Wednesday, January 4, 2017

People of Place

My wife was busy cleaning out the cubby hole. That's what we call the space under the eaves in our 1890 Brookings home. Over the years it has become the place of last resort for all manner of "stuff." My stuff takes up half the space, mostly my important papers and resources I may need once more in another lifetime. But besides my stuff, the other things my wife pulled out of that space after 37+ years were amazing.

One that caused a certain degree of nostalgia was a poster. It's large, framed, in black and white. It shows two people walking down a hill in the winter, bare trees on both sides. I purchased it years ago when we lived in Worcester, MA. It reminded me of the hill we lived on and the dirt road going down the hill. You didn't drive it in winter. It was hardly passable in other seasons: rutted, rooted and just plain rough.

I started thinking about that place we called home: the way we laughed when we signed the mortgage papers, unable to envision living anyplace 15 years and paying $14,000; the beautiful gardens in the side yard, left by the previous elderly owner; the rounded wall in the upstairs bathroom, making it large enough for our yearly Christmas tree; the vegetable garden on top of the garage, where we "planted" the kids dead guinea pigs; the old time street lamp, sitting by the fireplug in front of the house; the 12 days of Christmas open house we held for friends and neighbors, coming and going as they were able.

Annie Dillard has a beautiful essay in her book For the Time Being where she reflects on dust. You know, the layer of who knows what on the bedroom dresser. She names the "what," as flakes of dried skin and all manner of other matter that eventually covers whole cities and our homes. Still, after 37+ years, digging in the dust and dirt of our back yard we will recover glass shards from the original owner of this property, Dr. Hyde. And who knows what memories live deeper, buried under concrete.

We're a mobile population in this country. Always going someplace. Always in a hurry. Never in one place long enough to get to know it. And then when we are present for a while, there are those who want to change it, grow it, develop it, bulldoze it for something better.

I still remember with some grief those years during the "farm crisis," listening to SDSU students relate losing the family farm after three or four generations. And I look with awe at the home a west river rancher built, the inside walls constructed as outside walls by his forebears, as squatters and settlers generations ago.

There's something about "place" that's essential to the human condition. We are people of place, whether we know it, or acknowledge it, or not. For Christians, it may go back to the Genesis story  where we are created from the "dust" of the earth, where Adam means "dust creature." Place connects us to earth. We may think we are winged creatures, flying from one place to another, but our final destination as dust creatures is a place in the earth. We should get to know it!

All of this makes me wonder why it's so hard for us to understand the respect Indian people have for a field in North Dakota, recently bulldozed for a pipeline.

In his book World Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions, Houston Smith writes about how first peoples are people of place. They are the bluff, the pine tree, the bison, the stones, the water of their surroundings. There is no spiritual separation. And when a young woman at the Sacred Stone Camp says she is there to protect the water because we are water, it's not just a spiritual statement but a scientific reality. Science gradually catches up to ancient knowledge.

I'll always remember that picture of laying the first keystone pipeline. The label said no sacred sites here. The picture showed the pipe being buried a foot from a human skeleton.

I'm becoming averse to bulldozers, even the name. I keep seeing them destroying Palestinian homes and running over and killing Rachel Corrie. Now I watch them deliberately tearing up sacred sites in North Dakota. Even the one leveling the earth by the meeting of the Interstates near Sioux Falls is troublesome. Bulldozers have no respect for the earth, for the dust of generations, for our place on it. 

Let them dig the Dakota Access pipeline with hand tools, like the archaeologist. Maybe by the time they finished that process, we would be sufficiently recharged with renewable energy, and the earth and our water and Gods good creation would be treated with the respect it deserves. 

Carl Kline

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