29 March 2009


IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll (23 March 09)

Dusk at Sspopiikimi, the turtle pond, our little oxbow off the Old Man River. The daylight is slipping away on us, Piipiiaakii and I, as we make one of our initial rounds of the season here together. Hopefully, in this darkness, the light of our marriage – the flames that had started to wane, almost unbeknownst to us in our neglected tending and denial – will start to rekindle. We must do as we were taught, and use our pipe as the billows to bring it full again.

This has been our almost-daily ritual ever since we became Iiaohkiimiksi, to visit Sspopiikimi and other nearby wetlands during the dawn and dusk transitions as the season shifts from winter to summer, observing the geese and ducks as they break away from their flocks as couples to nest. When we were first transferred the Beaver Bundle, our advisor told us that during the public ceremonies to recognize the migrating birds we were to feed four things to those in attendance: buffalo tongue, traditional pemmican, saskatoon berry soup, and eggs. These are the staples that brought long life to people of the past. And we were challenged by our elder, who told us that though we’d be forced to purchase tongues, as well as the buffalo meat and fat to process as pemmican, we should not rely on farmed berries or eggs. These were gifts that the plants and animals would still provide. We were instructed to make room in our lives to gather them ourselves, and to leave offerings in reciprocation for the life we take.

This year, our twelfth in marriage, our fourth as caretakers of the Beaver Bundle, all of our beautiful life was put in jeopardy. It’s hard to tell where, exactly, things began to slip, or why. There were lots of little indicators, going back at least a year. We should have known something was wrong when, after our last egg-gathering, we failed to stay anchored to our birds and places, to await the hatchlings as we had in previous years, or to share in their growth. It could have been all the business of our working lives that brought about a slow but steady disconnect, a loneliness brought on by my absence for travel. Or maybe it was as we’d both sensed, that we’d been in some manner bewitched, sent off-rail by the cruel meditations of those who greet our happiness with jealousy. Perhaps it is as our advisor responded when he learned of our predicament, “I think you’ll find that whenever you neglect to do things, the shit will hit the fan.”

Judging specifically by the evidence, or absence thereof, exposed by my lack of journal writing, our life took its strongest shift off-course around the full moon of Ka’toyi, when Piipiiaakii lost her glasses, her eyes. And only now at the very tail of Piitaiki’somm do I feel the balance returning. During this period, it wasn’t as though I broke away from my routine observing of the nature-oriented fodder that enriches my usual writing. As each day passed, I continued to voice-record everything I was seeing. I watched as the two snowy owls hunting the north end of the reserve disappeared, then reappeared, then left altogether. I noticed when the pale great horned owl at the Dipping Vat abandoned its roost. In the morning hours, as I pulled out of Lethbridge, I’d sometimes catch the black-billed magpie flocks as they ascended together from the coulee, to disperse suddenly in mid-flight as individuals or pairs, to begin making their rounds feeding from the cobwebs and rain-gutters of suburbia. I began to photograph the ravens, as their presence increased, and recently noted their displacement by the crows. I passed several days in the coulees... excited by the redpolls cleaning the remaining seeds from last season’s sunflowers, and the flocks of Canada geese moving back and forth along the river in advance of patrolling bald eagles.

One afternoon, while unsuccessfully attempting to track coyotes to their dens through the new-fallen snow, I contemplated the lessons gained from such exercise. For instance, I learned that one who is in fear of being trailed should insure to often-cross the paths of others, sometimes taking a well-used communal artery for a stretch, before jumping back off on one’s own. And I eventually realized that one who is tracking another should not follow too closely, wasting energy in pursuit. Just read the signs, learn the habits, then sit still and wait for an appearance.

