By Mark Warren
Not so many generations ago on this North American continent, a child regularly walked to a nearby creek to slake his thirst. There he dropped to his knees, dipped a hand into the water, and drank as naturally as we sip from bottled water or a kitchen faucet. For that child, the creek was what he had. It must have seemed obvious. Water running free across the land was the world’s intended source of liquid sustenance, just as it still is today for wildlife.
Anthropologists make much of the fact that Homo sapiens learned to use a cupped hand as a ladle. When you consider predators or enemies who lay in wait by a watering hole, keeping the eyes up and alert was a safer proposition. True enough. But another profound significance can be read into this portrait at the creek’s edge. Like a supplicant encountering the object of his worship, this child was kneeling, reaching out, and connecting to the very source of his gift.
Whatever symbolic powers we may attribute to
free-flowing water, we no longer enjoy the privilege of drinking it. Not directly.
There are Cherokees in the mountains of north Georgia who still dip their hands into water, just as their ancestors did. Wallace Seabolt is one. He is a sixty-five year-old man who seems to fit the Appalachian hills well. Tall and imposing of stature with long colorless hair, Wallace is the grandson of a full-blooded Cherokee medicine woman. In the Going-to-Water ceremony he and the other Cherokees gather with him to cup their hands not to drink, but as part of a ceremony to honor Long Man for the nourishing liquid of life. Long Man is the river, stretching from mountain spring to coastal delta and including all the winding paths in between.
To the monotheistic Cherokee, Long Man was not a god, but a gift. Native people all over the world have recognized his generosity since the beginning of time. Even into the twenty-first century a few of the “old-timey” churches of Southern Appalachia still “gather at the river” for ritualistic ablutions. Think of what they are asking of Ol’ Man River: to wash away all sins, to purify, to refresh so as to be born again.
Whatever symbolic powers we may attribute to free-flowing water, we no longer enjoy the privilege of drinking it. Not directly. This in itself may be one of the greatest tragedies of our American history. Somewhere along the way, we woke up to find that our sacred waterways had become sewers or, at the very least, choked with surfeits of silt. Now we drink from a remote outpost of water dispensation–a faucet, a fountain, or a bottle.
Perhaps the most important facet of that ancient act of imbibing water in the wild was that the partaker was present at the source. That intimate place–a solution to the problem of thirst–was experienced first-hand. It is no wonder that the primitive child instinctively refused to desecrate it, even if by a thrown dirt clod or a careless arc of spit. No one had to teach him this lesson of respect, just as today we know not to sprinkle dirt into a bottle of Evian.
Imagine going back in time to ask that primitive child: Where is your water supply? Would he not point unerringly to the drinking place at the creek? Ask any urban child today. Where would he point?
When Wallace Seabolt and his tribal members reverently “go to water,” they dip their hands seven times, honoring each of the Cherokees’ cardinal directions. Bowing their heads they touch each handful of water to their foreheads and give thanks to the stream. Then they pour the water back to the Earth, a replication of the cleansing water cycle.
Wallace says, “The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. The waters murmur in the voice of my father’s father.”
There are children present at this spring-side gathering, watching their elders speak the words and perform the ritual, but these young ones are not required to take part. It is a choice. Curious about this, I ask Wallace, “How many children would you say do take part?” Without hesitation he replies, “All of them.”
Not only do the Cherokees know whence the water comes, but where it goes. “Long Man,” Wallace says, “carries our spirit to the other world. So you must give to the river the kindness you would give any brother.”
Wallace Seabolt is now retired from a life jam-packed with colorful careers–from varied military services to deputy sheriff to wildlife management–yet he remains a man who willingly contributes. He is the Chief Tribal Marshal of Court, Tribal Enrollment Clerk, and Historical Preservation Officer for the Cherokee of North Georgia. He also oversees the Yahoola Cherokee Museum in the small town of Dahlonega. Articulate and generous with his knowledge, he sat with me for hours talking about his people.
From that meeting it is clear to me that he knows more about his family history than most could ever claim. His relatives–the Red Fire People–represent that traditional sector of Georgia’s Cherokees who escaped the horrific forced removal known as the Trail of Tears. Today they live in homes and wear clothing that do not much differentiate them from their non-native neighbors, but they continue to carry a tribal creed of “balance and respect” that they pass along to their children, so that these youth will grow up fully recognizing–never forgetting–the gifts of the Earth. A case in point: Wallace’s son, James, now enjoys a career in developing irrigation systems, helping to extend the reach of Long Man to areas where he is needed.
Having visited thousands of classrooms in America–grammar schools, high schools, and colleges alike–I often ask students about the water they drink. Few know where it comes from. Without fail, elementary school students point not outside but to the sink at the back of the room or down the hall toward the nearest fountain. These same students also have no clue about electricity. The youngest tell me, of course, that it comes from a switch. If pressed to go beyond the wall plate, most often they venture these two guesses: the ocean and lightning.
As foods go, not only are most youth unaware of what part of the world certain products come from, but they are hard pressed to identify the contents of some of the concoctions they eat on a regular basis:
“Exactly what is that meat on your pizza?”
“What’s been added to the milk you drink?”
