Issue 1:2 | Points of View | Rob Merritt


Every part of the earth is sacred to my people.  Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect.  All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children?  That our earth is our mother?   What befalls the earth befalls all of the sons of the earth.  This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.  All things are connected like the blood that unites us all.  Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.  What ever he does to the web, he does to himself.
To harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator
Chief Seattle
Living in a small town on the Virginia-West Virginia line, I hear the whole damned land speak. 
Sometimes the rhododendron bushes descant with murmur of Wolf Creek when I kneel beside the trail, but more often I hear an anguished cry for retribution in the events playing out in the region.
McDowell County, West Virginia, once one of the richest counties in America during coal boom days, now is one of the most destitute.  The residents who have remained were blasted by floods last summer.  After they cleaned up and rebuilt, a May flood this year washed away roads and buildings.  The National Guard for months there did nothing but haul away debris.  Nothing remains in place.  In the town of Landgraff all of the buildings were condemned and scooped away by bulldozers.  The town no longer exists.  Where can the people go?
Falls Mills, VA.  Employees at WoodTech, a Japanese-owned wood veneer plant in Tazewell County, were not allowed to enter the factory when they reported to work early this June.   They were told they would get a call when there was work.  A sheriff's deputy stood by.  Where can the people work?
Grundy, Virginia.  Appalachian School of Law, a college the state tried to offer the region in a gesture of hope.  Students and professors gunned down last fall.  The rabbit chews off its foot to get out of the trap.   Where can the people learn?
Bluefield.  Breast cancer.  Colon cancer.  I hear "chemotherapy" every day.  People I drink beer with, whose children play often with my children, a public defender, a photographer who has caught the glint of light off the ruined roadhouse atop East River Mountain, a woman who tends her flowers along the curbside of College Avenue and knits skullcaps for chemo patients, never enough.  All cancered.  Good people caught in backlash.  Where can the people heal?
Is cancer the cost of doing business in the 21st century?  The destructive energy the land has absorbed roars back.  Sure the EPA and the DEP can enumerate effects of mining and lumbering on drinking water and air quality, but the spiritual damage shakes all over the web  
The land takes action, lashing back.  Many perpetrators have escaped.  The largest landholders in West Virginia live outside of the state.  Those who remain are caught in the path of fury.  The Cherokee say that when a horrible event occurs in a place� rape, murder� the place holds that violence in the dirt, in the trees, polluting the wind that blows through.  The passing walker feels a chill.  European settlers began to call such places haunted.  Those who don't pay attention call it superstition.
You call flooding a natural disaster, but here it is not.  When you take the landholding trees from the mountainsides, when you perforate the hills with mineshafts, there is nothing left to ameliorate the torrential spring rains.  My neighbor, a coal company lawyer, tells me there have been floods since Noah.
The Dust Bowl occurred because the Midwest was cleared to grow wheat.
The land screams to be heard.  She is weeping for all her pretty ones, not passively like Lady Macduff, but energized like Poseidon, incensed by Odysseus's blinding of his son, feeding sailors to whirlpools and seven- headed monsters.  Innocent sailors.  What did they ever do but follow a hero?  Good people caught in backlash. What did we do? We didn't remove the mountaintops.
The land is cursed by what man does to it.  In many places it is sick.  Cancer is the plague. Like the inhabitants of ancient Thebes, we must consult Apollo, implore our king to root out the evil.  Like Oedipus we may find we steep in guilt, whistle hot in our wooden houses.
I feel the curse.  It is a seam running square through Bluefield, West Virginia, founded on the power of coal.  And in Bramwell, where the mine owners built mansions, one aristocratice family there: four children: one dead of breast cancer, one with a metal plate in her head where a brain tumor was removed, one going in for treatment for colon cancer.
Other mountain communities don't harbor this evil.  A different history in North Carolina.
The grass-covered hills of Grayson Highlands remind me of Ireland.  Many residents claim Irish descent.  I think of Ireland here.  And James Joyce who characterized his homeland as an old sow who eats her farrow.  Paralysis, self-destruction.  As I hear a man cursing a woman a few streets over outside my window, when people vandalize social work offices to steal computers, I think only of the wounded further wounding themselves.  When people hungry for spiritual uplift here resort to the most conservative exclusionary forms of Christianity, I know we've got to keep trying. 
