What the River Said

Deep Island, pt. 10

Deep Island:


If I hadn’t been looking for the sign, I probably would’ve gone right past it—a little brown one by the side of the trail that said walk in campsite. I slowed to a stop and took my bike by the handlebars down off the pavement and into woods that fairly sighed with spring.

It was May of 2018 now. As it turned out, in the year since I’d been given my name, I hadn’t experienced a sudden upwelling of purposefulness and clarity about life. In fact I’d rather spent it directionlessly: hitchhiking and trainhopping with Misty from one off-grid community to another, mostly out West where the skies are big and the air is thick with dreams attempting to manifest. I was trying to convince myself that I was learning how to live in the country after a lifetime of living in cities, but a few months into the trip it became very clear that although I imagined I was moving to the country to be close to the land and thus solve all my problems of feeling estranged from the Earth, the real estrangement wasn’t geographical but mental, even—dare we say it—spiritual. I was very capable, it turned out, of going to a permaculture farm whose mission I believed in deeply, and nonetheless whiling away a whole month reading books, waiting for an enlightened feeling to arrive. It was due any minute. I had read of people and met people who were very at one with nature, felt at home in the woods. That was what I wanted. And I knew that in order to feel that way I had to learn, learn, learn about those woods, spend time there, learn to perceive what’s not obvious, until I could go out and see the stories all around without relying on a woods-wise friend to tell it all for me. But the problem was, I wasn’t good at that now. And when I went outside and wasn’t good at understanding everything, that was a bummer. I had been a kid who tested well and didn’t need to study for exams. I should have grown up to be someone who walks into a forest in an unfamiliar biome and points to a tree and says, “Ah, yes, the little nutlike fruits on this tree can be boiled and mashed to a pulp to be used as a wonderful addition to the squirrel I plan to snare for tonight’s dinner.” But the natural world was reluctant to give me its secrets as readily as an SAT “critical reading” multiple-choice question. I wasn’t good at the natural world. Know what I was good at? Reading books, learning from them. And so I kept finding myself, on summer days, in the shade of a beautiful forest, reading ink-stained bits of dead trees while living ones rose up sheltering and mythical around me.

I could see the problem; I had barely begun to glimpse any solution. And so I rode my bike: after I went back for a second spring at Porky’s—hoping perhaps that my spirit guide would explain my life’s purpose to me during one of Pebaam’s ceremonies—and after the May sun finally melted all the snow, I pedaled out alone to spend some time outside. If I didn’t know quite how to approach learning about life in tune with the natural world, it at least couldn’t hurt to just get out there awhile and breathe fresh air. Whatever I did under the trees, at least I’d be under them. When your way forward isn’t clear to you, there’s something to be said for the old strategy of “fake it till you make it.” A person who gave me a hitchhiking ride years ago told me, “Take the first step, and the second one will be revealed.”

When I came to the end of the quarter-mile trail to the walk-in campsite, I started to believe that I had been shown the second step. I found a single picnic table in a little clearing lain with soft white-pine needles, which gathered the sun and transmuted it into a lazy-warm gold glow, an alchemical process that quite evidently imbued the light with a life all its own. The clearing sat on a little river. The river flowed by at just the right speed, not too fast, not too slow, and redwing blackbirds tossed out their reedy calls cavalierly from the other bank as they bombed through the air from one dried cattail stalk to another, picking spots at random to perform their strange sideways landings. As I came in, two herons flew upstream. The pines that embraced the campsite also leaned out over the river. They were celebrating the arrival of spring by dropping a magnanimity of rich golden-yellow pollen, which streaked the top of the water and made it seem to glow from within.

