Sometimes you publish a book because you love its heart, not because of its public face. Native Echoes has always been such a book for me. I call it “my quiet, poetic child that seldom speaks in public.” It is a winter journey through the empty spaces and the landscape of the spirit. Just to remind those of you who have forgotten it, or to alert those of you who have never heard of it to its existence, here is a passage called “Winterwatch”. It is a reflection on this season of the growing dark, when winter begins to stir just over the horizon. Should you wish a copy of Native Echoes, you can get one from any of the usual sources — B and N, Amazon, or your local independent bookstore — or you can purchase a signed copy from my sisters’ bookstore, Wolf nor Dog enterprises, where it is currently on sale. Here, now, is “Winterwatch” from Native Echoes:
“May I see the spring. May I with all my people safely reach it.”
We know it is coming. We can see it in the animals’ eyes.
The sky is too cold; the wind, too raw. Leaden clouds loom heavy on the horizon. Darkness grows stronger than light. The affairs of day begin and end now in shadow.
I turn my eyes to the northwest. There is a sound there, beneath hearing, like the distant rhythm of an approaching army. In its cadence is the heavy breath of winter.
I watch uneasily, full of dark presentiments of blizzards, remembering the times when I lost the road and the wind would not subside, and the great unfeeling cold moved indifferently against me, beginning at the toes and fingers and coaxing me to the drowsiness I have been taught so long to fear.
In these dark memories the terror still resides, of another winter stretching insurmountable in time and circumstance. And all of us in this northern place dream of fleeing to the warmlands where the colors do not fade.
But we do not. We stay.
Still, our fears grow greater than our faith. Will this be the winter we do not live to see the spring?
It was last year, I think, when the man who brings the oil told me of the old couple, in their nineties, who sat together, alone, in the farm they would not leave, without heat, huddled together under a blanket, until some passerby found them in their starvation and incontinence, and the woman was taken to a nursing home and the man to a neighbor’s house where he wanders, wide-eyed and deranged, calling out names no one has ever heard.
And the memory, told by the Ojibwe north of me, of the man who came from Wyoming to make his fortune, and had horses shipped by rail to graze on the cheap farmland where no hand had been able to coax a crop to grow. And left them, as he took to shelter miles away to weather out the winter storms, convinced that they would find their forage easily beneath the snow, until the passing neighbors found them starved and frozen, like boulders of skeleton and hide, half covered by the drifting snows, their flanks pressed hard against a stand of oaks.
The man went back to Wyoming, so the story goes, but the old men still remember, and the children still play their summer games beneath the trees where the horses huddled, froze, and died; and call the land “starvation grove,” as if so hideous a name comes naturally and marks the land as easily as “muddy creek” or “turtle hill.”
And always, it is the same. Everything was fine “until.” And then the passing neighbor or deliveryman, alerted by the absence of tracks, discovers. . .
Until. Until. There is the measurement of our fear. Will we be able to last “until?” Will there be enough to carry us “until?” Are we strong enough, in body and in spirit, to endure “until?”
It is the “until” we fear, that the desperate cry to get to us in time will be swallowed up into the trackless silence that neither judges nor forgives.
We are sailors here, upon this inland winter sea, and brothers and sisters to the children of the desert. We share the common knowledge that our lives can disappear without a trace. We need not move; we need not seek. We need not court some precipice of danger. We need only be heedless of the voice of nature, and that which splits our consciousness from hers will be gone, absorbed into the oneness that we so desire and so fear.
Yes, these are lands that make us holy. Not some bacchanal of spirit light burst full flower from within, but the holy fear wrought by thundergods — demanding, indifferent, needing supplication lest they should look closely down upon us as they pass.
A sound flutters above me. A flock of geese, grey and urgent, comes out of the sky from the northwest, passes honking overhead, and disappears. Their mystical precision seems more driven today. A flake, solitary messenger, winds its way among the leafless trees and settles on the earth.
There is distance in the air.