Writer and naturalist Trevor Herriot lent me his copy of Linda Hogan’s Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, a book of essays, and as I get close to the end of this project—or, at least, this phase of it—I thought I would turn to it, finally. Hogan is Chickasaw, and I wonder whether her sense of the living world might connect or relate to Bruno Latour’s sense of the world as made up of agents and actors rather than objects. Dwellings begins with a preface, in which Hogan explains the questions that motivated the writing of this book:
As an Indian woman I question our responsibilities to the caretaking of the future and to the other species who share our journeys. These writings have grown out of those questions, out of wondering what makes us human, out of a lifelong love for the living world and all its inhabitants. They have grown, too, out of my native understanding that there is a terrestrial intelligence that lies beyond our human knowing and grasping. (11)
Hogan writes that her “lifelong work” has been “to seek an understanding of the two views of the world, one as seen by native people and the other as seen by those who are new and young on this continent” (11). “It is clear that we have strayed from the treaties we once had with the land and the animals,” she continues. “It is also clear, and heartening, that in our time there are many—Indian and non-Indian alike—who want to restore and honor these broken agreements” (11). It’s easy for a môniyâw like me to forget that First Nations peoples talk of their treaties with their animal relations and with the land. Their treaties with Settlers are just one part of the treaties they’ve made.
Hogan states that these essays are tempered by her work with animals, her love for earth, her “hunger to know what dwells beneath the surface of things,” and that “it also stretches te reflect the different histories of ways of thinking and being in the world” (11-12). The essays in this collection, she writes, “search out a world of different knowings, enter a doorway into the mythical world, a reality known by my ancestors, one that takes the daily into dimensions both sacred and present” (12). She is interested in exploring “the human place within this world,” but she also recognizes “that humankind is not separate from nature” (12). “Some of this work connects the small world of humans with the larger universe, containing us in the same way that native ceremonies do, showing us both our place and a way of seeing,” she writes (12). If only we recognized our connection with nature, and that our world is small compared to the universe; instead, we see ourselves at the centre of everything, as the only being that matters. Hogan concludes the preface by suggesting that these lessons have been learned from the land, and that the essays included in Dwellings are “both of and about this alive and conscious world. Its pages come from forests, its words spring from the giving earth” (12).
The first essay, “The Feathers,” begins with Hogan’s desire for an eagle feather: one from a living bird, because “[a] bird killed in the name of human power is in truth a loss of power from the world, not an addition to it” (15). Her first eagle feather was a gift from a traditional healer she had consulted when she was ill. He told her a story about how, after his childhood home burned down, the only things to survive the fire were eagle feathers. The feather he gave her was one of those survivors.
Hogan lives in a mountain canyon, she writes, and she often sees golden eagles there. One morning, after years of praying for an eagle feather, she dreamed of being inside a temple. The ceiling was “engraved with gold designs of leaves and branches” (16), and she told the others in the temple to look up at them. “I spoke these words out loud, and the sound of my own voice woke me up,” Hogan writes. “Waking, I obeyed my own words and looked up, seeing out the open window of my room. Just as I did, a large golden eagle flew toward the window, so close that I could see its dark eyes looking in at me for a moment before it lifted, caught a current of air, and flew over the roof of the house” (16). She ran outside. The eagle was gone, but a feather was lying in the road. She acknowledges the improbability of her story, that it takes a long time for falling feathers to reach the ground, and yet, she says, the feather was there. “I know there is a physics to this, a natural law about lightness and air. This event rubs the wrong way against logic,” she admits (16-17). How, then, can this incident be explained? “I can only think there is another force at work, deeper than physics and what we know of wind, something that comes from a world where lightning and thunder, sun and rain clouds live,” she writes. “Nor can I saw why it is so many of us have forgotten the mystery of nature and spirit, while for tens of thousands of years such things have happened and been spoken by our elders and our ancestors” (17).
Of course, there are physical explanations for lightning and thunder, for sun and rain, and coincidences exist. I have such trouble following people into spirituality. It’s not a place I can go.
Next, Hogan tells the story of the birth of her granddaughter, and the way she kept and dried her granddaughter’s umbilical cord in a tall, black pot. A few months later, her parents visited, and during that visit, she discovered that the umbilical cord was missing from its pot. She searched the house for the cord, which she calls “the most valuable thing in our home” (17). She looked in the cedar box where she keeps her first eagle feather. It wasn’t there. While she was searching, a Blackfeet friend called from Montana to invite Hogan to a ceremony. She explained what was happening. Her friend told her about a ceremony that might work, and she went outside to make the offering. When she returned, she checked the cedar box again. This time, the feather was gone. It was lying under a chair, pointing at the umbilical cord, “so mysteriously on the floor I had already searched” (19). “It was the feather that took me to the baby’s umbilical cord,” she writes (19).
“Perhaps there are events and things that work as a doorway into the mythical world, the world of first people, all the way back to the creation of the universe and the small quickenings of earth, the first stirrings of human beings at the beginning of time,” Hogan writes. “Our elders believe this to be so, that it is possible to wind a way backward to the start of things, and in so doing find a form of sacred reason, different from ordinary reason, that is linked to forces of nature” (19). That “kind of mind,” like the feather, contains “the power of sky and thunder and sun, and many have had alliances and partnerships with it, a way of thought older than measured time, less primitive than the rational present” (19). Others have tried to use science to understand the world, but they have “not yet understood animals, finite earth, or even their own minds and behavior” (19). (Is that entirely true?) “The more they seek to learn the world, the closer they come to the spiritual, the magical origins of creation,” Hogan continues (19).
“There is a still place, a gap between worlds, spoken by the tribal knowings of thousands of years,” Hogan writes. “In it are silent flyings that stand aside from human struggles and the designs of our own makings. At times, when we are silent enough, still enough, we take a step into such mystery, the place of spirit, and mystery, we must remember, by its very nature does not wish to be known” (20). The power of a feather, of something living within that feather, “is perhaps in its dream of sky, currents of air, and the silence of creation” (20). That feature “carries our needs and desires, the stories of our brokenness. It rises and falls down elemental space, one part of the elaborate world of life where fish swim against gravity, where eels turn silver as moon to breed” (20). Hogan’s prose turns poetic here, and she seems to be suggesting that there are relationships between human “needs and desires” and “the elaborate world of life” which includes weather, birds in flight, and fish beneath the water.
The essay ends with questions: “How did the feather arrive at the edge of the dirt road where I live? How did it fall across and through currents of air? How did the feathers survive fire?” (20). Hogan cannot answer these questions: “I know only that there are simple powers, strange and real,” she concludes (20).
The next essay, “The Bats,” begins with a memory of seeing mating bats in a zoo. A few years later, she found a bat in a park in Minneapolis on a cold spring day. She stopped to look at it: “At first I thought it was dead, but as I reached toward it, it turned its dark, furrowed face to me and bared its sharp teeth. A fierce little mammal, it looked surprisingly like an angry human being. I jumped back” (22). Then she found another bat lying on the ground. “[T]he recent warm spell had been broken open by the cold and the bats, shocked back into hibernation, had stopped dead in flight, rendered inactive by the quick drop in temperature,” she writes (23). She found a box and took both bats home. When she arrived and opened the box, the bats were mating. She left them in a warm corner outside, “nestled safe in dry leaves and straw,” and checked on them several times a day (23). The bats mated at least three more times. On the fourth day, the male, “thin and exhausted,” died, “and the female flew away with the new life inside her body” (24). She told the neighbourhood boys about the bats, and they stayed out of her yard; in that way, her house escaped being vandalized.
Hogan’s family lived in Germany when she was a child, and one day, while exploring a forest with a friend, they found a cave filled with bats. Later they were told that the cave had been used to store ammunition during the war, and that the American military had tried to use bats to carry bombs. The experiment failed, because the bats’ flights could not be predicted or controlled, and they “gave up on their strategy of using life to destroy life” (25). Recently, she visited a cave near San Antonio with another friend. Since people began visiting the cave, the bats had left, but it was still full of guano.
