Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Evergreens, a story

A beautifully winter-frosted Colorado Spruce pine in our back yard.

Good evening, readers!  I hope you're staying warm and safe tonight.  There's a nasty winter storm and treacherous roads right outside my window, but I am indoors and am finding comfort in some reading and a warm cup of tea (a new rooibos flavor/treat!).  I realize it has been some time since I've posted on here and it's probably because I've been in hibernation.  Just kidding.  Though on days like today, it's tempting to take a giant dose of Hibernol (remember that SNL sketch?) and sleep through the winter.  In seriousness, things have been pretty busy, actually.  In addition to dissertation research and prospectus writing, I have been designing a new set of note cards with Native American food graphics from photos I've taken - look for a separate post on this soon.  I'm also going to Kanyen'keha (Mohawk) language class and studying to hopefully join an immersion program in the spring.  This has been a time to take good care of myself too, going to all of my doctor's visits and reassessing my wellness and diabetes care protocols.

I'm excited to share I'll be giving a lecture as part of the Holistic Health Lecture Series at the Audubon Library (350 John James Audubon Parkway in Amherst) next month.  My presentation is titled, "Indigenous Food Revolution: Ancestral and Native American Approaches to Diet and Wellness," and will be on Tuesday, March 11th at 7pm.  At this gathering, we will explore the ancestral diet trends like the "Paleo" diet and seriously consider the decolonizing efforts being undertaken by indigenous people to return to traditional eating patterns.  I hope that we can spiritually reconceptualize the way we look at food, healing, self-sustenance, sovereignty, and our connections to the earth, its beings, and our ecology.  I'll post another reminder and a flyer as the date approaches.  Many good things are happening and I'm fortunate and grateful to be part of them.

Sadly, I do not have a recipe to offer you today.  I certainly have some in my mind as I've been tinkering around with a cranberry citrus bread and manoomin wild rice.  I'm also finding inspiration lately from the Paleo blogs and a recently released Native cookbook I've been reading (review to come soon!).  Instead, I thought I'd share a story with you.  The time is right for stories now.  Earlier last month marked the Midwinter ceremonies that cleanse, renew, bring together, and give thanks for the many parts of our universe that provide for us.  Even though we curse having to shovel, brush off our cars, chatter our teeth, and drive on gray, slushy, slippery roads, this time of year is a beautiful and necessary part of life.  Mother Earth and all beings need their rest, including us, and the winter forces us to slow down, take care of ourselves, and appreciate the weather and sunshine that we miss so dearly this time of year.  Winter has always been a time of storytelling.  I remember hearing that stories were supposed to be told between the first frost and the first thunder.  I can only imagine how comforting it must have been back in the day when these stories would provide warmth and entertainment on days when bitter cold, naked trees, and perhaps meager meals can seem to take the spirit out of you.  It definitely feels like something is missing when stories are condensed to the written word or the only communication is between your fingertips clattering on a laptop and a blinking cursor on a blank screen.  Enough of my intellectual ramblings though.  Below is a story I would often share with my students to explain how etiology (the origins, study of origins/causes) is found within oral tradition and stories.

Paraphrased and quoted from Joanne Shenandoah and Douglas George's Skywoman: Legends of the Iroquois (p.67-75). Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1998.

"The Evergreens"

Long ago, if you can picture it, this earth looked like a very lonely, desolate place with endless, stretching plains, seas with no life in them, and great mountains of solid rock.  I imagine it would look like something from a science fiction movie, perhaps a planet where the Star Trek crew would make a stop.  The Creator realized this land needed beauty, life, and creatures on it and so they were made.  S/He took his time and thoughtfully created all of the land-dwelling, water-loving, and air-inhabiting creatures.  Soon there were fish, and birds, great animals, and even the tiniest of bugs we might now consider pests.

