This whole valley, all our vanities
Flowers and graves
Garbage settles, between the hills
It’s how we live…
In these strange times
A Poplar tree
In a small, important wood
Grace is what they say God gives
But will we remember
Or just remain, bewildered
In these strange times
“Surely the wind will continue to moan
For those who have lost
What can never be found"
( from Birdlight; ©Jennifer Niceley 2013 ) —————
***Originally posted October 31, 2016)***
I took the photo above last winter. It is the Holston River as seen from behind my house on the farm where I grew up in East Tennessee. “Strange Times” is a song I wrote when living back there; it was born of my sadness and puzzlement at what I often find to be desecration of the landscape around me. It is one little comment inside an old, unending narrative about what we call Appalachia.
I know how I would feel if a corporation, backed by the US government, had plans to put a "giant black snake” (to transport crude oil being sold for corporate profit) under this river, my river. By “my river” I mean the one that I belong to, that I was born next to, who has sung to me from my first days here on Earth.
It is not a faraway river. When I am on the land I grew up on it is always just right there, encircling, giving and supporting life in so many ways. And when I am not there the river remains close to me, in a way that is hard to explain. It is like the way you can sometimes feel the presence of a loved one, just by thinking of them.
It would be exceedingly strange, unnatural – to stand by and simply watch as my river was put in extreme peril. I would do everything I could to protect it, I would fight.
I have never been to the Missouri River, that flows by and through the Standing Rock Sioux’s ancestral lands in North Dakota. I don’t know if Great Blue Herons stoically hunt its shallow waters, like they do here in Tennessee. I don’t know how it moves, where it turns turbulent from a peaceful bend, or what it smells like. I don’t have to know these things to know this river needs protection, right now. I don’t have to know these things to have a sense of how much it means to the people who belong to it, to the countless creatures, seen and unseen, whose existence depend upon it. In fact, if an oil leak happened there it would affect us all, ultimately.
Why don’t rivers have rights?
Why don’t the creatures who call rivers home have rights?
How can the natural rights of indigenous peoples in this country still be so disrespected by our government and largely ignored by the populace at large?
Looking at the world we live in, it’s hard not to feel like a stranger in a strange land.
So many times I’ve found myself confused about what battles to fight and which ones have nothing to do with me. I’ve tended to focus on fighting my own demons. I’ve learned “survival” and “struggle” are words that mean very different things to different people, and that comparing, complaining, explaining, measuring, are futile endeavors at best. I have caught myself at times protecting my own innocence even with those I consider friends, choosing to keep certain beliefs to myself.
Is it more difficult to “walk your talk” these days than ever? To define one’s values and then make the choices to back them up is, from my perspective, a very real test. A spiritual test, in a world remade by materialism.
Time and again, I have found that my tender relationship to the natural world has saved me from being a total victim of modern society. Being attentive to a piece of land, appreciating the trees, cherishing a river — to me this is the first step in keeping us human in the best of ways.
I am not writing this from the front lines at Standing Rock. Although I might end up there before it’s all said and done, I feel entrenched in my own unstable situation here in Nashville at the moment. I feel like my reality here, and my tentative grasp of it at times, is all I can physically tend to right now. But my attention remains with the water protectors in North Dakota. My heart is in this fight. Within historical context it is a fight that has been going on for centuries, with no end in sight. At its core I see it as a war between humanity and non-humanity, and more is at stake now than ever.
Since I am not on the front lines of this latest battle, how can I urge anyone to be more involved and not seem hypocritical? I don’t know how to escape the contradictions of who I am in this moment of American history. I do know that more of us – everywhere – should at the very least be AWARE of what is going on right now in North Dakota. You cannot care about something if you haven’t at least tried to understand it.
I’ve found the publication below to be the best source of consistent news on the subject: