11 November 2019 Remembrance Day
I find the smashed and desiccated body of a small salamander that must have been crushed in the shifting of the woodpile; it tumbles out of a crack in one of the logs I pick up and lies, a narrow curve, on the floor. At first I think that it is a curl of bark, but when I bend to retrieve it I notice its tiny three-toed feet, and the way the light shines through its flattened head. I set it gently by the fire for a couple of days, that it might be warm should there be any life still in it. But the lizard grows weightless and still more translucent: a puff of air carries it onto the floor again.
I pick it up remembering how many salamanders we used to see along the road when we first moved to Nova Scotia twenty years ago. Some were purple with yellow spots. And in the summers there were fireflies by the hundreds. Not the fields full of thousands upon thousands of Lampyridae winking on and off that I remembered from my Ohio childhood, but still more than a number that could be counted. Now I cannot remember the last time I saw a firefly. Or a full-grown live salamander.
What has happened to them all?
Where have we gone?
I meant to write, where have they gone, but I did not, and perhaps, thanks to this mistake I have stumbled onto my true question: where have we gone such that do not perceive such things, the slipping away, day by day, of the lively world of beings not us?
I hold for a minute or two in my mind a minute fraction of those beings who have disappeared or are disappearing from this world, and in that moment it occurs to me that, as far as we are concerned, the extinctions happening all around us are happening more than once. Not only are so many kinds of creatures undone every day by death or extinction, but as quickly as they go we offer in their stead our deepest disregard, our ignorance, our lack of attunement towards their lives. Where do we get the idea that we may exercise a lack of care for whatever is not profitable or human-glorious, for whatever or whomever we think does not count? Why do we, of all creatures, think we may arrogate the right to pronounce upon this matter?
It is a grey day–it will rain later–and silvery water rolls in from offshore as the tide rises. A change in season is in the air: we build fires that run through the day now and not just at night; frost glazes the deck and limns each leaf and grassblade, edges each roof tile, gathers an icy skin across the deep puddles at the edge of the drive. We walk by the flattened reeds where the deer bed down beside the apple trees waiting for the last fruit to drop; we gather frost sweetened cranberries and foxberries and sit quietly in tussocks of juniper, watching the loons come closer, closer. A small seal drifts into the bay this morning and peers at the shore. Winter is coming and every creature knows it, but the kingfishers still wing by, even as the long-tailed ducks cluster and burble in the lee of the islands and the mergansers float quietly at the back of the pond.
These are the things I want to remember this Remembrance Day, everything that is alive that impresses itself on my senses, not the celebratory stories of European wars and muscular bravery, the pomp and pride that says “Look what we did; this land is our land; war is sacrifice is glory.” What terrible stewards and guests we colonials have been and go on being; even when we think we’re at peace we wage war on other beings, wrecking and murdering, fissuring the earth and all of its resources in the name of conquest, ownership, profit and, ironically, “survival”–a survival that is ever more clearly on its way to choking us all. Our noisy honking drowns out the very voices to which we need to listen. Truly I do not want to study war anymore, neither on this day nor any other; its racket, its glorious tales of the seizure of territories, is not where we most need to hone what Toni Morrison, in Beloved, called our “rememories,” or remembrance of memories right now.
“All land is sacred,” says a peacekeeper outside of Chief Theresa Spence’s tent on Victoria Island in Ottawa during the time of her hunger strike in 2013. He is speaking with a belligerent young reporter, in an exchange witnessed and recorded by Kathleen Winter in Boundless, a book about a journey through the arctic and an effort to learn again to listen to the land that I finished reading this morning.
All land is sacred. All land speaks–if only we could listen through all of the clamour in plastic poppies and martial din. To hear you have to shut the radio off and step out onto the earth, to sit awhile as the birds whirl overhead, to catch a whiff of spiky and astringent spruce or soapy bayberry overlain by the musk of a passing deer, to ask today, what is the wind saying?
Remembrance. We have forgotten so much we humans, above all we technosmart moderns. We’ve turned away from the very wisdom that could help us find a path of respect and care in the midst of the flames of the climate emergency we’re continually fanning. But how, nestled into the foam cushions of our car seats are we to find it? All land is sacred and every creature and matter upon and in it; how to recognize or remember and to live this truth, to honour it today, instead of its blaring and ruinous antitheses? Why shouldn’t stewardship matter more than ownership or common ground more than boundaries? What if today we practiced war no more? What if today, we dedicated ourselves, instead, to peace and friendship, and to work at reconciliation with each other and with the earth? What if we had national holidays for that? And what would it sound like if we did?
All pictures, including the images of the burned piano, are from a walk taken on the afternoon of 11/11/2019 through a site northeast of Sheet Harbour that was partially destroyed by arson last year. The iron piano harp and fragments of strings are all that remain onsite of the shell and contents of what had been a log house with a grass roof at the side of a lake. No one seems to know who set the fire. The owner–who does indeed behave like a steward, liming streams and making gardens and meditative spaces that he welcomes others to visit–has begun to rebuild.
This post was written in Eskikewa’kik, one of the seven districts of Mi’kma’ki, on unceded and ancestral land of the Mi’kmaq Nation.