raiders once preyed on: the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, the people they call "the Old Ones" pushing their corn seed into the riverside soil with a willow stick.

They are the earliest known human inhabitants of this bioregion, and their presence can still be felt 900 years after their migration away from this river drainage. In countless ruins, the remnant stone-age irrigation ditches, the cliff art and pottery sherds scattered about the desert floor, the multihued vistas they themselves fancied, we encounter the legacy of the Sweet Medicine People.

To the archaeologists, they are known as the San Francisco Culture or the Basket Makers, and are commonly but mistakenly referred to as the Anasazi. And before - yes! - before a single human foot edged across this rain-licked rimrock, there were those other intrinsically wild beings, plants and animals characterizing and being characterized by the interplay of elements and energies that is land, in the unique combinations that define place.

Behind the patron's silhouette, the shadows of the Apache and the echoes of the Old Ones I see, I feel, I delight in the dancing ghost images of leaf and tendril, tail and paw, fin and feather fluttering in the dawn breeze, sensuously rubbing up against an arching New Mexico skyline, thrusting its roots like ours into the heart and soul of place.

The natural world can seem like a foreign and even frightening place to many of us these days, but it is nonetheless our original, formative context, the set of forces and qualities that first conceived and equipped us. What we now call "nature" once meant everywhere, and everything including us.

It is the force that stressed our developing beings and thus made us strong, the natural systems that provided not only physical sustenance but the avenues for the love and loss that is the genesis of human compassion. It feels less strange and more like home the deeper that we experience it, but also the more intimate we become with both its natural and human histories.

In this way we acknowledge those spirits and life forms that gave way for our emergence or that sustain and enrich us still. We honor those peoples whose relationship with the land predates our own, including our personal ancestors and all those peoples who ever knew themselves as being native to our current or chosen place.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is a teacher and founder of Animá nature-informed practice and author of seven related books. He and his partners offer empowering online Medicine Woman, Shaman Path and Path of Heart correspondence courses, as well as online counsel and healing consultations. Readers of Awareness Magazine are invited to the Animá Sanctuary, an ancient place of power, for wilderness retreats, vision quests and events including The Medicine Woman Gathering Aug. 7-12: Animá Learning & Retreat Center, Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830  www.animacenter.org.

 


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