“Our life is not so much threatened as our perception.”
- Emerson, Experience
Mama was born in Colorado and mostly grew up with her drunk, womanizing father, who moved around the country working on oil rigs. Mama was given the responsibility of caring for two younger brothers and cooking for them and her dad. Mama tried finding her way after surviving the split of her parents and her siblings growing up. Later as an adult, Mama, a free spirit, worked in the rock quarries of Arizona beside her brothers and Dad. Slim, curved, mischievous, she wore her long dark hair parted down the middle, pulled back from her face in two waist-long braids. Mama might have looked like butter poured into her jeans, but she was as tomboy as a girl could get. In her mid-twenties, she fell in love with my biological father. Theirs was a relationship of fire, two strong-willed, souls, loving, and warring, until my father turned to another’s arms. Mama, her heart in tatters, left my father. At the urging of her father, my Mama went back and tried to make it work.
At the age of twenty-six, Mama conceived me. She gave birth to me approximately two weeks early, in a small-town clinic, little more than a doctor’s office in Williams, Arizona. She spent the better part of a day and night in active labor trying to have me. Near the end of her strength, her doctor fearing for her life, used forceps, to pull me battered, black and blue into the world. My Mama describes her first sight of me thus; a black-haired, torpedo head, bruised from head to toe, with big forcep indents across my head. She could see the forceps had nearly put out my eye. When I hear Mama tell of her first sight of me, there’s love in her words. My father, terrified of the prospect of being a father, had said to my mother, “Get rid of it!” while I was still in the womb. My Mama, horrified had told him — “Go to hell!”
One year later Mama gave birth to my little brother, shortly before my Mama and father parted ways. I inherited more siblings when my Mama married the man I call Dad. I remember my Mama holding my hand, walking down a hard-packed Arizona dirt road. We saw a dust cloud, Mama shaded her eyes to see, and crouched pointing to a brown Jeep barreling up the road and said, “You see that, babycakes? That’s your new Daddy.” To this day, it is the man in the beat-up, black hat I call Dad. He took us away from society, high into the Panhandle Mountains of Idaho.
I was four, and the cold world of white surrounding me was strange compared to the swelling heat of an Arizona sun. On the ride to the cabin I would come to think of as home, four of us were crammed on a snowmobile seat too small to hold us. I kept falling off the back, my legs pushed wide to fit behind Mama. My young muscles ached from the position. I lost count of how many times I fell off. In the growing darkness, I was too tired to hold onto Mama’s coat sides, with my cold crimped fingers slippery in mittens. I fell off again, and Mama noticed white spots on my cheeks — frostbite.
So they put me in the front in an effort to hide me from the wind chill, my face near a gasoline-spitting carburetor spewing fumes into my frozen face. My new Dad’s knees kept knocking my back and shoulders, shoving me face-first closer to the whining, screaming engine, as he worked to control the over-loaded snowmobile. Inhaling fumes and scared, I tried to keep my face from being knocked into the carburetor. This was my introduction to the mountain I came to love.
Dad cut firewood for a living, saving money to pay a lease on twenty acres of land. I don’t know exactly when the mountain and I began to commune; it was a subtle movement that became a part of me. It didn’t start that way. Our first winter was rough and cold. Seven of us lived in a small one-story, two-room log cabin with no permanent foundation. They put up a single sheetrock wall down the middle of the back room. My little brother and I slept on old yellowed cushions in bedrolls right under the step that led to the partitioned bedrooms. There were no doors but the one leading outside.
Mama learned to hunt and butcher wild game, and to can and dry foods on an old screen hung from the ridge logs of our cabin. She sewed heavy quilts out of bags of rags and stuffed them with cast-off forest service white sleeping bags, to keep out the chill seeping through cracks. I still have mine. Dad dug up topsoil thick with thread-fine tree roots, mixed it with water, and threw handfuls of this kind of mud into the outside cracks in the wall, a homemade chinking to keep out the wind. They mixed flour, salt, and warm water and used the creamy colored, sticky dough, for inside chinking.
