Sunday, September 27, 2009

Number 59’s Wall

"If the legends fade, who will teach the children?"
— Te-lah-nay

Yesterday we finished up our second financial permaculture summit in Hohenwald, our county seat, and some of the participants took up an invitation to visit The Wall.

The Wall came to pass from a series of events in the Nineteenth Century, beginning with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was opposed by our local Congressman of that time, David Crockett of Tennessee. A lawsuit for the Cherokee Nation reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832 and Justice John Marshall ruled in Worcester v. Georgia, (31 U.S. [6 Pet.] 515) that an indigenous nation was a "distinct community" with sovereign self-government and the power to engage in treaties with the United States.

President Andrew Jackson wrote that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.” He sent General Winfield Scott to effect the clearances while Congress busied itself passing fake treaties to paper over the ethnic cleansing.


A little girl named Tah-nan-kay was living with her people in the Euchee Nation of Northern Alabama at that time. They called themselves Tsoyaha yuchi, “the Children of the Sun from faraway.” Ironically, the Euchee had fought alongside of Andrew Jackson at the battle of Callabee Creek, in the Indian Wars of 1814, and were praised by the General for their gallantry and valor.

The Euchee language is a linguistic isolate, not known to be related to any other language, but there are similarities to ancient Hebrew and the Bat Creek Stone (Smithsonian Collection), removed from an East Tennessee mound (since plowed flat), contains a Semitic inscription of the first or second century C.E. which translates "For the Judeans." Carbon-dating has confirmed the linguistic dating.

We know that the Euchee were descendents of the original Mississipian mound builders, that they were decimated by European disease following contact with DeSoto (1540) and Pardo (1567) expeditions, and that their widely scattered villages were the consequence of that decimation and of being on the losing side of conflicts with in-migrating Muskhogean, Iroquoian, and Algonkian peoples.

The Euchee are now the oldest recognizable residents of the Southeast. There are only 7 native speakers left.

Tah-nan-kay and her sister, Whana-le watched from the bushes where their father had hid them when the whites, led by Hairy Face, who drank from a jug and walked crooked, came to their wasi. Hairy Face killed their family before their eyes, but, guided by their grandmother, the sisters, aged about 16 and 14, reached a canoe and went down the Singing River to the Muscle Shoals. There they were captured, removed to a stockade, and then put aboard a Navy keelboat going to Arkansas, with 20 Chicasaws, 12 Creeks, 11 Choctaws and 30 Cherokees.

They were given necklaces with brass tags bearing numbers. Tah-nan-kay and Whana-le were given 59 and 60, which they understood to be their new names, the names the Shiny Buttons called them. They said the canoe was so large they could not hear the Woman in the Singing River. From West Memphis, they joined the long walk to Oklahoma. Many stories are told of that forced winter march, and of the more than 4,000 who died, and they will not be recounted here.

After a winter or more in Oklahoma, Number 59 resolved to return home. She told her younger sister that she had visited all the rivers and creeks in that place and they were silent. She did not know the birds. She was not a flower that could bloom in that place, like her sister was, she said. She had spoken to her grandmother in her dreams, and her grandmother had told her to return to the Singing River.

When the snows melted, she left Oklahoma and walked back. In her dreams, her grandmother told her to mark where the Blue Star rose, and to go that way under cover of dark, avoiding the roads and settlements, and especially the dogs around them. The hardest part about crossing creeks was not the swim, but getting through the cane breaks on the banks, which often had nests of the snakes that drum with their tails.

She observed a fox, who her grandmother had told her was very smart. The fox picked up a cane in its mouth and waded slowly into the river. The bugs on the fox moved up to the cane and out onto its dry ends to keep from drowning. Then the fox dropped the cane and swam back to the shore.

Number 59 told her grandchildren many years later that she spent some months with a family who took her in at their settlement near the warm water (Hot Springs), and then, after she went around the “firefly village” (Little Rock), she met a Natchez Indian woman, named Wachetto, who had married a white settler named Pryor Donelson. Number 59 stayed with the Donelsons that winter. They arranged for a ferryman they knew to take her to Batesville, Mississippi, and from there she kept walking east.

After she left, the Donelson’s boy, Jacob, discovered a small circular wall of stones behind the barn. Inside the wall there was a stone with the name of each member of the Donelson family, and one for Te-lah-nay, with the Euchee symbol of remembrance.

Eventually, after more than two years on the trail, she heard the sound of the Night Singer (whipporwill) and Rain Crow (yellow-billed cuckoo) and she knew she was nearly home. Already there were many new white settlements in the 25 million acres of confiscated lands. When she found her home, she sat by the bank and listened to the low voice of the Woman in the River. After a journey of more than 700 miles, “I’ve come home, Grandmother,” she said.

This story was told to us by her great-great grandson, Tom Hendrix, who sat on a folding chair inside the garage behind his house, as the rain fell in torrents. He showed us a basket woven by a Euchee in Oklahoma, and how precise the weaving was. We were just off the Natchez Trace in Lauderdale, County, Alabama, about 50 miles from The Farm. The story Tom told came from his grandmother and his uncle.

He says he is not much of a storyteller. Tom’s Euchee name means the Stonetalker. For much of his life, he has been building a wall to remember Te-lah-nay. The wall is actually two massive walls, running nearly parallel, for more than a quarter mile through the forest. The outer wall, representing the Trail of Tears, is very straight and broad – 16 feet or more at the start, tapering to 10 feet, then 8 feet, then nothing. It ends in a tapered hook. The inner wall, representing the trail back for Number 59, is more idiosyncratic, weaving around trees, with alcove seats, prayer circles and small chapels, and many special gifts that have been left in the wall.

