Cynthia Travis reviews Deena Metzger’s latest novel A Rain of Night Birds
Book Review for Tikkun
by Cynthia Travis
A RAIN OF NIGHT BIRDS
by Deena Metzger
Natural Law was here before and will be here after we’re gone.
Western law was not here then and will not last.
~ Marie Gladue, Navajo elder
Sometimes a story poses a question that is inescapable, compelling us to yield to its mandate, demanding its rightful place at the magnetic center of our lives. This is because, in the words of a wise friend, it is a story that reminds us who we are. Such is the question at the heart of Deena Metzger’s A Rain of Night Birds (Hand to Hand Publishing, 2017): What are the ways of being that will ensure a viable future for all life? A cultural shift of incomprehensible magnitude is urgently required in order to deliver us to that future.
Sandra Birdswell is a climatologist. She senses the Earth’s shifts and sufferings in her body; sun flares, earthquakes, and wind are kin to her. Because her mother died in childbirth, she has been raised by her father, John Birdswell, a doctor whose years of work in a small hospital on the nearby Navajo reservation have brought him into an unlikely friendship with Diné elder Hosteen Tseda. Sandra’s professor in graduate school, Terrence Green, is the head of the Department of Earth & Environmental Studies. He is a Native American man of mixed origins. All except Hosteen are missing one or both parents and so do not know the full story of where they came from or who they are. Like most of us, they are bereft of the full lineage that might have guided them in perilous times.
The book, at first, is a gently sloping floor, a meditation on love and loss, identity and language, permeated by despair for the decimation of the natural world. It is a slope that becomes incrementally steeper and infinitely more slippery as we come to recognize our own heartache as well as our complicity in the unfolding climate crisis that Terrence and Sandra – and we, must grapple with. By accompanying Sandra, Terrence, Hosteen and John in their undoing and eventual ragged remaking, Metzger invites us to tumble into the abyss of our own despair at what our species has done to the Earth and to each other, and to let ourselves be transformed.
The bones of the story seem familiar at first, turning us back on ourselves until we come to see, like the characters in the book, that in the context of Gaia’s impending demise, personal questions can no longer be separated from questions of Earth’s distress. Rather, love, loss and identity in the age of the Anthropocene are nested dilemmas that can only be met with the full surrender of everything we thought we knew in order to become trustworthy to Creation once again. The story sends us to the edges of our thinking, exposed to the elements, with nothing to guide us but our broken hearts and our willingness to be dismantled until individual concerns are subsumed – not erased, but contextualized, by the lived understanding of community in the most expanded and comprehensive sense. The characters’ dilemmas are our dilemmas; they show us the way forward, if we are willing to follow their lead: to yield to our Earthling selves and to ‘the beyond’, that is, to intelligences within and beyond ourselves, expressed in their sovereign forms and understood on their terms, not ours, though they may seek to express themselves through us.
At the beginning of the book, Sandra recognizes, through intuition and bodily sensation that a solar flare is occurring. Reflecting on the ways that scientific language dilutes the primacy of felt experience, she muses that “Somehow the technical language that had developed to meet the infinitely large or small… took focus away from the thing-in-itself, the astounding and incomprehensible beauty that was revealing itself to her.” She struggles with the language of science because it does not encompass the aliveness of the world nor the passionate devotion to the Earth of scientists like herself and Terrence Green. She is keenly aware that, in its demand for objectivity, certainty, and commercial value, modern language has become a trap, squeezing the miraculous out of life’s complexities by privileging objects over relationships. Logic over soul. Acquisition over accompaniment. In particular, scientific language and protocols, with their zeal for data, leave little room for emotion, reverence or wonder. Sandra helps us see that we have allowed the cult of objects, objectives, objectivity, to hypnotize us so completely that it’s killing us – and yet we remain in its thrall. Throughout the book, as in our waking world, the loss of wonder has resulted in the subjugation of the Earth and the silencing of too many voices. Loss of reverence is at the core of our self-imposed exile from the Natural World. What is being done to women, to children, to indigenous cultures and people of color everywhere is what is being done to the Earth. Assault is assault. Rape is rape. If we allowed awe to shape us, we could not continue as we are, as the writer Jeanette Winterson rightly reminds us: They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it? This is the world that A Rain of Night Birds is calling us to: a world of wonder that brings us to our knees.
