Eco-memoir, Belonging, and the Settler-Colonial Poetics of Place Identity

In June 2016 I gave a talk at the Ecopoetics conference at the University of Perpignan Via Domitia, in southern France.  It’s a culturally fascinating part of the world–French Catalonia–with great food and lovely beaches. A wonderful place for a conference. Below is the text of that presentation. 

Catalan fire festival for Sant Joan Day, the summer solstice.
Perpignan, in front of Le Castillet 
Eco-memoir, Belonging, and the Settler-Colonial Poetics of Place Identity in Jerry Wilson’s Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-Memoir from the Missouri River Bluff

University of Perpignan Via Domitia, France

June 22nd-25th, 2016

The genre we might refer to as “eco-memoir” involves the writing of self into place and place into self. In many ways it is an ideal genre for the cultivation of an ecological awareness and bioregional identity, as key texts such as Thoreau’s Walden or Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, early versions of eco-memoirs, demonstrate. It is arguably one of the literary forms most suited to attuning us to the “land’s wild music,” as Mark Tredinnick, the author of another eco-memoir, The Blue Plateau, has phrased it. The genre clearly has much to offer in the development of a bioregionally informed place-based identity and eco-poetics of dwelling. 

On the other hand, however, to the degree that the genre works to generate a “becoming native to this place” sense of belonging among members of settler-colonial societies, it risks complicity with the settler-colonial project of, in Patrick White’s useful phrase, “the logic of elimination” of the native people. It is a genre that can be seen to at least unintentionally supplant, replace, or efface Indigenous claims to prior and, more importantly, to continuing belonging. It could be seen, if not physically, then at least discursively, to  eliminate the native.

That is, from a purely ecocritical perspective, the eco-memoir is an ideal genre, but from a settler-colonial studies perspective, it is suspect, and for that reason we ought to be prepared to analyze and put under critique one of ecocriticism’s and nature writing’s most cherished genres.

41R+bqQP4eLIn this paper, as an example of the genre and its issues, I would like to consider Jerry Wilson’s Waiting for Coyotes Call: An Eco-Memoir from the Missouri River Bluff, published in 2008. Like many such memoirs, his is situated in settler-colonial circumstances (in this case eastern rural South Dakota) in which “frontier” ideologies continue to predominate, and in various ways his text both animates and resists settler-colonial frontiering and homesteading tropes. Like many books in this genre, his is concerned with the idea of “belonging” and “becoming native” to place, a concept at once necessary and problematic. I want to examine how his eco-memoir negotiates the fraught territory where a discourse and, for our purposes today, an ecopoetics, of belonging to place intersects with the discourse and poetics of a settler-colonial frontiering imaginary. At this stage I am just beginning to think through these issues and so offer this paper more as a very initial foray than anything approaching a definitive claim.

Books such as this, environmentally inflected and bioregionally specific memoirs and autobiographies, are an increasingly common genre in the US, Australia, and other settler-colonial nations, such as Canada. This is not a coincidence, I think. Environmentally attuned people of settler ancestry who reside in these still rather recently colonized places often feel they lack a deep belonging, a circumstance exacerbated by the tendency of Americans, in particular, to move frequently to new locations. It is, indeed, out of such circumstances that bioregionalism developed. Bioregionalists (think, especially, of Wendell Berry and Scott Russell Sanders) often lament the rootlessness of settler North Americans. Early bioregionalism drew inspiration from Indigenous peoples, no doubt romanticized at times, but not completely wrong-headed, and the literature is replete with an awareness, at times a palpable envy, of the deep connections Indigenous people had, and these members of settler cultures wished they had, with their local ecology. In their 1977 manifesto that inspired the bioregional movement, “Reinhabiting California,” Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann propose that “Once all California was inhabited by people who used the land lightly and seldom did lasting harm to its life-sustaining capacity. Most of them have gone. But if the life destructive path of technological society is to be diverted into life sustaining directions, the land must be reinhabited” (36). Note in particular the “most of them have gone” passage and then the subsequent need to reinhabit the place these Indigenous people had once inhabited. The basic pattern is: Indians lived in harmony with nature; we eliminated them; we need to learn to be more like them.

