By Chris Anderson (Onefeather)
It was the late spring of 1972 when I first experienced a call from my ancestors … songs that would awaken an awareness within me — a deeper part of my soul, a mystical tribal identity that could no longer lie dormant.
I had returned to the United States from Vietnam in July, 1968, and after a 30 day leave, I spent September, October, and November at Fort Story, Virginia. Once free of military service, I traveled to Wisconsin, settling in for the winter at the farm, a peaceful rural setting on the Fox River near Waukesha. I lived along the banks of the river there for two years … a haven from the turmoil of revolution and evolution in America. Lyndon Johnson and Mayor Daley stirred the caldron of national emotions. Then Richard Nixon inherited the whole mess from the Democrats. I bounced peripherally around the university subculture where radical ideas on politics, music, art, fashion, spirituality and man’s place in the universe were volleyed like tennis balls at Wimbledon. In 1970 I spent a year in California, fleeing from the Midwestern winter and conservatism. Yet I was magnetized back to the river … it seduced and enveloped me with its simple beauty. Genetic memory never occurred to me, for at that time I associated my ancestry with Oklahoma, Colorado, and California (where I was born). I knew I was part Potawatomi but I had not studied my people’s ancestry enough to know of their connection to the Fox River as well as to the Great Lakes regions of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
In 1971, I returned to Waukesha (oblivious to the fact that it was named for a great uncle generations removed), then meandered north along the river to Appleton, Green Bay, and finally into northern Wisconsin. By the spring of 1972 I had evolved into shopkeeper with a store that was short seasoned, three months of summer tourists and a few weekenders through September and October. Artistic baubles for the tourists and black lights, posters and head-gear for the locals. Not exactly Fortune 500 material, it made a modest income and I was content.
While driving around the upper half of the state I had come across Potawatomi Park and the Red Banks (where early French traders had set up a trading post with the Potawatomi people) yet I still did not sense the significance of my journeys through woods and trails, across fields and harbors that my people had traveled 400 and more years earlier.
Having the store created the necessity for me to find local housing since I had lived in an area more remote… and a long commute was counter productive to generating income. Three miles north of town, on a county road bordered by conifers and orchards, three hippy dippy friends and I found perfect lodging … an old abandoned cabin. It wasn’t much, but the roof was solid and kept the occasional rain off our sleeping bags, even though several of the windows were missing (which we covered with plastic sheeting). The only amenity was a pump-well 20 feet from our shack. Electricity and heat were non-existent. The outhouse had apparently met with the previous residents’ disapproval, half of it being burned away. I was young and between my social and business activities, I spent little enough time at the shack to let its shortcomings bother me. A place to sleep and well water slapped into my face to start off the new day was the fulfillment of my most pressing needs.
That year it was abnormally warm all across the country, and even the north-county suffered under the unnatural heat. Often in the 90s by 10:00 a.m., shirts came off early in the day and everyone headed for the beach by noon for a dip in the cool waters of the lake. The one local nightspot with live bands and a dance floor had no air conditioning, so showing up there before 10:00 p.m. was an act of madness since the place held in the days heat like a brick oven.
Closing the shop at 7:00 p.m. meant a good three hours wait until a place to hang out for the evening was available. Since our shack was in direct line between the store and the club, I would frequently grab a cold beer or soda and set in the back of my truck near the cabin and watch the sun go down over the woods to the west — an old growth forest that was largely un-traversed (no easy footpaths were visible). I was satisfied to set and observe the sun’s passage over the tops of trees from the comfort of our driveway. At night I often heard owls and other forest nightlife prowling the edge of the woods, sometimes seeing silhouettes of deer or bear in the breaks between bush and tree. It was not a fearful place, but rather a virgin place, and I did not need to desecrate its purity.
