History of Me, Part 2: When Germans Met Romans

In this episode of History of Me, we take a peek at the earliest recorded accounts of “Germans” and their interactions with the Roman Empire. Intrigued? Let’s dive in

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Meet the Germani…

For this section I started off by reading the introduction and first chapter of Steve Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German Peoplefollowed by Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest.

Scene: It’s the first century BC. Caesar invades France (then known as Gaul) but mostly leaves the Germanic tribes to themselves, relying on intimidation to keep relative peace. Later after he dies Caesar Augustus (the next emperor) starts to look across the de facto border of the Rhine River toward the land occupied by “barbarians,” aka the yet unconquered Germanic tribes. A small conflict born out of misunderstanding gave Rome an excuse to invade; during the ensuing conflicts a Germanic force led by a Roman-trained Germanic commander called Arminius defeated an army of Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (also translated as the Teutoburg Pass).

I won’t talk much more about the battle in this post, but tuck Arminius’s name away for later. Both Fortress and Forest mentioned how the story of Arminius’s victory over Rome was rediscovered centuries later and became a focus point for German unification and nationalism. So I’m sure we’ll hear of him again.

As I read through the account of the battle and the history surrounding it, I loved learning more about the tribes that lived in present-day Germany/Europe before it was actually called Germany. Fun fact: just like we now call the tribes of this continent “Indians” or “Native Americans,” Romans (outside colonizers) were the first ones to call the tribes in this part of Europe “Germans” (Germani). (NOTE: There is much disagreement about where this name comes from, so the meaning is uncertain.)

A map of some of the tribes that made up “Germania” around the turn of the calendar (100 BC – 300 AD ish)

Steven Ozment notes that “at this time [ca. 100-0 BC] the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, ‘loose and shifting amalgams of peoples,’ who formed no coherent Germanic front” (p.17). I also found it interesting that of the tribes who had strong identities at this point, some like “the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths” (p.17). This actually shows the connection between the ancestral/mythical stories of the previous post and the Germanic tribes recorded here. Like many other peoples, Germanic tribes and leaders found ways to connect their stories to the lineage of the gods by making the gods their ancestors.

The Empire’s bargain…

Even more than the battle, though, the really compelling thing for me about these stories was reading about how the Roman Empire functioned.

Both Fortress and Forest went to great lengths to set the scene and describe what it was like to be a barbarian tribe (or just a barbarian) in the world of Rome. Here are some illustrative passages:

Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays [across the Rhine] and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. … Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. (Ozment p.19, emphasis added)

The Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world… (Ozment p.20, emphasis added)

Rome promoted leading tribal leaders within Rome’s imperial aristocracy. By recognizing certain chiefs as allies, barbarians were flattered into becoming emissaries for the Roman way of life. It was a practice that first bound them to Rome, then made them dependent on her. (Forest p. 79, emphasis added)

Basically, the Romans came in with their giant empire and their power and their wealth and their military organization and offered tribes (or at least, tribal leaders) a bargain. If they pledged loyalty to Rome, and adopted Roman culture and Roman religion (aka emperor-worship – Romans connected themselves to their gods, too), they would receive power and wealth and move up in Roman society. (And of course, there’s the elephant in the room of “or else.”)

The problem, of course, was that even if they gave up everything that made them “Germanic”, there was only so far they could advance in Roman society. Even Germans or other barbarians who climbed high enough to achieve Roman citizenship still faced barriers:

Citizenship gave affiliated tribes the same legal protections and rights as native-born Italians. Yet, despite acculturation and success, Romanized barbarians, whether Africans, Germans, or Jews, could still find themselves treated as inferiors in the imperial city. That was especially true of the first generation to undergo assimilation. And while the Roman senate looked on tribal elites as occupying the same high position in native societies that senators held in Rome, there was no thought of parity between Roman and barbarian…. While social acceptance might come after full Latin fluency and the fading of native languages and customs, the transplanted barbarian was often, in the Roman perception, a “hyphenated” Roman…. (Ozment p.24)

So cooperating Germanic tribes/leaders gave up their culture, their community, their traditions, their languages, and sometimes their homes — all for a chance to play a game that they couldn’t win, because Romans would always be superior – but at least they got a piece of the pie, and could hope that their less-German, more-Roman children could climb higher than they.

Sound at all familiar? I thought it did, when I heard Pastor Ebony Adedayo, one of the pastors at my church, preaching last Sunday about how white supremacy was created in this country by dividing poor whites from poor/enslaved blacks:

Forsaking language, culture, and history, the newly created white race exchanged its identity for a baseless lie. And the only thing that remained was the lie, or rather the notion that whites were superior to everyone else. In order to preserve that lie, people, politicians, people in high places have gone to great lengths to dehumanize themselves to the extent that it is extremely daunting task to find our way out of it. Not impossible, but daunting.

(You can listen to the full sermon here. Highly recommended!)

Reading all this about the Romans coming to Germania was super eerie for me, because if I change the nouns it morphs into the history of this country — first what was imposed on indigenous tribes here, and then what was also enforced on later immigrants. Give up your tribal/cultural identity in exchange for power and/or survival. Be held back by your “hyphenated” status — until, for my ancestors, their light skin and distance from their “ethnic” past enabled their children to dissolve into whiteness. Or, as the author of Teutoburg Forest puts it: intimidate, conquer, assimilate.

A note about forests versus farms…

When faced with Roman threats (or enticements) of “assimilate or else”, some tribes resisted. Some were conquered. The significance of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest is that it, along with several other battles over the following years, sufficiently delayed the Romans so that their empire and army was too far-flung to fully conquer Germany. They ended up pretty much keeping to the west/south of the Rhine River, and while the tribes to the north/east did trade and integrate with Romans, they were never forcibly conquered. (And in fact later, Germanic tribes ended up overrunning and taking over much of the Roman Empire… but I’m guessing that’s for another post!)

Notice the dotted line — Rome never extended beyond the Rhine into Germania.

