Wednesday, September 22, 2010


While city trees were ripping apart and crashing onto parked cars in Brooklyn and Queens last week, here in rural Michigan an old giant was being intentionally and methodically brought to earth across the road from our building.

Although a venerable sentry for the Sumnerville Bible Baptist Church, Old Tree was also a threat and a nuisance as it shed its branches in windstorms, and Dan the Minister had no alternative but to have it taken down--- heavy limb by heavy limb. We are relieved that all the neighborhood foresters survived the Felling Bee, and we are mesmerized by the sheer volume of wood, of accumulated vegetable growth -- photosythesis writ large -- that lies on the ground. The ancient girth of Old Tree stumped garden-variety tools, and someone will have to find a chain saw with a 36" blade if the remainder of the trunk is not to be a permanent lawn ornament in front of the church.

For all its dignity, the tree seems to have had an unfortunate name. Botanically, we are a casual lot around here, and we sort of agree that it is a Stinkwood tree. Green-a-Planet says that the Stinkwood is "tough and strong, and polishes well, but is difficult to work. It is a good general timber suitable for making planks, shelving, yokes, tent-bows and furniture. The African people have always used it to make a variety of household articles. It is also thought to have magical properties. The wood is mixed with crocodile fat as a charm against lightning, and many people believe that it has the power over evil and that pegs of wood driven into the ground will keep witches away."

Perhaps the mighty root system will continue to keep this little village free from harm.Taking the giant down required two hard days; reducing it to firewood will take weeks. We are grateful for its life, from shade to heat, with good juju.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

I Have Quit Picking Huckleberries

After a hot and humid summer, the new season gave us a cool, bright, windy day, and with great pleasure I went a few miles up the road to the annual pow wow of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi. It is an event of great vitality, spiritual significance, and beauty.

Called Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa, the pow wow celebrates the harvest, and the name means literally "I have quit picking huckleberries." In my years here I do not think I have seen a huckleberry, although I could be wrong. An ancient tradition, the pow wow serves as a reunion, a renewal, and a chance to dance.

These dances are the focus of the public experience, and how wonderful they are. Wearing regalia that defies simple description, the participants are as flamboyant as the men's fancy dancers, as dignified as the women's shawl dancers, as deliciously noisy as the women's jingle dances, as rooted in practical tradition as the men's grass dancers, and as revered as the Great Lakes Old-Style dancers.

People being people, the celebratory dances are also competitive, and I was told that dancers travel a "pow wow circuit" that involves performance categories ranging from the Tiny Tots to the mature adult dancers. And, yes, there are stars, favorites, and rivalries.

Whether participating in the come-one, come-all Intertribal dances or in the category competitions, dancers do not move alone. In meandering single files, they circle the dance arena. All the girls' jingle dancers, for example, are in view at the same time, and although they are competing, they are dancing together. There is much to be learned in this community.

Although the family lineages are long and deep, it is obvious that they include new blood, and it is not unusal to see blond boys dancing in fierce competition with their Native pals. A close look at the image here reveals not only light hair but plaid Old Navy shorts. The pow wow is quite a patchwork that includes fry bread pizza.

The traditions also teach respect and acceptance. An important part of the Grand Entry of the dancers is the recognition of veterans - Native American and other. Deep gratitude is shown to all those who have served their country. All are asked to look after the elders and to have good thoughts.

So I go to the tribal land and walk each year through the campgrounds that are filled with tents and woodsmoke. I go in part to look at the craft of the regalia, in part to observe the earnest energy of the children, in part to eat fry bread. But mostly I go in gratitude for the grace of people whose ancestors inhabited this land and were stewards of its bounty, its huckleberries.