The last week of June was especially magical, the moon gleaming golden orange in the twilight of the eastern sky and on its way to becoming full by week’s end, rising every evening shortly after the sun slipped below the western horizon in a crimson and purple afterglow. Two days before the full moon, as I was enjoying my evening theater of nature, I heard low chant-like sounds from the woods west of me. As the moon climbed higher, the sounds grew even more clear, like the voices of women whose song spoke of immense sorrow, tragedy and loss. Curiosity followed startled confusion as I first thought I was hearing a radio reflected off the trees and bushes, a deception of sound, a trick of the ear and mind. Then, abruptly, it stopped, allowing the silence to slowly fill with the sounds of evening birds and the occasional snap of twig or branch as darkness engulfed the woods.
My fascination was replaced with a sudden awareness of time and the beckon of good friends, beer, and live music. The following evening, I got hung up at dinner with friends and arrived back at the cabin long after sundown. The woods were silent, except for the usual sounds of its residents and I forgot about the voices over the next few days.
By the end of July the worst of the hot spell appeared to be behind us, some evenings being almost on the cool side. Nature’s air conditioning would kick in by 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. and long sleeved flannel shirts were frequently not uncomfortable. This time, on the night before the full moon, while stacking some wood in the fire-pit for a late night fireside gathering, I heard “it” again.
I walked across the road to the edge of the woods, not trusting my ears… yet having to believe in what I was hearing. Such a sadness in the song, a melancholy that came from directly in front of me, as if weeping had been set to music. I stood mesmerized by the haunting chant. Then it suddenly stopped, as it had four weeks previously. Now I knew I wasn’t hearing radios or any other thing of this world. To make that sound there would have to be a dozen women in those woods, stumbling around in twilight-lit, uninhabited primeval forest. This was nuts, but I knew I had heard what I had heard.
That night, as we gathered around the fire, I mentioned my singers to Ian, John and the other people who had shown up. Everyone had a good natured response but they all led back to, “Do you hear the voices better on mushrooms or weed?” After the crowd left I continued to sit by the embers and stared toward the woods, the almost full moon directly over my head. The following evening I waited by the edge of the road for Ian to come home from work. He was more than just a friend … he was a brother in spirit and a reflection of some deeper part of my own soul. We were twins born seven years apart. I trusted him to be open to experiencing what I had heard on the previous evening.
He drove up just as the moon was emerging over the trees to the east, sweat mixed with dirt from the jobsite on his T-shirt and shorts, wanting to splash himself clean in well water and change into fresh cloths. I manned the pump handle while he slapped water across his torso, arms and face. Fighting his way into a fresh T-shirt, he grumbled as we crossed the road and walked a little ways north… skirting the bushes and rocks at the side of the road, closing in on the cluster of now moon-lit trees. The forest dwellers retreated silently as we tromped up to the edge of the fragrant pine forest, not even a breath of breeze to compete with my mystical singers. We stood quiet, looking occasionally at each other and attentively surveying our surroundings. Ian started to speak, but I put my finger to my lips in silent gesture … one minute, two, three … and then it happened.
Floating at first like whispers, then slowly growing in volume, the chant … almost a weeping … became a song that hauntingly wove a tapestry into the trees and then arose, calling out to the moon and stars. Words spoken in a language neither one of us understood, yet the meaning of this song rang clear as a church bell on Easter morning… a song for the dead. We stood under the spell of this magical event for five or six minutes, hardly allowing ourselves to breath for fear of missing some tiny aspect of the mystery chorus, goose bumps emerging on our arms and backs. Abruptly, the song ended and a faint cool breeze stirred the leaves of tree and shrub. The spell was broken by the soft Who?, Who? of an owl somewhere deep in the woods. My companion looked at me and smiled in the pale moonlight.
“That was cool,” he said as we started to meander back toward the shack.
“That was weird,” I replied. “I’m coming back to have a look in those woods tomorrow.”
I awoke shortly after sunrise … plenty of time to go forage amongst the trees and still have breakfast before opening the store. Ian protested when I nudged his sleeping bag, but once awake he was game to go explore the scene of last night’s musical drama with me.