My name came with a few stipulations I didn’t mention yet. One of them, common to all Ojibwe names as far as I know, was that once a year I would need to feast it, as it’s called: a quiet, contemplative little ceremony I could do anywhere I could find some woods. Another, explained to me by PaShawOneeBinace in his teaching lodge—where the pine-needle floor, come to think of it, looked a lot like what was under my bare feet here—was that I should display a star somewhere on me. The how and where were up to me, but that Morning Star should be there to see. I was coming right up to the first anniversary of being named, and I had yet to do either, but I’d biked 170 miles now hoping a place would present itself where I could sit quietly and listen to the world, or the spirits, and figure out how to give my name that respect. Under one of the pines I found a little feather from Migizi, a bald eagle, the one who flies highest and intercedes with the Great Spirit on humanity’s behalf. As I poked around, more feathers kept turning up until I had five on the picnic table. If everything else around me had yet failed to make my mind up, that good omen certainly would have been enough. I set up my tent and prepared to stay awhile.

I found the water was not just the right speed, but the right temperature as well, even though there had probably been snow on the ground here until a few weeks ago, and I could walk from one side of the river to the other without ever stepping into unnerving muck or going more than chest-deep. I also found that it begged for me to drink it, not filtered but straight, with all the pollen granules and subtle scent of algae that marked it as living water. My awareness that giardia and cryptosporidium could lurk upstream was overruled by some faculty in my body that could clearly sense the health of the water and assured me I had nothing to worry about. I filled my bottle and took the land into myself.

I took a couple days to settle in before doing anything too big. I got acquainted with the town of Pine River a couple miles up the road, sharing a name with the river: a homey little place where Jim at the Chamber of Commerce (a big log cabin by the trail) showed me some of the historical items scattered around the building, like the town’s first telephone, and explained that tourist money does help, but a lot of the people of Pine River are farmers and ranchers. At the campsite, I watched a muskrat swim by the landing, and noticed the amazing whizzing sound geese’s winds make, and I wrote a haiku:

the moon got caught in
the powdery pine branches
over the river

When I decided, after two days there, that it was time to feast my name, I couldn’t say I was doing it as someone who knows the spirits, communes with them every day, has a close relationship with the spirit helper invoked by his name. I was little closer than I had been a year before to working out in what capacity I even think spirits exist. But on the other hand, I hadn’t been completely idle in the previous year. I had searched with slight but nonnegligible success for Ojibwe stories that mention the Morning Star; I’d talked about it with Pebaamibines at sugarbush; I’d looked into the tradition of star quilts, which are sometimes said to represent Waabanang specifically of all the stars. From all this and from plain old-fashioned contemplation and common sense, I’d gathered at least the simple insight that the Morning Star represents hope: the light that shows up into the darkness a little while before the sun, to reassure those who are watching that even the longest night does have an end. And hope is, after all, something I’ve always felt called to carry. These days people everywhere are prone to hear the news and slump into an impenetrable pessimism-fest. Planet on fire this, endless wars that, and on top of it all every movie’s a remake. I’ve always felt more drawn to the longer, more positive view: through all that, there are people in Iraq and Indonesia and Idaho living lives they love with people they love, and coming up with creative ways to keep living good lives amid everything that’s changing. Our species may cause a lot of problems for a while, but it won’t end Earth, and a rebirth is inevitable once the problems eat themselves. Maybe it’s a weird, backhanded kind of optimism, but it keeps me going and makes me happy.

I cooked some rice and beans, and dolloped some onto a birchbark plate I’d made that morning, and carried it with those thoughts away from the campsite and into the woods. Then, feeling a little silly about it, I sat there—glad the mosquitoes hadn’t hatched yet—and quieted down and talked into the forest about what I’d learned. I spoke in English and halting Ojibwemowin and addressed whatever spirits might be existent and listening. Fake it till you make it, I had read, isn’t just good advice for when you’re directionless in life, but also for when you want to establish a relation with the spiritual realm, whether for an Ojibwe Mide priest waiting to see what happens when she smokes a pipe or for a Christian kneeling by the bedside hoping someone really is listening. Act as though there is someone to hear you, and they’ll be more inclined to answer.

I don’t know that I got any answer in particular when I was out there feasting my name. But I still felt like I’d done the right thing: not just by honoring what I’d agreed to do when I asked for a name, but by remembering that even if I never fully understand even the one thing it seems like I should have complete understanding of—myself—the reward is in trying and always understanding more.

