Wednesday, October 10, 2012
After an evening staying with friends in Corning, we headed to Chico to resupply and do errands. We were still refining the organization of the camper and figuring out what we needed. It is a slow process finding stores and moving about an unfamiliar town. We needed to get used to this. GPS helped a lot but compared to doing routine errands at home, the day seemed long and cumbersome. We stopped at “Morning Thunder” restaurant for brunch and had enormous, tasty meals. Chris and I stared at each other, overwhelmed by the noise and activity. Was this place really, really loud or had we become extremely sensitized by our quiet stays in nature? Probably both.
By late afternoon we were both fried and Chris wanted to GET OUT; he insisted on driving up Route 32 toward Lassen National Forest for the night. We planned to go to the closest forest service campground but when we got there it was closed for the season. Continuing up the road we found a dirt drive that, after a short steep climb, led to a flat area. Clearly, this is a parking place for people fishing. It was located in a bowl surrounded by low mountains and lava formations. We could hear, but not see, the Deer Creek down the sloping hillside. There was only time for dinner and bed.
We were in active black bear country; there was bear scat near our camp and the next day I would see more in the forest. None of it was very old. It was almost entirely comprised of berry seeds and looked like, as described in a source about track and sign, like it had been extruded from an frozen orange juice can.
Two years ago we spent a week in Lassen National Park. It is the homeland of Ishi, who, some of you know, is considered to be the last Native American to have lived, as his ancestors had done for thousands of years, “in the wild”. Alone – his family and tribe gone – and starving, he walked out of the mountains in 1911. Eventually, he was befriended, looked after and helped by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and lived his remaining years in San Francisco. Ishi died in 1916, as many Native Americans did, of one of the diseases of civilization, tuberculosis. As we traveled, we listen to an audio version of the book, “Ishi in Two Worlds”. We drove down Route 32 which follows the descent of Deer Creek while listening to the audio. Synchronistically, with views of Deer Creek from the car, the book described Ishi’s life along this stream. Since then I’ve wanted to return.
All night I kept waking up waiting for morning so I could visit where Ishi lived. It felt like waiting for Christmas morning as a child. The next day, I made two trips to the creek before we left in early afternoon.
This creek is typical of mountain streams in California, full of big boulders and water cascading into small and occasionally large pools. Cold, clear, clean. I imagine Ishi and his family living, hunting and fishing here and I offer a short ceremony of apologies for their loss of land and life.
I hope to return again and spend a few more days and possibly meet the ghosts that inhabit the place.
Why am I so affected by Ishi and his story? At the risk of sounding overly romanticizing and idealizing, I will explain. Ishi’s story represents the end of many things to me. Certainly, the end of the way of life and the freedom for America’s original people. And with that the loss of languages, knowledge, skills and history. It also represents, if not the beginning, the escalation of the modern era of over-development, expansionism, industrialization and overpopulation. It represents the loss of many lives from colonization and the loss of Native American’s ability to survive in the face of ranchers, developers, prospectors, and especially capitalism and American policy. It represents the violence and destruction following the wave of European settlement of the Americas.
Native peoples, of course, share the same range of human characteristics as all humankind, from peaceful to warlike, from sensitive to callous. However, indigenous cultures in their original state most often have the following traits: a deep spirituality related to the forces and mystery of nature; respect for the interdependence of life; rituals of gratitude for what one has and for the gifts of nature; a reliance on the beauty of story and myth, song and music; necessary and exceptional skill at crafts, whether it is pottery, beadwork or tools; a sensitive understanding of the land, animals and plants with which one lives; a life outdoors in sync with the movements of season, sun, moon, migrations.
I have a deep affinity to all of these traits and I try to introduce them into my life in small ways. I seek to live in balance and harmony with the way things actually are, with the way the Universe actually works, and with finding happiness where it can actually be found.
And I have a deep antipathy for many of the predominant values of 21st century Western culture. The obvious ones include: unchecked growth, a spirit of accumulation and greed, thoughtless exploitation of natural resources and peoples, and glorified self-interest. Even in day-to-day life we are surrounded by habits of busyness and distraction and by behavior driven by unexamined neurosis and subliminal fear. Both the source and the result of these traits is a culture of profound disconnection. We become separated from our inner world, each other and nature.
When I reflect on Ishi’s story I feel heartbreak and melancholy. There is a poignancy that is hard to bear and a longing for a lifestyle, community and society that embraces values of open-heartedness, interconnection and presence. I want to go to Ishi’s homeland along Deer Creek to attune and atone. Attune to a world of beauty and atone for the destruction inflicted by our European ancestors.