[Another post from the archives of graduate school. Like The Knowing of Blood, this piece was for an ecopsychology course. The assignment was very open and intriguing. Here it is:
For your last assignment, I would like you to write a Creative Essay/Piece where you explore what I like to call “post race imaginings”. When we think about “race” and more broadly “difference” in relationship to the environment, is it possible to create a world where race and difference are a thing of the past? Is this something we should aspire to? What would that look like? What would we gain? What would we lose? Conceptually, this piece can take many different forms. For example, fiction, science fiction, autobiography, poetry, or playwriting, to name a few. But I will be looking for three components: a theoretical/conceptual piece, a literature review, and a self-reflective piece on you as the researcher/intellectual/activist.
Something came over me and I decided on fiction, a form very unfamiliar to me, that wove in elements of my own mythic story and my imaginings toward a better world. My hope was to not wash over or wash out differences, but highlight and honor them, imagining our cultural distinctness as ecological niches, ways we are adapted to feed the world we want, in mutually enriching ways.]
It was a hard time to be river. Well, it was hard for most of life, but I’ll speak for myself for now. So many of us shriveled under the thirsty mouths of heat and humans, those of us who weren’t already tucked under concrete and forgotten or held back by dams. Others were woven with poison to the point of forgetting themselves. Less and less were we joined by our brothers from the sky, and our skin grew glassy and tight, then dusty, then sludgy, until we were all ribs and no heart. The little rain that came carried a thousand stories of loss and grief in every drop, which we had to hold in the silted moss hair of our stones, bearing just the slightest trickle of release to the sea, which only put into relief our longing to move it, to drink it through, that it might be food again. It stung to receive that rain full of death and I prayed it stung you, that you might feel the pain of being connected to all life as it perished, feel your own limbs turning gangrenous, your blood running dry. We tried so hard to reach you, to break your spell. Not just the rivers, though us too. I can’t be sure what did it, or rather who. But this is how the story fell from the clouds where I flow, carrying orca squeal and salmon roe.
They were so much like you, how you used to be, how you knew you could become, deep in some hidden place in you that the clicks of their echolocation could slip within, through a wound that never really healed. They traveled in clans speaking intricate dialects, following their mothers’ leadership, drinking their mother’s milk, teaching their children the specialized techniques to thrive in their habitat, like the humans with a hundred names for what botanists saw as a single plant or warmer people called snow, like the shamans who knew what vines to combine in what proportions for humans to touch spirit. And they grieved. Whole pods would stop eating for weeks to fill the sea with their eerie bellows and sharp caws as they carried their dead until salt dissolved the tissues of those tender huge bodies, one giant body at a time, until the very last whale, who had no one to grieve for her and fell to the bottom of the ocean alone. They could have eaten something else – the seals we plentiful. But we need each other in intimate and particular ways that are not up for negotiation. That is what life is. They had a loyalty to the salmon no hunger would shake. More than kinship, they were one lithe body. The scientists called it starvation, but we all knew it was love, a lesson in how to die, a weapon shaped like wide open grief and belonging.
It wasn’t long after the orcas’ demise that the salmon went too. I didn’t need the rain to tell me that. It was shortness of breath, never being able to inhale completely, always reaching for more air, suffocating. I didn’t feel like a river anymore, but like my culverted kin, cast out of life, managed by the department of sewers. It was a loneliness so thorough the trees couldn’t eat. Even redwood, cedar and fir leaves dried up and fell and the forest became all finger bones, frozen in their reaching. Despite centuries of prayer and reclamation and restoration, surviving gold mines and dams and hatcheries, the Indigenous humans lost hope. The creature who birthed them, gifted their voice, wove their flesh, animated their dances, negotiated their kinship, took them under the depths to encounter the powers they were indebted to offer, dissolved under the dark cloak of the ocean.
Somehow the desperation touched you all and you finally buckled under the sorrow. You came to us broken, your wills worthless against the last whale’s wail. It was as if something had thrown you here, a wind powerful and angry but mostly sad and desperate, hurling you through the fingered forest and onto your own knobby knees. It must have been strange for you or maybe strangely familiar, to find yourself with so many other humans you have never met or seen, all at the river together, without a word spoken. At first the tears were bitter and smelled of hate, evaporating the moment they reached your cheeks like vinegar on a hot skillet. But you didn’t stop until they were sweet and milky as original nourishment and streamed down to meet us. I could not have survived the loss of the salmon without them. In all my longing for you to see, to wake up, I had forgotten the round flavor of your tears, tangy salted and thick, a complex flavor that sings all the ways you are capable of loving, all the ways you’ve loved me in the ways only you can. I joined your weeping, grieving for all this time without you and all that was lost in your slumber. Though we should have been in that droughted time, none of us were surprised when it began to rain.
Things started to change. You took off your shoes and allowed mycelium to enter there in the soft watershed of your foot beds, to slowly wrap your bones in the net of belonging, in its nourishment, in its fruiting. I’ll tell you one of those stories now. You will understand why it is so dear to me.
Many people left the cities at this time. There was no more oil for the cars or to manufacture toys and computers and microwaves. And money just didn’t have the value it once did, as people realized the richness of relationship, the importance of food and water and the nourishing etiquette of nurturing, that money never bought them. They, we, had been through a lot: massive wildfires, floods, whole communities falling into the sea, creatures and languages and ecosystems leaving this world like night stars disappearing in the morning light, only the day wasn’t blue, but hazy thick and hot orange. Animals died from heat stroke and viruses, addiction, war, racism, and desperate attempts at migration. All that wasn’t gone, but loosened.
Something happens when two people are fighting, unable to reconcile their differences, and Bear appears, or Killer Whale, Fire or Flood, and all of a sudden they are both human and can even laugh at all they have in common and help each other. So that is part of what happened, and how people could get along better as the systems and economies and cities fell and you could look into each other’s eyes and see what mattered. It went all the way to the bottom. To us it felt sudden, the way you stopped understanding yourselves as separate, and dropped your arrogant title of pinnacle of creation. And the more you felt yourself as connected, as all relationship, strange and magical things happened and you believed again that life had meaning, and wasn’t just impersonal forces of physics banging their purposeless heads around, or genes maximizing their own self-interest. You could feel again that self was everything, and didn’t stop at the skin. You got hunches and senses, and followed them as messages from the larger web.
Yemayá was one of those people who walked into the countryside with her family following a call, all of their skin dark as walnut hulls. They had very little and took even less with them. A couple of knives, a few changes of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, dehydrated food, a small collection of books, two tents, a few sleeping bags, and water bottles they’d cared for diligently even when they were still widely available, and a cedar chest full of quilts. The children did not understand why they were carting around that stupid chest, which their parents and grandparents and great grandparents as long as anyone could remember lugged, from slavery times through Jim Crow, and to the city, and through the Civil Right’s Movement and the Black Lives Matter uprisings, job losses and promotions granted, the pandemics and fires and droughts. Wherever they moved for whatever reason, the quilts came, though no one ever explained why. After a few windy days carrying the heavy chest, they begged their parents to abandon it. “I’ll carry them,” Yemayá declared, surprising herself, but not her mother, who looked at her with a depth of knowing and delight it would be a long time until she understood. They did leave the chest behind, in the hands of fisher people in the North Bay, who served the family mussels in laurel leaf and lemon broth and sent them with acorn meal, elderberry syrup and crunchy seaweed.
Strangely, the quilts weren’t heavy in her pack. They were a blanketing and welcome presence, a firmament, a cloak of protection and guidance as they stitched their way north. She began to feel their movement as a weaving, over and under and over and under, sewing past present future together with wild goose honk and coyote howl, ocean mist and buckeye pollen, granite and hummus. She could feel the blankets, hear them, even as they were tucked away until they arrived. When they reached the manzanita and sugar pine forest at the base of the volcano orange with leopard lily and blue green with sagebrush, next to a rushing river (me!) a million stitches crisscrossed her arms like a tsunami of goose bumps. She said it with an authority and certainty her family knew to trust, “We will settle here,” the words a needle piercing the Earth and disappearing under the surface, trailing a red thread.
They weren’t the only humans here. People came to these lands that were once protected, which meant some people could hike and swim, while others collected power from the rivers and logged the forests, and they all pretended the original people didn’t exist, and flooded their sacred sites or attached climbing courses to them. But these days everyone was grateful for that sleight of hand, as the places were the few ecosystems resembling intact, where there were still mountain lions and bears, blackberries and salmonberries, who aren’t called that anymore since the salmon don’t exist. It was cold here and fall by now and they all slept in one tent together, with the quilts laid on top of their bags. Cursing her late night tea of coyote mint and anise hyssop, Yemayá crawled out of the family cocoon to relieve herself under the moon’s cold white eye.
Rising from her squat, she gazed up at the pearly orb, felt her own face widen and lighten, relax and smile. She looked around at the pines and the mints and at me, all of us luminous under that bright soft light. Her shadow mingled among the trees’ and she struck a pose to match them, with arm branches and finger leaves, until she couldn’t just sway in the breeze and broke into dance. The night creatures delighted to join her – owl, ringtail, bobcat and fox, and the river otter who’s den was tucked under a jumble of big leaf maple roots. Yemayá didn’t see any of them, but she felt them. And she felt herself as one wild animal among many, grooving in the moonlight to the rhythm of mycelial webs pulsing for connection, water bouncing and laughing over rock, blood pumping out from the heart.
The tent door she thought she was leaving open for just a moment flapped in the wind and drew her attention. She peered in at her family, loving them sweetly sleeping in their new home, a spell only broken by the quilts who lifted off their bodies like an eagle breaking from the water with a fish. They flowed out of the tent and whirled around her. They wove through the trees and skimmed my skin, opened flowers. Nests full of eggs sprouted in the nooks of the branches they danced between, the tracks of dozens of animals crisscrossed the land in interlaced stipple stitches. And she was woven right in. These quilts, this place, they were the landscape of her life, the pattern of her belonging, the adaptive art of her offering.
A blanket with tans and reds and circles lured her down a trail and quickly. She ran after it opened, thoughtless, frightened by the joy she felt. Rounding a corner, the quilt opened and settled over the ground, covering a supple mound. Her joy tempered to reverence. Awe and praise and grief all swirled together. She pulled the blanket back, revealing a doe, freshly dead. The deer had fallen and broken both front legs. Yemayá realized it was not just moonstruck reverie she was now quilted within, but life, death, sustenance, and requirement. She awkwardly hoisted the animal over her shoulders and took it back to her family, who skinned it and carved it, as best they could referencing a book they brought, and ate and shared of the meat for many weeks.
After that, Yemayá studied the quilts closely. Drank of the rivers sewn to vibrant woods, caught the fish jumping from them, and spoke with the women, her grandmothers, at their banks. The quilting stitches were a map of this place, maybe every place, she didn’t know. When she wasn’t staring in to them or dreaming beneath them she was out in a wild dance of reciprocity. The quilts and the land taught her what to do. She never knew like she knew how many needles the grey pines have, her body just took her. Mostly she planted along the edge of me, dogwood and cottonwood and cedar, and brought her family to help her push logs into me, and I felt held. She never looked for food, but her gifts always led her to it. And as the trees and shrubs she planted grew, there was more. This was the structure and gift of her living as the Earth went around and around the Sun.
One day she felt called to journey downstream. It wouldn’t surprise her if there were trees to tend, but she didn’t know what she’d get into when she arrived, wherever it is the stitch was taking her. Humming and greeting her kin of squirrel and jay, frog and hawk, she walked. Until an unfamiliar sound, eerie and soft, stopped her and she keened to hear. She followed the song like a hunter tracking a deer. Quiet listening feeling, she reached her mycelial fingers toward the call. At last, she reached the source. It was a woman, naked in the river. She waded upstream singing in a language older than words, white like the moon. Her blood, red and inky, streaming after her. It wisped and webbed, swirled and slithered. Yemayá could feel her as I did, a presence so stunning yet so comfortable. She was like the regular miracle of childbirth, of seeds sprouting, of monarch butterfly migration. Yemayá tucked herself behind a ponderosa trunk, and drank its butterscotched bark while she watched in wonder.
