Around the Kettles
I escaped Minneapolis slowly, pedaling down back roads and icy bike paths through a decrescendo of snowy landscapes, from the Warehouse District downtown, on through peaceful suburbs with wide, empty streets; past frozen Lake Minnetonka where the Twin Cities’ gentry erect their waterside mansions; and out into exurbs, where incongruous little clusters of commuters’ and retirees’ houses huddle amid white stubbly fields. I passed through the gracefully decaying downtown of tiny Maple Plain, and north of town I found Lake Independence, its mostly forested shore studded with occasional two- and three-stories. I rode a ways up the road that encircles it until I found a handmade wooden sign saying Porky’s Sugar Camp. Three tin squirrels were perched on top of the sign, busy tending tiny little kettles full of sap. Behind the sign, the land sloped down into forty acres of forest between the road and the lake, a hushed study in brown and white, accented by bright blue bags hanging off the maples. A muddy trail led to the only other sign of human activity, a fire pit surrounded by low walls of firewood, next to a few tents and a 400-gallon former milk tank full of clear sap that glinted in the sun. Pebaamibines was there already, sitting by the fire with his wife Laura and someone I didn’t know, Lois. I found a folding chair leaning against a woodpile, unfolded it, and sat down to join their conversation. After a little while, Pebaam fried up some walleye for everyone and told us stories about working as a fishing guide on the rez as a teenager, while the rest of us kept warm around the fire.
I pitched my little one-person tent behind a woodpile, provisionally, since I didn’t yet know if I’d be able to just camp out the whole season—Pebaam wasn’t the one in charge, so he couldn’t give me a go-ahead. The next day the one in charge, Deb, showed up, and she was a little surprised that I’d want to camp out, but said that would be fine, as long as I moved my tent out from under the huge dead basswood next to the camp kitchen, since it could fall over any moment.
Deb has been running this sugarbush for over forty years. The land was a patch her family owned but didn’t really use for much. Then she married Porky White, a respected if sometimes ornery Ojibwe teacher from Leech Lake, and he pointed out that they could build a sugar camp there. They first got the camp running in 1976, and as I remember, they’ve only missed one year since then. As it turned out, Deb and I immediately got along like we’d known each other for years. If we’d been born in the 1910s we could have been an inseparable duo of hobos. She’s like me in that she goes out and has adventures not to gain stories of her impressive exploits but just because adventure is a way of life. Over the course of thirteen years she and a few friends canoed down the entire length of the Mississippi River; once, in a flood, Deb’s tent nearly got washed into the river while she was sleeping in it. A few years ago when a hereditary condition finally pushed her over the line into “legally blind”—only one off-center spot of decent vision in one eye—she had to quit driving, so now she just bikes everywhere, routinely pedaling across entire states all through her sixties. Her well-used fatbike was leaned against one of the woodpiles.
Porky’s Sugarbush is a traditional Ojibwe sugarbush in a couple ways. Most obviously, all the sugarmaking is done the old-fashioned way. Instead of the kind of setup the big boys in New England use these days, a network of plastic tubes spiderwebbing around the forest from the trees to a central vacuum pump, Porky’s has plain old spiles with bags hanging on them. All the boiling is done over a huge open fire in a mismatched and well-used collection of 15- and 20-gallon kettles that are hardly different from the ones Ojibwe people would have bought with pelts in the 1600s in the earliest days of their acquaintance with French Canadian traders.
But more importantly, it’s traditional in that it’s a community. In the days before property lines and reservations, when Ojibwe people freely followed a yearly semi-nomadic cycle, the beginning of each year was marked by the first sweet taste of maple sap. Through the winter you would live with just your immediate family, in one or a few little wigwams, far from anyone else, so that everyone had enough hunting territory to find game to last the winter. Once the snow started to melt, your family and a few others nearby would all gather at some patch of maples that was your accustomed sugarbush, and spend the beginning of spring all working together to fill birchbark cones with granulated maple sugar (with some clever pre-metal-pot techniques). It was a time to share news of the winter and tell stories. It was a time to welcome the snowmelt and the warmth. When the leaves started to unfurl and the sap would no longer crystallize into good sugar, everyone would move to the big village for the summer.
Most of the people who gather at Porky’s sleep in houses in the city rather than right there in camp, but it’s still as much a community as it has been for hundreds or thousands of years. People come from all over the Cities and the surrounding areas—most of them Ojibwe, but some from other Native nations, and some not Native at all (like me or Kip the local mailman or Deb herself)—and we do the sacred work of the season. Of course this means hauling a lot of buckets full of sap around. (The best is when a school group comes from one of Minneapolis’s Native charter schools, and a bunch of first-graders run around the woods filling up little buckets and begging to ride on the back of the ATV—a privilege for which Deb makes them pay by doing math problems for as long as they’re moving.) But it also means—more importantly in this era of cheap sugar at IGA and abundant calories for everyone—thanking and honoring the spirits.
The hauling and boiling I knew I could handle. The spirit aspect, I was less sure on. When the time came for a ceremony, sure, I could stand and listen with the best of them; my childhood church experience had prepared me well. Maybe I could even pick out a few Ojibwe words from the songs and the invocation. But as for thinking any of it actually had any meaning? That wasn’t something I was sure I could convince myself of.
I didn’t really have to wait for a ceremony to start catching hints that a good time to figure out what I thought about this whole spirit business would be right now. But I had been meaning to work that out for some time now anyway. Learning about the Ojibwe understanding of the world, I had at first hoped to take the approach that I could learn its guidance on various philosophical matters, and that would give me a good anchor for the ecologically responsible relationship with the Earth that I’d always wanted. The spirits I would dismiss as superfluous cruft: superstitions that, over the generations, had glommed on to a sensible philosophical base. But it didn’t take long for me to realize the spirits, the philosophy, and the Earth are all inseparable in this tradition; you can’t understand one in isolation from the others, any more than you can hand someone a glass without handing them the space inside the glass. Mille Lacs elder Melvin Eagle once told a story of his uncle, who killed nine deer one year, and then shot at a tenth, only to find him still standing:
“What the heck am I doing,” he says. “Then that deer there disappeared as he was standing there in the shade. This big buck,” he said. He didn’t shoot him again. “Then he took off running,” he says. “And I was considered blessed in that.” He had killed too many of them. Something would have happened to him if he had killed that tenth one. So he was being watched over in a good way, at least that’s what he came to say of it, and he used to put tobacco down every time he went hunting; he would put that tobacco out.1
How do you extract the supernatural out of that story and leave anything worth listening to? It’s pointless to try.
Deb made the decisions and herded the cats; meanwhile Pebaamibines (or “Pebaam da Bomb”, as he told everyone to feel free to call him—“I think it’s a reference to my jokes,” he explained, with a deflative thumb-down) was the holy-man-in-residence. In among his hundreds of bad puns, he gave spiritual lessons to anyone who’d listen. That first night, while Lois and Laura were doing the dishes from the walleye fry, he sat looking out at the sunset over the frozen lake, vivid and pink against the dark, scraggly silhouettes of trees in front of it. He told me he’d been sitting in the same place one night last year and thirty or forty Indian names came to him that he could give to people who needed them—one of which, Agawaategaabaw, described the same silhouettes we were seeing. With him around, it was easy to start imagining when I looked out into the forest that there was more to the story than trees, something important below the surface. But what that something might actually be was, as yet, beyond the limits of my imagination.
I was often the only one there at night. It becomes important, when you have a lot of sap, to keep it boiling down late into the night so you don’t run out of room in the tank for the next day’s harvest, and late into the night I would sit by the kettles, staring into the coals, alone with the forest, listening to the wind hushing through the bare upper branches. One night, after I’d tended the kettles alone through dusk and into the dark, I looked up at the outlines of the maples swaying against a purple, overcast sky, and I tried to figure it all out.
So far, whenever I’d heard of a spirit or ritual that made no rational sense, I’d fallen back on the old “metaphor” explanation. Mishibizhiw, the giant water lynx spirit, unsentimentally fierce and known to kill innocents casually, is simply a metaphor for the behavior of water, which sweeps people away in floods or drowns them, indifferent to human life and yet necessary to it. In such a way, if I took the trouble, I should be able to explain all the Anishinaabe spirits as scientifically sound nature observations. But that strategy was wearing thin. It’s all well to remember water is dangerous by personifying (or spiritualizing) it in a story, but Pebaam and indeed most of the people who came to Porky’s gave every impression of expecting the “story” to be able to listen to them. They talked to them, like you talk to a person who can hear you. “You don’t have a chat with a scientific theory, and you don’t leave tobacco on the east side of a tree for the benefit of a metaphor,” I wrote at the time. People’s dealings with these spirits were altogether too lively for relations they’d maintain with metaphors. But if not metaphors, then what?
