Written by Jenny Wonderling
Photos by Marisol Villanueva
“When I grew up, we were taught to ask permission of the water, just to begin a relationship with it. We were not to run up to a river, a lake, or a stream, but were told to always approach water in a quiet way, to be respectful, and honor it.” Grandmother Mona Polacca spoke her words carefully, slowly, weighing out each one like the careful steps she spoke of, approaching her ideas with intention and sincerity. She sat flanked by a few of the other grandmothers at the front of the room, facing the rest of us. They had gathered at Menla as part of a delegation of women called the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers who, for more than 15 years, have committed themselves to spreading a message of peace, illustrating the urgency and need for our global participation as better stewards of this precious planet and as protectors of indigenous ways of life. They were also there to promote the launching of their exquisite, deeply powerful new book: Grandmother’s Wisdom: Reverence for All Creation.
When I was little, and able to escape to the woods, admittedly, I ran at top speed through the trees, so grateful to finally have freedom and space to do so. I probably even screamed as I approached the streams and ponds with the other hippie children I played with who lived full-time in those places. We definitely never asked permission of any water if we could approach it, because we felt it was there for us, to drink, swim in, and enjoy. If anything, it was the water that we expected might have a relationship with us, but of course this was very narrow-minded. I was certainly not yet gifted concepts of reciprocity with nature, respect for its preciousness and the generosity it bestows upon us. Water then, just like garbage, seemed like it could and would always continue to flow.
That was more than 40 years ago. Over the last 18 years, many city kids have visited my sons and I in our Upstate New York home. We’ve taken them hiking and I’ve given them the freedom to scream and scream, to discharge all the stress of being confined by strict schedules, packed subway cars, a constant concern for safety, intense social and academic pressure; children who need so badly to make noise without constraint, bolt to water, any water, and throw themselves in with abandon. I thought about these things as I studied all the grandmothers’ softly lined faces peering back with utter kindness at our mostly white ones, and how I hoped nature was also as forgiving. I had written Mona’s words down in my journal in a barely legible penmanship, rushed, even though I really did want to capture every jewel she had offered up so carefully, as if she had all the time in the world. At that point in the event, I wasn’t certain of her name, so I couldn’t give her credit in my journal, and then I realized that even in my sitting still I was rushed—always the New Yorker, however far I travel—too rushed to really listen at that point in the gathering, because, in fact, not only had I met her before, she had been introduced to all of us that morning at Menla. I was still sweating and stressed from driving there late, trudging up the hill carrying too much, and gently coaxing my young Godson to hurry on his small legs.
I felt stressed for another reason I couldn’t yet name but could soon identify. Some part of me was sensing the impact of the opposing and immediate facts that felt hard to reconcile: that deep, important wisdom was pouring through these women, yet the room was not even half full for this convergence of incredible beings that have seen and healed so much, and were willing to share so freely. It all felt very important, like one of those rare moments in my life I would look back on with wonder at how I had the good fortune to be there. But I was distracted, too, by the concern that their words were not reaching enough people, or the right kind of people, maybe not even me, deeply enough. We had been told we could not record the event with our phones and were encouraged to be fully present, but, like many in the “modern” world, how reliant I have become on devices to help me witness. So, I admit it, I cheated and wrote feverishly instead, because I fear I cannot just rely on my memory (or heart or body) to hold it all, to listen/feel with enough capacity. And there was so much wisdom flowing at us from the start, that I was sure even my hand would not be able to keep up. So I scribbled as fast as I could, doing my best to hold on to my pen that seemed to be leading the way.
Grandmother Mona Polacca
“In all waters, even the subterranean rivers, we were taught that there are spirits, as well as life within,” Grandmother Mona continued in her deliberate way, each sentence a teaching, an invitation. She told us about the cultural, spiritual, and natural preserves that their tribal lands inherently are, and how their waters, along with the earth and all her creatures, are considered sacred, yet are constantly being defiled even within the borders of their own reservations (and others) by multinationals and politicians who blatantly disrespect treaties and territories in the name of greed and resources, continuing to greatly reduce tribal lands. Yes, after all that’s already been stolen, and the violence and unfair treatment that has been imposed on American Indians (and indigenous people elsewhere). Rationale, legal support, pleading, and resistance don’t seem to be enough to convince “leaders” who, unlike the women who sat before us that late September day at Menla, were clearly not taught about the sacredness and sentience of our natural world, or those who are closest to it.
