Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
It’s hard to believe almost three years have gone by since I posted my reflections about past north-country winters. I still have my Sorel boots after 27 years (pictured below), although they are now beyond repair. The rubber is cracked and not even gator tape will stick to keep out melting snow. The smooth-worn soles are covered by yak trax, metal springs threaded over elastic bands that keep the boots from slipping on ice. Perhaps this will be their final winter.
New Year’s Day, 2015. I know there’s much work ahead of me as I embark on the serious business of finishing books I began last year. But today, I remembered past winters while I took time to refurbish my old Sorel boots with oil and new liners for yet another winter. My boots date back to 1990, the first winter I spent in the northwoods of Wisconsin. I had accepted a position as deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency, but the clothes I brought with me were meant for a different climate. I needed more practical, warmer, clothes.
My first winter was spent in a tiny hotel room above a bar that often had live performers belting out off-tune country and western songs until the wee hours of the morning. I could walk the two blocks to my office in downtown Lac du Flambeau, but the days I had to drive were challenging. My old car, with 190,000 plus miles, didn’t like to start or keep moving in the winter cold when I first started out. The pack of stray dogs that called the downtown their home loved to chase cars, but they quickly learned that chasing me was not a contest worthy of their time and effort. As my car sputtered and bucked and stalled down the road, they grew bored. Eventually, they didn’t even look up when I chugged by. But that car, like my boots, lasted many more years. I was sad when I was finally forced to replace my car, but my boots lasted despite the many miles they’ve seen and the many places they’ve traveled.
But of all the places we’ve traveled together, these boots and I, there is one place that remains golden in my memories. It’s the cabin I moved to after that first winter above the bar. Before the winter even began, I knew that I couldn’t live there forever, so I decided to see if I could find somewhere to move that was affordable. You’d think that would be easy in the northwoods, but that’s not so. Long ago, it became a favorite spot for wealthy urbanites who were able to buy up the lakefront properties that were lost to the Ojibwe people despite a series of treaties that guaranteed tribal ownership of land within reservation boundaries in exchange for ceding the northern third of Wisconsin to the federal government.
I was fortunate to find a local realtor who knew how to find the best deals and we spent many fall days exploring such interesting fixer-uppers. We became friends. One day in mid-November, she called me at work and asked if I could take some time off in the afternoon to see another property. I said, “Sure.” (It was interesting to see so many houses in need of loving care.) She picked me up and we drove, first down the highway, then down a narrow winding country road through a national forest, and then on a dirt road. We turned about a mile later onto what I can only call a rough rutted path that could just accommodate a car, again, winding down a little hill and into a forest. When we emerged in a clearing, I saw the small brown cabin, but what caught my eye and made my heart sing was a vista of the lake and wetlands glowing in the afternoon sunlight. I knew I was home. I had no idea how I would be able to afford it, and I had no idea what it meant to live without electricity, or heat with wood. I had no idea how I would be able to get in and out during the winter, especially with my car, but I did have my boots (and later, snowshoes to attach to them.)
Living down a series of country roads, some of which were unpaved, presented both benefits and challenges. I had an opportunity to witness nature up close – the bear, deer, beaver, otters, rabbits and porcupine. I heard the powerful rhythmic pounding of eagles’ wings as they flew just over my head, the hauntingly lovely song of the loon echoing over still waters, and the howls of coyotes in the quiet winter night. Winter was my favorite time, even though it was often cold and snowy, and even though it meant a mile hike to my car when I had to make the trip to some distant city to go to work, attend class or travel for a speaking engagement or consulting job. The hike was easier in the winter. The path through the snow was easy to follow, even at night, and the mosquitoes, sand flies, deer flies, horse flies and ticks were nowhere to be seen as they bided their time for the spring thaw. Spring – mud season – also meant hiking. But I was younger then and used to the grueling physical labor living in the woods required.
Of course, living in the woods meant warm clothing in the winter, and a bug suit during most other seasons if you wanted to do serious work outdoors. I don’t have a picture of the bug suit my daughter gave me as a gift, although given the ubiquitous northwoods’ mosquitoes and sand files, I often wish I still had it. I still have the coat in the picture below. It’s the only thing I ever purchased from Victoria’s Secrets – it was incredibly cheap in their annual clearance sale. (I don’t think it’s any mystery why it hadn’t sold for full price.) The coat is a few year’s newer than my boots, but it got me through the polar vortex last year and with new loops for the buttons in lieu of the zipper that finally gave out, it will continue for many winters more.
As I unclutter, some things will remain because they are still useful. Who needs the latest fashions when old things were built to last and carry such rich memories? These old clothes remind me of quiet, starry winter nights, of the sanctuary where my grandson spent many of his childhood days.
