Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sacred Headwaters. The Swamp.

Beaver Swamp,-  the sacred headwaters?
I found it interesting to put those two titles together. ‘Sacred Headwaters’ is the title of Wade Davis` beautiful and passionate book about a landscape in northern British Columbia that is threatened by ‘development’ interests backed by our provincial and federal governments. It is the headwaters of three major rivers and is considered sacred by Native Indians who know this to be their aboriginal land, never compromised by treaty.  ‘The Swamp’ is almost a put down word for useless land, and is the very kind of place that has suffered from being drained for farmland, or used as a dump by our industrial society. The swamp I am writing about is just down Beaver Point Road, the headwaters of two streams that drain the height of land on the peninsula where we live on Saltspring Island.  These are our own swampy sacred headwaters, small and insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Or are they?

This swamp beside the road is a tangled mass of vegetation and pools of water, trees growing packed close together on the higher humps, rushes and reeds and deadfalls criss-crossing everywhere. Imagine, all that lumber going to waste, all those farm fields unrealized, those crops ungarnered.  Useless, and yet beautiful, and full of life lived outside the yoke of humankind. But of course this swamp does have functions that extend far beyond its narrow borders; it captures winter run off, stores it in its tangled heart and releases it slowly through the dry summer season.  Vegetation far removed from here grows tall because of it, a high watertable, down-stream as far as the sea on both coasts, even helps the wells of houses and the lives of countless creatures, both wild and domestic. It is a valuable resource after all.

That word ‘Resource’ though; there is something wrong with our cultural perspective. How does this resonate with ‘Sacred headwaters’? We tend to make the mistake of thinking that ‘Sacred Earth’ is the special cultural preserve of the original inhabitants of North America and those individual representatives we can name; Black Elk, Chief Seattle, Chief Dan George, among many others. What we do not have within the perspective of our resource based industrial economy is an understanding that theirs is the default position of peoples around the world and back through time to the beginning of human beings.  We are the strange ones. ‘Sacred’ is a useful way of understanding our relationship with our selves, because the land, this swamp, wildness itself, is intimately connected to our individual lives and to our survival as a species.

If we thing ‘Resource’ in relation to our environment we place it in a subservient position, to serve our needs. Even in a provincial or national park, as a ‘Recreational Resource ’it is there to serve our need for pleasure or rejuvination. In the Headwaters region that Wade Davis writes about, mining companies are digging up the mountains and filling lakes with toxic tailings all in the name of ‘the greater good’; which is presented as employment and tax revenue that will support services for you and I who live many miles away from this serious and beautiful land. Native groups oppose this desecration of the land.  Cynically, those in power in the larger culture think of this as a tactic to wring greater wealth from some legal settlement; how far apart these word views are and how mutually incomprehensible.

When I walk down the road on this late winter morning the sun gleams fitfully between the clouds and when I reach the swamp, ( let`s give it a name, ‘Beaver Swamp’), the tangled mass of roadside bushes is marked with some pink survey tape. An ominous beginning, this little pink slash amid the grey and green, and at my feet in the mud are old liquor bottles and fast-food waste paper. Beaver Swamp is right on line as waste land waiting to be modified by someone with a chain saw and heavy machinery because any protective laws relating to it are always subject to alteration if ‘resource development’ should come first.  I step closer across a bridge of rotting log, away from the road and am inside the swamp`s embrace. Mossy logs, clear water reflecting a brief flash of blue sky, reeds, a glimpse of a forest bird and tangled complexities of undergrowth. A lone paper cup is adrift in this suddenly cleaner place.  A small, wild place, protected by nothing much more than difficulty of access and an assumption that there is nothing here worth knowing: chuck your garbage in the ditch, move on.
What I have done here is to move away from one word view and into another; just by stepping into the margins of this natural place I have moved into relationship with it, into a sacred relationship. Framing this world in photographs and in my mind is a form of prayer. When I kneel on the soggy earth to catch the first sprout of a skunk cabbage I am bringing myself down from the 'heights' of humankind and experiencing humility;  I`m participating in an age old act of humanity in these sacred headwaters. ‘From whom all blessings flow’ is a reality, here, not far from the Beaver Point Road.

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