Archives For Alley Valkyrie

I thought I was a strong swimmer. But I was also seventeen, and I thought I knew everything.

It was hot, and the Delaware River was refreshingly cool. I can do this, I said to myself, perhaps a little too confidently. I stood at the bank of the Pennsylvania side, with my eye on a small sandy landing across the river in New Jersey. I jumped in and made it across easily, then without really thinking about it I quickly turned around and swam back.

Halfway back, I learned quickly that I wasn’t as strong of a swimmer as I thought, and that I should have given myself more time to rest before attempting the trip back. I was caught in the current, and started to move sideways instead of across. Foolishly I tried to fight it; tried to swim against the current and, as I started to drift downstream, I quickly tired myself out.

I felt myself losing the battle, and allowed the current to carry me for a while. I struggled to stay afloat, felt myself starting to drown, found myself reflecting in that panicked moment how this is never what it looks like on TV or in the movies, all while still facing upstream and still attempting to swim back the way I came. I tried floating on my back but the river kept pulling me down. Knowing that there wasn’t a human in sight that could hear a scream for help, I started shouting the names of every deity I could think of at that moment, but yelling for only those few seconds quickly weakened me further. I switched from screams to silent thoughts as I felt I was about to go under, my last concern being that I didn’t tell anyone I was even going for a swim in the first place.

And then I literally smacked into a ton of bricks. I had been facing upstream the entire time, and in all my struggling I didn’t notice that there was a bridge behind me. I landed on a masonry pier, and the height of the water was at an exact level that I found myself seated on the ledge of the pier before I even realized where I was. The moment I was about to go under, the bridge had provided a chair for me to rest.

I sat there for the next few hours, first to catch my breath, then to reflect. I had done a very foolish thing, and I nearly paid with my life. I owed that life to what I would have always considered to be an inanimate object … until that moment of collision. There was something so alive about the pier; the way an old tree or the river itself felt alive. And the longer I sat there on the edge of the pier, in a strange dazed delirium filled with fear and gratitude, the more I felt a very deep connection with stones themselves, even more so than I had every felt from a tree or a river. There was a true mutual appreciation in that moment: I appreciated the pier for being where it was, and the pier seemed to appreciate my just sitting on it for a few hours in contemplation. I thought about the people who constructed that pier, each brick laid down by hand, the literal sweat and blood that went into this structure that held me in a time of need.

When I felt rested and clear-headed enough, I prepared to swim back to the riverbank. I found myself thanking the pier profusely, at that point having the same regard for its spirit and sentience as I would any person or animal, and right before I jumped back in the river I asked the pier to wish me luck and if possible to see me over to the other side. The swim back was easy, and by the time I landed on the riverbank the only pain I felt was a bruise on my side from when I had smacked into the pier.

The bridge that caught me. Photo by Aerolin55.

The bridge that caught me. [Photo Credit: Aerolin55]

After asking around a bit the next day, I learned that, although the bridge had been rebuilt three times, the pier was the original and had been standing in that water for over 150 years. Other than the river itself, those masonry piers were the just about the oldest thing around. This made sense to me, as the pier definitely felt old, and yet there still was something much more to that pier, something much deeper than age alone.

That pier had life; that pier had spirit. That pier had imprinted something unshakable upon me.

*   *   *

It may be painfully typical to state that such an experience dramatically shifts one’s perspective on life, but it’s the only way to describe the transformation that I went through in the months after the bridge incident. Not only was I grateful for and deliberate in my existence in a way that I couldn’t have imagined beforehand, but I became fascinated by and fixated on both spirits and bridges in various ways.

After spending a few months processing what happened at the bridge, I left home and started to couch-surf with friends in New York City, first in lower Manhattan and then in Brooklyn. At first, I took with me only my backpack and a small bag of possessions that most would consider mere knick-knacks but I saw as infused with consciousness and spirit. Among those possessions was a small piece of moss that I had pulled off the masonry pier.

I loved so much about Brooklyn, but I loved the bridges the most. I found myself mesmerized by the bridges; first by their structures themselves and then by the lush history behind their existence. I spent hours in the library, drinking in stories of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and later the Verrazano.

 

Verrazano Bridge from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Verrazano Bridge from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. [Photo by A. Valkyrie.]

The stories also revealed a darker side, one I had never considered before. Those who financed and engineered such bridges were usually remembered by history as those responsible for the bridge itself, not so much the workers who gave their labor and often their lives to actually bring the bridge into existence. Similar to the building of the railroads, those who actually built the bridges were mostly forgotten while those who backed it are remembered and glorified. Also forgotten were those who were displaced by the building of such bridges. Planning for the Verrazano Bridge, which broke ground in 1959, wiped out an entire stretch of neighborhood in Bay Ridge; bulldozing Victorian-era brownstones, and displacing working-class families and second-generation immigrants who had nowhere else to go in a rapidly developing city. The cruelty and injustice inherent in such urban planning was no different than today’s urban gentrification battles that raged throughout Brooklyn as well as cities across the nation.

I loved and appreciated those bridges, but did I ever shutter deep down whenever I thought of the true cost, whenever I consider the ghosts of a generation uprooted.

*   *   *

Nearly a decade after the bridge incident, I packed my things and moved across the country. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to that bridge when I left, but I kept it in my thoughts and my prayers as I was saying goodbye to the East Coast, to Brooklyn, to the bridges that I had adopted as my own in the years that I was a resident of New York City. I took only what I could carry in my van with the front area behind my seat reserved for carefully-packed boxes containing, what I then referred to as, ‘spirit-items’.

On day five in the car, driving along the Columbia Gorge in Oregon less than an hour from Portland. I suddenly saw a sign. Bridge of the Gods, it said.

I turned off at the exit.

The bridge looked rather modern, almost disappointingly so, but a historical plaque told an intriguing story about an ancient bridge that once stood in that spot. There was a natural land-bridge that once blocked the river, that was the subject of various folkloric tales from indigenous tribes that populated the area prior to European settlement.

There was something about stumbling upon local mythology, around gods and bridges, so close to the end of my journey to a new home that struck me in a very significant way.

I walked down to the base of bridge, going as far down the steep riverbank as I safely could manage. I introduced myself, and left a few coins at the base. Despite its newness, despite its lack of any real connection to the historic ‘Bridge of the Gods’, there was something about it that still felt sacred.

Walking back up, a rock the size of a golf ball bounced down straight towards me. I stopped it with my foot, picked it up, and put it in my bag. I slipped it into the special box right behind the front seat.

Eight years ago, eight moves ago.

*   *   *

“Hey, would you mind holding onto Grandpa for me? I really don’t have a safe place for him and … well … you’ve already got a big collection of dead things that you take care of …”

‘Grandpa’ was a jar of ashes; more specifically the ashes of my ex’s grandfather who had passed over during the first year of our relationship. Grandpa had indeed found a comfortable spot among my various collections of dead things over the course of our relationship.

We were at the point in the break-up process in which we were dividing our things in preparation for his move back to the Midwest, and I was deliberately forcing a mindset of collaboration and compassion in order to maintain my sanity. I had already been keeping an eye on Grandpa as though he were my responsibility. It seems sensible to maintain what was already routine for me.

“Of course, don’t worry.” I replied. “Leave Grandpa right where he is, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Five years ago, five moves ago.

The Patio of Living Things, circa 2010. 'Grandpa' is hidden in the corner behind the lavender.

The Patio of Living Things, circa 2010. ‘Grandpa’ is hidden in the corner behind the lavender. [Photo: A. Valkyrie]

It was never made clear at the time whether my custody of Grandpa was temporary or permanent, but Grandpa seems to have become a perpetual addition to the strange assortment of items that I had been carrying around. The assortment has grown considerably since I was in my late teens, an assortment of items that themselves possess spirit and soul to the extent where simple ideas of ‘ownership’ quickly evolve into reverent caretaking of a very peculiar kind.

*   *   *

I knew he was severely depressed to the point where he was possibly suicidal, and I knew that a change of environment can often positively shift someone that is in such a state. It was only a few days after I started scheming on how to get him out here that a thousand dollars literally dropped into my lap unexpectedly in a way that only happens when greater forces are at work. I bought him a plane ticket from upstate New York to Eugene and, a few weeks later, we were headed down the 101 in my van, packed for camping and exploring.

We drove for ten days, down from Florence, Oregon all the way to Mendocino and back, stopping at every place that looked interesting and many other places that were simply quiet and serene. We camped in the redwoods, on the coast, on the bank of the Russian River. He ran right in, I timidly waded up to my knees and stood in contemplation. I took a few steps more but wouldn’t go in past my waist.

He asked why, I told him. “Once bitten, twice shy,” I said when I finished the story.

He nodded. We shared many other stories that week, of close calls and near-death experiences, as well as darker experiences such as self-harm and suicide. He admitted to me that he had contemplated killing himself, both in the past and very recently. I nodded; I had sensed as much. I didn’t have to say aloud that such worries were why I flew him out here … it was unspoken but understood.

By the time we got back to Eugene, the van was filled with various objects, both natural and man-made, that we had amassed over the course of our trip. He had the same sense and affinity for what he called ‘living’ objects as I did. Much of our trip consisted of stumbling upon such wonders like small children, giggling as we left offerings in return.

As he packed up to return to New York, we both tried in vain to fit the entirety of his new collection in his baggage, cramming nearly everything except for a pile of bark and a bag of meticulously chosen and extremely ‘living’ bunch of sticks that he had intended to carve an ogham set with.

“I have to leave that all here. You can have the bark,” he said. “But I would love that bag of sticks back from you one day.”

“I’ll give them back to you the next time I see you,” I replied.

Four years ago, four moves ago.

bag copy

[Photo: A. Valkyrie]

Eighteen months after he left, I got a message from a mutual friend. Call me immediately, the message said, followed by her phone number. My throat tightened; I knew instantly that he had done it; that he had committed suicide.

I called her to confirm what I already knew and subsequently broke down for several hours. At one point, I looked over at the bag of sticks, hanging on the door, and remembered my words to him.

“I’m still going to hold onto your sticks until I see you again,” I said aloud.

A few days later, I placed them with the rest of the collection.

*   *   *

When I knew I had to leave Eugene, I surrendered my fate to the Gods, who very quickly and bluntly guided me to a tiny little studio, 100 yards from the river, smack dab between two of Portland’s most iconic bridges. I didn’t even begin to question it, I simply accepted it and settled in.

The tone had been instantly set for my Work in this new place, and the very first action I took even before signing the least was to make offerings at the bases of both bridges. I thanked the bridges for their presence and their function, I made prayers and offerings to those who were sacrificed in the construction of the bridge, and to those who had taken their lives by jumping. I also made prayers and offerings for those who currently lived under the bridges, those who we tend to label as ‘homeless’ and ‘mentally ill’ and ‘addicts.’

The studio was just under 400 square feet. Realizing that there was not enough room to unpack the majority of my possessions, within a few months I put myself on a waiting list for a bigger space in the same building, unheeded by the warning from management that it could take well over a year to happen. The studio served an immediate purpose in terms of survival and a place to print, but was unsuitable as a place of worship or Work. I took my worship and Work to the riverbank, to the bridges, building altars on abandoned piers and stone foundations.

rivermile11 copy

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Against the wall in my studio, meticulously stacked boxes, boxes containing packed up altars and places of offering, boxes containing those packed up objects-turned-obligations. Bones and sticks, including ‘Grandpa’ and the ogham bag, the rock from the Bridge of the Gods and the moss from the bridge that saved me, all in safe storage, in plain sight and yet obscured by corrugated cardboard.

One year ago, one move ago.

There’s something admittedly strange and yet comforting in talking to boxes, feeding them and caring for them just as you would were they outside of the box. I kept an eye on them, checked up on them constantly, awaiting the day when I would be able to unpack them again and put them in their proper places.

*   *   *

There have been well over 200 drownings in Oregon in the past decade The vast majority of them occurring in rivers in the Willamette Valley.

I don’t have the luxury of believing in coincidence, so it only seemed perfectly natural that I stumbled across a detailed list of those drownings the same day that my computer screen was filled with headlines and opinions focused on the racial dynamics of a pool-party incident in Texas. Browsing the list of drownings, it struck me immediately that a significant number of those who have drowned in Oregon were people of color, in a state that is overwhelmingly white.

In a vastly unequal society where minorities and the poor were both historically and still presently denied access to safe, publicly accessible bodies of water, it sadly makes sense that so many would seek to relieve themselves from the heat in the rivers, and meet a tragic fate in doing so. Learning how to swim, learning what to do when one is in danger of drowning, and being able to safely access bodies of water when it is hot, are basic needs in terms of public safety that should be accessible to anyone and everyone in this country, regardless of race, socioeconomics, or documented status.

I read through the list again, this time focusing on the descriptions of the incidents. It hit a tender nerve when I read through accounts of drownings that resulted from those who thought that they could swim across a river. It has been more than fifteen years since I nearly drowned, but after having relived the incident more times in my mind than I ever care to acknowledge, the naivete and commonality of my mistake still reverberates. I thought I was a strong swimmer, I still cling to occasionally in defense. I thought I was a strong swimmer.

But there’s a piece of moss on my altar that will always remind me otherwise.

With those thoughts swirling through my mind, I went down to the base of the nearest bridge, as close to the water as I could get, with flowers for those who have died in the river. I petitioned the bridge and the land spirits to do what they could to protect those who may be floating by in distress. I spent a moment in touch with my inner terror, that taste of death that has never quite left me since my own dip in the river years before, and I whispered prayers of protection towards the opposite side as I let that terror go on the riverbank.

*   *   *

It has been unbearably hot this past week, as my partner and I moved boxes from the tiny studio to a larger space in the same building, after nearly a year of waiting for such a space to open up. The new place faces the river just across the street, and the breeze from the Willamette blows directly into my new living-room and bedroom. It’s at least fifteen degrees cooler than the studio, which faced southward with very little breeze.

steel copy

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Unpacking the boxes, with layers of altars and old friends hidden away for nearly fifteen months, becomes an unexpectedly emotional reunion. Bits and pieces of my life and journeys all spread out for my eyes to take in, each infused with life and spirit as well as countless stories. I uncover Grandpa and sit him on a shelf; I find the bag of ogham sticks and hang the bag out on the patio. I dust off my friends, I smile, and for the first time in years I know I’m exactly where I should be.

Now. Here.

A hundred yards from the river, between two bridges, I finally feel like I am home.

 *   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

 

When I was in my early twenties I had a rabbit, a sixteen-pound French Lop that had free rein of parts of the house and succeeded in both equally fascinating and terrifying every houseguest I ever had. From her ability to clear a seven-foot gate to her skill in severing any cord or wire ever laid out in her path, Gwendolyn was much more akin to a troublesome toddler trapped in a four-legged body the size of a Corgi than what the average person pictures when they think of a pet rabbit.

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl...

Gwendolyn, having busted her way through some vinyl. [A.Valkyrie]

Out of all her tricks and quirks, the one that still echoes loudest in my mind years later was her unfailing habit of excitedly charging any time she heard a sound reminiscent of pills shaking in a bottle. She would come immediately running at the sound, often at top-speed, obsessively expecting a treat. While it delighted friends and family, it was an accidental behavior that was an unintended consequence of my own naïveté in terms of how strongly animals can form associations with sounds.

Similarly to humans, rabbits have both quite the sweet tooth as well as a noted lack of self-control around what we would call ‘junk food.’ Carrots are the most popular example of this tendency, as rabbits crave them specifically due to their sweetness, but they will also obsessively seek out candy and other treats meant for humans, and will often make themselves sick if they gain access to an unattended stash of sweets. Animal trainers often take advantage of this tendency in rabbits by using papaya tablets as a reward, as rabbits are quick learners and will happily comply in exchange for the treat.

I did not know this when I called my vet about Gwendolyn’s digestive issues and she suggested giving her papaya tablets as a dietary aid. I bought a bottle of the tablets, shook it just for the sound and then opened the bottle in front of her and gave her a few, and put the bottle up on a shelf. A few hours later, I took the bottle off the shelf and shook it without really thinking, and she immediately came running at the sound. I gave her a few tablets, shook the bottle again, and she responded by jumping for the bottle. From that moment forth, every time I ever shook that bottle she immediately came running.

The association was advantageous in many ways. Any time I needed to find her, she would come immediately when I shook the bottle, which helped greatly at times for rabbits find great hiding spots. But over time I discovered that she responded in kind to the sound of any bottle, not just the papaya tablets, which is why over time everyone in the house took great care every time they opened a pill bottle. More than once, a guest opening an aspirin bottle in the bathroom was suddenly rushed by an enormous rabbit who would then occasionally jump at the exact source of the noise itself. This once resulted in a spilled bottle of aspirin and an immediately dangerous situation as the rabbit then desperately tried to eat the pills.

Its not that I hadn’t recognized the tendency in animals before. Nearly every house cat jumps at the sound of a can opening. But there was something about watching it click in the rabbit – the intensity and instantaneousness of the rabbit’s reaction, propelled by an addiction to sugar that I could clearly empathize with – that really opened my eyes to both the effectiveness and potentialities in how intelligent creatures of any persuasion can react to sound.

