Archives For Alley Valkyrie

I. Fire and Bone: July, 2006

I was hurrying home, deep in thought and not paying attention, when I walked right into his sign, accidentally tearing it with my boot as I plowed through the cardboard.

I looked down at the torn sign and snapped back to reality. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I blurted to the man sitting a few feet away as I started to bend over to pick it up.

“Only Need $20 More For Bus Ticket Home” the sign said. Next to the sign was a collection of objects presumably for sale. There were a few tattered romance novels, some antique Coke bottles, and what looked like a piece of antler.

I picked up the antler and examined it. Part of it was broken off with a small stump remaining, but it was a beautiful piece, and I realized that if I sanded the broken stump down it would make a nice wand.

“Where is home?” I asked.

“Milwaukee”, he answered. “I left years ago and swore I’d never return, but over the time I’ve decided that maybe one actually can go home again.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out $20. “Sorry again about your sign, but hopefully now you don’t need it,” I said as I handed him the money.

Image: US Treasury Department

Image: US Treasury Department

He broke into a wide smile. “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” He got up to shake my hand. “I hope that piece treats you well.”

I thanked him again and continued home, waving the antler around like a wand as I neared my corner. I went through the front door of the building and up the stairs, leaving the antler outside my door by the landing on the second floor before going inside.

A few days later, I dug out my dremel and went out on the landing with the intention of sanding off the stump on the antler in order to give it the right shape. I had done some bone carvings some years back, and didn’t think much of it as I put on my goggles and turned on the dremel.

I held the sanding tip to the antler and made contact, and within a second or two I started to suddenly panic and uncontrollably shake. I quickly put down the dremel, and before I could understand what was happening my body went into full panic attack mode. I started to hyperventilate and I lowered myself into a seated position as my heart started to race and I started to sweat.

Terrified, I put my hands over my head and closed my eyes, and all I could see and feel and taste and smell was fire. Visions and sensations poured through my head; a fiery inferno, the screams of the dead, the stench of burning flesh. I felt myself being pulled down into myself and I briefly opened my eyes, but the visions and the smell did not immediately cease and I felt myself tightening into the fetal position as I closed my eyes again and reminded myself to breathe.

My heart was pounding ever faster, and it took me several minutes of slow breathing before whatever had come over me faded and I was able to uncurl myself and sit back up. As I felt myself come back, I stared at the antler in horror, utterly confused and terrified at what had just transpired. What had flashed through my mind was familiar, all too familiar, and yet so deeply buried and deliberately forgotten. But…what? How did the…

At that moment, my upstairs neighbor bounded up the stairs towards the landing, and as he got within a few steps of me he suddenly froze and sniffed the air. He looked at me, wide-eyed.

“That smell. Holy Mother of God, that smell. What the…?” he said, his voice shaking slightly.

I pointed to the antler and the dremel and tried to summon the proper words, but he had no interest in what I was actually pointing to. I looked down again where I was pointing and the objects suddenly read out to me as a solved riddle: friction and antler. Fire and bone. I looked up at him again but he spoke before I could.

“That smell,” he said again, his voice barely above a whisper. “It smells like when the Twin Towers were burning.”

II. A Lesson in Capitalism, A Lesson in Imperialism: February, 1993

Our fifth-grade class had spent all month learning about the stock exchange, and it seemed fitting to wrap up the unit with a day trip to the Financial District. We piled into a big yellow bus and rode into Manhattan along with the morning traffic, eventually inching our way downtown towards Wall Street right at the peak of the AM rush hour.

We started out with a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange, had lunch at a Burger King near Wall Street and, afterward, we walked over in a group to the headquarters of Solomon Brothers, located in the World Trade Center complex.

7 WTC as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

7 WTC and the North Tower as seen from the South Tower. Photo by Duncan Rawlinson.

It was the first time that I had ever seen the Twin Towers in person, and I was instantly mesmerized by their energy and presence. We stood in front of the towers for a moment as our teacher took a few photos, and then proceeded across the street towards Building 7 where Solomon Brothers was located. As we walked away from the towers, I kept looking back as I struggled to process that anything could be so tall, so vast and so otherworldly. There was something truly unreal about them, as though I had stepped onto a Hollywood movie set or I was being fooled by a hologram.

One our way into Building 7, one of the guards wanted to check one of the bags that our teacher was carrying. We stood back as she was searched, all of us quite confused as to why there were security guards in the first place, let alone why our teacher had to open her bag up for them. After she was waved along by security, a few of us immediately wanted to know what that had been all about.

She gently tried to explain that the security guards check bags because they were worried about people potentially sneaking in “bad things”, which only piqued our curiosity further. She then told us that it was hard to explain in a few words but it was something we could discuss the next day, and then quickly led us toward the elevator while changing the subject. Within moments, the incident was forgotten.

In school the next morning, we talked extensively about our trip and what we learned, what the good parts were and what we didn’t enjoy so much. I was still wondering about the security guard and hoping that our teacher would talk about it, but nobody else brought it up and I was too shy to do so.