They were simpler days of hiking, hauling wood, and clearing the beaver-culled trees from the road. Living in an urban neighborhood now, watching the plumes of toxic exhaust from the factories that block the sunlight on the few winter days without clouds, I feel the loss of times past. Not just my past, but the past of my ancestors. Strange though it may sound, as deep as the grief of those lost times often is for me to face, it’s what motivates me to do what I can to touch people’s hearts for the sake of this wondrous earth and future generations. And now, my boots and I are ready for the challenges ahead.
Funny how attached I grow to tools that have served me well. Once upon a time, my boots were strapped to snow shoes as we walked through the winter woods where my ancestors lived for so many generations. Now they help give me traction on the icy sidewalks of my home in a little northern city.
I try to conserve useful resources like my boots for as long as possible. I shall miss these boots. They slip on easily and fit comfortably. Their replacements are stiff, like my aging body, and take more work to put on.
And speaking of work, I have still not finished editing and revising the manuscript I wrote about my experiences as a researcher studying Ojibwe child welfare. I have had to put it aside to teach college classes. Life has blessed me with teaching work to do, and given the austerity years ahead, I know I will need to keep working as long as I can.
Hopefully I will have time to return to my manuscript in the all too brief northern summers. In future winter weather, I will need to rely on my newer boots for my journeys.
Let me take just a moment
to put aside the chaos of the world
seeping into my soul
a recurring childhood dream
soaring above the earth
with compassionate detachment
as people went about their busy lives
my safe wooded place
sitting beneath a large maple
on a soft mossy knoll
by a little brook
sunlight and shadows shifting
joining my voice in song
with rustling leaves and birds
in harmony with the water
brushing over and around stones
in the small singing stream
wondering how many years
it would take for the rocks
to dissolve into rich soil
feeling the presence of peace and light
and sending out gratitude
for the beauty and wonder of life
then and now
even during days that seem darker
What deeper messages do titles convey? That’s a question that arises as I contemplate a powerful poignant book I just finished reading, Beyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-American Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity by Marijane Huang. I read this work from a unique perspective as an Ojibwe scholar who has studied the history of Indian child welfare, as a descendant of a culture that has survived despite centuries of Native American child removal policies. I reflected on Huang’s experiences as a daughter who witnessed the deep emotional scars my Ojibwe mother carried as a result of the joyless, demeaning years she spent in a Catholic Indian boarding school far from her family and home. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the topic of child removal, particularly adoption, triggers so many thoughts and memories for me. Often, I need to turn to critical scholarly reflection for balance to consider the underlying questions.
Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web of life as an “ethnosphere,” a term perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and aspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s greatest legacy. (Wade Davis, 2009, p. 2)
Huang speaks of the “primal wound” adoptees suffer due to “multiple losses, the most significant being the loss of the adoptee’s birth mother, but also that of culture, language, and original family” (p. xvi). Removing children from their families, communities, and nations causes harm on many levels and can be viewed as a powerful form of ethnocide. Huang’s account hints at the life-long suffering of her birth mother and family of origin because her father made choices he felt necessary in a context that wasn’t supportive of children and families. It reminded me of some of the stories I heard during my research about Ojibwe child welfare, aggregated into a poem I later wrote.
…All the child welfare system could do
was take a mother’s children away.
No one ever asked why she always had tears in her eyes.
Although her daughter cried for her beautiful mother every day,
no one ever asked what her mother needed to heal.
So the young girl spent her childhood with strangers,
a grieving mother mourned, and the White strangers felt virtuous.
The Ojibwe community lost yet another child to county removal
and the child welfare system closed the case, its job complete…
Huang’s courage to confront her fear of the unknown and her tenacity to keep moving forward despite so many obstacles are deeply inspiring. It wasn’t too late for her to reconnect to her original cultural legacy and some of the family that she lost as an infant. Her honest, gracious, and moving narrative brought me inside her experiences. She brought me inside her feelings as she discovered her adoption papers when she was in her 40s and learned of her heritage for the first time. And I felt as though I stood with her in the Taipei airport in Taiwan anxiously awaiting her first meeting with her two older sisters who had last seen Huang as an infant.
Huang’s healing journey brings joy and tears. I’m grateful for the chance I had to travel along with her. Her first book ends with a powerful realization.
Without a doubt, the reunion with my birth family has been one of the most significant, life-altering events of my life. (p. 159).
Learning to see the world through different cultural lenses is always s gift, and Huang does such a powerful job taking us beyond two profoundly different cultural worlds to see both the importance of being in touch with our cultural roots and the human bonds that connect us across cultures.
To acknowledge the wonder of other cultures is not to denigrate our way of life but rather to recognize with some humility that other peoples, flawed as they too may be, nevertheless contribute to our collective heritage, the human repertoire of ideas, beliefs, and adaptations that have historically allowed us as a species to thrive. To appreciate this truth is to sense viscerally the tragedy inherent in the loss of a language or the assimilation of a people. To lose a culture is to lose something of ourselves. (Davis, pp. 201-202)
I hope Huang will have an opportunity to return to Taiwan and I eagerly await her next book.
