I never want to leave this country; all my relations are lying here in the ground. And when I fall to pieces I am going to fall to pieces here. ĖShunkaha Napin (Wolf Necklace)
Mornings, as the dog sniffs trails of nocturnal visitors across the lawn, I lay the end of a water hose at the base of my young trees. I water them deeply while I sip hot coffee out of my favorite Ė my only, really Ė coffee cup.
Back at the parcel of land I was raised on, not a hundred yards from here, there are many cedars my father planted. Theyíre tall and thick. Iím guessing, but if he moved to the Rez in 1946 or í47, they were planted no later than 1950. Thereís also a row of cedars along my driveway here, and along the opposite fence line, certainly planted by my grandparents or great-grandparents; they are far too uniform to be happenstance.
I think itís a sort of resurrection, these plantings. Just over my shoulder, the remains of my five-century old oak lies like a behemoth on the ground. A third of it is still standing, and seems to be doing well despite splitting-off the bulk of its mass lengthwise. The depression and grief that saturated me when it collapsed was palatable, and indescribable.
I guess even old trees arenít eternal, after all; itís a hulking chunk of wood. It reminds me of a hand with some uplifted, some resting fingers. The pup likes to sniff around and under it, even climb it sometimes. He chases lizards and bugs joyfully about its carcass.
Can I be sure it was wild, or did someone plant it five centuries ago? Impossible to know. Perhaps they at least favored it, nurtured it. They say Napoleon decimated most of the old growth live oak forests along the coast to build a fleet. What we see today is this thicket of impenetrable invasives like Chinese tallow and the like, a tangle of vegetation so thick in most places you couldnít get through it with and army of machetes. Thatís not the lands my ancestors lived on: The cypress and oak forests were so huge, their canopies so dense, there was little to no undergrowth. Imagine it. Just tryÖ
Iíd like to think it was planted, that old oak. Just like the cedars in my childhood yard and my grandparentsí yard. Like the sago palms in the front yard. Thereís three of them, one by the road and two closer to the house. Truth of the matter is, I donít like them. They were, prior to Hurricane Andrew, nearly 12-feet tall and grew in a single stalk. But the storm broke them off nearly to the ground and they came back bushy. My grandmother was 87 then, and couldnít tend them as she had all those years. They are overgrown and ugly. I tried to prune back two others that grew in the yard and killed them.
Iíd love to have them removed, but I canít. Just canít. My great-grandmother, Delphine Stouff, lost one, possibly two of her children. For certain we know she lost Constance to a fever of some type at around ten. I have a picture of her: She is sitting on the front porch of the house Ė my house Ė with her mother and father, Jean Pierre, and her stern old great-aunt Clara behind her. She is cherub-faced, with a smile that would light the darkest of nights, her hands in a Chitimacha basket in her lap. She is young, perhaps just a toddler. She is beautiful, a precious Indian child.
Delphine planted those sago palms in the yard in memorial of her brief, beautiful life. They scratch my arms when I pass too close to them with the mower; vines sprout hidden deep under the fronds, at their bases, and I canít get rid of them; wasps love to make nests in their innards. They irritate and infuriate me, but they were planted by hands that cradled a tiny, lifeless body and wept; they were watered by tears and fertilized with sorrow. So I live with them, tolerate them, and when they scratch my arms I think of Constance, her little smiling face, in a photo taken nearly a hundred years agoÖ
That, not shade, is the real reason we plant trees, someone I think more highly of than most others, said to me last week. I let the hose run for long minutes over all seven of the trees I planted. I have one sycamore left that I canít quite decide the permanent location of. If it werenít for the electrical line in the front yard feeding the house, itíd go perfect near the east side of the garage, but then the power company would come and butcher it at some point hence. I may put it in the front, but there are water lines and sewer lines there and I fear its roots will damage them, cause me distress years from now. I worry over it like it is irreplaceable, and it isnít, but itís a life, a tree, so much more than just shade.
Not far from me is a small fig tree. It was a huge fig tree a few years ago, and grew behind the house rather than near the drive. I remember it being a dozen feet tall or more. My grandmother would go to it every spring and listen for kich, the little mottled-brown bird that spoke to the Chitimacha to warn them of enemies, floods, danger, whatever. Not in words, but in its own language of shrieks and chirps and whistles, which Ma Faye could understand much of. After she left this earth in 1997 I would stand under the fig tree early mornings and wait for kich, with my coffee in hand, and it would come and give me messages, but I didnít understand it. Still, it came every spring, until the devastating hurricane season three years ago, and I have not seen it since. My grandmother said, if there were to be a flood, the little bird would circle high in the sky, silently, afraid to come down. Of course, it may not have been a flesh-and-blood creature at all, perhaps it was a spirit, but its absence stings my heart like fallen oaks and dead little Indian girls. Gone the way of memory.
The fig tree collapsed a few years ago, its roots eaten by fire ants. I managed to rescue a cutting and started it back up in the front yard. Itís five-feet tall now and doing well.
If there is no one left to believe in something, does it cease to exist? This is the dread that preoccupies me as I water trees and mow around old sago palms. I spend my waking hours trying hard to believe. Trying to help things persistÖ
What we leave behind will eventually turn to dust. Split and fall to earth, crumble, disintegrate. But so long as someone Ė anyone Ė believes, maybe theyíll persist for just a little longer. Even if just in someoneís thoughts for another fleeting instant.
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. Ė Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior.