Thunder, perfect mind.
Lightning forced illumination into my dark hotel room and split my consciousness, returning my mind to what I know of as myself. A thunderstorm in California? In August? How is this possible? Oh no. Oh nooooooo.
My family has lived from the food, water, and air of this land for at least six generations. We know the weather here. Winter is wet. Summer is dry. In August, the great rivers shrink, the warm rocks in their beds inviting lizards to rest for a while. Climate change has worsened the dryness.
Lightning struck beyond hills close to the building and I jumped. Sh!t. I looked at my phone: 4:44 am, 16th August, +2020. Checked the news: Storm Alert in place for the next two hours. I start pacing. Then I start packing. Lightning, even surrounded by rain, could easily spark an engulfing fire.
So much dryness. All that steel and glass, air conditioning and fragile whiteness; scientific reports teetering between dry numbers juxtaposed within even drier language and these beyond-terrifying implications; centuries of tears held back and swallowed up in that Protestant approach to grief (or rather the lack of it), still dictating the bodily reactions of their descendants long after their simple white churches and wooden pews became the shell-homes for other forms of Christianity: Baptists, Evangelicals, Unitarians, shopping malls. Promising salvation – or at least distraction.
Lightning struck again. I shook my head, my intellect not comprehending my experience. I could not believe it. The flash came again. Fast.
Experience trumps belief, blowing it out of the window of my mind until all I heard in its absence was the wind. As I flew around the room gathering my things, my mind-body blew in the wind.
I was sent forth from the power,
I came to those pondering me,
and I was found among those seeking me.
Look upon me, all you who contemplate me,
Audience, hear me.
So says that old poem, Thunder: Perfect Mind, part of the Nag Hammadi library, found in a cave; the only ‘I am’ poem in the wider Christian literature where the narrator is so clearly feminine.
I needed to get out into the storm. To see it (her?) more clearly. I put on my bathrobe and sandals and went outside. Outside were only parked cars, glistening bright in the rain-infused early morning light. No one else had left their rooms. I walked around the building, looking skyward.
Then the wind shifted: it shrieked cold and furious around me. I sprinted back to the hotel.
Something happened. Running through the rain, the lightning above me, the thunder around me, the storms winds insisting that I breathe them in: fear left me.
I tasted her waters and breathed her air and my internal whirlwind calmed. Storm and I: we are not so separate: in that strange, mostly unintentional intercourse between creature and elements that happened sometime between colonisation and the industrial revolution and now, we co-parented (this) Storm.
Enter: the Anthropocene Age. Earth re-formed with humans. Not quite in the image of humans. We do not yet know what image the re-formation will be. But this much is clear: storms are now reforming Earth’s Body, giving birth to new realities.
Be careful. Do not be ignorant of me…
For I am the first and the last.
I am she who is honored one and she who is mocked
I am the whore and the holy woman.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the barren one
and many are my children.
I am the midwife and she who has not given birth.
One of my students (I teach online courses connecting ancestors/ecological family histories, colonisation and climate change) is a midwife in New Jersey. Let’s call her Mufeeda. Demand for Mufeeda’s services has vastly increased since Everything Began Happening. Many pregnant women, apprehensive, wanting their partners by their side, stopped trusting hospitals.
Mufeeda squeezed attending an ‘Apocalypse Wisdom Circles’ in between a prenatal exam and a phone call with other midwives in the state of New Jersey to discuss how they were going to deal with the increased demand in their services.
The spaces you create give me life, she told me.
That’s why I do it, I replied. To bring life to the life-bringers. I have no children but sometimes I feel like a midwife. Though the primary birth I’m waiting for has not yet come.
A few months later, as #blacklivesmatter started again, that same group of midwives began talking about how to decolonise the field of midwifery. At first, Mufeeda was relieved that the conversation was finally happening. Quickly, her frustration grew. Progress was slow. Colleagues said many stupid things.
‘Every institution needs to be burned down,’ she wailed, exhausted from anti-racism meetings that she didn’t know how to keep attending while also caring for her own five-year-old child. ‘The racism is so deep. Can we really change this whole thing before it is too late?’
I met her agonised voice with a compassionate sigh. More people were reaching out for decolonial/ancestral work – yet every time we seem to be making progress, another black body is shot by a police body. I wonder if truth is getting further from us. The fire of the bullet and the fire of the protest.
‘Convulsions,’ Mufeeda said on one of our Apocalypse Wisdom calls. ‘We are all going through convulsions.’
Of fever – or birth? Or both?
Those who are close to me have been ignorant of me,
and those who are far away from me are the ones who have
On the day when I am close,
you are far,
and on the day when I seem far,
I am close.