The fact that Sandra senses the Earth’s pain, Her tilts and shifts, makes it impossible for Sandra to live a conventional life, though she tries. After earning her PhD., she takes a job as a consultant to developers who seek to greenwash their activities by having people like Sandra and a handful of Native American consultants help determine the best placement and design for real estate developments on pristine land. It’s an unwinnable challenge, but she does her best because she has realized that buildings, landscaping, streets and infrastructure alter water flow, migrations, wind and weather, so she tells herself that her role could be helpful. A Native American colleague is of similar mind, and one day they take their lunches to the top of a nearby hill. “From the vantage of a full landscape, she saw how one might think differently about placement. An eagle’s perspective as well as the prairie dog’s… The invisible had to be included with the visible.” Her Native colleague tells her, “I need to see where the wind wants to go before I put anything in its way.” Still, the dilemma is not resolvable. Even in-depth study of a fragile area slated for development will not result in abstention, only minor modifications: tract homes and shopping centers will be built that do not respect living systems and cannot protect non-human or even human communities. Driving past vineyards and strip malls, Sandra thinks to herself, “There was no logic for the terrain except human willfulness…. The global transition from we to I was almost complete.” She is forced to recognize that her recommendations are mere palliatives, and recoils at the horror of her participation. “Was the river the same river if it was dammed, damned by the violation of the first laws?” Sandra recognizes that “the rapid metastasis of extraction and manufacture” means that Western culture, by its nature, will never allow a fully co-equal co-existence with the Earth. Soon, she can no longer ignore the disparity between her inner and outer landscapes. She reaches “back in memory and beyond her own memory to the ways the ones who had lived on the land had spoken to the elementals and had been answered… Someone had believed that life was dialogic.”
When she goes to study ice melt in the Arctic Circle, Native colleagues help her see that “The Western scientists trusted their instruments more than they trusted their own powers of observation or those of the Indigenous… (but) information is not knowledge.” When science pares complex, interwoven living systems down to mere data, it is impossible to come to deep knowing, especially when most of us do not have deep history or deep roots in a place, and when buildings and machinery obscure our experience. As Sandra muses, “Science has no council of elders to decide what might or might not be explored.”
We have lost our indigeneity, our Earth stories and our Earth-memories, and do not have the luxury of time to cultivate these things, or to reinvent them. And yet, it’s curious how synchronized we actually are to Earth’s living rhythms, her inhale and exhale; like the water in the soil, the liquids in our bodies rise and fall twice daily with the moon, like internal tides, no matter how far we might be from the shore. And at one time, we too walked the Earth with feet perfectly suited to all Her varied terrains. In recent times, though, we have lost our baseline gait, a term borrowed from the science of wildlife tracking that refers to the prints left by a healthy animal moving in a relaxed manner through her environment. With our shoes and our pavements, our high-rises and cars, we have eliminated the in-built, visceral knowing received directly from the Earth. And because we are being bombarded by information, toxins, and electronic signals coming at us faster than our bodies can process, our brains assemble fragments of information into a distorted composite from which we react rather than respond.
Terrence’s soul, too, is sundered by science. Like Sandra, he loves the wind and all sorts of weather. But, as he tells her, his weather station, “doesn’t tell me if the wind is blowing through a pine tree, an alder or a yew. It can’t even tell me if it is blowing through a grove of aspen which anyone would recognize.” As a Native man, what Terrence knows that most of us do not is that story and language are inextricable from place. The illness of our times is that we have severed them. In most Indigenous cultures, life events cannot be understood unless they are explicitly located somewhere. The physical landscape is an encyclopedia of occurrences over time. The physical world is a narrative rich in teachings for those who know how to read it.
Names, like knowledge, arise in tandem with place as well. But Sandra cannot make sense of her name. Whenever she asks her father about it, he refuses to divulge anything about how she came to be called Sandra. It is the only jagged edge between them. Her preoccupation speaks again to one of Metzger’s concerns with the too-many ways that language is used to erase the realities of the vanquished, of the Earth and of our connection to Her, including through the way we name people, places and things. Language and the erasure of language have become weapons used for silencing – but not because silence is valued in its own right. A Rain of Night Birds reminds us of how many, many children’s identities were and still are being erased by forbidding them to speak their native tongue. English is being weaponized in other ways; as author Robert MacFarlane sadly explains, the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary have taken it upon themselves to excise certain words that they feel are no longer “relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin… cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail… the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual. Children are now… adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. For blackberry, read BlackBerry.” (Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks) By tampering with the language of the natural world, we erase ourselves and the future.