“Bats hear their way through the world,” Hogan writes. “They hear the sounds that exist at the edges of our lives. Leaping through blue twilight they cry out a thin language, then listen for its echo to return. It is a dusky world of songs a pitch above our own. For them, the world throws back a language, the empty space rising between hills speaks an open secret then lets the bats pass through, here or there, in the dark air” (25-26). Everything answers the bats; everything talks back to them. Their world is “alive in its whispering songs, the currents of air loud as waves of an ocean, a place rich with the music of trees and stones” (26). “It is no wonder that bats have been a key element in the medicine bundles of some southern tribes,” she continues. “Bats are people from the land of souls, land where moon dwells. They are listeners to our woes, hearers of changes in earth, predictors of earthquake and storm. They live with the goddess of night in the lusty mouth of earth” (26). The bones found in those medicine bundles come from bats that had been found dead, rather than bats that had been killed or trapped.
“I believe it is the world-place bats occupy that allows them to be of help to people, not just because they live inside the passageways between earth and sunlight, but because they live in double worlds of many kinds,” Hogan contends. “They are two animals merged into one, a milk-producing rodent that bears live young, and a flying bird. They are creatures of the dusk, which is the time between times, people of the threshold, dwelling at the open mouth of inner earth like guardians at the womb of creation” (27). Bats are holy, and “they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of life all around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing, and guidance through our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world” (27).
Hogan sees bats at night, out of the corner of her eye. They are secret creatures. “What an enormous world,” she writes. “No wonder it holds our fears and desires. It is all so much larger than we are” (28). She sees them, but she cannot hear “the high-pitched language of their living”; she doesn’t know “if they have sorry or if they tell stories longer than a rainstorm’s journey” (28). How can humans get to the centre of the world, she wonders, “to the place where the universe carries down the song of night to our human lives” (28). “How do we learn to trust ourselves enough to hear the chanting of earth?” she asks. “To know what’s alive or absent around us, and penetrate the void behind our eyes, the old, slow pulse of things, until a wild flying wakes up in us, a new mercy climbs out and takes wing in the sky?” (28).
The third essay, “The Caves,” begins at a cave on a rainy evening. There is a creek flowing there; its water “smells of iron and tastes of earth’s blood” (29). Hogan notes that before caves and springs were privately owned, “they were places of healing for Indian people, places where conflict between tribes and people was left behind, neutral ground, a sanctuary outside the reign of human differences, law, and trouble” (29-30). Hogan enters the cave. She describes it as “a sacred place, one of land’s quiet temples where hot water journeys upward after years of travel through deep earth” (30). “Barefoot, naked, I go down the stone pathway and lowermyself into the hot water,” she writes. “Surrounded by stone, this body of mine is seen in the dim light for what it is, fragile and brief” (30). She writes that she loves “what will consume us all, the place where the tunneling worms and roots of plants dwell, where the slow deep centuries of earth are undoing and remaking themselves” (30).
Hogan recalls a family trip when they stopped near the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. Hogan went for a walk. She saw a cave in the rocks above her. An African lion was in the cave’s mouth. She told her father, and he went up to investigate. He looked inside and shook his head. No lion. “But he did not go in,” she states. “He didn’t enter the dark” (31). She smelled the lion on her father, and concludes that even if he didn’t see the lion, the lion saw him. “I must have known, even then, that caves are not the places for men,” she continues. “They are a feminine world, a womb of earth, a germinal place of brooding. In many creation stories, caves are the places that bring forth life” (31). Since then, she has dreamed about caves; in one dream, the cave’s mouth was guarded by a skull with light shining from its eyes, and inside the cave “was warm, steaming water and chambers where women were working, sewing together bodies, stitching legs and arms, making life” (32). In that dream, she was looking for her mothers: “the earth, my human mother, my own life as a women” (32). Hogan returns to the hot spring in the cave. She sees, or imagines, animals in the cave, as in a creation story: rabbits, deer, owls, a puma, eagles. “There are the fetal beginnings of life to come, of survival,” she writes. “I want this to be true” (33). She’s not the only one: another woman, real or imagined, “felt the earth’s heartbeat” and left offerings of sage and tobacco.
Next, Hogan considers the bombing of Hiroshima. The city was made of clay bricks; the clay came from nearby mountains. She tells a story of a woman who went to Hiroshima after the bombing looking for her daughter and son-in-law. When she saw the pain of the survivors, she went into the mountains and lived in a cave for a year. “She returned bony and wise,” Hogan writes. “From her eyes shone a light. She was the first woman to become a Shinto priest. What she knew she had learned from the cave, heard spoken by it, she had seen in the darkness” (33-34). She writes of a cave in Spain where burned offerings and paintings were found. The paintings depicted a man, and facing him, a lion. She remembers the day she saw a lion outside a cave. “There was something deeper than human that day, I think now, something of the world of myth,” she continues, and she believes that her father would now say that a lion lived in that cave (34).
Hogan returns to the hot spring one last time. Other women enter; some are Indigenous, others are Japanese tourists. One of the women begins to sing, “a long clear not that fills the whole tunnel” (34). From the men’s cave she hears “the howling of wolves” (35). “I think that these are the songs of lives struggling against extinction, even translated through human voices, they are here inside the earth, inside the human body, the captive, contained animals,” she writes (35). One of the Indigenous women talks about rediscovering “the medicine ways” (35). “I love this inner earth, its murmuring heartbeat, the language of what will consume us,” Hogan concludes. “Above is the beautiful earth that we have come from. Below is heat, stone, fire. I am within the healing of nature, held in earth’s hand” (35).
The fourth essay is called “All My Relations.” It begins in a kitchen, an Indigenous household where food is being prepared. “I am asked if I still read books and I admit that I do,” Hogan recalls. “Reading is not ‘traditional’ and education has long been suspect in communities that were broken, in part, by that system, but we laught at my confession because a television set plays in the next room” (36-37). There are beds in the living room for guests. She talks to the man who will “put together the ceremony” Hogan has “come to request” (37). She offers him tobacco and explains about the help she is seeking. Telling her story, she says, “is the first part of the ceremony, my part in it” (37). She is sent home to prepare: to make 50 tobacco ties, prayer ties, and to get wood and food. On the day of the ceremony, the man and his wife pick her up in town. He doesn’t speak: “He is moving between worlds, beginning already to step over the boundaries fo what we think, in daily and ordinary terms, is real and present. He is already feeling, hearing, knowing what else is there, that which is around us daily but too often unacknowledged, a larger life than our own” (38). They see an eagle and stop to watch it. They arrive at the place where the ceremony, a sweat lodge, will take place. The fire is already burning. Her tobacco ties are placed inside the lodge, on its cottonwood framework. The hot stones are brought into the lodge. Water is poured on them and steam rises. “In a sweat lodge ceremony, the entire world is brought inside the enclosure,” Hogan writes. “The soft odor of smoking cedar accompanies this arrival. It is all called in. The animals come from the warm and sunny distances. Water from dark lakes is there. Wind. Young, lithe willow branches bent overhead remember their lives rooted in ground, the sun their leaves took in” (39). The wind and sky arrive. “It is a place grown intense and holy,” Hogan continues. “It is a place of immense community and of humbled solitude; we sit together in our aloneness and speak, one at a time, our deepest language of need, hope, loss, and survival. We remember that all things are connected” (40).
Remembering that connection is the ceremony’s purpose: “It is part of healing and restoration. It is the mending of a broken connection between us and the rest. The participants in a ceremony say the words ‘All my relations’ before and after we pray; those words create a relationship with other people, with animals, with the land” (40). Ceremonies restructure the human mind; in ceremony, “we bring together the fragments of our lives in a sacred act of renewal, and we reestablish our connections with others. The ceremony is a point of return. It takes us toward the place of balance, our place in the community of all things. It is an event that sets us back upright” (40). But the real ceremony begins when “the formal one ends, when we take up a new way, our minds and hearts filled with the vision of earth that holds us within it, in compassionate relationship to and with the world” (40-41).
During the ceremony, “the animals and ancestors move into the human body, into skin and blood. The land merges with us. The stones come to dwell inside the person” (41). “We who easily grow apart from the world are returned to the great store of life all around us, and there is the deepest sense of being at home here in this intimate kinship,” Hogan writes. “There is no real aloneness. There is solitude and the nurturing silence that is relationship with ourselves, but even then we are part of something larger” (41). After the ceremony, everyone goes home. The tobacco ties are placed in nearby trees. “Everything returns to ordinary use,” she concludes. “It’s evening. The crickets are singing. All my relations” (41).