I didn’t find an answer that night. I just sat there thinking down dead ends. All I found was a cold wind whistling through meaningless branches in a dark sky. Scientific materialism, I had to say, really did seem to pretty adequately account for everything I was seeing. Wind responsive to heat differentials and the Coriolis effect. Trees grown the way they had grown because of simple system dynamics. True enough. But it all seemed so lonely, and life so pointless. Maybe that was the harsh truth that the age of science demanded we face. But Pebaam made the world seem so alive and inviting with spirits, and when he did, it seemed right, and the meaningless clockwork cosmos seemed like a hollow illusion, true on some level but with no bearing on the universe of feeling and meaning that made life worth living. On my own, though, I couldn’t sustain that illusion.
I gave up. But a couple nights later, in the comfort of my house, I was writing my journal and almost accidentally found myself trying again, putting down the beginnings of an understanding of spirits that I might actually be able to accept. The gap between the rationalist and spiritual ways of thinking had always seemed unbridgeable to me: you couldn’t get across without repudiating science entirely and committing to life totally unmoored from any facts, like a flat-Earther. But as I began to piece together some of the things I’d learned over the past week, and others from the past few years, I thought I may have spotted a trail, little-used and overgrown, that led from one side to the other. I could only see it if I took it one step at a time, but when I did, each step led promisingly toward reconciliation, and I kept following.
The first step—the trailhead, let’s say—was the idea that the Earth has consciousness. That might seem like rather a big first step away from the rationalist pole, but it’s actually not far outside the scientific mainstream. The first scientist to moot it successfully as a valid scientific idea was James Lovelock, with his “Gaia theory”. The reasoning, as I understand it, runs: if human beings have consciousness—which is debated, but not by anyone I have time for—that consciousness isn’t separable from us. You can’t remove someone’s consciousness from them with a scalpel and hold it up in front of a panel of surgeons like a successful fisherman.2 So consciousness must be a property of the pieces that make us up, and their arrangement. Now turn and look at the Earth; it has a heck of a lot more components than you do, working together in the same kind of harmony your cells do. That must mean something, at least. And look—you’re a part of Earth, as surely as a neuron is a part of you, so if you have consciousness, the Earth necessarily does!
The trick is, we don’t normally imagine the Earth is conscious because it doesn’t speak to us in a human language. We have a hard time imagining that anything that doesn’t experience the world just like we do might yet experience. There’s a real temptation to define consciousness as ‘the sense of self-awareness that a human has’. That definition, though, besides being transparently useless if we want to study whether other beings have consciousness, doesn’t even (on closer examination) allow you to say that other human beings besides yourself have consciousness—since there’s no way to slip your own consciousness inside someone else’s and confirm that it really exists!
The octopus is reckoned to be one of the smartest creatures in the ocean. But the only way we know is by watching its success at doing human things, like unscrewing jar lids, or tasks that are at least intelligible to humans. When it’s not doing those things, it’s presumably just as intelligent, but we don’t know what it’s directing that intelligence toward. Its mind is utterly unknown to us, and apparently very alien. Its brain has a much less commanding role in its life, and farms out most of the work to the very well-developed nerve networks in the tentacles, which can act independently of each other, and will keep squirming around with all appearances of motive and intelligence even after they’re cut off the octopus. What is it like to be an octopus? We can’t know, we can only imagine. And by the same token, because its mind is so unimaginable to us, the purpose behind a lot of its bizarre, fluid movements will always remain unknown to us. It could be trying to communicate, for all we know.
Now serious scientists have begun debating whether plants might have consciousness.3 After all, they react to things, in their chemical ways; they communicate by sharing nutrients with each other underground.4 Is it all automatic workings? It wasn’t so long ago that conventional wisdom held that a dog had no mind or experience of the world—this in spite of thousands of years of close friendships between dogs and humans: a heroic feat of denial of the obvious. In fact, not long before that, many white people denied there was significant consciousness in beings who could tell you, in plain English, that they had an experience of the world: black slaves. We’re finally beginning to appreciate that consciousness is much more widespread, and often much stranger, than we long suspected.