And so we must rediscover or reinvent the language of the mysterious, epic, living world and our place in it, complementary to Earth’s voice so that, in saving Her from us, we also rescue ourselves. If we are fortunate and sufficiently dedicated, it may be possible to reawaken our sense of Earth-related purpose. This necessarily redefines our understanding of what it means to ‘make a living’. Terrence and Sandra both struggle with this: “Given the causes of climate change, he was thinking, it was ludicrous to expect that the same perpetrators would want to employ people at significant salaries to work more than forty hours a week to remedy that which would mean change… The too familiar goal of making a standard living to support a standard life style continued as if the right to it was carved in stone, notwithstanding that it was entirely contradictory to the evidence in the field.” Making a living is an empty thing unless we are making a living – and livable, world.
The foundation of Sandra and Terrence’s relationship is their visceral connection to the Earth. When Sandra leaves her house to go live with Terrence, she realizes “She would miss the land and didn’t know if she had the right to leave it. What were the agreements between them? Would the land where he lived receive her? Would she receive it?” These are questions that we in the West seldom ask ourselves, uprooted as we are; we have forgotten that every speck of the Earth is teeming with sentient life, comprising a sentient whole. In many traditional cultures, a child’s umbilical cord is buried in the place they were born, creating a lifelong connection to that place. Until modern times, the idea of leaving or selling the land of one’s birth was unimaginable. What is our agreement with the land? What is our covenant?
As Sandra faces the fact that “Something dire and sinister was at work undermining all life,” she wonders “What did the unthinkable imply?” Human folly plays out as it must, but until now this has always happened against the backdrop of Earth’s abiding and unalterable continuity. Now that this fundamental certainty is crumbling, we are seeing that, since Earth’s systems are fractal by nature, so, too, is Her unraveling. We are living in the End Times. The holographic Gordian knot for humans alive today is the unbearable tragedy that life on Earth may no longer be possible in any viable way for us or our descendants. This realization is, in turn, wrapped in the bottomless heartbreak of knowing that we will never experience an intact Earth, however fervently we may long for it. For Native Americans, this sorrow is not new, nor is it abstract. After only 500 years, it is still fresh and infinitely compounded by the fact that at the time of first contact, the balance between humans and Earth was so exquisite that disease was virtually unknown (1491, Charles C. Mann). For Terrence especially, the hopeful, hope-crushing inclusion of TEKW (Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom) in the 2007 IPCC report detailing the looming climate crisis, is unbearable because it is both a belated acknowledgment of essential wisdom and barely a footnote.
Terrence muses that “His great grandfather… confronted by today’s issues would have spoken to storm or wind itself, also to eagle, and the spirits would have taught the old man because they would have been in relationship with each other… Yes, this was myth, but it didn’t mean it didn’t happen… myth was a story form of the transmitted teachings and experiences from which, over centuries, his people had built their informed cultures and their lives.” Modernity has discarded the practice of being in conversation with the Natural World, and the mythmaking that arises as a result, with which the tenets of a viable culture are transmitted over time. It takes rigorous discernment, patience and close observation to develop a conversation with the wild. Respect has to be earned, and it requires community – listening together, comparing notes, taking responsibility. The only myth extant now is that unchecked growth is desirable, possible and necessary.
What to do? Or, rather, what to undo? How to behave so that things are put right? I sometimes try to imagine what it might be like to reverse the flow of history, to rewind ourselves back to where we came from, back and back until we reach the lifeways that our ancestors once knew. I try to imagine what it would be like to reclaim (if only in our imaginations) our relationships with the original lands that birthed us by returning to the places our ancestors left. For those of us descended from multiple geographies, how would we even choose where to go, and how could we legitimately claim that place of original connection and form an authentic relationship with it? What might we feel? What might the land feel, and the ancestors? Perhaps, by now, the Earth is beyond caring about such particulars and would be grateful for any lived connection, so long as it’s sincere. I have a friend who once dreamed the words “return the people to the land.” But how to accomplish this in a way that restores balance when none of the original relational combinations exist anymore and so cannot be known or repaired? How to remove invasive species, including ourselves, and create a full reclamation when we do not even know of what? Like Sandra and Terrence, I have come to believe that only in surrendering to the grief that takes us apart and strips everything away, can we hope to salvage the essential alliances that keep life going; the partnership between humans and Earth and the reverence engendered by deep knowing that will restore a language with which to speak of it.
Terrence and Sandra recognize that they cannot continue living in conventional ways, especially when those ways force them to choose between their professional selves and their Earth-selves. As the story unfolds, we accompany them in the dismantling of their external identities as they realize they must change everything about the way they live: where they sleep, how they express themselves, and how they hold the sorrow that sweeps them away from their habitual lives like a flash flood. In her darkest moments, Sandra begins to see that “holding a field of possibility within which recovery lived” is different from holding out hope because “Hope in any form turns us toward ourselves.”