But one of the significant downstream effects of this Rhine border being held is that it reinforced the existing regional differences in Europe/Germany:

The battle also reinforced another effect, one less tangible, but one that has had a profound psychological and social impact on Europe and is still being felt today. It confirmed the fault-line between north and south. History could now be used to back up long-held prejudices. [As one historian wrote:] “The slaughter in the Teutoburg Forest divided Europe into the warm south, who forever saw forests as dreadful places to be avoided and cleared, homes to dragons and trolls, antitheses of the civilized city, and the north, who understood [forests] to be healing, protecting, mystical, spiritual places. How you feel about a silent birch forest at twilight says more about your blood and your kin than your passport. (Forest p.7)

We can see how this lays the groundwork for the process of Christianity later sweeping through the wealthier urban centers in the south and pushing Norse stories and traditions north, to the outskirts and the forests, where Snorri Sturleson finally wrote them down a thousand years later in the Edda. I’m interested to keep an eye out now for farm vs. forest and that north/south dynamic as we continue through this project.

Conclusion

I didn’t really expect things to get emotional this quickly, but it was actually really hard for me to read the parts about the tribes taking the Roman bargain, becoming co-opted into the empire, and giving up their ways in exchange for power, money, and influence. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “No, don’t do it! You don’t know what it’s like to be rootless, without traditions or stories!” But of course, that was 2000 years ago, and now I just have to deal with the choices they made.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they had much of a choice. (Though I’m sure some were more eager to sell out for influence than others.) Given the threat of Rome, I might have made the same decision in their place. Survival is primal, instinctual. But knowing they probably tried to make the best choice they could doesn’t take away my sadness that they took the first step toward losing something beautiful that I wish I could have back.

This, to me, is why Empire (which we talk about a lot at our church) is a perfect analogy for much that is wrong with the world and with how humans treat one another. Rome started this power-grabbing bargain on a large scale millennia ago — they figured out how to systematize power-mongering with their never-ending war-to-captive-to-citizen machine — and it’s kept going and going ever since, and we’re still doing it today. Personal advancement trumps the community. The power game has never stopped.

Anyway, this section has really felt to me like peering into a mirror or a pool and watching a past mistake. (“Noooo Isildor, throw the Ring into the fire!!!”) I know I have some grief and probably even some anger about it. But I’m still glad to have read it, because as Pastor Ebony says, it’s daunting to find a way out – but not impossible. Looking forward to continuing my search.

Tune in next time for a look at the coming of Christianity and The Barbarian Conversion (as well as Mists of Avalon for a fictionalized perspective). 

Interlude: What Counts as “German”?

Hi folks!

After reading my last post about Norse mythology, my husband said “Norse? That’s like Scandinavian, right? But I thought you were German!” So I wanted to post a brief explanation about that question and talk about how I’ve chosen to approach the issue of what to include in my “German” reading project.

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Bad News: No “German” Myths

The reason I chose to read about Norse mythology for this project is that, well, there really isn’t much specifically “German” mythology left — that’s the bad news.

The main reason is that Christianity took root in some places (including most of what is now Germany) before the local stories and beliefs could be written down. H. R. Ellis Davidson fills us in:

By the time the great nations emerged, and men thought of Anglo-Saxon England or Merovingian France as established powers, most of the Germanic peoples had given up their heathen beliefs and adopted Christianity.

… In Scandinavia the new Church was much longer gaining a foothold. Not until the tenth and eleventh centuries were the people of Norway converted….

Thus we see why we can learn comparatively little about the heathen myths from England and Germany, where Christianity was established early. We have to turn for information to Scandinavia, where a vigorous heathen population flourished for centuries after Augustine sailed for Kent…. (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, p.11-12)

So by about 1000 AD, most of Europe was converted to Christianity, other than a few scattered pockets. (I’ll read more about that process later.) Around 200 years after that, Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar who wanted to preserve the great poetic tradition of the scaldic (Norse) storytellers before it was wiped out, wrote The Prose Edda, which is the most complete compendium of these stories that we have today. So European indigenous beliefs’ most complete surviving iteration is Norse, because they were in Iceland when they were finally written down.

The Good News: It’s All Norse to Me

The good news in terms of my reading project is that Germanic mythology, based on what we know of it, was similar to and interwoven with Norse mythology. As I mentioned in my last post, Odin was called Wodan in the Germanic tradition. So when we read Norse myths, we’re really reading versions of German/Germanic myths.

Picture this as a comparison: imagine Greek and Roman mythology as we know it today — except that Greek folks never wrote their stories down, but Romans did. What would we still know today? Probably we would refer to all the gods by their Roman names, and while a few Greek names would be known, the most complete version of the pantheon would be Roman. BUT, a lot of the elements would still be the same. That’s basically the state of German mythology — gone before being recorded, but preserved in a “cousin” Norse form by an Icelandic historian.

So, What Does This Mean?

I hope this helps to cast a little more light on the challenge of “rediscovering” ancient German/Germanic culture and story. But honestly, though it may seem a little contrived to put all these seemingly disparate pieces together, I think it’s more authentic this way. Because ancient “Germans” didn’t live in a vacuum of only German folks — they interacted and intermarried with people around them. Norse mythology isn’t tied up in a neat little package — it’s messy. Different gods and goddesses evolve and mesh into each other. Stories change or contradict each other. Elements get borrowed from neighbors (such as a Norse myth featuring a huge cauldron, which is a common symbol in the mythology of the Celts across the sea in what is now Britain).

The point is, I’ve done my best to assemble things that help me imagine and connect with what we know about the stories of ancient Europeans. If I can’t find something about people who lived in my ancestors’ specific birthplaces, that’s okay — because the idea is to begin to understand the mindset, the spirit, and the connection to the land, not get every exact detail right. Even hearing creation stories from my Anishinaabe and Dakota relatives helps me begin to learn these things — and that’s not even the same continent! — so I can certainly learn important lessons from some Swedes and Celts. 🙂

Anyway, I hope this helps to lay out some more of my thought process as I look back in time and space. I’ll be reading some more Scandinavian books, as well as at least one book based in Celtic story, so we will have plenty of opportunities to practice putting the pieces together to better understand the stories of ancient Germanic peoples.

 

History of Me, Part 1: A Journey through the Nine Worlds of Norse Myth

In this episode of History of Me, I read lots of books about Norse mythology and try to understand the psyche of Pre-Christian Europeans. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

(P.S. If you are wondering why I’m reading Norse mythology and not German mythology, check out this brief note on what counts as “German” for this project!)