“What Holds the Water, What Holds the Light” is Hogan’s fifth essay. It begins with the author climbing a damp hill in the hot sun. She is walking with a friend. On the way, they stopped to drink rain water collected in a bowl of stone. Hogan thinks about “how earth and sky are generous with their gifts, and how good it is to receive them” (43). She recalls how friends had once filled a Mexican clay jar with water for her. She thinks about the time when Mexico City was called Iztapalapa, about the invasion of that place by Cortez’s army, the destruction that followed. She thinks about De Soto’s murderous rage and his “relentless, ongoing war against land” (44). “Humans colonizing and conquering others have a propensity for this, for burning behind them what they cannot possess or control, as if their conflicts are not with themselves and their own way of being, but with the land itself,” she writes (44). She thinks about how looters stole artifacts from the Spiro burial mounds in Oklahoma during the 1930s; two men dynamited the mounds when they were forbidden to continue stealing. “It seems, looking back, that these invasions amounted to a hatred of life itself, of fertility and generation,” Hogan continues:
The conquerors and looters refused to participate in a reciprocal and balanced exchange with life. They were unable to receive the best gifts of land, not gold or pearls or ownership, but a welcome acceptance of what is offered. They did not understand that the earth is generous and that encounters with the land might have been sustaining, or that their meetings with other humans could have led to an enriched confluence of ways. (44)
But she sees a similar way of thinking and behaving when men from the Department of Fish and Wildlife stock the Colorado River with rainbow trout: rather than using nets, “they poured the fish into the bed of their truck, kicked them out and down the hill, and then into the water. The fish that survived were motionless, shocked, gill slits barely moving, skin hanging off the wounds” (45). Treating the lives of those fish “with dignity and respect” would have taken only a few minutes more (45).
“These actions, all of them, must be what Bushman people mean when they say a person is far-hearted,” Hogan suggests. “This far-hearted kind of thinking is one we are especially prone to now, with our lives moving so quickly ahead, and it is one that sees life, other lives, as containers for our own uses and not as containers in a greater, holier sense” (45). “Even wilderness,” she continues,
is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. It is something beyond us, something that does nto need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. (45).
Our language of trade, “of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing,” is “a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power” (45-46). “The ears of this language,” Hogan writes,
do not often hear the songs of the white egrets, the rain falling into stone bowls. So we make our own songs to contain these things, make ceremonies and poems, searching for a new way to speak, to say we want a new way to live in the world, to say that wilderness and water, blue herons and orange newts are invaluable not just to us, but in themselves, in the workings of the natural world that rules us whether we acknowledge it or not. (46)
Hogan imagines that the Mexican clay jar “might have been made of the same earth that housed the birds of Iztapalapa,” that the trout might have lived in water it contained (46). It was not just “a bridge between the elements of earth, air, water, and fire,” but it was also “a bridge between people, a reservoir of love and friendship, the kind of care we need to offer back every day to the world as we begin to learn the land and its creatures, to know the world is the container for our lives, sometimes wild and untouched, sometimes moved by a caretakers hands” (46). Until we learn to be guests in the world, “the land will not support us, will not be hospitable, will turn on us” (46). That water jar reminds Hogan that “water and earth love each other,” “dissolving in each other, in the give and take that is where grace comes from” (46).
The sixth essay, “A Different Yield,” begins with listening. It starts with a woman’s description of a friend “as being such a keen listener that even the trees leaned toward her, as if they were peaking their innermost secrets into her listening ears” (47). Hogan remembers listening to the sounds of corn plants in the wind as a child. Pigs, too, could hear the corn: at the end of the season, when they were let into the field to eat any corn left behind, they would “make straight for any plant that still held an ear of corn, bypassing the others. They would listen, it seemed, to the denser song of corn where it still lived inside its dress of husk” (48). This memory leads to Barbara McClintock, a biologist who won the Nobel Prize for her work on corn genetics. “Her method was to listen to what corn had to say,” Hogan writes, “to translate what the plants spoke into a human tongue” (48). Hogan cites Evelyn Fox Keller’s book A Feeling for the Organism, which describes McClintock’s intimate knowledge of corn. “Her approach to her science was alive, intuitive, and humane,” Hogan states. “It was a whole approach, one that bridged the worlds of woman and plant, and crossed over the boundary lines between species” (48). McClintock’s “respect for life allowed for a vision expanded enough, and sharp enough, to see more deeply into the mysteries of matter than did other geneticists who were at work on the same problems. . . . She saw an alive world, a fire of life inside plants, even plants other than the corn” (48). In Adam’s Task, Vickie Hearne writes about the same kind of approach, only in relation to animals. In fact, Hogan writes, in recent years scientific research “is in search of a new vision, and of renewed intuitive processes of discovery that go beyond our previous assumptions about knowledge” (49).
Hogan recalls meeting a Jamaican artist, Everald Brown, who is “what Jamaicans call an ‘intuitive artist,’ though he himself says only that the doves have taught him his craft” (50). “Many creative people have called their inspiration ‘the muse,’” she notes. “Often they say their ideas come from a spirit world, from a life other than their own human life. Even the Bible is a work so described by its authors; it is the voice of God” (50). She cite’s Paul Klee’s suggestion “that we must return to the origins of things” (50). “This organic center, the center of creation, comes down to us through long traditions of learning the world’s own songs,” she writes. “In American Indian traditions, healers are often called interpreters because they are the ones who are able to hear the world and pass its wisdom along. They are the ones who return to the heart of creation” (50). But listening can also be found in Western traditions: Orpheus could communicate with animals, plants, water, and minerals; Psyche was given the solution to an impossible task by the ants and by the river reeds. Many traditions speak of stones that give guidance.
“In recent times, the term ‘myth’ has come to signify falsehood, but when we examine myths, we find that they are a high form of truth,” Hogan continues. “They are the deepest, innermost cultural stories of our human journeys toward spiritual and psychological growth” (51). Myth allows for a return to creation; it lets us “hear the world new again” (51). In mythic time, there was no gap between a word and the thing it represented, according to Octavio Paz. Now that connection has been broken, not only in language but in “our philosophies of life” (52). “There is a separation that has taken place between us and nature,” she writes. “Something has broken deep in the core of ourselves” (52). But, as we lose the planet’s wild spaces, that wilderness is entering our minds, resulting in “a spiritual fragmentation that has accompanied our ecological destruction” (52). But in a time of such destruction, our lives depend on listening to the earth; the world’s voices “infuse our every act,” and “give us back ourselves, point a direction for salvation” (52-53). Sometimes, she writes, those voices “even shake us down to the bedrock of our own human lives” (53). When chimpanzees were taught American Sign Language in the early 1970s, for instance, becoming fluent, our relationships as human beings to other creatures were revealed. “[I]f we are forced to accept that animals have intelligence, language, and sensitivity to pain, including psychological trauma, this acceptance has tremendous consequences for our own species and for our future actions,” she states (53). The unsettling results of those language experiments might suggest a potential liberation, “for not only the animals of the earth, but for our own selves, a freedom that could very well free us of stifling perceptions that have bound us tight and denied us the parts of ourselves that were not objective or otherwise scientifically respectable” (54). She notes that scientists who showed compassion for animals undergoing painful experiments are considered to lack objectivity: “We have arrived despairingly at a time when compassion and care are qualities that do no lend themselves to the world of intellectual thought” (55). “Not only have our actions revealed us to ourselves, and sometimes had dire results, but among many peoples educated in many European philosophical traditions, there has been an intense reaction to the bad news that cruelty is cruelty,” Hogan continues (55-56). It is simple to feed people, to work for peace, she writes, yet we are unable to do these things (56-57): “And even when animals learn to speak a language, and to communicate their misery, we still deny them the right to an existence free from suffering and pain” (57).
“I want to make two points here,” Hogan states. “One is about language and power. While we can’t say what language is much beyond saying that it is a set of signs and symbols and communicates meaning, we know it is the most highly regarded human facility” (57). But there are non-linguistic forms of communication: “We read one another via gesture, stance, facial expression, scent. And sometimes this communication is more honest, more comprehensible, than the words we utter” (57). These “inner forms of communication” might be “the strongest core of ourselves. We have feelings that can’t be spoken” (57). That speechlessness leads to poetry, painting, music, and to the “inner language that Barbara McClintock tapped for her research” (57).