The following afternoon, we came in after recess to learn that a bomb had ripped through the garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, with reports of both deaths and injuries. We looked around at each other, both terrified and confused. Why, we asked. Why would someone do that?

Our teacher had no answer that afternoon, telling us only as much as the media knew at the time. Over the next few weeks, however, it became apparent that the bombing was an act of terrorism, which eventually facilitated the discussion around bombs and security guards and bag searching that our teacher had evaded during the field trip.

“But why do bad people want to hurt us?’ one student asked.

“Because we are the most powerful country in the world, and sometimes that means that we do things that anger people who do not have power,” she answered.

Nobody asked anything after that, but I stewed on her words long after the subject had been exhausted. I wrote them down in a journal and thought about them often, especially when watching the nightly news. Between my own personal awestruck experience with the Twin Towers in and of itself and having been on that land in their presence only 48 hours before the bombing, my attention was suddenly aimed towards subjects like terrorism and empire in a way that would never have occurred had we not gone on that field trip.

III. Of Boxes and Blemished Skylines: Summer 1996

I remember the very first time I heard the joke.

I was with a friend, in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon, on our way into Manhattan to see Les Miserables. As we approached the Holland Tunnel, with the skyline clear-as-day in front of us, her father turned around to face us.

“You girls know that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are the two tallest buildings in Manhattan, right?” he asked us with a grin.

“But….” I started to immediately correct him, as everyone knew that the Twin Towers were the tallest.

He interrupted me with a laugh. “Yeah, the two boxes that they came in were dumped way down by Wall Street …”

We laughed along with him, immediately getting the joke. It was an understood and unspoken truth that for all their impressiveness in terms of height, the Twin Towers did look like two big ugly boxes, especially in comparison to buildings such as the Chrysler and the Empire State. While I had a strange fondness for them, even I had to admit that while they were otherworldly, they were otherworldly eyesores.

“You know, I was about the same age as you two are now when those towers first went up, and I’ll never forget how much folks hated ‘em at first. They called ‘em a blemish on the skyline, complained that they ruined the view of Lower Manhattan. And now a generation later, everyone’s buying tchotchkes with the Twin Towers on ‘em, and nobody can imagine what the skyline would look like without the towers. Funny how that works…” he said, drifting off into his thoughts.

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

Manhattan skyline, 1960. Photo by Harold Egeberg

I thought about what he has said as we came out of the tunnel. One of my neighbors had expressed a similar sentiment recently, and as I got a brief glimpse of the towers out the back window, for a moment I tried to imagine the skyline without the Twin Towers.

And while it was hard to imagine that those buildings actually existed in the first place, it was even harder to imagine what it would look like without them.

IV. Land, Once Water: Spring, 1999

“And it was right at this spot, at the base of a buttonwood tree, that the contract that became known as the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in 1792, marking the beginnings of what was to eventually become the New York Stock Exchange…”

‘This spot’ was in front of a hot-dog stand on Wall Street near the corner of Pearl Street. I was on a guided tour of the Financial District, having been dragged along by a friend from the West Coast who had never been to New York before. At that point, I had been taking the bus into city once or twice a week and I knew most of Manhattan like the back of my hand, but as I looked around I realized that I hadn’t been down near Wall Street since the school field trip six years earlier. I looked around, down the dark narrow street tucked within the oldest and deepest depths of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, and it was nearly impossible to imagine any sort of tree, buttonwood or otherwise, ever having grown in that spot.

We started walking eastward again behind out tour guide, who continued talking as we ambled along.

“Wall Street itself was named after an actual wall which once protected the settlement of New Amsterdam from both the British and the local tribes. The wall was built in the mid-1600’s, and originally stretched from Pearl Street to what is now called Church Street, which were the original shorelines of Manhattan over three-hundred years ago.”

Wait, what? I said to myself. The original shorelines of Manhattan are Pearl Street and Church Street? The present-day Manhattan extended three blocks east past Pearl and at least as many blocks west of Church. I thought of the Twin Towers, which I knew were just west of Church Street. If the tour guide was correct, that would mean that the entire WTC complex was standing in what was once the Hudson River.

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote "made land". [Public Domain]

Manhattan, 1865. The yellow areas denote “made land”. [Public Domain]

“By the time the Buttonwood Agreement was signed, landfill had extended Wall Street out an extra block east, and the next year the Tontine Coffee House was built here at the corner of Wall and Water, which was to serve as the headquarters of the New York Stock and Exchange Board until the mid-1800s….”

I looked down where I was standing, suddenly aware that I was standing on an invisible border between bedrock and landfill, between the original boundaries of Manhattan Island and a man-made extension of “land” that was created from refuse. I looked eastward at the blocks and buildings, stretching towards the waterfront, buildings that I now knew stood where fish swam for millennia. I tried to imagine what the shoreline might have looked like around the time that the Dutch first fortified New Amsterdam with a wall, but once again the concrete got in the way.