“Did you know your ‘maple syrup’ didn’t come from a tree?”
Each new generation loses a little more contact with
nature than the one before it.
When I teach about wild plants in the forest and field, I am always first to take a bite–to prove that a plant is edible. Yet the young ones are still reluctant. It takes coaxing to get that greenery into their mouths. Even then, they always ask, “Do I swallow it?” One-fourth of the kids flatly refuse, claiming that, if it comes from the outdoors, it must be dangerous.
Ask children about their clothing? More mysteries. Quiz them on their everyday tools like pencils and paper. They’ll likely have an idea about these, but their answers come from the textbook part of the head, not the heart. Once I asked high school juniors to think back to their most recent occasion of touching the cells of a tree. Everyone frowned, pondering the question, one hand holding a wooden pencil, the other resting upon a sheet of paper.
As for the rest of us, it’s not just our children who are starved of the information that ties us to our natural surroundings. All of us now wander in the dark. Each new generation loses a little more contact with nature than the one before it. How did we get to this place? The outdoors is now foreign ground to the majority. If we’re not out in it, getting our fingers in the dirt, hearing the conversation between mountain water and stone, smelling the grape-like musk of the gray fox, seeing the burst of flight of a grouse, how are we ever going to gain an appreciation for any single part of the whole? This distancing ourselves from nature is not something we set out to do. All we wanted was to get more comfortable.
On a fall day in the early 1970s I was a few miles north of Atlanta traipsing through the forests along the Chattahoochee River for the grand purpose that all naturalists pursue: to see what I could see. During a quiet interlude of sitting with an unknown herb, I worked my way through a plant identification book, hoping to learn a new species. Somewhere behind me I heard an engine. Soon I heard the whine of a truck’s reverse gear followed by the squeal of brakes.
I was next to one of the many feeder creeks that pours into the river, and I could hear by the sound that the truck had backed up to the tall embankment above me. Soon an avalanche of sundry items came tumbling down the slope, most of it hanging up on tree trunks along the declivity but some plunging all the way to the rocky creek bed. Standing I found myself staring at appliances, metal cans, cardboard boxes, discarded clothes, and black plastic bags of household garbage–all of it strewn through the forest. At the top I could see a man wearing a straw hat and coveralls looking down at me.
“Didn’ drop that on you, did I?” he yelled. “Didn’ know anybody was down there.” I shook my head and decided upon a long-distance conversation, thinking that if I handled it right, the results might be more fruitful than my simply charging up San Juan Hill like a righteous Teddy Roosevelt. “You live around here?” I called out. He frowned at the question and considered me. “Not too far.” I nodded. “Are you on city water or a well?” His frown deepened. “City.” “Do you know where that water in your house comes from?”
He was silent as he continued to stare at me. I pointed southwest toward the treatment plants some ten miles away on the river, where the city pumped out massive volumes of water, filtered it, flocked it, and chlorinated it for the million-plus population of the area.
“It comes from the Chattahoochee,” I said to him, trying for a friendly, edifying tone. Another silence followed as the man looked past me out into the woods, as if he were listening for the distant suck of pumps that fed his water pipes. “Costs too much to haul my garbage to the landfill,” he informed me.
I chose my reply carefully so as not to be dismissed as an environmental nutcase. If I had alienated him then, he might have spitefully continued his illegal dumping–only more surreptitiously–at night. I swept my hand toward the debris scattered along the hill.
Instead of each generation coming into the world a little blinder, perhaps we can reverse that.
“Maybe it costs too much not to.” I let that thought hang between us for about two beats. “How ‘bout I help you load all this up again? This sure was a pretty little creek.” I nodded downstream. “I saw some trout back there big enough to eat.”
When he made no reply, I picked up two garbage bags and started climbing. The next time I looked up he was gone. I heard the truck start. The engine gunned, the gears crunched, and the pickup pulled away. By the time I had gained the dirt road, all that was left of the encounter was the evanescent smell of exhaust. That and, of course, the truckload of trash behind me that would deteriorate here over decades. Some of it over centuries.
Did I educate? Maybe a little. Did I serve any purpose in changing a stranger’s habits? I doubt it. Was there a better way I could have handled it? Probably, but I have seldom hit upon it in similar situations. So, if there’s no good solution to this scenario, what’s the point in my story? From my generation’s annals of music, I’ll offer two memorable lines that apply. First, from Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” And last, Graham Nash: “Teach your children well.”
It’s that last lyric that gives me hope. Instead of each generation coming into the world a little blinder, perhaps we can reverse that. What if each new child entered the world to an education that unveiled the secret water pipes and electrical wires that hide inside the walls of our homes? What if they visited farms, water treatment plants, and coal-burning power plants? And most importantly, what if those field trips were comprised of small groups, where the explanations were personable and made relevant to each child? Are our schools going to do that for us? That depends on what we demand of our schools.
But what’s to stop us from teaching it ourselves? Imagine doing what Wallace Seabolt does with his fellow Cherokees. Imagine taking your child to a creek that feeds your local reservoir. Imagine the two of you kneeling, touching the water, and perhaps saying a simple “thank you” as the liquid spills from your hand back to the Earth. Imagine that.