‘I would like to reclaim this term mossback,’ says David Michael Pritchett, peering into Dismal Swamp, on the border between Virginia and South Carolina. The place is marked by dense undergrowth, thick clouds of insects, cypress trees ‘standing in turbid patches of water.’ It was a refuge in the 18th and 19th centuries for black people escaping slavery, who created entire communities hidden from the plantation owners. Likewise poor white men found a hiding place there, absconding from the Confederate army during the American Civil War, and later resisting the Ku Klux Klan.
‘Mossback’ was a pejorative for anyone who lived in a swamp, more comparable to a turtle than a civilised person, and was especially applied to those white people who had tried to exempt themselves from the American empire. As a white man looking at our painful realities, and wondering how to live without worsening the harm, Pritchett co-opts the word and gives his book of essays its title. ‘A mossback is not an enslaved person who escaped,’ writes Pritchett in his updated definition, ‘but a person who actively rejects participation in an enslaving society.’
How can we do right by the landscapes we inhabit and the vulnerable people around us? Pritchett, trained in medicine, begins with diagnosis. ‘The better we see and understand the current pathologies of our world,’ he writes, ‘the more likely we can work to heal them.’ He finds the origins of those pathologies in Mesopotamian grain states and the Roman city grid, in the dispossession and genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of African people by colonialists, but locates its deepest level at an artificial division between ourselves and the living world.
And what a teeming, fecund world it is. Pritchett brings an intense intellectual ferment to the project, taking inspiration from a wide array of thinkers, the fields of biology and medicine, myth, legend and ancient texts. Audre Lorde and John the Baptist converse through him, among many others, in a single essay. This broad conceptual interconnection mirrors the book’s underlying theme: we are immersed in a world that is wild and alive, toxic and sacred, a constant briny baptism.
In this excerpt from Mossback, Pritchett explores resistance to empire in terms of our ‘foodscape’. He builds bridges between his work on a small farm surrounded by a desert of monocrops, Salome dancing for Herod, Daniel resisting Nebuchadnezzar, and the displacement of the Potawatomi tribe from what settlers named Indiana. – NI
This short story inspired Wilde’s play Salome and the Seven Veils. Wilde deepened the story by adding the motif of the seven veils. The seven veils, a departure from the biblical story, allude to the myth of the descent of Inanna. This Ancient Sumerian deity was understood to be the goddess of fertility. She is a character in many of the myths, and one of the most famous is the account of her journey to the underworld of the dead. In the story, Inanna encounters seven gates, and at each she must remove a garment, until she stands naked at the throne of the goddess of the underworld, her sister Ereshki gal. For Wilde, the veils of Salome symbolize this movement toward the deathly realm. With the removal of each veil, death dances closer.
French writer Alphonse Allais took the story’s death allegory even further. In his rendering, Salome removes the veils accompanied by the lusty cries of Herod. ‘Go on, go on,’ he says. Yet when the last veil falls, he continues to shout for more. Salome complies by ripping the skin from her body. And still Herod says, ‘Go on,’ so she continues to flay fascia with her fingernails, layer by visceral layer, until nothing is left but bone.
Apocalypse means ‘unveiling.’ Originally the word referred to the lifting of a bride’s veil at a wedding, but it has since taken on symbolic meaning. Popular usage makes apocalypse about the end of the world.
In apocalypse, everything hidden will be revealed. But the face underneath the veil is not always good. Sometimes the apocalypse is the lover who tells you they are leaving. Some times it is the cold calm of a doctor relaying a cancer diagnosis. Occasionally unveiling is beautiful, like the brief moment near dusk when the light slants through the pines and the woods reveal a momentary beauty previously unknown. But mostly apocalypse pulls back the social fabric of cloth and skin to show the structural bones underneath.
For writers in the ancient genre called apocalyptic, the revealing is about power, history, and hope. Their prophetic imaginations pull back the veil on empires like Babylon and Rome to expose a view from the underbelly. This kind of apocalypse is not personal. It is as big as the arc of history. The subject is not people but powers. Kings become beasts, militaries their horns. Politics play out in the imaginal realm as the beasts vie for control. Within this imaginal realm, apocalyptic writing discloses the dreams of the disempowered. An end to oppression approaches. So many heads of so many beasts become decapitated. Magical scrolls foretell future vindication. Trumpets blast sounds of triumph. Lakes of fire and glittering cities signify the fate, respectively, of the damned and the delivered.
Just because apocalyptic writing has creative imagery does not mean that it is fanciful. Apocalypse is an exercise of what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘imaginative counter power,’ which is to say, it helps the oppressed name the powers that seem to control their lives, as well as to imagine an end to these powers. As oral stories, they inspire the hearer. As texts, they show the reader a view from the belly of history, from the people with a knife to their throats as the military raids the coffers and the granaries.
