The hunger comes before I know my name or where I am. This appetite may be the story of my life but my life is not much of a story. The hunger is greater than I have been or will be. This hunger is the thing driving me and flogging me. I am born between two points: a stone axe head found in a plowed field and placed on a fence post by my father and the scars of an ancient and huge glacial lake whose collapse helped feed and sculpt the great delta of the Mississippi River. Everything else is detail to be buried in the river muck or ground under by the next sheet of ice.
I was born to be erased.
And accept this fact.
The ground under my feet has always meant more to me than the people around me.
I have dreamed all of my life about a house down by the river where I will live out my days and let the land heal and grow ever more fruitful.
I have dreamed all of my life of burning this place to the ground and then departing into the dark of night while the flames lick the ground.
I am not about closure. I am about reopening wounds and slashing through the scar tissue to the place where the dreams sleep and wait to come back to life.
I whittle the end of a stick, slide on a marshmallow and roast it black over the small wood fire as lightening bugs glow in the dusk. Images float before me like a dream.
The Case jackknife is razor sharp from constant honing on a whetstone, the air rich with the smell of oil as I stroke the blade.
Shucking fresh corn, the rank odor on my hands as the dogs gather round full of hope and curiosity.
The staleness of a city apartment in winter, the fresh blast of aroma rising from straw, cow shit and the Holsteins entering the barn door in a precise order and then waiting to be hobbled and milked.
The rankness of weeds as I hack at them in the garden and embrace scent rising off the black earth into my face.
The breath of long dead dogs floats serenely in my memories and in my heart. The coarse laughter of vanished aunts and uncles warms the coldest night for me. Lately, distant moments of afternoon or morning, long ago smells and sounds and colors keep brushing against my face.
I am three and I think of old man Zeiger sitting on his porch in Chicago whittling dogs that he then stained. He would speak in halting English and this seemed normal for the time, an America where immigrants and foreign tongues were so common as to be unremarkable. For years, I had a small dog he placed in my childish hands, the body dippled by the blade to simulate fur. But it has slipped away, like the old man himself, and yet the chips falling on that gray painted porch, the little dog emerging from the wood, while a real live and very old dog sat at his feet, I still have those things and they are crawling out of my head and spilling onto the floor. Excuse me while I lean down and smell the fresh, sharp tang coming off the wood.
I keep remembering things of no consequence. The rush I felt as the smell comes off chickens roasting on the grill in the late afternoon, the chatter of women fussing in the kitchen amid the pies and vegetables and salads and bawdy talk, the sour smell wafting off the beers in the paws of the men, the laughter of my father at his own absurdity and in the distance, the hens clucking as they scratch and feed in a world I try to imagine and wish to join. Clouds also, always better to my eye when blackened with the promise of storms and thunder and lightening. A green tinge of hail beckons from the heavens and I can see fear sweep the eyes of my farmer kinfolk.
That guinea hen pausing just before it is going to peck out my sister’s eye and the crack of the rifle as my mother on the back porch of the farmhouse cuts it down.
I have despised America’s view of itself most of my life — the belief that we are a city on a hill shining grace and light onto other nations, that we only fight defensive wars, that we have solved the problem of class by pretending everyone is middle class. And that race is a detail in our long illustrious past.
Thirteen thousand years ago, a large meteor apparently struck North America and demolished many life forms. Paleo-Indian artifacts abruptly end in the layers of soil. Most of the mega-fauna suddenly disappear. Just like that. Fires no doubt raged and turned entire ecosystems to ash. We, as people, have been here a few moments in a happy interlude between glacial events.
National identity is a fabrication and comes and goes with the vast migrations of peoples. When Hadrian built his famous wall dividing England and Scotland, the people north of the wall were not Scots and the people south of the wall were not English. And reading of the evidence of the human presence in Europe over the last ten thousand years makes me realize the continent has been a constant movement of people creating goulash of elements within the various national DNAs.
