i. A Tree of Dragonflies
On the high prairie, an adult rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), with scaly
leaves green and tender, holds itself erect under the intense light filling a cloudless sky in August. Planted strategically near the doorway to the museum and offices of the First People's Buffalo Jump State Park. this lone tree, along with the sarvis berry, chokecherry and black currant bushes clustered about it, resists the sweltering heat and welcomes the public.
"Ambassadors for better times," I think. For once a prairie unplowed stretched all about here, a land teeming with a variety of native grasses unusually rich in protein and capable of sustaining great herds of buffalo and more. Today the buffalo are no longer to be found, and the fields are dominated by a single crop - crested wheat grass imported from Asia during the dust bowl to fight soil erosion. Manifest destiny became all too manifest in these environs, and a multitude of living things no longer are finding their place here under the sun.
But the juniper is proving to be a far more effective ambassador than I had imagined possible. For today, she welcomes not only the Jump's human visitors bent upon finding their way to a museum's door, but also a multitude of white-faced meadow-hawks (Sympetrum obtrusum), who would rather stay outside and play. Exploring green pockets of shade, hovering and darting and then hovering again, the dragonflies' thin, elongated abdomens shimmer in metallic tones of green and blue and gold. Transparent wings whirring invisibly suddenly jump into view, shining and poised, as their respective owners alight on an unoccupied branch. My vision narrows in, and I watch a single dragonfly, bouncing about in the gusty prairie winds, tail and wings flailing in the air. She clings to a limber twig and rides it like a cowboy riding bronco in an arthropod rodeo. Delight abides here, the delight of other living kinds in their modes of existing, delight arresting me from my all too human concerns, leaving me breathless and more than a little envious.
And so, starting off this inquiry into the intelligibility of land and its living kinds, dragonfly gets the first word. Juniper too, as her hidden roots dig in deep to find water secreted in the arid earth, her visible body a hillock of green speckled with shadows, her limbs oozing sticky sap in the oppressive heat. “Come here,” she whispers in my ear, “come here and stay for a while. I am cool and green, an oasis among endless fields of strange grasses, dry and spent in the weathers of August."
ii. The Etiquette of the First Word
That dragonfly and juniper are given the opportunity to speak first on behalf of the First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park is a matter of etiquette and atonement.
As to etiquette: We practitioners of academic philosophy have far too long ignored dragonfly and juniper, not to mention porcupine and antelope, rattlesnake and prairie dog, sarvis berry and black currant, red hawk and magpie. And this is not a trivial point, when I consider that these living kinds are rightfully my kin and among my first teachers. My education, both manifold and subtle, into becoming what Leopold has termed a biotic citizen, a citizen of the land, began under their tutelage. Prompted here and now by a host of dragonflies and a juniper tree, I contemplate how walking the contours of this land throughout my childhood proved to be an inalienable aspect of the calling to embrace a philosophical life. In that time as well, dragonfly and juniper appeared, offering themselves as totems of intelligibility, living kinds capable, along with a host of others, of announcing through their peculiar modes of behavior, through the gestures and shape of their respective lives, how life itself might be articulated in diverse species of wonder and gratitude, of anxiety and supplication, of circumspection and greeting.
To this I now offer a heartfelt "Amen." Yet, in the very next breath I must also confirm how the human midwives of philosophical thinking, into whose hands dragonfly and juniper delivered me, were most often quizzical if not downright perturbed at the sources of my not-so-human birth into wonder. The living kinds were not only in the main regarded as irrelevant but also a danger to the philosophical vocation, allegedly tempting its practitioners to perverse forms of malpractice. And so a second education began in which the message was made clear: Philosophy is no Noah’s ark. If you root in with the trees and hover with the dragonflies, you should not be trusted with deducing the categorical imperative, let alone posing the ontological question. And so, the ritual of the exorcism of the demon of the “pathetic fallacy,” its liturgy peppered with imprecations against naivety and, even worse, nativism, was repeatedly invoked against the intimations of dragonfly and juniper in my speaking and in my writing. The animals and trees of one’s place under the sun were to be kept at bay.
And so today this provocation: Can one at least for a moment drop one’s philosophical guard and let dragonfly and juniper have their say? And on their own terms? Or put another way: How might one become open not only to the question of land's intelligibility but also to the very categories of intelligibility by which land makes itself known? For the land, when it speaks, speaks as much in dragonflies and juniper, or in shadows and shape-shifting, as in Blackfoot and English. In a Greek way of saying these things, the time is long overdue for a moment of disruptive poesis in the court of philosophical judgment. It’s time for some introductions to take place.
iii. The First People's Buffalo Jump State Park
The First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park is located on terrain surrounding the largest site of its kind on the North American continent, an elongated, sandstone cliff in the rough shape of a horseshoe running for several miles along the northern, southern and eastern edges of a low lying butte. The butte in turn emerges, just barely, between two broad, flat-bottomed valleys carved out on either side by the yearly spring flooding of the Missouri and Sun rivers. The country here is high plains – big sky and dry earth – a landscape of undulating prairie rising to meet blue-gray reefs of limestone constituting the front range of the Rockies some sixty miles distant.
As one looks west toward that convergence, the land begins to bunch up, as if a string has been threaded through rough burlap then pulled increasingly tight, so that wrinkles and kinks begin to appear and then knot themselves into chunky buttes and columns of foothills. At the very edge, always, lurking on the horizon, are those limestone teeth capped with snow, ridges and peaks jutting along the very margins of the earth before all falls away into dreams and unknowing. The Piikani, I am reminded, locate the very place of creation on that distant ridge.
The management plan for the park includes the following sentence: “The site welcomes Native American use for worship and celebration and for reconnection with ancestors.” It appears, according to the archaeologists, this has been going on for 6000 years or so.