*    *    *

Two summers ago, I unexpectedly ended up with a sickly, four-week old kitten, having plucked her off the shoulder of a street kid after realizing that she would die without proper care. Although I wasn’t planning on adopting her when I first took her, I bonded closely with her as I nursed her back to health and after the first couple of days it was clear that she was my new cat.

A very tiny kitten.

A very tiny kitten. [A.Valkyrie]

My living situation at the time didn’t allow me to leave a kitten at home unattended, so for the first month that I had her, the kitten I ended up naming Squirrel stayed on my body for the vast majority of any given chunk of day, usually either on my shoulder or in the hood of my sweatshirt. Our constant state of mobility made me quickly realize that I needed a way of immediately calling her back to me if she was to jump off my shoulder in a public place.

I thought back to my rabbit with the pill bottle, and then to the way that a cat responds to the sound of a can opening, and decided to integrate those examples with minor changes based on lessons from the past. I decided on a glass jar rather than a pill-bottle, hoping that the sound was distinct enough so that the kitten would not conflate a bottle of aspirin with cat food. I filled the jar halfway with dry kibble, and the next time I fed her I shook the jar before doing so. It took only a little more than a day for her to learn that the shaking sound meant food. A few days later, she jumped off my shoulder at a busy intersection in downtown Eugene, but only took two steps before being coaxed back by the shaking sound.

To this day, no matter where she is hiding, if I want her to come out all I have to do is shake the jar.

*    *    *

I tried forming relationships with crows when I first moved to Eugene with little success. They didn’t actively avoid or scorn me as I know they do to some, but they never seemed interested in my presence or my words. I didn’t push the relationship, especially considering that there were many other creatures and entities in that town that were actively seeking my time and attention.

In Portland, however, the crows have been a constant feature from the very beginning, living in great numbers both throughout downtown Portland in general as well as specifically in the area near Union Station where I live. They made their presence very obvious to me from the moment I started to move furniture into my building.

Time has also been a hovering constant from the very beginning. For the first time in my life, I found myself without a routine, without a reliable daily activity, without a proper or useful way to spend my time. Time is a reliable foe in that too much and too little can both effectively destabilize and eat at the soul, and in from moving to Eugene to Portland, literally overnight I went from a situation where I had absolutely no time to myself to a situation where I had more time than I knew what to do with. I had a bicycle, I had a fresh terrain to explore, I had ideas and thoughts and urges, and yet without direction, time still stood as a presence in a way I had never experienced before.

And while I know that the idea was seeded in my head by seeing the crows fly around the Union Station clock tower so often, crows and time became strongly and immediately linked in my mind. It’s a link that over the past year has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as the presence and behavior of the crows eventually became my antidote to the ever-looming curse that time held over me.

tower

Clock tower at Union Station [A.Valkyrie]

*    *    *

I usually don’t remember my dreams, and I’ve learned from experience that if I am remembering my dreams, there’s something very important that I need to be paying attention to. Which is why a certain red flag went up once I started dreaming of crows for several nights in a row.

After the third or fourth night, I woke up at the crack of dawn, trembling, the images of crows seemingly seared into the darkness behind my vision. Without really consciously understanding what I was doing, I quickly threw on some clothes and stumbled down to the riverbank, seeking out a familiar dark and still spot on the water. Still half-asleep, still seeing crows when I closed my eyes, I stared into the water and briefly fell into a trance. The crows that were burned into the darkness of my vision were suddenly reflected in the water, appearing larger than life. I looked up and noticed that two actual crows were circling. They flew down at me, almost touching the riverbank, and then took off towards the west.

I followed them for as long as I could keep track of them. They led me throughout Northwest Portland, touching down repeatedly at corners and intersections that I tried desperately to mentally note while also desperately trying to keep up with the flying pair. I finally lost sight of them underneath the 405, and yet as I was headed back home I could hear them nearby and I had the distinctive feeling that I was being watched.

That night my dreams felt like a trap, a pull, a call, a maze of repeated imagery in which crows shifted into a dark-clad woman, who then shifted back into a crow. I recognized her immediately; we had been chatting on and off for years with no serious commitments on either side. And yet it was still all rather vague. I woke up not sure how to proceed. There were still too many pieces missing.

A few days later, when Rhyd Wildermuth posted a blog about bees and bestowing kindnesses towards ravens, I knew better than to shrug it off as mere coincidence. I made a mental note to buy a container of unsalted peanuts the next time I was out and to keep an eye out for crows.

And then a few days after the blog post as well as another series of crow dreams, my partner and I were on our walking down First Avenue just north of the Burnside Bridge, only a few feet away from edge of the buildings, when I noticed a crow standing still in the corner by a window. Thinking he was hurt, I approached the crow slowly and stooped down. The crow stared me right in the eye, less than two feet away, and immediately I could tell he was not actually hurt at all.

“What’s up? Are you OK?” I asked the crow, and suddenly I was flooded with a stream of thoughts and visions… from Rhyd’s blog about feeding ravens, to the crow dreams I had, to the crows on the riverbank the other day…and then thoughts and images of my old rabbit Gwendolyn and the papaya bottle, and of Squirrel and her glass jar of cat food, of myself on my bike riding through downtown, and then of peanuts and more crows. Suddenly, it all clicked.

I had meant to buy peanuts. I looked at the crow, feeling terrible that I had nothing to give to it at the moment. I thanked the crow for the information and apologized for my lack of a treat. I wouldn’t make such a mistake again, I said to myself.

Under the bridge, where I met the crow

Under the bridge, where I met the crow [A. Valkyrie]

Walking away, I looked back and the crow remained against the wall, watching me until I turned the corner.

I looked at my partner. “I think I get it now, I think I finally get it,” I said. “I’m supposed to be watching the crows, making friends with the crows. Like as a regular thing, a daily thing. I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing with my time right now. ”

He looked at me and nodded. “That makes sense,” he said.

 *    *    * 

Once you train your eye to notice specific features within the landscape, it’s often impossible to un-see them. The feature becomes encoded in both one’s conscious awareness as well as the subconscious, and creates a hiccup in one’s latent inhibition, unwillingly interrupting any given moment of observation in order to announce its presence. This tendency is why many graphic designers can’t help but to constantly complain about fonts, or architects about the eaves or arches of any given building. The graphic designer can’t not notice the painful use of Papyrus in the storefront sign, nor can the architect not notice the cheap and brutal travesties that are de rigueur in modern design.

This same tendency comes forth pretty quickly when one consciously decides to notice and acknowledge every crow that they come across. I poured some peanuts into a plastic box with a lid and started setting out daily, following the crows while shaking the box to announce my presence and feeding them whenever I got their attention. I was trying to attune myself to their perspective while at the same time paying close attention to what is taking place in my own world as well.

And within the space of a few weeks, I realized that I couldn’t not see a crow, I couldn’t ignore a crow, I couldn’t relegate a crow to a feature of the landscape anymore no matter how hard I tried. I’m not sure how long the sound of a crow prompted an immediate reaction in me before I consciously noticed that it was happening – but I know now that I can’t tune it out any more than a mother can initially tune out the cry of her baby. Every time I saw a crow fly above me, I couldn’t not look up. Riding my bike in downtown traffic presented a bit of a challenge.

Unlike fonts and arches, however, what’s different about attuning oneself to noticing crows is that the gesture is reciprocated, especially when you offer them treats. The crows start to notice you as well and, even in a dense urban area such as downtown Portland, one quickly starts to realize that they’re always being watched to an extent. I may be constantly looking for crows, but I also get the strong sense that they don’t have to look for me. They know where I am as soon I leave my building. They know where I am even when I have no idea where I actually am.

The more I think about the vastness of a crows-eye view, the more I start to think that the crows know this city much better than any of its citizens ever possibly could.

*    *    *

It also didn’t take me long to realize that the pigeon-crow relationship dynamics are at least as interesting and complex as most of the human relationship dynamics that I observe while downtown. Other than Canadian geese on the waterfront, crows and pigeons are the only two sizeable birds that inhabit downtown Portland, and they are constantly interacting with each other on nearly every corner or rooftop.

The differences in their pack habits and their mannerisms stood out immediately. Rarely do I see a solo pigeon, and rarely do I not see a solo crow. Pigeons generally go about their business in flocks on the ground, while crows often fly in pairs or trios. When foraging for food, they are usually on their own. The pigeons are braver and much pushier in seeking out food in the presence of humans, but not nearly as observant or sensitive to the subtle goings-on, as the crows are. A crow will spot a hipster discarding a sandwich from half a block away, while the pigeons often miss bread that tourists throw directly at them. The more populated the area, the more the crows hide in plain site while the pigeons bobble in a flock in the middle of the commotion. On the food cart blocks in downtown Portland, one practically trips over the pigeons in their path while the crows watch from the light-posts, unnoticed for the most part.

And yet despite their shyness and altogether lack of aggressiveness when compared to the pigeons, a single crow will fend off a whole flock of them in defense of his claimed prize, using a wide assortment of noises, dances, and aggressive gestures in order to chase the intruding birds away. On the campus of Portland State University, I watched a crow aggressively fight off pigeons for several minutes in order to defend a half-eaten burrito in the bottom of a take-out container that the crow had dragged out of an overflowing trashcan. At one point, the crow grabbed the fork out of the container with his beak and threw it towards the pigeons. After the flock finally left, the crow carefully and expertly tore the excessive pieces of tortilla off the side of the burrito before taking the remainder of it in his beak and flying off to a nearby rooftop.

Crow standing off against pigeons

Crow standing off against pigeons [A. Valkyrie]

I was interacting with a crow near PSU, shooing away the crowding pigeons, when I was approached by a rather grumpy, elderly gentleman.

“What you got against pigeons?” he asked me.

“Nothing, really. I’m just more interested in the crows, that’s all.”

“What, you think crows are better than pigeons?”

“No, it’s not a contest, but I’ve been working with crows, not the pigeons. Its nothing against the pigeons, I’m just not seeking them out.”

He seemed intent on challenging that. “Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”

I took a deep breath. “Look. I’m not in the mood for an argument about bird rights and bird equality, OK? If you think I’m being unfair to the pigeons, give them a little attention yourself. There’s nothing personal here. I just work with crows.”

He gave me a dirty look and walked off, himself shooing away the pigeons as he left. I was reminded that within a downtown urban landscape, even the subtlest of solitary activities are not really solitary. One always has an audience.

On my way home I took a longer route, up and around through the Pearl District. As I was riding through, it occurred to me that I rarely ever see a single crow north of Glisan Street, in the newer part of the Pearl. I thought about what I found distasteful about the neighborhood – not enough trees, too many boxy buildings, way too much construction, too many dogs, and very few places to deposit trash – and I laughed out loud, realizing that the crows most likely avoided the Pearl for the exact same reasons.

*    *    *

I feel like a Pied Piper of sorts, riding through the streets of downtown Portland every day around lunchtime, shaking the peanut box as I ride past corners where I know crows to congregate. After a few months, I find myself in a steady routine along a specified path throughout downtown, a path that was overall dictated by the crows themselves. What first started as simply following their caws quickly turned into a dedicated route with expected interactions on both sides, often taking several hours out of my day. I approach the location, shaking the peanut box, and more often than not a crow appears a short time later. I then toss some peanuts, back up a bit, and the crow usually advances and starts to snack.

I quickly find that there are subtle maneuvers and tendencies that make a world of difference. Tossing peanuts underhand is best – overhand startles the crows and they often fly away. They don’t appreciate my sunglasses much, nor the squeakiness of my rear brakes. But they very much like being talked to, and they make quite the show of knowing that they have your attention.

Without deliberately meaning to do so, I realized that I’ve started to give the crows nicknames in my mind based on the locations in which I tend to find them.

The “Bud Clark crows” hang out in the trees across the street from Bud Clark Commons, a “Housing First” shelter and homeless day center that sits a block from Union Station. The Bud Clark crows are noticeably both louder and braver than any of the other crows that I come upon regularly. I can’t help but to think that this is a very specific co-adaptation to their specific location, as the folks who regularly hang out on this block themselves tend to be noticeably louder and braver than what one would generally expect in this neighborhood. The crows have adapted to other the rhythms of the local residents, swooping in daily around the same time just after lunch to pick up the food scraps from the patio and the surrounding sidewalk.

The “yoga crows” are a bonded pair who live on the rooftop next door to a yoga studio a few blocks north of Burnside. At least one of them spends nearly every day perched above the studio, watching the action below while scolding and mocking random passers-by.

Yoga crow, watching from above

Yoga crow, watching from above [A. Valkyrie]

Next door to the yoga studio is a gift shop with a bowl of dog treats left outside. After a few weeks of visiting the yoga crows daily, I started shaking the peanut box on the sidewalk one morning when one of the crows came right out and swooped over my head, landing in front of me. He took a peanut, ate it, looked me in the eye, swooped over to the bowl of dog biscuits, grabbed one in his mouth and flew off to the roof. He cawed in celebration, looking at me while dancing back and forth with the biscuit in his mouth.

He was obviously showing off, and I was quite impressed.

The “parking lot crow” often acts as a supplemental security guard for a parking lot on an unusually deserted and empty block in Old Town. This crow paces back and forth at the entrance, warily observing the pigeons while keeping an eye peeled for any scraps that the flock may come across. When the actual security guard steps onto the property, the crow often jumps on the cars, hopping from rooftop to rooftop while cawing in a mocking tone. The parking lot crow was the very first to start to respond to my shaking the peanut box, and is the least timid of all the crows that I regularly interact with.

A few blocks from the parking lot crows are the “ODOT crows,” who hang out in the trees around the employee headquarters for the Oregon Department of Transportation. They scavenge for scraps dropped by employees on their cigarette breaks, and they frequently take over the parking lot once everyone has left for the day. Recently, one of the ODOT crows has taken to swooping above my car when I drive past the building, and he’s not the only crow to start flying past my car as I drive through the neighborhood.

When I go by the ODOT building at other times separate from my crow route, I often see one of two crows in the side-street, comically dancing and waving around twigs or food scraps while a passer-by stands and watches in amusement.

And if I shake my peanut box, they usually pause and look right over at me.

*    *    *

I had noticed the man watching me from the roof of the homeless shelter almost daily as I interacted with the parking lot crow. This time, he was standing in the middle of the parking lot as I approached on my bike, shaking the peanut box towards the parking lot crow who was perched on the pole. He watched us for a few minutes, and once the crow had his fill of peanuts and flew off, he approached me.

The parking lot crow

The parking lot crow

“Why are you feeding the crows?” he asked me.

I looked at him for a moment and decided to tell him the simplest version of the truth.

“Because a rather intimidating deity-type who came to me in my dreams asked me to and I couldn’t really say no, and I also really needed something to get me out of the house. I’m still don’t have a solid grasp on the entirety of the why part yet, but its making more and more sense by the day, I’ll tell you that.”

“Can you really make friends with crows? Why do you shake that box for?”

“If you want to make friends with them, just feed them. And talk to them. And be nice to them, and calm. They shy away from loud noises and yelling. They will learn to remember you quickly, and they will trust you the more you show kindness. I started shaking the peanut box with the idea that they would learn to respond to the sound, expecting a treat. At this point I’m pretty damn sure that it works.”

“Huh…” he said, his voice drifting off a bit.

I looked at him for a moment, handed him my peanut box, and pointed towards the crow. “Here, take this,” I said. “The crow expects me in the afternoon. I’ll bet you that if you start coming down here in the mornings, shaking the box, and scattering some peanuts, you’ll have a crow friend by the end of the week.”

I smiled at him and then started to ride off the long way towards my building. A block away, a crow flew above me and landed in the street ten feet or so ahead of me. The crow looked at me expectantly.

I pointed back toward the man from the shelter. “I gave him my peanut box, man,” I said. “You gotta go ask him. I’m going home to put together another one.”

I doubt the crow actually understood what I had said, but nevertheless I watched him look over and then fly to the pole at the edge of the parking lot. I shook my head, amazed at how vastly my perception of this city has shifted over four months’ worth of paying attention to crows, and I continued on my way home.

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville

I. Perception and Ideology

Standing on one corner of an intersection on a main drag in Eugene, Oregon, a young man with earbuds dances around while waving and twirling a “Little Caesars” sign in the shape of an arrow that’s pointing toward the restaurant. He stands out there most days from 9 to 5, and most likely makes $9.10 an hour, minimum wage in this state. One only has to stand and observe the dancing sign guy on the corner for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is mostly positive. People wave from cars driving by; others honk,and some give a thumbs-up. The dancing sign man returns the energy as well as the friendly hand signals. He not only receives praise but obvious showings of empathy, especially on a hot day like this one. “You must be sweating!” one woman yells. “Be careful out there!”

On the other corner, a man also stands with a sign. He has earflaps instead of earbuds, however, and its pretty apparent that his physical condition doesn’t allow him to dance. His sign says, “Unemployed, Homeless, Anything Helps.”  And, one only has to observe him for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is opposite to what the dancing sign man across the street receives. I watched drivers who refused to make eye contact; others who muttered ‘get a job’ under their breath; others who yelled ‘get a job’ quite loudly; one woman who honked at him, and a car full of frat boys who rolled down their window as though they were going to give him money only to then to roll up the window laughing and drive away quickly as the man walked towards their car. I watched for fifteen minutes or so and saw him take in one dollar and some change, which puts his hourly take-in at well under the $9.10 an hour that the dancing sign man across the street receives.

