Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Moving On

Researching your ancestors is always a source of surprises; you’re lucky if it’s not a snake pit. Every family has stories that may be truth or fantasy, or at least embroidery. I was told from youth that we were descended from the illustrious Lees of Virginia. Actually it appears that we are descended from the less illustrious Lees of North Carolina — by way of the hillbilly Lees of Tennessee.

The upside here, for the abolitionist half of my ancestral stream, is that the southern ancestors were too poor to own slaves — although my Sullivan twice-great grandfather is listed in the 1860 census as the employer of three Irish laborers. This sounds odd, because my mother described her Sullivan grandfather as a “little Dutchman” who jumped up and down and shouted in German when excited. Why he would have done this in Golden City, Missouri, is still a mystery to me.

Then there was the three-times great uncle who moved his family from Iowa in 1866. To avoid paying for the ferry across the Missouri River at Westport, he loaded up the covered wagon, yoked the oxen and set out for Kansas in single-digit weather on New Year’s Day, driving the livestock along behind. The family, including the six-week-old baby, slept outside for three weeks and crossed the frozen river at Nebraska City. I can safely say that I come from a long line of cheapskates.

This kind of research rapidly turns into information overload. However, one person stands out, although she is not even technically a relative of mine. Eliza (perfect pioneer name) came from Vermont. She married and moved to Iowa, where her husband died in an epidemic. The next year she remarried a recent widower, my twice-great grandfather Ben. With two children of her own and her father to look after, Eliza became the stepmother of Ben’s six surviving children. The youngest was my two-year-old great grandfather.

Eliza and Ben had three more children in Kansas. They farmed, and Ben tried a brief stint as a frontier sheriff. In 1889 he and Eliza made the first Oklahoma land run, but the southern plains proved too much for them. Ben is buried in an unmarked grave in the Red Hills of Kansas. Eliza kept going west from there, along with her younger daughter. She died at the age of 80 in 1900 in Washington state, having crossed North America in her lifetime.

None of this is what I expected to find. All of us have such high hopes for our children. Evidently we also have high hopes for our ancestors. Sometimes those hopes are fulfilled in unexpected ways. The fabled virtue of pioneer strength has never particularly appealed to me. After learning about Eliza though, I think it might have been less a virtue than a necessity. I can only imagine the courage required to leave everything you know, not once but again and again, moving on into the unknown. Did she spend her life longing for a permanent home? Or was she the one who looked toward the western horizon, wondering what lay beyond, urging her family to move on?

I claim Eliza, whatever her private thoughts and feelings. She was the only mother my great grandfather knew. Her descendants are my unknown cousins. She had adventures, whether or not she went looking for them. She lived close to this land, raising her children, making a living, moving on. I want to live close to my small piece of land, looking toward the horizon for adventures still to come.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Ladies

They often visit us in the morning, their dun coats shifting through the dappled light. They graze in the woods, stepping delicately over fallen branches. To rest, they fold their legs gracefully beneath them, settle into the leaves and disappear. Sometimes from the south window, we see several new tan boulders on the hillside. We call them the ladies. No refined Victorian ever had such elegance.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are liminal creatures, foraging in timber glades and along the wooded edges of streams, most active at dawn and twilight. They mate in the fall, to the peril of motorists. Fawns are born in spring and make their first timid visits to us around midsummer. Their home range is relatively small. We see the same families from year to year.

They browse in my garden. They mow the liriope foliage during the winter, and they forage for the first sweet crocus blossoms. I’ve learned not to bother trying to grow lilies or hosta; the succulent salad bar they provide is too appealing. Two spotted fawns pruned my bell peppers one year. They returned the next year, larger and still hungry.

Even supposedly deer-proof plants attract a few individuals. For several years the same doe methodically devoured the toxic camassia before it could bloom. I planted coral bells near the driveway and found the uprooted plant tossed aside the next morning. I replanted it and found it yanked up again the next day. This went on for almost a week before the deer lost interest.

At twilight, the deer emerge to glean leftover sunflower seeds under the bird feeder. One clever lady learned to slip her slender tongue into the port and tease out the seeds. She taught her daughters the trick. They can empty a bird feeder in half an hour. A friend suggested offering them cornmeal. The ladies found it a fine supplement for sunflower seeds. Now five of them show up to feast together.

If I’m lucky, I meet them when I walk the timber. I follow their trails along the hillside. I stalk them with my camera. They are cautious but not afraid of me. If I come too close, the nearest does will flip their white tails, kick up their heels, leap a short way down the hill and settle to graze again. One deer stays on watch, ears pointed, eyes wide. Sometimes she stamps her hoof to warn me away. 

Among the Kanza Indians, the Deer clan served as heralds and messengers. They made sure everyone knew where to make a new camp or how a buffalo hunt would be organized. Some clan names described white tail appearance and behavior with precise detail: Gray Back, Tail Shows Whitish Suddenly, Dark Breast, Hawk Eyes, Steps Softly, Jumps Suddenly, Stands Ahead of the Others, Without a Plan.

Deer are caretakers of the earth in many native traditions. They give themselves to the people as food. They lick things into their proper shapes. They appear when you need to see them, to remind you of who you are, where you belong. They are messengers, heralds from other worlds, telling us where to find our sustenance, our people, our home. They tell us when it is time to move on.

To catch sight of a deer standing motionless between the branches is to encounter the goddess. Artemis had groves and temples in liminal settings, places that opened the way between worlds, neither here nor there but elsewhere. When I meet her ladies, I stop what I’m doing and catch my breath. My heart lifts. She pulls me out of time and into sacred space. I thank her with a sacrifice of flowers and foliage, an offering of cornmeal.