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Spring 2008 [Issue No. 13]

ESSAY

 

 

Tree of Life ▪► Bruce Fisher

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There wasn't much blood, because we didn't do it Sioux-style. The scalpel blades were from Chicago; the cuts the old man made with those blades were clean, and the two short wood pegs, bison-sinew tethers looped around the ends, clean, shoved into the chest. Assiniboine dancers clench the eagle-bone whistle between the lips and brushes of sage in clenched fists, and dance looking at the pole at the center of the Lodge. The way the Sioux boys do it is very dramatic indeed: they lean back hard, putting their whole weight on those cords. It's not the cords that break, it's the skin that was pierced, the pectoral area. The skin rips out. Sioux blood doesn't drip, it cascades. One year a Blackfeet dancer danced that way too, at the Assiniboine Lodge. The preferred rips are symmetrical. They heal up like big burns the width of fingers, big old raised welts. Assiniboines don't do it that way, with the big drama of the big blood all down the chest. It's no quieter at an Assiniboine Medicine Lodge than at a Sioux Sun Dance, but there's less blood, less chest-ripping. Piercing is sacrifice enough.

Ever after, the sight of a pole brings back the feel of that blood-tickle.

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 In Akron, New York, near Niagara Falls and Buffalo, I see a pole – an erect oak log – called the Grant Club Pole. It is like a bare telephone pole, and about as tall. The blue New York State historical marker explains that it's the third pole in that place. The first was erected by the Grant Club of Akron, New York, the political organization that supported Ulysses S. Grant's campaign for president. My home village of Angola, New York, never had such a pole even though it and all the other villages on the Lake Erie plain were all in Grant country too. Grandmother's mother's brothers and her father, too, had all fought for the Union in the Civil War, which means that they served under General Grant. Great-grandmother herself had been born during Grant's first term as president. On a summer's day one hundred and forty years later, I've stopped my car to look at a campaign poster dating from her childhood in a rural Yankee village in upstate New York.

The original pole lasted fifty years or so, then its replacement needed replacing. The current Grant Pole looks sturdy. It stands straight.

The pole demands a context. It's as incongruous as a single marble Doric column standing in a desert. Old pictures of these campaign poles and of "liberty poles" always include crowds. The crowds were there for the campaign – to hear speeches, to celebrate, to give voice. Today there's just a bare pole about 30 feet tall. It sticks up out of a little patch of grass. Somebody's retail business goes on in the background, and the main street of town passes along in front of it, linking the highway and the village center. The pole itself is a leftover from an event that would have overwhelmed the village center, which is a leafy common across the creek bridge and up the road a bit. The common is the square the like of which is in every village in New England and New York, for the white folks who made a village here came from New England, organized their governments as in New England, their villages, their clapboard houses, their Congregational and Episcopal churches, their kin networks, their farms. This pole was erected outside the village center, though; this pole was a rally point at which there were bonfires, march-band music, soldiers, hot rhetoric.

I could not pass this pole by because of other poles I stopped to investigate twenty years before, when I was driving on Route 2 in Montana, the road they call the High Line, along the north shore of the Missouri River. The bare nude standing poles I saw there were a Medicine Lodge, what the Assiniboines call Tibi Tanga, abandoned the year before. The Assiniboine men who made the Medicine Lodge put those poles up for an event, and then the event was over, and the whole construction stood there in the weather. An old Medicine Lodge looks like the skeleton of a carousel or merry-go-round in the daytime, a bare carousel stripped of colored lights, without ponies, without a stamped-steel floor. It's just a circle of man-high logs with the forks pointing up, with smaller logs resting in the forks, bridging the uprights, all circling a big forked center pole. And here's how they make a sort of a roof: into the fork of the center pole they rest the leafy untrimmed tops of long, long, skinny saplings laid atop the bridges of the man-high logs that form the outer circle. When the event is on, there are people all around, inside and outside this circle of standing forked logs. One can't see inside because the space between the uprights is fenced with the leafy branches of a cottonwood tree that was ritually felled, attacked and dismembered by the men who made the Medicine Lodge. At night, there's a fire inside this structure, and voices declaiming or singing or just talking, and it's a living structure. It's all about life, actually. It recapitulates the structure of the cosmos. That's why the men put it up. "Heca hena oyate ki ni pi kte no," said the old man whose grandfather had actually visited General Grant, and who'd had his picture taken with him in the Indian Treaty room of the Old Executive Office Building. "We do this that the people may live," he said, or, because the word oyate signifies "nation" too, "We do this that the nation may live," all centered on that tall trunk of a cottonwood tree, the one with the cottonwood leaves bunched at its fork.