We live in a society where a person who stands on a street corner doing absolutely nothing other than waving a sign advertising for a business is not only perceived as legitimately ‘earning a living,’ but also receives empathy, praise, and positive reaction from passers-by.  And a person who stands on a nearly identical corner with a sign advertising their own personal state of misfortune is not treated kindly but treated as worthless, is yelled at to get a job, and is subjected to repeated public humiliation.

Not only is the panhandler mistreated and derided, but the very act of panhandling is considered to be so offensive that many municipalities have attempted to ban the practice outright; an attempt which often fails due to free speech protections. And in many cases, it’s the same kinds of businesses that hire folks to hold signs on the corner that are instrumental in pressuring local governments and police departments to remove those other folks with those other signs through legislative attempts or simply police harassment.

Call it tragic. Call it inhumane. Call it the sign of a crumbling civilization. Call it what you will. It’s the inevitable result of a society indoctrinated into an economic ideology which judges the literal worth of a human being by their ability to ‘produce,’ by their ability to ‘earn,’ by what they are ‘worth’ under the system of capitalism. The sign-waver for Little Caesars and the panhandler are engaged in the same physical activity, but it is the designation of one as a ‘worker’ who is earning a ‘wage’ in contrast to the other which results in empathy and praise toward one and judgment and mistreatment toward the other.

Actual worth is judged by perceived ‘worth’ under the arbitrary standards of a structure so pervasive and encompassing that few can see through its ideological fog, few question the legitimacy or humanity of such a system. And with this comes the acceptance and promotion of a flawed and arbitrary set of standards, determining how and why we assume some have ‘worth’ (or are the ‘worthy poor’), as opposed to those who are expendable, the throwaways–the ‘unworthy poor.’ Our acceptance of these standards is why we tolerate – even actively ignore – the millions of people, including women, children, and the disabled, sleeping on the streets of our towns and cities every night in America. Worse, we often blame them for their situation and believe that they are not deserving of even the most basic of dignities.

Bread line in New York City, circa 1910. [Public Domain]

Bread line in New York City, circa 1910. [Public Domain]

II. Five Hundred Years Of War

To the casual observer, it would seem that what was once a ‘war on poverty’ in America has turned into an outright war on the poor. From the criminalization of public feeding in at least 21 cities to the recent pushes from politicians to restrict food stamp use and drug-test welfare recipients, the oppression of an ever-expanding class of poor has increased, along with an increase in the poor themselves. The most recent census figures state that 45.3 million Americans currently live in poverty, up from 33.3 million in the year 2000. The American middle-class is quickly disappearing, and the current gap between rich and poor in this country is the highest on record.

While independent studies and government data both make it clear that most of the poor who are able to work are either already working or actively job-seeking, the overwhelming perception in America is that the poor are lazy; that they are ‘takers’ and that they don’t want to work, preferring to live off welfare. Such attitudes are most often stressed by conservative politicians who claim Christianity as the moral basis for their beliefs, which is often countered by liberal and/or progressive Christians who point to the words and teachings of Christ as contradictory to such a position. And while the liberal-minded Christians have a point regarding the words of Jesus, the conservatives are correct about the Christian origins of their ideological stance regarding the poor. For while this attitude generally manifests as an outgrowth of the ‘American Dream,’ (i.e. that hard work equals success), which implies that if one is not successful than they did not work hard, the attitudes concerning the poor – parroted by conservative politicians and citizens alike – are rooted in the days and ideas of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. That is, the era in which the landless underclass was first created and identified.

History is too-often recited as specific events in isolation without their proper context. This reduction of historical upheavals makes it easy to ignore that neither the transition from feudalism to capitalism nor the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. In fact, they were coterminous and codependent. Feudalism claimed its legitimacy based on the divine right of kings, with lord and peasant as a divinely decreed, unquestioned hierarchy. It wasn’t until the emergence and rise of the first ‘middle class’ of laborers and merchants in the years after the Black Death that such claims to legitimacy showed wear. The status and experiences of this emerging class during this economic upheaval, along with the creation of a class that ‘labored’ as the poor had yet enjoyed many of the luxuries of the upper-classes gave rise to a new ethic. The “Protestant work ethic” or the “Calvinist work ethic”, i.e. the belief that ‘hard work’ is not only divinely prescribed but will be divinely rewarded, perfectly matched this new class.

The peasant classes also looked to the ideas of the Reformation for their claim to freedom. The Peasants’ War in Germany, less than a decade after Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, was a direct result of the collision between the Enclosures and the Reformation. The peasant class in Germany was stripped of the right to the commons in the early 16th century, and were forbidden from freely hunting or gathering wood by the feudal lords who had taken control of the land. The loss of their economic freedom combined with the rhetoric of the Reformation ignited a series of revolts in 1524-1525, which spread throughout Germany like wildfire and were backed by many Reformation priests, although Luther himself opposed the revolts despite sympathizing with the peasants’ plight. The aristocracy met the peasants with a level of force that nowadays could only be wielded through the legitimacy of state power, and in the onslaught approximately 100,000 peasants were slaughtered to maintain the social order.

Peasants surround a knight during the Peasants' War. Illustration circa 1539. [Public Domain]

Peasants surround a knight during the Peasants’ War. Illustration circa 1539. [Public Domain]

The Protestant work ethic was essential in shaping a rapidly changing society in the midst of the Enclosures. Peasants were forced off the land into the cities and factories, which created an inevitable underclass of ‘paupers’ and ‘beggars.’ From the crisis of poverty that hit the cities came the Poor Laws, which first carved out the distinctions between the ‘impotent poor,’ the ‘able-bodied poor,’ and the ‘idle poor,’ distinctions which set the stage for the role of the State in the criminalization of poverty, a role still enacted to this day. The philosophy and implementation of the Poor Laws is the direct predecessor to both the modern welfare states in both the United States and Europe as well as to the ideological position regarding the poor that conservative politicians express.

Whether one solely focuses on medieval Europe, or expands their view in order to look at the horrors and ravages of colonialism from a global perspective, the scale of the continuous violence and oppression of those who lack economic power and/or a ‘work ethic’ is everywhere. In Western society, the welfare state and the criminalization and dehumanization of poverty are anything but mutually exclusive.

In reality, the war on the poor is nothing new, if anything it is a war that’s been continuously waged for over five hundred years.

III. Privilege, Disability, and the Exception

It took me well over a decade as an adult to recognize the extent of a significant superpower that I possess, a completely unearned and unacknowledged advantage that allows me to experience day-to-day life in a way and manner that I don’t “deserve” and I haven’t “earned.”

It’s a superpower best described as middle-class privilege.

For I am one of “those people,” one of the “dependent” poor, having lived in poverty for nearly a decade now without any real expectation that my situation might change anytime soon. But I am a poor person who was raised middle-class, poor due to what one would categorize as ‘circumstance’ as opposed to birth, and despite my poverty I retain all the advantages that a middle-class upbringing entails. This middle-class façade grants me an indescribable amount of entrances, exceptions, clearances, and privileges that those who appear as poor do not have. My everyday life experiences and ability to survive are hinged upon and rooted in the fact that the gatekeepers to the worlds I inhabit instinctively assume that I am one of them. I “pass” as middle-class and, therefore, I am largely exempt from most of the harsh words, cruel judgments, and discriminatory treatment that the average poor person faces; treatment that’s even worse if one is deemed ‘unworthy’ poor.

My appearance, my mannerisms, my speech, my cultural references and sense of humor act as signifiers, broadcasting a subconscious suggestion to those in my presence that I am other than poor. I appear to be a person of means, one who earns a wage, one who creates value through production, one who has worth within the context of the capitalist system. Yet, none of those things are true. I pass without effort based solely on factors that I had no part in and did not ‘choose’ or ‘earn’.

Class privilege is a matter of culture as much as a matter of economics, and it’s a misleading oversimplification to define class differences by wealth and wealth alone. Our society is deeply coded along class lines, lines that have existed for hundreds of years between rich and poor, lines which have become blurry due to the advent of the modern ‘middle-class’ and yet reveal themselves much more fixed in the face of a change of fortune. Similarly to white privilege, class privilege is hard to see while one is protected within its embrace; just as fish can’t see water, one often cannot see the boundaries of the bubble in which they live until they are unexpectedly yanked outside of it.

I grew up in a low-crime, affluent suburb, was raised by educated parents, went to top-rated public schools, always had access to quality medical and dental care, and was shielded from nearly all of the brute realities of poverty. It was always assumed that I would go to college and end up living a similar middle-class suburban life as that in which I was raised.

I rebelled against that expectation – I ran off to live in the city in my late teens, forgoing the idea of college with the idea that I could ‘make it’ on my own. I learned quickly what it meant to work for a living, that ‘making it’ meant forever selling one’s time in exchange for money, and that time/money equation varied greatly depending on the task. Selling my time to a retail store earned me $7 an hour. Dogwalking earned me $10. Cleaning houses; $12. Waiting tables; $15. Art modeling; $25. Bartending. I could pull in around $30 an hour on a decent night.

I knew from the very beginning that the game was rigged, and I learned pretty quickly the myth that ‘hard work equals success’ was greatly dependent on what kind of ‘work’ one could find. But it took me a bit longer to see my own advantages in the game; to figure out that I was able to score many jobs that others could not simply by virtue of my being white, able-bodied, and middle-class. Over time, it became more apparent to me that what I was “worth” was not being measured by what I actually knew or could accomplish, but by arbitrary standards that had more to do with perception and class signifiers than anything else. I also knew that I worked much harder cleaning houses for $12 an hour than I did sitting still in a room full of art students for $25, and that most of the women whom I cleaned houses with would never be considered for the art modeling gig.

I worked a varied assortment of those jobs throughout my late teens and early twenties, while painting on the side and making plans to attend college. Then, fate intervened without warning – an accidental event that left me with permanent physical and neurocognitive injuries. Practically overnight, I went from identifying as a self-sufficient ‘worker’ whose time had always been worth money on the open market to having to learn to navigate life as a person with various ‘invisible disabilities’ which largely precluded me from holding down even the most basic of jobs. As a person who had neither health insurance nor a safety net of any kind, I had to quickly accept that I was being relegated to a life of poverty from that point forward.

With that realization came a sudden torrent of denial, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. It also gave me a newly critical eye toward an economic system that arbitrarily determines the worth and value of a human being by their ability to earn money and/or create surplus value. Not until I found myself removed from the worker pool did I understand that disability in our society is defined by how much one can produce, by one’s worth as a worker under the capitalist system.

(This, by the way, is why any disability claim hinges on being able to ‘prove’ one’s worthlessness in terms of one’s ability to earn an income. It is also why those who cannot meet that burden of proof yet cannot earn an income to support themselves are simply left to suffer, discarded from our society, ‘othered’ as the ‘unworthy poor,’ and left on street corners holding signs.)

The loss of self-sufficiency, the loss of economic freedom that I suddenly faced, combined with the physical and cognitive challenges I had not yet accepted or learned to handle, sent me into a downward spiral that took several years to emerge from. It took a cross-country move, a fresh start from scratch, and an eventual confrontation with my own unseen privilege before I was able to come to terms with my feelings of worthlessness and recognize that I was actually in a limited position of power.

*   *   *

The aforementioned confrontation took place on a beautiful spring morning in downtown Eugene, Oregon, a day in which I was riding my bike from my house to the library as I had done nearly every day. I was riding on the sidewalk, as I always did. As I approached an intersection, I noticed that the officer who usually waved at me on my bike every morning was writing a ticket to a homeless-looking man also on a bicycle. I stopped and observed the interaction from a few feet away, and when it was obvious that the officer was finished I asked him what had happened.

He was riding his bike on the sidewalk,” the officer told me. “This is at least the third time I caught him doing that.”

“But I ride on that sidewalk every day,” I replied. “And you’ve seen me many more than three times.”

He looked me up and down, and paused before carefully replying. “I suppose that’s true, but you aren’t causing any problems. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day.”

I repeated his words in my head, a knot forming in my stomach as I took in what he had said. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day. Looking at myself up and down as the officer had just done, I realized I looked exactly like the type of person who was off to work, unlike the man on his bike. Thoughts raced through my head. He thinks I have a job. He thinks I’m one of them. He doesn’t realize that I hang out downtown all day as well. He thinks I have money, he thinks I ‘pay my way’. He thinks that I have ‘worth’ and the man he just ticketed does not. I get a ‘pass’ and he does not. He looks poor and I do not.

I stared at the officer, eventually nodding, trying as hard as I could not to show my anger and disgust at what I had just witnessed. It had been years since I’d ever considered myself to be middle-class, but I realized then and there that I still had middle-class privilege and that such privilege was a potential source of power. I learned at that moment what it truly meant to not look poor, and realized the only way I could reconcile the feelings of nausea and rage was to shine light on what I had just experienced. I would have to expose those biases, both for their inhumanity as well as their arbitrary nature. I suddenly realized my privilege was a shield, and my perceived lack of ‘worth’ under capitalism quickly faded once I discovered an entirely different kind of ‘worth’ and ‘value’: I would use my time to point out and fight the biases that both myself and the man on the bike just experienced.

I spent the next three years viewing the downtown as my ‘workplace,’ positioning myself as the proverbial thorn-in-the-side of local government – specifically the police department’s pattern of biased policing against the visibly poor and homeless. I didn’t do so out of guilt or charity, but rather out of obligation and empathy. I did so as someone who struggled as a member of the ‘other’ while regularly passing as one of the worthy ones. I was determined to use that assumption against those in power who arbitrated and enforced those standards.

Throughout that time I was regarded as an equal by middle and upper-class folks alike; few suspected or could even conceive that I was anything other than how I appeared. Nobody ever asked me if I went to college, they asked me where I went to college. Very few asked or even wondered why I was able to devote myself full-time to obviously unpaid volunteer work. It was simply assumed that I had money, and it was evident that it did not matter where that money came from, nor whether I had ‘earned’ it or not. I fit the image so well, in fact, that I often was party to discussions and debates in which “those people” were brought up, where the ‘unworthy poor’ were demonized and dehumanized to my face. Supposedly well-meaning businessmen would take me aside in confidence, first to thank me for my work but then to talk to me privately about ‘those people.’

I can remember several times where, in a moment of bravery, I interrupted the conversation to inform them that I was one of the very people they were talking about. Each time, the conversation went like this:

“Oh, please don’t take that personally. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about real poor people, the ones that you look at and you just know they can get a job, but they choose not to work and they just want to live off the system.”

“The ones you look at and just know can get a job?” I countered. “You mean the ones who look like me?”

“Again, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about those other people.”

They were so eager and insistent on distinguishing me as the exception to further elaborate their stereotype that they completely missed the point that I had attempted to make each time: “those other people” inscribed in their minds were manipulated abstractions, and despite being well-spoken and well-dressed I was not the exception at all.

*   *   *

It’s liberating and also an obligation to throw of my facade to illustrate this point. I am a poor, disabled, uneducated member of the American underclass, who was able to build a reputation for initiating a public discourse around the myths and realities of being poor and homeless in America. It was and is a reputation that relied on my audience believing they were listening to a middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated person. Very few ever figured out who they were actually interacting with: a member of that same ‘undeserving,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘entitled’ underclass that they demonized on a daily basis, a member of that underclass speaking from personal experience. Though I’m not trying to downplay my ability to speak truth to power, nor my skills in the public arena, I can say with confidence that I’d never have been able to do so based only on my own merits.

Alley Valkyrie speaking at the Eugene City Club, October 2013

I am no more “deserving” than the man on the street corner begging with a sign. I have done no more to “earn” the respect I am given nor the power that I wield than any of the folks who spend their days at the library and their nights sleeping on the riverbank. Yet, not only is it immediately assumed I’m a person deserving of respect and an audience, even when I fully disclose my situation I am distinguished as the exception. I am arbitrarily deemed ‘worthy’ rather than a throwaway, based only on aesthetic and cultural factors. Meanwhile those who cannot pass are thrown under the bus by the same people who have invited me to the table.

IV. The Tower and The Mirror

“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” – Aristotle

Whether the American Dream is clinically dead or still technically gasping for air may be up for debate, but the belief that ‘anyone can make it’ and that ‘hard work equals success’ has a very tenuous grip as of late. The inability of much of the middle-class to recover from the last recession may be the final nail in the coffin of the belief that anyone can make it in America if they simply work hard enough.

If anything, it can be argued that the rise of the middle-class in medieval Europe shattered the façade of the ‘divine right of kings,’ similar to how the crumbling of the middle-class in America has shattered the façade of the American Dream. The ‘work ethic’ that serves as a bridge between these two moments in time still stands firm, the ideological ghosts of John Calvin and Martin Luther still hovering close, just as they have haunted Western society for half a millenia. Even as the masses become more aware that the game is rigged, those deeply ingrained attitudes around work, worth, and poverty are clung to more strongly than ever by politician and citizen alike.