Hunger has pushed me to go into deep time, that place before my life began and before written language began, to plow the very soil of my world. I speak to others but they seem to use a foreign language. Sometimes, I think I am living underwater. I keep flicking through shards from a broken past, beasts going down: Imagine being the last mastodon? The last dire wolf howling into the silent night? The plains tribes riding into doom and alcoholism. The grass sitting there, incapable of flight, as the plow rips apart a world. The lonely paddlefish hiding in a few refuges as violence destroys all the other members of the ancient community in the watershed bleeding the heart of the continent. That slave singing African songs in a language no one in the neighborhood can understand.
The cities killing the bottomland.
The banks killing the countryside.
In the school rooms, they teach that the tale is about the unfolding of freedom.
In the academy, they teach the tale is about imperialism and the crushing of native people.
Or they insist the tale is about racism and slavery and a compact made with some kind of devil even though God is dead . . . still the devil lived on and ruined the tale from the beginning.
In all the tales, the land is there for the taking.
This is where I leave the classroom, leave my nation and turn my back on my own species.
The land was there for the taking.
I have never spent one minute of my life believing this statement.
It is the original sin, one committed by the earliest bands, then the tribes, then the nations, and after that the scribblers of the tale.
In time, this sin will tear to rubble the City on the Hill.
The land was, is and will be.
Never for the taking.
I believe in the woman walking the summer street by the old live oak as a dog wanders in the trail of her scent.
The land was there for the taking and I left the thieves before I could speak a single word.
There are some days when the green wave comes, a surge of protoplasm, pollen, chlorophyll, and it is warm as it laps against my face, memories ride within the swirl, the wish of spring when the thaw comes, the tulips and daffodils erupting from the dead hand of winter, the birds in the tree making morning songs, an up swelling of everything that says yes and drowning everything that says no, and I glide on this wave of energy and believe no matter what happens that only good will come, crack an egg into the sizzle of the skillet and feel a warmth off the orange yolk, the smell of toast, the savor of black coffee, and the days grow longer, the trees burst into leaf, and I know this green wave is the future and the past and the present, and I race downstream following it as it crashes against the tombs where abandoned hopes rot and breathes life into everything, and the killings go under, the blood is washed away, going to find my father, going back to find my mother, going back to find the ground, the dirt paved over, the soil lost to my mind, things abandoned when I left on that interstate and got aboard that plane, some kind of return to a place of broken clocks and iron sunrises, a green wave taking under things called the economy or things called career or things called planning, a surge breaking my will but feeding my appetite, and I stand as it towers over me and I go, God I must go, because nothing will make sense unless I give up sense and join.
But it is a fantasy, these waves of red and green, there are no records, all the archives are full of wars, progress, bank accounts and jubilees, things solid, I am told, like the granite facing of banks, the market reports and the daily schedules of presidents.
Since childhood I have sensed things beneath comment and lived things beneath acceptance. And now I am left with little or nothing but these waves, the erosion the boomers have made on my life, the tang in the air as surge storms toward me.
Two sticks, a line of string, the row marked, bean seeds in the ground, a wind still coming with a breath of cold, all hope lying in the turned over soil, promise of blue sky overhead, the rabbit in the meadow, crack of my single-shot .22, a leap and then flop, the animal left to rot as the sun starts to sink, a spring in my step as I move across the broken ground, the basic strands there at the beginning and now coming back at me again was waves of color.
In the morning, I think the green wave means life, the red wave means death. But in the night, I think they mean the same thing.
The green wave.
Her grave stares from the edge of the valley in the Sand Hills, a place near the ranch where her father raised the family and warred against the world. Mari Sandoz is both the recorder and the victim of the ground, a child of Swiss immigrants born in 1896, the same year as my father, she was the oldest of six raised on a hard ranch. Her father enjoyed drink, bold talk, and when feeling bad about life, beat his wife. He corresponded widely, tried agricultural experiments, held a kind of stern salon in his isolated place, and, given his reputation as a good shot, served as a one-man defense unit for the farmers coming in and butting heads with the ranch culture. He also surveyed plots for the newcomers.
Mari learned English at nine when she finally made it to a public school — as did my mother a few hundred miles to the east in Iowa. She left home by marrying a cowboy and when that swiftly failed, she went to Lincoln, starved her way to an education and worked on a book endlessly. It was about her father and called “Old Jules” and finally was published in 1935.