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Opening the Word-Hoard*

Okay team, I ended up reading four different books for this section. Here’s the low-down:

  • First I read Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Davidson) — which I actually really enjoyed! I LOVED learning about some of the ancient mythological types (e.g. the weeping maiden, the wounded/dying god) and seeing how they come up in Norse as well as Celtic and other myths. But it’s very academic, and while I learned a lot I was more interested in reading the actual stories themselves. So…
  • Then I read The Poetic Edda (which, I discovered, is NOT the same as The Prose Edda — it’s an entirely different document, not just a different translation). It contains some myths and some sagas about human heroes. I was glad to finally read some stories — and I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below — but the translation style was a bit hard for me to connect with. SO…
  • I found The Norse Myths (Crossley-Holland), which is basically re-tellings of ancient Norse myths (mostly ones in both the Eddas). The great part is, they’re geared to be read by kids, but there are EXTENSIVE notes on the source material, differing story versions, etc. Basically awesome!
  • I also read Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in hopes of adding a Slavic perspective… it didn’t really work, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.

Got all that? Clear as mud? Okay, great.

Odin and Freya and Thor – oh my!

I have to say, I LOVED my adventure into the world of Norse mythology. Being pretty knowledgeable (aka nerdy!) about both Greek mythology and Bible stories, it was really interesting to read through stories of the Norse pantheon and see both similar and differing themes.

I won’t go through the whole pantheon — for that you can review Wikipedia, or just read The Norse Myths! (which I do highly recommend) — but I’ll say a bit about my favorite “characters”: Odin, the Norns, and Yggdrasil.

Odin (aka Wodan, in the Anglo-Saxon version) is the “Allfather” — the leader of the gods (think Zeus) and the father of Thor. He’s known for his craftiness, wisdom, mysteriousness, poetry, unpredictability, and association with death, and is one of the few male gods associated with magic. (Lots of the magic folks in these myths are women, seeresses known as volva, including Freyja, the most prominent goddess.) I picture Odin as a rather dark, brooding figure — he had only one eye (he sacrificed one in exchange for the mead of poetry) and he was often to be found with his two ravens, Thought and Memory. Odin is the god of lots of things — but my favorite part is the mysterious knowledge bit (aka the Ravenclaw bit…). Odin is also really clever and enjoys messing with Thor, to the audience’s hilarity (I’ll come back to this later).

The Norns are mysterious, magical women who weave and decide the fate of every mortal and god — similar to the Greek Fates. I have always liked the Fates, so I loved reading about the Norns as well. Their main duty is measuring out people’s destinies — but they were also invoked in childbirth and function essentially as matriarchal protectors. I also love that part of their job is to tend to Yggdrasil, the world tree (see below).

Yggdrasil is an ash tree that provides the structure for the entire universe, comprised of nine worlds strewn about its branches and roots. Here, perhaps, is where I get my love of trees, since according to the Norse the entire world is built around a massive, god-like tree. (In fact, for a long time it was the custom for Europeans to have a “guardian tree” standing beside the house, perhaps as an echo of Yggdrasil’s embrace of the worlds.) There are also all manner of creatures that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, including deer that nibble its branches and a squirrel that runs up and down taking messages from the dragon in Hel to the eagle perched at the top.

Norse Cultural Values 101

For quite some time I’ve joked about traits in my family  (such as stubbornness, stoicism, etc.) that I feel are “typically German.” But it was really interesting to see some of those traits appear in these stories as “typically Norse.” Here are the cultural values that stuck out the most in these myths and stories.

Resilience / Fatalism

One of the most interesting things to me was the Norse conception of fate and human free will. Throughout the stories, all people and even the gods are subject to the fate set out for them: eventual destruction at Ragnarok, the last battle before the end and rebirth of the world. As Kevin Crossley-Holland points out, this is likely at least somewhat influenced by the harshness of Viking life, especially farther north:

We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas [non-god stories], the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next…; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths — a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. (p.xvii)

So probably, long cold winters a resigned Norseman make. However, As H. R. Ellis Davidson writes,

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. (qtd. in Crossley-Holland, p.xx)

To me this is incredibly profound and beautiful.

The Viking belief in the pre-determination of one’s fate also lent itself to the desire for fame and glory while alive.

No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns [basically the Norse version of the Fates] who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. (Crossley-Holland, p.xix, emphasis added)

Here, in my view, is where I inherited my strongly independent streak (some might say pig-headed…). When your fate and even the day of your death is already set, you exercise as much agency as possible while you can.

Humor and cleverness

One way that Norse folks dealt with harsh climates and uncertain but unchangeable fate was to laugh. This is present throughout many of these stories, as gods found themselves in humorous positions or used their cleverness to try to outwit each other (or some giants, who were always quarreling with the gods). Clearly Vikings appreciated a quick wit and a hearty guffaw.

For example, in one story the gods are trying to trick the wolf Fenrir into “seeing if he can escape” from a chain, which is actually intended to bind him until Ragnarok (at which point he will kill Odin and swallow the sun, so no big deal). Fenrir, seeing how this might be a trap, agrees to be chained on the condition that one of the gods put a hand between his jaws as insurance. The “bravest god Tyr” volunteers… and when Fenrir is, of course, bound, sure enough he snaps his jaws and there goes Tyr’s hand. What’s telling is the final line of the scene: “The other gods laughed, they knew that Fenrir was bound at last. They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand” (Crossley-Holland p.36). I mean, what a punchline, right?? It reminds me of the joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. …Then the game is Find The Eye.” These sorts of dry gallows humor lines are dotted all throughout the stories.

(Another favorite in this vein is what amounts to an epic rap battle between Odin and Thor, where Thor is trying to cross a river but Odin, disguised as the ferryman, refuses to ferry him and instead insults him until he gives up and walks around instead. LOL!)

Sadness / Emotional expression

I was kind of expecting the tough-it-out stoicism, and maybe even the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger humor, but what I was not expecting to find in these stories was an incredible range and depth of emotion.

