From left: Violet Catches, Renee and Manny Iron Hawk, Genro Gauntt, Michel Dobbs, me, Rami Efal. Photo by Rami Efal.

I was in Rapid City, South Dakota, this past weekend to meet with Native American elders and plan the summer retreat with them. A lot happened there, not so easy to put into words. One is connection to land.

I got up at 3 am on Friday, by 4 I was out the door and driving to the airport. By 6 we’d begun our 2-hour delay waiting inside the plane before taking off for Denver, and by 1 pm I was in Rapid City, where the day’s highest temperature would be 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit. It would go down to -40 at night, including the wind chill factor.

Did I walk the land in this weather? Hell, no. I walked 25 steps from my Quality Inn motel to the adjoining Days Inn where we had our meetings, then 25 steps in the opposite direction to Millstone Family Restaurant where we had our lunches and dinners.

On Sunday I took off again, landing in New England in the middle of a snow storm. By 2 am this morning I was home.

My body resists this travel. It tells me that bodies are meant to be in one place, not hop in an out of airplanes, not jump time zones or bounce in and out of cultures. Place is meant to be known from the inside.

When it’s known from the outside, what do you see? You look out the window of the small descending plane and what you see is white, arctic wasteland, flat, frozen tundra so glacial it seems another planet.

And a voice whispers inside: Is this what all the fight is about? Is this the place people love so much they’ll stay here in uninsulated, poorly-heated homes, try to keep their children close, struggle for generation after generation to get the Black Hills back, regain autonomy in the reservations, and save and preserve their culture and different way of life?

I’m reminded of when my mother went to visit Switzerland for the only time in her life. “Now that’s a land of milk and honey,” she reported on the phone. “You should see their farms, their cows, their mountains! Why didn’t God give us Jews that land? Why did he have to give us Israel, where so much is desert, we never get enough rain, and we’re surrounded by enemies? Switzerland would have been a real gift.”

But that’s if you see things from the outside. If you see land from the inside, then only the Swiss want Switzerland. Because the connection you make with the land has nothing to do with temperature; it’s simply where you put your feet.

Jews put their feet on the road and made pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem three times a year to make sacrifices. The Lakota go up to Bear Butte for Inipi ceremonies for purification, to pray and make offerings.

Land is also where the routines of personal history lie. Like feeding the birds. This morning I picked up the bag of sunflower seeds and walked from feeder to feeder, contemplating my tracks in the snow while the dogs scampered around me. It’s always the same routine. My trail goes first towards the slope where 2 feeders hang, then right where another hangs above a mound, and then down to the side of the house where 2 feeders hang from lilac trees.

I’ve created that trail over 14 winters.

Land in winter doesn’t just mean snow, it means chickadees and hungry squirrels, it means paw prints and branches littering the snow because of the storm. It doesn’t just mean cold.

And for our friends in Rapid City, who came from Cheyenne River Reservation, it didn’t just mean cold either, even in that freeze. It used to mean buffalo, because the buffalo gave meat to satisfy hunger and skin for warm clothes and a warm teepee. The buffalo is now gone, but land is still the place where you plant your feet, your life, your home, your children. The sky you look up to when you pray, the wind that goes through you, drying out your face while drawing wrinkles of character all around your mouth and brow.

How can you understand any of that, flying in and out of Rapid City on the first weekend of March?

I drove home at 1 am on a Monday morning in a snowstorm. I was alone on the roads for much of the time, sleet and snow flying towards me as I drove on unplowed roads. There was no fear, just awe at how the pine trees took the brunt of the snow and left me clear roads on which to travel. Everything giving itself so fully.