The poor in America are invisible for many reasons. They are hidden away, shamed into submission, their existence is minimized, simply not talked about, and outright denied by so many. But they are also invisible to you because they are hiding amongst you, especially those who have experienced downward social mobility within their lifetimes, having found the ability through class-based signifiers to shapeshift between the world in which they were raised and the world in which they are forced to inhabit.

The poor as “other”, as stereotype, as abstraction, these are the methods and tools that the ruling class uses to manipulate us into erecting physical and psychological barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ So much time and effort goes into demonizing an abstract stereotype, that most fail to recognize that many who are poor and struggle with little hope are not reflecting that stereotype but a striking similarity to themselves, their poverty hidden within the familiarity of that reflection.

And as the poor are invisible, their anger is invisible to most as well. But their anger and desperation is growing and nearing a breaking point. The welfare system, which has always acted in tandem with the criminalization and dehumanization of the poor, was never intended to truly ‘help’ the poor or pull them out of poverty. It is and has always been a stopgap measure, designed to prevent revolts like the Peasant Wars that spread throughout Germany in 1524. And now, with ever-rising socioeconomic inequality–combined with assaults on welfare benefits for the poor – it is only a matter of time before the oppressed classes once again are pushed to revolt.

The ultra-wealthy know this full well, and have already started planning their escape routes, and yet the upper-middle, middle, and working-classes are still blinded by the fog, the same ideological fog that has convinced them that they poor are lazy and worthless and that hard work leads to success.

It is only in seeing through that fog that one can catch a glimpse of the Tower that looms.

My own experiences thankfully lifted that fog for me long ago, and I survive on the periphery, ever vulnerable and yet blessed with clarity, haunted by the constant reminder that behind my façade I have very little to stand on. Regardless of what I may signify to the world, regardless of what people may assume based on my clothes or my mannerisms, that edge always looms, and no matter how much I may distract or deceive myself, I am at risk of slipping over at any moment. Which is why every single time I walk past someone on the street who has obviously been pegged as a throwaway by society, I remember that they are a mirror, reflecting my own possibilities and potentials. But for privilege, but for luck, but for perception, but for the grace of the Gods goes I.

Not a moment goes by where I am not sharply aware that I am only one life event away from having to stand on that street corner myself, and despite the assumptions that others may harbor regarding my abilities and worth, the harsh reality is that I would not be dancing with a sign for money on behalf of a corporation, I would be begging with one for my very survival.

And if you ever saw me out there, Gods forbid? You would not be staring at a familiar stereotype, you would be staring at a reflection of yourself, for none of us are exempt from the potential fate of the throwaway. No matter your level of privilege, no matter the strength of your denial or the firmness of your bubble, it only takes a single life event, a single moment in time, to suddenly find yourself on the other side.

A beggar's display in Santa Barbara, CA. Photo by Dori.

A beggar’s display in Santa Barbara, CA. [Photo by Dori]

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

“The trees and the grass have spirits. Whatever one of such growth may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities…”Wooden Leg

We speak and write constantly about connecting to place: to the natural features of a place, the energies of place, the various gods and spirits that inhabit a place. Whether you approach it in a humanistic or archetypal fashion, or whether your relationships to spirits of place are literal and reciprocal, interactions with and concepts of ‘place’ hold a notable importance for the vast majority of us. Some connect by tuning into the seasons, taking nature-walks and learning plant identification, trying to incorporate local foods into their diets, or taking up gardening and otherwise tending to the land. Others interpret messages from the flights of birds, forge connections with the rivers, lakes, and mountains, and make offerings to the spirits of the land.

But what we generally regard as the ‘natural’ world does not encompass the entirety of place, and as valuable as that knowledge is, it only tells part of the story. Especially in developed or urbanized areas, inherent in the spirit and essence of place are the histories, events, structures, and people who have shaped and altered a place over time. While forming relationships to the gods, spirits, and energies of a place is important and critical work, that work is somewhat incomplete without an understanding of the relationships that the spirits have to that place itself, and the way that our species and our influence has altered, interfered with, and sometimes destroyed that relationship over time.

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Crumbling ruins on the Willamette River. [Photo by Alley Valkyrie.]

We tend to pay attention to how place affects us, and how gods and spirits affect us, and how development affects us, but we often overlook how human settlement has in itself affected place and the spirits that reside there. For those of us who live on recently colonized and/or conquered land, such an overlooking not only has implications for our relationship to place itself, but it also furthers our denial and dulls our recognition of the sustaining damages and consequences of war, colonialism, and industrialization, and how the land and its spirits have been affected by these forces.

Most would not question the importance of the mythologies, the histories, and the other various stories of the ancient gods as a crucial piece of our understanding of those gods. Yet the gods and spirits that surround us locally have similar histories, similar traumas, similar stories that are deeply intertwined with the history of American settlement and the colonization and removal of the indigenous people of this land. An integral part of knowing where we stand as settlers in relation to the land and its spirits is understanding the history and the trauma of the places in which we inhabit.

In the United States, our defined geographic places, whether they be neighborhoods, towns, or cities, are very recent framings placed around networks of spirit and matter that existed long before white settlers ever stepped foot on this continent. The typical American town is quite young compared to the world’s urban places as a whole, and the age of any given town often correlates to the patterns of westward expansion. One can find towns in New England and Virginia that date from the late 1600s and early 1700s, and yet there isn’t a single town in Oregon that dates prior to 1811. The era in which a town was founded greatly influences both its physical and industrial features, and cycles and trends in urban planning often impose the new upon the old in a myriad of ways that range from obvious to seamless.

The number of generations or years notwithstanding, in America we still remain as settlers on stolen land; land which was traumatized and accumulated through theft and violence. The scars and consequences of that violence remain, both seen and unseen, and little has been done to heal or even acknowledge the traumas that both the land and its creatures have withstood.

As someone who engages in deep interactions with place, the more I integrate that work the more I have come to understand the importance of cultivating a well-rounded understanding of what any given place has been through, so to speak. Over time, I’ve come to understand such work as part of my obligation; part of my duty as one who walks between the worlds. Only in engaging with the entirety of a place to the best of my ability do I reap the full benefit as the recipient of its lessons and stories.

This is not a direct appeal to action nor a homework assignment, but I offer the following questions and thoughts to ponder as they relate to the place beneath your feet or places that you frequent, especially if you frequent towns and urban areas. Obviously not all these questions are relevant to all places, and some are not relevant at all to those who do live on their ancestral lands.

Even if you don’t know the answers or care to search for them, the implications of the questions themselves will hopefully shift the way you perceive and experience your relationship with place, and create an awareness of how the histories of specific places and the impacts of capitalism and colonial settlements affect nature, spirit, and egregore in the present day.

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What is the name of your town?
What’s the history behind that name?

When was the town founded?
Who founded it?
What kind of life did that person lead? Where were they from?
What did they leave behind; what were they escaping; what did they hope to build?

Who were the original settlers; the original landowners? What were their names?
What brought them there? What was their history?
How are their names reflected in the modern landscape? Are there streets named after them?
If not the founders, who/what are the streets named after?

On which precise spot of land was the town founded?
What were the first buildings?
Where is the oldest building in town?
What was the significance of that location when the structure was built?
How does that location relate to the town today?

Where was the original center of town?
Is it in a different place from the current center of town?
If so, why? How and why did the layout develop and shift?

How was the land acquired over time? Whose land was it before the town was founded?
What laws or regulations governed the settling of that land?
Who was excluded from settling under those laws?

Which indigenous groups lived there before the area was settled?
Where did they live? Were they migratory or stationary?
What did they eat? What are the basic foods that are native to your area?
Do those plants still grow wild?
Is there anywhere where they are purposefully cultivated?

Who was driven off the land when the town was first settled? When?
Were they removed by force?
Where were they removed to?
Are their descendants still living nearby?
If so, what are their current living conditions like compared to yours?

Are there minority neighborhoods in your town?
If so, why?
If not, why not?
When did those neighborhoods spring up and/or disappear?
What is the local history behind those shifts?
What is the national history behind those shifts?

Who was historically excluded from your town?
Were their laws that targeted Asians, Blacks, or Native Americans?
Was your town a sundown town?
If so, how was that enforced? Who enforced it?

Why did the town initially grow? What attracted people to the area?
What were the primary industries?
Are the names of the streets connected to those industries?
Is there a ‘Mill Street’? Does it lead to the river?
If so, where exactly was the mill? Who owned that mill? Who worked there?
Is there a ‘Water Street’?
If so, is it actually next to the water?
If not, what does that tell you about the shaping of the landscape?

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Water Street in Lower Manhattan, three blocks from the actual water. [Photo by Andy C.]

What about the other streets? What stories do they tell?
Is there an ‘Indian Trail’? If so, what was it a trail to, and whose trail was it originally?

Do you live near a river? What is its name? What is the history of that name?
What did those who lived there before you call that river?
Where are the headwaters of that river? Where does it spill out?
What kind of industry exists along that journey?
How does that industry affect the health of the river?

Is there a bridge in your town?
When was it built? Who designed it? Who built it?
Did any of the workers die during the construction of that bridge?
Who were their families? Where were they buried?

Are there railroad tracks nearby? If so, when were they built?
What originally brought the railroad through?
Who was responsible for the building of that railroad?
What else were they responsible for?
Who lived on the land prior to the building of the railroad? How were they removed?
Is the railroad currently in operation?
If so, what kind of cargo is being carried on the rails?
If not, why did service shut down in the area?

Are there sidewalks under your feet? Roads?
Where did the gravel come from? Is there a quarry nearby?
If so, how has the mining affected the land and those of all species who live nearby?

Where does your tap water come from? How does it travel?
How old is that system, and who built it?
How reliable is your water supply? How safe is it?

Where are the dead?

Where are the first settler cemeteries, the pioneer cemeteries?
Are they still standing? What kind of condition are they in? Who are the caretakers?
Do they need caretakers? Don’t just look, listen.
If the early cemeteries are not currently standing, what stands there now?
Where are those early remains buried today?

Where and how did the indigenous of the area bury their dead?
Have those sites been respected or have they been developed?
If they have been developed, are they acknowledged as sacred ground?
Is there even a plaque, a marker?

If there isn’t, what can you do right now to change that?
And how would that immediately affect your connection with those who lie beneath?

 

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

“In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support – not mutual struggle – has had the leading part.” – Peter Kropotkin

I.

It was a maddeningly hot afternoon in August, and I had just spilled some cat food on the living room floor. I instinctively reached for the vacuum, momentarily forgetting that the air conditioning was already on, momentarily forgetting that I lived in a hundred-year old brownstone with a fragile electrical system. I hit the button on the vacuum to turn it on and, at that exact moment, I realized my mistake. The power went out.

Losing power was a regular occurrence in that house, and I didn’t think much about it at first. The breaker panel was in the basement, which could only be reached by exiting the house at the ground floor and re-entering the house again through the basement door. As I stepped out the front door, my next-door neighbor stepped out of her house at the same time, a confused look on her face.

“Our power just went out. Did your power go out?” she asked.

“I just blew the power out,” I told them. “Your power went out too? Shoot, my bad, sorry about that. I’m on my way down to turn it back on right now.”

I ran down to the basement, confused as to how and why the circuitry in my house could possibly affect the house next door. I swung open the door on the breaker panel and shined a flashlight on the panel. To my surprise, the circuit switch that was usually at issue had not flipped to the other side. I reset the entire panel, to be sure, but the power still did not come on. I ran back upstairs, dreading the call I was going to have to make to the landlord.

When I surfaced on the ground floor again, there was a small crowd on the sidewalk, and other neighbors were starting to exit their houses. “We have no power,” yelled a man from across the street. “Do any of you have power?”

I looked around at all the brownstones and realized that the entire block was out.

For a split second I tensed up, briefly paralyzed with the possibility that my little error had inconvenienced the entire neighborhood. How could one overloaded circuit knock out the whole street? I then glanced down the block and saw a few folks from the next street over walking towards us and, at that moment, it finally hit me that the outage had nothing to do with my running the vacuum cleaner and the air conditioner at the same time.

But with that realization, my guilt was immediately replaced by fear, and as I looked into the eyes of my neighbors, I saw nothing but fear in their faces as well. We stared at each other for a moment in silence, eyes wide, suddenly feeling as though we were in a Twilight Zone episode or a Ray Bradbury story. It was one of those strange moments where despite the fact that we were relative strangers to each other, every single person knew exactly what every other single person was thinking: terrorism.

It was less than two years after 9/11, and the trauma associated with living through that experience was still a fresh wound for most people in the neighborhood. Since the tragedy, the city’s inhabitants had been collectively walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The emotional climate was such that an event as ordinary as a power outage, which would not necessarily engender fear prior to 9/11, suddenly took on a new and terrifying potentiality.

At that moment, another neighbor emerged from his house, cranking up an old weather radio as he walked towards us. “It’s a grid failure,” he yelled at the crowd. “Newscaster says that the whole Northeast is out. Everything is down.”

I witnessed a sigh of collective relief and a release of tension that immediately transitioned into a breath intake of differing anxieties. The fear of the unknown and the fear of potential terrorism had quickly morphed into a fear of violence, of looting and of rioting. Everyone suddenly started to intently study each other, deeply searching with their eyes, seeking out potential levels of trust or distrust. We stood there uncomfortably, the residents of a Brooklyn block who before this moment had the privilege of never needing to know or trust each other, who suddenly realized that we were in a situation where our safety and well-being might depend on each other. Eyes darted around from person to person, with the silence ever deafening as the seconds ticked by.

“Do you think we’ll be safe?” one woman asked, breaking the silence. “The last time this happened…”

In the late 1970’s, riots, looting and arson broke out throughout the city, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, after a power outage caused by a lightning strike kept the city off the grid for just over twenty-four hours. Nearly 5,000 people were arrested; hospitals filled up city-wide as a result of the violence. The incident is well-remembered among the city’s residents. Many of the folks on that very block had lived through those riots, and the tension in their faces signaled that they were bracing for such chaos to potentially occur again. I looked around, somewhat tense but determined not to be overly affected by the worry of others.

Eventually the immediate crowd scattered, and I nervously headed indoors. As soon as I entered the house, I hunted down every candle, flashlight, and spare battery that I knew of, put them in a pile in the middle of the floor, and looked out the window at the sun. We had three to four hours of sunlight left, at which time the entire city would be facing a night of blistering hot temperatures and no power. No power meant no traffic lights, no subway trains, no running elevators.

Crowds walking home in NYC during the 2003 blackout. Photo by Glitch010101.

Crowds walking home in NYC during the 2003 blackout. [Photo by Glitch010101.]

My partner texted me from uptown Manhattan, letting me know that he was walking back with a huge crowd of people and would not be home for several hours. Not knowing what to do with myself, and increasingly becoming affected by the heat, I decided to lay down for a nap.

II.

I woke up as the sun started to set, and my heart immediately began beating as I remembered that we were in the middle of a blackout. The house was sweltering, and I quickly pulled my shoes on, armed myself with a knife and a flashlight, and headed towards the front door. I walked past the refrigerator, and it occurred to me that the food in there would be spoiled by the morning. I opened up the fridge, gathered all the edible food into a bag, and continued out the house, figuring that I might run into someone else who needed food.

I stepped out the front door and could not believe the sight before my eyes. The same neighbors who were so fearful only a few hours before were engaged in what could only be described as an impromptu block party. There were several tables filled with food, a man was cooking on a propane stove, a few folks were playing music, kids were kicking a ball around, and several women were standing around in groups with drinks, obviously engaged in meaningful conversation. I thought back to my instinct of sharing food only a few seconds earlier, and realized that everyone else had the same instinct. Everyone was sharing, cooperating, working together to make the night a little easier.

It was a miserable and muggy night. A night that, in Park Slope, would be inevitably spent in front of an air conditioner, in front of a television or a computer, isolated from others and walled-off by design without much thought to the intent or consequence behind that arrangement. But in the absence of electricity and the inability to amuse oneself with all the various devices that run on electricity, everyone was out of the house and engaging in person with each other in a way that I had never witnessed before. And as I stood there and watched, I realized that what I was witnessing was probably not confined to this block.

I made my way down towards the commercial strip on Seventh Avenue and, as I turned a corner, I noticed that the bar, which sat catty-corner to where I was standing, had its doors open and the sides rolled up. There was a large crowd out on the sidewalk. I walked over and found that the place was packed. The restaurant was giving away everything they had, and everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives. Not only was everyone merry and conversational, there were several people among the affluent crowd who were visibly poor and homeless, and they were being welcomed and loaded up with food and drink just as everyone else.

I stood there at the entrance to what I always considered to be one of the snobbiest bars in the neighborhood, and watched as class lines evaporated before my eyes in the face of an unexpected situation. Firefighters were chatting with bankers, wealthy housewives were sharing food with dishwashers.

Continuing down the street, nearly every house had people sitting out on the porch, talking, sharing food or drink. The entire neighborhood was alive and bubbling with activity. Tables were set up all around with people playing card games and board games on the sidewalk in front of their houses. Down the road, the grocery store was handing out ice cream and bags of ice to everyone who walked past. A man was cooking hot-dogs on a charcoal grill. Grandmothers were sitting together knitting under the light of a gas lamp, and children of varied backgrounds who had never met before were playing together in the street.