My favorite story from the Poetic Edda is a series of poems that comprise the story of Sigurd (aka Siegfried), which is the basis for Wagner’s Ring cycle opera. First of all, it was really cool to have two women feature as basically the main characters of this ongoing saga. But the part that stuck out most to me was the part of the story called “The First Lay [poem/story] of Gudrun”. In it, Gudrun is dealing with the death of her husband, Sigurd. But her grief is so great that “Gudrun could not weep” (p.177). The structure of this story felt a lot like the biblical book of Job — various friends come and tell her sad stories to try to get her to cry and mourn appropriately — but she doesn’t. In the end, a friend realizes that Gudrun needs to process and grieve in her own way, and takes her to see the body of her husband laid out for the funeral.

Gudrun looked at him one time only;
she saw the prince’s hair running with blood,
the bright eyes of the lord grown dim,
the prince’s breast scored by the sword.

Then Gudrun knelt, leaning on the pillow;
loosened her hair, scratched her cheeks,
and drops like rain ran down to her knees. (p.179 vv.14-15)

Once the dam breaks, Gudrun, who has been silent to this point, talks for stanzas about her grief and missing her beloved husband. You can see it’s very raw:

So was my Sigurd, beside the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
as if a leek were grown up out of the grass,
or a bright stone were threaded onto a string,
a precious gem, among the nobles.

I thought myself also, among the prince’s warriors,
to be higher than all of Odin’s ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows at the death of the prince.

I miss in his seat and in my bed
my friend to talk to… (p.179 vv.18-20)

There’s a really beautiful, honest simplicity here — and I found this kind of emotional present-ness to be common among these stories. The Norse myths  — and by extension, presumably, the Norse — are not afraid of pain, or hardship, or loss, or messiness. There’s also a whole story where Balder, one of Odin’s sons and the kind, well-loved god of mercy and peace, is killed and the sadness is palpable during his funeral scene — and this is all the gods gathering! So the fact that not only the (female) protagonists but also the gods can express joy, sorrow, anger, and the whole gamut of emotion frankly is really refreshing.

A brief note about that fairy tale book…

Oh yeah — about that Czechoslovak book I read… yeah, I was hoping it would give a Slavic perspective on the Norse mythology stuff, but basically that didn’t work because as I read it was clear that these stories were from wayyyyy later, probably in or after the medieval period. (The stories in the Prose Edda, by contrast, were written down around 1100 but were told orally for centuries before that.) Very clearly Christianized. Which is fine, but doesn’t jive with the time period (Pre-Christian) that I was looking at this week.

Interestingly enough, most of them deal with money/economics — such as a really poor son finding a magician who helps make him rich and marry a princess, poof, the end. So I’m choosing to read them as medieval stories that helped poor peasants survive hard lives (escapism), and I will keep them in mind for when my reading list arrives at the Middle Ages.

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction to this project, to me stories are the best way to understand — like emotionally connect with and get — the culture of a people. I feel like I’ve just drunk from the firehose of Norse/Germanic story and I can tell that I’m still deeply processing some of these things at a level that doesn’t really translate into words, but I also feel like there are wisps and snippets where I’ve had flashes of “got it”.

When I finished reading Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, all I could think of was this song I sang when I was in choir — it’s called the Corpus Christi Carol — the text is believed to have been written in the 1500s, but I think this modern arrangement beautifully captures and touches the sense of mystery and ancient mythological types (a grove of trees, the weeping maiden, the wounded knight, the falcon) that are floating around in my rock tumbler of a brain right now. Take a look! (And read along with the lyrics here if you want.)

Overall, I feel that I’ve begun my reading journey with a good sense of groundedness and ancientness. I feel like now I know something of what the Norse psyche may have been like, and all these ideas about Viking values and culture will be a good foundation for the rest of the project.

Next up: We’ll dive into the earliest recorded history of “Germania” — contact with Rome circa the birth of Christ. (See reading plan here.)

*P.S. “Opening the word hoard” is a real phrase from these myths — it also appears in some translations of Beowulf. It’s kind of the best! 🙂

The History of Me: My Next Project Begins

At the end of my last reading project, I said that I had an idea for another project and would be telling you about it soon. Well, that was almost exactly one year ago… and I’m finally ready to embark on my next project. But first — a little context.

Where am I?

When I first began doing this reading-blogging-project thing, it was kind of a fluke. I accidentally stacked two books together, realized they happened concurrently, and decided to take it as an opportunity to continue my education on the true history of the Native peoples of this land and how this country came to be. I learned a lot about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation and why it’s important that we admit and honor the truth, even if it’s painful.

Then, I got curious about the land itself — while European invaders and settlers killed and stole their way to pushing the Native peoples out of their homes, what was happening in the eco-realm? The answer I found was that imperialism and destruction happened on both a human level and an environmental level, as settlers tried to literally recreate Europe in both culture and ecology.

These two reading projects answered questions I had about the historical, cultural, and ecological context in which I find myself today, as a Euro-American resident where the Plains and the forests meet. What I learned helped me to know my location — in time, in space, in culture.

But all of these questions and answers just led me to another question.

How did I get here?

Now that I know roughly my sociopolitical and geographical location — now that I’ve surveyed the landscape — what I most want to know is, how did I get here?

I’m just like the plants I read about in Changes in the Land — a European flower, growing here in space cleared by violence and colonization, but also brought here on a specific journey. How did I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, a German/Slovak Lutheran-raised woman, get all the way over here to Dakota/Ojibwe country at the start of the 21st century? Where do I come from? Who are my people? What have they weathered, what have they lost or gained, and what do they pass down to me — both good and bad?

I’ve learned a lot more about the story of this land and its people — and now I want to learn more about the story of the land my people came from before they planted themselves — and me — here.

The Plan

Over the past year, I’ve begun to dive into family history research, based mostly on the incredibly in-depth work of several other genealogically-inclined relatives in several of my family tree branches. As such, I’ve identified five places that (I think) are where my great-grandparents (or their parents) lived before they immigrated to the US.