And apocalypse always shows the skeletons. In the midst of kings shouting with lust, ‘Go on’ – more power, more money, ever more consolidation of resources – apocalypse pulls back the flesh and fascia to show the bone-dead trajectory of their desire.
The book of Daniel is one such apocalyptic text, written during the Antiochean rule of Palestine to aid the imagination of an occupied people. It reflects the memory of Hebrew people exiled and taken to Babylon and thus operates in code: ‘We have been under the thumb of other rulers before,’ the story seems to say, ‘and managed to find a way then, so we can do the same now.’
In the first chapter, the author sets the tone for the book in portraying Daniel and his friends as ones who – despite being captive to the empire – attempt to live faithfully to their indigenous ways within it. The story introduces Daniel and friends as intelligent members of Jerusalem’s elite taken into service for the king. This assimilation of members of the elite is an important imperial strategy: in the same way that the urban grid represents a control measure for civilians, putting the social elite at the king’s table essentially puts them under his thumb.
In the king’s service, Daniel and his friends were given Babylonian names. This renaming reveals how their lives were meant to be reshaped according to the priorities of Babylon. Just as later nation-states developed surnames in order to track and tax populations, so the renaming of newly acquired servants is a measure of the degree to which Babylon claimed authority over the lives of the political prisoners.
The first narrative of these Jewish captives centers around food. Like other high-ranking captives, these friends were offered food from the king’s table. Daniel’s refusal of the king’s food constitutes the crux of the story. Patbag, the word at issue here, is the allotted meal taken from the royal coffers to meet the needs of his courtiers. Most interpreters take this refusal to be a religious one – Jews in antiquity often maintained their ethnic and religious distinction vis-à-vis food purity by observing dietary rules. In diasporic communities, food connects people to their culture. Even modern food sovereignty movements advocate for culturally appropriate food. An overlooked area of this issue, however, is that the royal court system depended on an empire that extracted goods from the margins of empire to benefit the center. As David Vanderhooft, a scholar of the Ancient Near East, notes, wresting resources from the conquered periphery to the king’s palace was commonplace: ‘The procedure of funneling resources from the subject populations to the heartland through seizure and exaction was no less important to the Babylonians as it had been to the Assyrians… Nebuchadnezzar campaigned almost yearly in the west, in part to insure order, but also to fill the royal coffers.’
‘We will not nourish our bodies with your pillage,’ they seemed to say.
The king’s table would certainly be maintained by such imperial campaigns; meat and wine would be sourced from tribute from conquered nations, meat being transportable as livestock, and wine as an imperishable good that could travel distance without spoiling. Meanwhile, the average urban dweller in Babylon had a diet that was more likely grain-based, dependent on cereals transported from the surrounding countryside. Babylon’s ‘foodprint,’ according to one catalog of grain imports, consisted of an area extending from Sippa in the north to Sealand in the south, a length of 186 miles of irrigated land. By contrast, perishable vegetables do not travel well and thus would have to be grown nearby.
Daniel’s requested diet of vegetables and water represents an alternative to the extractive economy of empire in favor of local fare that could not be stolen from distant places. The refusal of the king’s table food, therefore, can be read not just as a dietary preference but also as an act of defiance. If acceptance of the king’s food symbolized political allegiance, the alternative diet was an implicit rejection of the king. ‘We will not nourish our bodies with your pillage,’ they seemed to say. The four friends might have to live in the king’s court, but they would find ways to resist the politics of plunder epitomized by the patbag.
Once the snow melted on the Indiana roads, I would often ride my bike from our farm to town. I learned quickly, however, that early summer was the spraying time. I pedaled past acres of corn and soybean down the straight county roads. When the tractors were out, pulling large tanks labeled ‘anhydrous ammonia,’ I had to hope the wind was blowing the fumes away from the road. When the breeze was not in my favor, I did my best to pedal furiously, holding my breath and hoping I could pass the cloud without inhaling too much of it. At other times, the chemical applicants were not labeled, or were dropped by prop plane, so I could not know what noxious admixtures made it into my lungs. These chemicals, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides – so crucial to industrial agriculture – were at the same time devastating to the community of creatures that tried to inhabit the same space as this technological system.
Summer evenings highlighted this. My friends and I could climb to the roof of our barn and see our pastures and the night air above them glowing with the mating rituals of fireflies populating our land; by contrast, the farm fields around us were dark, bleak, and barren. This nightly event was a reminder that our insistence on working with spade and hand rather than by chemical mattered a great deal to the other creatures – insects, birds, and small mammals – who shared the land with us and whose interconnected lives led to a healthy ecology on our small farm.
