Hogan

 
“Dwellings”

Linda Hogan

“Dwellings”

Linda Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, was bornin 1947 in Denver, Colorado. She is anactivist in Native American and environmental causes, a poet, playwright,fiction writer, and essayist, and has taught American Indian Studies andEnglish. An important figure in Native American literature, Hogan in herwriting makes a strong case for the value of her culture and the contributionthat its way of knowing can make to the way we think about our relationship tothe natural world. “Dwellings” is from Hogan’s Dwellings: A Spiritual Historyof the Living World (1995).

 

Notfar from where I live is a hill that was cut into by the moving water of acreek. Eroded this way, all that’s left of it is a broken wall of earth thatcontains old roots and pebbles woven together and exposed. Seen from adistance, it is only a rise of raw earth. But up close it is something wonderful, a small cliff dwelling thatlooks almost as intricate and well made as those the Anasazi left behind whenthey vanished mysteriously centuries ago. This hill is a place that could bethe starry skies at night turned inward into the thousand round holes wheresolitary bees have lived and died. It is a hill of tunneling rooms. At themouths of some of the excavations, half-circles of clay beetle out like awningsshading a doorway. It is earth that was turned to clay in the mouths of thebees and spit out as they mined deeper into their dwelling places.

            This place is where the bees reside at an angle safe fromrain. It faces the southern sun. It is a warm and intelligent architecture ofmemory, learned by whatever memory lives in the blood. Many of the holes stillcontain gold husks of dead bees, their faces dry and gone, their flat eyesgazing out from death’s land toward the other uninhabited half of the hill thatis across the creek from the catacombs.

            The first time I found the residence of the bees, it wasdusty summer. The sun was hot, and land was the dry color of rust. Now and thena car rumbled along the dirt road and dust rose up behind it before settlingback down on older dust. In the silence, the bees made a soft droning hum. Theywere alive then, and working the hill, going out and returning with pollen , inand out through the holes, back and forth between daylight and the cooler,darker regions of the inner earth. They were flying an invisible map charted bylandmarks, the slant of light, and a circling story they told one another aboutthe direction of food held inside the center of yellow flowers.

            Sitting in the hot sun, watching the small bees fly inand out around the hill, hearing the summer birds, the light breeze, I feltright in the world. I belonged there. I thought of my own dwelling places,those real and those imagined. Once I lived in a town called Manitou, whichmeans “Great Spirit”, and where hot mineral springwater gurgled beneath thestreets and rose into open wells. I felt safe there. With the undergroundmovement of water and heat a constant reminder of other life, of what livesbeneath us, it seemed to be the center of the world.

            A few years after that, I wanted silence. My daydreamswere full of places I longed to be, shelters and solitudes. I wanted a roomapart from others, a hidden cabin to rest in. I wanted to be in a redwood forestwith trees so tall the owls called out in the daytime. I daydreamed of livingin a vapor cave a few hours away from here. Underground, warm, and moist, Ithought it would be the perfect world or staying out of cold winter, forescaping the noise of living.

            And how often I’ve wanted to escape to a wilderness wherea human hand has not been in everything. But those were only dreams of peace,of comfort, of a nest inside stone or woods, a sanctuary where a dream or lifewouldn’t be invaded.

            Years ago, in the next canyon west of here, there was aman who followed one of those dreams and moved into a cave that could only bereached by climbing down a rope. For years the lived there in comfort, like atroglodyte. The inner weather was stable, never too hot, too cold, too wet, ortoo dry. But then he felt lonely. His utopia needed a woman. He went to townuntil he found a wife. For a while after the marriage, his wife climbed downthe rope along with him, but before long she didn’t want the mice scurryingabout in the cave, or the untidy bats that wanted to hang from the stones inthe ceiling. So they built a door. Because of the closed entryway, thetemperature changed. They had to put in heat. Then the inner moisture of earthwarped the door, so they had to have air-conditioning, and after that the earthwanted to go about life in its own way and it didn’t give in to the people.

            In other days and places, people paid more attention tothe strong-headed will of earth. Once homes were built of wood that had been felledfrom a single region in a forest. That way, it was thought, the house wouldhold together more harmoniously, and the family of walls would not fall or lendthemselves to the unhappiness or arguments of the inhabitants.

            An Italian immigrant to Chicago, Aldo Piacenzi, builtbirdhouses that were dwellings of harmony and peace. They were the incrediblespired shapes of cathedrals in Italy. They housed not only the birds, but also hismemories, his own past. He painted them watery blue of his Mediterranean, the wild rose of flowers in a summer field. Insidethem was straw and the droppings of lives that laid eggs, fledglings who grewthere. What places to inhabit, the bright and sunny birdhouses in drearyalleyways of the city.

            One beautiful afternoon, cool and moist, with the kind ofyellow light that falls  on earth inthese regions, I waited for barn swallows to return from their daily work offood gathering. Inside the tunnel where they live, hundreds of swallows hadmixed their saliva with mud and clay, much like the solitary bees, and formednests that were as a potter’s bowl.  Atfive in the evening, they returned all at once, a dark, flying shadow. Despitetheir enormous numbers and the crowding together of nests, they didn’t pausefor even a moment before entering the nests, nor did they crowd oneanother.  Instantly they vanished intothe nests.  The tunnel went silent.  It held no outward signs of life.