I’m not suggesting that bioregionalism is inherently and of necessity complicit with settler-colonialism, in fact in some ways, and when I’m feeling most optimistic, I think it could be seen as an effort to reconcile settler societies with Indigenous ones. But it seems clear that as a felt need and as an aspiration it grew out of settler-colonial circumstances, and could be fruitfully understood as in part a response to those circumstances. To avoid complicity, bioregionalists, I think, at a minimum need to be cautious of the discourse of “Becoming Native to This Place” and to find alternative expressions of, and kinds of, belonging.

Though I appreciate what Berg and Dasmann meant by such a phrase, one that became the title of Wes Jackson’s best known book, I’d be reluctant to endorse it. It is noteworthy, for example, that Jackson begins with a discussion of the Native peoples who used to reside in Kansas prior to the arrival of European settlers, and notes that they prospered in large numbers in the very locations where Europeans have been struggling to persist, as indicated by ever declining population numbers in rural Kansas counties, but he fails to make any reference to contemporary Native cultures. In the “becoming native” story he tells, it seems as if Europeans need to figure out how to replace the perhaps regrettably displaced Kiowa, Kansa, Osage, Pawnee, and Wichita as the new natives. (And it’s worth noting that Indigenous forms of agriculture seem to play no role in the research work conducted at the Land Institute he founded). Early in his book Jackson makes continual contrasts between the Native way of living and the European settler way, noting, for example, how settlers unnaturally demarcate the land and divide it up into private holdings whereas the Indigenous folks held it in common. At one point he notes that in 1874, “Natives were in steep decline but still around” (18). He then offers that  “Now [today] a different sort of nativeness would be required” (18). The implication is that in 1874 there were still some Native Americans in Kansas, but “now” they are all gone, and the people who replaced them need to figure out how to become the new natives. “We are unlikely to achieve anything close to sustainability in any area,” Jackson argues, “unless we work for the broader goal of becoming native in the modern world, and that means becoming native to our places in a coherent community that is in turn embedded in the ecological realities of its surrounding landscape” (3).

Eco-memoirs in general, and Jerry Wilson’s in particular, can be seen as attempts to create the different sort of modern nativeness Jackson desires; the question is, do they do so at the expense of the original, and, in spite of what Jackson implies, still persisting, Indigenous inhabitants?

Wilson’s Waiting for Coyote’s Call describes his experience of 25 years settling onto and restoring an eastern South Dakota 140 acre farmstead perched on a bluff above the Missouri River. As the numerous quotations make clear, his book is heavily influenced by Leopold’s Sand County Almanac in terms of both philosophical musings and as a practical guide. Much like Leopold’s project at The Shack, Wilson is seeking to restore a damaged land. In bioregional terms, it is a reinhabitation narrative.

In terms of ecopoetics, it includes what we might consider to be lyrical or poetic prose, often at those moments when the sense of belonging to place is most affectively and emotionally developed in the narrative. One particularly numinous moment, expressed in some of the most “poetic” language in the book, occurs when the author first commits to living on the land.

When Wilson and his wife first moved to South Dakota (to teach at the university) they lived in Vermillion. But they soon began looking for a place in the country. One evening, out for a casual drive, with no real intent, they visited a farm that they heard was for sale. At first they just stood at the barbed wire fence by the side of the road, Wilson toting their new baby, Walter, in a backpack, and surveyed the farm from a distance. But soon they felt compelled to investigate, an experience Wilson describes in an extended “ecopoetic” passage.

