By Linda Hogan
When Chickasaw poet and essayist Linda Hogan fell in love with her current home, a 1930s cabin in Idledale, Colorado, she would be continually astounded with wonder from learning the surrounding environment and animals. As she writes in this selection from her latest book of poetry and prose, The Radiant Lives of Animals, cultivating her connection with the land has been a lesson in the impact human life leaves behind and, with the insight of Indigenous knowledge systems, the kinship between us and the natural world begging to be nurtured to this day.
The story of this land is ancient. The red earth, crags, and canyons were once an inland sea. I imagine the currents when this mountain basin was ocean, water swaying as the moon became full or as wind moved it, swaying. Within the water, a shining circle of fish, many lives all thinking and moving as one. Sea animals hid inside stone caves and indentations that now, so many years later, shelter canyon wrens and swallow nests, once protecting numbers of indwelling bats.
In the times that passed between all these, dinosaurs left behind their footprints and bones for humans to find and fight over. Those are on the other side of this mountain that holds me.
On a dry day with particles of dust shining in sunlight, I drove up one hill and down another, my Blackfeet friend having me stop the car several times to gather red and yellow ochre for ceremonies or to use as paint for powwow dancing. That was long ago when I lived several homes away, but even then, I looked down this valley and knew one day I would live in this home and with this land so alive, so vibrantly enchanted with songs from ancient times, and with the night animals wandering through the forest of trees or the ones crossing hillsides by day. I knew other tribes had once stayed in this place of accepted amnesty as was the rule at the hot springs not far away. The earth here is created of all their stories, ancient and new.
Even so, down below the main road, at Bear Creek, Col. Chivington planned the massacre of human beings at Sand Creek, while promising them peace and safety. This betrayal, unfortunately, is also a story of this land.
Four miles up the road, Buffalo Bill is buried, a man known only for his abuses. Not so far away from his remains is a large buffalo herd. It is a joy for me to watch them calve in the spring, then watch the light-colored calves grow and darken, but mostly it is a pleasure to witness the tenderness between mother and calf, knowing that love is an unmeasured emotion even for human beings.
Not far over the mountain, northward down a highway, the land was once a great buffalo wallow filled with large numbers of bison. Now it is the city of Denver.
I fell in love with my home a few years back when I was hiking animal trails through the forest across from here. At the time this uncared-for little place wasn’t rented, so when I saw the cabin, I felt I was not trespassing. I crossed the creek and climbed up the hill, then tried to look inside. I found only one window allowing me to see a wall with wallpaper peeling like bark from a birch tree. But for me, the condition of this 1930s cabin didn’t matter. The land was my gravity and eventually gravity won. All these years later, it still holds me.
This became my home twenty years after that day of window-peeking. It is land that owns me. At first, I didn’t know the large number of animals that lived here and passed through, needing protection from development to the north. Nor would I have guessed I’d be years learning an environment so powerfully alive. Here are a million years of stories to tell. Some are immediate and very present, like the flattened morning grasses that reveal what slept here last night, usually a small group of doe and fawns curled together in herd dreaming. Or how the marmots across the way call out with a gentle trilling voice when they see a predator, and the three o’clock fox sings as it passes by on its daily journey with its wide tail full and beautiful. From hidden places, crows scream out and fly down to swarm their enemy, cawing loudly, alerting me to danger.
Then all becomes peacefully quiet forest and canyon once again, the singing creek passing through green mountain curves, traveling past the location where the lion keeps her bones, past the infant forest, an entire world filled with both visible and secretive lives.
Perhaps the ancestors dreamed it into existence, dreamed the future where I now live after many years of looking down into this valley with curiosity and longing, hoping I would one day live here and feel safe with the animal lives around me. I do feel that safety, living and planting above the place where water seeps out through the canyon walls, pure and clear from its secret journeys of underground miles.
I continue learning the animals, but I also want to learn the human animal. After all, we are the puzzle, the most difficult to understand or know. All the others may cohabit a field together easily: wild turkey, deer, rarely even a coyote, and the small birds at the edges. They are fine together until a human is near. Seeing us, they scatter. I am a predator known to them, when my own inner sea wants to know how we might be a part of the wilderness congress.
It is not my purpose to create a pastoral world. There are nights I hear death cries or screams of animals caught by others. I am also aware not only of the great number of species lost everywhere each day, but of the toll climate change is taking on the entire beleaguered planet. We are inundated with this pain in every book, every story on the news.
When I think of change, I consider the re-minding of ourselves and I mean that it is time to consider other kinds of intelligence and ways of being, to stretch our synapses to take in new ways of thought. As an Indigenous woman, I look toward our Native knowledge systems, the times when our relationship with the earth wasn’t the disjointed connection most of us have learned from our Euro-American education systems. I am one human animal who wants to take back original meanings and understandings in ways that are possible and are necessary.
Perhaps some of us make poetry, music, and art because the ancient story still dwells inside our body, as does a feeling for old ways of seeing and knowing the world. I see it in our work, our circles of native science conversations and the popularity of our books. We also know it in some quiet moments, intimations that surface from deep in the marrow as a brief yearning. Sometimes it feels like grief, sometimes it is grace. Sometimes it is like loneliness. Sometimes a joining together with all others. In any case, it is a true and deep need, this desire to change our systems of thought and vision. In this same way, we still feel our animal kinship, our own animal life, and the primordial green and dirt-rich odor of our world connection as a reminder.
The kinship and relationship between human and nonhuman others rise from inside to seek what is relevant in this changing world. But there is more. Many of us remember this in our shared histories. We want to know what sees us when we do not know we are being watched, but only feel that watching. Our need is like the shadow attached at our feet, never to be walked away from. Instead of speaking to what is beneath that shadow, it is often easier to ignore the dialogue asked of us by earth, its language spoken within and without our own skin.
In most Indigenous creation stories, humans were the last ones created. Around us are our many teachers. For now, it is enough to simply know that we do not live alone in the skin of any environment. We are part of a collective, the way marmots hibernate together in their complicated burrows beneath ground.
About the Author
Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) is a poet, novelist, essayist, teacher, and activist. Her work illuminates environmental and Indigenous activism, as well as Native spirituality. She was born in Oklahoma and now lives and works in Idledale, Colorado, a town of 252 human souls. Her literary works have earned her awards and fellowships including a National Endowment of the Arts award, a Guggenheim, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of America, and, most recently, the Thoreau Prize from PEN and a Native Arts and Culture Award. Connect with Linda at lindahoganwriter.com.