“Another point that needs to be made is that when issues become obscured by distorted values or abstract concepts, we lose a clarity that allows us to act even in our own best behalf, for survival not just of ourselves but of the homeland which is our life and our sustenance,” Hogan continues (58). We are searching for a language that heals our relationship with the natural order, “one that takes the side of the amazing and fragile life on our life-giving earth. A language that knows the corn, and the one that corn knows, a language that takes hold of the mystery of what’s around us and offers it back to us, full of awe and wonder” (59). This language “is a language of creation, of divine fire, a language that goes beyond the strict borders of scientific inquiry and right into the heart of the mystery itself” (59). “We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind,” she writes. “Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation” (60). We want a language that “returns us to our own sacredness, to a self-love and respect that will carry out to others” (60). She notes that Indigenous peoples sing to their growing corn, which they call their grandmother. She wears a bracelet made of 49 kernels of corn, and imagines that when she dies, that corn will germinate: “My life inside the green blades of corn, the stalks and tassels and flying pollen? That red corn, that corn will be this woman” (61). Perhaps a woman scientist will listen. “Cornmeal and pollen are offered to the sun at dawn,” Hogan continues. “The ears of the corn are listening and waiting. They want peace” (61-62). At night, “you hear the plants talking among themselves. The wind passes through. It’s all there, the languages, the voices of wind, dove, corn, stones. The language of life won’t be silenced” (62). “Do you remember the friend that the leaves talked to?” Hogan asks at the end of the essay. “We need to be that friend. Listen. The ears of the corn are singing. They are telling their stories and singing their songs. We knew that would be true” (62).
Hogan’s seventh essay, “Deify the Wolf,” begins in northeastern Minnesota in February. It’s wolf country, and Hogan is with a group of people searching for timber wolves, “those howling ones the Anishnabe people say human beings descended from long ago, back in the days when animals and people spoke the same tongue” (64). One member of the party wants to see the threatened animals before they are extinct; another is a trapper; a third, a woman, thinks seeing wolves “would be ‘like in the movies’” (64). “I can’t say why I am here, but I have followed a map in the blood, an instinct I don’t know,” Hogan writes (64). But everyone in the group is keen on seeing, or at least hearing, wolves.
“The land cries out the thefts that have taken place,” Hogan states: the forests cut down and shipped to Europe, the iron ore mined and smelted to become, among other things, bear traps (65-66). “A holdover from the iron mining days is ‘the dump pack,’ a group of wolves that grew accustomed to the presence of miners and were tame enough to accept balogna sandwiches from the men’s hands,” she continues. “Recently the lives of wolves and men have begun to cross in new ways. A group of wildlife biologists is here to conduct a study of wolf populations. The townspeople, uncertain about what the biologists are up to, worry that they are here to save the wolves” (66). They complain that environmentalists want to “‘Deify the wolf,’ to make it holier, they say, than the sacred cow of India, a perception both extreme and irrational” (66). It’s a long-term conflict, based on the belief that wolves and human cannot co-exist:
The local sentiment ‘there is no wolf like a dead wolf’ does not seem likely to change, no matter what the researchers find, and there is very little assurance that this last substantial population of timber wolves will survive. The leading cause of death for wolves is contact with the human world. Our presence means tragedy to them. They are shot by hunters, trapped, poisoned, and hit by logging trucks as they travel the human roles. (67)
Not long ago, wolves could be shot from aircraft, and trappers baited animal carcasses with strychnine, killing not only wolves but birds and other animals. Once a group of Nakota people in South Dakota, starving when food promised by treaty did not arrive, were poisoned after eating poisoned meat that had been set out for wolves.
The biologists set traps for the wolves, to immobilize them so they can be studied. They try to make the traps safe, but there are sometimes casualties. Some wolves chew off their legs rather than remain trapped. “There is a mystique about these wolves that lose a leg,” Hogan suggests. “Because they fight for live, they are worthy of human respect. They are called ‘Ghost Leg’ and ‘Phantom’ and other names that give these wolves significance because they want to live and we can identify with that; these wounded wolves are like us, freedom and life mean something to them, something important, as it does to us” (68-69). The biologists take blood samples, and a radio telemetry collar is attached to the animal, which allows the biologists to track it. The wolves have learned to chew the collars off each other; one pack even taught another how this was done. “A few of us wonder if the interference of this study isn’t as bad for the wolves as the ongoing presence of hunters and trappers has been,” Hogan continues. “The biologists share that concern” (69). They know their activity is stressful for the wolves, but they hope that the outcome of their study will be the wolves’ long-term survival. Some of their findings have helped to dispel myths about wolves: the idea that wolves are responsible for declining deer populations, or that they kill domestic animals.
One of the biologists brings wolf carcasses from his truck for the group to look at. One had been hit by a truck after being caught in a trap—a fox trap, he lies. Hogan forgives the honesty: “His tact, his opinion on either side, is liable to have a serious effect on the wolves” (71). That’s because environmental research tends to generate a backlash from the local community:
This situation is especially fragile, complicated by the psychological fact that wolves carry much of the human shadow. They contain for us many of our own traits, ones we repress within ourselves. More than any other animal, they mirror back to us the predators we pretend not to be. In that way, we have assigned to them a special association with evil. (71)
Close up, the wolves are beautiful. Hogan recalls seeing a photo in a newspaper in Colorado—a woman walking a captive black wolf on a leash. It looked afraid. Passersby wanted to touch it. “What need we humans have, a species lonely and lacking in love,” she writes. “These are gestures reserved for animals because the distance between one human and another is often too great to bridge” (72). The biologists pose with the dead wolves for photographs, and Hogan sees “the wolf invaded even in death” (73). It reminds her of the way American soldiers treated the bodies of the Indigenous people they killed.
“I’ve worked with death and I respect it, so it is hard to understand these human beings, let alone come close to knowing the inner terrain of the wolf,” Hogan states. “I believe people fear their own deaths, so they must belittle it. There are lessons to be learned in our behaviour” (73). She realizes she won’t learn about the wolves: “They are too complex for that” (73). She returns to the way people want to touch wild animals. “Something wild must hold such sway over the imagination that we can’t tear ourselves away from any part of wilderness without in some way touching it,” she writes (73).
The next day, the group flies in a plane, hoping to spot wolves from the air. They see three: “They are curled up like dogs, sleeping beside the enormous moose they have killed” (74). The wolves ignore the plane: “They have forgotten, or they have given up” (74). For Hogan, “[f]lying above them this way is like being part of a destruction” (74). The airplane is part of what separates humans from animals and from each other.
That evening, Hogan is still thinking about that separation: “This far into the animal we find the human, and this far into the human we find the animal. Thinking long and hard about wolves, I feel as if they have possessed me—taken me in. I feel lost, transported” (74). The group is outside in the cold darkness, listening to the sounds around them, walking the road near the dump. “I’m thinking of how the elaborate ritual of one wolf greeting another is called a ceremony,” she writes. “It’s ceremony we want a share of. We are walking here to speak with the wolves. That’s what we want. We want to reach out to them, to tell them we are here. We want them to answer, acknowledge us, maybe even to like us. We think they will see our souls” (75). She looks up and sees the northern lights: “Magic is above us. Underneath us, beneath these lakes and islands, is some of the oldest rock in the world, more than three billion years old” (75). The group hears one wolf howl. A man answers “[i]n a language he only pretends to know” (76). “We wait. We are waiting for the wolves to answer. We want a healing, I think, a cure for anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories,” Hogan writes. “If we could only hear them, the stars themselves are howling, but there is just the man’s voice, crying out, lonely. Not even those of us standing behind him answer. It is a silence we rarely feel, a vast and inner silence that goes deep, descends to the empty spaces between our cells” (76).
“We have followed the wolves and are trying to speak across the boundaries of ourselves,” Hogan concludes. “We are here, and if no wolf ever answers, or even if no wolves remained, we’d believe they are out there. And they are” (76).
At the start of the eighth essay, “Creations,” Hogan is travelling: “It is the day after spring equinox, and as we near the ocean, whiteness is the dominant feature. Salt beds stretch out at water’s edge. Beaches, made of sea-worn limestone and broken-down coral, are nearly blinding in the early spring light” (77-78). They are in the Yucatán, “a hungry place with dwindling resources” (78). With the end of the henequen industry, “a plant used to make hemp rope,” rope replaced with nylon and polypropylene, “the people have been relocated without consideration for what their presence would mean in this region, or how they would make a living out of the land” (78).