That's what the texts of the speeches have always been about back in Akron, too: we do this for the nation. There are brown photographs and grey photographs in the Erie County Historical Society. It's not work to hear the speeches that accompanied the Grant Club pole as the election of 1872 approached. We Americans all study that history in school. That was the election in which men waved the bloody shirt – literally stood up on platforms and held aloft their bloodstained Union Army uniforms – to remind their fellow men to vote for the party that had gone to war to save the Union, as had the men of the 112th New York Volunteers from all those villages of the lake plain there in Grant country. This was Yankee Protestant Republican territory. These were the villages that gave their young men to General Grant's army. They went south to destroy Secession and to preserve the Union. Their own ancestors had fought the British in the 1770s, in the Revolution; then the sons of the Revolutionary generation had fought the British in 1812 to win Western New York back again. They'd fought Senecas both times, Senecas and other Iroquois allied with the King. Come the Civil War, they fought under a Seneca named Ely Parker, from a mile upstream of the Grant Club Pole.

In 1872, when they put up the first Grant Club Pole, General Grant was President. He'd been the warrior who'd led the nation to victory over Secession. He and the warriors from Akron and Angola had gone to war and saved the Union, the nation. They had also, incidentally but not primarily, triumphed over sin. They'd ended slavery. Western New York State and these specific villages of the lake plain had been far more than merely hospitable to abolitionism: they hosted the last stations on the Underground Railroad. Their church undercrofts, their barns, their farmhouse attics, their sheds had all sheltered runaway slaves. Roads from the south and from the east and the Erie Canal's own tow-path were traveled by those who had escaped and who were bound for Buffalo and for its harbor, from whose Central Wharf one can still see freedom's beacon, in the form of a lighthouse on Canada's south shore, just a short sail away.

But when they went into Grant's army, the boys from Akron and Buffalo and Angola were going off to save the Union, mainly. The Union was the sacred trust violated by Secession. Preserving the Union was Grant's great message when he was first elected president, which is when he'd appointed Ely Parker, the Seneca from Akron, as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Grant electioneered in 1868 as a hero and deliverer, and he did it again in 1872. In his second term, he was again the brave commander, again leading a generation of young men to righteous conquest, this time a conquest of the tribes of the plains, especially the Sioux of the Sun Dance and also the Assiniboine of he Medicine Lodge, because Grant's goal was to create a continental union and bind coast to coast. And it was only ten years later when, with Grant dead of cancer, Grant's Republican Party would be thought of as corrupt and his own presidency as inept, his first war historic and no longer politically current, except in Akron. The Democratic mayor of Buffalo, who was also the sheriff of Akron's county and then the governor of Akron's state of New York, the stunning political phenomenon named Grover Cleveland, might sweep into the presidency ten years after this Akron pole was first erected, but Akron stayed then and now as Republican as the day when Akron erected the first Grant Club Pole.

Akron still stays Republican. Akron keeps the pole. When the original fell, Akron replaced it. When it fell, Akron replaced it. Doubtless will again.

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 In Buffalo, New York, Akron is more exotic and more distant from the city than Canada. Buffalo rides bicycles over the Peace Bridge to Canada, over the river that the Senecas and the British crossed in 1813 when they burned Buffalo. Buffalo now rents cottages on the beach there, just across from Buffalo Harbor; prosperous Buffalo owns beach-houses on the Canadian shore. Rowdy Buffalo boys pile into cars and brassily tell Customs Canada exactly where they're headed on a Friday night, which is to the naughty Canadian bars with the girls who dance nude for them, sliding up and down their brass poles. After Grant defeated Secession and saved the Union, rowdy Buffalo boys who hated Queen Victoria piled their Irish selves into boats and crossed the Niagara River into Canada in what Americans call the Fenian Raid. They marched around provoking Victoria's citizens because those Buffalo rowdies were Irish and they wanted the Queen out of Ireland. Victoria's subjects fought back, threw them out, and then demanded that Victoria give them their own country to run, and go and run Ireland herself without involving them any more. Every July, the Canadians celebrate Canada Day, the day Victoria gave Canadians Canada. The Assiniboines used to call Canada Ina Tamakoce, Grandmother's Land, recognizing Victoria.