The tour guide headed back in the other direction, still pointing out landmarks, but I was only partially paying attention at that point, still hung up on the idea that the lower half of Manhattan Island was once only half as wide as it was in the present day. As we approached the New York Stock Exchange, I tuned in to the tour guide again for a moment and quickly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“And it was right here that on September 16, 1920, that a bomb went off in front of 23 Wall Street, at the height of the lunch hour on a busy weekday. 38 people were killed and over 100 were injured in what was at that time the deadliest attack on American soil. It was suspected that the bombing was carried out by Italian anarchists, but nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day.”

Wait, what again? A bomb? Here? My thoughts immediately drifted back to the WTC garage bombing, and then back to the tour guide’s words about Wall Street as a fortified wall that was built as a means of defense. The guide made no mention of the events that led to the need for a fortified wall in the first place, but I understood enough about history and empire at that point to sense a general pattern of cause and effect.

I looked around; the block itself felt like a fortress, holding itself in tension, in constant defensive posture against anything that may try to attack it. It felt nervous and guarded, and I felt the same as I continued down the narrow concrete corridor.

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. Photo by NortonJuster7722

Damage from the 1920 bombing as seen today. [Photo Credit: NortonJuster7722]

 V. Fate and Foreshadowing: Late July, 2001

“You don’t have a fear of heights, do you?” he asked me at one point while giving me a tour of the main dining area. I had been looking out the window for a moment, temporarily paralyzed by the realization of how high up I was, and the look on his face was one of slight concern.

“Oh, no, not at all,” I lied. “I’ve worked in skyscrapers before,” I added nervously. That part wasn’t an outright lie, but I left out the fact that while I had actually worked in a few skyscrapers, I had never been higher up than the 29th floor.

“Uh-huh,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “New hires always tell me that they’re not afraid of heights, but then I’ve had some go and quit on me after a few weeks because they realize they can’t deal with it,” he said to me.

For the money I’ll make here, I’ll learn to deal with it, I thought to myself.

“This is as high up as you get in this town,” he continued, as if I needed any more reminders that I was on the 107th floor of the tallest building in Manhattan.

I nodded and smiled. “I know. I’m OK,” I said again, trying my hardest to project an air of confidence.

He smiled back and waved me over as he walked towards the back of the restaurant.

Other than the awkward exchange around heights, the interview went smoothly. I got along well with the interviewer, he seemed satisfied with my resume despite my relative lack of fine dining experience, and he was pleased at my willingness to take any shift that was available. I left there very hopeful that I had the job.

“I’ll give you a call in a few days”, he told me as I walked out.

But a few days came and went without a call, and by the end of the week I realized that I didn’t have the job after all. For some reason, that time I had really gotten my hopes up, and I took it very hard and very personally. Those around me noticed, and tried in their own little ways to cheer me up.

“You know, I have dreams of that building sometimes,” my partner said to me a few weeks after the interview. “In the dream, I’m standing against the windows on one of the top floors, and all of a sudden the building starts to sway violently back and forth.”

I thought back to when I looked out the window from the dining area of the 107th floor, that terrifying, paralyzing rush that the manager picked up on, and I nodded.

“Frankly, you’re better off with a job closer to the ground,” he said after a while. “Personally, I don’t know if I could handle being that high up all the time. That building always made me a little nervous.”

“Everything happens for a reason. I’ll find a better job,” I concluded.

After dinner, we walked through Midtown down to Lower Manhattan. The sun was setting, illuminating the skyline, and I stared down at the southern tip for a moment, thinking about the job I didn’t get. The job in the buildings that stood where the river once flowed, the buildings that swayed back and forth in my partner’s dreams. I suddenly felt a strangely unexplainable relief that I wasn’t going to be working in that building.

The manager probably made the right call, I admitted to myself as walked through the shadows of the towers towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with being that high up.

VI. Consequence of Empire: September 11, 2001

I opened my eyes just a crack, immediately closing them again as the bright sunshine streaking through my windows temporarily blinded me. I knew it was already mid-morning, and I also knew that I wasn’t ready to wake up quite yet. I had spent the night before out late drinking with friends, and I hadn’t gotten back to my place until close to sunrise. I had only been asleep for three or four hours at that point.

But something had just woken me up out of a sound sleep, and I shifted my head slightly and slowly tried to open my eyes again to see if it was anything that I needed to worry about. The head of my mattress was up against a large bay window, and as I squinted my eyes open again all I saw was blue. The sky was an amazing, brilliant blue, not a cloud in the sky, a rarity that late in the season. I turned my ear towards the open window for a moment, heard nothing but birds and traffic, and rolled over back to sleep.

Blue sky over New York. Photo by Payton Chung

Blue sky over New York. [Photo Credit: Payton Chung]

A little while later, I heard a similar noise again. That time I sat up, again my vision fixated on the sky, wondering if what I heard was the demolition project from a few blocks away. Again I listened for a minute, looked out the window again, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But as I lowered myself back into bed, an unsettling and creeping feeling came over me.

I tried to get back to sleep but failed, eventually settling for lying in bed while staring at the sky, too anxious to fall back asleep yet too exhausted to actually get up.

Out of the silence the phone rang. I jumped at the sound, then slowly reached over and picked it up.

