Tag Archives: north america

Five North American Tribal Proverbs

       One of the intentions of this blog is to share ancient wisdom. I have created a page called Proverbs which stores and updates all the tribal proverbs that arise on this blog. Find them here now.

CHEYENNE PROVERB

“Our first teacher is our own heart.”

INUIT PROVERB 

“Life’s greatest danger lies in the fact that man’s food consists entirely of souls.”

HOPI PROVERB

 “You must live your life from beginning to end; no one else can do it for you.”

IOWA PROVERB 

“The man who freely gives his opinion should be ready to fight fiercely.”

PUEBLO PROVERB 

“Cherish youth but trust old age.”

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Filed under Ancient Wisdom, Spirit

Local Knowledge

Reid Dickie

 

“The true wealth that North America offered, wealth that

 could turn exploitation into residency, greed into harmony,

 was to come from one thing – the cultivation and achievement

of local knowledge. It was in the pursuit of local knowledge

 alone that one could comprehend the notion of a home and

 its attendant responsibilities.”

– Barry Lopez

 from The Rediscovery of North America

 “We have not yet discovered America.”

– John Hay

 from A Beginner’s Faith in Things Unseen

“A place we know calls for the beloved to awaken and come home.”

– Christopher Scholl

 from Poetistics

            Many times, I stood next to Castle Butte in southern Saskatchewan and gazed down the wide Big Muddy Valley, its stratified walls burnished by afternoon sun. Since the valley has filled up over the past 8,000 years, I imagined it five times deeper, engorged with torrents of cold glacial runaway meltwater, carving a new language in a system of channels across the land, its syllables the unstoppable will of gravity driving fresh water toward a warm and welcoming sea. The same water chiseled Castle Butte’s precious shape.

            Castle Butte, a quarter of a mile around and over 200 feet high, is a huge, ever-eroding sandstone monolith that stands like a sentinel over the vast distance of the valley, a prominent landmark for millennia. I have stopped there many times and seldom have my visits been solitary. Castle Butte attracts an array of humanity. Spelunkers explore the narrow shallow caves cut by water through the guts of the butte. The curious seek out Castle Butte, usually tourists lured by travel brochures. Most prevalent visitors in my experience are returnees, people whose early lives began on this same prairie under an enormous sun.

            Yes, here they are again, returnees, often trailing disinterested families. Enticed back, fulfilling an unspoken responsibility, the returnees stare up at the sultry muscular shape of the butte against the blue dome, dreamily remembering some event or epiphany the butte shared with them. Each brings with them their eroded piece of the rock, their memories and their own worn shapes against the sky.

            Local knowledge lives in Castle Butte. Across decades, a magnetic force attracts people made wise by the butte in their formative years. Its changing form looms large in their definition of home. Terry Tempest Williams asserted, “Home is the range of your instincts.” To which I add that pairing instinct with local knowledge gives us the certainty, not the mere potential, but the certainty of adaptation and survival, not only here but anywhere we call home.

            Part of the responsibility of calling Castle Butte home is to return, like pilgrims, to be present once more, to “show” new family the place then realize Castle Butte’s meaning is so ineffable, so sublime that neither your words nor their presence here will interest them. Unlike you, they are inadequate to the local knowledge; their instincts are out of kilter here.

            Local knowledge doesn’t only exist in the sparsely populated rural landscape. It feeds urban dwellers in a more intense version which, coupled with a pantheon of human-induced rules, provides the necessary adaptation tools for most of us to survive in cities. Yet we blankly walk through this local knowledge, unaware of it or any of its manifestations. Instinct is keenest when we are mindful. Try this: for one day, every time you walk into a shadow, notice what building or tree or whatever caused the shadow. Suddenly you’ll know where you are.

            Every acre of virgin prairie from Vita in southern Manitoba to Grasslands National Park in western Saskatchewan possesses the original voice of the land, the local knowledge. The winds that blow over the land are given voice by the buffalo rub stones and wallows that are the anomalies and the vocal cords that produce the true language of the prairie. Undisturbed tracts of vitality, uninterrupted evolution, the barks of the prairie dogs, the rattle and hiss of the rattlesnake and the silent spinning of the wolf spider still echo in our ears gone deaf from listening only to our own cleverness.