Hogan shifts to the Mayan creation account. “In nearly all creation accounts,” she writes, “life was called into being through language, thought, dreaming, or singing, acts of interior consciousness” (80-81). For the Maya, time is alive and the world around them is sacred. Humans were first created from clay, which dissolved in the rain. Then, in the second creation, they were made from carved wood, but those people became hollow and, forgetting compassion, “transformed the world to fit their own needs,” leading the world to turn against them (81). Finally, the people were made from corn, “the substance of the gods,” and they saw what the gods saw; in order to make them more human, less god-like, “some of this vision was taken away so there might be mystery, and the mystery of creation and of death inspired deep respect and awe for all of creation” (82). Hogan suggests that the story of the hollow people “speaks against human estrangement from land” (82). “Emptiness and estrangement are deep wounds, strongly felt in the present time,” she writes:
We could have been split from what we could nurture, what could fill us. And we have been wounded by a dominating culture that has feared and hated the natural world, has not listened to the voice of the land, has not believed in the inner worlds of human dreaming and intuition, all things that have guided indigenous people since time stood up in the east and walked this world into existence, split from the connection between self and land. (82)
“Like the wooden people, many of us in this time have lost the inner substance of our lives and have forgotten to give praise and remember the sacredness of all life,” Hogan continues. “But in spit of this forgetting there is still a part of us that is deep and intimate with the world. We remember it by feel. We experience is as a murmur in the night, a longing and restlessness we can’t name, a yearning that tugs at us” (83). “For,” she writes, “it is only recently, in earth time, that the severing of the connections between people and land have taken place. Something in our human blood is still searching for it, still listening, still remembering” (83).
Hogan is in the Yucatan because of “this deep, unspoken remembering” (83). She is “searching out my own beginnings, the thread of connection between old Maya cultures and my own Chickasaw heritage” (83). Some oral traditions of the Chickasaw say that they originated in Mexico and paddled dugout canoes to Florida. “Here, there is a feel for the mystery in our being in all ways, in earth and water,” she writes. “It is a feel for the same mystery that sends scientists to search for the beginning of the universe. We seek our origins as much as we seek our destinies” (84). And, she continues, “we desire to see the world intact, to step outside our emptiness and remember the strong currents that pass between humans and the rest of nature, currents that are the felt voice of the land, heard in the cells of the body” (84). It’s “the same magnetic call” that brings sea turtles back to Yucatán’s beaches every year (84).
“In the traditional belief systems of native people, the terrestrial call is the voice of God, or of gods, the creative power that lives on earth, inside earth, in turtle, stone, and tree,” Hogan writes. “Knowledge comes from, and is shaped by, observations and knowledge of the natural world and natural cycles” (85). Beliefs like this are sometimes inventions of the mind; other times, Hogan contends, “they are inventions of the land” (85). “The Western belief that God lives apart from earth is one that has taken us toward collective destruction,” she continues. “It is a belief narrow enough to forget the value of matter, the very thing that soul inhabits. It has created a people who neglect to care for the land for the future generations” (85-86).
Not far from where Hogan is, Fray Diego de Landa tortured and killed Maya people and burned their libraries of knowledge: history, sacred stories, medical knowledge, mathematics, astronomy. Perhaps those books held a clue to our own survival. “This burned and broken history is part of the story of the land,” she notes. “It is the narrative of the past by which we still live. But the memory of an older way remains. It is stored in the hearts and blood of the people and in the land” (86-87).
Hogan now turns to the coast itself, the estuary and the wetlands and mangrove swamps, which they explore by boat. “This red estuary is alive and breathing, moving with embryonic clay and silt,” she says (87). She describes the mangroves and their importance to the ecosystem. A white egret steps along the edge of the water; on the other side of the water’s edge a solitary blue heron stands. Herons sometimes die of stress, like the Hmong men, “forced to leave their country and rootless in America” who “die of no apparent cause when they are sleeping” (89). “I understand the loss that leads to despair and to death,” Hogan writes. “It has happened to us and is happening to land, the breaking of the heart of creation” (89). Still, land is being returned to Indigenous peoples, and animal species are coming back: buffalo, flamingos. Then the group sees the flamingos, “red as volcanic fire breaking open from black rock” (90). The flock stretches for a mile along the shore. “We are drawn to these birds the way air is pulled into fire,” she says. “They are proof of how far blood will travel to seek its beginning” (90).
The group sees a termite nest in a mangrove. The nest “is a contained intelligence, made up of lives that work together with the mind of a single organism” (91). The termites “break down wood, forming rich soil in a place that would otherwise be choked” (92). They step onto the shore to explore the mangrove swamp on foot, looking for a place where an underground river rises to the surface:
here, where the underground river ends, other beginnings are fed, other species and creations. If it were time, instead of space, scholars would call it zero date, that place where, as for the Maya, the end of one world is the beginning of another. As they interpret the world, time is alive and travels in a circle. There were other creations and worlds before the one we now inhabit; the cosmos re-forms itself.
For those who know only this one universe, to think of its origins is an overwhelming task. It means to think before time, before space, all the way back to the void that existed before creation. And for people of science, as for those of religion, the universe in its cosmic birth originated from small and minute beginnings. There was nothing and then life came into existence. (93)
“If endings are foreshadowed by their beginnings,” Hogan continues, “it is important that we circle around and come back to look at our human myths and stories” (93). The Maya believed time was cyclical; “the Western tradition of beliefs within a straight line of history leads to an apocalyptic end. And stories of the end, like those of the beginning, tell something about the people who created them” (93). We can imagine endings, extinctions, but not continuations. “From this position, fear, bereavement, and denial keep us in the state of estrangement from our natural connection with land” (94). Not surprisingly, then, Hogan states, “[w]e need new stories, new terms and conditions that are relevant to the love of the land, a new narrative that would imagine another way, to learn the infinite mystery and movement at work in the world” (94). “Indian people must not be the only ones who remember the agreement with the land, the sacred pact to honor and care for the life that, in turn, provides for us,” she continues. “We need to reach a hand back through time and a hand forward, stand at the zero point of creation to be certain that we do not create the absence of life, of any species, no matter how inconsequential they might appear to be” (94-95).
For Hogan, the world is a mystery, and that’s important: “The immeasurable quality of this world has depth and breadth we can’t measure. Yet we know it’s there, and we believe in it, the whole of it has been revealed only a small piece at a time. Cosmologists now surmise there are other universes. Creation is still taking place. As the story becomes larger, we become smaller. Perhaps that is why we shape belief around mystery” (95). “We come from the land, sky, from love and the body. From matter and creation,” Hogan continues. “We are, life is, an equation we cannot form or shape, a mystery we can’t trace in spite of our attempts to follow it back to its origin” (95-96):
We do not know the secrets of stars. We do not know the true history of water. We do not know ourselves. We have forgotten that this land and every life-form is a piece of god, a divine community, with the same forces in creation in plants as in people. All the lives around us are lives of gods. The long history of creation has shaped plankton, and shaped horseshoe crabs, has shaped our human being. Everything is Maker; mangroves, termites, all are sources of one creation or another. Without respect and reverence for it, there is an absence of holiness, of any God. (96)
“The face of the land is our face, and that of all its creatures,” she writes. “To see whole is to see all the parts of the puzzle, some of which have not even been found. . . . What grows here and what grows within us is the same” (97). “What does god look like?” Hogan asks at the essay’s conclusion. “These fish, this water, this land” (98).
In her ninth essay, “Stories of Water,” Hogan writes, “[e]arth is a water planet. It is a world of salt oceans, cloud forests, underground springs, and winding rivers” (99). Water has made caves and, in the form of glaciers, has remade landscapes. Water shapes the mountains where she lives. It carves canyons. It pushes stones out of the topsoil. “Everywhere water travels, life follows,” she states (100). Indigenous peoples “have ceremonies to bring rain clouds to arid lands,” she continues, and there are stories about water (100-01). She recalls a trip to the Caribbean—the journey to the Yucatán she writes about in the previous essay?—where, either snorkeling or scuba diving, she saw colourful fish, barracuda, jellyfish. “It was a world apart from our world,” she writes. “I was taken in by it, taken almost away, surfacing to find no sight of shore, no memory of how I had arrived in this suspension of life” (101). Hogan recalls how, when she was a girl, a creek she often visited flooded, and that afterwards the earth was changed: “We had no choice but to bend down before water’s will; it was stronger than ours” (102).