From the open containers to the open street fires, laws were being broken left and right, and yet civility still held firm and there was not a single police officer to be seen. I walked up and down, the entire length of the neighborhood, taking in the miraculous beauty that had unfolded over dozens of city blocks. I met and spoke with a countless number of people. I was offered food and drink dozens of times and was invited by complete strangers to play music and card games. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was actually experiencing what it means to be a ‘community’.

III.

After what seemed like endless hours accepting all the hospitality that I could possibly stand, I decided to wander out past the immediacy of my neighborhood. I headed towards Prospect Park, which among many other functions served as a barrier of sorts between the wealthier white neighborhoods in the western half of Brooklyn and the poorer, immigrant and minority neighborhoods to the east. It was in those neighborhoods that the majority of the damage occurred during the riots of the late 70’s. Yet I had a strong feeling that the atmosphere unfolding in Park Slope was somewhat consistent throughout the city.

As I entered the park, I was taken aback by the sudden darkness. My own block and several others were still lit with gas lamps and that, combined with the candles and flashlights being used, kept me out of touch with how dark complete darkness actually was. I made my way across the park toward the east side, relying much more on my previous knowledge of the terrain than what I could actually see in front of me. I stuck to the paths that wound along the southwest corner of the park and, as I walked, I heard the sound of music coming over from Ocean Avenue. When I got to the corner where the park meets the street grid, I saw a nearly identical scene to the one I had just left behind. Music, food, community, laughter.

Nearly identical, but with one glaring exception. While I didn’t see a single police officer in the dozens of blocks that I walked in Park Slope, on this side of town, the police were everywhere. There was practically an officer stationed at every corner, and it was apparent from their stance and their demeanor that they knew full well that their presence was unnecessary to the point of absurdity. They were painfully out of place, standing awkwardly among the people communing on the sidewalk, knowing full well that they were only creating tension in an otherwise safe and joyous atmosphere. They looked as though they wanted to disappear.

I re-entered the park several blocks north of where I had exited and, as I crossed the street toward the path, I saw what looked like a group nap occurring in a patch of grass just to the right of the path. I headed towards the grass, and saw at least two-dozen children of various ages, spread out like snow angels, staring intently at the sky.

I looked up at the sky and gasped aloud. The sky. The stars.  They were larger and clearer and more mesmerizing than could ever have been thought possible in New York City. I was immediately taken back to my childhood, to summer camps in the Catskills where the stars seemed so close that you could almost touch them. I hadn’t seen such a sky since then and, as I stared at the sky and then at the children on the ground, it occurred to me that most, if not all, of these kids had spent their entire lives in New York City and had never been to a summer camp and had never seen the night sky before.

Night sky. Photo by Michael J. Bennett

Night sky. Photo by Michael J. Bennett

As my eyes darted back and forth between the sky and the children on the grass, one young boy saw me and sat up in excitement. “You need to lie down and see it from on your back,” he said to me urgently. “There must be a million stars up there. It’s amazing.”

And so I lowered myself down to the ground next to him and flattened myself on the grass under the large, waning moon, taking in the pure wonder that was the night sky at that moment. I forgot about everything but the stars, and I lay there for what seemed like hours, in complete awe, allowing myself to melt into both the sky above and the earth below. The experience was a rare gift, a gift that I was sharing with a grateful and hypnotized group of young stargazers. I pointed out as many constellations to the kids as I could find and remember, and then, after a while, I simply zoned out into the sky.

Eventually the kids got up and headed back toward the crowds on Ocean Avenue and, after the last one left, I stood up and wiped myself off and headed for home. I took a long, meandering route home through the park and, by the time I was back in my neighborhood, the sun was just starting to come up. There was still a group of guitarists perched on the stone wall that enclosed the park and a few random stragglers were slowly making their way home.

IV.

The power went back on the next morning and, on the surface, everything went back to normal rather quickly. Yet there was this resonance, a certain shared magic between neighbors that never quite faded. For many months afterward, every time I ran into or made eye contact with one of the others who I remembered from that night, there was always a pause, a smile, a sparkle in both of our eyes as we briefly remembered the joy and wonder in that experience.

There was something incredibly healing about that night, both collectively as a neighborhood and as a city, on a deeply personal level. Witnessing such kindness and cooperation, such an instinctive and widespread expression of both mutual aid and merriment in such stressful circumstances, greatly restored my faith in humanity and strengthened my belief in the feasibility of a decentralized, cooperative society. It was a night where love triumphed over fear, where beauty was unexpectedly revealed both within us as well as above us.

In a world of increasing uncertainty and dwindling resources, where the future may be technically unwritten but hints strongly at bleakness and tragedy, I still retain a bit of hope whenever I think of that night when we temporarily swapped out the streetlights for the stars.

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

The first time I ever drove cross-country, my only real objective was to get it over with as quickly as possible. I was moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, and I wasn’t looking forward to the long hours and days behind the wheel. I mapped out the quickest route that I could find, and took off in a precariously packed minivan full of my worldly possessions with the goal of reaching Oregon in five days.

It turns out that the route that I thought would be the easiest was also the route that those who blazed trails long before me found to be the most practical as well. By the time I hit Nebraska, I quickly realized that I was following the general route of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Following the railroad, with the train in my constant line of sight, it occurred to me that there was an entire history there that I knew very little about, a history that was crucial to the successful settlement of America. Prior to that moment, I had understood the importance of the railroad in theory, but there was something about literally keeping pace, face-to-face with that history that emphasized its significance in a way I had never considered before.

It wasn’t long after I diverted from that route north into Wyoming that I discovered that I was traveling the same route as the Oregon Trail. Similar to the railroad, I was again faced with an essential piece of American history that I knew little about. The farther west I went following the Oregon Trail, the more the rest stops started to double as historical markers. By the time I approached the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon, learning about the horrors of westward migration become synonymous with stretching my legs. A layer below the initial digesting of that history, the colonial perspective of that telling also gnawed at me, as I knew that there was a whole other story within the saga of westward expansion that had not been inscribed on state-owned plaques at rest stops.

The Oregon Trail. [Public Domain]

The Oregon Trail. [Public Domain]

There was also something in the land itself that was commanding my attention– something unexplainable, a pull entrenched in the power of the wounds and stories and spirits of America. In connecting briefly to the history of the land, as one-sided as it was being reflected, I was quickly realizing my overall disconnect to these places as a whole. They themselves seemed to reflect that disconnect to me quite clearly, and the closer I got to my destination, the more I felt the urge to backtrack and explore.

By the time I made it to Portland, I felt like a stranger in my own country, but a determined stranger who wished to understand and befriend the unknown. That small taste of America had suddenly stirred up an enormous yearning, and my new surroundings in Oregon quickly started to relate and reflect the same themes and realizations that I had stumbled upon during the trip. Immersing myself in history wasn’t enough. I needed to meet the land, to understand these places from the bottoms of my feet. I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed to find, but I knew that I needed to search for it, and that need only grew stronger as time went on.

A few years later, time and money finally conspired in a way that was too precise to ignore, and I threw an old mattress into the back of my van and hit the road. I left with the intention of connecting with place and with history, of trying to understand my own complex relationship to the America I felt that I didn’t really understand. I wanted to learn from the places that made me feel as a stranger. I wanted know this land by its nooks and crannies.

I decided that my path would be dictated by both fate and curiosity, by signs and invitations alike. I was guided by paragraphs and articles in books and magazines, by roadside markers, by suggestions from friends and strangers and gas station attendants all the same.

From the time I first started out, those same people often asked me where I was going and why, and I quickly found that, while I understood my intent and motives, I didn’t necessarily have the language to express that to others. It was part pilgrimage, part adventure, part surrender, part obligation, part reconciliation, part sequel, and yet none of those things sufficed on their own as an explanation. After a few days of trying to explain it a variety of ways and seemingly failing every time, I simply told folks that I was “searching for America”, which seemed to be an acceptable answer no matter where I went.

Astoria, OR

The mouth of the Columbia River has been known among sailors for well over two centuries as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific.’ One does not have to be schooled in sailing to sense its treachery; simply standing at the edge of the mouth on a windy day puts one quickly in touch with the intensity, the enormity and mortality that emanate from this crucial intersection of river, sea, wind, and sky.

It is a notable place of both power and history, both as a port in itself and as part of the story of American expansion as a whole. The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1804 bunked down at this spot, and a few years later a party funded by fur magnate John Jacob Astor founded Fort Astoria, the first permanent American settlement on the West Coast. Reminders of that history and the wealth that accompanied it are reflected in the mostly well-preserved Victorian architecture dotted throughout the town. The town reflects both history and modernity, feeling neither gentrified nor stuck in time.

Mouth of the Columbia River as seen from Astoria, circa 1912. [Public Domain]

Mouth of the Columbia River as seen from Astoria, circa 1912. [Public Domain]

As I stood at the mouth, watching the bar pilots guide a cargo ship through the treacherous channel, I thought back to something I had read about Concomly, the Chinook chief who served as the original bar pilot for the Columbia in the early 1800s. Aside from the obvious technological advances, what I was currently witnessing on the river was essentially an unchanged ritual that had been performed regularly in this same spot for over 200 years now.

Thinking of Concomly, the question that approached me seemed to come from outside, from the mouth itself. What did Concomly call this river? This graveyard, this mouth of ghosts – what was her name?

I was only a few days into my trip, but it was already apparent to me that actively decolonizing my surroundings whenever possible on this journey was both a challenge and an obligation on my part, an obligation to the land and the ancestors as well as to myself. I knew from prior research that there was no single indigenous name that the Columbia was known by, and most of the names that had been recorded were badly translated and phoneticized. Nonetheless I wished at that moment that I had one of those names at the tip of my tongue. I wanted to greet the river properly without also invoking the name of a colonizer, but I resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have the ability to do so at that moment.

But while that specific name may not have been known or available to me at that moment, I also knew that the indigenous place-names of numerous lakes, rivers, and mountains throughout the country were well-known and were easily accessible information. From that point onward in my travels, I took it upon myself to revert to the indigenous names of the places I visited whenever possible, and to make notes and research specific places and place-names when the information wasn’t readily available.

Fargo, ND

“We’ve been staying here for well over two months now. My hope is to get back to New Mexico by the time school starts.”

She paused for a second, looking over at her two daughters across the table, who were distracted by a set of crayons and the activities on the diner placemat.

“But we need to stay for long as there’s decent work. School will do them no good if we can’t afford to eat.”

I had met Marcela and her daughters the night before, at a rest stop right outside of Fargo. Their family had been sleeping in the van next to mine, and it had been immediately obvious to me that they had been living at the rest stop for quite a while. I saw the father leave on foot before dawn and, instead of taking off immediately, I felt pulled to take Marcela and her kids out to breakfast.

I learned over breakfast that her husband was a migrant worker who was currently working in the local sunflower fields. She also worked in the fields on days when she could find someone to watch her girls, but she hadn’t been able to find anyone for at least a few weeks. They had been living out of the van for nearly two years at that point, with brief periods spent on and off with relatives near Santa Fe.

The sunflowers were the focus of my attention the day before, stretching for miles as I was driving down I-94 towards Fargo. When I first saw the sunflowers, I had spotted a few people out in the fields as well, and I had been thinking about the relative invisibility of migrant labor in this country on the drive into Fargo. So it seemed fitting that Marcela was the first person I found myself interacting with when I stopped.

Sunflower fields near Fargo, SD. Photo by Hephaestos.

Sunflower fields near Fargo, SD. [Photo Credit: Hephaestos.]

I knew that there were an untold number of families just like Marcela’s, skirting on the edges of existence and survival, but there was something in listening to Marcela’s story that brought that struggle home for me. Hers was a story that so many know abstractly and yet so few actually hear. I was grateful for the opportunity to share this space and time with this family, as heartbreaking as it was.

After breakfast I took them back to their van, said goodbye, and headed back out. A few miles down the road, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bunch of sunflowers. I looked out towards the farm and saw small dots out in the fields that I knew to be humans, and I couldn’t help but to wonder if one of the men out in the field was Marcela’s husband.

Sparta, WI

The first time I drove past the sign I though I must had read it wrong. I did a literal double-take as I passed it, somewhat convinced that I had just seen a sign for an astronaut and bicycle museum and concerned that my eyes were playing tricks on me.

A half-mile later right before the exit, I saw the sign again, and it was no mistake. “Astronaut Deke Slayton and Bicycle Museum”, the sign said. I laughed out loud and turned off towards the exit.

Neil Gaiman has suggested that America’s roadside attractions are America’s most sacred sites, and I was finding more and more by the day that there was a deep truth to that sentiment. I had passed up on several other similarly quirky roadside attractions prior to that morning, but I had no immediate destination. It seemed the perfect day for such a detour. I wasn’t sure what bicycles and astronauts had in common and how or why this was being presented to the public, but I was curious to find out.

It turned out that what the two had in common was the town of Sparta itself. Sparta, Wisconsin was the birthplace of Deke Slayton, one of America’s first and most famous astronauts. Sparta is also known as the “Bicycling Capital of America,” and the museum was a rather impressive (and surprisingly cohesive) expression of those two aspects of transportation. I spent the afternoon unexpectedly immersed in the histories of both bicycles and space, appreciative of both the actuality of what was in front of me as well as the process that led me to this point. While the phrase “only in America” is so often reduced to meaningless cliché, it was the defining thought on my mind as I walked back from the museum to my van.

In finding that museum, not so much the exhibits themselves but the very existence of the museum itself, I found a piece of the unexplainable that I had been itching to immerse myself in.

Lincoln, NE

I pulled up at the gas station, parked in front, and went inside the convenience store to grab a bottle of water. The front door was partially propped-open, and taped to the door was a huge sign. “No hoodies. No exceptions.”

I was wearing a hooded jacket. I pushed open the door the rest of the way to enter, and I immediately started to take off my hoodie as the bell on the door sounded my entrance. The woman behind the counter spotted me and waved me off. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with a smile. “I’m not worried about you.”

I stood for a moment in discomfort, wondering who she was ‘worried about.’ I then walked to the back of the store to grab a beverage and as my back was to the door the bell went off again. I looked over behind me, and a young Hispanic man was walking into the store. The woman looked up at him sternly and immediately pointed to the sign on the door. “Please remove your hoodie”, she said to him firmly.

I looked at her in horror, gave him a sympathetic look, and quickly made my exit without purchasing anything.

Back in the van, I tried to shake off my anger. I had been on the privileged end of racial profiling before, but there was something about the bluntness of that experience that caught me off-guard. I zoned out on the highway, driving what was quite possibly the straightest stretch of road that I’ve ever driven, to the point where my elbows started to ache for lack of movement. My heart ached along with my elbows, albeit for a different reason.

Pike County, KY

The roads are quite narrow through Appalachia, and navigating them requires a very specific attention to detail that I wasn’t used to in my travels. I spent so much time hyper-aware of my position on the road that I nearly missed a key aspect of my surroundings. Winding through the heart of Hatfield-McCoy country, I was quite taken by the stark contrast between the various rock formations and the lush green beauty.

It wasn’t until I pulled over to stretch my legs that took a wide-range inventory of the terrain that I noticed that I was at the base of a mountaintop mining operation, surrounded by what used to be mountains. While I had been aware on some level that mining companies actually remove the tops of mountains, it had only affected me as an abstraction until that moment.

This is ‘progress’, I thought to myself. We remove the tops of mountains.

Mountaintop removal in Pike County, Kentucky. Photo by ilovemountains.

Mountaintop removal in Pike County, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: ilovemountains.]

I walked up a gravel path into the woods at the base of the mountain, and I was quickly overcome by how angry the woods felt. It was as if a mist of despair and sadness and rage had enveloped this place around me. I felt angry back; I also felt absolutely heartbroken and disgusted. The actual brutality in how this practice affects not just the land itself but the people and the creatures who live here was all I could focus on as I stood there observing the the beauty around me, a beauty which emanated so strongly despite the sadness of the woods.

Later that afternoon, I stopped off for lunch. When I parked the van, a woman was getting into the car next to mine. She had a bumper sticker that read “I Love Mountains”.

“Are there any mountains left?” I asked her, nodding towards the sticker.

“Not for long at the pace they’re going,” she replied, the sadness evident in her voice.

Medora, ND

The distance from the parking lot to the comfort station was less than fifty feet, but by the time I got to the entrance of the building, I had seen at least three separate signs warning me not to try to touch the bison. Inside the restroom, there was another prominent sign, and by the time I made it out of the building and up to the main patch of land overlooking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the number of bison warning signs I had seen had approached the point of repetitive absurdity.

Who in their right mind would try to touch a bison in the first place? I shook my head in amusement as I climbed up and looked out upon miles of badlands, the untouched wilderness peppered with picturesque herds of bison.

Then I noticed people out on the bluffs, trying to touch the bison.