In Canada across the way from Buffalo in July, at a party at the summer home of a prosperous friend, I see another pole. No tickle this time. This pole is the great huge wide stump of a 150-year-old cottonwood tree, new. It has a tablecloth on it.

Ancient towering cottonwoods frame my friend's view of Lake Erie from the dune on which sit the beach-houses. His house is in New England white clapboard; it could be a house in Akron, or in Angola, or in Vermont. His slope of lawn slopes to a tennis-court-sized patch of sand, which gives way to an acre of lake-edge reeds, cattails and marsh, also framed by cottonwoods. This landscape is half a mile from freedom's beacon, the lighthouse at Point Abino, just west along the Canadian shore; Buffalo Harbor is clear and visible east, just across this end of Lake Erie, so close that Buffalo's own old lighthouse is in clear view, and the indefinable beginning of the channel called the Niagara River is just off to the left, past those trees. On either side of this lakeside lot are groves of cottonwoods and maples and catalpas and tulip magnolias, impossibly big walnuts, straight basswoods and beeches, and small trees, nut trees and sumacs and elderberries of the native Carolinian forest of which so little is left on the U.S. shore but of which Canada has a surfeit. Herons croak in high roosts among them. Widgeons and teal and mallards and black-duck gabble and splash around in the rocky shallows at their feet before settling down in the twilight. Beyond the reeds and the trees is the lake. In 1688, a deer or a grasshopper or a Seneca saw this same slice of shore, and the Sieur de la Salle's ship, The Gryphon, the first-ever sailing-ship in North America, sailed past this very place.

And on this slice of shore my countryman has hewed down a towering cottonwood – 16,000 pounds of tree. Eight tons. I shudder, like a horse shudders.

Cottonwoods cut down and placed in the correct manner, in a circle around a big forked trunk, linked each to another and all to the center pole, become special objects. The Assiniboine call it chan wakan. Chan wakan, "sacred tree," is what a cottonwood becomes when it is cut down by two men who are veterans of combat, then hauled to the place where a shaman will direct a Ti Jax Wachib, or "house-building dance," or Medicine Lodge.

I shudder indeed at the stump in Canada. The feeling is something like grief, looking at that stump, and at the chunks of trunk and of the big branches which now served, variously, as drinks trolleys, end tables and stools for the Canada Day party. Even as the night comes in and the soft fog of wine descends, I am at a wake for that great tree and for a piece of the sacred that has been put down.

It was too great a tree ever to have served as the center pole for a Medicine Lodge. I can report that the chan wakan felled for the 1985 Assiniboine Medicine Lodge was back-breakingly large, much larger than the cottonwood we'd cut in the previous year when I first became a Medicine Lodge-man. But that was no giant like this Canadian one. We were strong men then, but even in our strength this giant was too big, too big ever to be cut down for a Lodge. In Canada in July, I drink more wine, and mourn the cottonwood that had been too big even to be yard dιcor.  

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Back home in Grant Country, I see poles. The alabaster obelisk in Niagara Square in Buffalo is the monument to McKinley, the president who defeated Grover Cleveland, and who then came to the world's fair in Grover Cleveland's home town of Buffalo and was shot by the anarchist Czolgosz, Leon Czolgosz, stupidly, confusingly, a Pole from Cleveland. The Ohio politician McKinley's monument is an Egyptian form of pole from a place whose trees have no roots. McKinley's monument is stone, not a tree, not like the Grant pole, which is an oak from the farm of a patriotic Akron family. That family in 1988 made their contribution to Akron tradition by giving a straight oak to replace the one that had lasted since 1929, which had replaced the Akron original.

But the form is the same as McKinley's monument. It is straight, tall, single, centered, bare. The center-pole of the Medicine Lodge has a rainbow painted on one side, a thunderbird on the other.

Across the Niagara River from Buffalo, downstream past Niagara Falls and above the great whirlpool, back in Canada where my friend cut the cottonwood, is Brock's Monument. Brock's Monument is a towering pole of stone that the Anglo-Canadians erected to commemorate Brock for having repelled the American invasion during the War of 1812. That was when our English-born fought their English-born and each side fought with and against Senecas, again, over the question of which of us would hold these riverbanks and lakeshores and endless parklands, and which of us would build our identical New England white-clapboard houses here: men who hailed kings, or men who hailed presidents. We stood off, as before, but Brock got his tall pole monument when it was over, a hundred years later, when Canada needed to remind itself to be its own nation, and so needed its own pole.