A man recently told Hogan about a journey by canoe along a river to Hudson Bay. The travellers were tormented by clouds of mosquitoes; the days were hot; the nights were freezing. But they also saw freshwater beluga whales playing underneath their canoes. This story leads to a recollection of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, a story about a whaling boat sunk by a whale. Why do men take such risks? “Perhaps they knew that water would carry them full circle face-to-face with themselves, or maybe they searched for a light stronger than that produced by barrels of sperm whale oil,” Hogan writes. “The sea is a primal magnet, and maybe theirs were journeys into mystery and wilderness, a pull toward healing, toward a baptism in the enormous world of life, a coming together of land creatures with the holy waters of earth that carry not only ships and giant fish, but also our own hidden treasures” (104).
The previous summer, Hogan travelled across Lake Superior to Isle Royale, “an island most well known for its wolf and moose population” (104). The boatman told her a story about a luxury liner’s shipwreck. He and his father participated in the rescue efforts; witnessing the disaster caused him to lose his memory. “His first recollection, a few weeks later, was of a room in his home that was filled with sweet-smelling fruit,” Hogan writes. The ship “had carried a cargo of fresh fruits, and the water of Lake Superior was the precise temperature needed to preserve the fruit in the hull of the capsized boat” (104-05). For months after the wreck, divers brought fruit up from the depths, perfectly preserved.
“The last traces of older civilizations are beneath the water,” Hogan continues. She once found a tile on the beach which she imagined came from Atlantis. “But after all these stories, the most amazing tale of all belongs to water’s own voice, telling a story of it’s [sic] unbroken orbit from itself to itself” (105-06). The amount of water on the planet is always the same: “This is a story of circular infinity, of a planet birthing itself” (106). Someone told her a story about travelling the Amazon River and encountering a tree covered with what appeared to be pink blossoms but that turned out to be flamingos perched on the branches. Stories about the rainforest, she continues, seem supernatural, and those forests are endangered, even though they “are the place our air is born” (107). And as the forest is destroyed, the people who live in it die: “Since 1900, more than half of the tribal people of Brazil have become extinct” (107). “The journey of water is round, and its loss, too, moves in a circle, following us around the world as we lose something of such immense value that we do not yet even know its name,” she writes (107-08). Outside, the ice is melting on a spring day. Hogan thinks about the places that water has been. The water’s protean nature “reminds us that we are water people,” and that “everything [is] a round river, in a circle, alive and moving” (108).
Hogan’s tenth essay, “The Kill Hole,” begins with an ancient people who once lived in New Mexico, the Mimbres. “Like the Anasazi and other ancient nations, these were people of the mystery, having abandoned their place and vanished into a dimension that has remained unknown to those of us who have come later,” Hogan writes. “But before they disappeared into the secret, the Mimbres ‘killed’ their pots by breaking a hole in the center of each one. It is thought that the hole served to release the spirit of the pot from the clay, allowing it to travel with them over land and to join them in their burial grounds. It is called a ‘kill hole’” (109-10).
The third funeral Hogan attended made her think about the kill hole, “how life escapes the broken clay of ourselves, travels away from the center of our living” (100). The woman died in California, near the place “where Ishi, the last Yana Indian, was found in 1911” (110). The Yana had hidden themselves from Settlers, but as logging progressed, they were discovered, “finally, by surveyors who must have believed he was not a man in the way they were men, for they carried away his few possessions as souvenirs for their families” (110). For four years, Ishi was a living exhibit in a museum, studied by experts, until he died of tuberculosis, “one of the diseases of civilization” (111). Ishi’s story tells us about the flaws of civilization, the “loss and emptiness that will never again be filled, of whole cultures disappeared, of species made extinct, all of these losses falling as if through a hole, like a spirit leaving earth’s broken clay” (111).
Hogan thinks (again) about how apes were taught sign language, creating “a dialogue that bridged the species barrier” (111). The animals “spoke a world of emotion, of feelings similar to our own,” until the project ended and they were “sold into scientific research” (112). “From these studies, we learned that primates have a capacity for love and resistance, that they not only have a rich emotional life, but that they are also able to express their pain and anguish,” Hogan writes. “This is an event whose repercussions astonish us with their meaning, whose presence throws us into an identity crisis equal to that in Galileo’s time when the fabric of belief was split wide open to reveal that Earth was not the center of the universe” (112). It speaks of “our responsibility to treat with care and tenderness all the other lives that share our small world” (112). Many scientists ignored the importance of the research, taking refuge in new definitions of intelligence that excluded apes. For Hogan, this “armor of defense” might come from “the downfall of our beliefs about who and what we are as human beings” (113). “One by one, in our lifetimes, our convictions about ourselves and our place within the world have been overturned,” she writes (113). Using tools, altruism, even art-making, have been discovered to be practiced by animals. Animals even have humour. “Still wanting a place of our own, a place set aside form the rest of creation, now it is being ventured that maybe our ability to make fire separates us, or perhaps the desire to seek revenge,” she continues. “But no matter what direction the quest for separation might take, there has been a narrowing down of the difference between species, and we are forced to ask ourselves once again: what is our rightful place in the world, our responsibility to the other lives on the planet?” (114). She acknowledges that this question, this time, is strange and confusing, but she is certain of something: “We are of the animal world. We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried to hard to see ourselves apart, and so often without a love for even our own biology, we are in relationship with the rest of the planet, and that connectedness tells us we must reconsider the way we see ourselves and the rest of nature” (115).
“A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth,” Hogan writes:
Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away from the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)
Ishi is one of those losses, one of those holes. Hogan notes that “ishi” means “man” in the Yana language, that Ishi kept his real name to himself: “It was his only possession, all that remained for him of a lost way of life” (115). “The kill hole where everything falls out is not just found in earth’s or the body’s clay,” Hogan continues. “It is a dusky space between us and others, the place where our compassion has fallen away, our capacity for love failed” (115-16). “What we are,” she writes, “lives in that abyss” (116). Some of us, though, have taken steps to create “a bridge across that broken world,” like those who enabled communication between apes and humans (116). The essay concludes with the California condors and their return from the brink of extinction: “A mending is taking place, a life emerging like the thread out of a Navajo rug’s pattern of loss” (116).
Next is the title essay, “Dwellings,” a series of fragments about the places where beings live, particularly the places they construct for themselves. It begins with a meditation on an eroded hill where bees live. She discovered those bees one summer day. “Sitting in the hot sun, watching the small bees fly in and out around the hill, hearing the summer birds, the light breeze, I felt right in the world,” Hogan writes. “I belonged there. I thought of my own dwelling places, those real and those imagined” (118-19). She remembers living in a town called Manitou, where a hot mineral spring “gurgled beneath the streets and rose up into open wells” (119). “A few years after that, I wanted silence. My daydreams were full of places I longed to be, shelters and solitudes,” she continues. “And how often I’ve wanted to escape to a wilderness where a human hand has not been in everything. But those were only dreams of peace, of comfort, of a nest inside stone or woods, a sanctuary where a dream or life wouldn’t been invaded” (119).
Years before, a man lived in a cave in a nearby canyon, “like a troglodite” (119). He became lonely and found a wife, but she tired of living in the cave. First they installed a door, then heat, then air-conditioning, “and after that the earth wanted to go about life in its own way and it didn’t give in to the people” (120). Once houses were built from trees felled in one part of a forest so that “the house would hold together more harmoniously” (120). An Italian immigrant in Chicago built marvelous birdhouses like cathedrals. One afternoon, Hogan “waited for barn swallows to return from their daily work of food gathering” (120-21); she thinks about their nests, “perfect as a potter’s bowl” (121). Abandoned housed begin to sag without occupants. Hogan recalls raking the gravel floor of a flight cage at the raptor rehabilitation facility where she works and finding two fetal mice in a pile of bones. They were being bitten by ants, screaming, and Hogan tried to save them by drowning the ants: “I was trading one life for another, exchanging the lives of ants for those of mice, but I hated their suffering, and hated even more that they had not yet grown to a life, and already they inhabited the miserable world of pain” (122). There are other lives than the mice in those rooms—wasps, spiders, ants—but she thinks most of the mice and their nests. “The mice have adapted to live in the presence of their enemies, adapted to living in the thin wall between beak and beak, claw and claw,” she writes (123).