“APLANEAPLANEHITTHETWINTOWERSTURNONYOURTVWEAREUNDERATTACK” was all I heard on the other end of the line.

I recognized the voice of a friend but thought I had misheard what he said. “What?” I asked. “Can you say that again?”

“TURNONYOURTVJUSTTURNONYOURTV’ was the reply.

I stayed on the phone and reached for the remote. I turned on the TV and saw the Twin Towers engulfed in flames.

I threw some clothes on and ran downstairs, flung open the front door, ran down to the end of the block, and looked northwards towards Manhattan. I could see what looked like smoke and fire in the distance, and the air was sooty and acrid. I looked around. My block was mostly empty, and the few faces I saw looked as ashen as the sky in the distance.

I stood, frozen, staring at the smoke in the distance. As I stood there, an older man walked past me, walking with a cane and wearing a hat that proclaimed his status as a Vietnam vet. He stopped next to me for a moment, and then looked me in the eye and motioned towards the smoke with his cane.

“That there,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke, “that there is the consequence of empire.”

I nodded, repeating his words to myself quietly. The consequence of empire.

My thoughts started flashing, from the bombing of the WTC garage nine years earlier, to the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, to the original fortification from which Wall Street bears its name. The consequence of empire indeed – 350 years of colonialism that led us to this very moment.

I ran back to the house and stood in front of the TV for the next several hours, taking in as many vital details as I could bear. I reflected for a moment on the job that I ended up not getting a few months prior and a knot immediately formed in my stomach.

As I stood there, I slowly took in what this meant in actuality. Subways were shut down. Bridges and tunnels shut down. Flights grounded. Cell phone networks hopelessly jammed. ATM networks down. Stock exchange shut down. Traffic suspended throughout all of Manhattan for the first time in the city’s history. An entire ‘way of life’, shut down in an instant.

And out my bay window, only a few miles away, a fiery pit steadily burned, with television cameras catching every detail save for the one things that I knew could not be transmitted through sight or sound: the stench of fire, of metal and soot, of burning flesh and bone. The news was calling it a “rescue mission”, but my senses and my gut both told me otherwise. I could smell death in the air, and I could hear and feel the dead as well.

VII. City of the Dead: September 12-15, 2001

The morning after, I cracked my eyes open in the identical manner as I had the day before, and it only took a split second of staring at the blue sky to remember what had transpired over the past 24 hours. I lay there for a moment, my dreams still fresh in my mind, dreams filled with fire and horror and the screams of the dead.

I needed to check on a friend who lived downtown, and I couldn’t ignore the pull that I was feeling from the other side of the river, so I grabbed my camera and a few other items and set out on foot towards Lower Manhattan. It was around three miles between my apartment in Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, and with every block the smell in the air increased along with the tension of the land and the unmistakable screaming that shook through every bone of my body.

At the base of the bridge, an officer with an AK-47 guarded the walkway. “Residents only,” he barked as I approached.

“I live on Warren Street,” I lied, and gave the address of my friend.

“ID?” he asked.

“Its in my wallet which is in my apartment on Warren Street.” I answered calmly. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, I thought to myself.

He scowled for a moment, not sure whether to believe me, then relented and let me through.

I walked across the bridge, straight through Lower and Midtown Manhattan right up towards Central Park, walking in a city that other than the sound of emergency vehicles had gone completely silent. Not a single store was open, not a single car was driving through the streets, and there were very few people on the sidewalks. Birds eerily chirped as I made my way uptown, briefly pausing near 14th Street to take in the totality of the silence. It was a literal ghost town, in more ways than one, with the surreal nature only increasing when a military tank rolled right by me as though it was the most normal, everyday thing.

Tank rolling down 14th Street in Manhattan. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Military vehicle down 14th Street in Manhattan. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I continued uptown, taking pictures as I went. By the time I got to Rockefeller Center, I paused and looked around and for a moment was in utter terror. There was nobody in sight. No cars, no people, no sounds other than the shrill shrieks of sirens and the screaming that I couldn’t tune out. I stood across from Radio City, the only person in a 360 degree radius, and was so taken in and paralyzed by the emptiness around me that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was standing right in the middle of Sixth Avenue. A group of people walked by on the sidewalk and I was so surprised by their presence that without even thinking I pulled my camera out and took their picture.

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I then laid down in the middle of the street and did a log roll straight across to the other side. I didn’t know why, but in that moment I needed contact with the land, with the concrete and ashes that I had been walking upon for miles. I lay still in the street next to the sidewalk for a moment, and the screaming I was hearing suddenly became a roar. When I got up, I looked over at the people on the other side and realized that they had been taking pictures of what I had just done. They waved, I waved back.

Remembering that I had a friend that I was checking on, I quickly made my way back downtown. As I approached Union Square, I quickly saw that makeshift memorials were already being erected in the park, and flyers with pictures of the missing were taped to nearly every street-pole.

It brought me back to what I couldn’t tune out, the screaming. The dead. I wanted to stop and pay tribute, but I was still on a mission, and I continued on until I arrived at my friend’s apartment four blocks north of the disaster. As I rang the bell, I could feel the heat of the fire, and the stench had become overwhelming.