Great-Grandparents Map v2

  1. Pellworm, Nordfriesland, Germany: Small island home of my mother’s mother’s mother (nee Clausen) and her ancestors going back as far as anyone knows. This is the closest thing I have to a home land place.
  2. Hannover (or Hanover), Lower Saxony, Germany: A fishing town that has been at the center of several kingdoms and was the home of both my mother’s father’s father’s family (Hillmer) and mother’s mother’s father’s family (Heldt), which is pretty funny, since my grandparents met and married in northwest Iowa.
  3. Lachen, Switzerland: A rural, mostly German-speaking town near Zurich at the base of a long lake (hence the name) that was the home to my mother’s father’s mother’s family. (My great-grandmother was only half Swiss, which makes me — if my math is right — 1/16 Swiss. So I won’t spend much reading time on Switzerland specifically.)
  4. Treten, Kreis Rummelsberg, Prussia (now Dretyn, Poland): A small farming town that’s traded political hands quite a few times, and is home to my father’s father’s mother’s family (Schwichtenberg) as well as my father’s father’s father’s family (Schulz).  It was part of Prussia when they left there — now it’s well within the borders of Poland.
  5. Brezno, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia): Nestled in the Lower Tatra Mountains, Brezno and its neighboring towns were the home of both of my father’s mother’s parents, though they didn’t marry until they had both migrated to the US. My grandma was full Slovak — and I’m 1/4 — so I have sprinkled in a few specific resources about Slovakia and the Slavs throughout this project.

Since these places are scattered across mostly Western Europe — though focused in Germany — I’ll be reading a mix of books focused on both Germany and Europe at large throughout the centuries. Here’s my schedule:

HoM Reading Plan v2

Since I now have a full-time job (which I didn’t when I did my last two reading projects), I’ve spread the reading out to one group per month, rather than per week. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay on track.

As a fun bonus… if I stay on schedule, I will finish this reading project right before my family and I go on a family history trip to Germany/Europe to visit the cities I’ve marked on the map above!!! I’ve been researching and preparing for this project for over a year now, so I’m SUPER excited to get going and prep for our trip, which I’m sure will be very emotional for me, especially since two of my grandparents (my mom’s parents) just passed away last summer. Family history has become a lot more personal for me now.

A Disclaimer, and a Hope

Before I really get into this project, I want to be clear: I’m not really a German person. Or a Slovak person. Or a European person. I don’t speak German, I have a single “ethnic” recipe from my Slovak grandma, and even the most recent of immigrants in my family died before I was even born. Digging back into the roots of my ethnos (people group) will not suddenly make me understand the land, or turn me into an indigenous person, or bring my grandparents back, or answer all the questions I have about who I am and where I come from. As a friend reminded me when I was wrestling with some of these questions, “Germany” is a set of lines on a map, not an actual place, and reading about it won’t restore the stories of my particular ancestors. Europe is a big place, political boundaries change, and for all I know I could be genetically part Italian or Asian or Russian. There is a strong temptation for me (and, I think, for many white folks) to use rediscovering my heritage as an escape. But I can’t turn back time and flee my complicity in American whiteness and become “German” again. (And, especially because what I’d be fleeing to is Germanness, I’m particularly aware that all identities come with their own complicities and responsibilities.)

The purpose of my reading quest is NOT to nail down all the answers, or to return to some idyllic vision of “the way it was.” I know even before I begin to read that my family’s past in Europe was not idyllic, and what has been lost to the sands of the time is comprised as much of pain as of joy.

My goal is simply what it has been the last two reading projects: to emotionally engage with and attempt to understand and walk alongside the stories of a place. In this case, the place where the known stories of my family begin.

I’ve learned from both the Bible (which is full of powerful and complex stories) and the example of Native leaders in my life the immense, immeasurable power of storytelling. So now, I will read stories of Europe and of the place sometimes called Germany — because stories, like rivers, lay down layers of sediment on a place. I hope that digging my toes into each fertile layer will help me understand more about where my family once was rooted, why they chose to leave, and how I can grow my own roots here in another land.


A Note about Whiteness: I want to be super clear about the context and goals of this reading project, because I recognize (and was recently reminded) that white folks investigating their heritage can sometimes go to a really dark, violent place. So this is me being very clear:

I am looking into German/Germanic/European history and culture as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. I denounce and repent of the ideology of white supremacy and all its works and all its ways.

Moving forward, I will be posting a shortened version of this note/disclaimer on each post in this project. If something I write seems to be teetering on the borderline, PLEASE leave a comment or message me in some way. I want to be accountable to do this in a way that deconstructs whiteness, not reinforces it.

For more context on how I’m hoping to approach this, check out this super excellent article on differentiating between whiteness and individual European cultures.


P.S. Here are links to the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to follow along.

Little House, Wounded Knee: Beginning the Journey Toward “Un-Settlement”

NOTE: This post was originally written for and published in the January 2017 edition of the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries Newsletter. It was also read aloud at a September2016 church service at Church of All Nations (the recording is archived here).


I learned to read books when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology.

little house prairieBy first grade, I was hooked on my first big chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

According to my mother, I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. A book-tent on my face.)

I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. I loved that she was a tomboy who hated bonnets and dresses — just like me. Even as I grew older, I loved to follow along with the Ingalls family’s migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times, too.

Time passed. I went to college, got busier, wrote papers, got jobs, didn’t have much time for pleasure reading anymore.

Then, a few years ago, I was reorganizing my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved when I was seven. It had been 10 or 15 years since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

bury-my-heart-at-wounded-knee-dee-brownBut as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books lay Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

Ding! A lightbulb went on as I realized these two books happened at the same time.

Although what I remembered about Laura’s story was kind and fun-loving Pa, sibling love and rivalry, and the courtship of Laura and Almanzo, all of those beloved pioneer-enshrined events on the prairie happened during a largely unmentioned backdrop of Indian dispossession and genocide, black enslavement and migration, and even the Civil War!

I decided that, while I would reread the Little House books, this time would be different.

And so I began a project that spanned almost a year from conception to completion, in which I read the Little House novels in their historical context. I plotted the chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (which proceed chronologically from 1838 to 1890, each focusing on a different Indian nation) and the books of Little House (which take place from 1866-1890) on a single timeline and added relevant historical events of the time. Then, since the Little House books are written for children, I searched for other historical children’s novels to help fill in some of the gaps in the timeline. Here’s the reading schedule I came up with:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

Thus began my Little House / Wounded Knee project. Over the next months, I read my reading each week and blogged my thoughts and analysis before moving on to the next assignment. I began with my childhood nostalgia still partially intact, but as the weeks progressed I began to shift my perspective from my Eurocentric view of “westward expansion” to a view of history that “faced east,” as Dee Brown says in his book’s introduction.