Hogan recalls how tourists at the corn dance at Zia Pueblo began picking up shards of the old pottery that had been made and broken there: “The residents of Zia know not to take the bowls and pots left behind by the older ones. They know that the fragments of those earlier lives need to be smoothed back to earth, but younger nations, travelers from continents across the world who have come to inhabit this land, have little of their own to grown on” (123). Those fragments of pottery, she continues, “provide the new people a lifeline to an unknown land, help them remember that they live in the old nest of earth” (123).
Hogan remembers a hike in February, during the mating season of great horned owls. She wanted to hear the owls, “the voices so tender, so deep, like a memory of comfort” (123). Halfway up the trail, she found a fallen nest: “Holding it in my hand in the rosy twilight, I noticed that a blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there” (123-24). It was from one of her skirts. She liked the way “that a thread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and new life,” and she took the nest home. There, studying it more closely, she found that it held “a gnarl” of her daughter’s hair (124). She didn’t know what kind of bird had made that nest:
It didn’t matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside of our wooden boundaries seemed so large. (124)
She lists the beings living outside: wild grapes, “burrowing ones,” horned owls, mice, skunks, fox, porcupine, bees (124). “The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us,” she concludes (124).
The twelfth essay begins with a memory of Hogan lying “on the moist spring earth” beside her mother, looking up at the night sky (125). “There seemed to be two kinds of people; earth people and those others, the sky people, who stumbled over pebbles while they walked around with their heads in clouds,” she writes:
Sky people loved different worlds than I loved; they looked at nests in treetops and followed the long white snake of vapor trails. But I was an earth person, and while I loved to gaze up at night and stars, I investigated the treasures at my feet, the veined wing of a dragonfly opening a delicate blue window to secrets of earth, a lusterless beetle that drank water thirstily from the tip of my finger and was transformed into sudden green and metallic brilliance. (125-26)
Years later, finding her way home on New Year’s Eve by following the North Star, Hogan thinks “that learning the sky might be a practical thing” (126). “But it was the image of earth from out in space that gave me upward-gazing eyes,” she continues. “To dream of the universe is to know that we are small and brief as insects, born in a flash of rain and gone a moment later. We are delicate and our world is fragile” (126).
Hogan recalls the 1977 launch of the Voyager probes and the greetings to aliens they contained in different languages. “There is so much hope in those greetings, such sweetness,” she writes. “If found, these messages will play our world to a world that’s far away. They will sing out the strangely beautiful sounds of Earth, sounds that in all likelihood exist on no other planet in the universe” (127-28). When, if, those recordings are found, it’s probable that “the trumpeting bellows of elephants, the peaceful chirping of frogs and crickets, the wild dogs baying out from the golden needle and record, will be nothing more than a gone history of what once lived on this tiny planet in the curving tail of a spiral galaxy” (128). She thinks about the recorded sounds and images included with those spacecraft: “To think that the precious images of what lives on earth beside us, the lives we share with earth, some endangered, are now tumbling through time and space, more permanent than we are, and speaking the sacred language of life that we ourselves have only just begun to remember” (129).
“There is so much hope there that it takes us away form the dark times of horror we live in,” she writes, considering the genocides we have perpetrated (130). “At second glance, this vision for a new civilization, by its very presence, shows us what is wrong with our world,” she continues. “The underside of our lives grows in proportion to what is denied. The darkness is made darker by the record of light” (130). For Hogan, “[t]he broken link between us and the rest of our world grows too large, and the material of nightmares grows deeper while the promises for peace and equality are empty, are merely dreams without reality” (130).
Hogan considers a time when Catholic missions “were being erected in Indian country,” when a white woman showed paintings of Jesus and Mary to an Indigenous woman. When the white woman showed a picture of the crucifixion, however, “the Indian woman hurried away to warn others that these were dangerous people, people to fear, who did horrible things to each other” (131). Hogan notes that no images of the crucifixion are included with Voyager, “for fear we earth people would ‘look’ cruel” (131). “There are no political messages, no photographs of Hiroshima,” she writes. “This is to say that we know our own wrongdoings” (131).
She notes that pictures of a naked man and a naked pregnant woman were not included on Voyager because it was “‘smut,’” “as if our own origins, the divine flux of creation that passes between a man and a woman, are unacceptable, something to hide” (131). “[T]his embarrassment about our own carriage of life and act of creative generation nevertheless reveals our feelings of physical vulnerability and discomfort about our own life force,” she contends (132). “From an American Indian perspective, there are other problems here,” she continues: the selection process itself “bespeaks many of the failings of an entire system of thought and education. From this record, we learn about our relationships, not only with people, but with everything on earth” (132). “We inhabit only a small space in the house of life,” she writes (133).
Will the “time capsule” aboard Voyager be found (133)? “We barely even know our human histories, so much having unraveled before our time, and while we know that our history creates us, we hope there is another place, another world we can fly to when ours is running out,” she writes. “We have come so far away from wisdom, a wisdom that is the heritage of all people, an old kind of knowing that respects a community of land, animals, plants, and other people as equal to ourselves. Where we know the meaning of relationship” (133). And yet, “[t]he people of earth are reaching out. We are having a collective vision. Like young women and men on a vision quest, we seek a way to live out the peace of the vision we have sent to the world of stars” (134). Hogan returns to the memory with which she began the essay: “That night we were small, my mother and I, and we were innocent. We were children of the universe. In the gas and dust of life, we are voyagers” (134).
The fourteenth essay is called “The Snake People.” “One green and humid summer, my father and I were driving through the hot Oklahoma countryside,” Hogan writes, when “something that looked like a long golden strand of light leapt up, twisted in the wavering air, and flew lightning fast across the road” (135). It was a golden racer snake. “That flying snake, that thin flash of light, brought back a store of memories,” she continues. “Our lives have been peopled with snakes and stories of snakes: there was my Chickasaw grandfather who, riding his stocky, thick-muscled horse, could smell the reptile odor from a distance,” and her Aunt Louise, who “had a reputation for swimming among water moccasins so smoothly that they did not take note of her” (135-36). Hogan and her father, while fishing for worms in an abandoned well, discovered a blue racer: “Quickly, my father caught it. He held it just behind the head for a while, then put it into my hands” (136). There are other stories, too, about rattlesnakes, and in most of those stories, the snakes ended up being killed, “with shovels, hoes, sticks, and sometimes with guns” (137). She thinks that the blue racer her father caught must have ended up being killed as well. “But its graceful life, not its death, is what has remained in my memory,” she writes. “And down through the years, I have come to love the snakes and their long, many-ribbed bodies” (137).
That love was strengthened by a dream “of a woman who placed a fantastic snake over her face” (137-38). The woman and the snake became one: “Her breath became the snake’s slow breathing, and they lived through one another, inhabiting a tropical world of wet leaves, vines, and heavy, perfumed flowers” (138). The woman began to dance and “other people emerged from the forest wearing feathers, deep blue and emerald green, like human birds” (138). Then the music and the people disappeared. “The woman removed the snake and placed it on a wall where it hung alive and beautiful, waiting for another ceremonial dance,” Hogan continues, and in the dream, the woman told Hogan that everyone has pieces of that snake’s skin, and if everyone saves those pieces, “it will remain alive” (138). At first, she thought the dream was about tradition and history, but since then she has expanded her vision: “Now, it seems that what needs to be saved, even in its broken pieces, is earth itself, the tradition of life, the beautiful blue-green world that lives in the coiling snake of the Milky Way” (138-39).
Hogan recalls walking along a road in spring and seeing a snake. “It moves off the road so carefully and mysteriously, an inch at a time, as though it is sliding off ice,” she remembers (139). A friend tells her that he once saw a black racer carried into the sky by a red-tailed hawk. The snake was still alive. Another hawk appeared and the two birds fought over the snake. During the fight, the snake was dropped. Hogan wonders if the snake survived its fall. Hogan herself once say an eagle carrying a snake through the sky to its nest. Another time, she saw a snake swallowing a bird.