“I haven’t seen a thing yet, I haven’t left the house and I don’t want to,” he said to me we sat down on the couch.

“I don’t blame you,” I replied. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that smell out of my mind.”

He looked up at me. “My grandmother’s been in a constant anxious state since yesterday, and nothing I can say or do will calm her down,” he said, motioning towards the back room. “She says the smell reminds her of Poland when she was a child, and she’s been in a terrible state. She’s terrified. I mean, we’re all terrified, but I don’t even know how to begin to comfort her.”

I didn’t know what to say, and we both sat there in silence for a while with our tea and cigarettes as I tried desperately to tune out the screaming that had hit a deafening pitch.

For the rest of the week, I spent my afternoons in Union Square, praying and making offerings for the dead. The screaming only started to fade a few months later as the fire finally went out, but I heard the screams in traces for the next several years.

VIII. Fear of a Blue Sky: July 2010

“When you were a kid, did you ever hear that joke about the Twin Towers?”

I paused for a minute, trying to access a file in my brain that had been long since tucked away. “You mean the one about how they’re just the boxes that the Empire State and the Chrysler Building came in?”

She nodded, poured herself another glass of wine, and then continued.

“Isn’t it weird how one day the world has suddenly changed and you just can’t say things anymore? Like, my mother would go on and on about those buildings when I was a kid, about how ugly they were and how she wished that they had never been built, on and on. And even remembering and recalling that just feels so weird and inappropriate now. I mean, obviously telling any jokes about the Twin Towers nowadays doesn’t seem right, but even remembering that we used to make jokes feels funny, like we did something bad retroactively or something. Its weird, I almost feel guilty about it.”

“Yes,” I said. I knew just what she was talking about. “I think we all carry around much more baggage around that event and our relationship with those buildings in general than we’d ever want to admit or even conceive of,” I said.

“For example, I’ll give you one,” I continued. “I can remember years ago being in the back of a friend’s car driving into the city from Jersey as her father was telling me how there were no Twin Towers when he was a kid. And when I heard him say that, I stared out at them and tried to picture what it would be like if they weren’t there. I shudder when I think about that now, it just freaks me out. And I swear, its like I’m almost afraid to even put words to it, to say it out loud. Somewhere in my head I seem to think that it never actually happened if I don’t speak of it. “

She nodded. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked me.

“Of course,” I answered.

“I mean, its weird and messed up. I feel like I’m just crazy or this was just some crazy thing that happened in my head, but I really just need to tell somebody and you’re good with crazy stuff.” She looked at me for affirmation and I nodded.

She took a deep breath. “Okay. So, a few years ago I was having a cavity filled, and I should preface this by saying that I hadn’t gotten any work done on my teeth since before 9/11. But I’m in the chair, and as the dentist started to drill, all of a sudden the smell just jolted something seriously deep and I suddenly started panicking and remembering the towers and the aftermath in this vivid and intense way that felt like I was on psychedelics or something. Its like it was right there for a moment, it was real and in front of me again. I had to get the dentist to stop, and it took me a while to calm down after that.”

I nodded vigorously and I told her about my experience with the antler and the dremel. “It was one quick and hardcore lesson in how deeply scent and trauma are linked in the brain, and the degree to which trauma is retained long after you think you’ve gotten over it,” I said to her. “It felt like an out-of-body experience, like I had completely lost control.”

Her expression suddenly turned to sadness. “There was a part of that experience, the part where your stomach clenches so tight you think you’ll choke…. I’ll tell ya, sometimes that happens to me for absolutely no reason at the most innocent times. Like last week, I was lying on my back in the park and there was something about the color of the sky that just threw my stomach in knots. It was that same blue, something about that shade…”

“I mean, listen to me,” she continued after a moment. “ Fear of a blue sky? It’s just absurd. But its also very real and I don’t know if I’ll ever rid myself of it.”

I just stared at her for a moment. as not only did her experiences so precisely mirror my own, but she had the courage to vocalize something that I couldn’t ever bear to acknowledge to myself up until that moment.

“Yes, the fear of a blue sky,” I said after a while. “It’s very real indeed.”

Author’s Note: Minor details were changed for privacy reasons.

*   *   *

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

Whims of the Father

Alley Valkyrie —  July 24, 2015 — 9 Comments

(Author’s note: The following attempts to capture a recent four days in time and about time with as much accuracy as possible. Minor details have been changed to protect privacy.)

I walked from my apartment to the elevator, going past a dozen or so doors on the way. It was early afternoon, and I could hear a TV blaring in nearly every apartment as I walked past. In a typical apartment building, most folks would be at work, but here in this building a noticeable number of the residents are home all day with little to do other than to watch television. I was used to the sound of TV as I walked past, but right then it was much more noticeable than usual.

