The Rain Drop Ploughs

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They sing their dearest songs —
    He, she, all of them — yea,
    Treble and tenor and bass,
        And one to play;
    With the candles mooning each face….
        Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

 

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They clear the creeping moss —
    Elders and juniors — aye,
    Making the pathways neat
        And the garden gay;
    And they build a shady seat….
        Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

 

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    They are blithely breakfasting all —
    Men and maidens — yea,
    Under the summer tree,
        With a glimpse of the bay,
    While pet fowl come to the knee….
        Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

 

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    They change to a high new house,
    He, she, all of them — aye,
    Clocks and carpets and chairs
        On the lawn all day,
    And brightest things that are theirs….
        Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
~Thomas Hardy “During Wind and Rain”

 

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A waning November moon reluctantly rose,
dimming from the full globe of the night before.
I drive a darkening country road, white lines sweeping past,
aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
anxious to return home to familiar warmth and light.

Nearing a county road corner, slowing to a stop,
I glanced aside where
a lonely rural cemetery sits expectant.

Through open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
there in the middle path, incongruous,
car’s headlights beamed bright.

I puzzled, thinking:
lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night.

Instead, these lights focused on one soul alone,
kneeling graveside,
a hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.

This stark moment of solitary sorrow,
a visible grieving of a heart

illuminated by twin beams.

This benediction of mourning
as light pierced the blackness;

gentle fingertips traced
the engraved letters of a beloved name.

Feeling touched
as uneasy witness, I pull away 

to drive deeper into the night,
struggling to see despite
my eyes’ thickening mist.

~Emily Gibson – “Grief Illuminated”

 

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a stone pinecone, environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy, rural Scotland

A Dying Dream

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Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said,
“I will stand in peace till my last day comes.”
He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man.
Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
~Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument

“the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered.
There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
~Black Elk, (wounded trying to rescue his people after the Wounded Knee Massacre)  from Black Elk Speaks

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From today’s  Writers’ Almanac by Garrison Keillor:

“Today is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. Twenty-three years earlier, the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.

But in the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation, with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889, a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation, and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders, and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot, and when he found out what had happened, he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.

The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons, and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.

One of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre was the famous medicine man Black Elk, author of Black Elk Speaks (1932). Speaking about Wounded Knee, he said: ‘I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.'”
~Garrison Keillor from A Writers’ Almanac

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Like most twentieth century American children, I grew up with a sanitized understanding of American and Native history.  I had only a superficial knowledge of what happened at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, gleaned primarily from the 71 day symbolic standoff in 1973 between members of the Oglala Sioux and the American Indian Movement and the FBI, resulting in several shooting deaths.

Three years ago, when our son was teaching math at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This brutal massacre of over 150 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.

The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.

Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.

There is unspeakable desolation and sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is a regrettable part of our history that descendants of immigrants to American soil need to understand: by coming to the “New World” for opportunity, or refuge from oppression elsewhere, we made refugees of the people already here.

As Black Elk wrote, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center.

We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee nor must we ever forget what it means to no longer be safe in one’s own homeland.

 

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Pointing Toward Infinity

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photo by Joel DeWaard

It’s said they planted trees by graves
to soak up spirits of the dead
through roots into the growing wood.
The favorite in the burial yards
I knew was common juniper.
One could do worse than pass into
such a species. I like to think
that when I’m gone the chemicals
and yes the spirit that was me
might be searched out by subtle roots
and raised with sap through capillaries
into an upright, fragrant trunk,
and aromatic twigs and bark,
through needles bright as hoarfrost to
the sunlight for a century
or more, in wood repelling rot
and standing tall with monuments
and statues there on the far hill,
erect as truth, a testimony,
in ground that’s dignified by loss,
around a melancholy tree
that’s pointing toward infinity.
~Robert Morgan “Living Tree”

Our druthers would be to feed the lone fir on the hill, standing tall over the surroundings, home to eagles and hawks, shade for the pasture critters.  But laws such as they are, we will be buried not on the farm under our favorite tree, but nearby, in a small green country cemetery, surrounded by trees, with plenty of shady spots and benches to sit upon with a view of farms and mountains and cows.  The gravestones carry names of neighbors and pioneers, those who we knew while in flesh, and many who are strangers but we’ll someday share the same sod, the same shade, the same sunny and rainy days.  Most of all, we’ll share eternity, pointing those branches into infinity.

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For a Day at the Cemeteries

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I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

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Tucked Under

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mcubin2…No one sees us go under.
No one sees generations churn, or civilizations.
The green fields grow up forgetting.

Ours is a planet sown in beings.
Our generations overlap like shingles.
We don’t fall in rows like hay, but we fall.
Once we get here, we spend forever on the globe,
most of it tucked under.
While we breathe, we open time like a path in the grass.
~Annie Dillard from For the Time Being

Although the generations are forgotten over time,
covered over, layer upon layer,
the brief time we are walking here
we leave behind a path,
whether straight or crooked,
that others may follow
to find their way.
May my path lead others
to something
worth the journey:
time well spent.

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Another Voice

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450 year old gravestone in Glencairn Parish Cemetery in Scotland which reads: Here Lyeth The Corps Of John Mcubin in Meruhirn (Marwhin) Who Departed This Life The Year 1663 Age 100
other side of the same stone
other side of the same stone

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.
– T.S. Eliot

I have been overwhelmed by the centuries of history that exist documented on this continent compared to home.  We see stone circles in the countryside constructed as a celestial calendar for worship over 5000 years ago, stroll through church grounds that were founded over 1000 years ago, descended underground in Edinburgh to walk streets and enter homes that existed over 600 years ago, discovered this gravestone in rural Scotland of an 100 year old man.

It is a miracle to have lived a full century so long ago.  It is a miracle to have lived at all.

It feels a miracle to be alive now, witnessing all that I have in my relatively short time on earth.

I make a beginning each day, to be more than just another voice, striving to transcend last year’s words.

St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria
Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria
a stone pinecone, environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy, rural Scotland
a stone pinecone, environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy, rural Scotland

Slumber Interrupted

herman
my great great grandfather

an updated poem from Memorial Day 2010

Blazing sun bakes a lichen crust
atop a stone so feverish
it is hearth without fire,
reaching down deep
into soil holding a box
that knows no warmth.

Autumn windstorms rage,
lightning crack and thunder clap,
trembling the filled-hole grounds
as dying leaves spin and swirl
through arced cascade among tidy rows
till settled and spent.

Then crisp hoarfrost clings
in glittering crystalline coverlet
gracefully fallen from graying sky,
soft cotton batting fluffs
to pillow gentle slumber
uninterrupted.

When vernal raindrops quench
the thirst of dry bones
suspended between
welkin expanse
and earth’s darkest pit,

these silent stones will shout out~

still no more, reticent no longer,
waking to resonant reveille,
ready to blossom forth
in the fullness of time
and everlasting promise.

anna
my great grandmother