Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Animal Allies: Buffalo Brother

Bison bison, photo by Jack Dykinga
A few years ago, our local zoo was host to a pair of male bison. I had never seen one in person, but I had dreamt of them thundering across the plains. I had dreamt of running with them in buffalo skin and walking among them with human feet. At difficult periods in my life, I called on their strength to aid me in putting one foot ahead of the other, to keep moving forward no matter what was coming at me.
I could not resist the opportunity to observe them in the waking world. I went to the zoo every week, sitting outside their pen. I told them stories about their European ancestors, the ancient aurochs. I thanked them for the generations of bison who have been feeding and sheltering humanity. I told them about the bison cave drawings in Altamira, Spain that date to 12,000 BC. I told them about the drawings in the Niaux Cave of France. Mostly I sat in silence, trying to become part of their landscape, not a mere tourist.
Altamita, Spain circa 12,000 BC
You could feel their strength, and see intelligence in their dark eyes, with their beautiful lashes. When the older male looked at me, it was not with a dull gaze. He was observing as much as I was. Despite their girth, there is a grace in the way they graze the grasses. The older male began to greet me at the fence when I arrived. When I went with my visiting mother, we were in the adjacent goat pen. I turned around to find my bison friend’s face inches from mine, where he had stuck it through a hole.

Bison in the Wild
Bison are even-toed ungulates, which are animals that hold their body weight on the tips of their toes while in motion. They are usually hooved. Others among the diverse group of ungulate mammals are the rhinoceros, zebra, camel, alpaca, warthog, pig, hippopotamus, giraffe, deer, elk, moose, caribou, reindeer, gazelle, antelope, yak, auroch, sheep, goat, oryx, and musk ox.
The bison and the buffalo are both animals of the Bovidae family, but the bison is of the genus Bison, while the buffalo is of the genus Syncerus. They are related, but they are not the same creature. Their genes diverged 5 to 10 million years ago. Still, as we called them buffalo before their genus was determined, it is acceptable to refer to them by either name. There are two living species, the American bison, composed of plains bison and wood bison, as well as the European bison. There were four other known bison species that are now extinct.
Bison are the largest terrestrial animals in North America, weighing up to 2,000 pounds. The nomadic grazers travel in a large herd during the reproductive season from June to September. Otherwise, the females travel in their own herd with the young, including males under three years of age. The adult males travel together in a smaller herd; a bull seldom travels alone.
Both the male and female bison have horns, and are good swimmers, crossing rivers over a half-mile wide. Bison enjoy wallowing in small shallows of dirt or mud. They can appear peaceful and unconcerned, but they are unpredictable in temperament. Without warning they might launch into an attack. They can cover large distances at a gallop of up to 35 mph. Bison are most dangerous during mating season, when the older bulls rejoin the herd, hormones are high, and fights occur.
When there is outside danger, the female bison circle up around the young, old, and infirm. The bulls take position on the outside. When danger strikes, they come together to protect each other. The only known predators of the bison are the grey wolf, brown and grizzly bear, coyote, and human.

Buffalo Brother
My friend, saying hello.
I used to have anger issues. I began the Buddhist work of Lovingkindness as a means of reshaping that part of me, embracing gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion. I began to dream of Buffalo Brother, who gave me two options. I could snort and engage him in combat, or I could let my anger dissolve into the earth beneath me and graze quietly with him in the grasses. In our world, bison are humble and quiet and content to roam the wilds, but when provoked, they become giant, lumbering, movable mountains. I took this lesson to heart and adopted him as a guide. I connect buffalo to both my root and my heart chakra.
In many traditions, the bison is a symbol of gratitude. It represents the sacredness of life, the relation of all things, and the relation of all those things with the Earth beneath us. It is about honoring all living things, being humble enough to ask for help, and grateful for whatever help is given and offered. I’m going to repeat that: grateful for whatever help is given. That’s the point, right? If you ask for help and then are picky about what is offered, that is not gratitude. In that respect, buffalo medicine is also about prayer.
Bison turn their faces into approaching storms, standing firmly against them. Buffalo stands proud against the winds of adversity. Those called to this medicine should remember to temper themselves in dealings with others and allow tranquility and peace to enter their lives. Strive to see the positive side of all things.
Buffalo is about abundance. It’s about seeing that you have everything you need at your disposal. You do. But sometimes you have to dig into uncomfortable places to get to it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just because it’s not what you want, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Being grateful for what you have is true prosperity. Stop focusing on what you don’t have and focus on what you do. Keep a daily gratitude list. This practice will change the way your brain thinks, and you will start to see all the good in the world. It will change you from the inside, and you will find that you no longer need to worry about storing your frustrations inside, because buffalo teaches us to release them into the earth.