Twenty-eight days later, she heard her again. Close. There she was, bleeding into the river, near the otter’s den. She sang and waded and trailed a red thread all day and all night through the dark time of the moon. The third day, as the sliver barely waxing flowered against the pink orange sunset, she left the river, followed by Yemayá carrying a basket of fairybell berries, deer jerky, and acorn cakes. “Wait!” she cried out as the moon-white woman climbed up the mountain. She turned toward back to Yemayá, her face painted with fear and hope. “I have a basket of nourishment to share. Will you tell me why you are here? I’ve seen you bleeding in the river, here, and downstream.” She was so hungry her whole body watered. And she was also hungry to answer that question aloud to another human, to make her wild journey more real.
They sat together at the blood-giver’s primitive camp, and she ate the orange yellow berries, relishing the meeting of her tongue and their velvet skins, but devoured the acorn cakes as if they had no flavor or texture at all. Yemayá watched her eat with an intense curiosity that felt important and serious. At last, she took a deep nourished breath and met Yemayá’s eyes. “I’ve come to call myself Homecoming. And this is why I am here.”
“The moon was only visible before dawn, and I could feel the tide peeling from the beach of my womb to empty into the sea. I was camped by the ocean then and ate fish and sand strawberries. That night I had a dream. I can’t tell it to you like it happened then and not now, because that is not how it is.
“The face of a man, pale and weathered, tiny fish are the hairs of his beard. He is dead, long since, and sad, but good-hearted and shining a humble luster. The wrinkles of his face are tributaries. I see all of his descendants in the darkness of his eyes. I see myself there. He insists, “I need you to return what I stole.” I smell something. It is so strong and so familiar I can only describe it as home. I must follow it. It sounds like an uncanny song in a language I have never heard and can’t speak, but know what it means, and can sing. It feels like a sharp requiring ache in my womb, which is full of red throbbing orbs, gems from another world. I am making my way there, determined. The smell is thickening and the song growing louder in my ears. The longing is unbearable.
“Then I wake with blood on my thighs and go to the river where it meets the sea and remain for three days bleeding, as you saw me. And when the moon begins to wax again, as does my womb, I walk upstream. There is no reason that I know, except that I must. And every time the moon goes dark, I am in the river releasing my red offering and singing the song in the dream. I have never seen those red orbs anywhere but in my womb and I do not know who that man is, but I have to believe I am returning what he stole.”
As she listened, each word was a stitch echoing the outline of her own form. She felt their bodies pressed against each, with a thread running through. “My story is similar, and very different,” she said, a needle between her teeth, and told Homecoming a version of the tale I told you, blanket mapped and moon-washed. They did not have to discuss it. It was obvious as star flowers that Yemayá would walk up stream with Homecoming. She packed her foraging and planting tools, and the quilt with the red orbs, stitched round in a million spirals.
Homecoming felt utterly safe with Yemayá, who taught her the ways of sustenance and herbs. But Yemayá felts uneasy, because it seemed at any moment something strange could happen, stranger even than quilts dancing. The fear only fed her fascination. It was just a moon until they become lovers. Lovers as all humans wish for love, because they both knew how to listen. Homecoming’s body was itself a quilt, layered with histories and tenderness. And Yemayá was a dream, to be entered and fully tasted.
Four moons later, they met other people walking upstream, feather-clad and acorn-skinned. Each night they built a big fire around which they sang and danced, clapping elder sticks. After a few days of this, walking the same distance, the women joined the big fire camp, timid. They were welcomed with sweet-rooted soup and then scrumptiously, laurel nut truffles. “Thank you for this delicious nourishment, and for warmly welcoming us to your fire. We have been traveling alongside you for a short while, and upstream for much longer. We are following a mysterious map, red orbed and red stitched. What do you all follow?” Homecoming asked the man sitting next to her.