Today, so much white nostalgia is focused on “the good old days” when times were “simpler” and things were “better”. But as I discovered, the only reason these nostalgic white daydreams persist is because much of white America is ignorant of what “the good old days” were actually like. We reminisce about stories of our hardworking immigrant forebears, proud of their grit and perseverance. And it’s not that they weren’t determined or hardworking. But we are blisteringly unaware of the fact that our stories — the stories of white America — are told in total isolation, completely divorced from the concurrent stories of indigenous peoples (let alone black and brown immigrants, enslaved people, and settlers).

wisconsin Native tribes wLauraEven from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s very first book — Little House in the Big Woods — the disconnect is apparent. This book takes place a couple-hour drive from my house. So I did a little research to see where Laura’s cabin in the woods was on a map.

You can see that the Big Woods were already quite full of (Native) inhabitants — and yet the following is how Wilder begins book one in her Little House series:

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. (Little House in the Big Woods, p.1-2, emphasis added)

It’s literally the FIRST PAGE of the book, and already Wilder has erased at least five Indian nations and thousands of people from existence.

Honestly, it kind of gave me whiplash; I could hardly believe the casual ease with which Wilder simply writes “there were no people”. I could feel the violence in that statement when I read it. Because here’s the truth behind that casual opening paragraph: the Dakota were tricked into signing away their lands after which they were rounded up, starved, cheated, imprisoned in a camp, hanged in Mankato, bounty hunted for their scalps, and forced into a tiny, barren reservation where many of them died before the survivors were legally expelled from the state of Minnesota (a law that is still on the books today). So, there WERE people. But many were killed and “relocated” so that families like Laura’s could be given “free land.”

That all took place from about 1852 to 1863. Laura‘s older sister Mary was born in their Big Woods cabin in 1865, followed by Laura in 1867, which means the Ingalls were there no more than two years after the Dakota were forced out. That totally blew my mind. And 1867 — Laura’s birth year — is the same year that the renowned Red Cloud and the Lakota were resisting white invasion and persuasion further west. And yet, none of this is mentioned, or even alluded to, in Wilder’s Big Woods. There is an enormous blind spot in how this story is being told, because the reader has NO IDEA how the Ingalls got there. They’re just there.

As I continued through my reading list, I began to see these two narratives — that of the settler and that of the indigenous community — side by side.

Where before I only saw the “westward ho” adventures of the intrepid Ingalls family, now I also saw the uprootedness and disconnection of the “pioneer spirit” embedded in the founding DNA of this country.

I saw the entire story oozing with Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, treating the land as an empty place upon which European settlers “improved” — as Almanzo’s father says in Farmer Boy, “[America is] the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son” (p.188-9).

I saw the parallels between the way settlers treated the indigenous peoples and the indigenous ecosystems, as alluded to when Almanzo explains to Laura about the tree claim on his homestead. “These government experts have got it all planned. … They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be…. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back East” (These Happy Golden Years, p.170-1). (This quote spawned my next reading project, “Imperial Geography,” about the impact of white settlement on the land and ecosystems of Turtle Island.)

I also saw the violent disregard for indigenous humanity passed on in these “children’s” books — from less obvious little things, like constantly describing Indians as “savage,” “wild,” “yelping,” “yipping,” and “terrible,” to more apparent giveaways, such as including the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” no fewer than three times in a book whose protagonist is a four-year-old. (Side note: this phrase misquotes American Army General Sheridan, who originated the phrase when the Cheyenne survivors of two massacres cautiously approached his camp identifying themselves as “good Indians,” to which Sheridan famously replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” [Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, p. 170].)

As I delved deeper and deeper into the ugly, violent, and atrocity-filled history of American Indian “removal”, I began to be really angry at Laura Ingalls Wilder and the culture in this country that continues to think her books are good reading for children. These books are VIOLENT. They erase and dehumanize an entire CULTURE. They persistently portray Indians as subhuman and savage, and they portray a blackface minstrel show as a jolly evening of entertainment.

At first I thought, no one should ever read these books! But the more I sat on it, the more I thought the opposite: everyone — especially white Americans — should read these books, but with a critical eye. Because these stories of Ma and Pa and eking out a living on the “wide open prairie” are inextricably wound up in the mythology of this country.

We still believe this country is founded on lofty ideals, even though it’s actually founded on theft, murder, and slavery. We still believe that the mainstream white narrative is the truest and most important story. We still believe that we can make our country better by using and consuming the land, that we improve the land by our efforts. We still believe that the stories of black, brown, and Native communities are ancillary appendices that we can choose to leave out and not miss much.

These are blatant and harmful lies.

Mark Charles, a Navajo pastor, speaker, and blogger, often speaks of the need for a common memory before the people here in this land can attempt reconciliation. And if white America is ever going to move forward in the effort toward racial justice and healing, we need to take a long, hard look at the stories we tell ourselves about the way things used to be. We need to mend the rift in the stories we tell, stitch back together the narratives of the settlers and the indigenous peoples, and look with honest eyes on the tall tales of our pioneer heritage. We need to let go of our nostalgia for a time that never was and instead begin the process of undoing what we have done, of pulling up our stakes, of beginning to be “un-settlers” in a land not our own.

—–

Rebekah Schulz-Jackson lives in Minneapolis with her husband and housemates and works toward unsettled-ness with the beautiful community at Church of All Nations. You can read more about the Little House / Wounded Knee project at thesjs.com/littlehousewoundedknee.

If you’re interested in Rebekah’s reading list, here is a full list of all books/articles she read:

  • Little House on the Prairie boxed set of original 9-book series (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Dee Brown)
  • The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung, A Chinese Miner (Laurence Yep)
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs)
  • Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past (Diane Wilson)
  • Emancipation Proclamation; Gettysburg Address (Abraham Lincoln; found online)
  • I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl (Joyce Hansen)
  • The Journal of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy (Walter Dean Myers)
  • Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West (Lillian Schlissel)
  • My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl (Ann Rinaldi)
    **Do not read this book without also reading Debbie Reese’s review of this book, found on her excellent blog, American Indian Children’s Literature.
  • As Long as the Rivers Flow (Larry Loyie)
  • The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee (all by Louise Erdrich)

7 Reasons I’m TOTALLY a Music Nerd

I took this random internet quiz recently that was supposed to tell you “what kind of nerd are you”. I was expecting, of course, to answer questions about math and Star Wars/Trek and anime — but what I didn’t expect was a ton of questions about music, or that my music nerdiness would rank pretty high!