I live in what is generally referred to as “tax-credit housing”, meaning that the property was built under a federal program that grants a 30-year property tax credit in exchange for renting the units for well below market value and only to those who make less than 60% of the area median income. As a result, the building is composed of a noticeably varied range of working-class and poor folks, from single moms and working families with kids to retired folks who live on Social Security, as well as a significant number of disabled folks, including several war vets, who also live on fixed incomes. There are also several multigenerational households, where younger relatives work while their elderly parents and/or grandparents are at home during the day for the most part.

I stepped into the elevator, where a man was awkwardly leaning in the corner, propping himself up to relieve pressure off his leg, which I noticed was in what looked like a permanent brace.

“You ever watch that Kardashian show?” he asked me as the elevator door started to close.

“Nope,” I replied. I don’t have a TV.”

He looks at me in amazement. “You don’t have a TV?” He looked me up and down. “Well, I suppose you don’t need one. You’re young, you can go amuse yourself in the real world. Twenty years ago I thought I couldn’t afford cable. Now I realize I can’t afford not to have it.”

I nodded. It had occurred to me often as of late that the very fact that I can sufficiently keep myself occupied to the point where I did not need a TV was a significant privilege that many of my neighbors did not have.

“My nephew criticizes me, tells me I’m wasting my money,” he continued. “I asked him, what else am I supposed to do with it? I get a little over $700 a month plus my food stamps and whatever I can get returning cans. $595 for rent, $40 for electricity, $20 for a big bag of dog food, after that I got well under a hundred dollars left to amuse myself for the entire month. Can’t even afford a respectable drinking habit. So cable it is. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is. Cable and my dog, that’s what keeps me occupied.”

“Makes perfect sense to me,” I said to him as the elevator door opened into the lobby.

He nodded. “Thank you, I need to hear that. My nephew, he’s the only blood family I really have around here but he’s so judgmental. The kid doesn’t understand how easy it is to think the way he does when you’re bringing in $50K a year. He goes bowling, goes to the movies, goes to the coast. Doesn’t know what its like to not be able to afford all that, and then lectures me for how I spend my money. He doesn’t think about the fact that his time itself is worth money, while my time doesn’t hold value for anybody. ‘Time flies’, he says to me. Not for me it don’t.”

I looked at him sympathetically as we walked out the front door. “You know what’s best for you better than anyone else does,” I said to him as we parted ways.

As I walked on, his words rang on in my head, as they illustrated the core divide that the sound of the TV had come to symbolize for me as of late: the divide between those whose time had a market value, and those for whose time did not carry a transferable value and was often regarded as a burden, as the enemy, as something that needed to be intentionally wasted and consumed in the absence of a meaningful way to spend it. For some, time flies, while others are in constant need for time to fly away.

tempusfugit

*   *   *

I was sitting for a moment just outside the library when he approached me.

“Hey, you got a smoke?”

I’m not a smoker nowadays, but I still carry cigarettes sometimes, deeply aware of the power that tobacco has to initiate random conversations with strangers. I handed him one and he lit it up.

“Ah, thank you. I’ll tell ya, it’s the only addiction I have left, but this one’s manageable and I’ve stopped trying to give it up. I gave the rest of them up, I still need something, you know.”

I nodded and he continued.

“My counselor said to me many times that addiction was a demon. I could tell that she meant it as a metaphor, but over time I’ve come to realize that it’s literal. A heroin addiction is the ugliest of demons – it’s a beast inside of you that you constantly need to feed, and feeding it becomes your utmost priority over time. But time is the key, time. An addiction also eats the time, and gives purpose to the time, and time itself is another demon, one that also eats away at you. And as screwed up at this sounds, in the face of the demon of time, the demon of addiction is actually a bit of a comfort. Simply put, it gives you something to do. You wake up, and the first thought is that you need a fix. Immediately you have a task, a goal. Something to do with your time. Something to take care of, something to feed.”

“How’d you kick it?” I asked.

He pointed down towards the corgi at his feet. “After I finally got through rehab, I got myself a dog,” he answered. “Figured having something else to feed would keep me out of trouble. And it did in terms of smack, but I didn’t stay completely out of trouble and after a while I collected a wife and then a kid as well. So now I have a houseful of creatures that howl to be fed in the morning.”

He paused for a moment and smiled. “But at least they’re all external. And I love them all dearly. I’d rather feed kids and dogs than those other demons. But often it’s better to feed demons than to be left to the whims of the father without sufficient distraction.

“The father?” I asked. “You mean God?”

The price of a conversation. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

The price of a conversation. [Photo by Alley Valkyrie.]

He laughed. “No, Father Time,” he said. “But he might as well be God. Cruelest force there is, that time. Never enough of it when you need it the most, then it drags on endlessly when you desperately need it to pass.”

He put out the end of the cigarette. “The tricks of the Father are endless. Time files sometimes, but never when you want it to. A winged demon, that Father Time.”

“And that’s no joke, that’s real as you and me.”

*   *   *

“This next sequence will run for four minutes.”

The strange patterns of beeping noises started again, and I closed my eyes and desperately tried to relax, trying to block out absolutely every aspect of the current situation. As I had discovered in the past, if I ignored the headphones and earplugs and panic button in my right hand, the coldness and the brightness and the very fact that I was in a cylindrical tube, if I blocked out all of that successfully, for a split second it was almost as though I was just lying down listing to some sort of avant-garde techno music.