In 1984 and again in 1985, I sang and I worked and I carried out the tasks of a Lodge-builder when I helped put a cottonwood pole up. When we were finished with our construction, we used what we had built. When we were finished using it, we left it. Near the border that divides Saskatchewan from Montana, there are circles of cottonwood for each of these two dozen years, each with a grand cottonwood trunk in the center of each circle of smaller trunks. Those trees have been replaced annually by the Assiniboines, but none of these are monuments like Grant's or McKinley's or Brock's. There is a pole, circled by poles, for every year since my time there, and going back a few years before. The poles fade, and are replaced.

I see them everywhere. 

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The folklorist Mircea Eliade described the myths of the cycle of life. He wrote about the shamans of Central Asia who would climb the short trees of the tundra, and from them visit the other world. Druids had their oaks, Lithuanians their groves of oaks, in which they remained pagan, unconverted to Christianity until the years when Englishmen landed in New York and in Canada, and long after their countrymen had founded universities and fought off invaders from Central Asia.

The Norse had Yggdrasil, the World Tree or Tree of Life. The Baltic peoples had oaks. Christmas trees, sacred oaks, the oak at Runymede where the aristocrats of England forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Germanic tribes and Lithuanian tribes and everybody else living around the Baltic and North seas muttered around in groves of big oaks.

But we Americans cut down trees and then put them back up again. Monuments here have a grain to them. A single commemorative tree-and-plaque installation has now become, along a bicycle path, two dozen trees and two dozen plaques. The monuments are all young trees with plaques at their bases like the Grant Club Pole in Akron. The trees aren't yet mighty oaks soaring like the Grant Club Pole or heavy-barked Canadian cottonwoods erected like Assiniboine chan wakan, but the expectation is that they one day will be. They are spaced so as to become monumental. To walk that suburban path is to stride a cemetery, except that it's linear and it's all supposed to be about life, because that's what the suburbs are – alive with young families, with students at a great suburban university, with wildlife (herons, muskrats, mallards, a white egret, fat munching groundhogs on every roadside) adjusting to the new housing and office parks under construction. All those new trees, and yet in our old house (erected in 1887 by Crane, the Lumber King) – in my old house, which is in the big city, I look into a back yard with our grove of sticky yellow pines planted when the house was built. Out my front doorway is a streetscape of linden trees only forty years old, because forty years ago, Dutch elm disease struck, and wiped out the cathedral-arches of towering elms which made of this city a forested place. The great American Elms lined Frederick Law Olmsted's parkways as well: Bidwell Parkway, named for the General of the Civil War; McKinley Parkway, named for the murdered president whose main monument is an alabaster pole; Chapin Parkway, Lincoln Parkway, and especially, most especially and most sadly, Humboldt Parkway, named for the princely German von Humboldt, who came into the interior of America to see the forest primeval, and the Assiniboine plains primeval – the Assiniboine plains of the Missouri River basin. He described Assiniboines. His painter painted Assiniboines. In the years immediately following von Humboldt's voyage, every native group his painter painted was nearly obliterated by smallpox.

In the 1960s, when the foresters came to fell the elms of Humboldt Parkway, the engineers followed close on, and dug a deep trench where the parkway elms had been, and put an expressway in it. And like ditches that drain a pond, the expressways drained away the city's university and the city's middle class and the city's young families, exactly in the years when the city lost its monumental trees.

But new trees grow.

Lindens are fast-growing and strong, fragrant in spring, and sturdy of branch. It was a scene from Central Asia when my tricky daughter egged me on, higher and higher, to climb with her to see what she claimed only she could see, but that I could see too, if only I would climb higher.

It is the trees that pull our eyes up into the holy. Trees bring the young back. Thus in this city, this old lake plain city, much new effort now infuses the parks and parkways. Young people eager for a new monument themselves bring new growth, and if there are no ancient elms for them to venerate, there are still ancient maples and great spreading oaks and big beeches and big copper beeches, too, with their curious bark that looks like the skin of an elephant. There are cottonwoods but this is the east, so they are not can wakan. One towering maple nearby turns such a bright yellow in October that it blazes in the streetlight, all night long, until the November winds denude it. One oak in Delaware Park is so big that York, Lancaster, Northumberland, Gloucester and the rest could yet ride up and under it force a pact on a king. One cottonwood is so big that it towers like Brock's tall pole of a monument over a grove of cottonwoods, near the water, which grew from its white scattered seeds in long-ago Julys. In June they flower, and around Canada Day, they seed, and offer to remake the world.

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