Robin Wall Kimmerer 2013
From: Braiding sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants /
Our people were canoe people. Until they made us walk. Until our lakeshore lodges were signed away for shanties and dust. Our people were a circle, until we were dispersed. Our people shared a language with which to thank the day, until they made us forget. But we didn’t forget. Not quite.
Most summer mornings of childhood I woke to the sound of the outhouse door—the squeak of the hinge followed by the hollow thunk as it shut. I rose to consciousness through the hazy songs of vireos and thrushes, the lapping of the lake, and finally the sound of my father pumping the tank on the Coleman stove. By the time my brother and sisters and I emerged from our sleeping bags the sun would just be topping the eastern shore, pulling mist off the lake in long white coils. The small four-cup coffeepot of battered aluminum, blackened with the smoke of many fires, would already be thumping. Our family spent summers canoe camping in the Adirondacks and every day began this way.
I can picture my father, in his red-checked wool shirt, standing atop the rocks above the lake. When he lifts the coffeepot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it’s time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee out on the ground in a thick brown stream.
The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.” The stream runs down over smooth granite to merge with the lake water, as clear and brown as the coffee. I watch it trickle, picking up bits of pale lichen and soaking a tiny clump of moss as it follows a crack to the water’s edge. The moss swells with the liquid and unfurls its leaves to the sun. Then and only then does he pour out steaming cups of coffee for himself and my mother, who stands at the stove making pancakes. So begins each morning in the north woods: the words that come before all else.
I was pretty sure that no other family I knew began their day like this, but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said “Here we are,” and I imagined that the land heard us—murmured to itself, “Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.”
Tahawus is the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks. It’s called Mount Marcy to commemorate a governor who never set foot on those wild slopes. Tahawus, “the Cloud Splitter,” is its true name, invoking its essential nature. Among our Potawatomi people, there are public names and true names. True names are used only by intimates and in ceremony. My father had been on Tahawus’s summit many times and knew it well enough to call it by name, speaking with intimate knowledge of the place and the people who came before. When we call a place by name it is transformed from wilderness to homeland. I imagined that this beloved place knew my true name as well, even when I myself did not.
Sometimes my father would name the gods of Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow, wherever our tents were settled for the night. I came to know that each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.
I knew that in the long-ago times our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, and the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn’t have sacred tobacco and we didn’t know the songs—they’d been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to canoes.
My mother had her own more pragmatic ritual of respect: the translation of reverence and intention into action. Before we paddled away from any camping place she made us kids scour the place to be sure that it was spotless. No burnt matchstick, no scrap of paper escaped her notice. “Leave this place better than you found it,” she admonished. And so we did. We also had to leave wood for the next person’s fire, with tinder and kindling carefully sheltered from rain by a sheet of birch bark. I liked to imagine their pleasure, those other paddlers, arriving after dark to find a ready pile of fuel to warm their evening meal. My mother’s ceremony connected us to them, too.
The offering was made only under an open sky and never back in town where we lived. On Sundays, when other kids would go to church, my folks would take us out along the river to look for herons and muskrats, to the woods to hunt for spring flowers, or on picnics. The words came along. For our winter picnics, we would walk all morning on snowshoes and then build a fire in the center of a circle stomped down with our webbed feet. This time the pot was full of bubbling tomato soup, and the first draught poured was for the snow. “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus”—only then would we wrap mittened hands around our steaming cups.
And yet, as I grew to adolescence, the offering began to leave me angry or sad. The circle that had brought me a sense of belonging turned inside out. I heard in the words a message that we did not belong because we spoke in the language of exiles. It was a secondhand ceremony. Somewhere there were people who knew the right ceremony, who knew the lost language and spoke the true names, including my own.
But, still, every morning I watched the coffee disappear into the crumbly brown humus, as if returning to itself. In the same way that the flow of coffee down the rock opened the leaves of the moss, ceremony brought the quiescent back to life, opened my mind and heart to what I knew, but had forgotten. The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible became invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but even through my confusion I recognized that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.
A people’s story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names. And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge—the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco—I heard it as if in my father’s voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.
Ours was a solitary ceremony, but fed from the same bond with the land, founded on respect and gratitude. Now the circle drawn around us is bigger, encompassing a whole people to which we again belong. But still the offering says, “Here we are,” and still I hear at the end of the words the land murmuring to itself, “Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.” Today, my father can speak his prayer in our language. But it was “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus” that came first, in the voice that I will always hear.
It was in the presence of the ancient ceremonies that I understood that our coffee offering was not secondhand, it was ours. . . . . Much of who I am and what I do is wrapped up in my father’s offering by the lakeshore. Each day still begins with a version of “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus,” a thanksgiving for the day. My work as an ecologist, a writer, a mother, as a traveler between scientific and traditional ways of knowing, grows from the power of those words. It reminds me of who we are; it reminds me of our gifts and our responsibility to those gifts. Ceremony is a vehicle for belonging—to a family, to a people, and to the land.
At last, I thought that I understood the offering to the gods of Tahawus. It was, for me, the one thing that was not forgotten, that which could not be taken by history: the knowing that we belonged to the land, that we were the people who knew how to say thank you. It welled up from a deep blood memory that the land, the lakes, and the spirit had held for us. But years later, with my own answer already in place, I asked my father, “Where did the ceremony come from—did you learn it from your father, and he from his? Did it stretch all the way back to the time of the canoes?”
He thought for a long time. “No, I don’t think so. It’s just what we did. It seemed right.” That was all.
Some weeks went by, though, and when we spoke again he said, “I’ve been thinking about the coffee and how we started giving it to the ground. You know, it was boiled coffee. There’s no filter and if it boils too hard the grounds foam up and get stuck in the spout. So the first cup you pour would get that plug of grounds and be spoiled. I think we first did it to clear the spout.” It was as if he’d told me that the water didn’t change to wine—the whole web of gratitude, the whole story of remembrance, was nothing more than the dumping of the grounds?
“But, you know,” he said, “there weren’t always grounds to clear. It started out that way, but it became something else. A thought. It was a kind of respect, a kind of thanks. On a beautiful summer morning, I suppose you could call it joy.”
That, I think, is the power of ceremony: it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mingled with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist.
What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.