Years ago, Mona helped form and has since served on the United Nations Committee for Indigenous People’s Issues. She told us that when she spoke of these things to the mostly male, mostly white representatives there, she has too often felt she was not getting through, as if the experiences and concerns of indigenous people seem too removed from their wholly disparate experience and identity. She has worked to find an access point, a way to connect them to what she knows to be true and essential. “So I asked them to recall a place in their childhood that they went to: ‘Where was it? Close your eyes. Revisit that place. Really listen to the water. Remember how it made you feel.’” It was through these visceral prompts that she could begin stirring a reaction, and then explain to them how many of those same ponds and rivers are now polluted, unsafe for the next generations of children, unsafe for animals whose populations are now dwindling. Mona said to us as she did to those men, “You have to know your water, where it comes from. Take care of it. Make sure those water sources are not being destroyed.”
Grandmother Agnes Baker Pilgrim spoke next, each sentence a grand gesture, a joke often mixed in with potent, yet simple words. “I’m trying to get people to thank the water. Remember, you’re ALL water babies! You lived in water inside your mothers, your bodies are 60% water, and water comes first out of a mother, then the baby follows.” She brought the mic closer and spoke loudly, her inner trickster show(wo)man coming out to balance the sobriety of her words. “Water was your first medicine! It’s in your tears, your blood, your spit, everything! So make sure you drink a lot of water, not that pop and other junk, cuz it’s water that keeps your brain-a-ticking! Just look at me!” The crowd laughed constantly, adoring her. “So drink your water! And be thankful for it!” Agnes then comfortably boasted how she thanks water constantly, a kind of celebration as she washes her face, her clothes, passes a stream or river, all the time. “‘Thank you! I love you! I can’t live without you!’ And I bless the water, too, for water is life!” she said triumphantly. “God said, ‘I sent you the animals because they’re part of your life and your balance, so take good care of them, and the water for them, too.’” Then after a contemplative pause, she added with solemness, “and the waters really need our help; the animals need our help.”
Like most people of European descent, I do not carry this kind of connection integrally woven into my cells. Sure, I have always appreciated Nature and felt most authentic and centered within it, but I have had to adopt a reverence for the natural world, after some resistance and skepticism. When I was growing up in New York City, my grandparents and the elders I encountered along my life path never spoke such things out loud, whether they thought them or not, and my friends back then would certainly have thought I had ‘lost it’ if they found me talking to a pond in Central Park. And yet, as the grandmothers shared their wisdom—literally every sentence a teaching—I felt the truth of their words, and reflected on how I, too, have become a woman who, when I remember to, also silently thanks the waters, the powerful soil under my bare feet at my property and all around, the vegetables and flowers I grow and pluck from my garden, the farms I whip by in my car, my food before I eat it, the clean air that fills my family’s lungs on hikes, and in this beautiful and fertile Hudson Valley, so far from the pollution and industrialization that so many worldwide are sadly subjected to. But, to be honest, I’ve had to learn to live in and with gratitude, which bloomed only after many years of living far from a city. And I still have to remember; this continues to be an act of effort, as if there is a distancing. It’s something I must elicit with intention, an awareness I can return to.
If you had told me when I was a “true” born and bred (NYC) New Yorker that I would one day speak to the waters, utter prayers to rocks or earth and soil, I would have thought that either you were crazy or that I was becoming crazy in that future version of myself that you were predicting. So maybe there’s a shame that needs to be overcome, along with that leap of faith that one must take into what seems “illogical,” maybe even “primitive,” when one is finally removed long enough from the urban experience, to rejoin nature’s and the moon’s cycles once again. My own silent conversation with the natural world is not something I generally admit, nor do I speak these urgings of gratitude audibly, even when I’m alone. Underneath my deep respect for nature and spirit, is still a city girl who grew up learning subtly, or more overtly, that if something didn’t breathe or speak or move then it was inanimate, a kind of dead thing, and that it therefore didn’t matter much. Like many people, I grew up subconsciously thinking the natural world and her elements were merely here to serve us humans, and that there would be endless water on this huge planet, much more than we could ever need, harm, or even fathom. When living in an apartment building in NYC, for example, with water gushing with incredible pressure from every faucet to 8.6 million New Yorkers daily, more and more enormous buildings built weekly all needing clean water that miraculously does not just flow but gushes, one rarely thinks about water conservation, about water sources, about the impact in other areas and environments from so much use. It just feels like that water supply must be endless. How many of us don’t consider the impact of a long shower?
