A large, orange-chested robin stands sheltered under the rear bumper of my neighbor’s car, looking out at the snow madly whirling and falling on this first day of May. The birds are chirping and calling and flying after each other in spite of the weather. I saw several earthworms roiling around in the shallow gutter water as I put my recycling out on the curb for pickup earlier. The ground is too warm for the streets to hold the snow, even as slush, but it is gradually building on the grass and trees. I think it would be rich pickings for the robins inspecting the puddles and gutters for breakfast.
Yesterday I flew home to Colorado from Oregon where spring is erupting everywhere in lush shades of green and the dogwoods and wild cherry and rhododendrons are blooming. My two friends and I were blessed with being able to hike some of the Columbia River Gorge with a medicine man from the Wasco tribe who is the husband of our mutual friend.
He is one of the last true wisdom-keepers, full of plant knowledge and the oral history of his people. He is one of the last of his tribe who can speak his language, he says, and he is forgetting because he has no one with whom to speak it. He pointed out all the wooden platforms along the river where Native Americans are still allowed to catch the salmon that come to spawn and take them as food. He also pointed out places that have been turned into parking lots where the elders used to sit and talk and dry the fish for winter food.
This is not knowledge of times past, but part of the legacy of the 20th century and how our government still treats the tribal members with whom treaties were signed shortly before Oregon became a state. Only very recently, he told us, has the state allowed the sovereignty of the Indians to be returned to them, and only in limited ways. These are not things publicized, but things he knows from living through them and seeing the changes with his own eyes.
“There were two longhouses there when I was a boy,” he points, showing us where, as we enter a box canyon along the river. The park service requires a permit to hike some of the areas he took us, but he is a native. They can’t require him. We saw a couple of magnificent waterfalls roaring over cliffs, their water so clean the foam is bright white and the water itself a tropical green.
“There is wonderful fishing in those pools below the falls,” he tells us. “The trout are huge and delicious.” He pointed out fish spawning in the rocks of the roaring streams. Brown trout so well disguised they matched the streambed perfectly, but he could see them. “They come up here in their third year and spawn” he told us. Then they go back to the river and the ocean. “They live for many years,” he tells us. “Not the five or six years they tell you in books.”
He is going to be 80 this year and I know he is going slowly so we can follow easily as he marches up the sides of mountains and along the switchbacks, but I have to dawdle and catch my breath here and there. He shows me a fern and removes a small frond from a clump growing along the cliff. “Here, take a little bite of this,” he says and hands me the frond with a fat, short root. I nibble a bit. It tastes like liquorice. He takes the frond and carefully plants it back among the others. He shows us wild celery and mugwort and red cedar. He knows all the plants and their medicinal and food uses.
He talks to the park service rangers he meets on his journeys. They consult him about the history of the land. He knows where the ancient petro glyphs are buried by rockslides caused by the earthquakes, and by the building of the railroads. He worked for the railroad for 36 ½ years. He points out the trout and fish in the streams way up in the mountains above the towering waterfalls to the park service rangers. “How did they get up here, so high?” they ask.
“That’s where the Creator put them,” he says, a look indicating the ignorance of the questioner crossing his face as he tells me this. He is at once a man of mystery, and complete practicality. Not only is the wilderness an alien land to me, but so is most of what we are walking through as we trail behind him. He brings everything into sharp focus, full of life. I regret my careless attitude. I label myself with one of my father’s favorite words, “ignoramus.” I see the land with new reverence. He is simply teaching me to respect the world so blithely ignored and discounted by the white settlers.
Outside the snow is still falling, smearing the trees with wet stripes and white snow on the windward side. I remember a story we were told about the grandfather of our medicine friend. He lived in the wilderness with a blanket and a couple of skins for warmth. Even as a very, very old man he stayed warm, fed, and lived in harmony with his Creator without any of what I consider essential for survival. I wouldn’t make it through the first blizzard, never mind a winter with what I know. Perhaps I should take a class…