Another afternoon, walking through the woods and taking a last sip to empty my Starbucks coffee cup, I wondered what would be the more ecologically preferable: Should I mulch it a bit and discard it among the poplars, its waxed paper almost sure to be taken-up as useful nesting material for rodents and birds? Or should I subscribe to popular taboos against littering? Are we better off spreading our garbage out? Or should we continue to concentrate tons and tons of it in singular locations, modern middens of a sort, guaranteeing its persistence many tens of thousands of years into the future? Are our waste management protocols really driven by an understanding of ecological processes? Or are we operating principally on the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy? Isn’t our actual problem the amount of waste we produce, rather than where it gets shuffled to? And just how much waste went into providing me the luxury of a cup of Starbucks coffee? Could it be quantified? It required not only a world trade network (some form of which has always existed), but more specifically one dominated by industrial forms of subsistence and exchange. My coffee meant there was another patch of rainforest cleared. My coffee meant that poor families had to live indentured on some rich man’s farm. My coffee meant the spread of colonial languages. My coffee meant airplanes, and processing plants, and semi trucks, and paved highways, and strip malls, and demeaning service-labor for young North American women. All around me in the river-bottom were plants whose roots – roasted, dried, and grated – could serve as exceptional local, organic teas. Why was I drinking coffee in the first place? Why couldn’t I just treat it as the rare delicacy it should be? We overindulge in our richness. And I still carried my cup back out.

So much was unfolding around me as my work and home life began to slip. Sitting up on a coulee-cliff one evening, watching aapsspiniiksi return to their open water pool for the night, I contemplated the situation. In many ways, socially, we’re like the geese. Two moons previous, fairly housebound by heavy snows, Piipiiaakii and I had begun to preoccupy ourselves chatting and joking with a host of friends online - some old, some new, all similarly stuck indoors. Like the flocks arriving at sundown from far and wide to amass at a single crag of open water, our evenings (and many of our days) were passed in the company of the collective. And of course we got along better with some than others. As these relationships gained momentum, in a few cases becoming more tangible and less digital, several in our family craned their necks in curiosity or suspicion. Others became outright accusatory, jutting their heads forward and opening their beaks threateningly, occasionally making a feigned aggressive charge in attempt to separate us from those we were growing too close to. Piipiiaakii and I had never shown so much attention to people outside of our family, spiritual network, or professional associations before. We were breaking from our normal social routines. Something seemed wrong.

I don’t know if our family could actually see what we couldn’t, or if it was more that their adamant (and at the time unfounded) accusations somehow compelled us toward fulfilling prophesies. Jealousy, suspicion and gossip are pervasive factors in the sociality of our small community, as they are among the flocks of geese. What I feel now, after-the-fact, is that the allegations – compounded by an increased presence of opposite-sex friendships in our lives – began to take their toll on my psyche. Throughout our years together, I have strongly resisted Piipiiaakii’s participation in any activities that I associate more with lifestyles of the unwed. This resistance has been so strong that her sisters and cousins have occasionally described me as being overly-controlling. I in turn have always justified my position by asserting that the haunts frequented by singles are inherently dangerous, the kinds of places where high-drama prevails and where physical violence is not uncommon. No matter how virtuous one’s personal convictions, it’s foolish to believe you can waddle amidst coyotes without being eaten alive.

I should have followed the ways of the geese more closely. I should have stuck to my own principles. I should have continued to be the strong gander, prepared to give chase to any perceived interloper, scolding of my wife should she tarry too long from my side. But I didn’t. As the climate turned frosty and foggy, and the golden eagles returned, and the ravens moved into the river-bottoms, and the geese themselves began spending more of their days as isolated couples, claiming and reclaiming the sites where they will soon nest, I chose to relax my standards and give too much attention to one who was not my mate. Piipiiaakii had opened a door, probably trying to get my attention, and the stream of unfounded accusations that followed played tricks on my eyes, compelling me to perceive the gap as something much wider than it truly was. So like a vindictive fool, I proceeded to tear that door partially off its hinges. Not all the way, mind. Not irreparable, but certainly I was no longer a respectable gander. Now I was more like Daffy Duck... if you can’t fix it, might as well throw a fit, break things a little worse, and get some attention of my own.