I grew up in a city, but I was lucky enough to have seeds planted in my heart from the time I was little—those dips into the visceral experiences with nature that Mona had been fishing for with the men at the UN, who, in fact, most of us “Westerners” are not so different from, male or female. So I, too, have to recall those formative moments that connect me to a deeper heartbeat, and to the urgency and responsibility we must all carry to protect our earth and her resources, as well as the importance of the indigenous wisdom and ways of life. So I climb back within, to when I hiked and rode horses with my family as a kid, visited a cleaner ocean, camped out for almost two months with the Student Conservation Association in Colorado’s beautiful Mesa Verde National Park and the San Juan Mountains as a teen, or traveled to many ancient places around the world as an adult, sharing time with indigenous elders and healers. I also dip into more recent moments, when I visited remote beaches that seemed far from “civilization” in Hawaii or India, only to find them strewn with garbage, or “sacred lakes” in the Himalayas riddled with bobbing plastic, other ponds and lakes rife with algal blooms, overcrowded cities like Guatemala City or New Delhi where my eyes and lungs burned and I marveled how babies can ever grow strong and healthy lungs in a place like that. Seeds of invitation, seeds of re-membering, calling me to also be a caretaker of the earth, a woman who walks with gratitude for nature’s teachings, cycles, forgiveness, bounty, and great beauty—not just someone who complains that it’s all going to shit, that there’s nothing we can do…
Around me in the audience were almost all white women, many of whom I knew, also trying to walk a path of stewardship, of seeking, or they wouldn’t have been drawn to this event. And I could appreciate that, as within myself, that trying is a beginning, the edging towards something more constant and truly committed. Still, I also recognized an abyss between us and those in front of us: wisdom keepers and medicine women who embodied something more integral, as if every moment is a prayer, every gesture a teaching, knowing firsthand the impact, while the rest of us could and mostly do stay tucked safely away in our worlds of bounty, where we have the luxury and freedom of where and how we choose to live (and, simultaneously, a tragic disconnection from original, familial place and tradition).
Grandmother Marie Alice Campos & her daughter, Julia
“We were all just women of prayer before; mothers, grandmothers, women that were not political,” said Grandmother Mary Alice Campos Freire. But she explained how a call to action could not be ignored. Yes, these are times that call for all of our vigilance, our participation, our passion for change. As I sat there listening and observing, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can we all learn to be that activated, that awake, as the grandmothers before us, especially that forgiving and loving and political, as these elders who have seen and felt firsthand so much of what the “developing world” has wrought? How can these teachings reach all who were not in the room, are not connected to nature and never were, who are bathed in comforts and to whom such impact has not yet been felt?
Grandmother Mona said, “Grandmother Earth is suffering. The people are not treating the earth with reverence. White people are doing what they want, digging holes everywhere. My grandmother said, ‘Do what you can to protect it.’ It wasn’t until I was older that I understood what that meant.” She spoke of the climate deniers, with their greed and shortsightedness in the face of what can only be called a climate crisis. “The great ice is melting much faster than any of the scientists even predicted; trees are growing in places they never did before.” She talked about how one elder had told her this warming was happening “to melt the ice in the heart of man.” She spoke of climate refugees whose “villages are being destroyed by rising waters, the storms that have increased in power; people forced to leave their traditional homelands and move to a place that is like our home, but it’s not. There is a cultural, spiritual, emotional conflict of having to leave a homeland, the place of one’s ancestors where they know how to survive. Then we were told that a chief said, ‘If us people in the Amazon are scared, you people will soon be very scared.’ They’re concerned about their survival and their young people who may not live their traditional existence in their traditional lands. They’re just upholding their original contract and instinct to live in balance and harmony with all that surrounds them, that they are a tiny part of. They understand cause and effect.” And there is an arrogance in the Westerners who presume that everyone wants development.
“There are one billion organisms in a teaspoon of soil.” Tim Guinee, a Climate Reality Leader offered this wisdom the following day at Menla. “God loves diversity. No pine needle is the same. We live in a miracle and we’re messing with it,” he said soberly. “110 million tons of pollutants are being pumped into the atmosphere every day. There hasn’t been this much CO2 in 300 million years.” Still, Tim reported, good things are also happening. During September’s Global Climate Strike, “Four million people marched…. The antidote to depression is action. We are burdened with the horror of this moment and the gift of moral responsibility to be the best person we can. We are following behind the young people we should be protecting.”
Then he asked us if we would each pledge to take at least one action a day to fight the climate conflict and included suggestions just to start:
- Vote and be politically involved
- Write your congressperson and other representatives
- Drive an electric car
My mind immediately started running, adding to the list…
- Reduce emissions by biking, taking mass transportation, carpooling, walking
- Save energy
- Reduce, reuse, recycle, gift
- Plant trees and help forest saving initiatives
- Have a low carbon diet
- Compost whenever possible
Grandmother Mary Alice’s daughter Julia jumped in. “Put your prayer into action now. We must each be the change we are talking about. We need to walk our truth, buy local, be the example.”
