Guest Posts, pandemic, Tough Conversations

When the Mothers Are Gone, When the Mothers Return

November 22, 2020
Navajo

By Nicole Walker

Kit Carson and his men scorched the earth after they forced the Navajo people off their land, toward Bosque Redondo. Where the men destroyed peach trees the Diné had tended for three centuries, not even stumps remain. Some tamarisk mark their impossible green against the red cliffs and the red ruins, but the original life-sustaining fruit trees are gone as are the churro sheep whose fat the People rubbed into cuts left behind by pruned branches.

*

My mom calls to tell me about how she and her new boyfriend visited with her new-found son at his house for the first time with his kids. She’d given her son up for adoption before I was born. My husband teases me that now I’m no longer first-born child. This new son is very tall. I don’t think it’s fair he got the tall genes and first-child status, both.

I ask her how the visit went. She says, “well, really well. My, is he glad I didn’t abort him. He keeps telling me.”

“That’s not how abortion works. If you’d had an abortion, which you couldn’t have had, legally, he wouldn’t know he didn’t exist. It’s like every masturbated sperm complaining that it didn’t to impregnate an egg. You’re not alive until you exist.”

“I know, but he’s still really, really glad.”

“I bet,” I say. She knows I’ve had an abortion. She seems to think she’s done something right. She’s not quite telling me I did something wrong, but maybe she is. I try to feel bad about it but then I’d have to feel bad about all those misdirected spermatozoa. That menstruated egg that didn’t get her chance to replicate.

*

Kit Carson and his minions may have cut down the original orchard of trees, but the People replanted. High desert, Colorado-Plateau growing is not easy work but there is a reason the Navajo survived as long as they did where they did. There are tricks to growing and the People have been here for centuries. The Hopi, who received peach seeds from the Spanish, who live also in the high desert but further east, and who not always friends with the People, still gave peach seeds to the Diné, as a gesture toward future friendship. And although Canyon de Chelly has thick red walls of de Chelly sandstone, unique for its horizontal deposit, green things grow. To the left grows grass. To the right, Utah Juniper. In between? A mixture of pines and yucca and cactus.

Canyon de Chelly is a complicated life zone. To grow peaches here might be a miracle. Or to grow peaches here might be a logical extension to growing olives in Spain. Isn’t the Mediterranean its own kind of semi-arid climate? What is not obvious, at least not to me, is the idea of a planting trees from seeds. I am so wrapped up in horticultural bondage, I’ve only grown fruit trees from grafted rootstock. And even those have turned out first stunted, then dead. And I am lucky enough to own a hose that stretches from hosebib to rootstock. Canyon de Chelly growers must rely on spring water and rain to get their fruit trees to grow.

*

“He’s just so glad I didn’t have an abortion,” she tells me on another phone call.

I try to tell her about Schrödinger’s cat. The cat is both alive and dead inside the box. It’s only when you look that he turns out dead. “Don’t look, mom,” I tell her.

There is a lot more genetic matter in the world than there used to be. There’s a one in 420 trillion chance of you being alive right now. We are all equally lucky the world is full of green and equally cursed that the world is running out of water. The planet is getting hotter. Our genetic material swarms like a virus. The planet has a fever. Perhaps the fever will burn us off.

*

Kit Carson and his Army burned the peach trees. They also killed the Churro sheep. The Churro sheep are a strange breed. Unrefined, some say. But the women who weave prize the wool the sheep produce. The weavers tried merino wool once but it didn’t possess the sticky fiber’s tug that the Churro’s twisty follicles produced. Without peaches and without sheep, Kit Carson expected that moving The People to Bosque Redondo would be permanent. What did they have to return to?

But The People knew how to grow peach trees from seeds. They just had to wait out Carson’s savage obsession. Once he moved on to different kinds of destructions, Canyon de Chelly’s soil and water would still offer what it gave when they planted the seeds the first time. Perhaps the Hopi would gift them again on their long walk home.

*

It is my fault my mom has a new son. His wife messaged me on Facebook to say, “Hello, my husband just received a notice from Ancestry.com that your mom is his mom.” I’m pretty easy to find and open on social media. I told her to hang on. I’d be in touch.

When I told my mom about the message, I replayed for her the advertisement on Pod Save America where Jon Lovett says, “Try Ancestry.com. Find that brother that you never had. Ask you dad, hey, dad, is there something you wanted to tell me?” My mom didn’t find the joke funny. Since my sisters and I had known about her new son, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. But what do I know about the loss of children?

When I asked my mom to remind me why she told us about him, she said, “I didn’t know how your father might weaponize it during the divorce.”

The Facebook message didn’t come as a shock then. More of an opportunity to tease my mom about the benefits and drawbacks of Ancentry.com. “What kind of ancestors do we have anyway?”

“Same as we thought before. Mormon all the way down.”