When as a child I would ask questions about my dead grandfather, I’d be told that all I needed to know was in “Old Jules.”
Sandoz eventually made it to New York City, lived in the Village and wrote histories of the Sioux and the land. The distance seemed to make this work more bearable.
I am in her sister’s house in the Sand Hills, a small place surrounded by a belt of trees that look to be under siege. Outside, the dunes, hidden under a carpet of grass, seem to roll on like an ocean. The house stands as a fort built against the land and the wind and the whiteouts of winter. It is not far to Wounded Knee but it is very far to what the settlers dreamed they would find.
The country feels mean when viewed from inside the house. But outside it feels like a fatal attraction. She pours coffee, talks of her sister, takes me downstairs and shows the books of Mari Sandoz I might buy. But the freshness is gone, the plains have been entombed in nice bound volumes by a woman who knew all the pain and all the scents. It is this way in the official stations of the thing called settlement — the museums, the paintings, most of the memoirs, the historical societies. Clean glass cases with oddments from brutal winters and children dying early and often. The dead buffalo are warm memories but now herds of cattle eat down the grass, and the plains want to be cowboys, country western music and strange hats worn by bankers in the stuffy air of their offices.
The insane women trapped in cabins in the wind with the sour smell of pent-up living are hardly remembered at all. When I was a kid, I could make no connection between the tales of pioneers and the kitchens where they were told as dinner simmered on the electric stove.
Ifind an old cedar box, a small half oval. I open it for the first time in half a century. It is from my childhood, some trove I kept that got stored for no reason when I left home. There are two full jacketed rounds for my .303 Enfield. A dozen .22 Long Rifles. And clusters of wooden matches with the tips sealed and waterproofed by wax.
And the paper case for two Marlin blades for a safety razor.
I fondle the cartridges and suddenly ballistics tables that I poured over night after night march through my mind and I can see numbers detailing the range of the .264 magnum I once craved as an antelope killer, a caliber now largely out of production, and the gleaming stock of a Weatherby, the dazzling bands of colors from different woods glued together in a loud grandeur.
I find a tarnished penny stamped 1960 and a small piece of copper ore.
They can sense the future and they fight it. The Micmacs are in their eyes an ancient people on ancient ground. It is the winter of 1749-50, the British in their struggle with the French for mastery of North America are building up strength in numbers and guns at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The population is almost entirely of French origin, a people known to us as Acadians. And they have intermarried with the Micmacs and become something neither French nor British, but rather a new breed of people bent on hard work, independence and tilling their ground. In a few short years, they will be uprooted, their homes and churches burned, their land stolen and they will be shipped off to France, the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard and eventually wend their way to the swamps and prairies of Louisiana and became yet another name, Cajuns.
But now, in this winter, their relatives the Micmacs grow alarmed by the British expansion and a council of elders drafts a declaration:
. . . The place where you are, where you build, where you fortify, where you think to make yourself master — that place belongs to me. I have sprung from this land as surely as the grass. I was born here and my fathers before me. Yes, I swear, it is God who has given it to me, to be my country forever . . . You glory in your great numbers. The Indian, with his small numbers, glories in nothing but God, who knows very well what is happening. Even an earth worm knows when it is attacked. I may be worth little more than an earth worm, but I know to defend myself when I am attacked . . . .
He lives in the woods near the Lost Coast and huge trees are his religion. His trailer in the woods has holes in the floor and he drapes sheets of plywood like throw rugs to keep winter at bay. He has two passions. Reading books far into the night. And shutting down modern life in the forest — no timbering, so salvaging, no harvest of much of anything. He has projects afoot to restore old salmon streams and thinks they will come back if beckoned.
He is Native American and is willing to wait forever.
He is about time.
He takes me to a massacre site, one of those spots of gore that splotch California from the days when the ’49ers hunted Indians like deer or wild hogs.
Sometimes when he moves through the woods he finds a bear. Then he will stand beside him.
The bear will get up on its hind legs and softy go huff, huff, huff.