There is no medicine for the illness of grief except grief itself. For Terrence and Sandra there is no sanctuary in the ordinary world, nowhere to turn except toward the mysterious and overwhelming sensations that have engulfed them, the same overwhelming sensations that will engulf us if we allow ourselves to dissolve as they do. The consensual world does not, cannot, understand this process, nor provide a language with any points of reference for it. As Metzger points out: “Illness and symptoms… were markers of breaks in complex relationships that occurred when right relations were askew.” The illness of grief for the Earth is no different.
Sandra and Terrence’s only refuge is the sacred spaciousness of Hosteen Tseda’s traditional wisdom and his ability, with the help of Sandra’s father, John Birdswell, to craft a sacred circle to hold them. In a way we can envy Sandra and Terrence their forced surrender to Earth’s wonders and to Her distress; the way this crowds out any other concerns until they must die to their old lives, knowing that initiation, in order to be real, must risk literal death. Everything is at stake, so everything is on the line. If we refuse grief’s call, we will be alone with our madness and its consequences. We must ask ourselves whether we, too, are willing to step away from the tethers of the culture that is killing us. Can we resist its seduction, or shall we remain outside a life of sacred alignment with the Earth’s exquisite complexity and relegate ourselves to the role of longing observer, as we suffer and die along with everything that matters?
These are not choices to be made lightly. We’ve worked hard for what we have, distorted though it may be. Our forebears endured great hardship and uncertainty on our behalf, and now we must do likewise for the sake of the future. Until now, most of us have expressed our concern in tamer ways. Until now, it even seemed that occasionally there was progress: though the United States refuses to honor the Paris Accords, other countries remain on board. Perhaps a different president will rejoin the effort. Then again, even if the international community succeeds, even if, as California’s Governor Brown insists, ‘we’ll launch our own damn (weather) satellite’, our efforts are late. Ice melt has outstripped all projections, extinctions are skyrocketing, insect populations are in freefall, extreme weather is intensifying, and reactionary governments are on the rise. In spite of everything, we have somehow developed a taste for the Kool-Aid of denial and paralysis in the face of what’s happening. Are we willing to offer up our comfortably uncomfortable lives for the possibility that there may yet be time to change course?
For those of us who are Jewish, a special quandary exists. As my father would have said, it’s time to grab the bull by the tail and face the situation. We are immigrants or children of immigrants, children of the holocaust and the atomic bomb who find ourselves in a mirrored hall of multiplying modern holocausts too numerous to count or respond to. This includes the violence being done in our names in Israel/Palestine, including the violence being perpetrated on the land Herself – bulldozed orchards and abandoned villages, poisoned waterways, lethal levels of ocean pollution and the relentless double-standard of self-protection through subjugation of the perceived Other. As in prewar Europe, Rwanda, Myanmar and too many elsewheres, ecocide foretells genocide. Are we willing to accept the inevitable challenges of simultaneously protecting ourselves, our Palestinian neighbors, and the Earth?
These responses require some emotional heavy lifting to handle our personal demons, to sweep out the dusty corners of our individual psyches. It is up to us to unpack and metabolize our collective trauma, and our justifiable terror of the abyss, aware that there is an ever-finer line between our personal anguish and the utterly appropriate panic, depression, rage and despair in the face of the planetary catastrophe unfolding before us. There are no recipes for effective actions to take. No cookie cutters. No instruction manuals. No shortcuts and no guarantees. Only the internal reckoning and the responses that arise from the ashes of that reckoning. Only and above all else our love for the Earth. An unprecedented shift is needed that will reshape us into an entirely different way of being, in an entirely different relationship with the Earth and the non-human world. Everything depends on the decision to step away from the violence of Western culture. The catch is that this cannot be done while participating in it. As Terrence comes to understand, “Western mind was a miasma of denial that entered through the cracks and fissures of his being, like water seeping through rock, undermining the original structure of all things.”