Stonetalker, now age 77, told us that each stone has been picked up at least three times. Once in the field, once from his truck, once from his wheelbarrow. He has been through many wheelbarrows, and his favorite, the one that lived longest, was named Fred and when Fred retired he had a special retirement party, dressed in a necktie and party hat. Fred is buried in the wall.

Between the parallel walls Tom has left some low stumps in the path. He says he leaves the stumps as “toestubbers,” to remind people of what it was like to travel at night in the forest.

Near where the wall begins the Nations have sent young stonecrafting emissaries to place sacred protection on both sides — rocks with eyes that look out to each person entering the path.

At the guidance of a holy man from the Nations whose name we forget he built the prayer circle seven times before leaving it as it is now. Each time he thought he had it right, but the emissaries from the Nations came and measured it with their special sticks and said he had to do it again. He did that until after the seventh time, when they said it was right. “What was wrong before?” he asked.

“Nothing,” they said. Each time was for a generation, first his great-great grandmother, then his great grandmother, his grandmother, his mother, him, his children, and his grandchildren.

The inner wall is built with three steps. The ground is birth, the first step is life, the second is death, the third is rebirth.

For the past 30 years, Tom has been building the wall, a little longer, a little wider, each stone, one stone at a time. He has been visited by people from many countries and many faiths. He works still. He says the wall does not belong to him, it belongs to everyone. It is wichahpi, "like the stars."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Climate Porn

Two years ago we visited with the Black Rock Arts Foundation, pro-playa-tors of Burning Man, at their clandestine warehouse near San Francisco. The occasion was the first meeting of the season to plan the Man, whose intended theme in 2008 was to be The Green Man.

“If you want to be really green,” we opined, “you should be thinking LED man.” We imagined a 50-foot giant, illuminated by thousands of colorful, 1 uW cells. The principals were open to the discussion, recognizing that it had been proposed before and it opened up some possibilities. Wedging that crack and pushing a bit harder, we cast a vision of a CO2-free festival — an artistic statement about care for the atmosphere. The discussion then got a bit more heated, with several of the pyrotechnicians coming to the defense of propane flares as visual arts and raising the usual canards about how exothermic exhibits are only 3% of the festival footprint, free expression is the raison d’etre for the whole shebang, and people attending festivals are exhaling only a fraction of their normal CO2 anyway, being deprived of all the accustomed appliances and energy-loads of daily life in the Big City.

We were about to launch into a longer riff about reclaiming the high ground — that visual arts are a non-verbal symbolic communication and the message of Burning Man is only about climate consciousness in a perverse reverse dramatis personae sense — but we suddenly felt our knees chopped out from behind and the conversation toppled like a harvested barleystalk. A ninja communitarian had been lurking in our shadow and was apparently growing uncomfortable with the high profile her invited guest to this discussion had taken and worried that it might reflect badly on herself. Being trained in the martial arts of intentional community as a long-standing co-housing resident, she dispensed from her cloak a smokebomb that completely enveloped the discussion. Our credibility was shredded so completely by this deft move that further utterances would have been totally pointless.

“He has never been to Burning Man,” she said.

Oh, the shame. Even more so because we probably will never go to Burning Man, either. The Green Man went forward more green wash than green change. The one that followed, just now, was no different.

Don’t get us wrong, we appreciate Burning Man for what it gets right. It builds community. From nothing. No food vendors, no sanitation, no money, no social order. Just sand, wind and scorching sun, out in the desert, miles from the Las Vegas dystopia. Community, and nothing else. It works on the gifting economy, loaves and fishes. It is one of the purest expressions of personal creative freedom anywhere on the planet. And it belches flames.

In Ireland there is a companion event called Electric Picnic that settles into an emerald green meadow in a 600-acre equestrian center near Stradbally at roughly the same time as Burning Man. Pyrotechnics also plays a role, but mostly it is permanent stages, sculptures and natural features that are gradually added to the horsey travellers’ site and remain while 90% of the festival features go up and come down in a 30-day period each year, almost just almost ready in time for 40,000 picnickers to push through the 300-to-500 euro ticket stalls on Friday and party on through Sunday night. This is not Woodstock or Burning Man, with just peace, love and music. Nor is it Bonaroo, with cornfed and beer-battered Southern youth waving rebel flags and Jack Daniels and looking for a Nascar weekend with guitars. Electric Picnic is all night raves fueled by the contrary mix of high-carbohydrate liquid sedatives and guarana energy drinks, dozens of simultaneous high-quality music venues to get the heart-rate up, surf music and rude rap reggae, green traders and merchants, bingo, face-paint, passion pits, solar cells and windmills, poetry, sushi, wood-fired hot-tubs, fortune tellers, broom and spoon making, myths & magick, independent film, yurts, cob pizza and piggy on a spit, tutus, top hats & tails, wifi, bread and circuses.

The climate porn is the strange bit, including flaming hoops and Frisbees, swallowers and fire dancers. With so much attention to clean and green, slow food, bicycles and hemp hats, why all the gas flares? Is this Niger Delta envy?

It is an odd disconnect. And the irony is, it is all unnecessary. There is a niche just waiting for the right company or art troupe to come in and exploit: carbon-negative festivaleering.

At a minimum, all of the pyrotechnica being done with propane and lighter fluid could have been accomplished with pyrolysis gases and wood vinegar, leaving bounteous biochar to re-green the site when the mud dries. Or in the case of Burning Man, to green the desert.




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