RUIN AND BEAUTY

DEENA METZGER'S BLOG

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This Earth Day, Let’s Not Forget the Long Environmental Plight of Native Americans

From uranium mining in the Four Corners to the Hanford nuclear site, the U.S. government has consistently treated First Peoples’ land with disregard.shutterstock_64893586

Uranium mine tailings clean-up near Moab, Utah.
Photo Credit: Gary Whitton/Shutterstock

In March 2008, a small group of medicine people, healers and health professionals accompanied a native woman back to the Four Corners Reservation in Arizona after 22 years of self-exile. She had been suffering from leukemia, and then kidney failure from chemo, as a result of unknowingly playing in uranium tailings as a child. Yet she was healing despite stopping chemo, and she knew enough from her tradition that physical healing depends also on spiritual and soul healing, and so the journey was arranged.

The first morning in Tuba City, Arizona, we were surprised to meet members of the U.S. Geological Survey team who were looking to discover hidden uranium tailings poisoning the waters. As it happened, the woman had such information from her childhood, and in turn the survey team directed us to a private back road so that from above, we could view the now covered pit where she had played.

It was an extraordinary visit and significant for each of us in different ways. I was deeply rattled at the very beginning when we stopped at midnight at the entrance to the reservation in the tiny town of Cameron. We wanted to approach this homecoming with formal respect. It was necessary to do ceremony. We exited from the cars although it was bitter cold, and I bent down to touch the earth. Running my fingers through the sand, I was astonished to find they were hot. Cameron had been a major mining and storage site for uranium, but uranium is not hot. Nevertheless, on this cold night in March in Arizona, the sands were hot.

I could not forget that moment. It persisted in my thinking for years. In 2011, I began writing a novel, A Rain of Night Birds, about two climatologists, one native and one non-native, who upon meeting each other had to face the emotional and spiritual anguish of their profession. Unsurprisingly, the non-native woman goes to Cameron and discovers that the sands are hot. Her professional training doesn’t help her solve the mystery, but she pays respect to the profoundly wounded earth.

Writing a novel is a mysterious process. Fiction requires the bedrock of truth to be of value and truth requires fiction to translate its deepest meanings and implications. When I was writing the novel, I found myself seeking the bedrock through which the story of the characters’ love for each other and their anguish for the world would be revealed. In October 2013, I visited the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum and was captivated by the First Peoples exhibit on the history of the original people who lived in the area of the Gorge.

Like the burning sands of Cameron, I could not forget these First People. I was also puzzled by the focus of the museum, at once on the First Peoples and their ways of life, myths and wisdom, and also on the local history of transportation in the modern era. It is a disconcerting juxtaposition of soul and steel. The next August, I had to return; the Columbia Gorge and the Four Corners Reservation were becoming important sites in my novel. I had two visits in mind: the first to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the second to the Yakama Reservation.

The U.S. government has the audacity to call Hanford a “reservation” after expropriating Lalik (Rattlesnake Mountain), sacred to the Yakama, for use by the Manhattan Project, which built the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, which made Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Hanford is decommissioned now, but it cannot be cleaned up. It is one of the 10 most toxic sites in the world and the most toxic in the United States. It affects the entire Columbia River and its watershed.

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Aerial view of the 100-B Area with Reactor B, the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. (image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

When my traveling companion and I applied for reservations for the tour of Hanford, we were told they were sold out until 2012. But the day before we left for the Northwest, two tickets became available, so we took the tour into hell. The following day, we met with Russell Jim, an elder of the Yakama Nation, head of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program.

Jim spoke with us about the devastation of the land, how it is affecting the Yakama Nation and about the environmental impact of the radioisotopes that were released into the areas surrounding the B Reactor and the other nuclear reactors aligning the Columbia River. He spoke of the radiant salmon hanging to dry on the porches of the local people, and the radiation experiments enacted on non-consensual local natives. “But we will not leave our way of life,” he said. He was determined that his people would not become like the conquerors, or like those who created Hanford and nuclear bombs.

At its best, literature allows the reader to enter another world and experience another being’s life. In order for this to come about, the writer herself must enter the reality fully. In 1977, I had breast cancer. In 2008, I put my hands on the earth on the Four Corners Reservation and discovered the sands were hot. In March 2011, at the time of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, I lay down in my imagination within the body of the Earth Sea Mother to feel the radiation burn she cannot escape. On Aug. 11, 2014, I took the public tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where an accidental release of a plume of radiation burned into my body, evidenced by extreme C-reactive protein levels that took months to cool. For the next years I lived in the body of my imagination or the imagination of my body or both of the realities of the two climatologists whose lives I was coming to know and chronicle in my novel.

We will not survive as people or as a planet if we do not learn each other’s reality in every cell of our bodies. We will not survive if we do not look unflinchingly at the grave harm we are doing. Empathy and the willingness to experience common jeopardy may help us heal our psychotic condition. Writing this on April 6, 2017, I learn that our infantile and demented president has sent 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto the bleeding soil of Syria. This Earth Day, I offer you an excerpt from A Rain of Night Birds. May our Earth Mother survive us, somehow.
September, 2007, Canyon de Chelly. It was just weeks since Terrence had collapsed. As they drove in the long about way she and her father favored through Cameron, Tuba City, Kayenta, Many Farms to Chinle, Sandra’s thoughts inevitably flitted to the earlier trip. She had never gained an understanding of the hot sands. She couldn’t set it entirely aside because she believed that Terrence had buckled when he penetrated, with his piercing eyes, the history that led to the contamination of sacred land at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. He had looked through Wy’east (Mt Hood) to see it, in the way he had looked at the 2007 IPPC report through the wide-angle multidimensional lens of his mind.

Alone at Massacre Cave Outlook, where the brutal Kit Carson and his men had slaughtered mostly women and children in order to eradicate the Diné, the sands dribbled back into her consciousness. Terrence’s precarious condition had seemingly allowed her to set aside the entire spectrum of ills from the Anthropocene – from war to the poisoned earth – to focus on him. And also his condition had raised her alarm to orange alert. Worried about him, she turned away from the hot sands, but she could not forget them when standing at Adah Aho’doo’nili (Two Fell Off).

She could see into the earth to its fiery core and as far as the sun, as he could see forward and back seven generations and widely to the origin of the wind, its destination and return, to the swirl of currents, rising and falling, emerging and diminishing, an unending circle encompassing the globe.

Now she – so much had they become one – had to hold alongside Terrence’s collapse looking at Hanford, the inescapable fact, though she did not understand it, that the sands at Cameron had been hot at midnight on a cold March night, 2005, just before the advent of the spring equinox.

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No Soy de Aqui, Ni Soy de Alla

I awaken to questions. That’s how writing begins – or ends. I awaken with the question that led to writing La< Negra y Blanca: Did I ever meet La Negra? Nine years later I am still puzzling the way a mysterious question, that enters one as if it were a scent, can manifest in a novel and call so much into being.

I awaken with the question of meeting La Negra still as vivid as it was when it first announced itself like a guest at the door who would never stop knocking. Then I learn that Facundo Cabral, the Argentinean singer, poet, guitarist was murdered in Guatemala and somehow the two become linked though I can not explain it, just that it is.

I’m trying to tell you about writing a novel and what it really means when I say that a novel is a little world. It is a life force. It is complete. It emerges out of a single image, sentence or idea, the way the world emerged from a point and all the wonders, that includes all life, materialized from the mystery of light becoming matter but not forgetting itself as light.

When I wrote Ferall, I resided in a sycamore and then a Brazilian pepper tree in my mind

When I wrote The Other Hand I had to learn astrophysics and I lived among the stars for ten years. The stars and the holocaust – infernos of beauty and rage. Writing and contemplating, I spoke a language I didn’t understand and yet it became the equivalent of my mamaloshen, my mother tongue. It became for me a language of creation. And even now, like a particle that was once linked to another particle and so experiences parallel changes even if over a vast distance, I find myself thrust again into that energy, that light, that field of knowing in which I was immersed for those years. One merely has to mention a name, Daniella Stonebrook Blue, Cardinal Lustiger, Peter Schmidt, or a place, Palomar or Auschwitz, and the world that was The Other Hand springs into being and I am in that country again. Not writing, therefore, is an unbearable exile for then I am living without a country under my feet.

Each novel is a universe and the writer becomes a citizen whether or not she or he has a public identity in the book. At least that is the way it has been for me. As a writer, I live in the book. Once the territory is established, and the flora and fauna take root and thrive on their own – even if I may be writing about the threat to their lives by the ways we are living – as soon as their indigenous nature is established, I can make my home there. No, it is more than that. I have no choice. I become of it as I write it. I am shaped by it. I am no longer myself – I am its progeny, a creature of its distinct field of being and knowing. Another species from another universe, though all the references are to planet earth and its terrain, the more specific, the better.

And for a time there is no other world except that one, although it may occur that it, like a whirling sun, may gather other energies, other fields, other suns to it, so that they all become one. Like the meeting between Facundo Cabral and La Negra.

They say that there are many parallel universes, or one may be tucked within another, we do not know, but each has a sealed boundary, Each has its own cosmic laws so that the substance of one cannot accord with the other – and they cannot cross the boundary without being destroyed or undergoing a complete transformation – the one becoming the other. And as each novel, like each world, wants to remain separate, that is, itself, then I am called to transform completely each time I enter one of those distinct spheres of being.

Do remember that I am speaking about La Negra y Blanca and I am trying to explain why the book is a field of energy, is a way of knowing, is its own domain. This concern is what awakened me and further reminded me of other questions I have been carrying about what I call the Literature of Restoration, a shamanic use of language to restore the world that we are murdering.

The novel began with a question: Did I ever meet La Negra? It or I was preoccupied with the question – but not the answer – for nine years. And here is the book wrapped in beautiful colors painted by the Chilean muralist, Francisco Letelier. We are making a weaving of the brilliant and desperate colors of the sun. The colors are all dipped in blood.

La Negra y Blanca begins in Mexico as Blanca is traveling to Cuba or to Chile. Francisco is the son of the assassinated diplomat Orlando Letelier. Letelier was killed by a car bomb explosion on September 21, 1976, in Washington DC along with his US assistant, Ronni Moffit. You remember, don’t you? Members of the Chilean secret police, the DINA, were implicated as was Augusto Pinochet who led the bloody coup against the democratically elected President, Salvador Allende. He was not called to stand trial for this murder. A few were convicted and others went free.

The novel includes a sojourn to Lake Atitlan with Morena Monteforte the daughter of a Tz’utujil woman, Doña Rosa Chavajay and the former Guatemalan Vice President and novelist, Mario Monteforte Toledo. Allende’s death is part of the novel. Mario Monteforte Toledo and Salavador Allende were friends in the way I was friends with Morena. We sat at the same table together. When you break bread together, your relationship is true.

The image of La Negra on the cover of the book is from Francisco’s mural in Whole Foods on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, California. Blanca believed that if she could return to the moment of meeting La Negra, if La Negra could become real and enter the world in the manner that befits such a being or spirit then everything might change. That was one of the novel’s goals. We can put this in the realm of Restoration.

Then I found her portrait in Venice California, painted by a Chilean muralist who lives nearby. I remember well when his father died, but I didn’t know Francisco then. I remember meeting his mother in North Carolina years after Orlando Letelier’s murder; I think I met her there and then. I could have met the two of them in Chile in 1972. Maybe I did when we were all marching on behalf of the Unidad Popular or dancing in the mud on the stormy night of the Dieciocho, the Chilean Independence Day.

I never met Facundo Cabral though he is playing now from over there where the dead live. But I did hear Angel Parra play in Chile in 1972 before Allende was murdered. Angel and others. Then I brought home their music: Angel’s, Isabel’s, their mother, Violetta’s, the one who began Cancion Protesta – Gracias a La Vida. Inti-Illimani, Daniel Viglietti, Victor Jara. I knew Victor’s music before he was killed, before they broke his hands in the stadium, before…. And then afterward, Angel was in my house, and Viglietti, Inti-Illimani, I think, as well. I could be imagining this, – that is how a novelist is – but it actually happened. The real and the imagined, the known and the unknown, came together in the field that was Chile: With Poems and Guns, a film I worked on in 1973, the first film about the brutal golpe in Chile. Now I call this field La Negra y Blanca and it expands to something else with the addition of Facundo Cabral. The field becomes a sphere. It resonates with the music. How can we not believe in possibility?

So many of my novels have come out of music. They wouldn’t have existed if not for the sax, guitar or flute through which they were written. But the music of this book did not exist except for birdsong. Then last night, Facundo Cabral was assassinated and his music began to seep into the words as if the pages could have been a bandage to staunch the flow of blood.

