A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Celtic Blood, Cherokee Blood, and Nature's Earthly Spirits

Helen Terry Dunton c. 1912
When I asked my redheaded Great Aunt Violet, who died many years ago but in whose western saddle I still ride, to tell me what she remembered about my paternal grandmother, she said, "Well, besides being a crack shot with a rifle, Helen was part Irish, and part Cherokee, and that wasn't a very good thing to be back then."   Aunti Vi was from the Dunton clan, my father's clan. "We have Scots blood," was the pronouncement, and I took it to mean that Scots blood was somehow superior to the Irish blood my grandfather had married into.  The Cherokee blood was rarely mentioned, and never with "princess" lineage claims.
Beyond the American Pale

In David M. Emmons book, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845-1910, he points out interesting contrasts between the "wild" Catholic Irish, and the more respected Scots Irish who had been the Protestant dissenters.  And he draws interesting parallels between England's attempts to rid Ireland of the Irish, and America's attempt to rid America of it's Native Americans.  "Both peoples had 'a wealth of folk tales and a host of legends...and strange beliefs touching every native plant and animal...for the Irish, every cave, rock, inlet, cove, headland, hillock, hill, drumlin, rill, pond, and bog and all who lived in, on, over, and under them had a name."
photo from Celtic Lady blog artist unknown
I am drawn to the old clan systems of the Irish and the Scottish, and to their beliefs (not strange at all) that all of nature is inhabited by spirits--not supernatural spirits, but earthly spirits. Perhaps the Little People of the Cherokees have more in common with leprachauns than we know.  Both cultures were also constantly telling and renewing their own oral histories.  And a good thing, Emmons points out, for the written histories of these tribal peoples were being penned by their conquerors.  "The Irish, after all," Emmon writes, "had no money to bribe the historians."  And being "cattle folk as the Indians were buffalo hunters...'they would rather have cow dung than soil' on their hands."
Chief Cherokee John Ross circa 1835

This quote will make you want to read Emmon's chapter "Savage Twins" cautiously.  I question the statements that generalize (such as implying that all Indians were buffalo hunters).  Or this one: "Neither people had well established work habits," he writes.  "Both were materially poor beyond powers of description."  He seems to draw his conclusions from post-contact historians and anthropologists (none of them Native to my knowledge). It's interesting to note that had the Cherokee leaders NOT been prosperous in the early 1800s, both in land and culture, and had the literacy of the entire Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee Supreme Court not been a threat to the encroaching nonliterate immigrants, and had the gold on the Cherokee land not been coveted, the Trail of Tears might never have been forced upon them.

Scottish Highlanders: Indian Peoples
For years, when I thought of Ireland and Scotland, I thought of our family's visits to both countries in 1964, of heather covered hills and stone cottages, of thatched roofs where flowers bloomed, of the Celtic blood in my grandmother's veins.  But it wasn't until I started research on my novel Shifting Stars that I began to understand the intermingling of culture and blood between the Scottish and Native Americans.  And it wasn't until Joe McDonald, president at the time of Salish Kootenai Tribal College in Pablo, Montana, gifted me with a copy of Scottish Highlanders: Indian Peoples, Thirty Generations of a Montana Family that I realized that the Montana McDonald's traced their roots back to the great chiefs of the Nez Perce Indians.  No doubt, there really is an Indian "princess" in their ancestry.  And no doubt, earthly spirits still inhabit the mountains and creeks and rocks and trees of their homelands.

What are the legends of your homelands?  Do you feel the presence of earthly spirits when you walk the familiar trails of your childhood?  Are you drawn to particular historical settings when you're browsing the bookshelves for a new novel to read?  Perhaps your ancestors are whispering in your ear.

NOTES:  Read about the top 30 Celtic blogs at Celtic Lady.  Read more about Shifting Stars.  Search the Native Authors website for books on traditional storytelling, legends, and beliefs.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Research is not a dirty word. Or: A story about an elk, an eagle, and two-hearted women

Bull elk on Lookout Mountain
 in snowstorm
Writing is not just about what we already know.  It's also about what we wish we knew.  At this juncture, where facts and experience meet curiosity, inspiration takes root.  Passion and our emotional connection to a story may form the heart, but research gives a story legs; it keeps the story moving forward and keeps writer and reader engaged.  Research is exploration.  It is venturing into unknown territory, and the tension created between knowing, and not knowing, like a taut rubber band, can catapult us into someplace new.

Take this elk, for instance.  Large antlers serve bull elk well during the rut, when they're sparring to test strength and endurance and hopefully gather up a harem of cows. But twice this winter, my neighbors and I have seen big bulls tangle with the orange plastic mesh fencing used on construction sites. This particular bull is a member of the large herd that lives here in our mountain community, and we've all been concerned about him. "When do elk shed their antlers?" a neighbor asked. "March or April," I answered, then I called my son in Montana to confirm.  "Yep," he said, "late winter or early spring." 

I call this grassroots research.  And it piqued my curiosity.  Eventually the antlers end up on the forest floor where they provide calcium for chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. You can tell a rodent-chewed antler by the teeth carving. I found this ornamental tine when hiking on our Wyoming ranch several years ago.  What causes elk or deer to shed their antlers?  Lowered testosterone levels (which vary from animal to animal) cause the bond where the antlers join the pedicle to weaken.  I learned that
Deer tine found in the Black Hills
when I was involved with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, but I went online to verify.  Since I'm not a wildlife biologist, I also have to trust what my wildlife biologist friends tell me.  I call these second-hand resources, which lead to half-assed but well-intentioned and oftentimes reliable research. 

Even Jack London had to rely on second-hand research.  Many of the tales he wrote, and we love, he first heard sitting in the Klondike bars up at Dawson in the Yukon. 

Photo by Gary Caskey Photography,
Vee Bar Guest Ranch, Wyoming, during 2009
Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat
Here's another example of second-hand research.  Yesterday, I was sifting through my journals looking for passages that explored the sounds of the Colorado Plateau through the written word.  We are quietI wrote last year at Black Rock in Westwater Canyon, even before we see the eagle's dark mottled body enter the blue breath of morning.  Then the young eagle whistled, a long high-pitched piping that echoed from the canyon walls.  Only I hadn't written the word "piping" in my journal.  That word made its way into my revised journaling only yesterday, when I happened onto Cornell Lab's site, All About Birds. 
What is familiar is comfortable. What is unknown, is worth pursuing, at least for writers. Writers are, if nothing else, hunters of words and story.  We are studies in contradiction, enjoying our comfort zones yet always yearning to move beyond them.

This dual dynamic exists in our most memorable characters, too, who are often contradictions with opposing forces pulling at them.  Years ago, when a female character began forming for my novel  All the Water Yet to Come, I heard Colorado poet Anita Jepson-Gilbert read her poem "Everywoman" (the title poem of her new and powerful collection). 


harbors two hearts one    faithful and
Roxanne Swentzell & Rose Simpson
during 2009 river trip with Page
wise as swallows
who return each year
to churches    barns
to nest with mate    and
brood solidly against the wall
shielded from shearing wind
the storms of chance

but deep beneath the bones
encased and bolted tight
she bears another heart
flapping raptor wings
that ache for solitary flight
to scale the sky
to heights unkown
then plunge to earth
in wild pursuit.

As writers, we must explore - we must allow our creative vision to soar, but we must then tether our words to the rock-solid earth with research that will give our stories and poems a lasting foundation.

To purchase Everywoman, contact Anita Jepson-Gilbert.
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