This darkness was also a reminder of how much this land scape had changed since its caretakers, the Potawatomi, had been removed. With the Potawatomi and other indigenous tribes largely displaced from their ancestral lands, Euro-American settlers, themselves often displaced by economic processes, were free to turn the landscape into the acres of corn and soybean so quintessential to the modern Midwest. Settlers cleared the land for farms and harvested timber for building, fuelwood, and railroad ties. Of the roughly 20 million acres of old-growth forest that once covered the state of Indiana, about two thousand acres remain.
In her marvelous book As We Have Always Done, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes about Nishnaabeg internationalism. Anishinaabe, or Nishnaabeg, refers to the culturally related indigenous groups that inhabited the Great Lakes region, including Odawa, Ojibew, and Potawatomi. To my surprise and delight, she describes internationalism not only as how the Ojibwe relate to Canada and surrounding First Nations but also as how they relate to other species. This is grounded in a traditional story of learning good relations with the deer tribe after a period of overhunting. Seeing different species as nations – deer nation, maple nation – with whom the Anishinaabe are in relationship transforms the landscape into one thrumming with possibility or danger. This is a different sort of international relations. As Simpson says, ‘Our shared diplomacy has created a relationship that enables our two nations to coexist among many other nations in a single region. From within Nishnaabeg thought, our political relationship with the deer nation isn’t fundamentally different from our political relationship with the Kanien’kehá:ka [commonly known as the Mohawk nation].’
The darkness I saw in the fields manifested the lack of political relationship between the white settlers and the firefly nation.
Settler colonialism is largely the opposite of this stance. When an empire has learned to see the world as full of resources to be extracted rather than as populated by many nations – people nations, plant nations, and animal nations – to be in relationship with, it becomes easy to assert superiority over any nation. The darkness I saw in the adjoining farm fields in Indiana manifested the lack of political relationship between the white settlers and the firefly nation, the oak and hickory nations, and the Potawatomi nation.
Indigenous removal leads to ecocide. Contemporary indigenous groups vocalize this in their advocacy for themselves and for the ecosystems they are in relation with. For instance, the Baiga, who inhabit an area of jungle in India, declare, ‘The jungle is only here because of us.’ Similarly, a statement by indigenous peoples from the Amazon articulates their understanding of the deep interrelationship:
We have used and cared for the resources of that biosphere with a great deal of respect, because it is our home, and because we know that our survival and that of our future generations depends on it. Our accumulated knowledge about the ecology of our home, our models for living with the peculiarities of the Amazon Biosphere, our reverence and respect for the tropical forest and its inhabitants, both plant and animal, are the keys to guaranteeing the future of the Amazon Basin, not only for our people, but also for all humanity.
Apocalypse means unveiling. But largely, it is not the people experiencing apocalypse who need the truth to be unveiled. It is the settler and their descendants who need the unveiling, who need to see things as they are. I think of the Potawatomi chiefs Awbanawben and Metea saying to settlers, ‘You trampled our soil and drove it away,’ and ‘The plowshare is driven through our tents.’ This is settler land lust. This is colonial ecology. This is a landscape flayed, layer by layer, as settlers cry, echoing Herod, ‘Go on, go on.’
The story does not end with displacement and genocide. Only telling part of this story would perpetuate the all-too common idea that all of the natives are gone, reduced to an unfortunate chapter of world history. Anishinaabe scholar Lawrence Gross reminds us, ‘Native Americans have seen the end of their respective worlds… Just as importantly, though, Indians survived the apocalypse.’
Once again, story acts as ‘imaginative counterpower.’ In the Great Lakes, a newer story has begun circulating about Paul Bunyan, the lumberjack hero of settler colonialism. The Ojibwe tell us that one of their own legendary heroes, Nanabozho, fought Paul Bunyan in an epic battle. The stories vary. One version says that they battled for days and Nanabozho finally defeated Bunyan and kicked him out of the woods forever. In another telling, Nanabozho beats Bunyan to death with a fish.
So, too, will the descendants of settler colonists need to reimagine old stories. New stories don’t bring back the many forests cleared by settlers and their folk hero Paul Bunyan. And they don’t necessarily result in the Potawatomi and so many others regaining their homelands and indigenous ecologies. But it strikes me that the root of the problem is in relationships, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson so acutely perceives. European settlers need to tell stories not of domination but of interspecies internationalism, of mutualism and mutual aid. Perhaps, in the future, children of settlers will walk through Potawatomi-tended forest ecosystems and tell stories of the blighted days when the trees were gone and the soil was silent and the land was dark, without fireflies. Perhaps they will say that Paul Bunyan laid down his ax and helped Nanabozho nurture the woods of the Great Lakes back to life, so that the beaver and the otter and the deer nations had a homeland again.
The full text of ‘After Apocalypse’ can be found in Mossback, available now from Trinity University Press.