Yet some places harbor sacred energy: groves, mounts, streams.  Here temples were built, and structures like Stonehenge.   As Chief Seattle says, every place is sacred.  There may be no going back once you have harmed the divine.  Shall we bank on the fact that the divinity here is more inclined to forgiveness than vengeance? 
I become bleak.  I believe Wordsworth when he says "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her."  I think the heart that loves her must cross the frontier, go into the forest and come back with a handful of healing herbs. 
Philosopher David Abrams, in The Spell of the Sensuous, whose research in Indonesia and other indigenous cultures documents what Wordsworth intuited from Grasmere� "Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away"� writes "(W)ith  thousands of acres of nonregenerating forests disappearing every hour, and hundreds of our fellow species becoming extinct each month as a result of our civilization's excesses, we can hardly be surprised by the amount of epidemic illness in our culture, from increasingly severe immune dysfunctions and cancers, to widespread psychological distress, depression, and even more frequent suicides, to the accelerating number of household killings and mass murders committed for no apparent reason by otherwise coherent individuals."  The disease has become more malignant than the melancholia of 1802.
What is the connection between ecological destruction and the health of human mind, body, and spirit?  The "violence needlessly perpetuated by our civilization on the ecology of the planet" makes us incoherent, not connected to environment. 
We need healing.  Abrams finds a model in indigenous cultures: the shamans who acquire their restorative powers directly from nature: herbs for physical ailments, and because "the 'spirits' of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess human form," soul sustenance through the realization that human and nonhuman cohere and participate in the same sublunary dance.
The shaman can "readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture-- boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and most importantly, the common speech or language-- in order to make contact with, and learn from, the other powers in the land."  Thus the healers are "involved in monitoring and maintaining the relations between the human village and the animate landscape and are able to appropriately diagnose, treat, and ultimately relieve personal ailments and illness arising within the village." 
I want to believe we can transfer this model to our grieving mountains.  I like the idea that language is one of the shaman's tools for shifting modes of perception.  
I look at the sun through the rhododendron as I hike beside Little Wolf Creek.  I  greet other hikers and know that the beauty, solitude, and camaraderie in the forest draw me there, but also grieving and hope for healing as the next step in the process.
It is one person at a time cultivating his or her garden.  It has a lot to do with listening to the jackdaw and crow.  Keep turning words in the noonday sun to prayer. Shaman, knock down the boundaries.
Chief Seattle said, "When the Earth is sick, the animals will begin to disappear.  When that happens, the Warriors of the Rainbow will come and save them." 
It is hard not to sound naive, but if the following advice has been around in Western Tradition at least since Job, maybe we ought to calibrate ourselves to it:
But ask the beasts and they will teach you:
The birds of the sky, they will tell you,
Or speak to the earth, it will teach you;
The fish of the sea, they will inform you;
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is every living soul. . . .
I append a poem I have recently written, in which I think the shaman, the intermediary between the human community and its nonhuman surroundings, does not exist only in indigenous oral cultures, but has been part of the American literary tradition.
The Healer of Our Village
We endured The Scarlet Letter in high school.
Our teacher leered over her glasses,
"Beware the Seventh Commandment." 
In college, our professor intoned symbolism
and architectonic structure. 
God, the gloom!
Today I read of the shamans of Bali
who bring herbs, roots, incantations, and dances
to remedy fever, fatigue, palsy, infection
of tribespeople, exiled from true land
by chain saws, church music and too many clothes.
The shaman lives in a hut on village fringe
resented for making us remember
when we played near lions, did not kill
for power and loved without qualm.
We resent the shamans' bright attire and trances;
we need their medicine of reconciliation
between woman and flower, man and tree.
I see now why Hester won't stay folded in
Hawthorne's pages. We don't even know
why we turn to them.  She is shaman
for America, attired in her embroidery,
living alone in cottage facing the forest-covered hills,
growing a garden in sterile ground,
made strong performing our desires
in a stream of sunlight in the forest. 
A very sad man invented sin.
From her hut, she became a prophetess
counseling women seeking remedy
for misplaced passion:
"Let the forest-- hacked at edges,
tender, dark and wild at center--
teach you how to nurture desire." 
Her wisdom came from leaves opening
and sprouts pushing through soil,
not from man or church.
Therefore, when Hester had lain her white body
upon the moss, haloed by her stormy hair,
her arms brimming with remedies for broken
villages, they nailed a cross to her breast.
Rob Merritt, Bluefield, WV
25 June 2002