It is written in the twelfth-century A.D. in the Orkenyinga Saga about Svein Asleifarson. His life is explained this way: “In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when the job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his ‘spring trip’, then back home just after midsummer where he stayed till the corn fields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never come back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his ‘autumn trip’.”
The temperature hangs at one above zero in western North Dakota near the Montana line. The wind is down, only slight drifts whisper across the roads. The house sits as a small tomb of silver wood, two floors, small rooms, a few trees slowly dying in a grass land where they never belonged. Joe Njos homesteads the land, builds the house, then goes back to Norway for a wife. She was very attractive, maybe the best-looking woman in the area. That was in ’15, or ’16.
“They had one son, and one daughter,” Melvin Wisdahl remembers. He’s past eighty and still he can see the beauty of her face in the blank of the plains. “She kept it spotless. She always dressed like a queen. One of his nephews always claimed his uncle got her out of a whorehouse in Norway. They died after World War II.
“Then the son lived there and he was a drunkard and he lost the land. I remember the day of the auction sale, he sat there drunk and cried.
“He married some woman who came through — someone who was making the rounds. Then she took off. He died in the fifties from something. The house has been empty a long time.”
Soon the house will not be part of memory. The roof will go and fall into the cellar. The walls will tilt. No one living will remember who once lived there, the woman who dressed like a queen in her tiny castle. The earth waits for the slow rot of this intrusion called settlement.
Nearby is the Bone Trail, the track the settlers used to haul the skeletal remains of buffalo to the railroad for a few stray bucks to get them through the angry winters.
They need meat and so the young man and his wife leave the village with eight dogs pulling loads. The story is Hidatsa or Mandan or Arikara — it is all long ago now and no one is sure which tribe first discovered this truth in the grass. Each day the man goes out and kills the game, mainly deer and antelope. Each day the woman dries the meat and cleans the hides.
She tells him, “I feel like going home now. We have been here a long time, and now there is plenty of dried meat.”
But he wants to kill more.
After a while, a routine descends. The dogs brighten when the man returns each day, the woman cooks fresh meat and at night, when the coyotes howl, the dogs patrol the camp. And then one day when the man is gone on his hunt, the woman looks up and sees a young man watching her. She scents a nice odor on the wind.
She retreats to her lodge and when she comes back out, the young man is gone. But in future days, the young man keeps returning and when he does, the dogs growl.
She tells her husband of these visits and how she fears the young man may be an enemy who will kill her husband and make her a slave. But he searches around the camp, can find no tracks and so dismisses her tale.
He says he needs one more day on the hunt and then they will return to their village.
And so it happens, he goes out the hunt, the young man with the fine scent returns and she elopes with him.
Later, the husband finds her gone, and trails her with the dogs. He sees the couple walking ahead of him, cuts around them and when they approach discovers to his surprise that his woman has run off with an elk. He fires an arrow but it bounces right off the elk.
The woman and her elk lover march past him. He follows, fires all of his arrows to no effect. When he approaches his wife, she ignores him.
They come to a lake. The elk disappears under the waters and she follows her new lover beneath the surface. Her husband sits on the bank and weeps. Night falls, and still he remains with his grief.
Just before morning, his woman breaks the surface and she tells him, “You must go home now. We can’t be together again. It is difficult where I live now. And now you must go!”
But she also tells him that if he ever wants anything — success in war, power — he should come back to this very place and ask. After the winter has passed, she continues, he should return with a dress, a belt and a pair of moccasins and leave them on the bank for her. And he should remarry and this will happen soon and she says the new woman will look very much as she does.
And it all comes to pass as she said. He goes back to his village, finds a new woman who looks like his wife, and settles down. He returns in the spring with gifts, she surfaces briefly and then returns to her elk lover.
He becomes a power among his people.
The preceding is an excerpt from a work in progress, “Café Blood: Songs My Country Taught Me.”
Charles Bowden is the author of, among many others, “Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez,” “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.”
1. John Mack Faragher, “A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from their American Homeland,” W.W. Norton, New York, 2006 , p. 260
2. Cunliffe, p. 464.
3. “Parks, Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians,” pp. 219-223.