Granted, then, that the Earth has consciousness. How does that consciousness manifest in things we can witness? Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible for a conscious being to show no detectable sign of having consciousness. But even when a person has total locked-in syndrome, we can still run an EEG and find that they’re having sleep-wake cycles: we have evidence that there is consciousness (even if we have no idea what that consciousness is like based on what we can measure). There’s no good reason to believe that a being as colorful and multifarious as the Earth would be more reluctant to display its consciousness than a paralyzed human in a hospital bed. More likely, it’s displayed in ways that we either aren’t paying attention to, or aren’t recognizing as signs of consciousness.
The first clue for where to look is to remember that consciousness isn’t monolithic—it’s the product of all its components. So the Earth’s consciousness should be witnessed in the individual living beings of the Earth. That is, the actions of any old squirrel show that the Earth is conscious, because that squirrel is part of the Earth. Which also tells us that the squirrel is, in its own way, conscious. Okay, well, let’s grant that squirrels have consciousness, and horseshoe crabs too, even oak trees and dandelions.
But wait, why should individual living beings—individual squirrels—be the only conscious entities below the level of the entire Earth? The human body is made of individual cells, but those cells make up organs, which make up organ systems (circulatory, respiratory,…). Some species lead much more communal lives than most animals, and a whole horde of technically separate individuals might function for all practical purposes as one organism—as with coral. Does the consciousness of coral belong to the individual polyp, to the colony, or to the reef? Or perhaps to the species as a whole? How about lichens, which are mutually dependent marriages of a fungus and an alga: surely the consciousness of a patch of lichen belongs to the pair of them together? And while we’re granting consciousness to symbiotic assemblages, why not just call entire forests conscious? It almost looks as though everything in the world is conscious, both individually and collectively. This is a strange, disorienting worldview to the Western mind. But it’s been put forward, tentatively at least, under the name panpsychism by quite serious scientists, apparently including as hard-headed a materialist as Annaka Harris, neuroscience consultant and wife of famous angry atheist Sam Harris.5 And it’s exactly what any traditional Ojibwe will tell you the world is like. Pebaamibines once explained to me that in the Ojibwe language, not only each word but each syllable has a spirit. The language itself of course has a spirit too (as well as a spirit keeper, Aginjibagwesi, the goldfinch). It’s no stretch for an Anishinaabe to imagine that a stone used in a sweat lodge has a spirit, and if that stone breaks in half from the heat of the fire, those halves have spirits as well.
All this imagining left me with a new, very animate world, strange to my scientifically trained mind. These consciousnesses, or let’s say spirits since the two ideas seem almost coterminous, are a weird lot. What do they “look” like? Well, of course the spirit of poplars looks like a poplar, or perhaps more accurately like all the poplars that ever lived. But how do you interact with it?
Fortunately, although we don’t act like it these days, humans are a species with a long heritage of figuring out what to do with plants and animals and other life. Obviously plants aren’t going to speak to me in English. But imagine: you can look at your friend and, without words, from hints you might not even be able to explain, know that she’s sad. In the same way, herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner says he’s trained his intuition to understand cues that plants give us and that most of us don’t pick up, so he can understand their health, their disposition, what kind of human sickness they can help with.6 He’s not a lone nutjob saying this, either; this knowledge lines up nicely with the experiences of indigenous peoples everywhere. (The title of a book by Ojibwe herbalist Mary Geniusz runs: Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask.)7 It stands to reason that humans would evolve not to have to rely on abstract thought—which Jung calls “a very recent acquisition of nature … still in its ‘experimental’ state”8—to find plants to use, but rather hone their perception of everything that’s there to perceive. If even the most woods-stupid city slicker can tell intuitively from the taste of uncooked dogbane (unforgettably bitter, I hear) that it’s not edible in that state, what can the intuition of an experienced Ute herbalist tell her, especially if she’s spent her whole life cultivating it?
