Spence here: I felt it fitting I finished reading River Horse this week, while sunning myself, “fishing” at the Sandy River. The book is one of William Least Heat-Moon’s best. An adventure in every sense: crossing the continent by river from New York to Oregon: one part travel and one part philosophy to two parts history and humor. Least Heat-Moon documents his own journey in his 22-foot C-Dory, Nikawa (which means “river horse” in Osage), with comparison to other famous river goers, mostly Lewis and Clark, and Native American inhabitants, then and now. Heading west, with a cast of hilarious supporting characters, Least Heat-Moon teaches the reader more about North American rivers than any classroom could, as he lives and breathes the weather, floods, droughts, nature, culture and the Army Corps of Engineers.
On many levels, the river, as an entity is always in my thoughts and my dreams. Since I was little I have been obsessed with boats and the water, significant as adventure and pathways. Now as an adult, I see the ribbons in the weave of what captivates and motivates me: the ease at which water flows and finds the way, the floods of our lives and the drought, the ownership and controls human-kind has tried to place on mighty ones, in particular rivers of the West.Not only do I think of the wildlife and natural detriments to which we may not even comprehend, but I think of the peoples affected by dams, locks, dredging, dikes, levys and channeling. What once were rich fertile flood plains for farmers are now dead dirt clods trapped behind earthen mounds to keep the rivers out, while taxpayers spend millions of dollars subsidizing farmers for fertilizer and irrigation, towns for flood damage (some being build actually below the natural river level), and commercial shipping agents to keep their barges afloat, which actually only makes up about 8% of the traffic on these rivers.
A few summers ago my friend and I backpacked a gorgeous loop around Mt. Rainier in Washington. On the second night, we camped about 100 yards from the Carbon Glacier, the lowest elevation glacier in the contiguous Untied States. I had visited glaciers in my childhood, as my family and I had gone to Glacier, Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks, but I never comprehended the significance and deep meaning until the Rainier trip. To watch a river being created from a glacial source, tumbling down a rocky slope, sometimes just a trickle at first, sometimes coming out as a torrent, as the Carbon River seems to, is pure magic. It is a leap, for me, a colossal contrariety in the nature of all things, to dam such a course. I don’t think the blockages we impose upon ourselves are any coincidence. In any event, history has proven how unsuccessful the taming of wild rivers actually is.
This weekend we are heading up to Mount Saint Helens to celebrate the beginning of summer. When I went up to Loowit the last time, in particular June Lake, I had an amazing dream–so vivid and real I knew it was not just a dream. While ‘sleeping’, all the creatures in the forest gathered with me, as the many ancestors of the land in the form of skeletons congregated under a large canopy by the lake to discuss the future of the mountain and what I was going to do about it. Often, I think about this dream, the feeling of the land up there as an unstable place, geologically and spiritually and I wonder what sort of powers these ancients think I have to be able to do anything to change our current homo sapient course. We will see what they have to say to me this weekend!
If nature undoes immediately what we work years to do, then we’re not doing it right.
–William Least Heat-Moon
Billy here. The roses are blooming here in Portland! We don’t have many pictures for you this week, but next week after camping for three days near our local volcano we hope to give you more, so stay tuned! This weekend is the halfway point between spring equinox and summer solstice. This seasonal point was celebrated by British peoples as Beltane, the ancient festival welcoming the beginning of summer. In traditional northern Europe, there were only two seasons, Summer or Light Time and winter or Dark Time. Beltane literally translates roughly to ‘bright fire’ and marks the coming summer sun with bonfires and relighting the home’s hearths at the central community fire. This ancient dousing of the home fire and relighting was significant. The home hearth was kept burning all year and was only ritually put out to be re-lit and renewed communally at festival times. Pauline Bambry, anthropologist and researcher of Beltane, says:
“Beltane is a rural pre-Christian prehistoric tradition which saw communities come together after long winters of isolation. It marked their connection not just to nature but to each other. That need to belong to something or someone hasn’t changed. We can be just as isolated living in the city or in a town as the ancient Bretons were in their round houses.”
Beltane is sometimes celebrated on May Eve or on the nearest Full Moon, which this year is today! The full moon of May is also called Flower Moon, Milk Moon, or Corn Planting Moon. Around Beltane the land spirits and faeries, or aes sídhe (pronounced “ays sheeth-uh”), were said to be out and about, just as they appear around Samhain or Halloween time and Midsummer’s Eve. Aes sídhe means ‘people of the mounds’, as they are the old ones, the indigenous pre-Celtic people Tuatha Dé Danann, who retreated to the mounds that dot the Isles. Could this be somehow be etymologically linked to the Nordic seiðr practice of magic (pronounced roughly “sayth”)? Offerings of fruit, milk and baked goods were left to the land spirits. Bonfires were lit and ashes were spread in the fields and on faces. Livestock were driven between two bonfires to ritually purify them, which had a practical purpose of ridding parasites and lice from livestock that had been kept in close quarters all winter before they were put to pasture. People checked the fences and roamed the boundaries of the village with torches in what was called ‘beating the bounds’. Folk donned flowers, woven wicker, and antlers; and, of course, danced around the famous May Pole decorated with colorful ribbons. In old times, the pole was actually the living old World Tree at the spiritual center of the village, but the old trees were felled when Christianity swept the British Isles.
These connective tissues are being revitalized today. The old festivals are making a comeback among folk with European ancestry, not just in Europe, but in the States as well. I would argue that now more than ever, with so many of us living in urban settings, we need festivals to celebrate our connection to each other and the Earth. We need one another to survive in communities. We need to feel the connection to the seasons in order to actively participate ecologically in our world.
The biggest challenge we face is shifting human consciousness, not saving the planet, because the planet doesn’t need saving; we do.
– Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez
To celebrate Beltane we will be camping with loved ones near the Fire-keeper of the Northwest, Loowit, also known as the volcano St. Helens. If you get a chance, I highly recommend reading Joseph Bruchac’s retelling of the myth of Loo-Wit the Fire-Keeper. In it he tells the story of Loo-Wit and the two sons of the Great Spirit: the chief of the Klickitat, Pahto (also called Paddo or simply Klickitat) who became the mountain we now know as Mount Adams and the chief of the Multnomahs, Wy’East who became the mountain we now know as Mount Hood. They quarreled over control of the land and possession of the beautiful Fire-Keeper, who gave fire to all the villages and lived on the Bridge of the Gods across the Big River Wimahl (the Columbia’s Chinookan name). The Columbia River is one of the most heavily dammed and ‘developed’ rivers in the nation.
Though she was asleep, Loo-Wit was still aware, the people said. The Creator had placed her between the two quarreling mountains to keep the peace, and it was intended that humans, too, should look at her beauty and remember to keep their hearts good, to share the land and treat it well. If we human beings do not treat the land with respect, the people said, Loo-Wit will wake up and let us know how unhappy she and the Creator have become again. So they said long before the day in the 1980s when Mount St. Helens woke again.
– Joseph Bruchac