For Life's Sake
by Linda Hogan
I didn't know, either, that I would become a writer, and the fact that I come from another America has, from the beginning, been the root of my writing.
As a girl, even though I was shy, not given to argument, I was one day able to say to the Sunday-school teacher, who believed we were in the house of the Lord, that I felt God when I sat under a tree. It was there, with the tree, that I felt the love of the earth, smelling the soft soil, the blades of grass growing even as I sat.
I was a child when I first used words to argue for a tree. It was my first argument, maybe the first one of my otherwise quiet life. Now I know that we also grow into our words.
And, writing this, I sit beneath a tree. Sitting here, I have so far watched a hummingbird mating ritual, the honey bees at the balm tree, the unusually marked bees in flowering chives. A skinny fox sits on the hill above.
I didn't know, when I thought God was a tree, that my ancestors, on the night of their removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears, were witnessed touching the leaves of the trees, the trunks, crying. Their old friends, the trees, is how the observer wrote about their removal to Oklahoma, Indian Territory.
In this mystery of human growing became, within me, a history contained, memory carried from far back, ancestral knowledge.
Looking back, I can say that I was a poet by heart; I didn't need words at first. I was an observer. I only grew into a writing life. My work was, and still is, a way of being in the world. It is an acknowledgment that we live in a sentient world. With my work, I try to see the world whole again. My novels, especially, give Indian people dignity, reality in a world of stereotypes, and spiritual wholeness. I show us present, fully present, in front of, and before, the background of America. I always acknowledge the intelligence of the elders, and honor the world. It is work of hope, and I try to hold within it the Indian traditional understanding of the cosmos, one that contains constellations called Swimming Ducks, Buffalo, different than the Western constellations. I also know the importance of the tiniest root of a plant, that it contributes to our world. My writing is larger than I am. It comes from some other place I can't name. I am grateful for it. In it there are the undercurrents of earth, waves of ocean, discoveries unknown to me:
Once, in the redwood forest, I heard the beat, something like a drum or heart coming from the ground and trees and wind. That underground current stirred a kind of knowing inside me, a kinship and longing…I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watching the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and of immensity above….It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood. Whichever road I follow, I walk in the land of many gods, and they love and eat one another. Tonight, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and Listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.
I became one who would find her way into the world through writing. I reached for the language of a larger-than-merely-human world, and through this reach, my work as a writer has been in constant movement and change, between poetry, essay, and story. Stories have become increasingly important to me, as has my continuing study of ceremonial literature from many different tribes, each containing an enormously complex knowledge, understanding of the world, and values.
In all traditions, in the views of aboriginal peoples all over the world, there is a known, remembered, relationship between humans and the cosmos. The placement of the human is merely a part of the Great Mysterious. Cultures that have survived 20,000 to 60,000 years can't be too wrong, I have decided.
But most importantly, I have had to learn how to wait, listen, and follow, as in the essay above. I have had to learn, as now, sitting under a tree, for the work to reveal itself, to come to me.
In my novel, Power, the main character has to choose between worlds she can inhabit, the world of the elders and their great knowledge, or the world of America. She knows geometry, English, the American world, yet she must decide whether to leave this world forthat of her elders who live in their own community, with their own ways:
At school we hear about imploding stars, stars that fall inward the way I am falling, but there is no place ever to touch down, there is no bottom to inward falling…I whisper to myself as I walk and the moonlight touches me, "I leave this world. I leave war and fear. I leave success and failure, owned things, rooms of light that was once a river, and is now reduced."
This book began as a research project. I had been on an all-Indian working committee for the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. There was a controversial case where a Seminole man killed an endangered Florida panther. I went to Florida to read the court records, planning to write an article for a law quarterly. But what came to me as I was in the Everglades was the voice of that main character, Omishto, one of those voices writers hear, and I followed what she wanted to say.
My writing becomes a search in this way, and finding a language, words for what can't be said in ordinary language; shades of meaning, degrees of love, moments of wisdom that do not come from me, but from thousands of years of learning and being. When I made my first unlearned words on the page, I did so to give a voice to and for the voiceless, whether it is an endangered animal of the book Power, or historical figures such as the woman Lozen, the military strategist of Geronimo, in The Woman Who Watches Over the World. I want them to be known in this world, to be important here, to be remembered.
This morning as I sit beneath a tree, the newly hatched spiders are leaving. The sun shines on their strands of silk. The barn swallows are flying back and forth from mud to their clay nests in a world of their maps. I can hear the deep breathing of the horses behind the trees. On one of them the letters U. S. are frozen into the fur, followed by symbols that will always define her, declare her, tell her story. She, too, is another part of America, a rounded-up creation from the wild. And the Indian horses have a history not unlike our own. The military, trying to round up the tribes and move them all into Oklahoma, tried to cripple their movement by killing all their horses, sometimes by the thousands. It's a part of history that also makes me write:
Tonight after the sounds of day
She has a dark calm face,
When we walk together
Or sometimes I sit on earth
Some days I sing to her
Some nights, hearing her outside,
Sometimes it seems as if we knew each other
But last night it was her infant that died
Sing then, the wind says,
I love the world. I love everything that lives upon it. And so I write, like this morning under the tree. It is a world of mystery and beauty; this is what gives me words, and those words come from the earth, the language of the land, the re-membering the dismembered of the world, as writer Meridel LeSueur called it. I write to be one person who helps to put the world, the lives of humans and non-humans back together, to make them whole again. I do this for the future. I do this for life's sake.