And what form do those flashes of intuition take? Dogbane will probably feel like a simple “hell no” or “eeughh!” to someone thinking of eating it, but for Usnea lichen—with its range of more subtle respiratory effects—that intuition could come as a feeling in the lungs. Or, if your culture’s stories are deep in your bones, it could awaken a memory of a story where someone has the problem that this sprig of usnea can fix. Or it might show itself as a spirit you’ve never seen before. Sure, it’s imagination. But it’s trained imagination. And we have imagination for a reason. Imag-ination gives us needed images to understand things. It’s not just fun. It’s essential. And there’s no reason to think that when a human understands how to use usnea from observing it closely, the human is the only active one in the interaction. The signals that the usnea is sending out may be subtle and passive—luster, color, size, smell, and perhaps some things not perceived only by the five classical senses—but it’s still sending them out. It’s communication, as long as we accept that the definition of communication broadens at the same time the definition of consciousness does.
I thought and wrote all this, that night with my journal, in vaguer and more immature form. But it felt, finally, like a breakthrough. The world of spirits, which I’d only ever been able to dismiss as a figment, now seemed like just a different, deeper way of perceiving the world. Science undeniably has its uses, but here’s an anecdote: some years ago, someone called a conference of one hundred spiritual leaders from indigenous cultures on every continent. They got together and spoke about prophecy. When everyone had had their say, it became clear that they all basically agreed on what challenges lay ahead for the next several decades and possibly centuries. If that kind of agreement is reached by people using spiritual modes of perception, with no knowledge of each other, on separate continents, it seems to me that there is something useful in this. And leave aside the fact that no conference of governmental leaders would come to basic agreement on anything, let alone a projection spanning decades.9
And so when Pebaamibines led an opening ceremony on the first Sunday of camp, and called on us all to take tobacco—or asemaa—and offer it by a maple tree in thanks to Mitigonaabe, the “tree man” or spirit of the trees, I was able to try a little hesitant communication to that spirit too. I communicated nothing profound or even particularly coherent, and I was still skeptical of getting any response I could interpret. But when I went home that day, I noticed that being inside felt like watching daytime TV. It was stuffy and dusty and who lives in houses anyway? It seemed like I’d been living in the forest for years. The feeling soon faded, but perhaps I got that fractional bit closer to the land that day.
An Ojibwe man leading a pipe ceremony recently told me that if you ask for personal growth in prayer, you’ll be sent a trial that’ll make you grow. After ten more days or so at sugarbush, splitting and moving firewood, helping herd little kids, I was sitting around the campfire with Pebaam and our friend Brandon from Ojibwe table, just shooting the breeze. Brandon talked about his new CNC metal cutter and some projects he had lined up for it. Then Pebaam got to talking about his childhood home up on the reserve in Canada,10 and mentioned that he would be facilitating traditional four-day vision quest fasts there in May, and we were of course invited.
I asked him a couple questions about that, and the conversation went on, but my mind never got much past that moment. It did go back, though: to when I was a little kid reading Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, and resigning myself, even as I finished the chapter about Lame Deer’s fast, to the truth that even though I wanted so badly to experience that, it was as inaccessible to me as an acceptance letter from Hogwarts. Now here the opportunity had been casually dropped into my lap while I sat in a folding metal chair. I took some of the rest of the day to adjust to this reconfiguration of the boundaries of the possible, and then started working out how I could get to Canada in May.
- Back to Deep Island, pt. 5: Stranger in a Strange Enclave
- On to Deep Island, pt. 7: Introductions
In Treuer, Anton (ed., trans.). Living Our Language, p. 107. St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Historical Society, 2001. ↩
And in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Book of Dust series, where something like consciousness is separate from the body as an animal-shaped “dæmon”, if your dæmon dies, you immediately do too. ↩
Pollan, Michael. “The Intelligent Plant”. The New Yorker, December 16, 2013. New York, N.Y.: Condé Nast. ↩
Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees (passim). Vancouver, B.C.: Greystone Books, 2016. ↩
I have not yet read the book in question, Conscious (New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 2019). ↩
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Secret Teachings of Plants (passim). Rochester, Ver.: Bear & Co., 2004. ↩
Geniusz, Mary Siisip. Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask. Minneapolis, Minn.: Univ. of Minn. Press, 2015. ↩
Jung, op. cit., p. 6. Actually, the word he used here was consciousness (and he composed this work in English), but he was referring to a different definition of the word than I’ve been discussing: consciousness as opposed to the unconscious, what in this discussion could be called “self-awareness”. ↩
White Bison, Inc. (Don Coyhis). The Red Road to Wellbriety. Colorado Springs, Colo.: White Bison, Inc., 2002. ↩
Canada calls “reserves” what in the U.S. are called “reservations”. ↩