            We are trapped in the process of naming, which both connects us to and separates us from the world. Our naming is merely a way of talking, a doing where not-doing is required. Because it makes us comfortable we confuse the name with that named, identify with the thought not the thought-about. The reliance on identifying and defending this word magic is amplified in the volumes that fill libraries and bookstores, words scrawled on blog walls and our own fear of silence and solitude.

            Ancient shimmering places, like Castle Butte, cannot make reason or ego feel safe. They can only slake the soul, making it feel at home. Beyond our clamorous superficial culture lives the real depth of soul, of growth and evolution, of discovering America. After a few days in the wilderness, your dreams change from urban scurrying to a more peaceful pace. Accompanied by dramatic increases in quantity, vividness and context, your wild soulful dreams convey caring concern for all beings. This led ecologist Robert Greenway to suggest our culture is only four days deep. Or four days shallow.

            We have discovered its coal, oil, water and forests but the North America that lives invincibly inside us still calls for discovery and understanding. North America is an inner space. If we seek the sacredness it promises, inner work is essential. North America will sustain us if we listen for its wisdom by being patiently quiet. Be still long enough and the wisdom wells up into your consciousness. Then you’ve truly begun to discover home, like the returnees with their local knowledge of Castle Butte.

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Filed under Ancient Wisdom, PRAIRIES, Sacred Places

Birdland

This post and yesterday’s called Jerry Lewis Birds comprise the first two entries in a name Page on my blog, Birdland. It will feature many stories of my bird encounters in my lifetime.

            Among my most treasured and influential possessions from my childhood is a small book called Song Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson. A promotion item from Brooke Bond Canada Ltd, makers of tea and coffee back in the 1950s & 60s, the book is an album that holds a series of collectible bird cards. The cards came in packages of Red Rose tea and Blue Ribbon coffee. The little album is copyright 1959 by the National Wildlife Federation. I’d be ten years old and spending long summer days exploring the bluffs and sloughs, the fields and bush around Shoal Lake, my hometown in western Manitoba. 

            Red Rose and Blue Ribbon were popular brands at the time so lots of kids collected the cards. We traded extras, filling in blanks and completing collections.

       The cards are full colour illustrations of the birds with information on the back. The back of each card has the same information that appears in the album. There are 48 cards, all bilingual. Many of the bird descriptions include phonetic spellings of their calls.

            Growing up in rural Manitoba, there were always opportunities to see birds close-up, to hear them repeatedly all year and to become well acquainted with them. Song Birds of North America helped me identify the birds by sight and sound.

            American writer Edward Abbey, when he took tourists on excursions down American rivers in the Southwest, was incessantly asked, “What’s that?” His reply was always, “I have no idea what it is. We call it a house wren,” or whatever the critter happened to be. Our naming simply does not capture the essence of many birds. It takes encounters with them at all our ages and in all their seasons for us to even begin answering, “What’s that?”

            If you have a solid foundation of knowledge about something from childhood, you are likely to find some use for it throughout your life. This happened with my bird book. It created a sustained interest in birds that makes me curious when I see a flock wheeling in the sky or hear a new bird song. I need to know what bird it is. I’m not a serious bird watcher or bird chaser, as a friend calls them. I just need to go to Birdland now and then.

            The birds I write about are not rare at all. They are some of the most common birds in North America. Except for European starlings, these birds are seldom seen in cities. Their habitat requires open spaces or quiet forests, places where humans are rare. The circumstances and location of my encounters with these birds makes them special to me. Often they enliven a forest or field with their twitters and songs. Birds heighten my experience of sacred hilltops, those lonesome places where the sky feels like a second skin and the only sound is the wind soughing pierced eerily by a red-tailed hawk soaring and crying overhead. Birds bring a sudden sense of delight when their hopeful and rejuvenating songs rise out of the background din of city living.

            They come alone and they come in flocks. They soar or sit in silence and they have so much to say they can’t shut up. Take flight, flock with me, share some cherries, build a nest, lay an egg and fly, fly some more.

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Filed under Birds