“We’ve been walking this route for two hundred years. Since the great dam was built, that held back all the fish. There was still hope back then, because they still lived in the ocean, and because a fish culturist took eggs and sent them to Aotearoa and they could swim up river there to spawn, and so maybe they could send some back to us. That was before the orcas were lost, and the salmon after them.” He lowered his head in sorrow, as if it had happened the day before, and not a century ago. But Yemayá and Homecoming hardly noticed because their bodies were buzzing with that word spoken. They had never heard it before, but they smelled a scent never parted, a determination still pushing, and the white salty hands of the ocean. They felt the red gems throbbing, heard that song in the distance. “We are salmon people,” he continued, and the invocation washed over them all over again.
“When they disappeared from this river, and then from the sea, we had nothing to live for. We stopped everything then, stopped walking the salmon route, stopped singing to them, our beloved dead. It seemed the prophecy was true, with the salmon gone, we were too. Until I was born and learned to stand. As soon as I could, I began to dance the first salmon dance. The elders recognized it, and trusted it, and we began our pilgrimage again. I am 50 now, and I have traveled this route 49 times, dancing that dance, but the first salmon hasn’t arrived. It is hard for my people to watch me perform it, for it is a dance of grief and longing, loss, betrayal, and barely surviving. For others and for me, it is all we have, and so I taught the young ones. And I believe in spite of everything, that the salmon need it. In any case, I couldn’t stop dancing if I tried.”
“Might we be able to learn the dance?” Yemayá asked, “Although we are not your tribe, we are salmon people.” Yemayá surged with silver energy, zigzagged with trepidation and grief and belonging when she spoke those words – we are salmon people. Homecoming could taste their truth and swallowed, “We are salmon people.” “Yes,” he replied without hesitation, “I will teach you now,” and rose. Yemayá got up to follow, but Homecoming pulled her back. “I love you Yemayá. Thank you. This ecosystem you have quilted, it is just right.” They looked in each other’s eyes with a simmering knowing and a devotion tinged with sorrow, and caught up with the man.
It took them hours to learn, and as the sunset revealed a waning crescent which Earth promptly swallowed, they entered the fire circle and danced that dance again and again. First the young ones joined, and soon enough the rest of the band, only the fire keeper pausing to keep the hearth hot. Yemayá felt the same webbed power weave through her that she had that night so long ago when the blankets came out whirling. This time she not only sensed the creatures gathering around, but saw them too. Bear and elk and jackrabbit, bat, marten and wood rat. They formed a circle around the dancing humans, and the cedar and pine around them. And I was there, always flowing, underneath. Homecoming was in a trance so deep, Yemayá knew it was coming, what she had feared in Homecoming all along.
No one slept that night, but they all dreamed Homecoming’s dream, and went to the river at dawn. Yemayá had watched this now more than a handful of times, but something was different. The air was thick and potent. The brightest stars still glimmered in a sky of turquoise and seaweed. Homecoming undressed and let her hair down, silver though she was young. And started singing that eerie song. She had taught no one, but we were still in her dream, so we knew it, and joined her, adding haunting harmonies and rooting base lines that seemed to funnel and amplify the rush of my water. Yemayá searched for the webbed and wispy blood, but it was not trailing behind her as it always did. This time she squatted, lifting a rock with her toe, and out from her womb streamed red round roe.
She let the rest of her body sink below the surface of the water, and as she did it slipped into salmon skin, scaled and silver, and she was a fish, lying in that river like the moon sliver in the belly of the Earth, and dead, spent from the long journey home.
And that is how the salmon returned, quilted by dance and dream. I can’t describe to you how delicious those fish eggs were, and how delectable. Their laying was the tenderest touch I’d received in a hundred years. And they hatched and grew – alevin, fry, parr, and smolt, and knew despite their long rest when the time came to swim out to sea. All the while the humans gathered. They came from all over to sing and make offerings, learn that dance, and plant with Yemayá, become salmon people. Even more returned than who went out, a blanket of determined fish. I am alive! My veins are strong and pumping. I can finally breath again.
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