  • The way you can go
  • isn’t the real way.
  • The name you can say
  • isn’t the real name.1

But it’s a name I can use while I’m here among the ten thousand things.

Then there was the matter of showing a star somewhere on me. From before I was even given the name, I was getting hints about how it should look. My first day on the island, I found a little plastic pinwheel that had washed up on the stones, with eight petals, alternating blue and orange. After the jiisakaan, in the teaching lodge, I noticed Ralph’s leather bag had a star beaded onto it: eight points, radiating in colorful patterns. Back at Pebaam’s cabin I noticed a quilt I hadn’t paid attention to before, showing a big eight-pointed star. A star quilt, Pebaamibines said. The Morning Star.

I had toyed briefly with the idea of a rotating series of shirts, or a patch on a jacket, or (most plausibly) a beaded tobacco pouch. But really I knew from the moment Ralph told me to show off a star that it was time to take what I had learned in a year or two of giving my friends stick-and-poke tattoos, and put the star right there on my skin. There were only two questions left: what colors I’d use—which I’d settled that January during a series of predawn walks out onto a frozen lake to look at the Morning Star and let inspiration come—and whether I’d actually have the nerve to do it.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of the pain; the consideration of pain ranked somewhere near “negligible” for me. It was that a tattoo is so, well, permanent. (“No kidding?”) I had always thought it’d be cool to have one, but I had already changed so much in the decade since I’d hit the legal age to get one, and if I played my cards right I still had a good five or six more decades to live. Wouldn’t regrets just be a matter of time? Even in this case, when I had been all but mandated to get one by actual spirits, I found it hard to convince myself I’d always agree with the decision. Perhaps later I would decide that beaded pouch was the right choice after all. I’d asked elders and been told it was no sacrilege to get a spiritually oriented tattoo, but would everyone I met agree?

The day after I feasted my name, I woke up having decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it today, but I still didn’t really know if I was going to. So I figured I’d just proceed as if I’d come to a yes, and at some point if that was the wrong answer, I would come to a step where I’d realize I had to stop. I got some paper and sketched out the shape I’d devised, and did a little basic trigonometry to figure out the measurements I’d need. I cut some straightedges out of birchbark and drew the star onto my arm to check out the placement. Good, good. I opened up my kit and mixed the first color of ink. Alright, getting a little heart-poundy here, but still seems good, just… big. I got a needle out of its package and fixed it onto a pencil for grip. Hmm, that looks quite a bit like a needle one could use to permanently put ink under one’s epidermis. Hmm. I sat down on the picnic table. It was a bright, warm day, and redwing blackbirds were crashing through the reeds, and I dipped the needle in the orange and poked the first dot into my skin. When it came right down to it, I didn’t even hesitate much before I did it.

And of course just a little patch of orange would look ridiculous, so once I started I did the whole star, eight points in a six-color pattern, poking straight through the whole day. After one of the colors I stopped and considered eating, but found I only had an appetite for finishing the tattoo. I poked the last few dots as the long dusk of the Northwoods’ late May was beginning to gather. I stared at it for a while.

As a kid I had spent days at Warder feeling completely, unabashedly at home. Then I had grown up and left Cincinnati and spent, it seemed, all the years since then chasing a grown-up version of that same feeling. Now I had come to a place where the muskrats came by to see me, the redwing blackbirds played just across the way, the eagles left behind feathers for me to find, and the air was fat with pine pollen and the lightness of life. I wasn’t tempted to pull out a book; none could be as fascinating as where I was and who was there with me. I felt at home in the outdoors as I hadn’t since I was a kid, a feeling I’d been starved for for all these years, now filling me up over the brim. It wasn’t hard to believe spirits of some sort were responsible. I put some tobacco in my left hand; I closed my fingers around it and the muscles moved around under the freshly placed ink. I walked over to the river and offered the tobacco into the water. All that, at least, was worth giving thanks for.

  1. Le Guin, op. cit., ch. 1. 

File under: biking, Anishinaabe, tattoos, Deep Island

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