The Legend of the White Buffalo
The relationship between the Native People and the buffalo was beautiful. They killed what they needed, offering prayers of gratitude to the Great Spirit before the hunt, and having ceremonies honoring the life of the buffalo afterwards. The meat would feed the tribe. The skins and hides were used to make clothing and shelter. Even the hooves were ground down to make glue. Buffalo gifted the People life by sacrificing his own. Many hunters wore protective amulets made of buffalo bone.
Many Native tribes have legends of White Buffalo Woman, who came to the People and taught them how all things were connected. She brought them the sacred pipe and taught them medicine rituals. She promised to return to them in an era of Peace, and since then the birth of a rare white buffalo has been an omen of promise and hope, marking an end to suffering.

Pida miya, Tatanka.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Words from an Early Naturalist

Gene Stratton-Porter
In my post last week, I wrote about discovering a book that had belonged to my 2x Great-Grandma. It was meaningful to me because I am a booklover. I was more excited to discover that the author, Gene Stratton-Porter, had been born Geneva Grace Stratton, and was a woman. Then, researching the book and the author led to the discovery that she was an early and avid naturalist, writing her books of fiction, ripe with a wealth of knowledge of the doings of the natural world, so that she could support her books and articles of non-fiction.
This voice from the past was more than just a connection to one of my ancestors. I see the effects of cutting down forest to build more city as the deer and coy dog populations become more and more visible in my city. The sight of eagles and hawks within the limits is becoming so common as to not be a novelty anymore. Why is that? Because their homes are disappearing for the sake of our comforts. It was both heartening and heartbreaking to discover Gene Stratton-Porter’s own words on the loss of her beloved natural world, almost a hundred years ago.
I found a description of her from biographer Frederic Cooper: “Gene Stratton-Porter lives in a swamp, arrays herself in man’s clothes, and sallies forth in all weathers to study the secrets of nature. I believe she knows every bug, bird, and beast in the woods… She is primarily a naturalist, one of the foremost in America and has published a number of books on flora and fauna…”

Voices from the Ancestors
The Limberlost marsh in Indiana was a favored place of the author at one period of her life, reflected in several of her books, most popularly in A Girl of the Limberlost. She was devastated when the trees and natural habitats of her animal friends were cleared to make room for farmland. And she watched in despair as oil drilling destroyed the marshlands. She spoke out against it, even though her husband owned many oil rigs.
Gene Stratton-Porter wrote several essays on environmental issues in a book, Let Us Highly Resolve, printed posthumously, in 1927. She watched her beloved swamplands get cleared for farming and oil. In her article “Shall We Save Our Natural Beauty?” she says: “The deer and fur-bearing animals are practically gone from the country I knew… The birds have been depleted in numbers until it is quite impossible to raise fruit of any kind without a continuous fight against slugs and aphis… With the cutting of timber has come a change in climate; weeks of drought in the summer…and winters so stringently cold that the fruit trees are killed outright. The even temperature and the rains every three or four days which we knew in childhood are things of the past…it has become necessary for the sons of men who wasted the woods and the waters to put in overhead sprinkling systems… windmills and irrigation are becoming common…as a nation, [we] have already, in the most wanton and reckless waste the world has ever known, changed our climate conditions and wasted a good part of our splendid heritage. The question now facing us is whether we shall do all that lies in our power to save comfortable living conditions for ourselves and the spots of natural beauty that remain for our children… If this is to be done, a nation-wide movement must be begun immediately…there may not be coal and iron, at the rate we are using it, to supply future generations… Certainly to plant trees and preserve trees, to preserve water, and to do all in our power to save every natural resource, both from the standpoint of utility and beauty, is a work that every man and woman should give immediate and earnest attention.”
Gene wrote her articles in the hopes of sharing the “often-overlooked beauty and complexity of wildlife.” She regarded it more highly than the social affairs and proprieties she saw within her world. Of the loss of habitat in the Limberlost marsh, she notes the inevitable climate change: “They had forgotten that draining the water from all these acres of swamp land would dry and heat the air… and they had not figured out for themselves how much rainfall they would take from their crops… [A]s the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up… the work of changing the climatic conditions of a world was underway… the fur-bearing animals and all kinds of game birds were being driven farther and farther…”

