the mountain ash and legends alive

Stories come in the refraction of light through the trees. They are born in the interplay of shadow and light, given percussive counterpoint by the…

Stories come in the refraction of light through the trees.

They are born in the interplay of shadow and light, given percussive counterpoint by the call of loons and the skronk of Canada Geese.

Walking the land as the sun rises gives birth to recollections, musings and the arc of tales yet untold. My stories come from there.

There’s always something new to see. That’s the remarkable thing about being out beyond walls and buildings.

In my time here I have come to learn that nothing is ever the same way twice. It makes walking the gravel road and lakefront in the hushed air of morning compelling each time.

Nature reveals herself shyly sometimes. If you approach her gently, openly, she allows you her provocative allure, the sensual, languid, eye-opening feminine stretch of her.

It lies in the details, the minutiae you have to breathe and lean and squint to learn to see. It lies within the halt of life and time. It resides in the timelessness of an intimate looking, a yearning for more to be revealed.

My people gave rise to an incredible literature built on that ceaseless desire to know. The stories and legends that were the foundation of the oral tradition were born in the refraction of light through the trees.

Walking the world and striving to live in harmony with her gave my people the ability to construe a universe in the fetching angularity of story.

For instance, the dog and I stopped to inspect the heavily laden branches of a mountain ash tree. The red berries were swollen and plump. The lean branches were bowed by their weight and we could see where the bears would come to feed very shortly. The splotches of colour were magnificent against the green.

The berries were not uniform. Some were elongated, stretched into funnels, while others were oblong, elliptical or round as balls. Some were clumped together in dollops of colour while others strayed along the branches, hanging there alone like commas, punctuation in the story of that tree. There was no discernible pattern and I remembered the tale of the mountain ash.

In the Long Ago Time, a winter descended that was like no other. The cold was like fingers that crept under the robes of the people and gripped the walls of their wigwams in a fierce grip.

The snow piled higher and deeper than ever before. In the darkness as their fires ebbed they could hear the frozen popping of the trees and the stillness that followed was haunting and eerie. Nothing moved in that great petrified world.

Hunting became difficult. Everywhere creatures sought deep shelter from the cold, and hunters returned from their journeys ice-covered, shivering and empty handed.

The people made do with their stores from the summer before but there was worry in the camps as the cold seemed to settle staunchly upon the land. They needed fresh meat to supplement their dwindling supplies.

But the cold deepened. Soon it was impossible to walk more than a few minutes without freezing and everyone kept to their wigwams, hoping and praying for a break in the glacial freeze.

The wind howled mightily through those long, terrible nights and there was talk of Windigos and supernatural monsters eager to feast on the shriveled corpses of the people.

Then, one morning, the people emerged to a morning bright and calm. It was still horribly cold but the arctic wind had ceased. All around them lay the bodies of animals frozen in the night. There were rabbits, foxes, marten, skunks and birds. Frozen. The people wept at this sudden calamity and they asked their Wise Ones what they should do.

The teachers told them to take the bodies of the fallen animals to the tree that served them best. Back then the people fashioned their bows and arrows from the wood of the mountain ash.

Their survival depended on the hunting tools provided by that tree. The elders then told them to take a drop of blood from each of the animals and drop it on the branches of that tree.

They prayed over that ritual. They beseeched Great Spirit for a teaching, for a way of knowing that would guide them. They made offerings of tobacco. They sang songs in honour of the great cold.

The next day the cold abated and when the hunters went out to scout food they saw that the blood of the animals had turned into bright red berries on the mountain ash and birds and other creatures were feeding on them.

From then on, whenever a hard winter was coming the mountain ash bore more berries than usual and the people could prepare.

The berries were plentiful on the ash tree the dog and I stopped beside. According to the old story it would mean that I’d have to ensure a good supply of firewood and make sure the cabin was prepared for a long chill.

When the Storytelling Moons of winter come we’ll need full cupboards and a good supply of books and music, the things we require for our survival.

My life changed by knowing that story. My idea of myself was profoundly altered. Oh, sure, there’s a charming, folksy exuberance to it that makes for engaging telling but when I take my morning walks out on the land it teaches me to see in an entirely different way.

My people say that there is a story hidden in every leaf and rock. The Great Mystery offers clues to itself in all things. If you walk too fast you miss it. If you think you’ve seen it all before, you bypass new teachings and new insights.

If you think you’re above it all somehow, that the land is merely there for your convenience, you become stunted, shriveled, smaller.

But if you open yourself to it, allow yourself to feel it, allow it to inhabit you, you become able to construe a universe in the stories it tells you. In that, we are all Indians.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.

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