Is it rhetorical to say that no matter how tortured these lands have been from the beginning of the Conquest and including the ongoing hemorrhage of pain and violence into the present, there is also a luminous plait of all the latitudes and longitudes of hope?

Let me weave another story into this world. I met a man who came from a war torn country in Southeast Asia. He had been adopted as a war orphan by an American military family and being well trained, they tortured him. He ran away many times. He couldn’t always escape. When he did, he made his way to an old Black woman who taught him how to play the guitar. The story goes the way such stories go. The guitar saved him again and again. The way another friend of mine, a Vietnam veteran was saved by deer; now he attends each road kill, each hunted deer corpse with the reverence one learns to bring to the holy.

I met the former orphan days ago and learned his guitar had been stolen. There was nothing to do but buy him a guitar. Don’t you think? And so, as I write these words, he is on the knoll at the edge of this land where we once planted an olive tree on behalf of vision. He is playing his heart out. I asked him to play on behalf of Facundo Cabral’s soul. Can you hear his notes?

As I contemplated La Negra and who she really might have been – whether I had really met her or not – whether anyone really knew who she was – what essence and future possibilities she carried – I understood that she was looking for a way into the world on behalf of Restoration. Oh how she loved the green loros, parrots, who came to her window each morning – no matter where she lived – to tell her their dreams!

If the world erupts from a point, and that point is the meeting with La Negra, then Restoration is possible because La Negra is the green wholeness of possibility. This is what Blanca began to understand and why she went back into the past to the time when she might have met La Negra and hunkered down in La Negra’s living room, behind the yellow chair where the Writer, Mario Monteforte Toledo, always sat, to observe La Negra long enough to be able to testify on behalf of the reality of La Negra’s life.

I woke up this morning as I often do, filled with fear and with hope. How can one not fear for the world when everyone is going mad and beauty is being systematically murdered? But I was thinking about La Negra and so I was in the field so carefully woven of the strands of color that streamed, as if from the sun, from Mexico to Guatemala to Chile and back.

The field of La Negra y Blanca is altered and amplified by the death of Facundo Cabral in Guatemala. It is another book altogether even if you never heard the music of Facundo Cabral and never will. Even if you will be unable to hear it when you turn the pages because it wasn’t there before the book was published, but it is there now.

I read about the assassination last night. Then Glenn Lopez, our dear friend, the MD who established health clinics on the banana plantations in Guatemala to treat the poorest of the poor, and now practices medicine in a mobile unit that he parks anywhere in the neighborhood he can, has come to gather up Michael to attend services at Agape. We haven’t seen each other for months. He enters singing “No soy de aqui, ni soy de alla.” I am listening now as I write so this essay, too, is in the rhythm of Facundo Cabral.

You can tell, can’t you, that I am on the edge of beginning another novel? That I am on the edge of stepping across a singularity into an infinite realm that I have never known? It seems that I am going to be learning about weather, about storm, cyclone and hurricane. These made an appearance in La Negra y Blanca but now they want their own text, as does the desert. It seems I am to learn about the Elementals, those great gods who occupy the four directions. I will have to find a language for them. Their own mamaloshen.

It is said there is a Fifth world waiting for us at the edge of where we are but we cannot enter it unless we are transformed according to its laws and it does not let in murderers. It does not let in those who take arms against the earth and its beings. But sometimes I think that those who have committed murder, and recognize what they have done, and change, are exactly those who can enter that new world. As I’ve written before, I met a man who said, he couldn’t go with me into that world because he had carried a gun. I didn’t know then what I know now about those who put down the gun to become true guardians of peace and the natural world. It isn’t easy, to say the least, but it is possible and actually we depend upon it happening.

I know nineteen ways to the Fifth world, and you have to manage all of them. There are probably more but I haven’t learned them yet. Kabbalists say there are fifty gates of understanding and they are all ways of exodus from slavery. We are enslaved by our own violence. We have to extract ourselves entirely from the culture and the ways we are living. Nineteen or fifty paths, it doesn’t matter. We have to manage them all. And whether we were murderers or not, we have to change down to our cores. Every cell must change. And we will sing and weep alongside each other as we try. I don’t know if the nineteen ways or the fifty paths are to be in the new book, but I do believe the book will be about Restoration or will be within the field of a Literature of Restoration. Why else would I write at this time in history and in this time of my life?

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