And I realized that a dozen signs are no more effective than one or none or a hundred when it comes to overcoming the mentality of entitlement that so many feel in terms of our wild places and the creatures that inhabit them. I was furious, watching the display of utter ignorance and disrespect in front of me, not to mention the danger. Suddenly I had no desire to stay and explore this place.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt national Park. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt national Park. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

Walking back, I remembered a talk I had seen by a Native woman who spoke of the prevalence and pervasiveness of ‘settler mentality,’ especially in the American West. I glanced around at the parking lot, at cars bearing the license plates of at least a dozen states and thought back to the bison and what I had just witnessed. That entitlement, that defiant exercise of blatant disrespect, right there was a painful example of the pervasive behavior that she had spoken of.

Rock Springs, WY

I’ll admit that there wasn’t much that caught my eye as I drove into Rock Springs, but I also wasn’t there for the scenery. I was there to pay my respects to the victims of the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre, where at least 28 Chinese immigrants were murdered and mutilated among an ugly backdrop of racism and greed. While the West is dotted with countless massacre sites, the Rock Springs Massacre had always stuck out in my mind as especially significant both in its barbarism and its political implications, and Rock Springs was one of the destinations that I had in mind from the very beginning of the trip.

My mistake was in assuming that there was a memorial.

I asked first at a gas station, and then I asked a few residents who had no idea what I was talking about at all. Eventually I came across the local history museum, where the man at the front desk embarrassingly assured me that there was no such memorial, although he “personally felt that there should be”.

I came here looking for something that did not exist, and the fact that it did not exist was extremely unsettling. Outside the museum, I watched the people walking to and from, realizing that they were mostly clueless about the horrifying carnage that once took place on these very streets.

I thought again of history and of colonization, and of the oft-repeated adage that history is written by the victors. I suppose that going to work each day is much easier when you’re completely unaware that there was once a massacre in the middle of your downtown. I suppose that to publicly recognize such a history would be more than a little inconvenient and uncomfortable, to say the very least.

The wind suddenly blew rather harshly as I stood there, and I could feel something extra in that wind. It was as though the land and the spirits themselves were screaming for recognition, screaming for justice.

Afterword

I spent nearly six weeks on the road, visiting at least twenty states and traveling over 10,000 miles. When I finally got back, it took nearly as long to recover. I spent the next several months processing what I had taken in over the course of the trip. To this day, I find myself often drifting back to some of the people and places that I had come across along the way.

While I can’t say definitively that I found all the answers to my questions or discovered all I was looking for, it was an eye-opening and life-changing experience that greatly influenced my understandings and attitudes about this country, for better or for worse. Looking back, part of what I was searching for was a unifying energy, a linking thread of sorts that I never did find, but in not finding it I also came to see why it was not there in the first place.

More than anything, I came into and remained in touch with the anger and trauma of this land itself, one that is continuous throughout with so many of her wounds unacknowledged. That trauma, and the strong undercurrent of denial that feeds and sustains it, quietly expresses pain and consequences in ways that no history book could ever truly convey.

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Column: Invisible Among Us

Alley Valkyrie —  December 26, 2014 — 6 Comments

“Without the sleeping bag I’m just somebody up early in the morning, sitting under a tree. With the sleeping bag I’m nobody up early, sitting under a tree: a slight, but important difference in how I’ll be perceived.” – Craig Stone, The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness

I.

“Hi, do you have a moment for the environment?”

Very seldom could I get the entire sentence out. More often than not, my attempts at interacting with passers-by ended somewhere between “Hi, do you…” and “Hi, do you have a moment…” On the busy sidewalks of Manhattan, very few people were willing to grant more than a few seconds of their time to anyone trying to get their attention; let alone someone working as a street canvasser for Greenpeace.

Of all the thankless, minimum-wage jobs that I cycled through when I was in my early twenties, the canvassing gig was by far the most brutal. We spent four to five hours a day on the sidewalks of New York City, trying to convince people to sign up for a monthly donation subscription with a $15 minimum. We went out in teams of four, a different intersection every few days.  If we didn’t meet our quota of two sign-ups a day for three days straight, we were automatically fired. It was an uncomfortable, stressful, pressure-filed job, where one’s income, as well as their status as ’employed’ altogether, was completely dependent on an often hostile and skeptical public.

Prior to landing the job, I had spent lots of time on street-corners, both as a busker and a tarot reader. I knew full well that trying to solicit money from the public was often a frustrating and futile task. When folks would ask me how I fared as a street performer, I would usually tell them that if smiles were a form of currency, I’d be very well off. I never made much money, but at least I had the smiles.

I usually had the smiles as well while on the street corner on behalf of Greenpeace. That is, until one day a few months into the gig when our director decided to send my four-person team down to Wall Street, an area that had been avoided up to that point due to the perception of political hostility. She warned us that it might be tough. I thought back to my days reading cards and playing music on the streets and figured that I knew what I was in for. I can handle this, I thought to myself.

Oh, how wrong I was.

“Hi…”

“Hi…”

“Hi, do you…”

After the first hour, not only did I realize that I was probably going to have a zero day, but I was starting to feel desperate for even a smile. Very few people would even make eye contact with me, let alone stop. Over the next four hours, I couldn’t get a single person to actually pause and listen to my pitch. A few folks gave gave me nasty looks, one man even spit at my feet as he passed. A woman who worked for Exxon took it upon herself to scream at me, telling me that I should get a “real job” and stop trying to “destroy the oil industry.” But mostly, I was completely ignored. I couldn’t even get people to look at me, let alone open up their wallets.

For the first time in my life, I literally felt invisible to everyone around me. And by the end of the day, not only did I not sign up a single person for the first time since landing the job, I was so psychically numb that the only thing I wanted to do was go straight to the bar afterward. I had many unsuccessful days before but at least I got the smiles; I experienced human interaction and my humanity was acknowledged. But that day, I had never felt so invisible, and I was taken aback by how deeply it affected me, especially considering that I had only experienced it for a single afternoon.

The next day I was sent back to Wall Street again and, as I walked downtown toward my destination, I was overtaken by feelings of anxiety and dread; feelings that only increased over the next few hours. I stood there once again, completely invisible, and as the hours passed I felt every more desperate. Thousands of people walked by me, almost no-one would look me in the eye, and at the end of the day, once again, I headed straight for the bar.  At that moment, drink was the only thing I could think of that could possibly numb the indescribable feeling that grew throughout the course of the day.

800px-Lower_Manhattan_Aerial

Lower Manhattan [Public Domain]

By the third day, I knew as I was walking downtown that it would be my last day on the job. I was already so broken that I didn’t even try. At that point, I actually looked forward to name-calling and insults. The experience of being ignored for the past few days was so psychologically stressful that the insults at least served as a reminder that I actually did exist; that I actually was seen; that I was really standing there in the flesh and was not in fact an invisible spirit.

Toward the end of the afternoon, knowing that I was going to be fired anyway, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I felt I was about to break, and I abandoned my post on the corner and walked a few blocks away, looking for somewhere to sit with my emotions.

I walked past another corner and saw a homeless beggar sitting in a doorway, an older man that I realized that I had walked by dozens of times before, and yet I had never actually seen him. I stood there, staring at him, processing what I had experienced in the past three days. I realized that not only did this man experienced that same invisibility every single day, but for him it was a fixed condition, not something that ended when the work day was over. Had I always done to this man what others had just done to me? How could I not have seen him before the way I saw him now? He looked up and caught my eye, and I walked over towards him.

“How long have you been out here?” I asked.

“Thirteen years,” he answered. “I’ve been in and out of housing a few times, but those periods were brief. I used to hang out up near Times Square for several years until it gentrified, but I’ve been down here in the Financial District for a few years now, since the late nineties. ”

Thirteen years. And here I was, on the verge of a mental breakdown after only three days of experiencing what it was like to be completely invisible. I stared at him for a moment, and then sat down next to him and started to cry. He didn’t understand why I was crying, but he put his arm around me nonetheless. After a few minutes, I wiped my tears, stood up, reached into my pocket, and gave him every dollar I had on me. I looked into his eyes and started to tear up again.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I wish I could do more.”

“You’ve done more than you think,” he replied. “Most people who hand me a buck or two don’t even look me in the eye. Nobody actually wants to talk to you when you’re on the street. You’ve just given me more of your time and attention than any stranger has in days.”

I thought about my prior interactions with street folks, and it hit me that I had usually done the same thing that he just described. I would give them a dollar or two, but never really look them in the eye. I suddenly felt like a horrible person for not understanding how dehumanizing it was to ignore the presence of the poor and homeless. It hurt me so greatly to realize that I had inadvertently made others feel the way that I had felt over the past three days. I stood there for another moment, looking down at the man, and silently vowed to the Gods that never again would I walk past someone who sought my attention in good faith without at least looking them in the eye and acknowledging them as a person.

To this day, I have never consciously broken that vow.

II.

I walked out of the grocery store with a croissant in my hand, and ran across the street to the corner where a man was sitting, back towards me, wrapped in a blanket.

“Hey, Sam….” I said softly as I approached.

He turned, our eyes met, and we both grinned at the same time in mutual recognition. Wordlessly, I broke my croissant in two and held out a half towards him. He took the half, and we both looked down at what we held in our hands and bit into our half of the croissant at the same time. We chewed slowly, enjoying both the taste of the treat as well as the moment itself.

I don’t know much about Sam’s life – I know he’s on the street due to mental illness and has been a fixture in the neighborhood for years. Over time, I’ve noticed that his lucidity and his ability to function varies greatly from day to day. Some days he barely seems to recognize me, which is why I always approach him cautiously. But despite the challenges, I make a point of breaking bread with Sam on a regular basis.

The corner where I often find Sam.

One of the corners where I often find Sam.

In a world of deep and painful socioeconomic divisions, creating moments of equality and communion wherever possible is one of the few antidotes I know of; one of the few ways that I can reach across the ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots and reach out to those who have been failed by the system. Breaking bread on the street corner was a simple but powerful gesture, one that often creates ripples beyond the immediate reality of the two of us standing around munching on pastries.

“All day I stand here, but nobody sees me,” he told me once while we were sharing a donut. “It’s as if I don’t exist. But then you stand next to me for a few moments, and suddenly I’m real to them. Suddenly I’m standing here too, as though I wasn’t just before.”

I felt a powerful wave of sadness and empathy with an undercurrent of rage as I digested his words, as I knew that what he was saying was all too true. While I cannot personally cure or mitigate the experiences of Sam, and so many others like him, I keep them in mind in my actions and my navigations. When I break bread with Sam I always hold close the intention of fighting for a world where I do not have to hand a croissant to someone like him in order for him to be seen in the eyes of others.

III.

“Can I tell you something? I need to tell somebody.”

I nodded. It was a common request, more common than some might think. I had seen Daphne sitting on the ledge earlier that day, and ran back home to bring her socks and hot coffee, sensing that she was in need of someone to talk to.

“I think I see the dead. And on some days, they’re everywhere.”

I nodded again. Street folks who see spirits are also more common than one might think. Sam had told me the exact same thing only a few days earlier.

“I never saw them before I was out here, but now I see them all the time,” she continued. “I think I’m going crazy, but I know a lot of other folks out here who see them too.”

“You’re not going crazy,” I quickly answered. “I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to who see similar things. What you’re speaking of goes far beyond just the street population of downtown Portland.”

She looked up at me, and I could tell by her expression that I had just greatly helped in validating her reality.

“I think that the more invisible I become, the more I see things that others consider to be invisible,” she said after a moment.

I stared at her, taken aback. She had just perfectly articulated what I had always considered to be the most plausible explanation. Being ‘othered,’ being cast aside, ignored and treated as though one doesn’t exist, inevitably drives one closer and closer to being in touch with all else that is invisible and unseen – that other world that many believe also doesn’t exist.

“Yes, I do think that’s the case, although you just put it better than I ever could,” I replied. “And even if that’s not the reason, you’re still not crazy,” I added. “To tell you the truth, sometimes I see spirits too.”

She suddenly grabbed me for a hug, spilling the coffee in the process.

“Thank you,” she said as she hugged me. “I needed to hear that.”

I returned the embrace. In a sense, I had needed to hear what she just told me just as much as she needed to hear what I had just told her.

Walking home, I passed by Sam, who didn’t even notice my presence. He was deep in conversation with something – something I couldn’t see but could definitively sense. I thought of what Daphne had just told me and simply shook my head as I walked away.

IV.

I said a quick hello to Sam on the corner and walked into the coffee shop. I was in a sour mood that day on top of an already stressful week. I had nothing left in me other than to grab a latte and sit at the window of the coffee shop, staring out at the corner where Sam stood with his blanket and a cup.

While trying my best to tune out the Christmas carols playing in the background, I couldn’t help but to keep my eye on Sam, partially out of guilt that I was too tired and broken to engage in either conversation or croissants that day. I sat and watched as he stood there, wearing only sandals on a near-freezing windy day, holding out his cup and trying to engage those who walked by.

Person after person passed without even looking at him. One man literally bumped right into him as though he wasn’t even standing there. A woman walked by with her dog, and her dog nipped and pulled at Sam’s blanket,. She pulled the dog back and scolded it without even apologizing to Sam.

After a while, my sourness turned to rage. I continued to sit at the window, visibly shaking in anger, watching him on the corner. Suddenly, I realized that everyone else in the coffee shop was starting to notice me. A few women on the couch behind me were staring and whispering. A man came up to me and asked what was wrong and if I was okay. I didn’t hold back in my reply.

“Right now, what’s wrong more than anything is that this entire coffee shop is more concerned about what’s wrong with me than the fact that there’s a man begging on the corner wrapped in a blanket who doesn’t even have shoes. No, I’m not OK, but that has nothing to do with my own needs. It has to do with the fact that someone else in such need is literally begging to survive in a community of great affluence and people are acting as though he isn’t even standing there. If you want to help someone, I don’t need help. He does,” I said, pointing out the window towards Sam.

The man just stared at me, as did everyone else within earshot.

“Tell me,” I continued, my voice rising with my anger. “How many times have you walked past that man out there? Have you ever even stopped to say hello? Have you ever acknowledged his existence? Have any of you?” I asked, turning towards the others who were listening. “Does his life even matter to you? Does his suffering affect any of you at all?” My voice had started to shake along with my body, and I was on the verge of tears.

The man nodded. “I hear you,” he said. “And you’re right. I’ve never said a word to him. And I probably never would have thought to do so. And I don’t even know why that is, but again, you’re absolutely right.”

I watched as he turned around and walked out of the coffee shop, walked right up to Sam, and held out his hand to introduce himself. Sam looked up, surprised, and enthusiastically shook his hand. They started to talk, and as they did, the two women on the couch also got up and walked out of the coffee shop. They went right up to Sam while the other man was still talking to him, and each of them dropped a dollar in his cup. As the three of them stood there with Sam, other people started to look over. Another woman then came and dropped a dollar in his cup. And then another. Suddenly, Sam was seen, he was visible, and people were reacting to his presence.

As I watched Sam talk with the man from the coffee shop, I thought back to that night on the corner down on Wall Street years ago, and how that interaction with the homeless beggar there forever changed my perception of and behavior around street folks. Perhaps he’s learning the same lesson, I thought to myself. Please, I silently wished, let him learn the same lesson.

V.

A day or two later, I was walking down that same block when I saw Sam on the corner again with his cup, but instead of sandals on his feet, he was wearing a sturdy pair of lightly-worn boots. I smiled, pointed to his boots, and asked him where they came from.

“The other day, a man walked up to me out of the coffee shop and shook my hand and we started to talk. He asked me what my shoe size was and then mentioned that he wore the same size. A few hours later, he came back with these, and wished me a Merry Christmas.” He looked down at his feet and grinned. “They fit perfectly. And he’s walked by a few times since then, and he says hello to me every time now.”

I grinned back. Not only was I indescribably happy for Sam, but my own wish had come true as well. I reached in my bag for the croissant I had bought a few minutes earlier, ripped the pastry in half and handed the bigger half to Sam. “Merry Christmas, Sam,” I said.

“Yes, Merry Christmas,” he replied, and we ate our croissant on the corner together.

800px-Croissant-Petr_Kratochvil

[Public Domain]

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Column: What Lies Beneath

Alley Valkyrie —  November 21, 2014 — 21 Comments

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.” – Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

A Fire in the Earth
I’m not sure what was on my mind that morning, other than hoping I could reach Columbus by nightfall, but as I drove west on I-80 through eastern Pennsylvania I started to zone out. It wasn’t until I hit Bloomsburg that I realized that I had missed the exit for I-81. I pulled off at the downtown exit with the intention of turning around, but after I got some coffee and walked around to stretch my legs a bit, I was seduced by the beautiful, sunny day and decided that, rather than head back the opposite direction on I-80, I would take the back roads southward through the country towards I-81.

I pulled out the map from under the passenger seat, which by the design and typeface looked as though it had been printed at least fifteen or twenty years earlier, and quickly found what looked like the most sensible route to take. It looked easy enough. Keep heading further down 487 towards Catawissa, where the numbered route would change to 42 and, then, continue on through Numidia and into Centralia. In Centralia, the route would then again change to 61, which would take me down through Ashland and, then, through Gordon, where I could meet up with I-81.

Route 42 over the Susquehanna River into Catawissa. Photo by jakec

Route 42 over the Susquehanna River into Catawissa. [Photo by jakec, via CC lic. Wikimedia]

I started driving south through the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. My attention was equally captivated by the natural beauty of the area and the ecological destruction throughout, when out of nowhere something about my surroundings felt very wrong. I glanced down at the map and up again at the road. According to the map I was still on 42, approaching the north end of Centralia where the road changed to 61, and the size of the typeface matched up with the map’s key, indicating that Centralia was a small town with at least a few thousand people in it.

And yet, the town was empty. There were streets and intersections just as it showed on the map, but very few signs of civilization. Curious, I took a right turn onto what was supposed to be the main drag, and drove slowly in silent horror as the abandoned emptiness continued on and stretched all the way to the end of town. Driveway after driveway led to nothing but empty lots. Sidewalks were overgrown and obviously hadn’t been tended to in years. Mailboxes sat in front of bare foundations. The few houses that still stood literally looked terrified in the midst of their abandoned surroundings. There was not a single person in sight.

I parked the car on the side of the road and got out for a moment. There was a strange, acrid smell in the air. The silence was deafening, and yet amidst that silence I could literally hear the land screaming. The ominous feeling in my gut grew stronger by the second. I quickly became overwhelmed, got back in the car, and turned around to return back to my intended route. I looked at the map again. My faith in its accuracy was already shaken, but I needed to make sure I knew how to get out of this place. According to the map, Route 61 would take me straight out of town, and I needed to fork right just after the cemetery in order to stay on the highway.

The fork didn’t exist, however. Instead, the road forced me left, onto another road that was marked as a side-road on my map but according to the signs in front of me was now also Route 61. I glanced at the map once more, and then again at the highway in disbelief. My eyes were not playing tricks on me. The abandonment of a town, the re-alignment of a highway, something had definitely happened in this area over the years.

A few minutes down the road, I arrived at the next town, which I was relieved to find was no different than any other small Pennsylvania town, complete with buildings, people, and commerce. I parked and walked into a pizzeria and ordered a slice to go. As I was being rung up, I caught the cashier’s eye and decided to ask him about what I had just seen.

“Hey, why is the town just north of here deserted?” I asked, calmly and politely. “And is that related to why 61 is in a different place than what is marked on my map?”

He looked at me somewhat surprised, as though he couldn’t understand why anyone had to ask such a question. “You’re not from around here,” he said slowly as he handed me my change. It was a statement, not a question.

I nodded in affirmation. He continued as he started to cut my slice.

“There was a fire, its still burning. It’s a ghost town. The authorities forced just about everyone out over the past thirty years or so. There’s a few stragglers, but it’s not safe to live there and they know it. It’s dangerous to even walk around there. The ground, its hot to the touch from the fire. ”

I remembered the acrid smell in the air, but I hadn’t seen any fire. “The fire? Where’s the fire?”

“Underground,” he said, gruffly. “There’s a fire in the earth, in the mines, it started in the mines but they say it goes even deeper now. Its been burning since I was a kid. “

Smoke seeping out of the ground in Centralia, PA. Photo by jrmski

Smoke seeping out of the ground in Centralia, PA. [Photo by jrmski]

From the early 1800s onwards, Pennsylvania and West Virginia were at the center of the nation’s coal industry, which fueled the Industrial Age and continues to help fuel “progress” in the modern day. The first anthracite mines in Centralia opened in the 1850s, and the town became quickly populated by mine workers, who were for the most part of Irish Catholic ancestry. At its peak in 1890, nearly three thousand people lived in Centralia, and the coal deposits in the area were mined continuously until the Depression. A limited amount of mining continued through the early 1960s, right up to the time of the fire that would eventually lead to the evacuation of the entire town.

While the origin of the fire has been somewhat debated over the years, most agree that it was caused by an intentional landfill fire that was set in a former strip mine at the edge of town. The fire accidentally ignited an exposed coal shelf that extended underground to the numerous abandoned mines, some which had been dug nearly a century earlier and had long since collapsed. The fire quickly spread underground, and a few months later all of the area mines had to be permanently evacuated. It continued to spread further over the years, and by the early 1980s, residents started to experience health and other environmental effects. In 1984, Congress allocated money in order to relocate the residents of Centralia, and many residents accepted a buyout in exchange for moving to nearby towns while others stayed despite the ever-growing danger.

Nearly a decade later, thirty years after the fire started, and after four separate excavation attempts and untold millions of dollars were spent trying to put out the fire, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided to invoke eminent domain in order to displace the remaining residents. Aside from eight residents who fought relocation and were eventually allowed to stay until their deaths, the town has been completely abandoned. The buildings were razed, much of the infrastructure removed, and what remains is crumbling and overgrown.

Some of the trees have turned white from the fumes. The ground is so hot that in some places, a match will light if you drop it. Smoke seeps out of cracks in the earth and the smell of burning coal permeates throughout. Route 61 had to be re-routed due to cracks and fissures that appeared in the original road over time.

Overgrown and destroyed segment of Route 6 in Centralia. Photo by navy2004.

Overgrown and destroyed segment of Route 61 in Centralia. [Photo by navy2004.]

Centralia is a cautionary tale, but it is far from the only one. Currently, at least 100 documented coal shelf fires are burning beneath nine states, and experts believe that there are many more burning that have gone unreported. Nearly two centuries’ worth of coal mining has scarred and devastated the earth beneath our feet, and yet the mining still continues with our nation’s current need for sources of commodified energy. And from that need, the consequences remain long after the coal is gone. Massive ecological destruction and widespread unemployment and poverty remain throughout the regions of America where the mining industry once flourished.

Experts estimate that the fire beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania will be burning for the next 250 years.

Black Gold and Bleeding Veins
In addition to coal mining, nowadays we rely mostly on conventional oil drilling, hydraulic fracking, and most recently the extraction of tar sands in order to fuel our march towards “progress”, our march towards our eventual extinction as a species. Tar sands oil has been described by climate scientist James Hansen as “one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet,” and it is the extraction of tar sands from northern Alberta that is driving the push for environmentally devastating projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

I hear lots of talk of “the pipeline” lately, as though it was a singular entity, as though there weren’t already 2.3 million miles of pipeline laid beneath American soil. It’s a positive sign overall that the average person is finally paying attention to pipelines and, while Keystone XL is undoubtedly the most widely-publicized and controversial pipeline project in American history, the focus on Keystone XL as though it is a singularity distracts from the fact that pipelines are already everywhere, wreaking environmental damage and destruction throughout the nation.

For all you know, there could be a pipeline directly underneath your own local, sacred refuge.

Millions of miles of metal veins criss-cross the country, with black gold coursing through on the journey from source to destination. Metal veins that lie under streams, across fault lines, through watersheds, beneath farmlands and cemeteries, shoddily-built metal veins that often bleed out that black gold that runs through them, seeping out through uncountable leaks and fissures, poisoning the land we live on in the name of “profits” and “freedom.” From 2008 to 2012, pipelines beneath American soil have spilled an average of more than 3.1 million gallons of toxic liquids each year, causing at least $1.5 billion in property damage. Potentially leaky pipelines are literally in our backyards.

Pipeline warning sign in a residential neighborhood in Woodbridge, NJ, circa 1974. Photo by Ike Vern.

Pipeline warning sign in a neighborhood in suburban New Jersey circa 1974. [Photo by Ike Vern.]

Although not one has ever received the level of coverage that Keystone XL does, current pipeline projects are scattered and numerous throughout the country, and many of those projects have been met with fierce, but often unsuccessful, opposition. In Oregon, several inter-related proposed pipeline projects, including the Oregon LNG project, the Pacific Connector, and the Jordan Cove LNG terminal are intended to expedite the transport of liquefied natural gas to markets in Asia. These projects are still in the early stages of development, but the Pacific Connector project has so far received the go-ahead from the federal government.

Earlier this year, an energy company known as Williams Partners announced its intention to place a natural gas pipeline in the ground through eastern Pennsylvania in order to cheaply move liquefied natural gas (acquired by fracking) from the Marcellus Shale across the state to the Eastern Seaboard. The pipeline, dubbed ‘Atlantic Sunrise’, would stretch through eight counties on a north-south trajectory, connecting two pre-existing pipelines that run across the northern and southern ends of the state. Local residents and Native groups have mounted a significant challenge, and some local government officials are also against the project, but the project is still under review and no decisions have been made either way.

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is slated to be built less than twenty miles to the west of the still-burning Centralia mine fire.

An “Act of War”
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would be the final section of a multi-phase pipeline system that has been under construction since 2008. The first phase, completed in 2010, delivers tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta through Saskatchewan and the Dakotas to Steele City, Nebraska, and then on across Missouri to refineries in Illinois. The second and third phases connect to the first pipeline in Steele City and carry the oil south through Oklahoma to a refinery in Port Arthur and Houston, Texas. The Keystone XL pipeline, which still awaits government approval, would duplicate the route from Hardisty to Steele City, but would go through Montana in order to transport Bakken crude, as well as tar sands, through the Midwest.

Keystone XL is slated to cross active seismic zones, fracking wells, the Ogallala Aquifer, and numerous indigenous lands and sacred sites. Opposition to the project has been steadily increasing among the American public. However, support for the project remains strong in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Keystone XL vigil in Portland, Oregon, February 2014. Photo by Brylie Oxley.

Keystone XL vigil in Portland, Oregon, February 2014. [Photo by Brylie Oxley.]

Last February, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota passed a tribal declaration opposing the Keystone XL project. In March, over a thousand college students representing 80 different schools marched on Washington. Approximately 400 were arrested after they marched on the White House, with many of the protesters chaining themselves to the fence with zip-ties, and others re-creating an oil spill using black plastic sheets in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. A month later, an organization known as the Cowboy Indian Alliance, composed of tribal members, farmers and ranchers, marched on Washington, some on horseback, and held a five-day gathering near the White House in order to draw attention to their opposition of the Keystone XL pipeline and to lobby Congress. At the gathering, Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer stated that “Keystone XL is a death warrant for our people,” and he urged the U.S government to reject the pipeline and to respect Native treaty rights.

On Friday, November 14th, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline by a 252-161 vote. In response to the vote, Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Cyril Scott stated the following: “We are outraged at the lack of intergovernmental cooperation. We are a sovereign nation and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” Scott added that, not only does the Keystone XL pipeline violate the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, but also the Sioux Nation has not been properly consulted on the project by either the U.S. government or TransCanada, who owns the Keystone Pipeline network.

Four days after the House voted to approve Keystone XL, the proposal lost by one vote in the Senate, which is currently controlled by the Democratic Party. However, the Republican Party will gain control on January 1, and the Keystone XL proposal will undoubtedly be approved next spring. Whether or not they will have enough votes to override a presidential veto has yet to be determined. In the meantime, other pipeline proposals are in the works, and alternative plans to move crude oil are already being discussed should the Keystone XL proposal fail.

Whether its Keystone XL or the Atlantic Sunrise project, a war is indeed being waged against the land; against the gods and spirits that inhabit that land; against the health and well-being of the animals and people who inhabit that land and against all life as we know it. This war is not over a cause nor a belief, it’s a war being waged in the name of greed and profit. It is a battle for the fate of the planet itself.

Our addiction to oil and gas is literally destroying our ability to live on this planet, and yet it continues undisturbed and unfettered over the objections of many, but nowhere near enough, people. Despite the limited successes of pipeline resistance movements such as the Tar Sands Blockade and Idle No More, the extraction still increases and the poisoning of the land and its people still continues at an unprecedented rate, with no end in sight.

How much more does the Earth need to burn and bleed before we change our ways? How many more towns will we be forced to be abandoned, how many more oil trains must derail, how many more pipelines must leak before finally decide that enough is enough? How many more must die, how many more must be poisoned before we finally realize that the land that we live on is more important than profit?

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

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It took me a few hours to find the girl whose face had appeared to me so clearly that morning, but as soon as I spotted the figure sitting on the bench out of the corner of my eye, I immediately knew that I had found the right person. She had a pile of cards, a handwritten cardboard sign, and, as my eyes met hers, she broke into an impish grin. She was definitely the one.

I handed her five dollars and sat down on the blanket.

“What is your question?” she asked me.

“I need to know what story to tell,” I answered.

She drew three cards, turned them over in front of me, and started to study them. As soon as I glanced at the cards, an old friend flashed through my mind, and instantly my question was answered. I quickly glanced at the cards again, snapped a picture of them with my phone, and then gently interrupted her thought process.

“No need,” I told her. “All I needed was to see the cards. I’ve got everything I need to know now.”

She looked at me, puzzled. “If all you needed was to see the cards, why did you pay me for a reading?”

“I was supposed to seek you out,” I answered, momentarily drifting back to the vision I had on the riverbank that morning and remembering that I had neglected an important detail. “I was also supposed to compensate you twice what you asked, so here…”

I reached into my pocket, handed her another five dollars and started to get up.

“Wait,” she said. “I have to ask. What’s the story? What are you writing about?”

“Its about the dead,” I quickly answered, realizing as the words left my mouth that she deserved more of an explanation than that. I took a breath and tried again. “I’m being nagged to write about the dead. But I’ve got too many possibilities in my head and I was drowning in an indecisive fog. Those three cards made it perfectly clear who and what I need to write about.”

She smiled and nodded. I thanked her again and headed home, ever so grateful for the simplicity of that exchange.

*  *  *

It was Samhain, and we had dedicated the day to honoring the forgotten.

We had started the afternoon at Washington Square Park, on the east side of the park where an estimated 20,000 bodies were buried and forgotten beneath one of New York City’s most well-known landmarks. The park was packed that day with children and adults alike in Halloween costumes, milling about in anticipation of the parade that would pass through Greenwich Village in just a few hours.

Jim and I stuck out for our lack of costumes and, yet instantly, attracted attention as we spread flowers throughout the east side of the park and sang songs and left offerings for the dead, purposefully ignoring the confused and questioning stares from passers-by. The crowds of people dressed as ghouls and ghosts hadn’t a clue that they were atop one of the city’s largest graveyards, and observing the depths of that ignorance only fueled our energy towards the task at hand. If only they knew what lies beneath, I thought to myself as I sprinkled flowers along the perimeter of the park.

From Washington Square, we walked uptown to Madison Square Park and then Bryant Park, performing the same ritual again in both places, and then briefly over the pedestrian bridge to Ward’s Island and back before taking the 6 train up to Pelham Bay in the Bronx and hopping a bus over to City Island.

The day before, I had arranged to borrow a boat from a friend whose family lived out on the island. It was a rickety old skiff, perhaps 12 feet long with a sputtering old Evinrude motor, that had seen better days but was sufficient for the purpose of our voyage. I was given a quick lesson on the boat’s quirks and operations before dragging her on the dolly down to the dock. I looked out into the water and focused my eye towards our destination in the distance.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

The sun was just starting to set as we strapped on our life jackets, grabbed a few flashlights and a set of oars, and headed out into Long Island Sound with a large plastic bag filled with fresh-cut flowers. It was a clear night, the water was still, and Jim piloted the boat while I helped navigate us northeast past Rat Island, the nautical map of this stretch long committed to my memory. I had been out on the Sound only a few times before in years past, but I had taken this trip many times in my mind, to the point where I felt a definitive déjà vu while we crossed the sound, despite the fact that I had never taken this exact route before.

A short time later, we stopped the boat and shut the motor off a hundred feet or so away from the shoreline near the northernmost tip of Hart Island. We carefully stood up in the boat and gazed out towards the island, immediately noticing that the land formation before us was literally shrouded in mist against an otherwise clear sky. Without a word we each grabbed an oar and slowly rowed closer in silence, drawn to the eerie, numinous energy that was emanating from the shoreline. Before us was a literal island of the dead, a 101-acre tract of land that held the distinction of being the largest publicly-owned burial ground in the world.

Over a million of New York’s indigent, forgotten, stillborn, and otherwise unclaimed dead are buried on Hart Island. The island has served as New York’s potter’s field since 1868, when the city purchased the island and designated it as “a public burial place for the poor and strangers.” Prior to the city’s acquisition of Hart Island, potter’s fields had been maintained throughout Manhattan from the time of the city’s inception. The area that is now Madison Square Park was the first large-scale potter’s field, until the city purchased the area that is now Washington Square Park in 1797 and designated that tract as a potter’s field until 1825. Bryant Park was used to bury the indigent from the 1820s until just before the Civil War; Ward’s Island was then used for burials for several years prior to the purchase of Hart Island in 1868.

In addition to a potter’s field, Hart Island had also alternately housed an insane asylum, a drug treatment center, a boys’ reformatory, a tuberculosis sanitarium, prison dormitories, and a Nike missile base. The island was dotted with ruins from these various incarnations – ruins that were left crumbling and unexplored as the island had been closed to the public for as long as anyone could remember. The burials on Hart Island were performed by prison inmates from nearby Rikers Island. The inmates and employees of the New York City Department of Corrections were the only living souls legally permitted on the island. Signs warning the public not to land ashore were scattered all around the perimeter of the shoreline, and anyone who did step foot on the island was potentially subject to arrest.