I held the illusion for a moment, until the beeping shifted to a faster-paced and much more jolting rhythm, which snapped me back immediately into the realization that I was currently in an MRI machine. I think this is why I don’t like techno, I thought to myself.

“This next sequence will run for two-and-a-half minutes.”

I closed my eyes once again and tried my best to pretend that it was a just techno-tunnel.

When the final sequence was over, it struck me how 38 minutes in a tube, broken down into 2-4 minute segments that are announced step-by-step, makes for one of the most accurate flows of time that I experienced as of late. As uncomfortable as it was on one level, it was exactly as long as it seemed, as long as it was supposed to be without the catches and loopholes that are often present in time. The ‘tricks of the Father’ were conspicuously and surprisingly absent this time around, which considering the circumstances was quite a relief. For once, time seemed a strange constant.

They pulled me out of the tunnel, took down some additional information, and told me that I would hear back within a week.

“I know that the waiting is the hardest part,” she said to me, sympathetically. “Time can be especially cruel that way…”

I thought of the man that I talked to that morning with the dog outside the library. Time can be cruel in many ways, I silently whispered to myself.

“Do you need a parking validation?” she asked.

“No, I walked here.”

She looked down at the screen at my info for a moment, and then looked up at me again. “That’s a quite a bit of a walk,” she said to me.

“Yeah, it took a while. But I find it a good way to clear out some time.”

“Must be nice to have that kind of free time,” she said.

Trust me, its not nearly as nice as you think, I thought to myself, and thought hard for a second before answering

“Yes and no,” I said to her after a moment. “Free time tends to lose its value and appeal once its no longer being weighed against the time you wish you didn’t have to spend elsewhere. Eventually, it becomes somewhat of a liability, especially when you don’t have adequate ways to waste or spend it. I’m grateful in a sense that I’m able to spend the amount of time that I do walking around Portland, especially considering how many folks I knew with mobility issues who don’t have such an option. But the time itself isn’t always a good thing to have, especially for those who can’t get out as I can.”

She looked at me, silent for a moment.

“Huh,” she finally said. “I hear you. I never thought of it that way before, but I can definitely see what you’re saying.”

*   *   *

I dragged a chair and a small table out on my patio, intending to spend a good portion of the afternoon making pinch-pots while watching the traffic below me.

My upstairs neighbors started watching a TV program about UFOs, which I could hear clearly from where I was sitting, and before I realized what was happening I found myself sucked in. I forgot about the clay in my hand as I strained to hear their TV above the sounds of the traffic while staring out mindlessly towards the street below.

Out of nowhere, their dog started to bark uncontrollably, which set off the dog next door and another dog nearby, and the neighbors either muted or paused the TV while yelling at their dog to shush. I snapped back into reality, and as I listened to the chorus of barking dogs I looked out and noticed the doggy day camp van pull up in front of the luxury condos across the street. I had noticed the van many times before, but seeing it in that moment brought with it a whole new significance.

I tuned in to the cacophony of barking throughout the building for a moment, dogs that for so many folks here were instrumental in giving their time and their lives meaning in the face of very few accessible amusements or comforts.

And as I listened to the barking, I closely watched across the street as the van driver walked the dog toward the building, the owner approaching them from the other direction. In stark contrast to my upstairs neighbors who spent most of their waking hours caring for their dog with the TV blaring in the background, this dog owner’s time is so valued under capitalism that he can afford to pay someone to amuse his dog for several hours every day while he’s gone so that the dog itself doesn’t get bored in his absence.

Sitting on the porch, staring across the street, I realized that I was experiencing two worlds at once, worlds that in the moment were being illustrated by dogs and separated and defined by the value and perception of time.

As the van drove away and the barking died down, they turned the UFO show back on upstairs. I started to listen in once again, but my thoughts kept interrupting my ability to concentrate as I couldn’t help wondering what a dog actually does all day at doggy day camp.

*   *   *

“Daddy, why is the market only open on the weekends?”

“Because during the weekdays, everyone is at work. They’re off on the weekends, so they can come here and shop,” he replied.

Sitting in the back of my market booth, the weekend ‘workplace’ that I’ve steadily inhabited for over a decade now, I tipped both my eye and my ear towards the direction of the conversation.

“But there are some people who work on the weekends too,” the kid countered. “These people here all are working right now,” he said, pointing towards the booths in front of them.

Smart kid, I thought to myself, curiously anticipating how the father would attempt to explain this particular aspect of class dynamics to a six-year-old.

“Well, yes, you’re right. Some people do have to work on the weekends.”

“But when do the people who work on the weekends get to go to the market?”

“I guess they just don’t get to go,” the father said after a moment. “We’ve talked before about how the world isn’t always fair.”

“Are the people who work on the weekdays more important than those who work on the weekends?

“Well, I guess some would say that. Those who work weekdays generally make more money than those who have to work on weekends, and there are many people who think that those who make more money are more important than those who make less money.”