*

Stephen C. Jett published an article in a 1979 issue of Economic Botany describing the cultivation of peach trees in Canyon de Chelly. “The trees in some orchards appear to be of uniform age; in other orchards, mixed ages. None of the trees attains a very large size.” Hill noted that well-cared for trees bear after 3-4 years.

As Hill observed, “a planted tree remains the property of the planter, even in the event that he abandons the land and someone else assumes the care of the tree. Trees are often planted by a father and given to his children.”[i] Children may inherit trees from their fathers, but from their mothers, they inherit animals who help trees grow. The Churro sheep supplies the women with wool. The Churro sheep supply the whole community with meat. The connections between sheep and tree are integral. Rendered fat from the Churro sheep is pressed into wounds left behind by cut limbs. Sheep fat is rubbed on seeds to help them geminate. Rams’ horns line the edge of the orchard or even hang from the branches of trees to strengthen the trees.

To build bodies in the semi-arid climate requires a wide network. The thread of the sheep fat and wound looped into a weave. The ram’s head calcium plaited into the dirt. The rendered fat interlaced between the peach pit’s rivulets. This cross-species blending orchestrated by the matriarchs since long before the Spanish brought their peach pits to the Hopi. That existed before Kit Carson rounded up the women and children and marched them to Fort Redondo.

*

I am trapped at home with my 14-year-old daughter during a virus outbreak. This pandemic is forcing us on lockdown but we aren’t as quarantined as our Navajo neighbors to the north. Because the virus spread so quickly on The Nation, I don’t imagine this will be the last pandemic we’ll suffer. As the climate warms, I imagine the melting ice releasing all kind of novel viruses. The swine flu hit just a few years ago but the corona virus is first pandemic where we’ve been told to wear masks and to stay away from public places.

My daughter, Zoe, is beautiful, hilarious, athletic, and brilliant. She’s also a pain in the ass while we’re waiting for everyone to develop an immunity to a disease we’ve never known. I ask her to come plant some pea seeds with me. The package says, plant these 6-8 weeks before the last frost. I think it’s late in the season but maybe I’m on target. It’s hard to tell with climate change. Maybe we’ve already seen the last frost. Maybe it will snow another two feet at the end of April.

She declines my offer to come plant. I talk Max, who is 10 and less of an automatic-no, to press the pea seeds into the garden box filled halfway full of store-bought dirt that we got lazy and ran out of money to fill to the top of the wooden frame. The garden box 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by 3 feet tall. We can’t grow in the regular ground. The dirt is poor. The deer will eat whatever we plant if we don’t plant it in this box that’s wound with plastic, protective fencing. Whose peas will these be?

I look at Zoe’s skinny frame and cannot imagine either the sex or the zygote reproduction. Or rather, I can imagine. With too many folds and body parts, too many lips, I gave her a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves like my mother gave me. My mom did not ask me to plant peas with her. I don’t know if it was because she preferred to plant alone or just didn’t want to hear the automatic no of the 14 year old species. I take solace is Zoe’s resistance to planting. Not interested in owning or being owned, she is not into boys and not into peas.

*

The pandemic has hit the Navajo Nation hard. I was talking to the teacher-fellows in the Diné Institute.

“It was The Gathering,” Carol said.

“What gathering?”

“Oh, every year in New Mexico. The New Brotherhood Church holds a gathering. Everyone from churches all around gather.”

“They should have canceled it,” Maria argued.

“I didn’t go.”

“I didn’t either.”

The Navajo Times reports the number of cases every day. Today, 3465. 100 deaths.

A lot of families on the reservation live closely together. Some don’t have running water. It’s hard to convince yourself to sing Happy Birthday two times if you have to drive to Flagstaff or Shiprock or even Tuba City to fill your tank. No one wastes water on the reservation. Even the peach trees know to inhale water from the air.

*

I always thought my mother was militantly pro-choice. She drove me to the abortion clinic for my first abortion. The nurse hurt her feelings when they made her stay in the waiting room instead of holding my hand through the procedure.

It was for the best that she hadn’t heard the doctor tell me not to have sex so young. I wanted to tell the doctor it wasn’t my idea, the sex, the abortion. I think my mother would have yelled so hard at the doctor, he may have rather sucked his own ear drums out. I can imagine him taking the doctor by the shirt collar to the neighbor boy who was supposed to be my babysitter and say, “Tell him about how young she is.”

Or, maybe she wouldn’t have. There are things that are said in girls’ bedrooms between mothers and daughters and things that are said when the boys are around. Perhaps she would have agreed with the male doctor. I mean, I agree with the doctor. No one should have sex that young whether they want to or not.

