Mending History 17: Where are Your Stories?

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Gitksan women picking berries, circa 1900, British Columbia.

It happened at a meeting between an Indian community in northwest British Columbia and some government officials. The officials claimed the land for the government. The natives were astonished by the claim. They couldn’t understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally one of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question. “If this is your land,” he asked, “where are your stories?” He spoke in English, but then he moved into Gitksan, the Tsimshian language of his people–and told a story.

If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground by J. Edward Chamberlin

If this is your land where are your stories?

That is the toughest question an immigrant may ever face. If the value of land is not measured in money but in tenure, memory and language then many of us arrived here, in America, with a massive deficit. We can buy and own new land, farm it and feed ourselves from it but the question remains, do we we have the same love and understanding, the same gut fear and respect for the new landscape as we did for the old? Where are our stories? Did Thor ever brandish Mjölnir above the Great Plains, did the huldra wander the Big Woods of Wisconsin flipping their tails beneath their skirts? Where do the ghosts and spirits of our grandparents dwell if not beneath our own feet?

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Singers and water protectors in front of the Governor’s Residence on November 11. (photo L. Steinmann)

These are not sentimental questions. It is vital and incumbent upon us as relative newcomers and partners in stewardship of this ancient land to know its stories and to bring to the landscape the reverence and respect of a good listener. I think about this when I think about the water protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota. They are asking for allies in the struggle to save a landscape; they are asking that its value be considered in terms of its stories and sacredness. For some people, asking them to think this way is like asking them to remember the foreign language of their grandparents, they simply no longer have the words for it.

That is why I study Swedish. In my research, I repeatedly encounter terms that require more study than a simple translation. One single word can be like an iceberg. The tip of it might be easy to translate from Swedish to English but hidden below the waterline is a massive and unique object shaped by time and place. It is with a sense of loss that I say I would understand my family’s past so much better if I understood Swedish. I have worked for years to learn it but I will never have a deep and complete sense of it.

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Gerda and Anna at Tomte, 1982.

Still, I make progress one word at a time. In the early 1980’s I was traveling around Europe like many young people with a Eurail pass. One of my stops was in Värmland, Sweden where my grandmother was born and still had strong family connections. I spent much of my time with the elderly women who remembered my grandmother. Two of her cousins, Anna and Gerda Nilsson, were especially kind to me. They lived in an old farmhouse surrounded by a hip-high tangle of wild and cultivated flowers and views of rolling green pastures. When they told me the name of their farm, it puzzled me. They said it was Tomte. I asked, is your farm named after the little Christmas men? I knew about tomte mainly from my grandma’s story of putting out porridge  for the mischievous white bearded elves at Christmas and from children’s books such as The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren)? Nej, nej, they said, Tomten just means ‘place.’

This puzzled me for a long time. Either tomte was a homophone or there was some relationship that eluded me between the two meanings of the word. Not long ago I learned that tomte does mean place and, at the same time, it refers to the spirit, or the spirit personified, of that place. I started by looking at material written by a man who looks rather like a tomte himself. Ebbe Schön is a professor at Stockholm University who has researched and written about the old language and old beliefs in Scandinavia.

From what I understand, long ago, the place (tomte) where the land was cleared for a home was done with assistance or in concert with the spirits of the ancestors , their bones deep in the ground, inhabiting the contours of the land. These spirits were called tomte. Over time they were shape shifters, appearing variously as small, white-bearded men, four-fingered, one-eyed, glowing, generous, scolding, magical, protective beings. By my grandma’s era, it was a fading superstition. Tomte spirits were synonymous with place, each farm had its own. They are featured in thousands of stories throughout Scandinavia, evolving over time until today they resemble tiny gift-bearing Santa Clauses.

There they are. Our stories, embedded in the land. The tradition of giving porridge to the tomte on Christmas Eve is a remnant of ancestral worship, a gift to the spirits of the place; a prayer at the graves in the very places where people continue to live and farm. As far as I know, the tomte did not make it over with the immigrants when they came to the new land. Those stories and other traditions are mostly lost to us, as is the sense of reverence for land inhabited by the spirits of the ancestors.

The naturalist and landscape archaeologist Oliver Rackham wrote eloquently about the stories and meaning that landscape holds and the impact of its loss. There are four kinds of loss…there is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. There is the loss of freedom, of high-ways and open spaces…There is the loss of historic vegetation, most of which once gone is lost forever…I am specially concerned with the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of our civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us.”

Do we lose the ability to relate to the land when we are divorced from the places we are most closely bound up with? Yes, I believe that the innate ability can be disrupted. I think this explains a lot about the way our American landscape has been, and continues to be, developed. Hell, the notion went global as part of colonialism a long time ago. I also believe that, despite the disruptions of migration, language loss and new industry that has changed our daily experience with the land, we possess an ancient capacity to find meaning in our environment. It is there, lodged in our genes, in our hearts. It reminds us to live connected to both the past and the future and always to the land, the eternal link between both.

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