When floods happen, snakes seek refuge from the water by moving uphill, wrapping themselves around branches to wait for the waters to recede. “Gold-eyed, they stretch across limbs, some looping down, some curled tight and nestlike between branch and trunk, their double tongues darting out like weather vanes,” Hogan writes. “They remind me of women who know they are beautiful” (140).
Human cultures once considered snakes to be symbols “of healing and wholeness,” but more recently, “the snake has symbolized our wrongs, our eating from the tree of knowledge, our search and desire for the dangerous revelations of life’s mystery” (140-41). We have been damned by “[k]nowledge without wisdom, compassion, or understanding” (141). Hogan writes of the Hope snake dance, which celebrates “the old ones, immortals who shed a milky skin to reveal the new and shining” (141). “[T]he image of snakes twined about a tree or one another looks surprisingly like the double, twisted helix of DNA,” she suggests (142).
“I call them people. That’s what they are. They have been here inhabiting the same dens for tens of thousands of generations,” Hogan writes. “They love their freedom, their dwelling places, and often die of sadness when kept in captivity” (142).
Hogan recalls walking on a road and seeing a snake that has been hit by a car. It is dying. The snake’s belly has been cut open, and from the wound a baby snake that has been swallowed but is still alive escapes. “It leaves a winding, thin path in the road dust,” she concludes. “Maybe it is writing a story of survival there on the road, of what is left of wilderness, or of what has become of earth’s lesser gods as one by one they disappear” (143).
In the next essay, “Porcupine,” Hogan considers “the dark old porcupine” she sees walking on the edge of the road (144). “This one is torn and lame and her undignified quills are broken on one side, as if she has slept them tangled,” she writes. “She hobbles and limps away from her many batterings. She wears her history, dark and spiney, and there is a light in her, a fire around the dreary sharp halo of quills” (145). One evening Hogan finds the porcupine dead beside the road: “Her face is sweet and dark, her inner light replaced by the light of sky. The drifting clouds are in her eyes” (145). She offers sage to “this animal old woman who lived on earth, who breathed the same air that for years I have been breathing, and that breath prays for all creatures on earth” (145). The next morning, she notices that the porcupine’s body is being eaten by maggots which are turning into beetles and flies. “In that crossing over, that swallowing, the battle of life with life, the porcupine lives on,” she concludes. “In its transformation, life continues. My life too, which stopped only for a small moment in history, in that great turning over of the world” (146).
The fifteenth essay is “Waking Up the Rake.” Hogan remembers her grandmother’s hair. When she was a child, Hogan would sometimes brush her grandmother’s hair. “We were the old and the new, bound together in front of the snapping fire, woven like a lifetime’s tangled growth of hair,” she writes. “I saw my future in her body and face, and her past was alive in me” (147-48). Years later, when Hogan was sick, she went to a traditional healer. They prayed together at dawn for several days. A year later, she returned, and the healer told her, “‘Our work is our altar,’” words that have remained with her (148).
“Now I am a disciple of birds,” she writes, the birds whose cages she cleans at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Foundation (148). She considers the carcasses and skins she sees as she cleans those cages. “Over time, the narrow human perspective from which we view things expands,” she suggests. “A deer carcass begins to look beautiful and rich in its torn redness” (149). So too do the bone fragments in the cases she cleans. “This work is an apprenticeship, and the birds are the teachers,” she writes (150). “There is a silence needed here before a person enters the bordered world the birds in habit, so we stop and compose ourselves before entering their doors,” she continues. “The most difficult task the birds demand is that we learn to be equal to them, to feel our way into an intelligence that is different from our own” (150). The birds know “that as humans we have somehow fallen from our animal grace, and because of that we maintain a distance from them, though it is not always a distance of the heart” (150). Nearly all of the birds have been “injured in a clash with the human world”: shot, hit by cars, caught in traps, poisoned, ensnared by fences (150-51). “To ensure their survival, they must remember us as the enemies that we are,” she writes. “We are the embodiment of a paradox: we are the wounders and we are the healers” (151).
In cleaning the cages, Hogan begins “to see the larger order of things. In this place, there is a constant coming to terms with both the sacred place life occupies, and with death” (151). In death, life returns in the form of ants and maggots, which “are time’s best and closest companions” (151). “To sit with the eagles and their flutelike songs, listening to the longer flute of wind sweep through the lush grasslands, is to begin to know the natural laws that exist apart from our written ones,” she writes” (151). Intuition is one of those laws, she contends: “It’s a blood-written code that directs us through life” (151).
There are rewards to her work: seeing snakes, turtles, reminders “of all the lives beyond these that occupy us” (152). “One green morning, an orphaned owl perches nervously above me while I clean,” she writes (152-53). It accidentally lands on the end of her rake before flying off to a safer perch. “The word rake means to gather or heap up, to smooth the broken ground,” Hogan continues. “That’s what this work is, all of it, the smoothing over of broken ground, the healing of the severed trust we humans hold with earth. We gather it back together again with great care, take the broken pieces and fragments and return them to the sky. It is work at the borderland between species, at the boundary between injury and healing” (153). Her work, her raking, “becomes a road to what is essential,” she writes. “Work is the country of hands, and they want to live there in the dailiness of it, the repitition [sic] that is time’s language of prayer, a common tongue. Everything is there, in that language, in the humblest of labor” (154). In that work, “all earth’s gods are reborn, and they dance and sing in the dusty air around us” (154).
The book’s last essay is entitled “Walking.” It begins with a plant growing on a hillside. “I saw it first in early summer,” Hogan writes. “It was a green and sleeping bud, raising itself toward the sun. Ants worked around the unopened bloom, gathering aphids and sap. A few days later, it was a tender young flower, soft and new, with a pale green center and a troop of silver-grey insects climbing up and down the stalk” (155-56). The sunflower “grew into a plant of incredible beauty” (156). As summer progressed, new insects visited that sunflower every day. Eventually “birds arrived to carry the new seeds to another future” (156). “In this one plant, in one summer season, a drama of need and survival took place,” Hogan continues. “Hungers were filled. Insects coupled. There was escape, exhaustion, and death. Lives touched down a moment and were gone” (156-57). Hogan acknowledges that she was an outsider, that she “never learned the sunflower’s golden language or the tongues of its citizens” (157). She understood little of the flower, the insects, and the birds, “[b]ut they knew what to do, how to live” (157).
Hogan notes that “[t]here are other summons and calls, some even more mysterious than those commandments to birds or those survival journeys of insects” (157). Once every hundred years, a certain species of bamboo flowers, no matter where it is, in Malaysia or in a Minnesota greenhouse. “Some current of an inner language passes among them, through space and separation, in ways we cannot explain in our language,” she writes. “They are all, somehow, one plant, each with a share of communal knowledge” (157). Sometimes Hogan hears that language: “The light of the sunflower was one language, but there are others more audible” (158). She recalls “a beat, something like a drum or heart coming from the ground and trees and wind” in a redwood forest, and the “booming voice of an ocean storm thundering from far out at sea” (158).
“Tonight I walk,” Hogan writes. “I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watched 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 them” (158). She can almost hear “the redwoods beating. And the oceans are above me here, rolling clouds, heavy and dark, considering snow” (158). She passes the place where that sunflower grew and wonders if it will return the next summer. It’s winter. “It is a world of elemental attention, of all things working together, listening to what speaks in the blood,” she continues. “Walking, 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” (158-59).
I began this summary wondering how Hogan’s version of the world might compare to Latour’s object-oriented ontology. I would have to reread both texts much more carefully, teasing out similarities and differences, but after quickly reading both texts, I think that their emphasis on the aliveness, or at least agency, of everything around us is a similarity between them. The difference, though, is in Hogan’s emphasis, her insistence, on the idea of relationships—both between humans and the world, and between everything in that world. Even to say “between humans and the world” is a mistake, the product of an epistemology and ontology that imagine, incorrectly, a separation between us and our surroundings. That’s what Hogan would say, I think, and I believe Latour would agree, perhaps. There is much to think about in these essays, and Hogan’s beautiful prose is certainly worth rereading. I hope I get a chance to return to this book.
Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, 1995, Norton, 2007.
Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter, Polity, 2018.