Leaving Unist’ot’en Camp was hard. As I stepped away from a group of new friends passing pens and notebooks around to share contact information, I found myself on the banks of the Morice River under the pines. Looking up to see their silver and green tops swaying with the sky, I wondered if the pines were discussing the worth of my actions at the Camp. For the first time in my life, I was being watched by trees that I was directly involved in protecting. I studied the splinters still stuck in my hand from the construction site. I rubbed the black bruise under my left thumbnail where I missed a nail with my hammer. My shoulders were sore from holding heavy roof rafters precisely in place so they could be installed properly.
I hoped the trees approved of my efforts. Then, realizing this desire could only mean I was in love, I began to cry.
I was only at Unist’ot’en Camp for a couple weeks, but the first days after leaving felt like something had been pulled out of my stomach. At the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria, there is a shopping center with a Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, a corporate bookstore selling $25 copies of hardcover bestsellers, and a chocolate shop selling individually wrapped candies. Still unshowered, smelling of camp fire and sweat, with Unist’ot’en Camp soil under my fingernails, I almost asked my friend, Rusty, if we could turn around and drive the 12 hours back to the Camp. Immediately.
I wandered around in this fog for a few days struggling with a feeling of meaningless so far from the Camp. It wasn’t until I was sharing coffee with a Dene friend that I found some peace. He had previously been to Unist’ot’en Camp, so we talked about our experiences. I explained to him how difficult I was finding it to be back. He told me that he always leaves the bush with a renewed sense of the interconnectedness of all things.
“I understand your feelings. It’s easy to feel empty down here. Easy to forget that there is no beginning or end to the connections between all life,” he said. “That’s why the Dene have no word for good-bye in our language.”
The night before I left the Camp, I sat with a friend on the forestry road bridge leading into camp. We were watching shooting stars, swallows performing their hunting dance, and sharing poetry. The conversation turned to why we write poetry. The Morice River rushed at us and under us with her powerful current roaring at the concrete bridge foundations we were sitting on. I started with my usual explanation that the land is speaking, my poetry is my attempt to listen to what the land is saying, and, once hearing the land’s language, to write it all down. I quoted some Simon Ortiz lines about his poetry being his attempt to explain as simply as possible his relationship to everything. With my friend’s supportive ear to help me build my ideas, I felt safe enough to tell her about my suicide attempts and the role poetry and writing has played in my recovery.
Then, as the river’s voice grew louder, I began to make a connection. I saw that poetry helps me to understand my relationships with natural communities. I realized that the river’s voice was no metaphor. The river really was speaking. And, speaking, the river could be a friend.
One of the feelings contributing to my struggles with depression is a constant feeling of loneliness. Let’s face it, if you’ve read much of my work – especially any of my anti-civilization work – I am in a political minority. Most of my friends and family are supportive, but it is tough for them to share in the intensity of my views. Most people are uncomfortable hearing arguments for the death of capitalism, the end of extractive corporate colonialism, the reality of male hegemonic violence, all coupled with my insistence that dogmatic non-violence may not be the path to redemption.
But, as I recognized the river as a subjective being with its own voice, its own preferences, desires, and destiny, it became more difficult to feel so lonely. Once open to the possibility that the river could be a friend, other beings like the trees, stones, swallows, and moths become potential friends, become potential allies in the desperate, lonely struggle to preserve life on Earth.
I travel back to Unist’ot’en Camp on the trails in my memory.
The moss is thick on the forest floor where I sit. Soft with warm greens and browns, this moss makes the perfect seat for contemplation. The sun barely crests the treetops. It is morning. In this space, before my mind fills with the thoughts of the day, I let my awareness seep into the reality surrounding me.
My breathing deepens with the pines. I breathe in the oxygen they breathe out and they breathe in the carbon dioxide I breathe out. I reach to my water bottle still cold from the night. The Morice River water I collected last night is delicious. It wakes up my tongue, flows down my throat, pools in my stomach, and then travels to my crampy legs through my veins. The water becomes my sweat. My sweat will fall from my brow onto pebbles to be filtered through the soil to drain back into the river.
Down at the big kitchen tent, they are preparing moose for breakfast. This moose walked the land with heavy limbs, munching on twigs and leaves, naturally tilling the forest floor and recycling the forest’s nutrients. Now, her meat will sustain me as I work carrying heavy loads and hammering nails spending the day in constant motion. The protein from her muscles is used by my muscles. And one day, my meat sustained by the moose’s meat will be returned to the soil where worms and other organisms will break me down to sustain plants.
I begin to dissolve into a collection of relationships. I am the temporary arrangement of physical forces in this particular space. This collection I call “me” is comprised of borrowed materials. The same organic chemicals that are me were once a moose, before that a leaf, a drop of rainwater, and a ray of sunshine. As time works across space, this arrangement will loosen and I will be carried away by animals, birds, worms, rivers, oceans, and winds to sustain this grand process we call life. Time is only a circle transposed over space. There is no beginning and no end. There are only cycles on a land base. It has always been this way and there will never be another way.
Of course, the land could be so maimed as to render these life-giving cycles empty. The natural order of the land could be disturbed to the point where the cycles spin into dangerous destructive processes. In many places this is already happening. This is exactly why the Unist’ot’en Camp must succeed in stopping the pipelines. The extraction, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels involves a process of stealing the decomposing remains of previous lives in the form of oil, coal, and natural gas from their natural cycles. Cycles that should operate in million year revolutions are being combusted into instant explosions. And, as we’re seeing, the results are disastrous.
My sadness about leaving Unist’ot’en Camp is beginning to subside. I do not think that it will ever completely ease up nor do I think it ever should. It’s easy to say that a part of Camp will always be with me. Many of us have no trouble with the notion that our memories can never be taken from us. Our tendency to stop at purely mental constructs is due to our willingness to accept our internal psychological processes as the primary proofs of reality. The idea that each one of us is a fundamentally isolated entity doomed to existential loneliness is wrong. The horrible destructive Cartesian maxim, “I think, therefore, I am” is utter bull-shit.
I learned an invaluable lesson at the Camp that can be transferred to everywhere life exists. I do believe that nothing I see can be taken from me. But, it’s deeper than that. It’s not just mental or emotional. It is the literal, physical relationships at work in the world that define us. During the time I was there eating food off the land, drinking water from the river, and breathing air from the forest, I literally was Unist’ot’en Camp. The Morice River is an ally that I do not believe wants pipelines crossing her proud current. The pine trees are being killed by an over-population of beetles stemming from shorter winters due to climate-change. If you listen to the pines, I think they will tell you that they want to live.
And just as matter can neither be created nor destroyed, when you and your land base engage in the mutual sharing of bodies trading processes, materials, and spirit in the holiest of intercourses, you can never truly leave that land base and that land base can never truly leave you.
In short, there is no word for good-bye in the language of life.
(June 8, 2014)