The Creator also paid careful attention to the plant life that would sustain these beings, and he began to create beautiful grasses, flowers, and plants.  These plants would take root in the earth and fill the land with magnificent colors and purify the air.  Trees were also made in so many different varieties.  They rooted themselves deeply in the earth, stood proud, and graced the earth with their delicate leaves, needles, and palette of color.  

All of these created beings were given instructions on how to live upon this earth and warned there would be trouble if this code were to be broken.  There was great harmony and peace among this world for a long time.  The Creator finally addressed the living world and advised them to remember the instructions they were given since he had to leave to spread life in other worlds.  He promised to return and reminded the trees that they were to watch the Earth and protect it while he left.  The trees affirmed their responsibility to remain alert, provide sustenance and shelter for animals and insects, and resist falling asleep during the darkened months.

And then the Creator left.  The trees remembered their promise and, season after season, year after year, stood still and awake, quietly watching the goings on around them.  When the wind howled or the rain went sideways, or the snow piled up and up, the trees remained strong and steadfast in their task.

One day, a maple tree curiously watched as the winter season started to roll in.  She observed the animals stowing away food in hidden places.  They also grew thicker fur coats and hunkered down in the deepest crevices of the earth to sleep away the bitter cold.  Maple wondered about this thing called sleep.  She would notice the animals curl up into a furry ball, close their eyes, and breath slowly.  They seemed to enter a magical, far away place deep inside their minds.

Maple often got lonely during the winter when the animals tucked themselves away for the season and she missed the Creator's presence.  She thought it might be possible to be with the Creator again by sleeping and temporarily leaving the outside world.  It wasn't hard for her to do.  She curled in each of her leaves, stopped her sap, and buried her roots deep into the earth.  The other trees noticed Maple's sleep and became equally curious.  They tried to wake her, but she was deep in slumber and quite comfortable.  

Eventually, the Earth turned toward Brother Sun again and his warmth reawakened all of the sleeping creatures.  The frozen lakes thawed.  Grass began to sprout again.  Birds sang with gratitude, and skinny, hungry animals were summonsed from their respite.  Maple also awakened, refreshed and renewed, with stronger branches and fuller leaves.  This greatly impressed the other broad-leafed trees and they decided to try it when fall came again.  However, the pines remembered their vow to the Creator and remained alert, standing tall even though their branches broke or they swayed in the harsh winter winds.

Winter came again.  The other trees joined Maple and curled up into a deep slumber as the snowflakes flew and animals hibernated.  Seasons passed.  Years passed.  All but the thin-needled trees went to sleep as they continued to watch the earth from lonely mountaintops, across hills, and in groves.

At last, the Creator returned to Earth from his visits.  He saw what had happened, that Maple and her friends shirked their responsibilities and neglected to watch over his creation.  Yet he was also very proud of the thin-needled trees.

Then the Creator decided.  Those who went to sleep during winter would lose their beautiful leaves during the winter and would have to grow new leaves in the spring, waiting a long time before they became fully dressed again.  They would not be able to enjoy the crisp, clear air of winter or feel the beauty of the season.  

The trees who stayed awake, the needled ones, would always be cloaked in lively green needles.  They would bring joy to the Earth with their presence and beauty.  They would be called "evergreens," a name of great honor since green is the color of life.  And so it is to this day.  The evergreens remind us to be patient and always live by our promises.  They continue to watch over us and the land.  

I should also note here that the white pine tree, an evergreen, is the symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and that is likely no coincidence.  This "Tree of Peace" has great meaning to us and symbolizes our unity and need for peace, not simply from warfare but a state of balance, respect, and reciprocity for all beings.  I hope this story has brought you some peace, calm, and warmth on this snowy night.  Next time you're taking that frigid walk from the building to your vehicle, look around you.  Try not to feel embattled by the winter, but maybe comforted that the evergreens are still holding up their promise and looking over us.  Onen.

A spruce tree (not to be confused with the white pine) behind our apartment.

Close up of the needles and fresh clumps of snow.

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