            But I knew they were there, filled with the fire ofliving.  And what a marriage of elementswas in those nests.  Not only mud’s earthand water, the fire of sun and dry air, but even the elements contained oneanother.  The bodies of prophets andcrazy men were broken down in that soil.

            I’ve noticed often how when a house is abandoned, itbegins to sag.  Without a tenant, it hasno need to go on.  If it were a person,we’d say it is depressed or lonely.  Theroof settles in, the paint cracks, the walls and floorboards warp and slopedownward in their own natural ways, telling us that life must stay ineverything as the world whirls and tilts and moves through boundless space.

            One summer day, cleaning up after long-eared owls where Iwork at a rehabilitation facility for birds of prey, I was raking the gravelfloor of a flight cage.  Down on the ground,something looked like it was moving.  Ibent over to look into the pile of bones and pellets I’d just rakedtogether.  There, close to the ground,were to fetal mice.  They were new to theplanet, pink and hairless.  They were sotenderly young.  Their faces had swollenblue-veined eyes.  They were nestles in amound of feathers, soft as velvet, each one curled up smaller than an infant’sear,  listening to the first sounds ofearth.  But the ants were bitingthem.  They turned in agony, unable topull away, not yet having the arms or legs to move, but feeling, twisting awayfrom, the pain of the bites.  I washorrified to see them bitten out of life that way. I dipped them in water, asif to take away the sting, and let the ants fall in the bucket.  Then I held the tiny mice in the palm of myhand. Some of the ants were drowning in the water.  I was trading one life for another,exchanging the lives of the ants for those of mice, but I hated theirsuffering, and hated even more that they had not yet grown to a life, andalready they inhabited the miserable world of pain.  Death and life feed each other.  I know that.

            Inside these rooms where birds are healed, there areother lives besides those of mice.  Thereare fine gray globes the wasps have woven together, the white cocoons ofspiders in a corner, the downward tunneling anthills.  All these dwellings are inside one smallwaster space, but I think most about the mice. Sometimes the downy nests fall out of the way of their enemies.  When one of the nests falls, they are so wellmade and soft, woven mostly from the chest feathers of birds.  Sometimes the leg of a small quail holds thenest together like a slender cornerstone with dry, bent claws.  The mice have adapted to life in the presenceof their enemies, adapted to living in the thing wall between beak and beak,claw and claw.  They move their nestsoften, as if a new rafter or wall will protect them from the inevitable fate ofall our returns home to the deeper, wider nests of earth that houses us all.

            One August at Zia Pueblo during the old corn dance Inoticed tourists picking up shards of all the old pottery that had been madeand broken there.  The residents of Ziaknow not to take the bowls and pots left behind by the older ones.  They know that the fragments of those earlierlives need to be smoothed back to earth, but younger nations, travelers fromcontinents across the world who have come to inhabit this land, have little oftheir own to grow on.  The pieces ofearth that were formed into bowls, even on their way home to dust, provide thenew people a lifetime to an unknown land, help them remember that they live inthe old nest of earth.

            It was in early February, during the mating season of thegreat horned owl.  It was dusk, and Ihiked up the back of a mountain to where I’d heard the owls a year before.  I wanted to hear them again, the voices sotender, so deep, like a memory of comfort. I was halfway up the trail when I found a soft, round nest.  It had fallen from one of the bare-branchedtrees.  It was a delicate nest, woventogether of feathers, sage, and strands of wild grass.  Holding it in my hand in the rosy twilight, Inoticed that a blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there.  I pulled at the thread a little, and then Irecognized it.  It was a thread from onof my skirts.  It was blue cotton.  It was the unmistakable color and shape of apattern I knew.  I liked it, that athread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and newlife.  I took the nest home.  At home, I held it to the light and lookedmore closely.  There, to my surprise,nestled into the gray-green sage, was a gnarl of black hair.  It was also unmistakable.  It was my daughter’s hair, cleaned from abrush and picked up out in the sun beneath the maple tree, or the pit cherrywhere the birds eat the overladen, fertile branches until only the seeds remainon the trees.

            I didn’t know what kind of nest it was, or who has livedthere.  It didn’t matter.  I thought of the remnants of our livescarried up the hill that way and turned into shelter.  That night, resting inside the walls of ourhome, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house.  The sloped roof was the only thing between usand the universe.  Everything outside ofour wooden boundaries seemed so large. Filled with the night’s citizens, it all came alive.  The world opened in the thickets of the dark.  The wild grapes would soon ripen on thevines.  The burrowing ones wereemerging.  Horned owls sat in thetreetops.  Mice scurried here andthere.  Skunk, fox, the slow and holyporcupine, all were passing by this way. The young of the solitary bees were feeding on the pollen in thedark.  The whole world was a nest on itshumble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us.

 
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