‘How are you?’ we ask one another. We ask tenderly, as if we are sitting in a circle around a little fire, watching the ancestors dance on each other’s faces, instead of on a Zoom call.
‘How are you?’ we ask one another. We ask tenderly, as if we are sitting in a circle around a little fire, watching the ancestors dance on each other’s faces
It’s a few days after the first lightning storm, and I am on a call about a forthcoming speaking opportunity. The company wanted someone to talk about equity with a heart-centred and embodied approach. I suggested doing the ‘speech’ as a dialogue between myself and one of my dear black-bodied colleagues, who had been doing diversity and inclusion work decades before this current moment. Thus, in the midst of this apocalypse, we three women were discussing what could we do in her three-day conference about the future – the only hour dedicated to equity.
‘Ash is falling from the sky,’ one of the organisers said. ‘A thin white coat is on all of the cars. It feels like Armageddon.’
For a while we were quiet. Just being with one another. Each of us in our shells of apartments, breathing smoky air. Even within our apartments: the smoke finds a way in.
I am she who dwells within.
I am she of nature.
I am she who creates spirits.
I am she who is the request of souls.
I am she who controls and she who is uncontrollable.
For over a century, California has been suppressing fires. Attempting ‘control’.
From a decolonisation perspective, this is a too-familiar narrative: take something that seemed to ‘work’ in Europe (cutting down the forests and suppressing fire in the towns); export it to an utterly different landscape; ignore the ecological knowledge of the native peoples who are ‘ignorant’ and try to eradicate their culture and connection to the land by destroying their language; attempt to manipulate and control the landscape in such a way that the fires worsen; name it ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and institutionalise it into policy.
Yes, there was an alternative narrative. Both within the fire agencies and the indigenous communities, to whom a few of the western officials listened. Fire is normal in California. The suppression of it – plus climate change – is abnormal.
All of these convulsions – too-tight human-animal relations leading to diseases, an inability to control the wealthiest people who fly on airplanes and refuse to self-quarantine, racism, climate-change-induced fires, and hurricanes, and wind storms – all derive from the same colonial source.
If you haven’t noticed it yet, colonisation has a lot to answer for.
Is it possible to relearn the language of land and air? The breath and body of our ancestors?
As I write, we do not know how many places – retreat centres, farm education centres, and ‘back to the land’ initiatives have been demolished.
I heard a story that a farm with goats and chickens and horses and llamas just opened the pens’ gates. With tears blinding her eyes, the two-legged said to her four-legged friends: Go, and good luck. In those mountains, there is no plan to evacuate 100 horses and llamas and goats. The mountain is the safe place.
I heard another story that all over the mountains, groups are coming together to cry together. To mourn. To not turn away from their own grief for their beloved forests.
Of a firefighter who risked his life to save a 1,500-year-old tree.
Of people who refuse to evacuate. Who say: this here is worth the risk. Who say: I don’t know how to fight a fire but I will learn, today, right here, on the spot. For this little bit of land is precious. We cannot leave.
How many of us will stand for the land – because it has claimed us, and we are nothing without it?
I do not know how to fight a fire. I don’t know how to protect a house. Or a tree. Or the headwaters of the rivers that enable me to drink: to live. I roast chicken over open flames and dance around bonfires and lead singing around camp-fires and sit in the middle of the ancient charred sequoia; yet I do not know the language of fire.
How could I have so much education and not know these basic things?
Meanwhile, indigenous languages are being revitalised all over California. All over the world. The Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians in northern San Diego County are again speaking their language. My friends in the Yurok nation up in northern California are teaching their children their language at home. The Chukchansi Indians from California’s Central Valley have been working to preserve their language. Smartphone apps help.
If a native language can be revitalised, can we revitalise a way of speaking the language of the land? Not just in dreams and visions, but in county and state and nationwide action plans for the ‘management’ of forests? Starting by letting go of the word ‘management’ and knowing we are talking about a living being far wiser than little people with big ideas and little room for the wind to blow us into a better direction.
Meanwhile, millions of trees have died in the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, we continue to fear fire.
We, who will willingly use nuclear energy to bring air conditioning to a tiny house on land that still remembers the soft thud of apples falling to the ground from California’s great orchards.
We, who tap firepower into bullets that are in homes all across the country, right next to where children sleep and wander and play and sometimes find the guns.
We, who burn fossil fuels and nuclear energy and coal in the hopes of making our own lives easier.
We keep suppressing fire.
I am the union and the dissolution.
I am the abiding and the dissolving.
I am the one below,
and they come up to me.
I am the judgement and the acquittal.
I, I am sinless,
and the root of sin derives from me...
I am a mute who does not speak,
and great is the multitude of my words.