Nothing can accurately describe early morning in the north woods. The air is clean and sweet with the smell of tree and earth … a thousand subtle odors all waiting in line for your attention. Squirrels, birds and insects were starting their day’s activity and sunlight filtered through branch and bough, penetrating the slight haze to bathe fern and grass in golden splotches. The Potawatomi called this region “Minis Kitigan,” meaning Garden Island: Eden.
Fifteen or 20 yards into the woods, we stumbled across what appeared to have been a footpath, a narrow trail, overgrown in spots yet still recognizable as a route to “somewhere.” Following it for another 1,500 yards, we suddenly emerged in a small grassy meadow, a circle devoid of trees, perhaps 80 feet in diameter. A few young trees dotted the interior, but the original form of the clearing was unmistakable. There were two large boulders, one to the north, the other to the south, that seemed to mark some sort of boundary, perhaps anchor points to determine the radius of the cleared area. Pine and fir dominated the surrounding forest, interrupted occasionally by elm, maple and oak. A clump of birch nestled around the boulder to the north, stark white against the dark hues of brown and green. At the center of the circle stood a large pile of limestone, obviously placed there by human hands for some unspoken reason.
We skirted the edge of the meadow heading for the slightly higher ground to the north, silently beckoned by the arms of the birch. Ian climbed up on the massive stone outcrop of what I thought was a boulder… but now revealed itself to be a huge mound of granite that had been exposed by erosion. As he surveyed the landscape a slow grin came over his face and he said to me, “You have to get up here to be able to see it.”
“See what?” I asked, thinking to myself that the rock would make a good perch on which to sit and have a cigarette before re-addressing the pathway out of here. Ian tolerated my smoking, but not always without a negative vocal expression.
“Stop fishing for cigarettes and get up here. It’s the only way you can see what this is.”
I levered myself up and stood next to him, surveying the entire diameter of the area in front of me. Slowly a form began to emerge, a circle within a circle. Subtle undulations in the earth became clear … mounds, small mounds, 13 of them, two feet wide and six or so feet in length. Radiating out from the pile of stones in the center, each one had a stone at its head … Yes! A circle within a circle! Across from us at the southern-most point were two more mounds, much smaller and again marked with stones at head and foot. This was a burial place, perhaps the site of some great tragedy that had befallen the earliest inhabitants of this land.
What had happened here? Was it famine in an unusually harsh winter, some other natural disaster or plague brought on with first contact with the white-eyes from the east? How many survivors had buried their dead, grieved through the summer and then moved on? Were their sorrowful spirits still attached to this land, the pain of loss a barrier that prevented them from moving over to the happy hunting grounds?
We stood immobile; reverent. Minutes turned into almost an hour and suddenly it dawned on me that the day was waiting for us outside this silent and secluded place. As we reengaged the trail Ian crossed himself, a habit from early Catholic upbringing. I said a silent prayer, hoping our presence had not offended those whom I knew to be there… though not in corporeal form. Arriving at the cabin, Ian sped off in one direction for work, I in another for toast, coffee and sausage.
In August, at the full of the moon, I waited again to hear their song. It was not to be. For the three days before the full, on the night of the full, and for three days after the full, I strolled close to the woods’ edge but never heard that soul-touching sound. Summer became autumn and Ian left for service in the military. I had no idea that I would never see him again in this lifetime, but the gift of his spirit resides always within me. With winter I went south, and in April of the next year I headed out for Alaska, a wild and untamed land that I would have a three year love affair with.
Now, 40 or more years later, whenever I see a full moon in summer I wonder if we had been summoned there to that sacred circle, our witness of its sorrow a catalyst that broke the bonds these souls had with their loss. Did we, in acknowledging their grief, reconnect them with the passage of time, sending them to a place where life is simple, sweet and easy … an abundant and fertile land as far away from here as time and mind can imagine? Or, do they still chant for their lost ones on full moon nights in June and July… in the deep woods of northern Wisconsin?