I hear her words, and I think of my love of the green wilds. A friend of mine says that when she was growing up, her family home was in one of the first suburbs at the edge of a wood, a wood that stretched for miles behind them. Thirty-five years later, there are no woods to be seen at all. Nothing but more suburbs and sprawling spaces of dried grasses. I am not a scientist. I don’t have facts and figures. I don’t feel the need to prove we are damaging the Earth. Her resources are finite. That is a surety. How many generations of voices need to ring out before we find the strength to make the changes necessary for the continued survival of all life on the planet? For we are all relations.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Family Treasures: The Harvester

Over a year ago, my father and I sorted through an old tote of photos and collected articles from his maternal side of the family. His mother, Ruth Ruston, died when he was five of cervical cancer. The items in the trunk belonged to her mother, Minnie Estelle Wicker, and Minnie’s mother, Emma Angeline Whitcher.
Among the assortment of natural beauty tips and recipes cut from the newspaper, I discovered that my Great-Grandma Minnie was a local singer, as well as an amateur photographer. There were dozens of photos taken on family camping trips of lakes and woods. I found a piece of birch bark, collected and kept as a memento. Was it something that spoke to her? For I also have a fondness for birch.
Beneath those layers we discovered older portraits and a hand-sewn quilting sample. There were also unopened envelopes of patterns that Minnie had sent away for; a doll pattern and an apron. Pamphlets from church events became brochures for the Order of the Eastern Star meetings, a spiritual group with no religious affiliation; it was a fraternal order that both men and women could belong to.
There were recipes from the US Department of Agriculture, explaining the correct nutrition for your children in 1917. Still yet came recipes scrawled out for danish pudding, baked apples, cauliflower pickles, suet pudding, cabbage salad, marmalade, olive oil pickles, molasses layer cake, chicken croquettes, homemade catsup, and canned beets. It’s unfortunate that most do not have clear instructions. They seemed to be recipes often used. At some point the handwriting changed and dated back to the turn of the century where my 2x Great-Grandma Emma had written down how to brine pork in a barrel, placing the separate cuts at varient levels and taking them out after different lengths of soaking.
At the bottom of the tote was a water-soaked book. One book in the whole trunk and it was like gold to me. I am an avid reader and I always have been. My mom helped me get a card to the adult section of the public library before I was of age as I had read through the children’s library. So, to find a book that had been saved over time, and set aside with other personal things, was a treasure to me.
I’ll never know if it was a favorite book, or if it had any sentimental meaning to an ancestress. I’ll never know if it was purchased or borrowed from a friend and never returned. I’ll never know if it was the book someone was reading at the end of her life or if it was a favorite book to bring along on vacations. But it speaks to me that there might have been another reader in the family who had fond memories of curling up with a book against a window in the afternoon light.
The book has a red cloth cover. It is water damaged and misshapen. The spine is cracked and bent and the book sits at an awkward slant. There is an old bug on the inside, where the cover seems to have been used as a means to its death. It has definitely seen better days.
Illustration by W.L. Jacobs
It is a first edition from 1911, called The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter, published by Grosset & Dunlop in New York. I was surprised to discover that the author was a woman, born Geneva Grace Stratton (1863-1924), who achieved commercial success with her writing in her lifetime, during which she wrote over 20 books. She wrote her fiction to support her non-fiction; she was an amateur naturalist.
A biographer stated that, “Readers who are completely in tune with nature and who find fulfillment through its healing qualities are easily absorbed into the characters of her novels.” Gene herself wore men’s clothing, wading into the swamp and woods, writing about the wildlife around her. She included her findings within her novels.
The Harvester is a syrupy love story. But the love the author had for the wilds comes through in her details. The information in using natural herbs for remedies alone would have been invaluable to most readers, caught up in the story of the Medicine Man who prepares them. The main character has a mystical vision and moves mountains to manifest that vision into being, the truest kind of magic.
I curled up with the book, tenderly turning old and worn pages. I stepped back into a time when other hands, not mine and yet with similar blood, touched the same pages in turn. Despite the impossible speeches, I found myself drawn into the Medicine Woods that Stratton-Porter described, transported to a space once also visited in the mind of an ancestor:
 “The forest is never so wonderful as when spring wrestles with winter for supremacy. While the earth is yet ice bound, while snows occasionally fly, spring breathes her warmer breath of approach, and all nature responds. Sunny knolls, embankments, and cleared spaces become bare, while shadow spots and sheltered nooks remain white. This perfumes the icy air with a warmer breath of melting snow. The sap rises in the trees and bushes, sets buds swelling, and they distil a faint, intangible odour. Deep layers of dead leaves cover the frozen earth, and the sun shining on them raises a steamy vapour unlike anything else in nature. A different scent rises from the earth where the sun strikes it. Lichen faces take on the brightest colours they ever wear, and rough, coarse mosses emerge in rank growth from their cover of snow and add another perfume to mellowing air. This combination has breathed a strange intoxication into the breast of mankind in all ages, and bird and animal life prove by their actions that it makes the same appeal to them.