‘The end of times is’, as a Dine/Navajo poet I heard on a podcast said, ‘reliant upon such a Western notion of time’.
As if time is linear with a beginning middle end. As if life is linear.
If you cut down a tree a concentric circle regards you. If you position yourself in space Earth’s sphere returns your gaze, brilliant in blue. Regard a woman’s pattern of bleeding and an ancient cycle marks our very existence. Life: cycles and spirals. Die. Be born.
The world has ended many times.
As the fires raged, I drove across the breadth of the state. From the mountains down into the valley, over the delta and around the once-marshlands and into the suburban, tree-lined nook between two ranges of summer-dry-golden hills that my family has taken to calling home.
The whole four hour, 179-mile drive was through smoke.
‘I feel like the world is falling apart,’ murmured my mother, my companion on the drive. She was born near the great Mt Diablo who watches over the Bay Area: a mountain she could not now see for the smoke.
‘Maybe it is,’ I said, ‘but this is not the first time things have collapsed. Something else will be born.’
‘Birthing,’ she said, “can take a long time. So does growing up.’ I nodded.
First the Native peoples turned slaves in the plantations tried to tell us.
Then the African slaves, forced to separate from their own countries’ beloved rivers and mountains and turned into property tried to make it known.
Then the children in factories and the men in the coal mines in the Appalachia and in England. Then polluted lakes and rivers and scores of black men and women shot dead across the breadth of the country commonly called ‘free’.
All saying the same thing.
And now all of California, the most diverse state in the Union, chokes on the legacies of the fires of colonisation.
All we want to do is breathe.
Hear me in gentleness, and learn of me in roughness.
I am she who cries out,
and I am cast out on the face of the earth.
I prepare the bread and my mind within.
I am the knowledge of my name.
I am one who cries out,
and I listen.
For what is inside of you is what is outside of you,
and the one who fashions you on the outside
is the one who shaped the inside of you.
‘I believe that redwoods will save the world,’ Isaac from the Yurok nation told me soon after I first met him. His people have lived amongst the Wise Ones for millennia. When I visited him last fall, back when all I had to worry about was the power being cut off from my electricity company, not whether I could hug a friend and his family, we met at a pizza parlour nestled amongst redwood trees. We discussed the nature of existence. Of trees.
Sequoias – both the coastal redwoods (sempervirens) and their giganteum Sierra Nevada cousins – co-evolved with fire. Most likely, many of the ancient ones will survive. At least, some will survive the fire this time: and be all the grander for it.
Today, the smoke weighed down on our house, two hours from the fires in every direction. For easier breathing I went to walk along San Francisco’s ocean to clean my lungs with fog. Fog feeds tiny sequoia leaves – and provides the best air filter I know. I tried exhaling my own inner pollution.
I sang a song to the fog, coming in from the Pacific, from the swells of the known and the unknown and the great mysteries of the deep. I sang to the wind, which might, in its own wild way, carry my song to redwoods. Soon, I will go to the burned lands, touch their charred bark and the flattened houses, and see what I can learn from soot.
Today, all I can do is to sound out a song, crying for a name I do not yet know, yearning for the language of the land I love.
Sing to the end. Sing to the trees Sing to the breeze Sing to me – Oh, Ocean Grandmother Ah Sequoia, Sequoia, Sequoia Samanvaya – I know we don’t yet know you I know we haven’t learned with you I know we haven’t heard you Hear now my cry: thank you Oh oceans of love And trees of wisdom Teach us to live in peace, with kindness Sing to the end Sing to the smoke Sing to the ashes Sing to the unborn.
Sing to the end.
Sing to the trees
Sing to the breeze
Sing to me –
Oh, Ocean Grandmother
Ah Sequoia, Sequoia, Sequoia Samanvaya –
I know we don’t yet know you
I know we haven’t learned with you
I know we haven’t heard you
Hear now my cry: thank you
Oh oceans of love
And trees of wisdom
Teach us to live
in peace, with kindness
Sing to the end
Sing to the smoke
Sing to the ashes
Sing to the unborn.
Somewhere between heaven and earth, the fog nurtures tiny sequoia seedlings. Seeds that only germinate in fire. When the fires are gentle and not this current inferno, the undergrowth is burned and space is made for new life. Trunks of Big Trees are nearly completely hollowed out but still survive.
Centuries of sequoia-ness will continue to share nutrients with the everlasting Self of a forest that encompasses death as part of life. The forest dwells in the resting place of a planet that even now lives, for all that dies.
1 Most of this translation is taken from H. Taussig’s The Thunder: Perfect Mind: A new translation and Introduction, (2010), Palgrave Macmillan