The snow piled high. Personal hygiene was bathing in an old stainless steel washtub with wash water from melted snow, heated on a cast iron cook stovetop. I remember standing near the fifty-gallon barrel wood stove in a threadbare towel, shivering to get warm. There was a wash-stand near the door for hands and faces. Many mornings I had to break the thin shell of ice on the wash basin’s water to wash. We were snowed in for eight to nine months; the only way to leave the mountain in winter was to walk or snowmobile out the thirty-seven miles by road. Snow six feet high at the front door was normal at our seven thousand foot elevation.
The mountain was a world apart from the Arizona dust. Mama scrubbed our clothes by hand in the same washtub we bathed in. Dad shoveled deep canyons through the snow to the woodpile and chopped wood, bringing in wheelbarrows full to heat the cabin. Mama learned to use pressure cookers and cooked for five males, herself, and her daughter. The lighting was diesel poured into kerosene lamps. The seasons came and went and the strangeness wore off into a new way of living.
Mama took us with her, wild harvesting herbs and food, horsemint, stinging nettle, shaggy man, and puffball mushrooms. Stinging nettles were easy to identify at a young age for their serrated leaves and the fact they stung. Horsemint was easier than water mint to identify, because in most of the mint family, the stems tend to be square and often a mix of maroon-red and green in color. Water mint however, was pale green, with rounded stems and unlike other mints didn’t boast serrated leaves. Mint tea was for pleasure and to soothe upset stomachs. Mama forbade us to harvest mushrooms alone, saying they were dangerous if identified wrong.
Late summer and autumn were hectic. It was during this time that we harvested huckleberries and myrtle berries up high, and red myrtle berry pancakes were a treat then. We took day trips to the lower elevations and harvested from old abandoned homesteads and rogue fruit trees all up and down the Salmon River’s edge. There were bing cherries, pie cherries, chokecherries, apricots, apples, pears, crabapples, currents, serviceberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, and gooseberries.
Some years we got black walnuts still in their layers of black-brown husk and shells from an old black walnut tree. My parents traded firewood to some people living at the lower elevations, for the garden produce they grew. Mama and I spent long hot days in July, August, and September prepping and cooking bushels and buckets full of fruit on the old wood cook-stovetop. We made jams, jellies, and fruit all canned and poured hot into quart and pint jars fresh from a hot bath. We made pies and cut slices of fruit, carefully laying them on a screen to dry hanging between the ridge logs.
We lived by the seasons. When hunting-season came, the focus moved from fruit to pursuing big game and grouse. We’d get tags and license for deer, elk, and bear. I learned early how to field-dress deer and grouse, bring them home to soak in salt water. We canned most of the meat harvested. We hand ground burger and cut stew meat. Mama and Dad would make 20–40 pound bags of smoked jerky, especially when two people got their elk. Learning to harvest from the landscape also meant I learned to read and know the land: its rhythms and the movements of plants and creatures within that landscape.
Summer on the mountain lasted only three to four months. Hot days were 80 degrees. I learned to know when the snow was coming by the feeling in the air. I loved our roof-shaking spring rainstorms that would drench the mountain so hard the water ran off the eaves in great splashes, moving deep beds of pine needles from under trees downslope.
Despite the richness in subsistence living, and the knowledge it imparted, my early years were lonely and chaotic.
My inherited older brothers had trouble welcoming us, and reacted by putting me and my younger brother down into a mining hole with sheer sides six feet deep, then leaving us unable to climb out, afraid of the ground crumbling beneath our feet. As a child my survival instincts were strong, and they bade me read others moods — avoid the young adult and adult fights when they erupted around me.