We climbed the fence. We had planned an evening drive, a chance to look and dream; I was prepared for nothing more. My feet were shod in flimsy sandals, not ideal for a trek through pasture and brush and perhaps burs, but we plunged ahead regardless. Halfway across the forty acres, we paused on the southern slope to watch Venus define itself in the western sky. We sat down in the grass, surrounded by blooming prairie roses. From atop a box elder in the draw, a whip-poor-will sang the first bar of his nightly serenade. Dusk deepened, and in the distant valley, a farmyard light flickered on. A rosy aura enveloped Yankton, the old capital of Dakota Territory. A great horned owl hooted from up in a cottonwood on Clay Creek. Somewhere along Turkey Ridge, a pack of coyotes greeted the hunt with cacophonous calls. 

“Yes,” Norma whispered. 

We lingered too long on the hillside. The grass in which we lounged lost its resolution, but in the sky, uncountable points of light emerged. We rose and stumbled westward, picking our way toward the boundary line. When we hit the fence, we followed it south into the draw, toward the subdued babble of a spring. We followed a deer trail to the edge of a bog, then the trickle to its source. I knelt, cupped my hands, and drank. We climbed back to higher ground and picked our way east through a thicket of drooping sumac heads and overripe plums. Fruit fell into our hands at the lightest touch. We bit the bitter skin and sucked sweet meat and juice. Then we climbed again the sloping hill below Venus. (16-17)

As Wilson stood savoring the landscape, drinking from its springs and sucking its fruit that had fallen unbidden into his hand, his wife remarked: “You look so good here, I think we should buy it,”  . . .  and Wilson draws the scene to a close: “Walter stirred from his baby nap and murmured what seemed to be assent. Had we been chosen by this land? It seemed that we belonged” (15-16).

Here we see a quintessential ecopoetical moment of belonging. This is the place, and we haven’t chosen it; in a wonderful trope of the settler-colonial imaginary, the land has chosen us.

Wilson is aware, of course, of the pioneering and homesteading tradition which he is mimicing. However he notes that “It is too late for me to tell a pioneering story of ‘going back to the land’ or of discovering principles by which we might sustain Earth.” And he offers humbly that “Thoreau, Leopold, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Candace Savage, and many others have told that story before me, thought those thoughts, and confronted and clarified contradictions, dilemmas, consequences, and paths to salvation” (1-2). His is nevertheless a sort of reinhabitory pioneering story:

With help from my wife Norma and from friends, I designed and built our geo-solar home. I have rehabilitated over twenty acres of native prairie. I have slept under meteor showers and wandered the woods by moonlight. I have grown acquainted with a hundred species of birds. I have learned to watch, listen, and learn. (2) 

In spite of his claim that it is too late to tell a pioneering story, homesteading nevertheless remains a model. The book’s first section is titled “Rehomesteading the Prairie.” The first chapter, which I read from above, is titled “Chosen by the Land,” and opens with an epigraph from Cather’s My Antonia: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” This is one of the classic expressions of the settler-colonial imaginary’s ecopoetics of belonging. The problem with Jim Burden’s humble expression of oneness, however, is that, as he is lying in his grandmother’s garden, the “something complete and great” into which he wishes to be dissolved, is land recently taken from Indigenous people, though you will never learn this from Cather. Such knowledge would undermine this classic moment of transcendental settler-belonging.

On the one hand, Wilson’s plan is to restore much of his property to native prairie. Like a good bioregional reinhabitor, he goes to great efforts to remove invasive plants and restore native prairie. On the other hand, he engages in the classic settler-colonial pioneer activity of tree-planting:

. . .  I have lived most of my life on the Great Plains. But I have never lived well without trees. That is why the first thing we did when we acquired a piece of the plains was plant trees. We planted many species, in many ways. Even before the land was ours, we had selected the hillside for our burrow, and on our first Saturday of possession, we planted the eyebrow of trees along our northwest rim—a token of hope for a future sheltered from winter winds. (63)

The species of trees they planted include natives, but also, surprising to me, many nonnatives, including “Russian olive, lilac and honeysuckle bushes, Austrian and ponderosa pines (21).