*

A woman takes a peach pit and rubs Churro fat into its folds. While the male members of the tribe might own the branches, she owns the dirt below. She tucks her hands into dirt. Later, she tucks her hands into wool. Women are hand tuckers. They press their hands within the dirt, through the hair, into the birth canal. They can bring out life in the form of a plant or a blanket or a baby. They can bring out a different kind of life that may look like a disorganized skein but this unwoven fetus is woven into a different story.

Kandace Littlefoot for Truthout writes, “As a Diné woman raised by my maternal grandmother and my sisters, I know that respecting someone’s right to make their own reproductive health decisions is a value deeply rooted in our sovereign Indigenous communities. In our matrilineal society, women have always had direct autonomy over our lives and our reproductive health care decisions. Historical accounts show women and pregnant people in our society have engaged in some form of abortion over generations. I support abortion access because of my Indigenous matriarchal values and traditions — not in spite of them.

Shí éí Kandace Littlefoot yinishé. (I am Kandace Littlefoot.)

Tséníjiíkinií nishłį, Kinliichíinii bashishchiin, Tsédeeshgizhnii dashicheii, dóó Táchii’nii dashinalí, ákót’éego Diné Asdzáán nishłį. (I am born for the Honey Comb Rock People/Cliff Dwelling People, born to the Red House People, my maternal grandfather is the Rock Gap People and my paternal grandfather is the Red Running Into the Water People; in this way, I am a Diné woman.)[ii]

From what I understand, the Diné aren’t more or less conflicted than anyone else about abortion, but some members of the Diné Nation do go on record to say, in a report entitled Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights: The Indian Health Service and Its Inconsistent Application of the Hyde Amendment, written in October of 2002, that “Traditionally, in Native American communities, matters pertaining to women have been the business of women. All decisions concerning a woman’s reproductive health were left up to her as an individual, and her decision was respected. Oftentimes a woman would turn to other women within her society for advice, mentoring, and assistance concerning reproductive health. Within traditional societies and languages, there is no word that is equivalent to “abortion.” Traditional elders knowledgeable about reproductive health matters would refer to a woman’s knowing which herbs and methods to use “to make her period come.”[iii]

But then there is strong resistance to abortion from some members of Native American communities that, because of forced sterilization and reproductive control by the US Government, Navajo women shouldn’t have abortions. Elizabeth Terrill, writing a guest column for The Navajo Times, in January 2020, writes, “Precisely because of our history of being discarded and disdained, we have an obligation to stand for those who are today being denied the rights that we have fought so hard to obtain.

Today, unborn Native Americans are the most vulnerable among us and they are under assault from many sides. By our culture we know the importance of our children. Our children are our future, and our children are the heart and soul of our families, clans, and tribes.”

Are you a peach pit or are you a sheep? Do you need a little pruning or do you sacrifice yourself for your community? Some Diné women rub the fat into the peach pits. Some of weave blankets. Some work at Walmart. Some turn arid ground into peach trees. Some trees need pruning, some seeds need fat, some wool needs to be pulled and tugged rather than shorn.

*

When the pandemic hits, my mother is living in her rented condo with the owner of the condo. It worked out when my mom was single but now she has a new boyfriend. They’re supposed to move in together but the pandemic seems to hold them up.

“Mom. You guys were supposed to move on January 31st.”

“He wants to finish the floors. We’re almost done painting.”

“Mother, you are 73 years old. You shouldn’t be painting.”

“I think I’ll move into your sister’s for awhile.”

“Are things not working out with Bill?”

“They’re great. I just don’t want him to get irritated with me.”

“Valerie will get irritated with you,” I told her.

“Yes, but she can’t get rid of me. I’m her mother.”

*

I put a land acknowledgement at the bottom of my signature line. I walk on the land that the People and their ancestors walked on before me. It’s not just their land but the water we take, pumping from Red Lake under the reservation to our pipes in Flagstaff.

I add the land acknowledgement but that is words and it’s really my body that’s taking place. My body is taking up space. It is space my body doesn’t need to take, but I don’t know where to put my body.

*

My mom texted me to say, “Have I told you lately that I love your smile.”

My mom never texts me.

“What made you text me that, mom?”

“I just saw the pic of you, the hat, and the cat. Hug emoji.”

Women build bodies through the telephone. Women build through the furniture they move, or don’t move. Through their clothes. Their hair. Their weavings. Through their menstrual pads and IUDs, and their kids. They tell stories through the plants they grow and the water they carry to the plants from the spring over half a mile away. They cook the lambs. They strain the broth. They take the fat skimmed from the top and rub it into peach pits. Those lines on the peach pits they recognize as bark on the tree, as the knot of a cervix, the pleading lotic of a son she’d always wished she’d had. I can’t regret abortions because the strings of this horizontal story pulled me one way and another. I am just a cat in a box. It’s unfortunate that a man owned the box. My mom used to swear men were nothing but trouble. But that tall son of hers is made something out of nothing, like all good children. He is full of flesh and he looks just like my mom.