Loyalty to family and their perceptions, no matter what — was an expected absolute. As a young child, I had no defense from the perceptions projected onto me from my new family. I came to believe their perceptions like they were my own. For example: when I was five, and knocking winter ice out of our kitty’s water-cans to fill them with fresh water, my older brother asked me “why are you doing that?” I cocked my head, answering, “Because, I love them.” He shot me a sideways glance and then said tersely, “I don’t know why, nobody loves you!” I believed him. His perception of my worth and lovability became my own, because survival meant fitting in.
I remember my six year old turning seven-year clearly. In early spring, I said something to my Mama while she was chopping wood that stopped her cold. I vividly remember her eyes turning sharp and deep green. Abruptly and completely angry, she stared at me and asked “What did you say?” Terrified by the rage I’d never seen in my mother’s eyes, I couldn’t initially answer. When I finally did, she told me to stay outside and rigidly turned, walking down into the cabin where my Dad was. The ensuing events were more painful than a gauntlet could ever hope to be.
“You lying little greaser!” my nine years older step brother, Stephen spat at me vehemently. I was just six. I didn’t yet know what a greaser was, but his tone hit me like a physical slap. I had accidently out-ed him without naming him and now my mother was furious and yelling at our Dad in the cabin that, “It had to stop!” The “It” in question was the fact someone was molesting me.
The thing my mother didn’t know was “It” was happening not only with Stephen. He was just the second; our oldest brother Thomas had beat him to the punch just weeks after we first moved onto the mountain when I was four years old. Now at six years old I had said something that had alerted my mother to the situation. I was frightened that I was in trouble, as Thomas and Stephen had each assured me that if I told — I’d get into trouble.
I never wanted to go and do as they demanded. So I didn’t understand why would I get into trouble? Young and vulnerable, I believed their projected opinion. I felt it was all, my fault, my responsibility. Regardless of her reassuring words, I felt my Mama’s extreme anger was with me. Rather than with the truth of the circumstance, that slipped right under her nose, harming her only daughter in a way she could never repair. My small, quiet subsistence-based life in the forest became a warzone.
My young self couldn’t reconcile the family’s violent tempers and accusations with the quiet way each older brother had individually done things. I remember kneeling naked, choking, and after Stephen would spit in his hands to wipe my face clean, hand me pine needles to chew on and spit out, while he smoothed my mussed hair. He’d dress me tidy, not allowing me to do it myself and take me home. His low voiced commands didn’t fit the loud ferocity voiced in the denials and accusations.
Despite the natural environment being the backdrop to such abuse, I didn’t associate natural places with my molestation. Instead, natural places were always the balm that soothed me. There was real comfort resting against the burnt-orange sticker-soft, sun-warmed pine needle bed, under a tree completely alone.
Early in my life, when I was almost one years old I first became aware of my little brother’s existence in my mother’s tummy, and became protector of him. Having a high palate, and a stutter that escalated with fear, he later became an easy target for our older brothers.
In many ways my love for him was my salvation and entrapment. In the painful circumstances, I had someone other than myself to think of, and I also felt the extra weight of trying to shield him. When we were very young in early spring, we would go digging and snacking on Spring Beauty bulbs, a kind of wild sweet potato tasting bulb. Our second favorites were Fritillaria bulbs, rich, and buttery tasting, if a bit gritty. My little brother could not pronounce the “PR” sound and so Spring beauties got dubbed “sing sing dewys” in honor of him.
My little brother and I went picking fireweed, known to some as miner’s lettuce. We’d put salad dressing, a sprinkle of garlic powder, some cheese, and the leaves on a slice of mama’s homemade bread and have a green rich, snappy tasting sandwich. I hiked with my Mama, hunting for large half-rotten down and dead Douglas fir trees, looking for pitch wood for winter. A dry dead wood extremely rich in tree sap (resin), it helped start a fire and heat it up faster, especially when the weather was damp and wet and fires unwilling to burn. We wild-harvested shiny-leaved Kinnikinnick, to hang and dry for winter, a plant very good for bladder infections and cleaning out the urinary tract.