I was kind of surprised at first… but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’m a TOTAL music/choir nerd. And here are 7 reasons to prove it…

1. I get realllll cranky about flat singing.

The most recently famous instance, of course, is Idina Menzel’s ear-shattering “high” note during a live performance of “Let It Go” on New Year’s Eve 2015.

We had the TV on during our family card games and I literally FLINCHED when she hit (or didn’t hit) that high note. Seriously. I like have a bodily trauma memory of that event. It will be forever emblazoned in my soul. I wince just thinking about it.

WARNING: This is a PAINFUL video… for a music nerd.

(For the record — I do feel bad for Idina Menzel. I know it was cold, and that’s a high note, and belting is SO hard on the voice, and everybody makes mistakes, and it sucks that hers was really public… but that doesn’t erase my ear-trauma. Sorry, Idina.)

 

2. I went to a college with a Lutheran Choral Tradition.

g choir robes padres

Yep, that’s me rocking my big fancy choir robes like it’s 1699… no big deal. We’re just a big deal. #GustavusChoirRules #StOlafDrools

P.S. Those are my awesome parents. They know that being a #musicnerd is where it’s at. (They both did music at Lutheran Choral Tradition colleges, too!) 😉

 

3. The ONLY video I’ve uploaded to YouTube is “Snippet of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom'”.

Yeah… I think that pretty much speaks for itself.

…But really — it’s BEAUTIFUL! Gives me chills every time! Just listen!

P.S. Shout-out to my sister, who’s in that big swath of Gustavus choir altos somewhere. =)

 

4. I can totally rock the solfege.

solfege.jpg

Also known as solfeggio in Italian, this is the do-re-mi names for the main scales in Western music.

And yes, I can do do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do OR do-ti-la-sol-fa-mi-re-do, OR EVEN some chromatic action with the do-ti-te-la-le-sol-se-fa-mi-me-re-ra-do. (Thank you, Mr. Haskett and Mr. Duncan!) (Also, I did not look those up until AFTER I wrote them out. That would be cheating.)

 

5. To me, “sounds like a monk chant” is a compliment, not an insult.

As a singer with basically no vibrato and a good ear for sight reading, I’m basically tailor-made to sing complex medieval and Renaissance music because it’s alllll about the parts and not the singers.

Check out this BEAUTIFUL song that was one of my favorites from college. We sang it every year in chapel on Ash Wednesday, and I still try to listen to it every year.

Oh yeah… and it’s like 13 minutes long. And in Latin. #musicnerd

Or check out this AMAZING women-only chant song about the Virgin Mary. (Hat tip: PK directed it for CinCC one year.) I literally bought this on iTunes and listen to it in the car sometimes. (Also it has a sick alto part, which this girls choir totally rocks.) #musicnerd

 

6. I have a favorite version of “Ave Verum Corpus”.

In the (totally not real) words of Jeff Foxworthy, “If you argue with your friends about whether the Mozart or the Byrd version of Ave Verum Corpus is the best… youuuu might be a music nerd.”

Since there are so many different renditions of Latin church texts, there are similar arguments about versions of O Magnum Mysterium, Ubi Caritas, the Magnificat, and dozens of others. (Let the debates ensue in the comments… 😉 )

For the record, I am #TeamByrd on Ave Verum all the way, although I do really like the Mozart, too. Listen to both below! Who’s the best? You decide! (But it’s totally Byrd.)

 

Aaaaand reason number 7 why I’m a total music nerd…

7. I literally have nerd bling to prove it.

nerd bling 2

Yyyyyyyep, that’s a photo of me in high school… with a bunch of medals won at the Kansas State Academic Decathlon competition in 2010… the subject of which was the Renaissance and a large part of my success at which was due to several events in Renaissance music. (Did I mention I still own and listen to the sample CD they gave us? It’s got a killer cover of Absalom Fili! #likeyado)

Sooooo here’s some great music!

Aaaaaand since I’m a TOTAL music nerd, that means I now have to share some of my favorites with you so you can appreciate them too!!! (Though how I can pick just one I don’t know — I love my whole ALBUM of the Moses Hogan Chorale…) So here are a couple faves from Moses Hogan, Pavel Tschesnikoff, Herbert Howells, and F. Melius Christiansen.

Moses Hogan:
This has a cool little bit at the beginning about the history and the legacy of the Moses Hogan Chorale. Also, GOOSEBUMPS THE WHOLE TIME!!! If this doesn’t move you, you’re dead.


Also definitely listen to more of the Moses Hogan Chorale here… literally my favorite choral album.

Pavel Chesnokov
Okay. Like the most beautiful, mysterious piece ever is Chesnokov’s Spasenie (Salvation is Created), sung in its original Russian… but since I’m only featuring one I have to share O Lord God because it’s one of the first pieces I sang in Chapel Choir at Gustavus, so it has sentimental value. (Thanks, T Sletta!)

Herbert Howells
This song is so, so haunting and delicate. It affected me deeply when we sang it in college. The story behind it is also really sad — Howells’ 9-year-old son died of polio and this requiem was written for him.

F. Melius Christiansen
And, because I’m a Gustie and you can’t not mention him, here’s good old F. Melius Felius, as I like to call him. 8-part fugal Protestant hymns. Like ya do. This video isn’t the best ever quality, but as it’s our anthem I just had to share a Gustavus version of Praise to the Lord, directed by the indefatigable Dr. A. =)

(And, I GUESS here’s a PRETTY GOOD recording from THAT OTHER SCHOOL too… 😉 )

SO — are you a music nerd too? What are some of your criteria? What’s your favorite Ave Verum Corpus or Lux Aurumque or any other choral piece? Share in the comments! =)

Your Chewing Gum is Made of Plastic, and Other Things I Didn’t Know

In this post, I finally read about how plastic is hiding in plain sight in all SORTS of things that we wouldn’t expect, and why that’s kinda not good. Curious? Let’s dive in!

