CHARLOTTEVILLE AND DEVILS TOWER

We’re walking in the shadow of Bear Lodge. That’s the Lakota’s name for it. We called it Devils Tower. They petitioned the national government to change the name, without success. It is a marvel, an anomaly, and no matter where you go, you turn a few degrees this way or that, and there it is.

I felt very quiet yesterday as we walked around this place, which is so sacred to Native Americans. At the end of the retreat we created tobacco ties and hung them from the branches of a pine tree, each praying for something, and what came to me immediately was: Heal this land and its people.

Land and people feel the same to me here. I look across the wide prairies and envisage them when they weren’t fenced, when we didn’t harvest pasture land to fatten cattle for slaughter, or the earth for coal, gas, and oil, with trains crisscrossing the valleys with 100 cars each filled with black coal. Land and people merged so seamlessly they would have been surprised to hear that another way of life existed, one that felled trees and buffalo, and left hundreds of open uranium mines open to contaminate the air and water.

In what shadow did I walk and walk yesterday, bearing witness to the land and people? Certainly not in the shadow of what Americans have called Devils Tower. It gleamed too much, its claw-like vertical ridges dazzling like blessed alabaster. Bear Lodge cast no shadow at all.

Even stories of trauma no longer threw a shadow, perhaps because we’d heard so much over the past five days, but more so because they were told in the middle of wide-open prairie lands dotted by cottonwoods. So even as Renee reminded us that the past wasn’t past, that violence, substance abuse, poverty, and illness are a story of the present, they cast no shadow on me yesterday under the huge blue and yellow sky.

If anything, I found myself for the first time since childhood humming a famous song:

Oh give me a home

Where the buffalo roam,

Where the deer and the antelopes play,

Where seldom is heard

A discouraging word,

And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Nothing felt cloudy yesterday, except for another city, at the other end of the country, Charlottesville, which cast a shadow. It told me that there is no past, there’s only now, and that now doesn’t exclude the past. You can be in the now all you want, fully mindful, fully free, and still there’s the cause-and-effect of past decisions and actions. All this in the middle of such aching beauty.

Over and over Renee mourned the loss of her language. Once, she said, she believed that the loss of language wasn’t so important, that when you’re living a truly spiritual life you don’t need words, the silence says it all. But now she feels differently.

Yes, yes, I thought to myself as she spoke, to communicate is everything.

At the same time, I remembered a story Violet Catches told me. She was raised by her grandmother till she was 10, when her grandmother died. From the beginning her grandmother told her things she didn’t tell other children, and Violet now regrets she didn’t listen more, that at times she wished to be a child and stop listening.

She washed our clothes in the river, Violet remembered, and she would sit my brother and me down to wait. She would pick a small rock for each of us and put it on our open palm and tell us to hold it there, then listen. “You have to listen so hard,” she told us, “that you could hear the leaves talk as they fall. You have to listen so hard that you could hear the fish leap in the river, which is what they do. So sit there and hold that rock, and listen.”

I sat and sat many times and listened as hard as I could, and she would return from the river with the clean clothes and ask, “Did you hear them?” And I would shake my head.

But one time something happened and I heard something. When she came back I told her that I heard the leaves talking, only I couldn’t make out what they said. I thought she would be disappointed. Instead she leaned forward so that we were head to head—she didn’t hug, that wasn’t her way—and she held my shoulders with her hands.

Heartfelt gratitude, respect, and love to the grandmother nodding and squinting at the glass in front of her as she drove, struggling to hear (she knows how to listen!) because she can’t afford hearing aids. Deep love and appreciation to Manny Iron Hawk and Renee. With the little they have, trauma weighing heavily on their shoulders, hey spent five very precious days training us to listen to the leaves fall, listen to fish leaping out of the water.