When I met mom’s new son, my sister wouldn’t join us. She called me, “I don’t know, but this whole thing just makes me cry.”

“This whole thing is just weird. But think of it this way. Now we have a bigger family. We’re growing like spider webs. Walker blood everywhere.”

“Mom’s last name wasn’t Walker when she had him. Neither is his.”

“She’s not going to love him more than us,” I try to console her.

“You’ve seen how she is with her grandsons. They can do no wrong.”

If there is one magical force in the world, it’s making something out of almost nothing. Sperm and egg, so small.

I remember the book my mom and dad read to me about how babies were made. A pencil dot, almost invisible, for the egg. Sperm even smaller than that. But some electric connection between the two leads to replication after replication. All that mitochondrial DNA doubling and doubling.

My mom’s new son is very tall, I tell you again. Six foot three at least. I am a foot shorter. He probably weighs as much as me and my sister combined. So much mass in the form of a really nice guy. It is possible my mother will love him more than her daughters.

*

The miracle of mass is not necessarily miraculous. Replication for the sake of replication isn’t automatically impressive or useful. Yeast grows. Plants grow. Fetuses grow. But so grows the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The amount of fossil fuels burned. The temperature of the plant. The number of people dying from the pandemic. The number of species going extinct. Growth for the sake of growth doesn’t a mother make. If a seed doesn’t germinate, even with sheep fat scrubbed into its crevices, only shows the planter, the soil, the sun, the rain, and the sheep understand the nature of seeds.

*

The planet doesn’t need more mass or more people. Some climate scientists say that if we planted a trillion trees, we could cancel out a decade’s worth of greenhouse-effecting-carbon. Donna Haraway, in her book Staying with the Trouble likes the slogan, “Make Kin Not Babies.” Then someone said, well, it might not work. Then, someone else said, there is nowhere to put the trees. Then someone said, the oceans absorb 50% of the carbon. Then someone else said, if they planted them on ice, they’d actually make the planet hotter, since white ice reflects yellow sun heat.

But some Indigenous People, like the Swinomish in the Pacific Northwest, are planting trees right now. Mass is the measure that makes women choose to direct their lives non-child-wise. It’s not the fear of roots or becoming rooted. Planting 8 billion trees won’t save us. Planting 8 billion trees won’t not save us. It’s the verb rather than the number that matters.

*

When I meet my mom’s new son and his wife at a restaurant, I am as short as ever. My family’s one gift is to try to make strangers feel as comfortable as possible at the very first meeting (and then pull that rug out from under by the end of the meeting) so my mom’s new son is happy to follow my mom’s lead to tease me about my height. There’s the using my head as an elbow rest. There’s the ‘can I reach that for you?’ There’s the, ‘oh sorry I tapped your foot with my foot. I didn’t know your feet reached the ground.’

There’s the picture of my mom and my mom’s new son. Their faces match. I can’t if they look more alike than me and my mom or if it’s the newness that makes them look surprisingly identical.

I don’t feel anything. My stomach is not in knots.

There’s something body-less for me in this moment. I don’t know what to order from the menu. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or not. I look to my mom to give me some advice on what to order but she’s busy trying to talk her new son into sharing a Reuben with her.

Maybe in revenge, I will become a vegetarian. “Want to come over for dinner, mom? I’m making ancient grain bowls.”

That will teach her.

*

When the Diné returned from Redondo, when they found their peach trees burned, their sheep slaughtered, they took turns collecting peach pits hidden between blades of grass in what was then, at least still, a fertile valley. They found old ram bones to mark the rows. Without any sheep fat to moisten the seed, they didn’t have a lot of faith that anything would grow. But they planted the seeds anyway and waited for three years for the seeds to germinate. Now the Diné living near Canyon de Chelly have new peach trees that are just as beloved as the old ones. They have found some new sheep. The children, even the female ones, have inherited a few trees, some rendered fat, and a puff of wool—not too much but possibly enough substance to sustain their bodies another three centuries or more, if the rain comes back in time.

[i] Jett, Stephen C. “Peach Cultivation and Use among the Canyon De Chelly Navajo.” Economic Botany, vol. 33, no. 3, 1979, pp. 298–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4254079. Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.

[ii] https://navajotimes.com/opinion/essay/abortion-is-not-a-solution-for-native-women/

[iii] http://prochoice.org/pubs_research/publications/downloads/about_abortion/indigenous_women.pdf

Nicole Walker is the author of Sustainability: A Love Story (2018) and the forthcoming collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. (2019). She has previously published the books Where the Tiny Things Are (2017), Egg (2017), Micrograms (2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013), and This Noisy Egg (2010). She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story (2019) with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013) with Margot Singer. She is the co-president of NonfictioNOW and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a noted author in Best American Essays. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ.

 

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