In spite of these classic settler-colonial gestures, the book also contains considerable references to Indigneous people. Indeed in the book’s acknowledgment he expresses his thanks to “the Yankton Sioux people for the land on which my family and I live, for the environmental ethos that we inherit from American Indian traditions, and for the inspiration to live in harmony with the natural world” (11).  When he is pondering local history, he shares numerous moments such as this:  “History books do not tell when the first woman or man dug the first tinpsila, or prairie turnip, from the soil or ate the first wild plum or butchered the first bison on our piece of bluff. It may be that Initial Middle Missouri Gardeners, ancestors of the Mandans or the Arikaras, tilled the river bottom and planted corn” (107).

In one extended passage he explicitly engages with the issue of land ownership and belonging, again waxing at times ecopoetic:

An entry in a record book at the courthouse says, in legal terms, that this land is our land. But we know that is not true. In a profound sense the land belongs to nobody, and even in legal terms one might argue that it still belongs to the Yankton Sioux, from whom it was extorted at the price of a dime an acre. So the land belongs to the Yanktons, to the Seversons, the Rices, the Oaklands, the Ourslands, the Paulsons, the Austins, the Jensens, the Johnsons, [all previous “owners”] and to every man, woman, and child who sweated, planted, and harvested here. It belongs to everybody who slept on the land and ate the bounty it produced. It belongs to the foxes, the coyotes, the raccoons, the deer, and the myriad other creatures that know nothing of deeds. But ultimately, it belongs to Earth, and we and our fellow creatures that inhabit it are but a brief blip in the vastness of time. (136)

This is a compelling passage, but, we must admit, a bit weasley. It acknowledges that the land on which he resides was stolen from the Yankton, a statement that has dire implications for his project if carried to its logical conclusion, for justice would require a restoration of stolen property. That won’t do, so he waxes metaphysical: Who can really own the land? It belongs to the Earth and its creatures, etc.

To be fair, Wilson is much more engaged with the Indigenous people in his neighborhood than are most Americans who write eco-memoirs, in ways that, I think, serve as a model for how to negotiate this fraught territory. For example, he engaged in support activities, working with the Black Hills Alliance “a coalition of ranchers, American Indians, and South Dakotans” to stop a planned uranium mine in the Black Hills. One of the goals of the Alliance, he notes, was also to seek to restore Indigenous ownership to the Black Hills (246).

His book concludes with a monthly almanac, modelled on the opening almanac section of Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. For each month a few pages are devoted to highly poetic descriptions of seasonal activities. Among these activities we glimpse some involvement with his Lakota neighbors:

As summer solstice approaches, prairie grasses and forbs define themselves in delicate hues. On a slope of unplowed native prairie, we gather sage with the Turtle Woman Society—Lakota women and friends. Sage smoldering in an abalone shell will purify participants to commence the Sun Dance and other sacred ceremonies. Before we gather the herb, elder Patty Wells seeks the blessing of the Great Spirit, a young woman sets out a plate of spirit food for the ancestors, and the living share a meal. (260)

And again in the the following month:

. . . Norma and I pick chokecherries, food for the annual Wase Wakpa Sun Dance north of Vermillion. We are not tempted to eat as we pick, as we do from our domesticated cherry tree; the chokecherry skin is bitter and the seed is hard as stone. But crushed dried chokecherries have for centuries been mixed with tallow and dried buffalo meat to make pemmican, and the cherries also make wojapi, a delicious pudding to eat with frybread. (261)

These passages, coming at the end of the book, were a bit surprising. Very little foundation had been laid for them previously, and I would have preferred to have seen these sorts of moments more fully integrated throughout the memoir. Neverthless, they do offer one element of a corrective to the “becoming native to place narrative.” Wilson shows himself in these passages not as a new native replacing the old, but as a friend, neighbor, ally, and so offers some suggestion of how settler-colonial bioregional reinhabitants can belong to a place without denying the rightful presence of its original inhabitants.

 Originally published Jul 22, 2016, 8:55 PM

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