            “Crows caw supremacy from tall trees; flickers, drunk on the wine of nature, flash their yellow-lined wings and red crowns among trees in a search for suitable building places; nut-hatches run head foremost down rough trunks, spying out larvae and early emerging insects; titmice chatter; the bold, clear whistle of the cardinal sounds never so gaily; and song sparrows pipe from every wayside shrub and fence post. Coons and opossums stir in their dens, musk-rat and ground-hog inspect the weather, while squirrels race along branches and bound from tree like winged folk.”

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Genetic Memory

Being able to find facts of my ancestors’ lives through my genealogical research has been very rewarding. But it’s not the meat of what I want to know. I want to know who they were, what behaviors dictated their choices. Were they kind? Honest? Were they survivors? Were they selfish? There’s no true way of knowing, except in the bits of written documents I am sometimes lucky to find where their character is described.
What I really want to know is how much like me they struggled through the world; is there more of them in me than this blood? Did they make some of the same mistakes I have made? Or have I made some of their same mistakes?
The idea that we can carry hurts and wounds and anxieties through our bloodstream, passing them onto our children, is an energetic truth I accepted, unsure of what the science would say. I have felt the weight of my ancestors’ choices, both good and ill. And then I came across an article in the May 2013 issue of Discover Magazine that put science to my theory.
The article talks about the new branch of science derived from epigenetics, where methyl groups attach themselves to our DNA, acting like bookmarks, seeking out specific DNA genes needed for the cell’s proteins. The DNA itself does not mutate, but the methyl groups, isolating those specific genes, decide the recipe that makes you who you are. I am not a geneticist and that is the bare bones of what I understand.
Geneticists discovered that epigenetic changes in DNA can occur in adult years. It was previously believed this happened only in early development. These epigenetic changes can also be passed from parent to child. They discovered that both diet and chemicals can account for these changes, but what of life experiences? This query is what launched behavioral epigenetics, a science which states that psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited.
These scientists wondered about the descendants of those who had survived brutal cultural massacres; like the Jews in Russia and Germany, the Tutus in Rwanda, the Native Americans who walked the Trail of Tears, and all those innocent children born and yet to be born to the rape victims in the Republic of the Congo. Do they inherit a tendency towards depression or anger in these methyl groupings? Through a series of tests, they discovered that yes, they do. And, just as we might inherit the bad things from our parents, we might also inherit the good. Perhaps those fairy tale ideas of family lines being “trustworthy” or “courageous” were not just romantic ideals.
What they also discovered, separately, is that we can alter these negative traits in our DNA through positive life experiences. This is where nurture comes into play. We can break the family curse, so to speak. So for me, the question of nature versus nurture is as unanswerable as asking what came first. Both the chicken and the egg are necessary for both to exist.
Drug companies are taking this science and attempting to create a medication that would cleanse us of these negative methyl groups, in the hopes of gifting people a clean slate. But those of us who do this Work know there is another way. Psychiatrists already do re-patterning work, which is like nurturing your brain into believing something different than what you’ve experienced. It’s not a lie. It’s gifting another way of responding to an experience you have already had. I would believe that this work also detaches some of those unwanted methyls from your DNA. This science is still being explored, but it lends credence to some of my Ancestor work- healing family tragedies that may have caused ripples down the family line, known or unknown.
Our emotional bodies exist just as fully and surely as our physical bodies do. Just like a broken bone that doesn’t mend correctly can affect your future gait, emotional scarring from abuse and violence can alter what your persona might otherwise have been. What this new science theorizes, is that if you have children after these events occur, you could pass that behavioral change onto the next generation.
It’s why personal growth is so important. It’s why doing your work is the most important thing you could do for your children. In my own family, we tend towards anxiety. What if that is an inherited trait caused by some event in my family’s past? I don’t think you have to know what happened. What if we could heal that in this generation of children so that it was not passed on when they procreated? What if we were the last cycle of that anxiety?

The idea of making amends, of healing the river of emotional dis-ease cascading down into me is like a way of cleaning up my emotional environment. I am healing all of the baggage of those methyl hitch hikers. I am doing it for me. If I were going to have children, I would also be doing it for them. I do this work so that I might help others do this work, so that we can all make choices from our own place of authenticity, and let the ghosts who walked before us rest.
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