The day the first beaver dove out of its lodge, I could sense it, and a few evenings later Piipiiaakii and I went to Sspopiikimi, the turtle pond, to get confirmation. Almost the entire surface of the pond was still frozen-over. There were fifty-nine geese on the ice, all conspicuously coupled-up, with the exception of a single odd-ball. It wouldn’t be long before these birds began to seriously squabble over nesting sites. But on this early evening, aggression was minimal. We saw only one pair make a play for a small gravel island. They walked some distance on the ice from an opposite shore, the erect male in front, honking as he marched, the female behind, her head bowed. When they came within about fifteen meters of the island, they took to wing and quickly chased another couple off the gravel. Then the aggressors began to peck around, as if trying to convince the others that food had been their only incentive for the attack.

Not far from the little island that the geese were squabbling over, there were two spots of open water. One was occupied by a dozen mallards, predominantly male. The other was where a pipe empties storm drainage down from the suburbs that hug the coulee rim above. In that second bit of open water was our beaver confirmation – dozens of bulrush stems (the base section only), along with a handful of partially eaten roots. We knew from previous seasons that this was the beavers’ principal diet when they first emerged from winter, before the sap began to run in the poplar and willows. As per my intuition, they had definitely emerged. And just to be absolutely sure, I returned alone before dawn the next morning, and there was Iitoomisttayi, the first to dive.

Our dark reckoning came after the very next sleep, when least convenient... not that there’s a particularly opportune occasion for such drama. It started off beautifully. Gus Yaki had come down from Mohkinsstsis to spend the morning with my phenology students, walking around a section of semi-native grassland in Farm Four, introducing them to several new plants and refreshing their awareness of others. Piipiiaakii and I were feeling close again, holding hands and enjoying each other’s companionship in the chilly morning wind. After our hike, I left Piipiiaakii at the office and took Gus for a birding drive around the Belly Buttes. It was an afternoon of newly risen male ground squirrels and field-feeding bald eagles, a synchronicity that lent easy rationale to the timing of these birds’ migration. And right in the midst of all of it, I received a text message from Piipiiaakii that made my stomach sink. Back at the office, she’d seen some communications I’d left open on my computer, embarrassing sentiments I immediately regretted having ever felt or expressed. A few minutes later, Gus – perhaps sensing my sudden grim mood – pointed out some round bales and told a joke about how they’d been outlawed in certain places, so that now the cattle couldn’t get a square meal. I was so distracted, he had to explain it was a joke.

Well, no need to go into great detail. Suffice it to say that I fully expected to be sleeping for an indefinite period on a grass bed in the coulee. The next couple days were both the worst and best I’d experienced in many years. There was terrible darkness, the likes of which I’d have never thought possible for us. Yet at the same time, there was the strongest confirmation of our bond I’d felt perhaps since the day of our marriage. However painful, our reckoning also evoked growth and renewal. I wonder now if it’s the same for the goose couples, whenever they’re successful in thwarting perceived threats to their relationships. If only our human affairs were as quickly settled – a bit of chase, maybe a nip or a slap of wing, the brief scolding, reunion. In the goose world, everything plays out in a manner of minutes. In ours, grief and resentful memories linger. But so too does love...

It’s dusk at Sspopiikimi, the turtle pond, our little oxbow off the Old Man River. The daylight’s slipping away on us, Piipiiaakii and I, as we make one of our initial rounds of the season here together. Earlier in the day, we’d stopped by another nearby wetlands and watched four pairs of golden-eyes, the males engrossed in display, stretching their necks forward and then arching them back till they rested on their tails. Nearby, a common merganser dove for fish, starlings milled about on a grassy hummock, California gulls stood bored on the ice, and a golden eagle sat perched in an old poplar snag.

All is settled between us, of this first and hopefully last crisis in our marriage. Winding a circle around the pond, we fawn over one another again, and thrill at the unfolding signs of our favorite season. The geese are arriving to the river in couples. The robins mate conspicuously as we pass through the forest, fluttering together for a moment, resting, and resuming. There’s a porcupine in the bull-berry brush by the duck blind. And as we sit together on the bank of the pond, in the growing darkness, watching beavers drag bulrush stems to the crescent-shaped pile in front of their lodge, ten pairs of mallards land in the water before us. It would be two sleeps before the trumpeter swans returned to Innokimi, long lake, and all was as it should be.