We live in the Manistee National Forest where, each year, as spring first creeps and then roars to life all around us, I think about death. It isn’t religion’s observance of Passover’s Seder or Easter’s resurrection that does this. It’s the land.
Our acreage is wooded. Oaks dominate, but pines and maples and scrub elbow their way into cracks of sunshine. The woods are interrupted by small meadows -- little grasslands perhaps 50 yards wide and irregular in shape, most with grassy mounds toward the center.
Years ago, I walked the land with John, a Forest Service friend, as he recalled customs of the Ottawa peoples whose woods these were two centuries ago. “You’ve got a dozen grassy areas in your woods,” John told me – spaces earlier known as “oak openings.”
“When the Ottawa left winter hunt camps along the rivers, they’d pack out their dead who they couldn’t bury in the frozen ground. With spring’s thaw, they’d travel to a dry-land place like yours where each family would bury its dead in their plot, an oak opening.”
Nothing blooms earlier than the scrawny dogwood, aka, “the funeral tree,” the first floral option to adorn springtime burials of immigrant settlers or Ottawa mounds.
When snow gives way to grass, and oak openings begin to flower, I study the mounds. I wonder. We’ve never disturbed a mound, and won’t. They remind us that this land is ours only on loan. You cannot own something as sacred as this.
Days ago, I was mudding my way up the snowmobile trail that connects our land to the nearest paved road. The last of winter’s snow had been scrubbed away by a week of rain. Dogwoods were teasing with hints of pink. In glorious serenity, I went looking for soft music on my truck radio and I wound up hearing, instead, that America is an angry nation.
I’d expect that sort of thing from Rush Limbaugh or his ilk. But it wasn’t Limbaugh – it was NPR, of all things. Polls showed that Americans were fed up with lawmakers, especially those who gather in Washington, D.C., but with significant spillover to those in state capitals. Voter fondness for cockroaches, polls noted, exceeded our regard for Congress.
Even the always plump, usually good-natured Charlie Cook was telling his National Journal readers that, within a week or two of sequestration, “impatience and annoyance will turn into anger, then rage.”
By now, I was paying attention. Politicians, pundits and broadcasters were talking about American anger. But when I asked my friend George, as he sweated to convert his snowplow back into a dump truck, he said he wasn’t angry. “Just tired.”
My conversation at our local general store was longer. Madalyn was reluctant to discuss politics because “people always get upset.” I asked if “upset” means “angry,” and she didn’t answer. She turned away to reload the aspirin on the shelf behind the counter.
“Come on,” I coaxed. “What do you really think about the people who write the laws …?”
She sighed, and looked back toward me. “I’m embarrassed by how they behave,” she said. A mother of four, wife of one and woman of faith and integrity, the word “embarrassed” carried a sting. She described partisan rants and noisy politicians as “vulgar,” something she did not want her children to hear.
“You sound angry,” I said. She curled away again, and went silent. When she turned back, she had tears in her eyes. “It saddens me,” she said. “It grieves me.”
We live in the woods. We’re rural and remote by choice. The mood in these parts, when we think about partisan brawling, isn’t anger. It’s worse than that. It’s sorrow – not for the dead, but for the living.
Madalyn spoke for most of us: We’re embarrassed, because we’ve taught our children to respect elected leaders who now behave disrespectfully toward one another. We’re saddened because we hold old-fashioned ideas about leadership and patriotism. We take in reports from Washington and Lansing with sorrow.
Our funeral trees will soon drop pink blossoms in a warm rain. Meadow grasses, worn like a buffalo coat by mounds in oak openings, will ripple in warm breezes. We’ll walk gently, respectfully across the land, wishing those we’ve elected would learn some silence. The mounds have a dignity that the Congress lacks. It’s a shame.
We’d like to honor not just the dead but also our living leaders. But noise doesn’t seem like leadership and partisan bickering doesn’t sound like patriotism.