Anne Marie Miller from indigenouscelebration.com also spoke at the event on the panel about the climate crisis with Tim, having recently returned from Bolivia after seeing firsthand what the devastating fires have wrought there and in Brazil. She also went to visit the Yawanawa in Brazil. “The indigenous who are so connected to the environment are most highly tuned to its disturbances. People who have always been isolated are now starving in their own forests, forced to take a six-hour boat ride to get cheap supplies to supplement their diet because of how changed their environment has become. These people have never experienced a flood; no one in their line has in more than 100 years. One of the elders I spoke to saw this as an angry spirit of nature, that the (earth) Mother was trying to call our attention.”
Since January of 2019, 906,000 hectares (2,240,000 acres) according to Wikipedia at the time of this writing (10/14/19.) CNN reported in their September 9th, 2019 article that 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million wild acres) have been destroyed. Streams and rivers have completely dried up. Anne Marie said, “There’s no way to be comfortable now. We’re all instruments. Being here, we are part of the solution. How can we meet the moment? There are replanting missions. The firefighters on the ground there need funding. There are great nonprofits doing important work and who need your support.”
Tim stepped in again. “As devastating as this all is, you have to remember, we incarnated at this time for a reason and we each have something to give at this moment. You just need to ask and you will be shown your purpose.” Julia Walsh from frackaction.org then added—before sharing what her incredible organization has accomplished locally to protect our waters, soil, and families—“The only way we can win is together!”
Grandmother Mary Alice put it this way: “We were spiritual women and didn’t want to be political. We thought we should pray. We all need to be political, emotional, spiritual, whole. We have to take action. I pray, that is who I am. But when you look at the fires burning in the Amazon where there are humans beings (and so many animals), and these fires were started on purpose! Human beings voted this government that are behind all these things that are happening, and they have a plan to destroy the Amazon—yes it’s going to be voted in Congress. So we must all become political. When I was 17, I was imprisoned for activism. I thought being a prayer woman, I wouldn’t have to be political. But I’ve been going back to the streets. And when I do, I look at the people not marching and I can see they have fear in their eyes, and their fear prevents them from joining us. And so I feel called to reach each person’s heart with nature, that is my political act.” She uses other gentle vehicles as well, like staging mass meditation sit-ins, sharing “words of peace” in front of the National Congress, and organizing dances of prayer in train stations. “We must each put our prayer into action. WE must be the change we are talking about. Once I heard, ‘Thank you for letting us plant our land and our tears at the same time.’ WE are seeds of God. What can we each do? Lots of prayer, and especially prayer that is joyful!”
Someone in the audience who owns a high-end jewelry company asked about the use of sting ray or shagreen as an eco material. Marie Alice immediately answered, referencing a practice of reciprocity. “We were taught there is always an exchange, and you never take more than you need. Now there’s no concept of preservation. These teachings are so precious and intimate—wisdom that comes from an organic relationship with nature. And it’s a fine line when you can come up with an excuse to justify behavior. Like using feathers. When people used to find them they were gifted by nature. Then they carried the bird’s message, their beauty. But soon you can go into killing birds.…” As for stingrays, by the way, justified as they are on all the sites I perused that deemed them “eco,” according to the Guardian, “New research reveals we've been complacent about chondrichthyans (including sharks, rays, and chimaeras). A recent report from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) suggests that a quarter are actually threatened with extinction….The freshwater Mekong stingray has experienced a population decline of 50% over the past 20 years.”
But back to the wisdom of the grandmothers of which endless pearls were offered up at Menla that entire weekend, and not only by these incredible souls mentioned, and the other grandmothers, but so many inspired and passionate people I met doing truly good work for community and the earth who had gathered there. Too many to mention here. I will close with something else Marie Alice shared with us: “When you come somewhere, just bow to everything, and listen before you act. Listen, receive … water [and all of nature] receives your intentions. In our home we were silent every Saturday, but we would sing prayer songs to the waters. My daughters and I would do this every week. They were raised that way. We’d wake up, silently pick flowers, walk to the river, singing prayer songs for the Mother Water. At the river’s shore we would sing and throw our flowers into the water. Then we were ready to speak. It was a little thing, but it was so big. Yet it is not a big deal: just be connected and express your love.”
In writing this, it is one, small, and maybe even big, thing that I can do. It is my prayer, my love letter, my rant, and call to action.
What will yours be?
And ours? And ours….