Before sitting down to write this, I consulted the I Ching, a 3,000-year-old system of divination based on codified observations about the nature of change and the role of the spirit world in human lives. It is one of the more reliable sources I have found for information from ‘the beyond.’ (Total I Ching: Myths for Change, Stephen Karcher). The question I asked was: What should be the central focus of this book review for maximum impact to change behavior, including my own, in response to the climate crisis? As sometimes happens, the answer was unnervingly clear: The Context Hexagram (the field we find ourselves in) was #47, Confining/Oppression: Oppressed, restricted, exhausted, cut off; at the end of your resources… Search within to find the way out… Confining shows an old, dilapidated house or a great open mouth in which a tree is confined… It implies the threat of poverty, exhaustion, being at the end of available resources, unable to meet the challenges presenting themselves. Communication is blocked, indeed deceptive or deceitful…. However this oppression is exactly what teaches you about de, power and virtue, the power to find what is Great and rely on it. It exhausts the old and awakens you from its collective dream. This oppression also teaches the futility of anger and hatred and shows how the Way opens. The Answering Hexagram (specific response to the question) was #28, Great Traverses: Great Traverses describes your situation in terms of how to act in a time of crisis… Find what is truly important and organize yourself accordingly. The ridgepole of your house is warped and sagging. The structure of your life is in danger of collapse. But there is a creative force at work in this breakdown. The spirits will help you. This is a very great time… Hold the heart fast and take the risk. Changing line: Nine at Third The structure of your life buckles and fails, collapsing under the weight of the transition. There is nothing you can do to brace it up. The Way closes. Accept the change. See it as a sacrifice of the old.
We read, we march, we vote. We recycle, we pray, we meditate. We buy fair trade coffee and ride our bicycles. Perhaps we have solar panels or drive a Prius. And yet somewhere we know, or dread to admit that these things are not sufficient. We teeter on a threshold of change that we have not been willing to cross. Beneath our frenetic creativity lurks a chasm of sorrow for the ways we are complicit, because complicity is a form of authorization, albeit against our will. Never mind that we did not explicitly authorize permanent war, the shooting of unarmed Black people, or the fouling of the water and the air. But what are the alternatives, really, in the ways we live our lives? A few years ago, I decided to live without plastic. That lasted until I sat down at my computer. Picked up the phone. Started my car. Shall we leave our houses? Sleep outside? Run for office? Perhaps, yes to all of these. And…?
Maybe, we start with Story and Place. Author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “If you want to create an unknown reality, tell the story and see what happens.” Peacebuiling pioneer John Paul Lederach tells of how he found a way to work with the violence engulfing Northern Ireland at the time: he told a story. Sitting with partisans from both sides, he asked them to imagine a day several generations hence. It’s late, and a storm is raging outside. A little child climbs onto her grandfather’s knee and begs not to be put off to bed quite yet. “Tell me again, tell me again,” she implores. “How did The Troubles end?” The people in that room were tasked with casting themselves into a future beyond their time and looking back to tell the story of how peace came at last to Northern Ireland. And now here we are, when all will soon be lost, and every dilemma seems intractable. Might we be willing to tell ourselves a story of metamorphosis that meets the magnitude of what we are facing?
In the Native American and Indigenous prophesies of what we now call the Americas, doom was foreseen. What to make of this to guide us now? Perhaps it is as it appears: a stark warning seen by Indigenous people across a range of cultures and territory; the echo of a door slamming shut, reverberating down through the centuries. But perhaps, just perhaps, it is an invitation; the beginning of a story that is as yet incomplete. Terrence and Sandra ask themselves, “Is this the end or are we beginning again?” We must ask the same question. There may yet be time to craft a story we can live in that puts things right. But first we must stop doing harm. Then we can undertake the complex process of making amends, of exquisitely careful repair: tikkun olam at last? If we succeed, it will usher in what the I Ching calls a whole new cycle of time, one that lifts us out of the Anthropocene and into an epoch as yet unnamed. The Restoracene? The Terramoracene? From the shards of possibility scattered at our feet we can craft a story-vessel that will return us to ourselves, using words that are ripe with anguish and courage. We must emulate Sandra, who “reached out to the world with the balm of her heartbreak.” By entering Terence and Sandra’s story, we take their question to heart: “How could they possibly be well if the Earth was afflicted?”
A Rain of Night Birds provides a place to begin, or, rather, a jumping off point from which to continue. The new life becomes the story; the story calls forth a new life. Better to die trying than to sacrifice everything on the altar of convenience. Better a fragmentary map that shows us a glimpse of a future with a future, “An eagle’s perspective as well as the prairie dog’s… The invisible… included with the visible,” than an atlas showing only the road to ruin we are already on. Quickly now. We have arrived at the precipice. No turning back. If we take the leap, we will find that Sandra and Terrence, Hosteen and John, are –with us.
Cynthia Travis is a writer, photographer and documentary film-maker. Her blog, Earth Altar, features Full Moon and New Moon posts about peacebuilding, microbial alliances, earth culture and the wisdom of the breakdown (www.earth-altar.org). Her collection of essays, Riffs, Rants and Visitations is forthcoming in 2019. She lives on the Mendocino Coast.