A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

A trench at the potter’s field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

Before I had met Jim, I had never even heard of a potter’s field, let alone had any thoughts of ever visiting one on Samhain night. I had occasionally wondered in the past what became of those who died and were unclaimed, or those whose families could not afford a burial. But I had never taken those thoughts to their logical conclusion until I started spending time with the segment of society that tends to end up in such places. I understood why nobody ever spoke of potter’s fields, as poverty and death are equally uncomfortable subjects as far as society is concerned. And yet, I found that once it truly sunk in – that there were untold thousands of the forgotten dead scattered throughout New York City – I couldn’t ignore or look away from the implications of that knowledge. I felt a need to honor them, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

Jim was unusually familiar with Hart Island, having worked as a prison laborer on the island during his last stint at Rikers some years back. A long-time petty criminal, he consistently credited his experiences at Hart Island with scaring him straight and setting him on the right path. Burying the indigent dead had moved something in him, forced him to examine his life and the hand that he was dealt. He spoke of the dead redeeming him in the same emotional manner that so many others spoke of Christ and, while I hadn’t known him prior to his prison experiences, I could regularly sense the deep changes that were continually occurring within him. He was homeless, struggling with sobriety, and stumbled regularly in that struggle, and yet there was a consistent fire within him that lifted him through his struggles, a fire that was deeply connected to the sense of purpose that he found while working with the dead on Hart Island.

“I got at least ten or eleven friends out there, that I know of, anyway,” he had said to me a few weeks prior to our trip. “Two of them died while I was locked up that last time, and for all I know I helped to bury them. It’s literally an island of forgotten souls out there for the most part. Most folks don’t even know its there.”

He told me of the memorials that the prisoners would build after they finished filling a trench. Altars of sticks and rocks, left in corners and crevasses throughout the island, built out of a sense of solidarity and empathy with those inside the simple wooden coffins that they stacked into the trenches day after day. “After a while, you feel a responsibility, an obligation to the task,” he told me. “Being locked up is a lesson in what it means to be forgotten. and most everyone who ends up on Hart Island is forgotten, whether you’re out from your cell for the day or freshly arrived in a wooden box. The forgotten in boxes, after a while, you realize that you’ve got perhaps a little too much in common with them.”

I thought of Jim’s time out on the island as we rowed close to shore and, as I looked over at him, I had a feeling that his thoughts were in similar places. We steered the boat eastward through the still water, and slowly started to circle around the island. I grabbed the bag of flowers and started to sprinkle them out of the side of the boat as we moved through the water. Jim rowed, and I sprinkled flowers, and we sang songs and prayers, rowing a full circle around the island of the forgotten dead as the sun set behind us.

As we made our way around the island, serenading the dead, the mist over the island started to glow in the  moonlight. We felt shifts in the air as the island seemed to respond to our presence. A whistling breeze picked up, and it was almost as if the dead were singing along with us. The veil was thin, time and place started to blur, and there was a sense of ever-strengthening connection as we slowly rowed through the water.

By the time we had completely circled around Hart Island, it was well after dark and both of our voices were hoarse. The island was pitch black, the moon was half-full, and we sat in the boat staring out at the island, watching as a sudden gust of wind stirred the mist that had been hovering throughout our journey around the island. We looked at each other and without a word spoken we decided it was time to depart. Jim started up the engine, which promptly sputtered and died, and we took it as a sign to maintain our silence as we gently rowed back to City Island without a word said between us.

As we landed back on City Island, the sky opened up and it started to pour, and as we looked back towards the opposite shore, the island of the dead was still eerily glowing.

*  *  *

In the time since our trip out to Hart Island, which took place in either 2002 or 2003, the island’s existence and the mystery around it has become much more well-known and widely publicized.

Among those buried at Hart Island are an untold number of stillborn children who died in city hospitals, many whom were buried at Hart Island without the knowledge or permission of the mother. Many of those mothers, along with the help of a local filmmaker and advocate, steadily fought the city and the Department of Corrections for the right to visit Hart Island. The department had always refused all requests to access the Island, from grieving relatives to filmmakers and journalists alike, but over the years their fight has gained traction, and the department gradually started to soften their position. In 2007, the department allowed ‘closure visits’ for the first time, which they granted only to family members who could legally prove that they had a relative buried on the island. The families were restricted to a gazebo next to the dock at Hart Island and had no view of the actual gravesites.

After eight women threatened to file suit against the Department of Corrections in 2010, seeking to visit the actual grave sites of their children, the department finally relented and allowed the women to visit the graves under tight security. The Department simultaneously lifted the overall requirement that visitors to the island need to legally justify their request through burial records. According to the Department of Corrections website, Hart Island is currently open to the public on a limited basis, although the visits are still restricted to the same rules that govern visits to Rikers Island, which means that no photographs, flowers, or mementos are allowed.

I lost touch with Jim a few years after our trip, and learned from an acquaintance several years later that he had died of cirrhosis in the hospice ward of Bellevue Hospital after a long battle. I was told that his body was unclaimed after his death, which means he was undoubtedly buried on Hart Island.

I put this story to words in the spirit of honoring his memory, and in the hopes that others will take it upon themselves to remember and honor the otherwise forgotten dead. What is remembered, lives.

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you very much.]

I came across the marsh last spring on my very first walk through the new neighborhood.

Three blocks from my building I stumbled upon it, flourishing within the confines of a city block in sharp contrast to its immediate surroundings. Overshadowed by condominium complexes on three sides, a vacant lot sits to the north, and then another park on the other side of that lot which stretches to the riverfront. The vacant lot allows for a breathtaking view of the Fremont Bridge gracefully arcing over the Willamette River.

Tanner Springs Park, as the marsh is officially known, is a modern recapture/recreation of the creek and wetlands that flowed through this area up until the late 1800’s. The original creek was filled in to make way for industrial development, which dominated this area from the turn of the century until approximately twenty-five years ago. When the industrial cover was eventually stripped away in order to plan the neighborhood as it stands today, the city was presented with an opportunity to restore a small piece of the natural topography, which eventually manifested as a thriving, swampy ecosystem contained within the boundaries of a city block. The park is not only specifically designed to capture storm water as the native environment once did; the storm water is then treated and pumped back into the spring as opposed to simply being directed back into the river.

Since that first encounter with the marsh, I’ve visited the spot nearly every day, sometimes only for a minute or two and other times for the better part of an afternoon. The marsh feels very tucked into itself; there is something very grounding and psychically cohesive about the block that is not felt among its surroundings. There are strange spirits among the grasses and ponds here, spirits both old and very, very new, and their presence seems to magnify the more I pay attention to them. The marsh is both beautifully out of place and also completely fitting as it stands. Its surroundings protect and isolate it while highlighting it at the same time, and the open space between the block and the river creates a positive aesthetic flow that opens up the surrounding neighborhood in a very distinctive and pleasing manner.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park

At the marsh, I can hide in plain sight. The more I pay attention to the everyday details, which are contained within its borders, the more the everyday details outside of its borders become more obvious to me. I have developed an energetic reciprocity with this spot, and the spirits have made it clear that they welcome my presence. In a sense, it’s the only block in this neighborhood where I feel at ease.

*  *  *

For the past seven years, I had been deeply engaged in a close relationship with a small section of the Willamette River, specifically the curve that defines the border of Alton Baker Park in Eugene; a spot that the State of Oregon defines as River Mile 183, and that I could never quite define myself.

Nowadays, I live exactly 172 river miles north of that spot in a building that sits a few hundred yards away from the west bank of the Willamette in Portland at River Mile 11. While the mile markers of the Willamette generally don’t carry a specific connotation, River Mile 11 is significant and often referred to by name due to the fact that it marks the furthest point upstream where the Willamette has been designated as a Superfund site. From the Broadway Bridge downstream several miles to Sauvie Island, the river suffers from highly elevated levels of toxicity due to well over a hundred years’ worth of industrial activity on the waterfront. The banks and waters of River Mile 11 are specifically noted for their toxicity apart from the rest of the Superfund site. The area from the Broadway Bridge downstream to the Fremont Bridge is the only stretch of the Willamette in Portland where swimming is not only ill-advised but advisory groups caution against even walking barefoot on the riverbank.

The toxic effects of a century’s worth of industry was not confined to just the water itself. The housing complex I live in was built on top of formerly toxic brownfields, as were many of the surrounding buildings and current features of the neighborhood including my beloved marsh. But while the toxicity on the land has been cleaned up to an extent over the past twenty years, any substantive cleaning of the river itself has yet to begin.

The view at River Mile 11.

The view at River Mile 11

I have learned that she is both the same river I knew in Eugene and a completely different character at the same time. I feel as if I’ve gotten to simultaneously know her in two separate stages of her journey. The youthful exuberance of the Willamette at Mile 183 is largely absent from the river that now sits across the street from my building. Here, the river has been altered into submission, industrialized to a point where the energies that I easily sensed in Eugene are almost unrecognizable.  And yet, she is my old friend all the same. And, while I miss dipping my feet in, the understandings and lessons that I am quickly gaining from living on this stretch of the river far outweigh what I used to take for granted.

*  *  *

I stood in front of the statue, keeping in mind that the imposing woman before me was the second-largest copper repouseé statue in the country after Lady Liberty herself. Hunched down, she reaches out to me with her right hand as she wields a trident in her left. I take in her essence, both fierce and inviting.  In the tradition of Columbia and Brittania as well as Lady Liberty, she is intended to embody the persona of this city. I feel that she does in many ways, although not necessarily in the ways that were originally intended. For me, she is a powerful symbol of what is held back as much as what she inspires to push forward.

Symbols hold tremendous power, and one of the reasons that the Statue of Liberty is such a powerful symbol is that she can be seen everywhere. One does not have to visit her in person to quickly conjure up her likeness in the imagination. She appears on everything from birthday cakes to snow globes, and to step inside of any New York City tourist shop is to be visually assaulted with countless versions of her likeness.

The statue I stood before at that moment, however, is barely a recognizable symbol at all. Her likeness is restrained under threat of litigation. Despite the fact that the statue was built with public funds, the statue’s creator retains the copyright to the statue’s image, in contrast to most publicly funded art, which is generally in the public domain. Not only does the artist retain the copyright, he aggressively enforces it, which means that commercial reproductions of the statue’s image are practically non-existent. You will not find a cheap postcard with her image in a tourist shop.

Interestingly enough, despite its failure to become a symbol of any sort, the statue’s name is instantly recognizable among the American public, albeit the association is far removed from its original source. When people hear the name “Portlandia,” they generally think of a television show, not the beautiful copper goddess that kneels before me at that moment.

Standing before her, it struck me as strangely fitting, in a depressing sense, how the name of this statue has come to be primarily associated with a show that satirizes the very real tendencies and excesses of hipster capitalism, as opposed to being associated with the statue itself, a powerful and potentially iconic image that has been intentionally repressed and held back from mainstream recognition on account of its creator’s excessive love affair with capitalism.

Portlandia

Portlandia

I left a flower for Portlandia at the entrance to the building that she hovers over, and bid her adieu. As I walked away, I deliberately tried to picture her in my mind as I had just seen her, but strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, her specifics had already become a bit of a blur.

 *  *  *

The cargo trains are often close to a mile long, and several times a day they slowly roll past less than a hundred feet from my bedroom window. When the cargo is mainly lumber, my throat occasionally tightens as I think of the forest, but my throat tightens much more when I spot the ominous black tanker cars that I know to be carrying crude oil, mostly from the Bakken region of North Dakota en route to a refinery near Clatskanie, Oregon.

The oil trains have been a subject of controversy, especially since a tragic accident in Quebec last year when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, killing 47 people. Oil trains started running through Portland a few years ago without public notice or input, and oil train shipments have increased 250% just in the past year. Railroad companies are not required to report the entirety of their oil shipments through Oregon; only trains that are carrying over a million gallons of Bakken crude on a single train, the equivalent of approximately 35 cars, must report.

Oil trains crawling past my building complex

Oil train crawling past my building complex

Aside from the dangers of transporting crude oil in the first place, the frequency and slowness of these cargo trains creates additional environmental and quality-of-life issues on a local level. Vehicles are stopped several times a day for the trains to pass, and dozens of cars sit idling, sometimes for the better part of an hour, while stopped in a narrow traffic corridor lined on both sides by residential apartment buildings. Especially in the summer, and when the air is already stagnant, the build-up of car fumes as the train crawls past is noticeable and unpleasant.

There’s a cruel irony in witnessing all the refined oil being wasted as cars just sit there in frustration. These cars, which are often covered in pro-environment bumper stickers, idle away, waiting for the trains carrying Bakken crude to pass on the final stage of the journey towards becoming refined oil.

*  *  *

A block south from the marsh, I walked down Lovejoy Street and once again couldn’t ignore how new the corridor felt. The entire neighborhood feels new to an extent, which makes sense in that most of the development is less than thirty years old. But Lovejoy Street radiates newness in a way which truly captures the feel of the neighborhood.

In relation to the surrounding neighborhoods, I can’t help but to liken the Pearl District to an ultramodern bathroom in an otherwise old Victorian house. From the turn of the last century until the late 1980s, this area was simply known as the NW Industrial area.  Then rezoning and the removal of the viaduct that towered over Lovejoy Street opened up the area for development. The classic gentrification pattern followed: artists moved in, developers followed, artists were then priced out, and today the Pearl District is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Portland. It’s a neighborhood that reminds me more of SoHo in New York City than anyplace else.

Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

The Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

I did not choose this neighborhood — this neighborhood chose me. My ideal vision of living in Portland consisted of a cute little bungalow in the southeast with a garden in the backyard, but the Gods had other plans. I surrendered once I realized what was at work and, while there is something awkward and distressing about both the newness and the lack of standing history in the area, the why part of the “why here?” question is starting to become clearer to me by the day. Right now, within that one question, my task is to simply bear witness and take notes.

*  *  *

I was sitting at the edge of the dock at the marsh last month when I first heard the sound of the pile driver. I looked over at the vacant lot in horror, and noticed that overnight the lot had been surrounded with fencing and filled with construction equipment. I realized immediately that my beloved view of the Fremont Bridge was about to disappear.

And though I’ve only lived here since last Spring, it feels very personal and very raw in its effect upon me.

My view, interrupted by construction

The view, interrupted by a wall and a pile driver

Every day since, I’ve watched as the hole in the ground expands, and the pile driver has just recently been replaced by a crane as concrete paneling is quickly ushered in. Most who walk by seem much more affected and upset by the sound of the construction itself than the fact that another huge mega-building is about to go up in the vacant lot, destroying the open feel of the park. Part of me, the small part that tends to envy the bliss inherent in ignorance, wishes I was as unaffected as everyone else who walks past. But I just can’t shake the inevitability and the reality of the impending loss.

Slowly but surely, developers are stealing a little piece of my sky.

The spirits in the marsh seem unsettled and anxious; their feelings mirroring my own, affected by not only the construction but by the utter disenchantment in everyone around us. Sitting in the marsh, it feels like the spirits and I are the only ones who feel that there’s something subtly disturbing in the acceptance and normalization of urban development as it occurs before us. For everyone else, it seems to be business as usual.

This neighborhood has many impressive features: three well-designed parks, several coffee shops, countless yoga studios and art galleries, Portland’s first dog gym, a spiffy new streetcar line, and more “sustainable” restaurants than one could possibly track. But what it notably lacks is what stood out for me the most at that moment.  It lacks both a collective memory as well as a cohesive community spirit.

construction

 *  *  *

I came back from lunch to learn that activists from Portland Rising Tide had temporarily blockaded the train tracks leading to Clatskanie as a protest against the shipment of crude oil.

I sat with this for a moment, silently honoring anyone and everyone who potentially puts themselves in harm’s way in the name of environmental justice. At that moment, I heard the train signals clanging outside my window, and I could tell from the sound against the tracks that it was a cargo train.

Quickly, I ran out of my building to see the black oil tanks snaking their way down the tracks towards the Steel Bridge. At the end of the side street, I saw vehicles backed up over a mile in each direction from the tracks, most of them idling away as the oil train crawled past. I looked behind me, and something on the light-post caught my eye.  It was a faded sticker that read “Portland: America’s Greenest City.”

I glanced out across at the river and, as the sun reflected off the water, I remembered hearing that there was currently a rare and toxic algae blooming on the Willamette. The advisory not to enter the water now reached far past the confines of River Mile 11. The oil train made its way across the Steel Bridge as I looked on; an ugly feeling grew in the pit of my stomach as I watched the dangerously toxic train cross the dangerously toxic waters.

I walked back in the other direction and headed over the pedestrian bridge that crosses the tracks at Union Station. On the bridge, I looked out at the train. Its black cars stretched eastward as far as the eye could see. A few tourists walked by, snapping pictures from the overpass, and then stopped to stare at a map for a few moments. I asked them what they were looking for.

“Do you know where we can find that big statue, the one that you see in the intro to ‘Portlandia’?” they asked me.

I pointed to a spot on the map. “Just so you know, Portlandia is actually the name of the statue itself,” I told them. “That’s where the show got its name from.”

They looked at each other, surprised. I smiled and nodded and continued walking across the bridge. At the bottom of the stairs, I paused for a moment. My original destination had been the marsh, but I suddenly felt the urge to bring a flower to Portlandia once again.

I took off in the direction of the statue, tuning out the sound of the oil train in the background as I conjured up the image of Portlandia in my mind’s eye and, for the first time, I was truly able to picture her clearly.