The snowstorm arrived at Unist’ot’en Camp a day before we did dropping over a foot of snow and stillness on the territory. The clouds cleared the second night we were there opening the skies to the silent music played by the twinkling of countless stars. While most of the crew sat around the woodstove in the cabin a hundred yards away, I stood listening to my breath crystalize to the rhythm of my heartbeat in my ears.
Listening like this, I realized I forgot what stillness was.
The stillness the snow created was welcome after the anxious three day drive in the Vancouver Island Community Forest Action Network mini-van. We dodged trees buckling under the weight of sudden snowfall and wind. We kept our windshield relatively clean when the lines carrying the wiper fluid froze and salt and sand blocked our vision. The van’s engine has a habit of mysteriously cutting out at the worst times forcing the driver to shift into neutral, turn the ignition off, turn the ignition on, and then continue driving – all while the steering wheel is stuck.
I personally needed to be still after a whirlwind month and a half that took me from Victoria, BC to San Francisco to Dayton, OH to Chicago to Carbondale, IL to Milwaukee, WI back to San Francisco back to Victoria and finally to the Unist’ot’en Camp. The month and a half included visiting my parents in San Francisco and a speaking tour through the Midwest to promote and fundraise for the Camp.
The speaking tour became a journey through places representing phases of my life. My parents live in San Francisco, I went to college in Dayton, I dated the woman who probably knows me better than anyone for five years in Chicago, and I lived in Milwaukee while I was a public defender when I tried to kill myself the first time.
The tour was made possible by my dear friend Dr. Myrna Gabbe at my alma mater, the University of Dayton, when she invited me back to speak to her students about my experiences in activism and obtained funding to fly me from San Francisco to Dayton. As we were planning my visit to Dayton, a nun at the university asked me to give a poetry reading and speak to the spiritual side of activism. College was a great experience for me. I was an English major and was exposed to writing that helped me see the world more clearly. I also had professors like Myrna who encouraged me to keep questioning everything. In many ways, the patterns bringing me to the Unist’ot’en Camp in 2015 began in Myrna’s classroom in 2006.
I spoke at the American Indian Center, Revolution Books, and Purdue University – Calumet in the Chicago area. While I was in Chicago, I stayed with a former partner I met at Dayton and dated for five years. I had not seen her in over three years after I left her abruptly out of fear, despair, and confusion. My initial instinct in visiting her was for reconciliation, but through her compassion the visit quickly became a celebration of lost connection re-discovered.
My friends in Milwaukee suggested I speak at the Riverwest Public House Cooperative and the space quickly filled with the same friends and family who quickly filled the St. Francis Hospital visitation room after my first suicide attempt. I knew it would be impossible to avoid the emotional residue I left in Milwaukee. I found it difficult to sit on a stage, look my friends in the eye as I spoke, and think what would have happened if I had taken a strong enough dosage that night.
I know the best antidote for despair is action. While it remains to be seen, I hope my presentation about the Unist’ot’en Camp in Milwaukee will scrape the residue of my despair from Milwaukee for future visits.
On the speaking tour, I tried to convince my audiences of the urgency of our environmental situation. I found that I am personally most persuasive when I can weave my own story into this need for drastic and immediate change.
One way to understand the environmental catastrophe confronting us is to view the dominant culture as suffering from a profound case of despair. Despair permeates many religious traditions that say humans are fundamentally flawed, Earth is a scary place, and suffering is inevitable so we may as well embrace it to gain peace in another world. Despair permeates science cutting us off from other beings, telling us other beings are objects incapable of existing with humans in mutual relationship, and encouraging us to use (read: kill) other beings for the benefit of humans. Despair permeates our governments who view raw power and physical force as the only way to control this wildly unpredictable process we call “life.”
Many doctors have told me to reach out to old friends to help me remember who I was and what I was like before despair settled over me. In my worst moments, all I can see is darkness behind me, darkness upon me, and darkness ahead of me. Life is bad. Life was bad. Life will always be bad.
Part of spending so much time in Canada is being far from those who remember who I was. Lately, my desire for connection to a happier personal past has taken strange and pathetic forms. I wear an obnoxious green Notre Dame football flatbrim everywhere I go. I talk about my favorite band, Phish, with anyone who will listen. I find myself in bars just looking for company.
So, one of the benefits of the speaking tour I went on for the Unist’ot’en Camp involved spending time remembering myself with those who love me. But, the temporary feelings this time spent remembering released are dangerous. It would be easy to settle back down into a life based around salving the pain of depression. It would be easy to surround myself in good memories and turn my back on the problems of the world. If I did this, though, the world would still be burning. And, if the world burns for long enough, those I love will burn, too.
On this visit to the Camp, I was lucky enough to walk the trapline. Spend any amount of time at the Camp, and it quickly becomes apparent that almost every activity carries levels upon levels of meaning. Walking the trapline is, perhaps, the best example of this.
The trapline is a trail running through a remote part of the Unist’ot’en territory where traps are set for martens, fishers, beavers, and wolverines. Walking the trapline means snowmobiling out into the bitter cold and then snowshoeing several miles checking each trap for animals. The Unist’ot’en still remember how to space their traps so that no population of animals is overburdened. The furs of these animals bring in money to support the blockade.
Legally, the trapline sits on the proposed routes of the pipelines that threaten the territory. One way to protect the territory is to assert “aboriginal title” in Canadian courts and to argue that this title grants titleholders the ability to reject pipeline construction on their lands. Under Canadian law, maintaining traplines creates a strong presumption for a finding that “aboriginal title” exists for those claiming it. Finally, walking the trapline is an ancient tradition honored by generations of indigenous trappers and is filled with connection to the past.
My friend and I rounded the last corner of the trapline about a quarter mile from the snowmobile ride back to the cabin. My feet were frozen, my hips were cramping, and I was hungry when my friend elbowed me and pointed to the trees ahead of us. The sun was setting behind a wall of pines. The pine needles in the braches facing us were cloaked in silver shadows while the sun threw a blanket of gold on everything else. The snow scattered the light like the stars I watched a few nights before. Next to me the tracks of a grouse twisted over a snow bank before disappearing with no trace but the faint outline of wings brushing the powder.
I heard my heart pumping blood through my eardrums. I heard trees dropping snow in piles. I heard my friend breathing softly. I heard everything praying.
In short, I heard life.
And then I remembered: Life is really good. I want to live. I want all of this to live.
The personal despair I suffer from and the general despair the dominant culture suffers from is, of course, a failure of memory. I forgot and my trips to Unist’ot’en Camp help me remember. Too many still forget. Too many forget that it does not have to be this way. Too many forget that we can change this brutal arrangement of power. I want more of us to remember. But, remembering is not enough. Falling in love with the way sunshine splashes through pines is not enough. Regaining our connection to the natural world is not enough. We have to protect those pines. We have to protect the possibility of a connection to the natural world by protecting the natural world. We have to protect what we love.
(January 17, 2015)