Plastic Kills

Plastic Free - Beth TerryToday I’m reporting back on Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry.

The impetus for this book is the author’s experiencing of one day stumbling upon a photo on the internet of a baby albatross. It was dead and had decomposed to the point where you could see inside its ribcage… to the stomach full of plastic pellets. Its parents had tried to feed it, but they unknowingly fed it so many tiny plastic bits (that looked like fish eggs) that the baby bird starved to death.

plastic bird stomach
Not the same photo, but a similar one.

I mean, it’s pretty horrific, if you think about it: starving to death because you’re filling your stomach with something it can never process. Ugh.

It was an emotionally impactful moment for the author, and she decided to start exploring plastic: What was it? Where was it? Why didn’t it eventually go away? How did it relate to her? This book is the result of that questioning process.

So… what about plastic?

There is SO much information in this book — I could never remember it all, but thankfully the book is organized as sort of a reference manual, so I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it. Here are some of the main “big picture” things I learned:

  • Most plastic NEVER goes away. EVER. To me, this is the same kind of “whoa”-ness as when I read the very first book in this project (like a million years ago) and realized that we have NO safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. We also have NO safe way to dispose of most plastic because IT NEVER BIODEGRADES. Like, when we think of decomposition, it’s not just that stuff sits around and slowly vanishes, it’s literally being chemically broken down by other organisms — basically eaten. So when a tree log decomposes, it’s becoming fungi food. Or when an animal decomposes, it becomes fly food. But most plastic doesn’t EVER decompose, because it’s not anything’s food!
  • Plastic’s longevity (aka FOREVER) is surprising considering our “disposable” attitude toward it. It’s cheap to make… so we feel like it’s “disposable” — but again, it NEVER goes away! Every bit of plastic that’s ever been made is still present SOMEwhere on the earth, as Wikipedia cites, “down to the molecular level.” So that plastic spoon I used to eat my soup after church this morning? I threw it away after using it once, but it’ll still be here — unchanged — when I’m dead. I will turn to dirt before that spoon does. And I used it once. As the author puts it, “Why create disposable containers and packaging out of a material that lasts forever?” (p.28) Well, because…
  • Plastic is flexible (literally) and cheap, so we give it a low value. Many objects in our society are valued based on the rarity of the material or the time or skill it took to make the item. Since plastic is in high supply and easy to mass-produce, that means we think of it as cheap — and it is cheap, monetarily and temporarily. But it’s costly in the long run, because someday we’re going to have to deal with all this non-biodegradable, non-edible, chemical-absorbing matter with which we’re blanketing our planet…
  • But can’t we recycle??? Well… only to a point. Recycling is toted as an environmental “solution,” but the problem is that each time we re-formulate a recycled material (whether paper or plastic), it’s lower and lower quality (it’s called “downcycling”) until eventually it won’t hold together anymore and needs to be discarded. The problem is that even after that much use, remember, plastic is still a polymer (aka holding together) at the molecular level — so even once we can’t recycle it anymore it’s still plastic and it will still last forever.
  • Things I didn’t know were made of plastic: most fabric (“synthetic” = made of plastic), every writing utensil I own, most carpet, many glues, books (plastic coated cover paper), toilet paper (ouch), and even chewing gum (p.206) – GROSS.

WOOF. I don’t know about you, but that feels a leeeeeetle bit terrifying. It’s so ubiquitous, and it’s never going away.

And you know what? I can’t honestly say anything to make it better. There’s not really a “happy ending” to this book…

So NOW what?

Despite the looming-ness of the plastic problem, this book does a GREAT job of keeping a positive, encouraging, non-shaming tone, which is important when you’re dealing with a topic where your reader realizes they are literally CLOTHED IN the problem. It can feel really overwhelming. But Beth Terry really takes time to say, “Hey — small steps. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t get paralyzed.” I really appreciate that about this book — it’s so user-friendly and accessible.

That said, and while I really do support personal steps to be thoughtful about plastic consumption, as Barack Obama is quoted as saying at the conclusion of this book, “We can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed the lightbulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.” (p.309)

Yes, we started composting at our house. Yes, I stopped buying new clothing and have tried to shop only at thrift stores or on Craigslist for already-made items. Yes, we buy in bulk from the co-op using reusable containers as much as we can. Yes, I’ve been more aware when I’m using or buying a plastic object. Yes, I’ve even started washing out and reusing plastic Ziploc bags, even though I hate the smooshy feeling of washing warm, wet plastic.

BUT. Two things.

  1. Not everyone can afford to do those things. (Heck, not everyone even has access to a grocery store let alone a co-op.)
  2. Washing my plastic bags won’t save the world.

It’s REALLY important to remember that for things this big, change comes both at the personal level AND at the big, systematic level. I really like one idea from the book: the personal changes are daily reminders and conversation starters in the pursuit of bigger, wider change.

And especially because, as I learned in All Our Relations, environmental issues often disproportionately impact poor communities and communities of color, it is IMPERATIVE that we not buy a $30 zero-plastic water bottle, pat ourselves on the back, and go back to sleeping well at night. Environmentalism is not about assuaging our personal anxiety; it’s about working to care well for our fellow Earthlings (and ourselves!) on a large scale.

Conclusion

To me, one of the biggest messages of this book is that even when something is “out of sight, out of mind” it still has an impact. When we put something in the trash (or even in the recycling), we forget about it. It’s done. But “trash” doesn’t mean “gone” — we can’t discard something outside the environment. Likewise, just because I don’t live on an Indian reservation or in Flint, Michigan doesn’t mean I can shut my ears and go back to my nice, clean tap water. Life is relational; ecosystems are relational; so our environmentalism needs to be relational, too, and advocate for all our relations.

Meta-Conclusion

Well, folks, that’s the end! I’ve completed my investigation into Imperial Geography (for now). I answered my questions about why the US government offered tree claims to homesteaders, what happened to the land when European settlers came en masse to Turtle Island, and why environmentalism matters for real people today. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned, and I’m sure it’ll come right along with me as I dive into my next reading / learning / blogging project… which I’ll tell you about in another post. 😉

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about — I know I’ve got plenty. Thanks for reading along with me!  ~Rebekah

[EDIT] P.S. Want to join in the next reading project? Here’s the first post!