Information about how to purchase a copy of Huang’s book, published on May 8, 2017, is available on her website, Beyond Two Worlds.
Wade Davis (2009). The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto, ON, Canada: House of Anansi Press, Inc.
Marijane Huang (2017). Beyond Two Worlds: A Taiwanese-American Adoptee’s Memoir & Search for Identity. Bloomington, IN: Author House.
“Love …. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.” (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 2002, p. 11)
A strange message passes through my mind as I greet the morning.
“I sent my children, prophets, to many nations. They walked the earth teaching peace and love, working miracles to show the power you have within to heal others and create beauty.
“And look what happened. Self-proclaimed priests arose to oppress the people to acquire ever more power and riches. You built golden temples while children went hungry. You fought bloody wars for centuries and destroyed the earth to prove your prophet was the one that was true. Your priests grew fat from others’ labor, ever richer and more powerful while so many died.
“This time, I decided to do something different. Reverse psychology if you will. This time, I sent my children to sow fear and hatred. Maybe this time you’ll unite and apply the lessons I intended for you to learn so many years ago.
“The answer to peace lies within. It’s the responsibility of each one of you to find the path to love and peace.
“Don’t follow those who will merely use you to enrich and elevate themselves. Stand together and create a world where no children die before they have realized their full promise and lived a full life filled with joy.”
Knowing what happens to those who share messages others don’t want to hear, I question the wisdom of posting this. Yet the muse that visits won’t let me rest easy until I take the risk to share what was lovingly given.
I haven’t contributed much to this space yet, and that’s in part because things are awful out in the world, and in part because I struggle with depression, and the combination of those two things, well, it’s not great. But I’m working on it. And a good thing, too, because things are bad and getting worse.
I probably don’t have to recount to y’all allthehorriblethingsPresidentVoldemorthasdonesofar, and we’re not even through his first week in office. Things are going to be bad or worse than bad for quite a while. You know what, though? This is what I keep reminding myself of: Things have been bad and worse before. And people resisted. Sometimes, things got better. Even when they didn’t, we still benefited from the examples of fighters who did not give up in spite of immense odds, and in doing so inspired future generations of fighters.
What did the Menominee Nation do? Well, they did what they’d been doing for the past several centuries, only more so: they resisted. They organized–as “shareholders,” since they could no longer officially organize as tribal members. They held meetings. They planned. They tried to hold everything together in the day-to-day while also trying to bring about massive change.
That kind of thing is unbelievably hard to do, especially because in the moment, you don’t actually know whether anything you do is even going to work. They had no idea that they would eventually be successful, and yet they kept trying, because they had to. Their very existence as a people was on the line.
And even though they were taking on the federal government, and even though that’s not often a situation in which tribes come out with a win, they did not stop, but kept on working and planning and RESISTING.
And they won. It took nearly two decades, but they won. In 1973, President Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act, which re-established the Menominee Nation as a federally recognized tribe.
As a side note, one of the people who was instrumental in this fight was Ada Deer, and if her name is not familiar, you are missing out. (I know that Carol knows her–in real life, even!) Read about her here and here, for starters. If you’re looking for some activist heroes, look no further–and keep in mind that she’d also likely point out how many people fought alongside her, and that they were all heroes, and that she’d be right.
Menominee Restoration happened, against the odds, because people got together in protest and fought for their rights. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fun (though I bet there were jokes and laughter at meetings, along with serious business), and it had no guarantee of success–and it was necessary.
That’s the kind of spirit of resistance that we all need right now. Indigenous people have been resisting for over five hundred years, and their struggles are at the heart of everything that happens on this continent. Not coincidentally, the Menominees are the people indigenous to the place where I am writing this right now, and it is right and proper for me to think about their struggles and their rights (including their rights to the land I am on right now) and acknowledge my debt to them as we all move forward in resistance.
And if you haven’t already, go learn about the ways the nations in your area have resisted colonization. Because the Indigenous people of this continent are, and should be, the wellspring and heart of resistance, and all of us need to recognize and honor that in order to move forward together. In resistance.
Do you ever awaken from a dream where you’re singing a song? That’s what happened to me this morning. It was a song that I see as a little silly in the context of what’s going on in the world today. But it’s a catchy tune that captures some of the troubles that produce such angst in our teens. Those years are long gone for me but not for my grandchildren who remind me what it’s like to be young.
Here Comes My Baby – Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Thankfully, finding the song on YouTube led to me to another song that echoes the yearning of my spirit in the unrelenting cold of this mini-repeat of the polar vortex we’ve been experiencing. It awakens hope by reminding me that even on a cold winter’s day, it’s a new morning filled with possibilities. Spring will come. There’s a different kind of beauty to the winter dawn.
Morning has broken – Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Wishing you all a blessed morning wherever you are.