“That’s stupid,” the kid said defiantly. “The people who work on the weekends should make more money, because they’re the ones who are missing all the fun.”

Portland Saturday Market. Photo by Steve Morgan.

Portland Saturday Market. [Photo by Steve Morgan]

“Are you hungry?” the father asked abruptly, desperately trying to change the subject at that point. The kid nodded and they walked away towards the food carts.

“If I was in charge, I’d have a market all week just for the people who have to work weekends,” the kid said as they walked out of earshot.

The father looked around for a moment, his expression one of pure helplessness and exasperation.

Right on, kid, right on, I thought.

*   *   *

As I watched her hand, moving so eloquently and furiously, I realized that I had seen her before, although in a different park on the other side of the river. She finished the bird with a few quick strokes and started to write underneath the picture in Chinese, quickly scribbling out a few rows of text in what seemed like seconds.

She then picked up the picture, blew on it, quickly looked both ways, and muttered a few words under her breath. And before I really understood what was happening, she pulled out a match and quickly set the paper on fire.

I gasped aloud, not meaning to, and she turned around, surprised to see me there. She nodded hello at me and I nodded back.

“It is OK, it is supposed to burn,” she said to me, smiling. “It is a prayer for the sparrows.”

“But you just spent so much time….” I stopped mid-sentence, recognizing the thought-trap regarding the value of time that I was about to fall into. She laughed.

“I have all the time in the world to draw things and set them on fire,” she said. “I am retired, I do not work. I do not like TV, I do not like bingo. Instead, I draw and I pray and I pay attention to nature.”

I stared at her for a second, wondering if I should say aloud what I was dying to ask her, then took a breath and went for it.

“Do you mind if I ask why? Why did you burn what you just drew, what was it for?”

She motioned for me to sit, and I immediately dropped down on the ground next to her.

“I draw them to ask forgiveness for the past. When I was a girl back home, one day our leader commanded all the people to kill the sparrows, all the sparrows. It was a matter of duty, of honor, patriotism, all of those things, to kill every sparrow we could find. So we did, we chased them, killed them, destroyed nests, some shot them out of the sky. Throughout my village, throughout the country, the people killed all the sparrows, every one they saw.”

As she paused for a moment, I thought about her age and realized that I was hearing a personal account of the Great Chinese Famine. My stomach clenched up as I anticipated what she was about to say next.

“But sparrows eat locusts and locusts eat grain, and when sparrows don’t eat locusts, locusts eat all the grain that is grown to feed the peasants. And then, after the sparrows were gone, after we killed them all and the locusts came, the droughts also came. And for years, there was famine, and millions and millions died.“

“Years later, I moved to America to be with my daughter, and everywhere I see different kinds of sparrows. And they reminded me of my childhood, of the famine and the death, and at first I was very angry at them. They almost felt haunting. But then I thought of what the people had done, and what happened as a result, and how all of the species are connected and interdependent. Here we both reside, me and the sparrows, and we are both alive, both survivors, and I don’t like bingo. So eventually I thought why not reach out to them?”

She smiled and looked around. “So I started coming to the parks, and when I see sparrows, I draw them and write prayers of forgiveness and send them up towards where I spotted them. I think it heals both of our wounds.”

I stood there for a moment, slightly shivery. “Thank you for sharing that with me,” I told her.

She nodded. “Nobody can change the past, but I can at least give them the time I have now. I often feel like I’m just wasting my days away when I sit at home, but then I remember the sparrows and I realize that my time has value.”

*   *   *

Walking back from the park towards my building, I noticed the man who has asked me about the Kardashians the other day, sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. He looked up and I nodded; he waved me over.

“Hey, you ever hear of a time bank?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he continued, excitedly. “I saw something on TV this morning where they were talking about unemployed folks in Greece and how they’ve started these exchanges called time banks. It’s a bartering of services where if you can perform a skill, you can trade your time for the time-skills of another. Everyone’s time is worth the same no matter what service they perform, and services are traded hour for hour, no money exchanged.”

I nodded and he went on. “I’m one hell of a wood-turner. Put me in front of a lathe and I’ll make you some of the most amazing things you’ve ever seen. But I can only do it at most for a few hours at a time, which is why I’m useless to an employer. But if I could trade a few hours a week’s worth of my skill for, say, someone who could help me fix my car up or could repair my boots, I’d be so much better off.”

He pointed toward our building. “That whole place, I’m sure almost everyone can do something. But so many do nothing at all, because they’re trapped in their apartment with nothing but a TV and maybe a chat with the neighbor once in a while. What they know, what they do, it all just goes to waste. Nobody’s time has any real value as it stands.

“But just think of what we all could do if we all decided to start organizing ourselves and our skills around something other than money. You’d have a whole bunch of folks who think they’re useless who would suddenly find themselves quite useful again. We’d all have an easier time of it, a much easier time.”

“A much easier time,” he said again after a moment. “It always comes back to time.”

 *   *   *

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

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.

IMG_1984 copy

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.

*   *   *

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.

 *   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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?

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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.