At least half our food supply came from harvesting from the landscape. Woven into sustainable practices was the knowledge of what to harvest, when, where, and how. The mountain and its surrounding area were rich in place based meaning. Red Sand Springs, Dutch Oven, Horse Fly Springs, Dead Man’s Corner, the corner where Thomas got his Elk, and more. Each place name held within the name a whole history of the area; it named for us, as well as the name itself denoting some characteristic of the place. We all knew, for example, Red Sand Springs was a series of small springs that ran only part of the year, and in late summer we could find puffball mushrooms and wild strawberries in the area. The springs were rich in red-colored sand. Dutch Oven is a place where a forest fire swept through, leaving a large area of blackened landscape and burn behind it. From a distance the place looks like a cast-iron Dutch oven, and during hunting season elk liked to rut and hang out in the area.
In my early childhood, the air on the mountain had a crystalline quality that allowed me to see mountains for as far as my eyes could see. This changed. By the time I left home at eighteen, there was a haze blocking the furthest mountaintops from view. Sadly, half the mountainside’s lower forest was logged off. Where once rich stands of mixed old growth forest supported the mountainside, a rough view of skinned up trees, saplings, and rejects from the logging industry stood raggedly, tenaciously surviving. The elk that used to haunt the area moved when there was no longer cover for them to hide in. Many of the huckleberry patches us and the black bears harvested from in the area were decimated, others scarred and battered, survived but didn’t produce for many years. The altered habitat is an area still recovering.
There is a survivor’s instinct in almost every species including humankind. Too often this instinct runs on the barbaric side. Our basic survival instinct becomes barbaric when not tempered by wisdom. When that happens, we damage and destroy each other and the incredible ecosystems we live in. Despite the familial abuse and my family’s ignorance of the effects of their harmful actions, the one thing my broken family saw clearly was the importance of living landscape. It wasn’t about whether one would leave footprints — it is impossible not to. But rather, what kind of prints were the best to leave behind?
To this day, I cannot articulate completely how I survived. I cannot begin to express the terrible things I’ve witnessed, felt, and tried my best to prevent. Truth is, while these memories deeply shape the person I am today, I share them to point to something larger. If I convey only the terrible parts, I do myself and my damaged family a deeper injustice than if I’d said nothing at all. What is it that allows humankind to barrel ahead not seeing the damage they do to each other and to the environment?
My family could not fathom the abuse they inflicted, in fact they could not perceive it as abuse. Beyond the molestation, I initially had a difficult time recognizing the abuse as an adult. As a young child I so thoroughly internalized their perceptions of me as weak, unintelligent, and inept that my perceptions of who I was were skewed. Those perceptions limited my ability to act in the world as an adult and this threatened my survival. I was deeply afraid of trying anything new, especially if it asked scholastic focus; I believed their projected perceptions. I believed I was weak and stupid.
Abuse limits our ability to trust others, and narrows our perceptions, and a similar thing happens with environmental abuse and damage. The difference is adults have a choice about what perceptions they give power to. Whereas, in a family young children don’t have a choice. In the adult world people can choose their perceptions. The extreme loyalty perceptions can engender demonstrates how loyalties to perceptions impair our ability to perceive the inherent interconnectivity of the world. Just as my family couldn’t see how fundamental and deeply damaging much of its actions were to me, we often do not see how much damage we do to the non-human world.
When we only see one part of a picture, we lose the richness of its meaning. The same relates to land and place. When a family perceives an interloper the survivor’s instinct reacts; it does not see the interloper may be like them, might be intrinsically linked to them — or that to harm that perceived interloper is to continue to harm themselves. The instinctual protective side sees one thing — threat or opportunity. This way of seeing the world wreaks havoc in familial situations and in the natural environments. The struggles of my childhood and the work of healing lend a depth to my perceptions that I would not trade, hard-won though they are. Perhaps such deep struggles awaken us all to our ignorance.