We Are the Land

I place my hands on the ice and hold them there as long as I can tolerate the bitter cold.  It’s old ice – perhaps hundreds of thousands of years – and I am awakened and awed by natural forces that extend far beyond my comprehension. There is something archetypal about a glacier. How else could we explain the allure of its multi-dimensional, crystal blue hue; especially when it beckons us to come closer, to touch it, when all signs read “danger”?  But I am equally stunned by the markers indicating the distance and speed of its retreat.  At its current rate of withdrawal, in fifteen years, this glacier may be completely gone. It’s odd to think that I may outlive it. Ironically, I came to Alaska to celebrate my 50th birthday; to put into perspective fifty years of life against that which, at one time, seemed like eternity.

“We are the land” writes the Native American writer, Paula Gunn Allen. “Illness is a result of separation from the ancient unity of person, ceremony, and land, and healing is a result of recognition of this unity”.

Over the years, I have tried my best to understand the truth of what Gunn Allen is saying. If the glaciers are melting at such a profound rate, are we not also losing something of ourselves? But, how can I, a white, Eurocentric, and displaced person, possibly grasp this notion? James Hillman says I can’t.  Speaking of us European descendents, he says our eyeballs and ears were made in Europe and that we will forever see and hear through European eyes and ears. And, in any case, he asks, “Doesn’t it take centuries for a settler to hear the earth of a place, to become soil-soaked?”

Maybe so, but there is one ingredient that we all hold in common, whether European, Middle-Eastern, Asian, or Native American, that Hillman forgets to mention, and that is the spontaneous feeling response that comes from listening to another’s story. Feeling. That non-rational, ego suspending, wildly uncontrollable, awful, and beautiful feeling. Feeling dissolves all dualities. It reconnects us to our bodies, to each other, and to the land. When the story is told and heard, feeling is present.

And here, I turn back to Gunn Allen when she writes, “Perhaps we can best characterize this relation by saying that the stories are the communication device of the land and the people. Through the stories, the ceremony, the gap between isolate human being and lonely landscape is closed”.

How many of us have come to the ceremony, broken and cut off, only to go out onto the land and return with a story? Stories of the shadowy vales of life, the ecstatic mountaintops, and the impassible rivers?  Of long dark nights and early morning sunrises? Stories of mysterious desert mirages, visions, and coyote sightings? The story is the ceremony that closes the gap through feeling.

And this is why I tell you my story of melting glaciers. Perhaps my heart is melting, too. The glacier reminds me that I will also die, as will those I love, and there is immense sadness in recognizing this loss. But, when the heart melts there is no room for opposition, or even rational judgments. All fluids leak out and flow into the body, through the feet, onto the land, and into each other. And who knows? Maybe these tears of mine will return someday as snow to form later into ice. After all, we are the land.