What can we do, when we receive a message directly from the land, but respond?
For many years I’ve been working on a book manuscript, and it has been working on me.
The need to write the book came to me in a flash. It was March 2009; I was in Botswana, in the Okavango Delta (the largest inland river delta in the world) on a nine-day safari with my good friend Tamara, whose parents both grew up in South Africa (her mom descended from passengers on the first British boat to arrive in South Africa; her father from Dutch (Afrikaans) settlers 50 years earlier). Tamara returns to South Africa every couple of years to see her folks. Family friends-of-friends own and operate a guide service in the delta, and it had been a life-long dream of Tamara’s to visit this area. When she and her husband, Steve, decided to make the trip, they mentioned it to me and my partner, with the invitation that if we could get ourselves to South Africa, we could tag along on this family trip. Never ones to pass up a free African safari, we immediately committed to joining them (though it turned out to leave us in debt for a while--but that's a different story).
It was early season and we had the delta to ourselves. Every morning, we loaded up in the open-air jeep and drove around for hours through the savannah. In addition to hippos, rhinos, giraffes, baboons, and the like, of particular interest to the Walker family were the birds, and hours were spent gazing through binoculars at small and rare birds.
We were mostly silent for days on end as we drove slowly through the flat landscape of tan grasses, dotted with broad-branched trees, watching. I remember the caress of the wind on my face. The sounds of the wildlife were foreign at night, sparking strange, vivid dreams that I spent the long drives dissecting. One day very suddenly, the thought that I would write a book about the Indigenous Soul was there, fully formed, in my mind. I looked at this thought, surprised. I had never thought of doing such a thing before, and honestly, I can’t even remember specifically having heard the term in the past (though I’m sure I did—it just didn’t strike me as important enough to take notice of it). My next thought, which sparked intense anxiety and a few tears, was, “what if I don’t write that book?” The thought terrified me.
Fast-forward two years, two years in which I successfully avoided even beginning to write the book. Still, I could feel the desire, the need, grow in me. Having a spouse that’s written two books is no help in the process, let me tell you, as he couldn’t understand why I didn’t just get started. Just write a query letter, Dave said, get a contract with a publisher, and write the book—it’s not very hard! But there was something in me afraid to commit, and to begin.
Finally, after a very angst-ridden decision-making process, I decided that writing this so-called book about the “indigenous soul” (whatever that means—I found the phrase deeply problematic, to be truthful) was my top priority, and furthermore, I was going to take a full-time job in Hawai’i where I would write the book on nights and weekends. Dave thought that this plan was ridiculous—when you want to write a book, and commit to writing it in a year and half, taking a creativity-consuming, brand-new full-time job doesn’t seem like the best set-up for success.
Quickly, I learned that moving to Hawai’i was much more than tropical beaches, warm winter days, and a cool job. For me, life in Hawai’i was an extreme and daily encounter with otherness. Just as I began to intentionally and methodically explore how one develops deep and abiding connection to the world around them—how one reclaims their indigenous soul—I willfully dropped myself into a land and culture as foreign to me as any on the planet.
Hawai’i is the most isolated land mass on the planet, 2,259 miles from its closest neighbor, Alaska. I looked out across the ocean from Ka Lae (South Point), the farthest-south point in the United States, and the next land is Antarctica. To be in this remote place, I left a spouse, my entire extended family, all my friends, and flew thousands of miles miles to live in a small, rural community where I knew absolutely no one.
When I arrived, I knew the importance of learning the flora and fauna of a landscape in developing a relationship with it. I had studied the natural history of the Pacific Northwest for 15 years; I knew the plant communities and the wildlife tracks, the healing herbs, the ways the lands were formed. Moving to Hawaii, I came to a place as geologically and biologically foreign from my home as any on the planet. I had no knowledge of the plants, their uses, their families, no relationship with them. There were no native land mammals, no call of coyotes at night to make me feel at home. The birds were beautiful and exotic, and elusive—very different from the ones I knew. Their names were often Hawaiian, a language foreign to my ears and tongue and one that I would often trip over as I tries to pronounce words and names.
I took a job where I lived in a community that was primarily Native Hawaiian, where haoles (white folks, literally “without breath”) are the cultural and demographic minority. Where everywhere else I’ve lived in my life I could ignore that I was living on lands that continue to be occupied by the invading force of the US government-my government-in Hawaii the prevalence of Hawaiian culture, language, and people kept me aware that I was on lands that were not mine, where I was not invited, and which I had no claim to. In Hawaii, I could not ever forget that I am a foreigner on stolen land. The sense of disconnection and isolation I experienced there was as profoundly vast as the ocean that surrounds the raw, fiery island.
This is the challenge for many of us today: at this point in human history, we are a migrating global community. Cultures intermix, colonization reaches its tendrils around the whole planet, families cross continents, traditions get lost and forgotten. Meanwhile, we still deeply need to belong.
This is the learning journey that I’ve been on, living into these questions, for the past five years: How does one come to deeply belong to place, when they have no homeland? How does one do this honestly and rightfully, when their home is built on stolen land? Are these things even possible?
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that this idea was born out of the Okavango Delta, the homeland of the Khoi San people, where archaeological records tell us our earliest, shared human ancestors emerged. And of course the journey soon called me to Hawaii, a place where I had absolutely no roots and no claim to belong.
And that was just the beginning.